Coronavirus: Should I book my 2021 holiday now and are there good deals?
The coronavirus pandemic has brought travel to a grinding halt, with entire fleets grounded.
The Foreign Office is warning against nonessential international travel “indefinitely”, while the lockdown in the UK has been extended to at least 7 May.
Yet despite this, many companies are selling flights, package holidays and cruises for 2021.
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But are there genuine bargains to be had? And what are the potential pitfalls? Would it be better to wait? And what are the travel insurance implications if Covid-19 affects your planned trip?
Here are the key questions and answers.
How can travel companies that are currently locked down possibly hope to persuade us to travel in 2021?
Because they hope to tap into what is undoubtedly an appetite for travel from frustrated holidaymakers. International leisure travel has effectively ceased as a result of the lockdown measures and an indefinite Foreign Office warning against going abroad.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said on 17 April: “I won’t be booking a summer holiday at this point, let’s put it that way.”
His lack of confidence about his own travel plans suggests that the government has in mind a significantly longer spell of restrictions on travel. With easyJet saying it has enough cash to survive a shutdown for nine months, attention is now switching to 2021.
While there is plenty of uncertainty about the amount of tourism that might be practicable during 2020, much of the travel industry is optimistic that next year could be good for holidays.
Holiday companies and airlines want to spur bookings for next year. Largely this is to bring in much-needed cash, but it also allows them to start calibrating sales and assess how these align with the desired booking trend – the expected rate of sales building up to a departure date.
Is it actually a good idea to help firms with their “recuperation planning”?
That all depends on the deal. If you can find a bargain for a flight, a package holiday or a cruise at a peak time, then now may be an excellent time to book.
Critical peak times are:
Christmas 2020 and New Year 2021, with departures on the weekend of 19–20 December and arrivals on 2 and 3 January particularly in demand.
February half-term (especially for ski holidays and packages to the Canary Islands). For many schools it is 13–21 February 2021.
Easter, which in 2021 is relatively early (4 April) and will therefore include opportunities for skiing.
May half-term, likely to be 22–30 May – popular with many families who are trying to dodge the high prices of the main summer holidays.
Euro 2020 football championships, postponed from this year to next, are taking place from 11 June to 11 July. Flights to the European city venues are likely to be in heavy demand and therefore expensive.
Summer holidays: the real high-pressure, high-price time for families. Schools generally finish early in Scotland (late June), while in England and Wales independent schools break up in early July, which allows parents to recoup some of the fees with cheaper holidays.
Most normal schools outside Scotland will break up on or just before Friday 23 July, with a particular peak on the weekend of 31 July and 1 August. The final surge of the summer is the last week of August, for homeward flights.
Conversely, if you are looking for long-haul flights between January and March, ski trips in term time and early May, or autumn beach holidays, then The Independent can see no particular benefit in booking early for these unless the prices are phenomenally low – eg a £250 return to Los Angeles, £399 for a quality skiing holiday including full board, lift pass and equipment, or a giveaway £99 package holiday.
However, there could be a good reason for committing to a British Airways off-peak flight. BA currently offers an extremely generous cabin baggage allowance of 46kg per person. This valuable concession may be lost as one of many changes made by airlines after the coronavirus pandemic. If you book now then the allowance will remain the same.
What sorts of deals are available?
Starting with flights, the best fares are for long-haul trips. Norwegian is offering a fare of just £280 return from Gatwick to New York JFK over Christmas and New Year, going out on 24 December and back on New Year’s Day.
While this does not include checked baggage, it is a remarkable fare and – if you can manage with cabin luggage only – is well worth considering. Better still, wrap it up with some accommodation in Manhattan to benefit from good hotel rates and, crucially, get package holiday protection in case anything happens to the airline between now and Christmas.
Your local travel agent may be able to oblige if they are working at the end of a phone, or consider a big firm such as Trailfinders, which has strong buying power for US accommodation.
What about ski deals?
For a family flying from Bristol, Inghams has an excellent deal (relatively speaking) to Saariselka in Finnish Lapland for a half-term week beginning on Sunday 14 February: £598 per person, staying in a three-room apartment. Half-board increases the cost by £150 per person, but as anyone who has been to Finland will know, the prices mean that this is a reasonably good deal for breakfast and dinner every night.
For the benchmark Gatwick-Geneva route on easyJet, flying out on Saturday 13 February for a week, fares as high as £612 return are currently on sale – but by flying out first thing on the Sunday morning each way the price drops by 70 per cent to just £196 return. (These are hand-baggage-only fares.)
Any mainstream package holiday bargains for next summer?
Looking at peak departures between 1 and 22 August, the blunt answer is no – unless you know exactly where you want to stay and Jet2 has put it on sale.
The Leeds-based tour operator, which is the UK’s second-largest after TUI, has laid out its summer offerings, but a series of test bookings made by The Independent reveals an apparent “base price” of around £600 for one-week holidays based on two sharing.
While this is a reasonable price for good-quality high-season packages, it is not sufficiently tempting compared with what may be available nearer the time.
Can I be sure the trip will go ahead?
You can’t. That is always the case with any travel booking, but especially so when no one knows when airlines and holiday companies will be able to restart operations. For example, some travel firms may fail as their cash runs dry.
But with any of the aforementioned deals, you are covered by either Atol rules for package holidays or “Section 75” cover if you pay with a credit card for flights. Your money is not at risk.
What happens if I change my mind?
While many travel firms are introducing flexible booking policies, these are time limited and will not necessarily apply to trips for 2021. For example, British Airways offers penalty-free changes for destinations and dates for new bookings made before 31 May 2020, but this applies only for departure dates up to 31 December 2020.
For most trips you risk losing some of your money, though some tour operators may be prepared to negotiate if you want to postpone.
To get shot of an unwanted package holiday you have decided you no longer want, a good solution is to transfer it to someone else; the Package Travel Regulations allow you to change names for a nominal fee.
Airlines are not so flexible, and the best you can hope for is the chance to rebook for a different date on the same route or a different one operated by the same airline – usually at considerable expense.
If the travel firm cancels, what are my options?
You can expect your money back in full – within two weeks of cancellation for package holidays, or within a week of the departure date for flights.
What if the airline or travel firm goes bust?
You can expect your money back in full. The Atol scheme protects package holidaymakers, while for flight-only deals you can claim through your credit card provider if you book direct with the airline.
Online travel agents often have very attractive prices and can offer some excellent airline combinations that are unavailable from other sources. But some have atrocious after-sales service.
What about big sporting events – should I take the risk?
If your trip is entirely contingent on a specific event, such as a big football match or a Grand Prix, then book with a specialist operator who supplies tickets as part of the package. If anything goes awry, you will get a full refund.
What sort of insurance should I take out – and when?
Any trip that you buy should be covered by insurance – so take it out at the time of purchase. Many policies exclude cover for coronavirus-related cancellations – though, as previously explained, refunds can be obtained from the travel firms.
Some policies may also exclude medical cover for coronavirus contracted (or becoming apparent) when abroad. Check with the insurer if it is included. Unfortunately, there is no certainty about whether the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) will continue to provide cover in 2021.
My passport is running out in 2021 – when should I renew, and how?
At this stage, you have to assume that the UK will leave the current arrangements with the European Union on 31 December 2020, at which point passport rules for all EU countries become much more complicated.
Check nearer the time – and be prepared to act swiftly when the passport offices reopen.
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