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18 burning travel questions answered by Simon Calder

18 burning travel questions answered by Simon Calder
‘In travel, there are never any absolute certainties’

Travel chaos could well be in the works as airline employees cook up plans to go on strike during the peak summer holiday season.

The Independent travel correspondent Simon Calder was on hand to answer questions on Thursday during his weekly ‘Ask Me Anything’.

Flights, Brexi, vaccines and cruises were just some of the topics that came up when readers asked questions during an hour-long session.

Here are 18 questions asked by readers and answered by Simon.

Flight cancellations

Spørsmål: Regarding the flights that were cancelled this morning at Heathrow: Any idea if there is a risk of this happening again over the next week? And if so, would it be likely the same flights or is there just no way of knowing?

EN: I think it is very likely that ad hoc cancellation instructions will be imposed on some other days this year. But while early flights to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin are prime candidates, I would book any of them on the grounds that it is almost certain to go ahead – and that there will be many other options if for some reason they are selected for grounding.

Spørsmål: I was caught up in BA’s IT error in March, trying to fly from LHR to Geneva. My initial flight was cancelled and then rebooked for the next day on BA. At the airport, I booked a flight to Lyon, which got cancelled 30 minutes before it was due to take off. Overnight I was told the rescheduled flight was cancelled and not given an alternative booking. I bought a ticket on Swiss Air, but BA are refusing to refund me for the price of the ticket. I have used their complaint system, they have given me a final decision to not give a refund. What shall I do? Go to the airline dispute authority?

EN: In your case, write a letter before action, and follow it up with money claim online if necessary.

Spørsmål: Is there a minimum notice that needs to be given for cancellations or could I still find out when I get to the airport? Bristol and easyJet particularly.

EN: Everyone loathes last minute cancellations, but sadly they are a feature of life and may well continue. The idea of wholesale advance cancellations is to minimise the number of “at the gate” groundings.

Spørsmål: If airlines and holiday companies are still selling seats and holidays for August does that mean that they will be definitely going ahead?

EN: In travel, there are never any absolute certainties. However I would happily book any available airline seat or package holiday for August, knowing that I have excellent consumer protection on my side. If for some reason the flight is grounded, the airline must find me an alternative departure. Should a package holiday not go ahead, the law insists on a full refund within two weeks.

Spørsmål: If an airline cancels my flight and, by law, has to try and get me on another flight to the same destination on the same day, can I book the alternative flight direct, pay for it and then send the invoice to the airline that cancelled my original flight? Or do I have to try and contact the original airline to make the new booking for me?

EN: The rules are clear. Last week the Civil Aviation Authority and Department for Transport (DfT) wrote to airlines reminding them of the law: “We expect that when there are unavoidable cancellations, delays and denied boarding cases that passengers are promptly, clearly and empathetically communicated with … If airlines cannot re-route passengers on their own services or partner airlines on the same day they should identify re-routing options on alternative airlines.”

Re-routing is an unhelpful word here, because ideally you will be put on exactly the same route. Between London Gatwick and Malaga, for eksempel, if easyJet cancels your flight and has none other left on the day, then it should be able to book you on Wizz Air or British Airways on the same route.

Når det er sagt, all the evidence I have is that airlines are simply not fulfilling their obligations. You have to give the cancelling carrier every opportunity to book you a flight, but if they simply say you can travel on its own services in a day or more then you can safely go ahead and book with the lowest cost option for getting you to your destination as soon as possible.

Vaccine status

Spørsmål: In short: my wife, daughter and I completed the required validation to fly requirement by KLM (Covid test) and received our accepted ‘validated to fly’ email/form by KLM on the same day as we were to fly. At the desk in Edinburgh we were then told we couldn’t fly that day as our tests did not have a QR code (this was never required by KLM on their website or the validation form or by the country we were visiting). This then required us buying three next day tests with QR codes to enable us to fly the next day. The next day transiting though Schipol we were told we did not need a QR code!.I have been seeking compensation for the three unnecessary tests for 10 months now (as we were already validated to fly by KLM on the same day as refused to fly) but my claim is apparently live but nothing has happened.

EN: The most effective way to extract your cash will be to take legal action, but unfortunately Brexit means that is a more complicated process. You might wish to begin proceedings against KLM’s UK office.

Spørsmål: I’m travelling via Stenna Line car ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland then driving straight through to France not making any scheduled stops in Holland. My vaccine status is not up to date. Am I allowed to firstly board the ferry and then travel through Holland?

EN: I think this looks very tricky. The Foreign Office says: “If you’re not fully vaccinated or a legal resident of the Netherlands, you are only allowed to enter the Netherlands from the UK if you meet the requirements of an exemption category” – and take it from me you will not do this. I’m interested in your vaccination status – if you have had a booster, it has no time limit. If you have had only an initial course, the limit is 270 dager (nine months).

Spørsmål: We’re travelling to Portugal in August, forhåpentligvis! Våre 13 year old daughter is double-jabbed, but it will be more than the 270 days since her last jab. She’s not eligible for a booster. Will she need to test before entering the country?

EN: She will need a rapid lateral flow test (taken no more than 24 hours before boarding) or valid evidence of recent recovery from Covid-19 – unless you are going to Madeira, which has no restrictions.

