The shifting sands of travel restrictions

Plane being loaded at Verona Airport. Baggage handlers and staff.
Verona Airport. All photos copyright Valery Collins

Christmas and new year are traditionally times for planning summer holidays, but we’re living in a constantly changing situation. It is no longer a question of asking ‘Where do I want to go?’ – more a question of ‘Where can I go’? Even if the UK has put a country on their ‘travel corridor’ list (a misnomer if ever there was one) this does not mean you will be free from restrictions on arrival in that destination.

A good example of the complexities of travel during the coronavirus pandemic was my trip to Latvia, which was added to the UK travel corridor list on 28 July. I travelled to Latvia on 12 August, when there were no restrictions affecting arrivals from the UK. Two days after I arrived, Latvia imposed quarantine measures on all arrivals from the UK. The imposition of quarantine means holidays are no longer possible in the countries concerned. I was very fortunate as, had my departure date been two days later, I would have had to cancel, but as I was already in Latvia when they were introduced, my trip was not affected by the new restrictions. On 28 November, Latvia was taken off the UK travel corridor list. But what is a travel corridor? It is not, as the name suggests, freedom of movement between two countries without restriction.

Daugavpils in Latvia. Photo copyright Valery Collins

The UK Travel Corridor

When measures to facilitate leisure travel during the coronavirus pandemic were first discussed, the UK government attempted to set up true travel corridors. These would have been arrangements to allow restriction-free travel between the parties to those agreements – but no agreements were reached. So, in desperation, the government compiled a list of places where people arriving from the UK would not be required to go into self-isolation. This was good news, especially as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) non-essential travel ban would not apply to the destinations on the list.

However, restrictions at destination borders still apply. These vary from the requirement to self-isolate for 14 days, a signed health declaration, or proof of a negative Covid-19 test within two to three days of travel. Up to date information about current restrictions can be found on three websites:

  • The FCO website has all the information you need but it is not very easy to use.
  • Re-open EU is very useful for EU destinations.
  • The Timatic Database is a worldwide database created by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

FCO Non-Essential Travel Ban

This is the real sting in the tail. The FCO issues advice regarding travel from the UK to every country in the world. If the FCO advises against travel to a country, then anyone ignoring that advice will invalidate their travel insurance by going there. During the coronavirus pandemic we have seen a distinction between travel for holidays and travel for work. A non-essential travel ban will invalidate most holiday travel insurance policies. In this constantly changing situation many organisations in the travel industry have recognised the need to respond quickly. Some insurance companies are now offering cover for countries subject to an FCO non-essential travel ban, but these will probably be age related, excluding anyone over the age of 59.

Restrictions are being imposed by other organisations as well, most notably the airlines. They are trying to boost passenger confidence by introducing their own Covid-19 testing régimes and safeguards – relevant information can be found on the airlines’ own websites. This is always the first place I look when planning a trip. Read this well in advance of travel dates, in case the airline or destination requires proof of a negative Covid-19 test. Some airlines have a ‘no test, no flight’ policy. At present, all arrivals from a ‘red list’ country are currently required to quarantine. The government is proposing a testing system that will allow arrivals from a red list country to avoid 14 days of self-isolation. But an FCO ban on non-essential travel may apply despite testing régimes and could potentially affect the validity of your travel insurance.

Easyjet flight preparing to leave Riga. Photo copyright Valery Collins

Airline Covid19 Safeguards

Despite encouragement from IATA, there are no global protocols for Covid-19 safeguards. Safeguards are in place but have been introduced in a piecemeal way – airline by airline. The mandatory use of face masks in airports and on-board planes is widespread. Social distancing is less popular, as implementing it would make some flights unviable. Pre-flight testing is emerging as a favourite, but who pays? With some airport testing facilities charging more than £100 for a test, this could cost more than the flight. On the other hand, some airlines are offering free testing. Again, the airline websites are a good source of information. As they are competing to provide the safest travel experience, your favourite airline may no longer be your best option.

