Simon Calder’s expert travel tips and advice for your 2021 holiday

The Independent’s travel expert Simon Calder has compiled some of the most important questions from his weekly ‘Ask Me Anything’ events to give some of the best advice to those who are planning a trip abroad this year

Wednesday 21 July 2021 13:51 BST
People enjoy a sunny day at the beach in Nerja, Costa del Sol, Andalusia, Spain
People enjoy a sunny day at the beach in Nerja, Costa del Sol, Andalusia, Spain (Getty)

The travel correspondent of The Independent, Simon Calder, is normally to be found sipping mint tea with his Berber contacts in the carpet trade in the souks of Marrakesh or equally keeping cool on the Costa del Sol in Spain under a large umbrella.

But he has paused between negotiations to compile the key questions and answers on the warp and weft of travel in the time of coronavirus.

Jab journeys

Q: The government announcement about arrivals from “amber list” countries being able to follow “green list” rules and avoid quarantine mentions vaccinated Britons. Does this include British citizens vaccinated outside of the UK?

What about vaccinated people who live in amber list countries: will their vaccines be recognised if they seek to visit the UK on tourism or business? And what about expatriates who have received the Sinopharm vaccine?


A: Anyone who lives in the UK and has been vaccinated by the NHS – or who is on a “formally approved UK vaccine clinical trial” – will not need to quarantine if they arrive from an amber list country.

The qualification is not nationality, but where the vaccines were administered. The government says that initially it wants to ensure that a system for travellers resident in the UK can work. It can verify vaccination status with the NHS data base but cannot access those of other countries.

There are hopes that the NHS certification system could be linked with the EU Digital Covid Certificate to allow freer movement for European visitors.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, says he is working on accepting this European Union pass. (Interestingly, he made it sound as though was still in development; the EU Digital Covid Certificate has been in operation since 1 July everywhere except Ireland.) Mr Shapps said he will make an announcement in a couple of weeks, so I imagine it might take effect in the first half of August.

At this stage, the Chinese vaccines Sinopharm and Sinovac have not been approved by the medicines regulator in the UK, the MHRA.

Both brands appear a long way from being accepted.

Q: I am due to fly from the UK to Greece on 16 August for two weeks. I will have had my second vaccine five days before I leave.

I am aware I will not be classed as fully vaccinated when I leave as 14 days will not have passed since my second jab so I will need to test to enter Greece. However when I return to the UK, 14 days will have passed. So will I be classed as fully vaccinated then and therefore be able to avoid quarantine?

Kay W

A: Both Greece and the UK recognise someone as fully vaccinated only when they have waited 14 days after the last jab. So, yes, you will need “either a negative PCR certificate from a testing laboratory, for a Covid-19 test taken no later than 72 hours before arrival or a negative antigen (rapid) certificate taken no longer than 48 hours before arrival”. I would go for the the latter.

Coming back to the UK, the vaccine will be fully effective and you can happily return without self-isolation.

Q: My wife has her maiden name on passport and flight booking and married name on vaccine certificate. Will Spain accept this as they do not match? And if not is there a way around it as any test would be in married name also?

Dave 81

A: It’s a nightmare scenario, and one I asked the UK government to respond to on 10 July. I am still waiting. All I can suggest is taking you marriage certificate and any other supporting evidence of your wife’s dual identity.

Traffic light changes

Q: I’m getting married in Santorini end of August. Do you think there’s any chance it could go red? I’ve been hearing rumours but I don’t understand what’s behind them.

Very stressed bride

A: Congratulations to you and your fiance(e). The Greek islands have been swinging around all over the place in terms of infection levels, and there have been some very serious peaks: right now I calculate Santorini has new cases at a rate around twice as high as the UK.

Yet at this stage I would be as relaxed as possible because case rates can fall very quickly. I would happily book to travel to that wonderful island for late August, and I hope everything goes ahead splendidly.

‘Amber plus’

Q: Is it true that as of now you no longer need a covid test to travel to France if fully vaccinated? We are traveling to France next week, and it is news to us.

Julia B

A: For anyone in your position heading for France, it has been a tumultuous weekend. It began on Friday night with the sudden announcement that British  travellers returning from France will be expected to quarantine even if they are fully vaccinated by the NHS.

That runs counter to every other “amber list” country, from which double-jabbed traveller were expecting the need to quarantine to end at 4am on 19 July – in line with the relaxation of international travel rules that day.

Instead, self-isolation will continue to be mandatory for arrivals from France, and increase costs with an extra PCR test required on day eight of quarantine.

But there was some good news, too: British visitors who have been fully vaccinated need no longer test before departure to France.

The French Embassy in London said:  “if you have not been vaccinated you must present a negative PCR or antigen test less than 24 hours old to travel to French territory from the UK.