Brexi

Spørsmål: I have reached my 90 i 180 Schengen limit for EU and would like to go somewhere for a reasonably priced week away in an interesting and warm place. Seems worth avoiding Heathrow and long haul for a while. Any suggestions for places I can get to from regional airports that won’t count against Schengen limit. ?

EN: Bulgaria, Croatia or Cyprus are the obvious choices, since they are EU members that are outside the Schengen Area and therefore have their own “90/180” allowances. Each is warm and interesting. For value and a taste of the old Eastern bloc, Bulgaria is the best choice: for archaeology and superb food, Cyprus; and for the most engrossing cities and towns, it’s Croatia. Happy choosing.

Spørsmål: If I change flights in say Amsterdamto go to a non Schengen areadoes the time I spend in Amsterdam come off my 90 day limit?

EN: No because you’ll be going “Non Schengen Areatransit – Non Schengen Area.”

Spørsmål: I have UK & EU dual nationality with a UK passport and EU ID card. Can I use my ID card when leaving an English airport to an EU country?

EN: If you have a UK passport, that is the best way to leave, just in case any airline official wants to take issue with your European ID card – which are generally no longer usable for travel to the UK. But there is nothing to stop you strolling through the EU queue or at your destination, casually waving your ID card. Lucky you.

Spørsmål: Can you give more info on the EU visa scheme. It says 18 til 70 year old pay a fee. Presumably over 70s are free, or are we banned?

EN: Details are slowly emerging of the ETIAS scheme, that the UK was involved in devising before the Brexit referendum. It appears that over 70s qualify for a free pass, but as with other details nothing is certain yet.

Cruising

Spørsmål: We are due to fly with BA to join a cruise in Alaska shortly. If BA should cancel our flights and we cannot join the cruise. What are our rights? The holiday and flights was booked via the cruise company.

EN: Phew! Because you have booked a proper package holiday, then the cruise company is responsible for your entire trip – and if a failure of one of its suppliers, in this case BA, means that you cannot reach the cruise, then you are due a full refund.

Spørsmål: When do you think cruises will drop their requirement for pre-cruise testing? Seems a bit pointless now most restrictions on land have now been dropped. Undoubtably Covid will get on to ships, but with vaccinated passengers, consequences should be much less severe. Think it’s time to move oncurrently you can’t get very excited about going on a cruise until you are practically on the ship.

EN: Dessverre, I don’t see cruise lines’ self-imposed restrictions ending before 2023.

Spørsmål: Last week you kindly answered our question about Covid testing at the point of embarkation for our North West Passage expedition cruise.

We have now encountered a new obstacle. The cruise company also require, as a condition of boarding, a completed medical form about our fitness to make the journey, countersigned by our doctors. We have dealt with these forms in the past and were not expecting any problems, however when we took our completed forms to our GPs this morning we were told that the practice “no longer performs this service for patients”. Needless to say we were taken aback by this and are now wondering what we should be doing. Is this a common problem and is our recourse to visit a travel clinic? Where do we find someone willing and qualified to perform this function? It’s patently obvious our GPs are the best people to make a judgment about our health.

We’re coming to the view that trying to go on a cruise is a real uphill struggle.

EN: Goodness, this is turning into a saga of Viking proportions. I infer – perhaps wrongly – that this is very much a US-focused trip, where doctors will readily do the necessary for a fee. Talk to the cruise line and then to a travel health specialist.

Holidays

Spørsmål: Do you know if Cuba is fully open again for foreign visitors? We planned to backpack from Baracoa to Havana pre-pandemic and are hoping it will be possibly this December.

EN: There are no Covid-19 travel restrictions (though the Foreign Office warns: “Sanitary authorities are present at the airport and will carry out random PCR tests).

Når det er sagt, take expert advice through a specialist Cuba operator about the wisdom of backpacking in the island this year. While things will no doubt change over the next five months, the nation appears to be in during really tough times, with all kinds of shortages. That makes life extremely stressful for the citizens, and may make exploration difficult.

Spørsmål: I booked a holiday with Love Holidays, flying with WestJet going from London to Vegas late August. After paying, one of our party is unable to travel. Someone else is willing to take their place, Love Holidays are saying that we can’t change the name for the flights and pay an admin fee, we need to buy a whole new ticket at full price. I’ve never heard of not being able to change a passenger before. Can they do this?

EN: It’s extremely common for airlines to say that a name change amounts to a cancellation and new booking. derimot, you can argue that under the Package Travel Regulations (PTRs) you should be able to make a name change for a nominal fee (say £50). The agent may well say, “The airline policy doesn’t allow for that.” At which point a legal battle may ensue in which you claim that the PTRs trump WestJet’s terms and conditions. At least you have eight weeks to sort it out. Good luck.

Og endelig…

Spørsmål: I am flying with BA from Heathrow in August on an American Airlines flight. Will the check in staff etc be BA or American Airlines?

EN: Many airlines market flights that are actually operated by another carrier. Examples include Delta and Virgin Atlantic; forent, Air Canada and Lufthansa; and British Airways with all sorts of carriers from American Airlines via Japan Airlines to Qatar Airways. In every case, for practical purposes of boarding the flight (and claiming compensation in the event of disruption), it is the operating carrier that counts. In aviation jargon, it is the airline whose metal is being used. You will check in not with British Airways at Terminal 5, but with American Airlines at Terminal 3 – as from next month AA is moving out of T5.