Buying a flight or holiday in this day and age is a breeze; you have an idea of where you want to go, you have a little rummage around on Google Flights, Skyscanner or a package holiday comparison site to get the best prices (maybe you’ve even joined 1,500,000 others in signing up to our free weekly flight deals newsletter), and you go ahead and book.

99 times out of 100 you’ll have a relatively hassle-free trip, with little need for any protection for your money or belongings. But what of that one time the company you’ve booked with goes out of business (like Monarch did in 2017), your flights are cancelled (a daily occurrence) or you’re stranded abroad for whatever reason? ATOL or ABTA protection can help, but what do these letters mean and what types of flights or holidays do they apply to? How do you know if you’re protected or not? How far will travel insurance get you?

Let us answer your burning questions below.

What does ATOL protected mean and what does it include?

ATOL stands for Air Travel Organiser’s License. Every UK travel company (online travel agents, tour operators, etc) is legally required to hold an ATOL certification. If you are ATOL protected, then it ensures you will be looked after if the travel company you booked with goes out of business. In short, you’ll be flown home if you’re already on holiday and be fully compensated should your holiday be cancelled before you’ve started it.

Are flight-only bookings covered by ATOL?

Generally speaking, no. ATOL protection only tends to cover package or adventure holidays (flights + accommodation, flights + car hire or a combination of all three). Some flights may be covered, such as charter flights or flights where you pay in instalments (i.e., you don’t receive a ticket immediately after booking - some OTAs work in this manner by default). In all cases, read the small print on your airline’s T&Cs.

To quote the small print from Ryanair’s T&Cs page, flights booked directly from an airline are not ATOL protected, even if you book accommodation through a link from the airline’s website. They do, however, state that booking a flight using a credit card can offer you a degree of financial protection, so consider using one to book your flights, especially more expensive long-haul flights. Be sure to also check your credit card company’s T&Cs as well as those of your online travel agent should you book via one.

On the other hand, while BA does not provide ATOL protection for flights alone, you’ll be fully covered if you combine them with accommodation as a part of your booking, so company policy can vary.

Do I need ATOL protection for my flight or trip?

It depends on a number of factors. For example, how expensive your flights are and what you can afford to lose out on should something go wrong, as well as the size and reputation of the airline you book with. If booking with an obscure or financially struggling airline, then you are at a greater risk of losing out. More mainstream, solvent carriers shouldn’t present a problem, though. Again, using a credit card can offer an extra degree of protection here.

Note: ATOL protection has to be provided by law for holidays sold with elements such as experiences, accommodation, etc. included.

If I book with an online travel agent (OTA) and they go out of business, is my flight protected?

As stated on the CAA website, ATOL does not apply to most flights booked with online travel agents. That being said, your itinerary exists with the airline itself (your OTA will provide a reference number which you can then use to access your booking on the airline’s website). This means that, even if the OTA you booked with goes out of business before your departure or return date, you’ll still have your seat on the flight(s) as normal.

What happens if my flight is cancelled, but the airline has not gone out of business?

If a flight is cancelled it is the airline’s responsibility to ensure that you are booked onto the next available flight free of charge. If you’re flying to or from the EU you’ll be entitled to compensation in the value of your original flight, especially if it’s thrown other arrangements into disarray.

What does ABTA protected mean and what does it include?

ABTA (the Association of British Travel Agents) offers broadly the same level of protection as ATOL. However, ABTA applies to holidays purchased in the UK that don’t include flights, that is to say rail, cruise and self-drive holidays. This means that if you purchase a flight to your holiday origin point separately, this will not be covered by ABTA (or, most likely, ATOL if it’s flight-only). You will be financially compensated should anything go wrong with the land or sea-based element of your trip, but it could mean you have to pay for flights home, so do bear this in mind if combining a flight-only booking with one of the above types of holiday.

When should I take ATOL/ABTA flight-protection into consideration?

If you’re booking multi-city flights with time in between for land or sea-based adventure holiday or combining a return flight booking with a separate non-flight adventure or package holiday, then you’ll be ABTA protected for the non-flight elements but most likely not covered for the airborne parts. Book with a credit card to ensure you get some degree of financial protection.

Note: Do keep in mind that many reputable tour operators covered by ABTA will have bonds with the CAA that oversees the ATOL scheme, so ask if this is the case at the time of booking.

How do I know if I’m covered by ATOL or ABTA?

UK and European law requires all registered travel businesses to be ATOL licensed in the countries in which they operate in. All licensed organisations will carry the ATOL protected logo on their website. Here are some things to look out for to ensure you’re covered:

  • ATOL protected logo plus unique CAA license number (4-5 digits usually with a T at the start)
  • The CAA’s ATOL checking page that highlights companies falsely claiming to hold a license. All licensed companies are registered with the CAA so can be found here.

The same applies for ABTA protection. You can search for the company you plan to book with on ABTA’s member search page to ensure that they, and more importantly you, are covered.

Do I need to take out travel insurance if I’m ATOL or ABTA protected?

If you want to be fully insured for the things that ATOL and ABTA don't cover, such as medical expenses and your personal belongings, you'll still need travel insurance on top.

Travel insurance covers these elements even for flight-only bookings. The choice, however, is yours and you’ll want to make sure you aren’t paying over the odds for something you don’t feel you’ll need.

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If you still have more questions, feel free to drop me a message on [email protected] and I’ll be happy to help.