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Travel expert Simon Calder answers six pressing questions on your trips abroad

Travel expert Simon Calder answers six pressing questions on your trips abroad
Passport rules for travel to Europe, testing rules for US trips and the incomprehensible rules for Brits heading for Belgium

The travel correspondent of The Independent has once again been summoned to Berlin to help broker the coalition talks that have dragged on since the German federal elections in September. But while pausing to munch a quick currywurst between negotiations, he was able to answer some pressing questions from readers.

Claim game

Q: A few weeks ago you gave me (correct) advice regarding UK passports travelling to the EU. I wanted to update you with our experience. Our 15-year-old son’s passport expires 18 February 2022. When checking in online with Ryanair a warning appeared stating that passengers needed six months on their passport if departing from the UK to a Schengen country.

I spoke to their customer services who insisted that this was mandatory and it was part of their terms and conditions. We nearly didn’t travel to the airport as we were told in no uncertain terms that he wouldn’t be allowed to board. But we took the chance and went to the airport armed with this information along with screenshots of both EU guidance and your previous response to my question.

My son was refused boarding at the gate, the agent stating that Spain had a six-month rule.

We pressed and stated the three-month rule. The agent rang a supervisor and said they would make an exception as my son was a minor.

How many others have fallen foul of incorrect information from the airlines and been refused boarding or not travelled at all?

Lenny G

A: It is incomprehensible to me why any airline would want to willingly deny properly documented passengers the opportunity to travel – and lay itself open to hundreds or thousands of pounds in possible claims.

Just to set the context, for anybody who has not been following this: since the start of 2021, when the Brexit transition phase ended, the old certainty that a British passport was valid anywhere in the European Union up to and including its expiry date has disappeared. Instead there are two conditions that your passport must meet.

The first is that it must have been issued in the past 10 years. Since your son is under 16, his will have been no more than five years and nine months old, so clearly this condition is met. The second is that it has at least three months to run on the intended date of return from the view. Since he will have to be back at school, I have no doubt that this condition was met as well.

Were I to cut Ryanair any slack, it would be because the UK government has put out a lot of false information about passport validity after Brexit (again, I have absolutely no idea why the Foreign Office would want to do this). But since I personally wrote to Ryanair at the start of the year, pointing out exactly what the European Union rules are, with links to the relevant legal sources, I am afraid I am not going to offer any concession on this point.

I am very glad you managed to argue the point – it must have been stressful and upsetting, particularly for your son. Anyone who has been wrongly denied boarding by Ryanair, easyJet or any other airline can claim – not just for the mandatory air passenger rights compensation (£220 or £350, depending on the length of the flight) but also for their financial losses triggered by wrongful denial of boarding.

Q: How we can claim if denied boarding because the airline wrongly turned us away because of passport rules?

Mark Thompson 83

A: First, you need to be absolutely certain that you were wrongly denied boarding. As mentioned earlier, the passport must have been issued in the past 10 years and it must have at least three months to run on the intended date of return from the EU.

Some travel providers – and the Foreign Office – insist that these two conditions are interdependent, ie your passport must have been issued in the past nine years, nine months. I I am firmly convinced that this is not the case, because if it were the EU would have said it. The European Commission confirmed to me that the two conditions are independent – in other words they simply have to be met individually – but after doubts were expressed by UK government sources I have been trying to double check.

In most cases, though, there is no such lack of clarity – simply an airline mistakenly imposing a non-existent rule.

The way to approach this is to write a “letter before action”. Calculate the amount of financial losses that you can prove; don’t add on extra for stress and upset, because it will not be paid. Ask for the sum to be refunded, and explain that you will institute legal proceedings in the next two weeks if the airline does not comply.

Hopefully this will do the trick, but if not then either go to Money Claim Online or a solicitor.

The airline might claim that it has its own “minimum six months” condition, but the legal advice I have is that it is a rule with no legal basis to it, so therefore unfair and unenforceable.

