Let’s be honest, booking a holiday anywhere right now is risky, with the UK government warning that it could remove countries from its list of ‘safe’ destinations at a moment’s notice.
In July it removed Spain from its list of quarantine-exempt countries just hours after thousands of British families had jetted off on their summer holidays, and it announced only yesterday that holidaymakers returning from Croatia, Austria and Trinidad and Tobago will have to quarantine for 14 days when they return to the UK from Saturday..
The good news is that the government has said it’s now safe to travel to Portugal and Madeira (check) and you no longer have to quarantine when you come back to the UK. Cue lots of people scrambling for late summer packages or flights to the Algarve.
Jet2holidays will resume flights to Faro in the Algarve on Monday having added thousands of extra seats from Birmingham, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds Bradford, London Stansted and Manchester.
Prices are temptingly low, too, starting from around £500 for a week all-inclusive. Ryanair is offering flights to Portugal from £19.99 each way if you book before Sunday 23 August.
Here is the list of other popular holidays destinations from where you don’t have to quarantine at the moment when you return from the UK and where the Foreign Office says it’s safe to travel: Australia, Cyprus, Greece, Gibraltar, most (but not all) of the Caribbean islands, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland and Turkey.
Bear in mind though that destinations can be removed from either of these lists with very little notice, but if you want to take advantage of some of the great deals on offer right now here’s what to do to reduce the risk of your holiday being cancelled or cut short:
Check the FCO advice and the government’s list of ‘travel corridors’
If you don’t want to quarantine when you return to the UK, you must check that you’re travelling to country with a travel corridor with the UK.
You should also check that your chosen destination is exempt from the FCO’s advice against all non-essential travel – if it isn’t exempt, it doesn’t mean you can’t go there, but it does mean the government doesn’t think it’s safe – and it will make it harder for you to find travel insurance (see below).
Just because the FCO says it’s okay to go there doesn’t mean you’ll be allowed in. For instance, the FCO says it’s safe to travel to New Zealand but British tourists are currently banned from NZ, so you need to check a country’s entry restrictions on the FCO website. Even if they’re letting British tourists in, some countries have specific requirements, such as a proof of a negative Covid test or some insist you pay for a test on arrival.
Check the ‘Entry requirements’ for specific countries on the FCO website. It’s especially important to check this information if you’re booking at the last minute because if you need a Covid test, it could take a few days to get the result. Bear in mind that some tests come back void and need to be re-done.
Wait till the last-minute
Given how rapidly the situation is changing, I’d wait as long as you possibly can to book so you run less risk of the holiday being cancelled or cut short due to new government travel restrictions.
For the past two weeks, the government has announced any changes to its no-go list of destinations late on a Thursday, so if you can wait till after the announcement to book a trip for the following week you should be fairly safe, but this isn’t recommended if you’re travelling to a country where you need to produce a negative Covid test (see above).
Check latest Covid rates with the ECDC
The European Centre for Disease Control publishes up-to-date information on the rates of Covid infection in every country around the world, and it’s this data the UK government is using to determine whether to impose a quarantine on returning holidaymakers.
The government is likely to introduce a quarantine for arrivals from any destination where the infection rate is more than 20 per 100,000 head of population. If you check the ECDC site before you book a holiday, you’ll get a good idea of which countries are most at risk of being added to the UK government’s list of no-go destinations.
Use a good local travel agent
A good agent should be able to advise you on which destinations have which travel restrictions, saving you from making a costly mistake. They’re unlikely to have a crystal ball to hand, so they won’t be able to tell you if a destination is 100pc safe or what the chances are of your holiday being disrupted, but they should be able to help you if it is.
Avoid online travel agents
Some online travel agents have behaved very badly during the pandemic, refusing or delaying refunds for cancelled holidays, sending customers to hotels that are closed, and even failing to let them know whether their holidays were still going ahead.
Customers have struggled to get through to Loveholidays, On the Beach and Travel Republic to refund or reschedule holidays. Travel Republic has even shut down its phone lines, forcing customers to use an already over-stretched online chat and email service.
And both Loveholidays and On the Beach are currently refusing to refund package holiday customers for flights to destinations where the FCO says it’s not safe to travel, even though ABTA says they must.
Book a package or with a hotel that offers free cancellation
You’ll get more protection if you book a package with a UK tour operator than if you book flights and accommodation separately.
If the FCO announces it’s not safe to travel to a destination, tour operators usually cancel holidays and refund customers. This isn’t the case with airlines, who are likely to continue to operate flights and refuse you a cash refund, although some will allow you to reschedule or give you a voucher instead.
If your holiday has to be cut short due to a sudden change in the Foreign Office advice, your tour operator should arrange for your transport back to the UK and give a pro-rata refund for any missed days.
And if your tour operator goes bust, you’ll be protected by its ATOL for flight-inclusive holidays and by ABTA for cruises or tours without flights, and refunded by the CAA or by ABTA.
The downside of booking a package is that some operators – including some of the biggest – are taking months to refund cancelled holiday; some customers whose trips were cancelled in March are still waiting for their money back, although the more reputable companies have said they’re doing their best to speed up refunds.
Packages do tend to cost more than DIY holidays, sometimes significantly more, so if you do decide to book a hotel and flight separately to save money, try to find a hotel that offers free cancellation and either book a flexible airfare that will allow you to cancel or change the ticket for free or book with an airline, like British Airways*, that will allow at least give you a voucher for the full fare if you change your mind at the last minute.
Pay with a credit card
You’ll get more financial protection if you pay for your holiday with a credit card because Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act makes the card issuer equally responsible with the merchant for the provision of the service. So if your tour operator or airline doesn’t refund you promptly for a cancellation holiday or flight, or they go out of business before or during your trip, you’ll be able to claim on your card.
Don’t have a credit card? Paying by debit card will give you some protection under the Visa and Mastercard chargeback rules, which means that if you don’t get the service you paid for they can reverse the transaction, but they aren’t obliged to do so and your refund isn’t guaranteed.
Make sure you’re insured
You’d be crazy to travel at any time without insurance, but especially right now. Look for a policy that includes medical cover for Covid-19 (not all of them do), and cancellation cover if you or a travelling companion can’t travel after testing positive for coronavirus or being told to isolate after coming into contact with someone with Covid.
Few, if any, insurance policies sold since mid-March include cover for cancellations or curtailment due to government-imposed travel restrictions, but a few will now provide cover if you travel to a destination against the FCO advice, which used to be very rare but, since Covid, is becoming less so. Battleface or Campbell Irvine both offer cover for destinations not on the FCO exempt list.
*The offer is for a limited period so check before you book. Some passengers have reported difficulties using BA vouchers to rebook flights as these must be booked over the phone but the phone lines are clogged.