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26 Nov 2020

Christmas holidays 2020 - is it safe to book a trip abroad or in the UK?

With December fast approaching, it's time to decide whether a Christmas holiday is worth the hassle
Christmas lights in Amsterdam

With holiday companies advertising Christmas getaways, you might have your finger poised ready to book a festive trip. But is it wise?

While the thought of Christmas markets in Bruges or a cosy winter cottage break in the Cotswolds is tempting, there's still a risk that it will be disrupted by coronavirus restrictions.

Other than the period of 23 - 27 December, where the government is allowing everyone to travel around the UK and meet up in three-household bubbles, travel in the rest of December is unpredictable. The Welsh currently can't travel outside of Wales, whilst Scotland and England's varying tier systems will dictate movement.

Tiers have now been announced in England, which come into force from 2 December. Those in tiers 1 and 2 will still be allowed to travel freely around the UK, whilst tier 3 residents should stay local. Everyone is legally permitted to travel overseas, but it is not advised for those under tier 3 restrictions. Plus, there are travel corridor changes to consider.

If you do want to gamble, there are things you can do to book safely and help protect yourself against things going wrong.

Unlike all other national UK travel magazines and newspaper travel sections, Which? Travel never accepts freebies - no free flights, no free hotels, no free meals, no free anything. That's why we're the most trusted voice in travel. Find out more.

Five reasons not to book trips for Christmas holidays 2020:

1. There's no way of knowing what your local restrictions will be at the time of travel

English Christmas cottage

Each country within the UK has its own rules. When the national lockdown lifts on 2 December in England, the country will be placed under tiered restrictions. The government has said those from any tier can travel internationally, but it is not advised for those in tier 3. Tier 3 residents should not travel around the UK though, except locally, except as part of a wider essential journey.

Scotland is also in its own tiered system where rules vary by region. Currently those in levels 3 and 4 must not leave their local area, so travelling abroad is out of the question.

The Welsh government is only allowing residents to holiday within Wales currently, not overseas. And while Northern Ireland residents can travel, they are subject to quarantine restrictions on return from certain countries.

These rules can change overnight, and there's no way of predicting what restrictions will be in place at the time of travel. For instance, if you book a cottage in the UK for two households but are only allowed to holiday with your own family (under tier 2 restrictions), this may result in a fight to get your money back.

Additionally, you may book a cottage in a tier 2 location, which closer to the date of travel is pushed into a tier 3 category. All accommodation in those areas will be forced to close (unless between 23 - 27 December).

Some cottage companies still refuse to refund those affected by local restrictions. They might let you move your booking instead. However, if they are forced to close, you should be due a refund.

And what about overseas? If you're bound by tough local restrictions that do not permit you to leave the area (like the rules in Scotland in tiers 3 and 4) and you've booked a flight abroad, the flight will likely still operate, meaning you'll lose your money.

If you do book a trip abroad, choose a package holiday, as well as a company that promises to refund. These eight flexible companies are a good place to start.

2. Refunds are still owed from earlier in the pandemic

stressed man trying to get a refund

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.

Before booking, ask yourself if you can afford to have your money tied up for what could be months. And if you do book a winter package holiday in the sun, choose a company that's committed to refunding quickly.

3. You might not be covered on insurance

If your trip is cancelled because of government restrictions or a change in Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office advice (FCDO) advice, and your holiday company won't refund you, it's likely that any existing travel insurance won't pay out (unless you took out your policy and booked your holiday before March).

You might be tempted to take out a new insurance policy with 'COVID cover', but to our knowledge only Nationwide's insurance will pay out if you cancel because of changes to FCDO advice. And Nationwide is removing that cover from January.

Additionally, if you're in a regional or national lockdown but you choose to travel abroad anyway, you will likely have invalidated your insurance.

Find out more about coronavirus travel insurance

4. You might be stuck in quarantine over Christmas

If you were considering a quick fly-and-flop break before the Christmas holidays, think about whether you'd have enough time to quarantine afterwards. Travel corridors can change overnight.

If, while on holiday, you're asked to quarantine on return, will this ruin your Christmas Day plans to see family or friends? Is it a risk you're willing to take?

The good news is though, that from 15 December, the government has introduced a test to release scheme. It means travellers from high-risk countries that aren't on the travel corridor list can pay to have a private coronavirus test on or after the fifth day of self-isolation. If this test comes back negative, they can stop self-isolating immediately. If the results are positive, at least 10 further days of quarantine will be required.

Find out more about the new test to release scheme

5. We don't know whether national lockdowns could be re-introduced

If any UK country decided to implement another national lockdown in the lead up to, or after the Christmas bubble period, you will not allowed to travel away from home, either within the UK or internationally, for the purpose of a holiday.

If this did occur, we'd expect package holidays to be refunded. However, some online travel agents haven't been playing ball and won't refund the flight portion of the package if the airline hasn't paid them.

But what about UK cottage holidays in the event of a lengthened national lockdown? We'd expect those to be fully refunded, too. If you can't leave your home except for special circumstances such as work and food shopping, you can't be expected to fulfil a cottage booking.

While most cottage companies have now committed to refund if national government restrictions prevent travel, you should be aware that in the first lockdown a lot of customers found it difficult to get their money back.

Companies such as Sykes and Hoseasons refused to refund until the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) began investigating. In June, Hoseasons, as well as Cottages.com and English Country Cottages committed to refunds for all cancelled bookings because of restrictions associated with the coronavirus pandemic. In July, the CMA also received the same commitment from Sykes. However, its customers who cancelled or rebooked before 23 March are still being refused their money back.

If you do book, be careful to choose one of the best-rated holiday cottage providers. Which? Recommended Providers will refund if you're in a national or local lockdown.

The best ways to protect yourself when booking

If you decide to take a gamble and book a Christmas break abroad, you might land yourself a cheap getaway. Lots of travel companies will be trying to lure us back in with deals.

But there are ways to protect yourself, such as choosing a package holiday, booking with a trusted company and paying with a credit card. Read ourEight dos and two don'ts on booking a trip during these disrupted times.

Additionally, it seems pretty safe to say you could book private rented accommodation between 23 - 27 December without concern if you're hoping to see family in the UK.

You can bubble with a maximum of two other households for this period and the bubble cannot change. So even if you're under tier 3 restrictions and you've booked a cottage break for three families, it won't need to be cancelled. However, you must not meet the bubble before 23 December and you must travel home on 27 December at the latest (unless you are in Northern Ireland where you can travel on 22 and 28 December).