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Is it safe to book a holiday? Eight dos and two don’ts for booking during the COVID-19 crisis

Flexible booking, package holidays and trusted companies are essential, and why you should avoid online travel agents

Is it safe to book a holiday? Eight dos and two don’ts for booking during the COVID-19 crisis

With the announcement that a traffic light system will be introduced for travel this summer, as well as the speed of the vaccine rollout, you might be tempted to book a getaway now. However, there is still a risk of your plans being disrupted by Covid-19 and hit with unexpected costs.

Holidaymakers are still fighting to get refunds from tour operators and airlines for trips cancelled last summer. Many more are finding their airline won’t refund them for flights to Spain, France and elsewhere, even though the government says they shouldn’t currently travel. 

Whilst the traffic light system is a way to kickstart travel again, it’s not fool-proof for holidaymakers.

Countries with a green status could be changed to amber or red by the UK government at short notice. Your quarantine-free bargain holiday could quickly turn into an unaffordable expense if you have to pay for extra tests or hotel quarantine on your return. And if your destination turns red while you’re abroad, it could be an unwelcome shock if you’re forced to return home early.

Countries such as Portugal, Greece and Cyprus have indicated they hope to welcome British residents this summer, if they can prove they’ve either been vaccinated, recovered from the virus or tested negative – requirements vary. But just because a country welcomes us without restrictions doesn’t mean we won’t have to quarantine on return to the UK.

The speed of the vaccine rollout had  brought optimism, especially since reports are beginning to suggest that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine may reduce transmission of the virus. The study, which has not been formally published, also showed the jab was 76% effective during the three months after the first dose. This could lead to a ‘substantial’ fall in the spread of the virus, according to scientists. But most of us still don’t know when we will get a vaccine. 

Despite this, there are ways you can safely book a holiday in 2021 that protects you from almost any disruption, including the government’s ever-changing travel restrictions, being forced to self-isolate or the financial failure of your travel company. Follow the steps below.

DO:

Wait until the government announces the green list

If you travel to a green list country, you won’t be required to quarantine on return to the UK. Be aware you will still need a pre-departure test when returning home though, as well as a test when you’re back in the UK. This could cost £250 or more. Find out more on the costs of tests to travel.

When booking, do so with caution. Just because a country has a green status when you book, doesn’t mean it will stay green. There’s less risk of it changing status if you book last-minute.

Book a package holiday, rather than flights and hotels separately

This will protect your money if the company fails – and this has become essential. Several tour operators, such as STA Travel and Fleetway Travel have already gone bust. We will see many more in the coming months. But if you have booked a package holiday then you’ll get a full refund, as package holiday operators pay into an insurance fund run by the Civil Aviation Authority. 

It’s crucial that the package holiday is Atol-protected. Almost all tour operators in the UK sell holidays that are Atol protected, but there are a handful of exceptions. Use our guide to check if your holiday is Atol-protected. 

No similar scheme exists to protect customers who book flights and accommodation independently. If your airline fails or your hotel closes, you may well lose your money – or worse, you could be stranded abroad.

Book a package holiday to protect against changing travel restrictions and lockdowns

Despite the government currently advising against all travel, airlines have continued to fly and refused to refund customers. A package holiday can stop you losing out.  

When a national lockdown occurs, or travel advice against a country changes, most tour operators, unlike some airlines, will cancel package holidays (see exceptions in don’ts at the bottom). You’ll be offered a trip to an alternative destination or can claim a full refund under the terms of the Package Travel Regulations. 

It’s likely too that if a country is placed on the red list, a package holiday provider will refund you, but be careful when choosing a provider and ensure they’re trustworthy – see below for tips.

Pick a provider who will refund you

More holidays later in 2021 are likely to be cancelled. If yours is, you want to make sure you’ll get your money back without a fight. Many travel companies, including some of the biggest brands, have taken months to refund customers for holidays that were cancelled due to COVID-19. 

A handful of 20+ firms did the right thing throughout the crisis and paid refunds within 14 days. Consider giving them your business. 

Which? Recommend Provider holiday companies, such as Hays Travel, Jet2 Holidays, Kuoni and Trailfinders are also committed to paying cash refunds within 30 days, if not sooner. In fact, Trailfinders told us it often facilitates refunds the same day.

Use a local travel agent to book

During the current crisis many customers have struggled to contact travel companies who have failed to keep them informed of changes to their bookings, about cancellations or the progress of their refunds –  some companies have even turned off their phones. You won’t get that if you book with a good travel agent.

A good travel agent will be on hand to amend your booking if further travel restrictions are put in place, or if things go wrong while you’re away. You’ll know someone is at the other end of the phone to help if you have questions or, if your trip is cancelled, fight for your refund. 

Look for flexible holiday booking policies for 2021

Whether rising cases in the destination puts you off travel, NHS Test and Trace tells you to isolate or a change to the travel corridor rules means the holiday is off, booking with firms that offer flexibility to change your plans is essential. 

