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8 Jun 2020

When should I book a holiday? This summer or wait until 2021?

From quarantine rules and air bridges to travel insurance and airline cancellation policies we answer your questions on whether it's safe to book a holiday
Holiday booking

As the lockdown restrictions are slowly starting to be lifted around the world, airlines and tour operators have suggested UK holidaymakers may be able to take a holiday abroad this summer.

British Airways, Easyjet and Ryanair have announced plans to restart international flights in July, while Lastminute.com is selling holidays to all over Europe departing in June. Italy has reopened its borders and other European countries, such as Greece, have announced plans to do the same later this month. There have also been suggestions that air bridges to popular destinations, including Portugal, could be in place within weeks, allowing UK travellers to access certain European countries.

Yet, TUI has cancelled all holidays in June, P&O Cruises won't sail again until October at the earliest and the The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) continues to indefinitely advise against all non-essential travel. The introduction of 14-day quarantine for holidaymakers returning to the UK also seems to make a week in the sun impractical, while many countries still have a ban on entry from UK nationals.

For award-winning investigations, unbiased reviews and advice, plus access to legal advice, find out more about Which? Travel.

So is it really the time to be considering booking your next holiday? You need to think about these questions before parting with your money:

Find out whether you should cancel your summer holiday this year.

Coronavirus: your travel questions answered

Watch our video below for answers to some of the most common coronavirus travel questions.

When will it be safe to book holidays and flights again? And why the FCO is important

For the UK, the picture is slowly getting clearer as details about the government's COVID-19 recovery strategy come to light.

As things stand, some restaurants, pubs and accommodation may be able to reopen from 4 July (at the earliest). Some form of social distancing will still need to be in place, though, and there may be additional restrictions for people considered particularly vulnerable.

It's hard to believe that non-essential international travel will be permitted before that date. As of 8 June, the government is imposing a 14-day quarantine on travellers returning to the UK.

Under the new rules, anyone other than exempt workers arriving into the UK could face a £1,000 fine (or £480 in Scotland) if they fail to self-isolate. It will make it difficult for anyone with work or other responsibilities to take a holiday, even if the FCO lifts its indefinite ban on non-essential travel. Many countries also have a ban on UK nationals entering.

Find out what the quarantine rules mean for your summer holiday.

The FCO continues to advise against all non-essential travel and there's no indication of when this advice might be lifted. Package holidays will continue to be cancelled while the FCO ban remains in place. Airlines have largely ignored FCO advice, however, which is why Wizz Air has already relaunched some flights and Ryanair has announced plans to do so in July.

Just because airlines are flying and travel agents are taking bookings, doesn't mean that it's now safe to book your next holiday. There isn't yet enough information to safely do so without putting your money at risk, but it's possible there will be enough to start booking trips at some point this summer. When you're safe to book, book through a holiday company who you can trust with your money - we've rounded some up.

Should I book a UK holiday for this summer?

The government has announced plans to open at least some restaurants, pubs and accommodation in the UK as part of step three of its COVID-19 recovery strategy. While this won't happen until 4 July at the earliest, it raises hope that at least some UK holidays might be able to take place later this summer.

Some form of social distancing will be in place, though, meaning accommodation where you can cook for yourself and don't have to share facilities with others is likely to be in operation first. Staying in campsites, caravans, cottages and Airbnb or other private rentals is likely to be permitted before staying in hotels, for example.

Should I book? Don't rush into booking any UK holiday accommodation just yet, though. The early July target may end up getting pushed back, depending on the infection rate. And if you book something now that ends up being cancelled, you may struggle to get your money back.

Should I book a package holiday for this year or 2021?

The FCO continues to advise against all non-essential international travel, so although many holiday companies are promoting trips for this summer, these will only go ahead if the FCO advice is lifted.

The government hasn't yet given any indication of when that is likely to happen. And even once the advice is lifted, you'll still need to factor in a likely quarantine period of 14 days on your return to the UK.

Because of this uncertainty, some holiday companies are offering greater flexibility for customers who make new bookings now. For example, if you book a holiday for this year with British Airways Holidays before the end of July, you can change the dates or destination (subject to fare change) or cancel and receive a voucher for the full value.

Booking in this way will give you some peace of mind, but we're not aware of any policies currently covering travel in 2021, and they also mean you're stuck with vouchers for one company, no matter what happens to their prices.

Any package holiday booked with a UK holiday company is protected by the Package Travel Regulations, entitling you to a full refund if the operator cancels your booking. For it to be classed as a package, you just have to book at least two parts of your holiday - such as the flights and the hotel - through the same company at the same time.

if your package includes a flight, your money is also protected by the Atol scheme. This government-backed insurance scheme means you'll be refunded should the holiday company you book with go bust. So booking a package is effectively the safest type of holiday booking you can make right now.