“If you have been fully vaccinated you will therefore no longer have to present a test in order to enter French territory.”

Vaccines are now deemed to have become effective just a week after the second dose – and there is also an allowance for people who have had a previous infection and one dose.

To allay concerns that some have expressed about versions of the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in India, known as Covashield, the French Embassy said: “France recognises the AZ-Covishield vaccine, so it is possible to travel to France with this type of vaccine if you have been fully vaccinated.”

There had been concerns that the Indian-made vaccine would not be accepted – but the only nation that rejected it, for a couple of days last week, was Malta.

I expect a U-turn on the UK government’s odd decision to happen within the next month, allowing a quarantine-free return from France for vaccinated travellers.

Q: If we travel from France and stay with family for the isolation period, is everyone in the household – including non-travellers – also required to be in isolation?


A: No. While you must remain in the property where you are self-isolating, others living there need not. The law says a quarantinee (yes, that is a word) need not isolate “from any member of their household”. They can continue life as normal. The only time there has been any variation in this rule was in November when there were sudden fears about a Danish variant; the government said all members of the arriving traveller’s household must also quarantine.

For the avoidance of doubt, self-isolating at home is a tough regime. You can’t go out to work, go shopping or walk the dog.

You can leave to take tests on days two and eight – or, if it is a home-test kit, leave the property to post it back to the laboratory.

You cannot have visitors, including friends and family, unless they live in the premises where you’re in quarantine.

Oddly, the government advice about exercise is equivocal. If you have “a health condition or a disability” that would be seriously exacerbated if you were not able to go out and exercise, you could assert “exceptional circumstances which permit you to leave your place of quarantine”.

The government says: “You’ll need to consider carefully whether your circumstances are exceptional circumstances that require you to leave your place of quarantine. You could get advice from a medical or other professional to discuss your circumstances so that you can decide.” So there is some flexibility if you genuinely would suffer from a lack of exercise.

Q: After the France chaos, do you think they would send Spain on to the amber plus list the same way? I am desperate to go to Nerja.

Andrew W

A: On 12 May, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “The government is committed to giving people the freedom to travel with confidence and supporting the wider travel industry.“

On 8 July, he announced UK residents who have been fully vaccinated by the NHS would no longer have to self-isolate when returning from amber list countries such as Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and France. “As one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, we must use these advantages to restore many of the freedoms that have been necessarily lost over recent months,” he said. “In essence this means that for fully vaccinated travellers the requirements for green and amber list countries are the same.” Whereupon many people felt encouraged to book trips across the Channel.

But on 16 July, Mr Shapps performed a U-turn on quarantine-free travel from France, adding helpfully: ”We urge everyone thinking about going abroad this summer to check their terms and conditions.”

The volte-face means that hundreds of thousands of British travellers are now confronted with self-isolation for 10 days on return from France. More broadly, there is yet another category into which countries can be consigned at a moment’s notice. “Amber plus,” I call it – though “old amber” is also accurate, since it represents the amber list conditions prevailing between 17 May and 18 July.

The new category may be used to rehabilitate nations such as Turkey, currently on the red list, before they go “regular amber”. But I believe its main role is as a convenient repository for arrivals from countries – such as France – which have so many British visitors and family connections that the sheer numbers would break the red list hotel quarantine system.

Given the government’s record in making sudden and far-reaching changes to the quarantine system over the past year, the possibility of adding Spain (plus or minus the islands) to amber plus cannot be ruled out. All I can do is recommend you book as late as possible, to reduce the scope for disarray.

Red list

Q: Is there any chance that a country that is in the current “red list” could bypass the “amber list” and go straight to the “green list” if the numbers of Covid cases and deaths in the country are extremely low, or will it still have to go through amber?

Lucy J

A: Some of the UK’s most popular destinations, including Turkey, the UAE, India and Kenya, are on the red list – meaning any arrivals from those countries must go into 11 nights of hotel quarantine at significant expense, starting at £1,750 for a solo traveller. It is in marked contrast to amber status, where travellers can self-isolate at home.

The red rating causing plenty of stress, expense and upset for people who need to travel from high-risk countries, and there are calls for the government to reveal how it justifies the classification.

To manage expectations: when the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, reveals changes to his “traffic light” risk register on Thursday 15 July, I am not expecting any moves from the red list direct to the green list. That would be wholly out of character for a process in which tough regulations are typically imposed swiftly but relaxed only slowly.

Yet for those of lucky enough to have been fully vaccinated by the NHS, amber and green are about to become one and the same. From next Monday, no quarantine will be required of jabbed travellers from amber list countries (though a test before departure to the UK and a further PCR test on arrival will still be mandatory).

