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Do you feel like you need some winter sun already, even though we’re still in autumn? Are you hankering to book a ski trip or a Christmas getaway to give you something to look forward to?
We know that travel benefits our emotional and creative wellbeing. Several scientific studies have also concluded that there is a correlation between the anticipation of a trip and happiness. But with so many hurdles to overcome in order to leave the country – in the short- to medium-term at least – right now the build-up to a holiday might provoke more anxiety than joy.
Given the dire position the travel industry finds itself in, hotels, airlines and tour companies are increasingly looking at ways to instil optimism and confidence among potential holidaymakers – to bring back some of that happiness, as well as an injection of much-needed cash.
At the start of the pandemic, consumer confidence was battered by widespread rule-breaking when travel stalled completely. Millions of flights and holidays were cancelled by lockdown, many of those not refunded during the legal time frame (seven days for flights, 14 days for package holidays under EU law).
More recently, destinations have been put out of bounds at short notice by Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advice and quarantine restrictions. The travel map has been shapeshifting on a weekly basis since July, making anything but last-minute bookings feel like something of a calculated gamble as the Department for Transport’s “travel corridors” open and close.
Now, with infection rates soaring across Europe as we head into winter, ski trips are in jeopardy – France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland are out of bounds for UK travellers. And yet, the Department for Transport’s “tradition” of updating its travel advice at 5pm on a Thursday can restore favour just as quickly as it removes it, the most recent beneficiaries being the Canary Islands, Denmark and the Maldives.
Travel operators and destinations are therefore seeking to incentivise customers with an increasing range of flexible rebooking and cancellation guarantees – even for a winter ski trip. “‘We’re likely to see continued disruption to holidays into 2021, so these flexible booking policies can really help,” says Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel. “Especially useful are those that offer rebooking, or even better refunds, if test and trace or a local lockdown in the UK means you can’t travel, or the destination you are flying to is removed from the travel corridor list.”
Boland adds: “It’s important to study the detail of policies as some have snappy adverts but behind them are small print and snags. For example, some offer free rebooking, but limit the dates when you can do this – meaning your summer holiday now has to be taken in autumn. Others limit the number of times you can reschedule. Crucially, free rebooking typically only means the admin fee is waived. You will still have to pay the difference if the holiday is more expensive on the new dates – and it usually is.”
Finding travel reassurance
Short of government backing, the quickest route to confidence is via these kind of assurances. But without any common industry standard, knowing where to look and who to trust can be – at best – confusing. There are destinations offering “free insurance”, individual operators offering “Covid cover” and an assortment of different guarantees and seemingly favourable booking terms.
EasyJet Holidays recently launched its Protection Promise, which is underscored by a Refund Guarantee. In practice, this means that its customers can cancel their holiday fee-free should they change their mind, up to 28 days before departure when the balance is due; the deposit is returned as credit. A full refund will be due if the company cancels a holiday where “there is a known requirement for quarantine or self-isolation at the destination”. The company says that the average time for a refund is now 12 days for cancelled trips.
Its customer director, Matt Callaghan, says that “as the country adapts to the new tiering system, we’ve been allowing customers with imminent departures to cancel their holiday free of charge for credit to use against a future booking when the time is right for them”.
Cover for holidays
TUI, the UK’s biggest tour operator and its ski subsidiary, Crystal, are offering customers Covid Cover. It allows amendments if a customer is diagnosed with Covid, required to isolate or cannot travel due to local restrictions. It also covers medical assistance for the virus if contracted on holiday and the cost of extending accommodation if self-isolation is required.
The family travel specialist Stubborn Mule, which typically sends its customers to long-haul destinations – Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Cambodia – has been forced to cancel all its trips for the remainder of the year. Of the 170 families due to travel over Easter, only three managed to go. But the operator is now offering customers a “Covid Safe Guarantee” that pledges a refund within a week of cancellation. Money is held in a travel trust account, meaning that it isn’t released to suppliers until close to departure – far easier to return to customers if they need or want to cancel.
Beyond tour operators, destinations are also seeking to reassure visitors with “free insurance” policies. The Dominican Republic’s Travel Assistance Plan is in place until the end of the year and includes “medical attention”, airfare change penalty payments and additional accommodation costs should travellers contract Covid there. Uzbekistan’s Safe Travels scheme compensates travellers up to $3,000 (£2,310) for medical costs relating to Covid infection in the country.
More pertinent to the UK market is the Canary Island’s free Covid insurance, underwritten by AXA, which covers healthcare and accommodation costs for holidaymakers that contract the disease in the islands. None of these “insurance” offers or guarantees negate the need for a personal travel insurance policy. And while insurers are now returning to the market with policies that include Covid cover, the degree to which this extends varies. “While most travel insurance providers will cover you for medical expenses if you catch Covid-19 while abroad and need emergency medical treatment, the range of additional Covid cover included within policies in the market varies,” says Fiona Macrae, head of consumer awareness initiative at travelinsuranceexplained.co.uk.
“Some insurers will cover you to cancel your holiday if someone on your policy tests positive for Covid-19 before you’re due to depart. Some may also include cover if you are denied boarding by an airline as a result of having a suspected Covid-19 case. This type of cover will help to protect your finances as airport testing becomes the norm.”
Key tips — Flexible travel
This is Which? Travel’s guide to what to look for when searching out flexible booking policies…
If you live in one of England’s tier three lockdown areas you are advised against travel outside your area but this is not set in law, which has left holidaymakers struggling to get refunds, or even rebook holidays. The right policy will let you move holidays for free.
FCDO advice changes
Some tour operators have pledged not to send customers on holiday to destinations where the FCDO advises against travel and/or if they will be required to quarantine on their return to the UK.
Often once you’ve paid your deposit, you must keep paying instalments and eventually the balance of the holiday – even if it’s unlikely to go ahead. Look for policies that reduce the deposit amount and that allow you to hold the deposit as credit towards a new holiday, in case you later change your mind about travelling.
Search for holiday companies that looked after their customers and followed the law over refunds for cancelled holidays in recent months. There is little point booking with a company that has impressive promises if history shows it’s unlikely to keep them. Which? keeps a list of the companies you can trust.