Can the bizarre UK testing rules survive for long? Can you swerve US and Norwegian travel bans on Brits? And why are cruises from Liverpool pricier than those from Southampton?
The travel correspondent of The Independent is normally to be found in the fashionable Bibliotekstan district of Stockholm, sharing memories and a glass of Arctic akvavit with assorted members of Abba.
But as the musicians talked wistfully about Our Last Summer, he slipped away to tackle your pressing questions for an hour. These are the greatest hits.
Q: Do you think the day two test for green list countries will still be in play over the next few months? I am waiting to book my test until the last minute when we go in October in case it is not needed and would have been wasted money.
A: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to warn people not even to think about booking the so-called “day two” test until the night before departure back to the UK. There is no upside in booking it earlier, just a potential downside.
The testing requirements for the UK are frankly ludicrous. I can see some merit in a pre-departure test – so long as it is professionally conducted – but to insist on an expensive and onerous PCR test after arrival in the UK, even for fully vaccinated travellers from low risk countries, looks unsustainably bizarre. It is also helping to destroy the inbound travel industry.
Sooner or later, government ministers will notice – perhaps starting with the Treasury wondering where all the tax revenues from the travel industry have gone. At that point the testing regime will be taken down several notches. But who knows when that might be?
The ridiculous testing rules cannot (I hope) get any sillier, which means that there is always a chance the requirement will be dropped before you are due to travel home.
And the “day two” test can be taken on the day of arrival in the UK or either of the two following days.
Q: I am traveling to Spain for six days later this month. I know I have to book a PCR test for after my return to the UK from Spain. But do I need to book a pre-departure lateral test to get on the plane from Spain before I leave the UK, or am I safe to find a test when in Malaga area?
A: Please do not take a lateral flow test with you to Spain. It is far easier and more responsible to buy a test locally, typically for around €30 (£25). You must take the test either on the day of departure to the UK or one of the preceding three days. If you are in a busy tourist area, I think you will be hard pressed to avoid countless invitations to take your test to fly. And just in case this doesn’t happen, there is a testing station at Malaga airport that charges only €25.
Q: Is it definitely okay to do a self-administered test in Spain to fly home? I want to take a paid one with me to avoid the stress of finding a clinic, as there are not many in the area I’m travelling to.
A: Bizarrely, given the scope for abuse and fraud, it is legal to take a private self-administered test in Spain – one that you have paid for, rather than an NHS lateral flow device. But in terms of effectiveness, a professionally administered test is best.
Every Spanish airport that has flights to the UK also has at least one testing centre, with prices at around €30.
Q: I am heading to Lisbon for the weekend. Can I take a lateral flow in the UK on the Thursday for entry to Portugal on Friday, and will the same test be ok for re-entry to UK on the Sunday?
A: Yes. This is one of the few occasions when the truly inexplicable UK testing rules can work to your advantage. The test to fly back to the UK can be taken on Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Since Portugal requires a negative test result to enter, then happily the same certificate will apply for both outbound and inbound journeys.
Q: When will pre-departure tests to get back into the UK be scrapped? Any ideas? This is the main thing making me reluctant to travel abroad. I can’t afford the extra time or cost in the event of a positive. I’m double jabbed.
A: No idea. I am afraid testing positive abroad is a risk that every traveller must take. If the consequences of this happening are too extreme for your personal circumstances, then you simply shouldn’t be travelling abroad – unless you go to Ireland, from where neither testing nor quarantine is required.
Some people in the travel industry accuse the government of deliberately stirring up uncertainty with such measures, in order to dampen demand for overseas holidays.
Q: I have a four-day trip to Iceland planned for October, for the test before we return home. Is it OK to take and use one of the lateral flow tests I get in a box from NHS via my employer?
A: No. You will need to take a private test in Iceland. The only time that NHS test can be used for travel is within the UK: either between the Scottish mainland and islands, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. These tests are voluntary, but recommended by the governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively.
Q: I am one of the five million that had the Indian-made AstraZeneca. I am desperate to visit Italy to see family but don’t have enough time to factor in five days’ quarantine.
