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What you need to know regarding holidaying during COVID

This is a version of the article How to book a holiday during the Covid pandemic that first appeared on The Guardian website 17 January  2022.

How to holiday in the time of COVID

Travelling during a pandemic can be stressful and full of pitfalls, but this guide should ensure that you are well prepared to travel both safely and with little stress.

clear blue sea beach

Are you comfortable with change and uncertainty? Booking a holiday may incur additional costs with tests which can change anytime and your experience may change due to local laws and rules being changed very quickly. Be prepared to return quickly and/ or adhere to restrictions.

Know your consumer rights when you book

In these uncertain times we know that it is possible that a company can go into administration.

In December 2021 the consumer advice body UK International Consumer Centre (UKICC) reported a 66% increase in the number of complaints received by them about travel intermediaries and booking agency services in the first nine months of 2021, compared to the same period last year, up from 266 to 441.

Service Director at the UKICC, Andy Allen, said: “We quite regularly see problems relating to who a consumer’s contract is with when things go wrong and the consumer asks us to help with a case. Quite understandably there is often consumer confusion about who their rights are with…“But it’s important to be able to see through this confusion in order to deal with the correct people when trying to resolve the complaint.”

ATOL cover

The ATOL (Air Travel Organiser’s Licence) scheme of financial protection covers flight-based holidays. It is a government-run financial protection scheme operated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). All monies you pay for package holidays involving flights and holidays must be protected under an ATOL licence.  Keep the certificate you will be given at booking safe. If your travel company fails and your holiday can no longer go ahead you will be entitled to a refund if you are yet to travel and hotel costs and flights home if you are abroad. Flights booked directly with airlines are not protected under the ATOL scheme.

Aeroplane in sky with clouds

All flight-based holidays that include a flight must be ATOL protected. This means that you will get a full refund of the amount paid for the holiday if the travel operator fails. You will need to contact ATOL and go through their process for getting a full refund. If you only bought a flight you will not be covered.

ABTA cover

If you buy a land or sea-based holiday, such as coach, rail or cruise holiday from an ABTA member, your monies will be protected by the ABTA scheme of financial protection. Therefore if your travel company fails and your holiday can no longer go ahead, you will be entitled to a refund if you are yet to travel and hotel costs and transport home if you are abroad.

Use a credit card to book your holiday for extra cover

Purchase your holiday on a credit card, if possible. This will give you Section 75 protection for any purchases over £100. Be aware though that completing a credit card transaction through a third party payment service means that the credit card provider and the seller are no longer in a direct relationship, so are not equally liable. This applies to services such as PayPal, but also if an airline goes into administration you may not be covered if you didn’t pay direct or as part of a package.

For any upfront costs (such as for flights), ideally book direct. Jo Yeomans found out the hard way that Section 75 cover doesn’t apply when a third party is involved. She booked flights to Bali through STA Travel and when they collapsed, her credit card provider said that they weren’t liable to cover the costs.

Consider booking a package holiday

Use travel professionals. They have access to the latest up-to-date information, airline and holiday offers and are very knowledgeable about amending holidays and can give you extra peace of mind.

Personal travel agent Linda Reynolds says that “Self bookers & DIY holidays can be problematic at this time. I’ve heard of people turning up at hotels in Canada and the hotel was shut, the booking was booked many months before, and locally there were no alternatives in their price range. Check your hotel is open! A quick look on their website or email to confirm your arrival should help.

couple on beach sunset

Often it’s cheaper to purchase a flight and accommodation separately. However, if you book a package you have more protection from the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018. A package holiday is one that has at least two components, all as part of a ‘package’ for which you pay an inclusive price: transport (such as flights, transfers etc.) accommodation and/or another tourist service which makes up a significant proportion of the package and lasts more than 24 hours.

The travel organiser/operator must inform you of any changes clearly and without undue delay. You should be given the option to terminate the contract with no penalty if it has no choice but to significantly change the main characteristics of the package, cannot fulfil any of your agreed special requirements or increases the price by more than 8%. Refunds should be paid within 14 days.

Have all your paperwork ready and available

Check-in times have increased and Linda says that she has seen many people in tears when they can’t access their documents due to poor Wi-Fi or lack of correct COVID test information, for example. She advises that you print everything. “As well as your booking documents, print a copy of health forms, attestation if applicable, passenger locator form and confirmed test results.”

