What if Covid-19 spoils my holiday? Key questions answered, from cancellations to local lockdowns

Life for travellers looks as though it is going to be very bleak this winter. 

Three months after we were given the all clear to go abroad again, non-essential travel will be prohibited in England From 00:01 on November 5. In Wales, all leisure travel is banned; while in Scotland and Northern Ireland it is ‘advised against’.

Should you manage to get away this winter, even on home turf, make sure you’re up-to-date on the key questions:

I live in England, and will be on a staycation in England when the second lockdown begins. Should I hurry home?

You may wish to, but there’s no imperative to, says the Government. It advises: “Those currently on a domestic holiday will be allowed to finish their holidays, but are still subject to the requirements in England not to go out without a reasonable excuse.”

This may benefit those that are booked into a self-catering property, but you must also comply with the wider lockdown rules while away from home. So, non-essential travel from your staycation rental (such as day trips) will be prohibited.

I live in England, but I’m on holiday overseas. Do I have to return home before the second lockdown begins?

No – the Government has issued clear advice on this too. It says: “British nationals currently abroad do not need to return home immediately. However, you should check with your airline or travel operator on arrangements for returning.”

So, there’s no imperative to rush home before Thursday, unless your travel company tells you to. Contact them for guidance on this.

I live in Scotland and have booked a holiday. What happens if quarantine is imposed on a country while I’m out there?

In Scotland, international travel is advised against – but is not banned outright in some areas. So, in some cases, you may still be able to travel.

If quarantine restrictions and Foreign Office (FCDO) advice against travel are imposed for a specific country after you arrive on holiday there, your insurance policy should still be valid for the duration of your stay, even it is extended (although you won’t be covered if you depart after the FCDO has advised against travel there.) If such restrictions are imposed suddenly, contact your tour operator or airline to check that your return flight is going ahead as planned.

What if there is a resurgence or a lockdown in the destination I have booked?

This is becoming a more significant concern with many countries now trying to tackle outbreaks on a more localised level. However, how it affects your holiday plans depends on how serious these resurgences turn out to be and whether they result in a full lockdown or simply some enhanced distancing measures. Even in cases where serious restrictions are suddenly introduced, holidaymakers have been allowed to leave the area, rather than be forced to stay for the duration.

For those who have yet to travel, local lockdown would result in a tour operator cancelling holidays to that destination and they would be legally obliged to offer a refund. However, airlines might not cancel flights – because one airport might serve an area which is bigger than the lockdown region. Therefore, independent travellers who have booked their own flights and accommodation arrangements will generally be more vulnerable to this sort of unpredictable event than those who have booked packages. They risk not getting a refund for their airfare and possibly a battle to get their money back for any unused accommodation.

What happens if my flight is cancelled at short notice? 

Your rights if your flight is cancelled at short notice depend on how you booked your holiday. Those on package holidays with tour operators such as Tui, are legally entitled to a full refund of the holiday cost – though they may also be offered the alternative of a deferral, a credit voucher or a different destination. But, as set out above, if you booked your flights and accommodation separately, you will only be entitled to a refund of the airfare. You will have to pursue a refund directly with the hotel or the villa company you made the booking with.

What if I am exposed to Covid-19 while I’m in a destination? 

This is potentially quite a complex issue. If someone in your hotel or villa is diagnosed with the virus then you may either be held in quarantine or told to self-isolate – it would depend on the country and the local policy. If you were booked with a tour operator, you should be able to argue that, under its duty of care, it must at least arrange accommodation and a return flight home – though there may well be an argument about who is liable to pay the costs. Few travel insurance policies (see below) are likely to cover this. 

What if an airline refuses to fly me home?

Some airlines and airports are screening passengers for high temperatures. The problem here is that it is a crude measure. You could have a temperature, yet not have Covid-19. Either way, you would have to find some way of getting a more accurate test done locally and arrange to stay in the destination as long as necessary to recover.

So – as with the quarantine problem above – who would pay your accommodation costs or your flight home? It’s a grey and untested area. Some insurance policies might cover you, although very few of those bought recently (see below).

The situation for those on package holidays with tour operators would be similar to above – they would be duty bound to look after you and get you home but there is no clarity about who is liable for the cost of this. If you were an independent traveller, you’d have to make these arrangements yourself. 

What if a new lockdown or travel restrictions are introduced in my part of the UK?

