How to future-proof your holiday for 2021 - INDEPENDENT UK
JANUARY 02, 2021
BY Helen Coffey
Under normal circumstances, when a traveller books a holiday and something goes wrong, they enjoy a certain level of peace of mind.
If their package holiday gets cancelled, the tour operator must refund them within 14 days. If it’s their flight that gets canned, the airline must pay them back within seven days (and possibly compensate them handsomely, depending on how short notice the cancellation is).
All manner of other issues, from lost luggage to emergency medical care, would be covered by any comprehensive travel insurance policy.
But 2020 unravelled all of that certainty. The coronavirus pandemic led to unprecedented travel restrictions across the globe, causing widespread disruption to holidays and leaving travellers out of pocket for months on end while companies struggled to pay millions of pounds worth of refunds.
Travel insurers, hit by huge swathes of claims, changed their policies to exclude Covid-related issues.
Despite it all, with a vaccine providing much-needed light at the end of the tunnel, many travellers stymied by 2020’s strict rules will be keen to get planning for a 2021 getaway.
Here’s how to book your next holiday without ending up out of pocket – whatever next year throws at us.
Packages are preferable
If you’re the kind of person who usually books each element of your trip separately, it might be time to consider plumping for a package. In essence, you are much better protected should the travel rules change, and your destination is off limits by the time the departure date rolls around.
The UK’s biggest tour operator, Tui, has followed the Foreign Office’s (FCDO) advice since international travel restarted – if a place isn’t deemed safe enough to be put on its list of countries exempt from the otherwise blanket advice against all non-essential international travel, Tui will cancel all its holidays there and offer customers the option to rebook or get a refund.
Yes, some tour operators failed to refund customers in a timely fashion for the first part of 2020, as they struggled to handle thousands of simultaneous claims – volumes they weren’t set up to deal with. But since then, the vast majority of holidaymakers have received their money back.
Many companies also offer extra reassurance, having changed their T&Cs to allow customers to amend bookings last minute if they receive a positive Covid test, have been told to self-isolate, or are impacted by local lockdown rules banning travel.
Some tour ops have even added built-in coronavirus cover. All Club Med guests are entitled to free Covid-19 cover until 30 April 2021: if a holidaymaker contracts the virus while travelling, medical expenses will be covered as part of the holiday package, including Covid-19 testing, transportation costs to testing facilities, GP appointments and medical expenses in case of hospitalisation. If a lockdown or quarantine is required, housing will be provided for guests and, if they cannot fly home, new flights will be provided once it’s safe for them to travel.
Similarly, Covid cover is automatically included for all customers travelling on any TUI holiday and applies to all new and existing bookings. Customers can amend their holiday for free if they contract Covid-19 or are officially required to isolate prior to travel, or if their local area goes into a regional lockdown over their departure dates. It also covers medical assistance if a customer contracts Covid-19 while on holiday, plus costs associated with an extended stay and a new return flight home if customers are asked to self-isolate.
In contrast, when you book flights separately, there are no such guarantees. So long as the flight is still running, passengers can’t claim a refund – even if the rules from the UK’s own government legally ban travel, or a passenger tests positive for coronavirus beforehand and need to quarantine. Most airlines are currently letting customers rebook flights free of charge in such instances, but are not offering refunds; basically, they operate the flight regardless and keep hold of your money.
Shop around for insurance
Back in the early days of the pandemic, nearly all travel insurers did a hasty redrawing of their policies to exclude coronavirus. The change left many holidaymakers at risk from the very issue most likely to scupper their travel plans.
Thankfully, a number of providers have changed tack since and now offer some sort of Covid cover – the important thing is to note whether a policy just covers medical cover if you contract the virus while on holiday, or whether it also covers you in the event that you need to cancel your trip because you test positive before you go or are told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace.
Insurers that provide the latter include AllClear, Trailfinders, Staysure, Allianz Assistance and Virgin Money. However, none of these cover you in the event that there is a local or national lockdown introduced in the UK that prevents you from travelling.