Travel Insurance

If you already have a multi-trip annual policy in place it is important to check you are covered for all matters relating to Covid-19. These range from cancellations due to you, or your travelling companions, testing positive for the virus, to treatment and needing repatriation because of contracting the virus while away. At the start of the pandemic some companies panicked and changed the terms of their policies to exclude any claims related to Covid-19. They have now had time to amend existing policies and include cover for Covid-19 in new policies. But it is important to check your policy carefully – for example, is there a limit on the amount you can claim? Is it only valid for state hospitals and not private facilities? Note, too, that the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) will no longer be valid for most UK citizens after 1 January 2021.

Photo of plane on runway, airbridge and baggage handlers
Check-in at Gatwick. Photo copyright Valery Collins

Voucher or a Refund if Your Holiday is Cancelled?

It is very important to check the policy of your provider should your trip be cancelled. Only one aspect of this situation is clear. If your provider cancels your trip, then you are entitled to a refund. This is the law. But, of course, this law was made before we found ourselves dealing with a pandemic.

This law is clear – the provider must be the one who cancels. If the customer cancels the trip, assuming the trip will be cancelled as travel restrictions have changed or are about to change, then the right to a refund is lost. However, waiting for the airline to cancel is not a guarantee – it has been reported that Ryanair has been flying empty planes rather than cancel a flight and refund its passengers. Ryanair claimed the outbound flights had to go ahead in order to bring back passengers who had travelled before the restrictions changed. Passengers losing their right to a refund in this way have to hope their travel insurance will be a source of compensation. Alternatively, if a booking has been made using a credit card, the card provider may be willing to help. Difficulties arise if the components of a trip have been booked separately. If the airline has cancelled a flight, the hotel may argue that the accommodation is still available so there is no reason for the hotel to cancel the booking, even though it is clear the guest cannot get there. So the guest is forced to cancel and will then have to rely on travel insurance for compensation.

Skiing in the Italian Dolomites. Photo copyright Valery Collins

It is a minefield, as I discovered when trying to get away for a skiing holiday in Italy. During the summer, I booked a flight with British Airways for early December. My hotel was booked through and I was careful to select one that allowed me free cancellation up to 24 hours before my arrival date. Just before England went into lockdown for the second time, British Airways cancelled my flight. I was offered a choice: re-book at no extra cost, a voucher for the full amount or a full refund. Ever the optimist, I booked a flight departing a week later than my original flight.

Although the government had promised we would come out of lockdown on 2 December there was now an element of doubt about this. Meanwhile my hotel in Italy contacted me to say their region was badly affected by the virus and it may be wiser to postpone my visit. No problem regarding the hotel. But what about my flight? I checked the British Airways website. As I have already amassed a few of their vouchers I really wanted a refund. I would lose the right to re-book or take a voucher if I did not inform them within 21 days of travel. I decided to wait and see if they cancelled the fight. They did, one day before my deadline. Of the three options I was offered, I have taken the full refund. I expected I would have to wait a long time before my refund was processed – patience is one thing I have learnt during the pandemic. In fact, I received my refund just six days after requesting it.

Hotel Lorenzetti in Italy. Photo copyright Valery Collins

Yes, I feel slightly guilty as I know some companies will face bankruptcy if all their customers demand refunds. By issuing vouchers or allowing customers to re-book without charge they are keeping the money within the company, which maintains their cash flow. Some companies are offering enhanced value vouchers, for example adding 10 per cent on the value of a voucher. This makes vouchers a more attractive option. Flexible re-booking is also an attractive option as, in theory, the customer has nothing to lose. In practice, if a company does go into liquidation the customer becomes a creditor and there is no guarantee they will receive any money. So, travellers should ensure their tour operator is registered with the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) or Air Travel Organiser’s Licensing (ATOL). ABTA registration protects holidays that do not include flights whereas ATOL protects holidays that do include flights.

Travelling on Land or Water

Ferry in Montengro. Photo copyright Valery Collins

If you choose to travel by boat, train or car, border restrictions will still apply, but you will have the added complication of checking restrictions in any countries you may be passing through. In conclusion – do plan a holiday, but do your research before booking, use companies with a good reputation and always read the small print.