Should I book a holiday this summer?

Prices are likely to be significantly higher than in 2019, the last ‘normal’ year

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 29 March 2021 11:16 BST
When should you book your next holiday?
When should you book your next holiday? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

All holidays within and beyond the UK are currently illegal. No one resident in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland can engage in leisure travel. Even if we could, there are many barriers imposed by destination countries on arriving travellers.

While Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have not yet set out details of reopening international travel, the prime minister has given the earliest dates from which foreign holidays may be permitted in England. The earliest date is 17 May (though domestic “self-contained” accommodation can open, for a single household only, from 12 April).

The Foreign Office is warning against non-essential international travel to almost all countries, and increasingly harsh measures quarantine remains in place for the trickle of arrivals from abroad.

Yet there is undoubtedly an appetite for travel from frustrated holidaymakers. Many companies, after a dreadful 2020 and lousy start to 2021, are selling flights, package holidays and cruises from May onwards.

Tui, Britain's biggest holiday company, says it has sold 2.8 million holidays across Europe for summer 2021.

With the vaccination programme under way and signs of light at the end of a very long tunnel, should you book now?

These are the key questions and answers.

What are the significant dates in England?

In England, self-contained accommodation will open “no earlier than 12 April” – for household lets occupied by a single family. These are likely to include caravans, self-catering cottages and second homes.

The reopening of self-contained accommodation leaves a week clear before the return to school for many, but not all, children in England; most summer terms begin on 19 April.

The mainstream accommodation sector – including hotels, hostels and holiday parks that are based on communal areas such as pools – are expected to open on 17 May. This is also the earliest possible date that some of the very tight restrictions on international travel may end.

Should I book a holiday?

Despite recent pronouncements by ministers, The Independent's view is that it is reasonable to book a trip if you are fully aware of the cancellation policies – though it may not be wise to book for a different UK nation from the one you live in.

Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has indicated that her nation's borders may remain closed: “not having travel into and out of the country from elsewhere” might be required for a period of time, she said.

Last summer, for a short time the Welsh government restricted holidays to residents of Wales.

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If your UK holiday cannot go ahead because of government action, the general presumption is that you should get a full refund – the contract is treated as “frustrated”.

The Country Cottages organisation says that you will “obtain a refund of the amount already paid by you for the booking, less any administrative costs which we incur in processing your refund”.

But some firms have different terms: Airbnb says guests “won’t be refunded under the extenuating circumstances policy if they cancel due to Covid-19 unless they are sick”.

Overseas holidays are more complicated, because the of potential travel restrictions imposed by the destination and the UK on returning holidaymakers.

As is the case with any travel booking, there is no guarantee that it will go ahead. Anything from government restrictions to the failure of the travel firm may scupper your plans.

But with a proper package holiday – flights and accommodation booked in a single transaction – your money is not at risk.

If you are planning to travel off-peak, there is probably no great need to commit financially yet.

The spells for which booking now could work begin with May half-term, likely to be 22–30 May; it is always popular with many families who are trying to dodge the high prices of the main summer holidays.

School summer holidays are the real high-pressure, high-price time for families. Schools generally break up in Scotland in late June and in Northern Ireland in early July, while in England and Wales it is likely to be on or just before Friday 23 July, with a particular peak on the weekend of 31 July and 1 August.

The final surge of the summer is the last week of August, for homeward flights.

Will I pay more?

Yes. Many domestic holiday providers are hoping that they will be able to raise their prices by 10-20 per cent in a bid to recoup some of their losses.

Abroad, I predict mid-market prices for bargain-basement holidays. Tui says prices are one-fifth higher than in 2019 – the last “normal” year.

There will be fewer seats flying from the UK in 2021, not least because older gas-guzzling planes have been removed from fleets.

Lower capacity means higher prices, which is what all the travel firms need as they seek to dig themselves out of the vast financial hole created by coronavirus

In addition, travel options will be sharply reduced – with the number of flights from regional airports particularly affected.

Tui’s cheapest week in Benidorm departing on 1 August for a family of four is priced at £503 per person, including flights from Luton, transfers and self-catering accommodation. Previously that sort of holiday might have cost around £400.

Jet2 is expanding to Bristol airport in the summer. A week in Rhodes, staying at the Marietta Aparthotel, costs £619 per person for a family of four departing on 31 July.

Is skiing out of the question?

Yes, unless you choose one of the few high-altitude options in the Alps offering winter sports in summer. In May 2020, the Hintertux glacier in Austria opened for skiing.

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Going transatlantic?

Back in May 2020, The Independent noted that Norwegian was 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 2021.

That flight did not operate, and Norwegian has now said it is closing is transatlantic network from Gatwick.

While some bargain transatlantic trips are available, British travellers are still banned from the US – with no indication of when that may change.

Meanwhile, on 15 August Virgin Holidays is selling a week from Manchester to Orlando for £1,320 per person for flights, accommodation and a rental car.

When will cruises start?

Some very small-scale cruises are happening around the world, usually restricted to a single country. P&O Cruises and Princess Cruises have announced that they will push back international cruises until the autumn, and instead run UK-only sailings.

Domestic cruises are slated to start from 17 May, when a number of companies are selling “cruises to nowhere” - the ships tour the British isles but don’t stop off anywhere. Some lines are asking passengers to be fully vaccinated before they participate.

Will I need a vaccine passport?

If you have completed a two-jab course of vaccination, it could help to smooth your journey to destinations such as Greece, Israel, Estonia, Romania and Georgia.

There is no clarity on an international agreed system of vaccine passports, though the UK is working on one.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, says: “There’s clearly an important role for certification for international travel.”

Meanwhile the vaccine minister, Nadhim Zahawi, says that you can ask your GP for official proof.

What if the coronavirus crisis gets worse, not better, and I decide not to travel?

Many travel firms have flexible booking policies, but be warned that these are time limited and will not necessarily apply to all trips for 2021.

One notable proposition is from the upmarket tour operator True Travel, which asks for payment only two weeks before departure, as well as free cancellation and a full refund for any Covid-related reason up to 48 hours before the trip.

Helen Coffey has provided plenty of useful advice on “future-proofing” a holiday.

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