It’s worth bearing in mind that standard travel insurance policies won’t cover you if you go to a country that the Foreign Office advises against visiting – at the moment, this blanket advisory is applied to all countries barring a very specific list. This is changing on a weekly basis – it can be hard to predict in advance which destinations will continue to get the all-clear.
One option is to book a policy with Travel Bag; this covers you if the FCDO advice changes while you’re away. However, it doesn’t cover cancellation costs if the FCDO advice changes before you leave and you no longer wish to travel.
There are other insurers that specifically offer policies covering countries on the no-go list. Battleface is one such insurer, covering travellers for Covid-related medical expenses while away – there’s no cover relating to cancellation, curtailment or lock-down/quarantine expense coverage though, and policies are only available to those aged 59 or under.
Insurefor.com has also launched single-trip policies that cover you when travelling against FCDO advice to European countries. As well as medical expenses while abroad as a result of coronavirus, it also covers policy holders for cancellation in the event that they, their travelling companion or people they are due to stay with on holiday are diagnosed with Covid-19.
Book extra time off
The government’s travel corridors scheme, introduced in the summer, applied a blanket 14-day quarantine for all UK arrivals unless they were coming from a small set of approved destinations. This list has continuously evolved, and is currently updated every week on a Thursday afternoon.
This is finally changing from 15 December, when incoming travellers will get the option to pay for a Covid test on day five of their self-isolation which, if negative, means they can end quarantine early.
For those lucky enough to be able to work entirely from home – and for whom there are no obligations that would make leaving the house necessary, such as childcare responsibilities – this shouldn’t present too much of a problem, even if a holiday destination is unexpectedly removed from the travel corridors list.
But for holidaymakers who can’t work from home, a swift change resulting in a mandatory quarantine upon their return could turn a relaxing time away into an incredibly stressful one. If you’re in this position, consider booking an extra few days off work after your trip – enough that, should you need to quarantine, you have enough built-in time for the minimum five days before you can be tested. You can always lean into the staycation vibes or take a few last-minute UK day trips if it turns out no quarantine is required.
If you want to play it safe, booking a UK-based holiday might be the way to go. Of course, no one knows what tiers (and fears) are around the corner, or whether another national lockdown might be necessary at some point. But, for one thing, there are no FCDO or travel corridor complications to worry about; and, for another, UK hotels should be pretty accommodating should local restrictions prohibit you from travelling. Call up beforehand and check what their policy is regarding coronavirus-related cancellations for extra reassurance.
If you’re travelling by car, there’s also no risk of ending up out of pocket when it comes to travel expenses, and many train companies are allowing passengers to amend ticket dates should restrictions stop them from travelling.
If you have the flexibility to book last-minute, it could help reduce the risk of plans going belly up. Waiting until the week before means you can choose a destination based on the latest FCDO and travel corridors lists, meaning less chance of travelling against government advice or needing to quarantine when you return. You can also look at up-to-date information on the particular restrictions in potential countries and whether they are letting in British travellers without requiring a period of self-isolation.
If the UK has entered another lockdown in the interim, you won’t be left frantically chasing refunds. Of course, the travel landscape is changing at lightning speed in this pandemic, and even within a few days things could change – but you’ll be in a much better position to make an informed decision about the best destination to pick.
The Independent’s travel team often hears horror stories about holidaymakers attempting to get their money back when they are entitled to a refund. But however hard you think it might be chasing up your airline, hotel or tour operator, it can be a thousand times harder to claim your money back if you’ve booked through a third party. It places a buffer between the actual service provider and customer, and online-only travel agents can be hard to contact (many only offer an email address rather than a phone number for this very reason).
They may promise cheaper prices, but if things go awry or plans change, it’s arguably not worth the hassle.
Wait for a vaccine
If you want the ultimate in peace of mind, wait until there’s a viable vaccine (and until you’ve been vaccinated). In which case, travel problems should revert to the good old standbys of lost luggage and emergency medical care…