Check holiday Cancellation Policies

It’s essential to check cancellation policies however you book your trip away. Many may offer “free” cancellation but dissect the small print and the devil is in the detail. Timescales for changes, vouchers, rebooking and paying the difference etc. Tracy McLaughlin Mind Over Money Matters blogger uses Air Miles to book her holidays. “Air Miles gives us the option to cancel our booking 24 hours before travel for only a £35 charge. All accommodation etc. is also booked with free cancellation 24 hours before.”

Read flexible policies carefully. Qin Xie from Hey Money Talk says flexible booking should mean that you can cancel or amend your booking without paying an admin fee or losing your deposit in case of unexpected changes. “What’s included in flexible booking obviously depends on who you book with, but amends are usually for travel dates and/or destinations.”

Take care when booking a holiday let

If you are booking a holiday let, only book through a third party site which has a clear refund policy and which takes secure payments by credit card. Your contract is always with the company or individual to whom you paid the money. So, for example, you would contact Airbnb but with HomeAway (an advertising site), you will need to complain to the owner. How to prevent and deal with problems with holiday lets

Buy appropriate insurance for your holiday

You should always take out insurance at the time of booking, or at least at the time of paying the full balance. But now more than ever, not fully checking the insurance could have severe financial and health consequences. Check with the supplier that it covers your needs (e.g. does it cover jet ski-ing etc?) The very minimum it should cover is COVID cancellation, medical and repatriation.

Linda advises asking prospective insurers some questions such as “If you test positive for COVID in the resort, where will you be quarantined (if not ill)? Will you be kept at same hotel? Do they have a quarantine block or will you be transferred to a government hotel? She cautions travellers to take note of a few horror stories of poor food and worse than a jail environment.

If you are due to travel after your annual insurance expires, make sure you renew it before you travel. If the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) puts a warning in place for your destination before any gap in policy you won’t be covered.

Keep up to date with latest COVID/travel related news 

Regularly check the FCDO for entry requirements to the country you are visiting. Look at the ever changing rules of both this country and the one you are visiting. Thoroughly research the airlines and official websites. Incorrect information can be costly. For example, selected countries do not accept SELF administered PCR tests or lateral flow tests. The government website will state which test is required and the time scales, 24, 48 or 72 hours before leaving and returning.

Emma Savage of Travel Counsellor emphasises the importance of taking the test at the correct time, to comply with the entry requirements of the destination. “They all vary, so make sure you/your agent is fully briefed on what you need to do”. She goes on to warn that people have been turned away from check-in because their test does not fall within the window of validity.

check in airport

Claire Roach from  Money Saving Central and her family came back from Cyprus in November 2021 and because her 13 year old is unjabbed, she wasn’t allowed out of the hotel room until her PCR test came back negative. The under 12s were ok, as were her partner, her 18 year old and herself, as they were vaccinated.

It took two days off their holiday and they had to eat at separate times and bring her back food. It was very strict and the family didn’t know that she would be made to quarantine as she had 2 negative lateral flows and a negative PCR prior to arriving at Pathos. The experience has put off Claire from going again.

FCDO advice for travelling

Remember too that although the FCDO may not warn against travel to certain countries, those countries may have strict policies. For example, we saw Germany and France putting strict restrictions on UK travellers during December 2021.

The FCDO continuously reviews its travel advice for each country or territory to ensure it includes up-to-date information and advice on the most relevant issues for British people visiting or living there and will update GOV.UK pages accordingly. You can also sign up for email alerts to get updates as they happen.

Choose your COVID test wisely

Be careful of which company you use for your COVID tests. Which? is calling on Government to take action to properly regulate the private COVID testing market and implement the CMA’s recommendations, so that consumers have confidence they are booking with a provider that is reasonably priced and reliable.

Rory Boland, Which? Travel Editor, said “The COVID testing system for travel has been operating for a year now, and travellers are still being exposed to providers that fail to deliver tests on time or advertise prices that are not available. There are signs of persistent problems with firms on the gov.uk list, with concerns that they are not being adequately checked or monitored.”

couple on beach sunset

Linda has holidayed in Ibiza, Ireland, Cyprus, Antigua, Maldives, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Dubai and Antigua during the pandemic, demonstrating that it is possible as long as you know how to be prepared!

So, make sure you do your research, keep yourself informed, travel safe and have a good holiday!

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