The sailing industry is run by people and people make mistakes. As do clients – I’ve had a couple of nervous moments when people rang to check bookings that seemed to have disappeared, only to discover they’d actually booked with a completely different company!

Sometimes it isn’t a mistake, it’s just the way life is. Contrary to popular belief, when you book a holiday you are not 100% guaranteed to get what you booked, or even get a holiday at all. In fact if you read the small print you would probably be staggered how much your holiday can be changed, especially in the case of packages (there isn’t so much to change of you’re only booking a yacht)!

For example, if you book a package to fly from Gatwick (because you live nearby) leaving in the morning (because the kids will create hell if you don’t get them to bed at a reasonable hour) you could be switched on to a flight leaving up to 12 hours later from a different London airport.

You will be entitled to no compensation for this, which could happen because of circumstances beyond the tour operators control (eg the airline cancels your original flight) or due to circumstances entirely within their control (eg they forgot to book you on the intended flight which then sold out). This is not an extreme example I’ve dreamed up but fairly standard terms throughout the travel industry.

So when should you complain, and how do you best do it?

You can complain whenever you like. Tour operators, yacht suppliers and agents all want your repeat business so even if they aren’t in the wrong they may still want to assist if they can.

It helps though if you are clear about what the complaint is, that it is reasonable, and indicate what you would like done about it.   The party that wrote in about a flotilla I ran many years ago hadn’t quite grasped this.  They complained the ports were too far apart (we’d done the published route which was as short as geography allowed) and that it hadn’t been sunny enough. So the complaint was clear but failed a little on the other two tests!

Unless you are one of the few sad people who go on holiday with the main intent of getting a discount off the next one (and to my amazement, such people do exist), your prime aim is to enjoy the holiday you’ve spent time and energy selecting.  So act quickly – I’ve had issues that could have been sorted immediately if I’d known about them at the time, rather than hearing via head office 2 months after the holiday.

If the problem occurs whilst you’re away, try to resolve matters informally with the local staff first. If you’ve not yet travelled, I’d suggest a phone call to the office before you get in to email rage.

If that doesn’t work, put the issue in writing (email is fine) but try to concentrate on solutions, not threats or intimations that you’re a high powered lawyer, a journalist or have friends in high places! (Such things are often easily checked with a few minutes googling).

Sometimes the seemingly irredeemable can be recovered. Taking the above flight change problem, the tour operator might have other clients on your desired flight who are prepared to switch flights instead of you.

Sadly sometimes there is no good solution. If your intended yacht has to be withdrawn from service due to damage on a previous charter, there may not be another similar or better yacht available. So you may have to decide between a lesser yacht and some compensation or no holiday at all. You may not be happy, which means the yacht operator won’t be either as he risks losing your future business, but that’s life.

If the problems arise during your holiday, keep calm and try not to let it mar your holiday. Heightened emotions can make the problems seem bigger than they are (as well as spoiling your holiday). This makes it hard for staff to work out what really needs resolving and if you keep expanding the problem unreasonably, they may give up trying. If they perceive nothing they do will make you happy, they may do just that – nothing!

If the matters aren’t resolved during the holiday, you wish wish to seek  compensation. Now two things tend to happen:

From the  clients point of view things slow down, maybe because the company hopes you’ll just forget about it, often because they’re busy getting more holiday makers away and often don’t have good procedures for dealing with complaints because they’re not supposed to happen!

Meantime, at head office, the company tries to reconcile ever more differing views from the client and base staff and despair of finding out what really went wrong.

Compromise is generally the order of the day at this stage. You’re more likely to be offered discount off a future trip than cash, firstly because it helps the supplier offset his loss but also because it gives him a chance to prove it was a one off. Before you turn this down, remember the alternative may be nothing.

If you’ve still not reached a settlement this is probably the point to pursue the matter through other channels of which the most sensible is arbitration. You may have a cast iron case in law but unless you have money to burn neither side usually wins through this approach, particularly if the contract is with an overseas supplier.

Fortunately things rarely get that far. At the end of the day whilst holiday contracts may heavily favour the supplier, any company that repeatedly relied on their more defensive aspects would soon be out of business.  You want to have a good holiday, they want you to have a good holiday.  It’s just a fact that once in a while it doesn’t work out as perfectly as you or they hoped.  As a wise man once said, life’s a bugger and then you die!