You’ve probably seen the many headlines. With those words, 144-year old travel company Thomas Cook announced abruptly on Sunday that it was closed for business, leaving about 600,000 travellers around the world in the lurch and a lot of employees suddenly looking for work, including airline pilots.
How could such a thing happen to the most veteran travel company in the business? Rumours of sky-high executive salaries are rife, and a gigantic reality show will play out over the next while as investigations get underway and some dirty secrets likely see the light of day.
Along with the vast personal and economic repercussions, it’s a sad time in the travel industry as we watch this once-great company die. Thomas Cook, the founder, led his first escorted tour in 1841 — about 500 temperance campaigners, if you can believe it, to a rally. He continued organizing a variety of tours around the British Isles, and within four years was taking people to Europe.
He officially opened shop on Fleet Street in London in 1865 and began making connections abroad that allowed him to, with his son as a partner, form the first commercial touring company. He made tours to exotic lands, like Egypt, accessible to the masses.
In our early days of travel, it was one of our pre-trip rituals to buy some Thomas Cook travellers’ cheques, until better forms of travel money came along.
It’s my feeling that in a situation like this, the travellers already abroad should be taken care of before any other legalities, but until/if that ever happens, here are two things you should always do to prepare for overseas emergencies:
- Buy travel insurance, both for trip cancellation and possible medical needs. We were all set to go to Mexico with friends in November a number of years ago, when a hurricane swept through the Gulf in September and took a number of resorts with it, including the one we were booked at. Afterward the clean-up and repairs, the resort was supposed to reopen the day we were due to arrive, but we had our suspicions about how good the facilities were going to be (having seen first-hand how quickly things often got done in the Caribbean back at the time), so we cancelled and in short order got our money back with no difficulties.
- Make sure there’s room on your credit card for emergency expenses. Many of the travellers in the current crisis have suddenly found themselves being charged by their hotels just to avoid getting kicked out — although, frankly, if a hotel I was staying at didn’t handle the situation with due tact and consideration, I’d be giving it a very bad review.
In all cases, don’t panic. Contact your travel agent for assistance — they will likely already be aware of your situation and be putting plans into place. You can also check in with your country’s local embassy (find information for Canadians here).
Beyond that, keep yourself comfortable and safe while you wait to return home. I was leading a trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe when the volcano in Iceland erupted in 2010. We were able to complete our safari as planned (and had a fabulous time), but as we were getting ready to leave Livingstone in Zimbabwe for our flight to Johannesburg on the first leg to return home, we heard that the damn volcano had gone off again and we might not be able to get past South Africa for a few days. My travellers were getting nervous, but I told them, “Look, if we’re stuck in Jo’burg for a night or two, I know a really nice hotel attached to a mall with great shops and restaurants — we’ll just remain comfortable there until we can fly again.”
As it turned out, the volcanic plume drifted eastward out of our flight path and we were able to make it home with little trouble.
So how can you avoid a travel problem like this Thomas Cook fiasco? You can’t, sadly — one of the most established names in the business tanked unexpectedly, at least to the rest of the world. Where there warning signs before that? Apparently not where most of us could see them. The best you can do is, like the old Boy Scout motto, Be Prepared. Don’t let something like this put you off travel — it should always be a great adventure!