Go on holiday. Don’t go on holiday...
The Department for Transport’s traffic light system for foreign travel has caused confusion and chaos for holidaymakers, with many unsure if their trip is even allowed to go ahead.
Government ministers have asked the public not to travel to amber listed countries for leisure purposes (i.e. a holiday). Instead, they say travel to these countries should only be for essential or unavoidable reasons, such as work, needing to attend a funeral or caring for a family member abroad.
However, the government’s traffic light system is guidance, rather than law, meaning many travel operators are still offering trips to amber-listed countries across Europe.
Adding further confusion is the fact that the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has lifted its ban on “all but essential travel” to some amber destinations, including Malta, Crete, Corfu, Rhodes, Zante, Kos and the Canary Islands.
The mixed messages have led to reports of some tour operators refusing to postpone or refund bookings. Members of the public impacted include those who’ve already had bookings moved from summer 2020 to summer 2021 – and now just want to cancel altogether.
So, what should you do if you’ve got an amber destination holiday booked?
Should you cancel or postpone your trip?
The short answer is, you’re not going to get fined for travelling to an amber country as the rules are guidance and not law. However, from an ethical standpoint you might decide it’s best to move your trip and follow the government advice. Faced with expensive PCR tests and a home quarantine when you return, you might also decide it’s no longer worth it.
Ultimately, it’s a personal choice – but the different messaging from the FCDO and the Department of Transport isn’t making it particularly easy.
“The two departments look at different things – the FCDO is looking at the risk to you when you are away from the UK and the Department for Transport is looking at the risk from you returning to the UK from a country,” explains Emma Coulthurst, a travel expert at the comparison site TravelSupermarket.
“However, since these decisions are likely to have been based 100% on Covid risk, some alignment would be very welcome. If these destinations (the Canary Islands, Crete, Corfu, Rhodes, Zante, Kos and Malta) are safe enough to travel to according to the FCDO due to low Covid risk, surely they are also safe to return from? Especially with the stringent testing in place on return to the UK from green and amber list countries.”
Another thing to consider when deciding whether to cancel, postpone or keep your trip is travel insurance. If you were to go to the Canary Islands, Crete, Corfu, Rhodes, Zante, Kos or Malta on holiday, your normal travel insurance will cover you as insurers follow FCDO advice, says Coulthurst. However, getting insurance for other amber destinations, such as France or Spain, will be trickier.
What are your rights with a package holiday?
Whatever holiday type you’ve booked, your rights are determined by the FCDO advice, rather than any interview comments made by a government minister, explains Coulthurst. However, the process for cancelling/postponing will differ if you’ve booked a package deal or an independent break.
A package holiday provides the best consumer protections under the ATOL scheme and the Package Travel Regulations.
“If the country where you have a package holiday booked to is on the Department for Transport’s amber list, if the FCDO advice is that you shouldn’t travel to that destination [e.g. France or Spain] then the package holiday provider should cancel the holiday and you will be entitled to a refund within 14 days, or you can switch your holiday to a green destination or an amber destination which the FCDO is advising you can travel to for a holiday,” says Coulthurst.
“However, If your package holiday is to one of those amber destinations which the FCDO is advising you can travel to for holidays – Malta, Crete, Corfu, Rhodes, Zante, Kos and the Canaries – the tour operator may be running the holiday and leaving it up to holidaymakers to decide whether they want to go.”
If holidaymakers are booked to one of the FCDO-permitted amber destinations listed above – but they no longer want to travel – they would be subject to the holiday provider’s terms and conditions.
“Due to travel having been so uncertain, most holiday providers are providing very flexible booking terms,” says Coulthurst.
“It is likely that you will be able to swap your holiday to a green destination if you want to or rebook for a different date in the hope that the destination will then be on the green list. You’ll need to speak to your holiday provider and find out the parameters of what you can do and when you need to do it by.”
What are your rights with an independent holiday?
It is a different picture if you have booked your flight and accommodation separately and not as a package.
“Be aware that if you do choose to book your flight separately, you will be governed by the airline’s terms and conditions. So, even if the FCDO is advising against holidays to your destination, the flight might still go (its argument would be that it is allowing people to make essential journeys),” says Coulthurst.
“Each airline has its own policies on this. Some will allow you to take a voucher to spend at another time. Be aware that a voucher is not covered by ATOL if your airline was to cease trading (you would need end supplier failure cover in your insurance to cover this).
“Some airlines won’t give you a voucher but will allow you to change your flight and pay the fare difference, but you often have to do this within a certain time frame if you are to avoid change fees.”
What if you have a voucher from 2020?
Many holidaymakers may still be dealing with vouchers or postponed trips from 2020 to countries that are now on the amber list. If you have a postponed trip to a country that’s on the amber list and is not permitted by the FCDO – such as Spain or mainland Greece – your rights remain the same as if this was a newly booked trip.
“If you have a package holiday to the Costa del Sol or Halkidiki, for example, these will be cancelled if the rules stay the same,” says Coulthurst. “You are likely to hear from the company within two weeks of the holiday taking place.”
If your postponed holiday is permitted by the FCDO – such as Crete – but you don’t want to go, you should speak to the holiday company about their terms and conditions and see if you can move it to another date or a green list destination, such as the Algarve or Madeira.
“If you have a refund credit note, you need to look at the date on that. ATOL protection for refund credit notes is currently until 30 September,” adds Coulthurst. “This means that if anything was to happen to the holiday company, your money is protected. A refund credit note can be used by you to rebook your holiday or can be cashed in for a full refund (which the legal requirement is that you receive within 14 days).”
And the golden rule to avoid losing money?
“Never cancel a holiday yourself,” says Coulthurst. “If you cancel, you risk losing your money. You have to wait for the holiday company to cancel. Your alternative, if it isn’t cancelled by them, is to move your holiday to a different date.”