A: Sorry to hear of your concerns. I am glad to say I have heard no cases whatsoever in which people with the AstraZeneca Indian made vaccine have encountered problems going into Italy.
Red list alerts
Q: I’m due to have a family holiday in Turkey on 20 October and am now extremely worried that we won’t make it, especially as their cases seem to be increasing slightly. A further complication, is that I have to pay for my accommodation before the end of the month, so can’t wait for the review at beginning of October. I thought it would be upgraded on the last review but sadly not. How likely is it that Turkey will go amber on the next review please?
A: I think it is more likely than not that your trip will go ahead, because the red list rating for Turkey looks increasingly unsustainable. I am confused about why you would need to pay for accommodation? Even though it is half term, I cannot see any way that hotels would sell out. So rationally you can cancel (or simply not pay for) the accommodation, and wait to see what the UK government does. There are at least two more reviews (15/16 September and 6/7 October) to go before your trip.
Q: Currently there are no direct flights to Turkey. If it were to go to amber do you foresee the airlines putting on flights at short notice ? many thanks
A: I’m confused by your assertion that there are no direct flights to Turkey, because right now on the Heathrow website I see that Turkish Airlines flight TK1986 is preparing for an on-time departure from Gate B43 at Terminal 2 in 17 minutes.
Certainly there are very few flights to coastal/holiday airports; more may well be announced if Turkey goes amber.
Q: Booked for my 40th birthday In the Maldives, scheduled departure on 21 September. What are my chances of getting my birthday wish?
A: Pretty high. It is difficult to understand the governments reasoning for keeping the Maldives on the red list, but that does not necessarily mean that it will be moved to amber I’m afraid.
Q: I have a Ryanair flight booking in a couple of weeks, flying Liverpool to Corfu. When I’ve gone to check in online there is a note about travelling on a non-EU document and needing print my boarding pass and to go through their visa-check process before security.
Elsewhere it says I can still use a mobile boarding pass. This seems contradictory, do I need to go through the visa-check process?
A: Standard procedure on Ryanair and many other airlines at present is that your documents must be checked landside – ie in the check in area – so that staff can make sure that you are properly documented to go to Greece.
In this case you must show you have completed a passenger locator form for Greece (by 10pm UK time, the night before travel) and, if you wish to avoid testing or quarantine, proving that you have been fully vaccinated.
Q: Due to travel to Greece on 11 September for a week and so will be there at the next review. What are the chances Greece will stay amber?
If the worst happened and we tested positive before returning to the U.K., would we have to quarantine in Greece?
A: I don’t think there’s much chance of Greece going green, though perhaps one or two islands might do. I believe there is almost zero prospect of it going red.
Greece is one of the better organised countries in which to find yourself in the tender mercies of the health authorities. The country will provide a hotel room and meals while you isolate, at no charge to you. Airlines are generally extremely flexible for people who test positive and will allow you to move flights.
The main problem is the test before departure to the UK. The NHS recommends that people who have recently recovered from Covid take a lateral flow test for this purpose, because it is less sensitive than a PCR test. Unfortunately, you are going to have to have a PCR test after arrival in the UK, which may show a threat where none exists – and oblige you to self-isolate for a further 10 days.
The government has yet to address this weird situation.
North American ambitions
Q: I’m due to fly to Canada on Tuesday, the day the borders are supposed to open. It’s still listed as a tentative opening date on the canada gov site. What do you think the chances of it not opening are? And also, and advice on the 14 day quarantine plan you have to submit as we’re only there for 10 days and staying with friends.
A: The closer we get to 7 September, the more likely it is that Canada’s plan to reopen to vaccinated travellers from around the world will go ahead as planned.
The Foreign Office website: “Fully vaccinated travellers who are eligible to enter Canada are no longer required to quarantine on arrival.” So you should escape the need to self-isolate.
Q: I am due to fly to Chicago with BA in October to run the Chicago marathon. Currently we are on the banned list from the UK to the States. Will British Airways give a refund on this as they will be unable to fly me as a leisure traveller?