The best are those that allow you to cancel or change your holiday right up to the date of departure as you might only become aware of a problem, such as a change to the travel corridors, at the last minute. That sort of flexibility only seems to be available with luxury operators, but there are some other useful policies to look out for. 

British Airways Holidays allows changes free of charge up to 21 days before travel. This is available on all holidays booked for travel before 30 April 2022.

Tui will allow you to change its holidays (which must include a Tui-run flight) up to 28 days before departure for bookings travelling between 1 July 2021 and 31 October 2021, if booked on or after 10 February 2021.

With Trailfinders’ packages, if within seven days of departure the FCDO advises against travel or travel corridors change and you have to quarantine (local or national in the UK) at either end, you can get a full refund.

EasyJet Holidays will refund you fee-free if you simply change your mind about going on holiday, as long as you tell them no later than 28 days before departure. The deposit will be returned as credit on your account.


Discover the list of Which? Recommended Providers for package holidays


Book a hotel with free cancellation

If you’re booking a hotel separately, look for one that offers free last-minute cancellation. Some individual hotels, especially in the UK, are offering this and booking direct is the best way to get the cheapest price. 

Failing that, hotel booking sites such as Booking.com offer free cancellations for many properties, but they may charge a higher nightly rate for the flexibility. Airbnb currently refunds if you have to self-isolate or you contract Covid-19, but hosts have different cancellation terms regarding national lockdowns – pick one that is flexible. 

Buy travel insurance as soon as you book

Travel insurance that covers you for coronavirus related illness and disruption is available again, although there are no completely comprehensive policies. 

It’s essential you take out travel insurance as soon as you book your holiday, rather than when you travel, as you’ll be covered if illness or disruption happens before you travel. Look for policies that include cover for coronavirus-related disruption, such as cancelled and delayed flights or the need to self-isolate for a period. 

You probably won’t find a policy that covers changing FCDO advice. This won’t be a concern if you have booked a package with a reputable company (see above), but those with flights and hotels booked separately won’t be able to claim from insurance if they don’t travel because the FCDO advice has changed. Coronavirus travel insurance: who will cover me?

Some airlines, tour operators and hotels are offering free Covid-19-cover, but you still want comprehensive travel insurance for non-Covid-19-related claims.

Pay with a credit card

You’ll get more financial protection if you pay for your holiday, flight or hotel with a credit card as Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act makes card issuers equally responsible for the delivery of a service. 

This means that if your holiday is cancelled by the operator, or the operator or airline fails, or there’s a problem with the hotel, you could claim a refund from your card issuer as long as the holiday cost more than £100 and less than £30,000.

You get some protection if you pay with a debit card under the Visa and Mastercard voluntary chargeback scheme, but banks aren’t legally obliged to refund you.

DON’T:

Pay a deposit … if you can avoid it

You might be nervous about travelling if Covid-19 cases rise in the summer or you might no longer be able to afford the holiday if you’ve lost your job or had a pay cut. Additionally, you may not have been vaccinated. But even if you have been, there is a possibility countries with slower vaccine roll outs may not want us to travel there.

Book with a travel company that is offering zero or low deposits and you’ll reduce your loss if you decide to cancel before the balance is due. Check the operator’s T&Cs to make sure you don’t have to pay an additional fee if you do cancel.

To further reduce the risk look for a company that will allow you to pay the balance as late as possible, in case things change. Tour operators typically demand the final payment 70 to 90 days before departure, but some have more generous terms.

You can reserve a summer 2021 holiday from £60 per person with easyJet Holidays, Jet2 and Tui. With easyJet Holidays you have up to 28 days before departure to pay the balance.

Book with online travel agents

Many online travel agents, known as OTAs, have proven during the pandemic that they aren’t able to offer good customer service or  the same level of protection as traditional tour operators. 

Customers who booked with the likes of Lastminute.com and Loveholidays struggled to get hold of them to arrange refunds for cancelled holidays and they haven’t been kept informed of changes to their bookings. Loveholidays has even sent customers to hotels that were closed. 

Some online travel agents, including Loveholidays and On the Beach, have refused to refund holidays to destinations that the Foreign Office says aren’t safe to visit.

Book a holiday to a country on the red, amber or ‘Green Watchlist’ – unless you’re willing to quarantine

If you choose to fly to a country on the red list, you will need to pay for a 10-day stay at government managed quarantine hotel on return to the UK – that currently costs £1750. You will also have to pay for pre-departure testing and PCR testing on day two and eight.

On return from an amber listed country, you will need to quarantine for ten days at home  and take a pre-departure test, a PCR test on day two and day eight. Alternately, you can pay for an additional Test to Release test on day five to end self-isolation early. This all adds up.

Additionally, countries at risk of moving from green to amber will be added to a ‘Green Watchlist’ in a bid to reduce the risk of disruption. It’s best not to book holidays to these countries unless you’re happy to quarantine. There is no more detail on the ‘Green Watchlist’ yet. For example, will holiday companies be required to allow you to move your holiday if it’s on this list? We will publish more details when we receive them. Read more about the travel traffic light system in our Q&A.

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