Q: Our travel insurer has just refused our insurance claim for a trip we couldn’t take to the US in September 2021.

We booked a villa in November 2019, well before Covid, but they now say because the borders were closed they are not liable.

The firm appears to have changed their terms and conditions to cover border closure. But this is well after our booking was made.

Ashley

A: Your September 2021 trip could not go ahead because of the continued ban on British visitors to the US, which ends only on 8 November 2021.

You wish to claim on travel insurance, but the insurer is declining the claim because the border is closed. Without studying the small print, I am not able to say whether or not this is reasonable.

I can, however, make two points. First, in most cases when bookings are affected by Covid-19 travel restrictions, the obvious claim is against the travel firm(s) involved, The travel insurer will want to know that you have tried to reduce or eliminate the loss, for example negotiating a refund or postponement of your booking.

If there are still losses you cannot claim elsewhere, then you can ask the Financial Ombudsman Service to ask for a ruling on the insurer’s rejection of the claim.

America opens up

Q: What are the criteria for a test to enter the US? I’ve seen it has to be in person or a video one! Very confused.

Adam Smith

A: What we know for certain: if you are arriving by air to the US (but not if you go overland from Canada or Mexico) you will need a test no more than three days before travel. The US offers more flexibility than most countries over the timing of the pre-departure test. The CDC says: “The three-day period is the three days before the flight’s departure. For example, if a passenger’s flight is at 1pm on a Friday, the passenger could board with a negative test that was taken any time on the prior Tuesday or after.”

Next, what sort of test? We know a cheap and rapid antigen (lateral flow) test is acceptable, but for the avoidance of doubt you cannot use a free NHS test; it must be paid for privately. You cannot use a provider where you simply email in a photograph of you and the test result; this arrangement is open to fraud.

After studying the CDC’s stipulations it is clear that a medically conducted and documented test is the best way forward. You could take a test at a local provider or at the airport prior to departure.

As an alternative to the test you can provide proof that you have recovered from Covid-19 in the past three months, for example by using the NHS online recovery pass.

Children aged two-17 also need a test and must take an additional one, sourced locally, on day three, four or five after arrival.

Q: I am travelling to Orlando in Florida on 17 November from London Heathrow. I understand a lateral flow test three days before travel is required to enter the US. But the Foreign Office says travellers should be tested again between three and five days after arrival in US. Does this second test have to be pre-booked in UK? Any help appreciated.

Brian R

A: The Foreign Office says: “Passengers fully vaccinated do not have to quarantine but need to take a viral test within three to five days of arrival.” I cannot see any justification for this statement in the official US documentation for adult travellers, and I have contacted the FCDO to ask either for evidence or for the statement to be retracted.

Flummoxed by Flanders

Q: The rules of entry to Belgium are confusing to say the least. A news site said antigen tests are sufficient now, rather than PCR. I’ve not seen this confirmed on any official Covid document. Can you help?

Birkonian

A: The official rules for people from third countries (such as the UK) for travel to Belgium are, as you say, pretty impenetrable. What we know: as a non-EU country with high infection rates, the UK is currently classified as red zone (high risk) on the Belgian government’s travel colour code system.

That means only vaccinated travellers may visit. Everyone who goes must complete a Belgian Passenger Locator Form.

The standard policy is to take a PCR test no more than 72 hours before arrival in Belgium, but you can instead opt to test on arrival and quarantine until the result is known. A third option is to stay less than 48 hours (as many people transiting Belgium will do), though you still need to complete a passenger locator form.

I am afraid I can’t find any official references to a relaxation in rules, so I can only urge you to follow these stipulations.

Depending on your plans, you might consider trimming your stay to under 48 hours: for example by travelling to Bruges or Ghent on Eurostar via Lille in France rather Brussels (which actually takes you much further than you want to go). With a change of train you can get from Lille to Ghent in around 75 minutes, or to Bruges in around 20 minutes longer.