You may have a holiday booked, but be unable to travel because of a new local (or even national) lockdown in response to a fresh outbreak of the virus. Or the Government might reimpose more general restrictions on travelling. Tour operators will normally cancel holidays in such cases and you should get a refund. But there may be complications.

Some companies are introducing more flexibility in their bookings to help give more confidence to potential customers. BA Holidays, for example, says that if you book before October 13 for travel anytime up to August 31, 2021 you can amend your holiday for free or cancel it and exchange for a voucher that can be used up until April 30, 2022. And Audley Travel says customers can rearrange their trip without any cost, up to 45 days before they are due to depart, if you book by December 31, 2020 and travel by December 31, 2022.

What about ‘track and trace’ restrictions?

This is a very thorny issue. Which? has pointed out that customers of major holiday firms could be left out of pocket by thousands of pounds if they are told not to travel by the NHS ‘test and track’ service. It asked 23 airlines and holiday providers if customers who have holidays booked but are then told to self-isolate by the NHS coronavirus tracking system would be allowed to reschedule. Only 10 said they would allow customers who were told to self-isolate to rebook. These are: Air France / KLM, British Airways, Emirates, Explore, Jet2 and Jet2 Holidays, Riviera, Tui, Ryanair, Saga and Virgin Atlantic.

Will my insurance cover Covid-19?

It depends on the policy (they vary widely) and when you bought it. There are two areas to focus on. Will it cover you if your holiday is cancelled or if you can’t travel because of Covid-19, and will it cover your medical costs if you fall ill with Covid-19 while travelling?

If you bought your insurance before mid March then it may well still cover cancellations. Many policies issued after that nearly all have an exclusion for Covid-19 and other pandemics though Trailfinders has launched one which does offer this cover. Some other insurers are now covering emergency medical treatment if you fall ill with Covid-19 while abroad. Meanwhile tour operators are also responding to the problem: Tui offers cover to all customers until at least the end of the year for hotel and flight costs should an infected traveller be forced to self-isolate abroad, medical expenses related to the virus and the cost of testing in suspected cases. Similar policies have been launched by Jet2holidays and Hays Travel, as well as UK travel trade association Abta. Only a tiny handful of policies cover travel to a destination which the FCDO advises against. Before either booking or travelling, it is wise to check through any policy with extra care to be sure you know what it covers.

What if I get ill abroad and don’t have insurance?

Until the end of the year, when the transition period ends, UK citizens who fall ill in an EU country are entitled to free or low-cost treatment under the local health system – if you have an EHIC card. It now looks doubtful that the scheme will be extended after Brexit. Outside the EU, you will have to pay for your own treatment. You will also have to pay the costs of repatriation if anything goes wrong.

My holiday is on, but I really don’t want to go. What can I do?

I’ve had a lot of queries from readers about this. Essentially, there is nothing much you can do. If you cancel simply because you don’t want to travel, then legally the operator or airline is entitled to levy the cancellation penalty. With flights, this is normally the full fare less the departure taxes (unless you booked a flexible ticket); with package holidays, it depends on how far in advance you cancel. The best companies will want to keep your custom, so will do their best to accommodate you if they can, but they are hard pressed at the moment, so don’t bank on it.

My hotel was closed and I was sent to another one 

Your operator should have informed you in advance about a change like this, and you should have been offered a hotel or apartment of comparable or higher standard. If you feel you have been fobbed off with something worse, you may have a case for compensation.

If there is no resolution after a reasonable exchange of letters, consider using the dispute settlement services provided by Abta (abta.co.uk) or Aito (aito.co.uk) Alternatively, resort to the Small Claims Courts (hmcourts-service.gov.uk).

My holiday was disappointing, can I claim compensation?

Normally speaking, it is possible to claim compensation from a tour operator if a key part of the holiday, as promised in the brochure or website, does not happen or does not live up to expectations. In some cases, you may still be able to do this – as with a change of hotel, above. But the current situation is so unusual that there are no legal precedents.

So, it you arrive in your destination and find, for example, that the choice of restaurants, bars and so forth is limited, you have to wear a mask by the pool and the general atmosphere is not what you had hoped for, then you probably won’t have much of a case. That sort of general disappointment is hard to prove and evaluate from a legal point of view. In the end, this is a worldwide emergency and we all need to make the best of things. If you had a very negative experience, however, there is more advice on holiday complaints here.

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