Wednesday, 8 Jul 2020

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 FCO is warning against non-essential 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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Are there genuine bargains to be had, and what are the potential pitfalls? 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 – while recognising the amount of uncertainty about travel during the current year.

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.

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 they align with the desired booking trend – the expected rate of sales building up to 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 good deal 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).

Easter, which in 2021 is relatively early (4 April) and will therefore including the 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.

June-July to specific European cities because of the Euro 2020 football championships, postponed from this year.

Summer holidays: the real high-pressure, high-price time for families. Schools generally finish early in Scotland (late June), and in England and Wales independent schools break up in early July, to allow 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 real peak on the weekend of 31 July and 1 August. The final surge of the summer is the last week of summer, for homeward flights.

Conversely: if you are looking for travel such as 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 £250 return to Los Angeles, £399 for a quality skiing holiday including full board, lift pass and equipment, or a giveaway £99 package holiday.

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 cover 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, fares for the London-Geneva flight on 13 February for a week on British Airways are already astronomical – typically £800 return – but if you can bear to curtail your stay, travel out on Tuesday of that week and possibly miss a day of school on Monday, the rate comes down to £170 return. Bear in mind that BA has extremely generous cabin baggage allowances (46kg per person) so book before that changes.

Are there mainstream package holiday bargains for next summer already?

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 Holidays has put it on sale.

The Leeds-based tour operator, which is the UK’s second-largest after Tui, has put its summer offering on sale, but a series of test bookings made by The Independent reveals an apparent “base price” of around £600 for one-week trips based on two sharing. While this is a reasonable price, it is not sufficiently tempting compared with what should be available nearer the time.

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.

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?

Your money is at risk, or at least some of it. While tour operators may be prepared to negotiate if you want to postpone, the best way to get shot of an unwanted package holiday 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 – though this will be much easier if you have booked through a decent travel agent or direct with the company. Online travel agents often have very attractive prices, 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. If you are worried about the medical cover for coronavirus, check with the insurer if it is included.

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 with me nearer the time – and when the passport offices reopen.

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