A: This takes me back to early 2020, when many British runners were booked to Tokyo for the marathon in the Japanese capital. If you have paid British Airways for a flight, and that departure goes ahead, then the Airline will generously allow you to cancel any time up to the close of check-in, in exchange for a voucher for future flights. But a cash refund is applicable only if the specific flight is cancelled.
Q: Any idea when America is going to open up? Virgin have just cancelled my flights in October.
A: The US is in no hurry whatsoever to reopen to Europeans and some other nationalities. The Americans need us less than we need them.
We are just coming up to the three-month anniversary of the transatlantic travel taskforce being set up. A Department for Transport spokesperson told me: “We fully recognise the value of transatlantic routes, which is why fully vaccinated passengers from the US no longer have to quarantine on arrival into the UK.
“As set out in the Global Travel Taskforce, we continue to engage with international partners, including the US, to explore how we can open international travel safely.”
I then asked again, specifically about the transatlantic travel taskforce, and was given the same response.
Q: We have a holiday booked in Florida for mid-December. What do you think the odds are on us being able to go?
A: Around 80:20 in favour, but please be warned that I have been hopelessly overoptimistic about the US opening up in the past.
Q: Any idea about UK-US travel corridor? We have a villa and flights booked for a wedding and should be leaving on 10 December. But we need to change by with weeks before or risk losing the money for the villa.
A: Delighted to hear about your plans – but if you are returning before about 20 December, there is no point pre-booking a villa, especially since we may not be allowed to visit the US. I can guarantee there will be plenty of availability during the pre-Christmas low season.
Q: MSC’s Virtuosa has been doing round-Britain cruises this summer. I have observed that there is a choice of boarding (and disembarking) at Southampton or Liverpool. In my experience, it costs around £200 more to book from Liverpool, for presumably exactly the same product. For those of us in the northwest it’s actually cheaper to travel to Southampton and sail from there. Do you have any idea why the same holiday would cost more from Liverpool?
A: It may be that the port costs for MSC are different, for example because of a “bulk discount” at Southampton for a large number of departures. But I believe the real reason can be summed up in one word: competition. There is an abundance of rivalry between cruise lines at Southampton, which generally has more departures than all other UK ports combined.
Today and over the weekend, there are four sailings on three different lines. Add in additional departures from Portsmouth (just down the road from Southampton), Dover and Tilbury, and it is clear that the south/southeast of England is a lot more competitive than Liverpool – which has no sailings until Tuesday next week.
Effectively, prospective cruisers like you in Merseyside and the wider area are being asked to pay a premium for a local embarkation. Of course it is entirely up to you either to accept the price quoted or to choose to make the four-hour-plus journey by road or rail to Hampshire.
A more economical option, though, could simply be to wait until the last few days before departure. I sailed aboard MSC’s Virtuosa on her first cruise this summer (a four-day adventure from Southampton) and paid over £800 for the privilege. I regarded that as good value for money. But I met people on board who had booked three days ahead and paid only £300.
While I have not previously encountered such sharp drops in price (the biggest in my experience has been around a 50 per cent discount), it is entirely possible that there may be large cuts prior to Liverpool departure. One reason: there is a smaller catchment area than Southampton.
Q: Is it reasonably safe from a cancellation/disruption perspective to book a week’s British Airways holiday (flight plus hotel) in Crete for 2 October?
A: I would have no problem booking such a trip for early October. But because of the utterly unpredictable and arbitrary nature of government decisions on travel, I would prefer not to commit until 1 October.
Q: Antigua are insisting on double vaccinated visitors only after 1 October. Children are not mentioned. Do you think this means no family holidays there?
A: Generally tourism-dependent nations are relatively lenient towards unvaccinated youngsters: if their parents have been jabbed, they are allowed in (possibly with testing).
Q: I have booked flights to Porto for next weekend as a birthday surprise for my partner. I have just found out about the new passport rules after Brexit. His passport is over 10 years old (although it only expires in Feburary).