However, many leading travel companies are currently breaking the law on refunds, leaving people facing a fight to get back what they're owed. Customers of leading travel firms such as Loveholidays and Tui have waited months to get refunds.

The regulations also don't provide any protection if you cancel the booking yourself, leaving you at risk if the holiday goes ahead but you no longer want to travel.

Should I book? Unless you've already accepted a travel voucher or credit (see below), you shouldn't book a package holiday right now. If you've got insurance, think you're getting an unbelievable deal and are booking well into 2021, then you might decide it's worth the risk. But in most cases your best bet is to hold off until the situation becomes clearer.

Should I book flights for this year or 2021?

Airlines don't follow the FCO advice in the same way as tour operators. Easyjet and Ryanair have already announced plans to restart many routes, while Wizz Air has already started flying a dozen routes from Luton airport again.

Once countries start to open up their borders to British nationals, the number of available flights is likely to increase significantly, but don't rush into booking one straight away. Many countries still have a ban on entry of UK nationals, or require travellers to go into quarantine upon arrival. A 14-day holiday may not be much fun if all 14 days are spent locked up in a hotel.

Unfortunately, if the plane flies you won't be able to claim a refund even if you aren't allowed to access the country or quarantine rules are in place.

You don't get the same protection when booking flights as you do when booking a package holiday. While you are entitled to a full cash refund if the airline cancels your flight, this only applies if it's a UK or EU airline, or you were due to fly from the UK or EU. And unless your flight is part of a package, or covered by the linked travel arrangements, you won't get the money you spent on an airfare back if the airline goes bust.

To try and make booking flights now more tempting, some airlines, including British Airways, Easyjet and Virgin Atlantic, have introduced flexible date and destination policies for customers who book tickets now.

That's good to know if you've already accepted travel vouchers or credit (see below), but probably isn't worth considering otherwise, especially if you don't have travel insurance that covers you if the airline goes bust.

Should I book? Almost certainly not. Only book a flight for later this year if the date of the ticket can be moved, it's with a UK/EU airline or from a UK/EU airport and you're covered by your travel insurer if the airline goes bust. If you're thinking of booking flights for 2021 and don't have travel insurance, it's probably only worth considering if the airfare is so cheap you wouldn't mind losing it. Bear in mind that if you do decide to book a flight now and the flight ends up getting cancelled, you'll probably face a fight to get a refund.

Should I book accommodation for 2021?

Some hotel chains and hotel booking sites allow you to cancel bookings for free up until a few days before you're due to stay. This can cost a bit more than it would if you paid for a non-refundable room, but it's worth it at the moment for that extra peace of mind. It's worth considering if you're really keen to get some element of your next holiday booked in, just make sure you read the small print carefully to know when you will be charged for the room.

Non-refundable overseas accommodation is probably better left alone for the moment. Unless booked as part of a package (see above), you're only entitled to a refund if the hotel is closed. So if it's open for business, but you can't get there because of travel restrictions in the UK, you aren't entitled to anything (although you might be able to claim on your travel insurance).

Should I book? While there's little risk in booking accommodation that can be freely cancelled, there's also little point. Hold off until you know if you'll be able to get there. Even then, booking accommodation independently is hard to recommend when booking as part of a package comes with so much additional protection.

Should I book a 2021 cruise?

Most major cruise lines are provisionally planning to start sailing again in July or August this year, but it's hard to see how these can take place while still following social distancing guidelines. Whether these can take place will ultimately depend on both the FCO advice and the government's COVID-19 recovery strategy.

Importantly, if you're considering a cruise itinerary with port stops, be aware that some ports are likely to refuse entry to cruise ship passengers.

Cruises booked in the UK are covered by the Package Travel Regulations, meaning that you're entitled to a full refund within 14 days if your cruise operator cancels the booking and possibly a partial refund if port stops are missed from the agreed itinerary.

However, some providers are failing to meet this requirement. And the regulations only protect you if the cruise is cancelled. If it isn't, you'll have to pay for it regardless of whether you want to go on the cruise or not.

In other words, you may be left with a choice between losing your money and going on a cruise where social distancing is being enforced, potentially limiting your enjoyment of it.

Should I book? No. Until we know more about how and when social distancing is likely to be phased out, booking a cruise is risky.

Can I get insurance to travel later this year or in 2021?

You should always buy travel insurance at the same time as booking a holiday, no matter how far in advance it is.

That won't cost more, it just means you're covered if something happens after you book, but before you travel, that prevents you from being able to go on the holiday. Exactly what you're covered for depends on the terms of your policy, but insurers often provide cancellation cover for things such as being made redundant or illness.

So, if you don't currently have insurance, you shouldn't consider booking any travel until you can get it. Even then, you won't be covered for cancellation claims related to coronavirus, as this is classed as a 'known event'.

