This article appears in today's Leicester Mercury:
Pilgrims warned of Hajj rip-off
agent watchdogs have issued a warning to pilgrims from Leicester heading off for the Hajj to beware of the dangers of booking with unlicensed companies.
Thousands of Muslims will to be heading Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage which takes place between October 24 and 29.
The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) has warned that many pay for travel arrangements that are sub-standard, or in the worst cases non-existent, leaving travellers out of pocket by thousands of pounds.
Every year pilgrims pay thousands of pounds for specialist Hajj flight and accommodation arrangements.
ABTA risk manager Steve Abrahamson said: "Every year the police and trading standards offices have to deal with cases of Hajj pilgrims who have lost substantial amounts of money or arrived in Saudi Arabia to find that their accommodation and other travel arrangements are of a much lower standard than they had paid for."
By UK law, if a travel company books a customer on a flight-based package holiday, it must have an ATOL (Air Travel Organisers' Licensing) licence in place to ensure the customer is financially protected in the event something goes wrong.
If the travel companies are not members of ABTA, they are not policed by its code of conduct which ensures customers receive high standards of service, fair terms of trading and accurate booking information.
ABTA membership also means that if something should go wrong before or after the trip, pilgrims would be able to use ABTA's cost-effective and swift complaint handling service.
ABTA said whether someone is offering a Hajj trip or a holiday, the same laws applied and companies must have an ATOL licence when selling flights and accommodation as a package or act as an agent for a company that does.
Hajj pilgrims should always check that they are legitimate ABTA members and that they hold an ATOL licence.
Pilgrims are encouraged to check with ATOL on 020 7453 6700 whether the company they are booking with is registered.