We travelled from Barcelona last week and he had no problems, but I am wondering whether I should cancel the trip. Are there any ways of getting a passport renewed express?
A: Under European rules that apply since the UK decided to leave the EU, a passport must be issued less than 10 year ago. So this will not work.
If it is a straightforward renewal, then a same-day service is expensive but achievable. That is what I would recommend.
Regarding your arrival last week: coming into the UK from the EU, your passport is valid up to and including the date of expiry, so a trip from Barcelona sounds perfectly normal. But if you had gone out there a couple of days previously, then I suggest you have been extremely fortunate.
Q: I’m a desperate grandma who wants to visit my 22-month-old grandson in Stockholm after a year. But Sweden has extended its travel ban on arrivals from the UK until 31 October. Any idea if they will lift it then? Can I fly to Denmark and then on to Sweden to get round the ban?
A: Because of the high and sustained Covid infection rates in UK, many countries impose severe restrictions on British travellers. However these almost all apply to direct arrivals. Going via a third country is often a good solution. As I have mentioned before, Mexico is being used as a “back door” to the US by British visitors, who stay south of the border for two weeks to “launder” their UK status.
Anyone seeking to travel via a third country must, of course, ensure that the intermediate nation is happy to welcome them. In addition, the final destination may well have special requirements for people who have recently been in the high-risk UK.
Assuming you have been vaccinated, the omens for Sweden look good, though. Denmark admits fully jabbed arrivals from the UK. The Foreign Office travel advice says: “Fully vaccinated UK residents or those previously infected with Covid-19 can enter Denmark for all purposes, without the need to test or self-isolate.”
Next, the Swedish police say: “Sweden will always apply entry regulations according to the last country you enter from, even if this is only a transit country.
“No entry ban or negative covid test is required when travelling directly from another Nordic country.”
Remarkably, that means you could fly into Copenhagen, be legally admitted into Denmark – and go straight to the airport’s railway station for the train to Stockholm (change at Malmo and Lund, total journey five hours, 22 minutes.
At the end of the trip you will be able to fly straight back from the Swedish capital to the UK, but you face a lot of red tape: a pre-departure lateral flow test, a pre-booked post-arrival PCR test and completed passenger locator form.
You will be able to fly straight back from the Swedish capital to the UK, but you face a lot of red tape: a pre-departure lateral flow test, a pre-booked post-arrival PCR test and completed passenger locator form.
Q: I am trying to find a way of visiting my 82-year-old sister who has dementia. I have a valid Esta but am finding it very hard to get a response to my request for a waiver from the presidential proclamation on Covid on compassionate grounds.
I notice Canada is opening up on 7 September. Is it easier to enter the USA from there?
I’m afraid that if I wait any longer my sister will not remember me.
A: I am sorry to hear of these sad circumstances. Laundering your UK status in Mexico (staying there for two weeks) is a relatively cheap and effective way around the US rules. Canada could also be a possibility from next week.
But have you asked your MP to lobby on your behalf with the American embassy? When compassion is part of the picture, an MP’s intervention can often help.
Q: We flew to Madeira with Wizz Air in July. Our afternoon flight was postponed to the following day an hour before departure. We were put up in a hotel overnight by Wizzair and flown out the following afternoon. We lost a day of our holiday. Are we entitled to compensation? I submitted a claim but Wizzair refused it, claiming the flight was only delayed for three hours (bizarre). I can’t call anyone and they’ve only given me a link to a Hungarian website to escalate it further. What can I do? Would appreciate your advice. It was a stressful experience all round.
A: Sorry to hear about your experience. Unless the airline can demonstrate that extraordinary circumstances led to the delay in your flight, then it must pay you £350 in compensation. But Madeira has an infamously tricky airport location, with many weather-related cancellations and diversions. If this was the cause, then there is no payment due.
J Flower then wrote: “It wasn’t because of the weather, it was because they didn’t have a pilot. If it was due to poor weather I would’ve accepted it, safety first.”
A: In that case I suggest you write a Letter Before Action to Wizz Air’s Luton airport offices, and follow that up through Money Claim Online if you are not satisfied.