Generally speaking, you can buy a single-trip policy up to a year in advance. Alternatively, an annual policy will cover you for the next 12 months and may provide some protection for bookings beyond that, depending on the policy.

This also applies if you're currently covered by an annual policy. For example, if your policy expires in March next year and you book a holiday for June 2021, you may be covered if you need to make a cancellation claim between now and March. It all depends on your policy, though, and some insurers might also say that you have to renew the policy with them next year for it to apply.

The bottom line is that you shouldn't book a holiday unless you can buy insurance that covers you from the day of the booking.

Coronavirus: what it means for your travel insurance.

What if I change my mind and don't want to travel?

No insurance policy will cover you for a 'disinclination to travel', so if you book a holiday now that you later decide you don't want to go on, you risk losing your money.

Imagine if the government lifts its travel ban and the borders to your holiday destination are open, but restaurants and bars are closed, or you have to go into self-isolation upon arrival. You probably won't want to go on the holiday, but you won't be entitled to a refund because the holiday is likely to go ahead unless government advice says otherwise.

In this scenario, the travel provider may allow you to amend the dates of your booking, but there's no guarantee. It depends on the terms and conditions in your contract.

Your best bet is to only book travel that you're sure you want to take on the date of the original booking. That's not possible at the moment. The risk, however minor, of a second wave of coronavirus hitting us at some point in the future means that no one can be completely sure they'll want to travel, whether this year or next, so it's safer not to book at all for the moment.

What if I have accepted holiday vouchers or credit?

Despite being entitled to a refund, many people who have had their travel plans disrupted have been forced by their travel provider to accept travel vouchers or credit, rather than cash.

If you're one of them, try going back to your holiday provider or airline and saying that you've changed your mind. Failing that, you might want to think about using your voucher or credit note sooner rather than later.

Credit notes are theoretically better than vouchers, because they claim to be backed by Atol and usually come with a date of when you can convert any unused credit into cash.

But we've found, like vouchers, that these credit notes may not be financially protected, so there's a chance they will become worthless if the company that issued them goes bust.

Should I book? Vouchers are not financially protected and until we know that refund credit notes are our advice is to use them to rebook as soon as possible. If your voucher is from an airline, use it to book a flexible flight that can be amended if you later decide you don't want to travel. If your voucher or note is from a tour operator, use it to book a holiday as far in advance as you can. It's hard to be sure the holiday will go ahead, but your money will at least be protected by both Atol and the Package Travel Regulations (see above).

Is it cheap to book a holiday now?

Booking any form of travel now is a risk, but it's one you might feel is worth taking if there's a chance of saving hundreds of pounds. It's possible there will be amazing cut-price deals to try to entice cautious consumers back into booking.

It's equally possible , that if some companies go bust, the reduced competition will lead to higher prices.

Many leading travel companies are already advertising so-called deals, but just because the company is calling it a bargain doesn't make it so. Which? has repeatedly investigated holiday deals and found less than half offer a real saving.

If you do have a clear idea of what things used to cost - maybe you were keeping an eye on the price of a dream holiday before coronavirus, or perhaps you travel to Australia every year to see family, for example - and the price is lower than normal, then you may want to go for it. But, for all the reasons outlined above, it's a gamble.

What else do I need to know before booking?

If you're set on booking a holiday for 2021 in the near future, there are a few other things you'll want to consider.

You might want to think about booking a holiday to a lesser-known destination or, at the very least, booking out of peak season. For example, because of school holidays, these approximate periods in 2021 are likely to be busier:

  • 19 December 2020-3 January 2021 (Christmas holidays)
  • 13 February 2021-21 February 2021 (spring half term)
  • 27 March 2021-11 April 2021 (Easter holidays)
  • 29 May 2021-6 June 2021 (summer half term)
  • 10 July 2021-1 September 2021 (summer holidays)

But peak periods abroad also depend on when visitors from other countries tend to visit as well as what the weather is like.

Seasonality is also worth considering for holidays that you would only want to take at a specific time. Booking a holiday where you're free to change the dates as you wish is only beneficial if you can amend the dates to an equally desirable time. Being able to move a winter sports holiday to summer, or a summer holiday to winter isn't much use.

When should I book my next holiday?

Unless you're spending travel vouchers or credit notes, there are significant risks to booking holidays at the moment. That's especially true of accommodation or flight-only booking,s where it may prove impossible to take the trip but also impossible to get your money back.

Package holidays still offer stronger legal protections and you'll easily be able to rebook if a planned holiday is disrupted. But refunds are very hard to come by, so if you do book, do so in the knowledge that you may not get the money back, but will get a holiday at some stage, With so much uncertainty still surrounding the coronavirus recovery, it's wise to wait until we have a bit more information before booking your next holiday.

Read the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?.