Holiday companies are reporting a surge in bookings as the mass rollout of the coronavirus vaccine continues. Some of us are feeling more hopeful that we can swap the misery of lockdown for a change of scene this year, either in the UK or abroad. But is it too early to book?
We still don’t know enough about vaccines to be confident to say when it will be possible to travel again. For starters, we don’t know how quickly we will receive the vaccine. If you book a holiday, but don’t get the vaccine in time it may mean you can’t go and can’t get a refund. You can protect yourself against this by only using holiday companies and airlines with good flexible booking policies.
Crucially, it’s also not yet known whether getting the jab prevents you from spreading the disease to others. That is likely to be pivotal as to whether countries decide to allow visitors who have been vaccinated to visit.
Beyond that, there is compulsory testing to navigate, and gaping holes in travel insurance cover which need plugging. Even if you’re planning to stay in the UK, the current national lockdown means none of us are permitted to travel outside of our local area unless absolutely essential. We don’t when those will end, and they are likely to end at different times in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland.
What’s more many of us are still chasing refunds from airlines or holiday companies after the swathe of cancellations this year. So, with this much uncertainty, how do we avoid ending up in the same position again?
Here’s everything you should consider before booking a holiday for 2021, both in the UK or abroad.
You may need a vaccine to travel
Mass vaccination against coronavirus is underway in the UK, but it’s not yet known whether getting the jab prevents you from spreading the disease to others. If it does, it’s likely some countries will make it mandatory for entry. Similarly, some airlines and cruise companies may only allow passage to those with the vaccine.
The UK has made a good start: it was the first country to approve the Pfizer vaccine for use and it has since approved two more vaccines: Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca.
The government has suggested that all adults over 18 will be offered a vaccine by autumn, but only time will tell whether these targets can be met. And many other countries are yet to start vaccinating against coronavirus.
It’s therefore likely we’ll see a mix of airlines and destinations requiring either testing or vaccine, as the latter becomes more widely available. Australian airline Qantas, for example, has already said it will be changing its terms and conditions to make this a requirement for all international passengers.
If compulsory vaccinations are introduced at your destination, details should be listed on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) website. It’s not yet known whether producing a negative test result for coronavirus upon arrival will be deemed sufficient for travellers who cannot or will not have a COVID-19 vaccination.
Testing could be compulsory
Travellers arriving into the UK will also have to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test to be allowed entry.
The test must have been taken in the 72 hours before travel. Anyone arriving without one faces a fine of up to £500. It is your responsibility to find a test provider that meets government standards and to present adequate proof.
This must include the original test result certificate with your name, age or date of birth and details of the test itself. This can be provided as a printed document, or via email or text message, which you can show on your phone.
Some countries have entry restrictions in place, which mean you may not be able to get tested there. It is important to check this before you travel.
Testing is also likely to remain a requirement for entry to many countries when travel opens up again. When comparing the cost of ‘fit to fly’ testing at UK clinics and pharmacies, Which? found that costs vary considerably.
The most expensive standard test we found, at a clinic in London, was £214 – that’s a whopping £856 for a family of four. That kind of expense could be a game-changer if you were banking on a cheap break.
We don’t know what local restrictions will be at the time of travel
Rules can change overnight, and there’s no way of predicting what restrictions will be in place at the time of travel. Right now nobody is permitted to travel within the UK. But even when restrictions are loosened, tier restrictions can easily throw your holiday plans into chaos.
For instance, if you book a cottage in the UK for two households – but are only allowed to holiday with your own family – this may result in a fight to get your money back. Tier restrictions have also led to confusion, with some hosts asking you to move your dates instead.
And what about trips overseas? Even if a national or local lockdown prevents you from travelling, your flight could still operate – meaning you’ll lose your money. If you do book a trip abroad, choose a package holiday with a company that promises to refund quickly.
Refunds are still owed from earlier in the pandemic
Some holiday companies have now been breaking the law on refunds for more than six months. And recent research carried out by Which? shows £1bn in refunds is being unlawfully withheld.
The competition regulator has now launched an investigation into whether airlines broke the law when they refused to refund customers for flights they could not take because of national, regional or local lockdowns.
Before booking, ask yourself if you can afford to have your money tied up for what could be months.
You might not be covered by insurance
If your trip is cancelled because of government restrictions or a change in Foreign Office (FCDO) advice – and your holiday company won’t refund you – it’s unlikely your existing travel insurance will pay out (unless your holiday and policy were arranged before March).
While many insurers now offer ‘COVID cancellation cover’, some only kick in if you test positive before departure. The majority leave you high and dry if local restrictions, or even a COVID-19 case in your household, mean you’re unable to travel.
No insurer will cover you if you simply change your mind about travelling – for example, if cases at your destination are rising but the FCDO has not warned against going there.
We advise looking for a policy with coronavirus medical cover and coronavirus cancellation cover, along with scheduled airline failure insurance (SAFI, to cover you if your airline goes bust).
Read our COVID-19 travel insurance guide to see which policies are the most comprehensive.
You may be stuck in quarantine
All UK travel corridors have now closed to prevent the spread of the new COVID-19 variants. The government says this will remain in place until at least 15 February.
This means all passengers arriving into the UK will be required to quarantine for up to 10 days.
Travel corridors are likely to operate again at some point, allowing arrivals from some countries to avoid quarantine.
However, as we already know, the government’s advice can change quickly. Travel corridors were reviewed weekly on a Thursday, with changes usually coming into effect from 4am the following Saturday. So arguably you should only book a holiday if you are able, and willing, to quarantine on your return.
Six ways to protect yourself when booking
1. Choose a package
Not only will you be protected if things go wrong, but our research found its likely to be cheaper too.
2. Use a Which? Recommended Provider
All package holiday providers we endorse have committed to refunding quickly if they have to cancel due to COVID-19.
3. Avoid online travel agents
Otherwise you may struggle to get the flight portion of your booking refunded.
4. Check ‘book with confidence’ policies
Find an airline or holiday company which will allow you to change your date or destination at short notice without paying through the nose.
5. Pay with credit card
You may be able to claim under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act if things go wrong.
6. Make sure your passport is valid
When the Brexit transition period ends, Brits will need a minimum of six months (and up to 15 months) left on their passports to travel to much of Europe.