Heavy snowfall and traffic jams in the French Alps resulted in nightmare journeys for thousands of holidaymakers returning to the UK after Christmas ski trips.
Alan Akery, a 67-year-old retired engineering director from West Sussex, told The Independent of his 27-and-a half-hour journey from the French resort of Tignes to London Gatwick, where he finally arrived at 1.30pm on New Year's Eve having set off at 10.50am the previous day. The journey was originally scheduled to take nine hours, with the flight expected to arrive into Gatwick at 6.55pm on 30 December.
He and his wife departed a chalet in Tignes Val Claret on 30 December having enjoyed a week-long holiday with Skiworld, but an overnight dump of 30 to 40cm of fresh snow slowed the transfer coach’s progress considerably.
“We almost immediately joined a traffic jam and had failed to reach Bourg-Saint-Maurice by around 5pm,” said Mr Akery.
The transfer was already destined to miss the scheduled flight time of 6.25pm at Grenoble Airport, but the holiday company’s on-board host informed passengers that the flight in question had been cancelled several hours beforehand. The host announced they would be taken all the way to London Gatwick by coach, and that they would make a stop in Bourg-Saint-Maurice to buy refreshments.
“When we did get provisions we were expected to fend for ourselves in the large supermarket and pay for everything ourselves,” said Mr Akery. “There was some comment from the Skiworld host that these costs could be claimed back on our travel insurance.”
He told The Independent that he and some other passengers were unhappy to discover that the alternative journey home would be via ferry from Calais to Dover, rather than the Channel Tunnel, adding another hour onto the journey.
“I said I was far from happy with the ‘plan’ and that we should as an absolute minimum go via the Channel Tunnel rather than the ferry,” he said.
Mr Akery added that the coach was not one designed for such long distances, with no toilet facilities on board.
After journeying to Paris overnight and swapping drivers twice, before catching the 10.30am ferry on Sunday morning, the delays continued as windy weather meant the ferry had to wait a further 20 minutes outside Dover before it could dock.
“The driver then took us all the way to Gatwick and we arrived at 1.30pm – some 27.5 hours after first boarding the coach at Tignes,” said Mr Akery. “At this point all anyone wanted to do was get home.”
He added: “I believe Ski World should compensate us as they did not offer any alternatives other than the long coach journey and did not provide us with any food or drinks after the cancellation was announced.”
A spokesperson from Skiworld told The Independent: “It was very challenging to say the least for all involved. Thousands of skiers across the Alps, both departing and arriving, were affected and the scale of what happened made operations even more challenging. Our guests and staff endured very, very long hours of travel and waiting and our thoughts and efforts were with them throughout. Our teams stayed on call over 48 hours and in most cases accompanied our guests throughout these long journeys.
“We had over 3,000 guests arriving and departing. All bar 14 of our arriving guests made it to their resorts, albeit for some it was in the early hours. Of those 1,500 departing guests, we managed to get all except around 200 back to the UK the same day. With thousands affected – not just our guests – alternative transport options were few and far between. Around 150 of these guests were accommodated in hotels overnight and we arranged a rescue flight the next day.”
They added that, although customers aren’t entitled to compensation, “Skiworld meets all the costs of any alternative transport arrangements secured to return customers to their departure points. In addition we pay for accommodation if guests are overnighted plus transfers to get them to alternative departure airports. Customers are also entitled to out of pocket expenses.
“Where we can secure refreshments for our guests we do – and did for very many of our guests on Saturday. Where logistically in such challenging conditions it is not possible, we ask that customers secure their own refreshments and we will reimburse reasonable expenses.”
When asked about the decision to opt for the ferry for Mr Akery’s journey, the spokesperson said: “We always consider all options and this included the Tunnel. We informed the host on board that if he and the guests on the coach opted for the Tunnel, they would have to wait until the Channel Tunnel booking office opened at 10am French time and we would not be sure of the next available slot until then (but we would book this if the group preferred). Or we could book the coach on a 9.50am ferry immediately and be sure that a crossing would be available for them.
“An overwhelming majority of guests opted for the ferry as it gave them certainty.”
Typically consumers have very little scope for compensation in a situation like that experienced by Mr Akery. Simon Calder, travel correspondent for The Independent, says: “In the case of skiers who were caught up in the monumental traffic jams crawling down from high-altitude resorts, the end of the trip was certainly not as planned. But a tour operator can argue that it had delivered the important components required to satisfy the contract, ie getting everyone to the slopes and enabling them to have a (hopefully) happy and safe holiday.”
He adds: “As with so many cases of disruption, the chances are the weary traveller must just put it down to experience.”