The big question, then, is: will there be moves from red to amber? The data analyst Robert Boyle of Gridpoint Consulting has identified 11 nations currently on the red list “which don’t belong there on the basis of case rates and test positivity, despite apparently having reasonable levels of testing”. The four nations mentioned above – Turkey, the UAE, India and Kenya – are among them. The remaining seven: Bahrain, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Qatar and Sri Lanka.

Of these, the UAE and Qatar are regarded as high risk because of being global aviation hubs. Mr Boyle surmises that most of the remainder “are presumably on the red list because of concerns about variants”. He and I do not foresee substantial changes, though the new “amber plus” category may provide some flexibility – requiring self-isolation at home, which is cheaper and less onerous than hotel quarantine.

Q: My daughter has been working in Turkey for three months and must leave the country soon. She can’t afford the £1,750 fee for hotel quarantine back in the UK.

She is thinking of waiting until the next review to see if Turkey goes “green”. But if it doesn’t, is there anything she can do to cut the cost?

Jane W

A: The chances of Turkey going from its current “red list” status – requiring 11 nights of hotel isolation on return to the UK – to green, with no quarantine, are vanishingly low. I believe the most likely move for Turkey in the next “traffic light” review in early August will be to “amber plus,” the new category invented on 16 July for arrivals from France. Basically, it means that arrivals must self-isolate at home for 10 days – a much lower cost option for your daughter than hotel quarantine.

There is a slim possibility Turkey could be moved to the main amber list, allowing people who have been fully vaccinated by the NHS to avoid quarantine. However, I imagine that if your daughter has been in Turkey for three months, it is unlikely she qualifies.

In that case, easily the best option for her is to “launder” her red list status, legally and safely, in a low-cost green list country. The obvious candidate is Bulgaria – which yesterday was the only European nation moved to the lowest-risk category by the UK.

Bulgaria almost immediately put arrivals direct from the UK on its red list because of the very high levels of coronavirus infections here. But arriving from Turkey, just across the border, should present no problem. Whether your daughter stays on the Black Sea coast in Varna or Bourgas, or travels inland to the fine cities of Plovdiv and Sofia, living costs will be among the lowest in Europe – perhaps £40 per day for decent accommodation and meals.

She needs to spend 10 full days in Bulgaria in order to declare that she has not been in a red or amber list location for 10 days. But she will then be free to take a low-cost flight back to the UK from any of the four cities mentioned, probably having spent around a quarter of the cost of hotel quarantine and having had a holiday to boot.

Q: Just to check to achieve 10 full days outside red list country by going to green or amber. For starting time outside the red list what is the exact definition of leaving the country - is it the time that your flight leaves the red list country, so time spent on the flight is considered outside red list. Or Is it the time you land in an amber or green country from the red list country?

Also, what time is considered as entering the UK. Is it the time your flight lands in the UK or is the time that you pass UK immigration control?

“Taffer 87”

A: It is so important to get this right. Some unfortunate folk have miscalculated by just a few hours and found themselves in hotel quarantine at fast expense for 11 nights.

The statement you must be able to make is that you have not been in a red list country in the past 10 days.

If you are in any doubt at all, err on the side of caution. The last day that you were in a red list country is described as day zero. You must spend a full 10 days outside of that country if you are to be able to swerve the hotel quarantine.

So if I flew on 1 August, from Brazil to Portugal (regardless of the departure time), I would need to stay in Portugal from 2 to 11 August – and to arrive back in the UK no earlier than 12 August. At that point I could assert that I have not been in a red list country over the previous 10 days.

Q: Will Qatar or the UAE ever realistically come off the red list this year?


A: Not according to the transport secretary. Grant Shapps says they are red because they are global aviation hubs. I see little prospect of this changing by the end of the year, as it would require a massive U-turn.

Q: Thoughts on the Maldives being downgraded to the amber list before September? We are due to go there for our honeymoon

A Smith 92

A: The Maldives has a good chance of reverting to amber in August. So keep the hope alive. Be warned that if your flights are via Dubai or Doha, you will be required to go into hotel quarantine on arrival in the UK because they are red listed.

Testing times

Q: Do I need a negative PCR test to depart the UK direct to Cyprus even though Cyprus does not require one for fully vaccinated people

Peter 0101

A: The UK and airlines flying from it, make no demands for any kind of testing on departure. The only issue is: what does your destination demand? If Cyprus is happy with proof of vaccination, that is all you need.

Q: We’re in Mallorca at the moment (and having a wonderful time!) We know we need a pre-flight test before we return to the UK. But we are not sure if it should be a PCR or antigen rapid flow one? The government website says both suffice but surely the PCR one is preferable as it’s more accurate?

Geema 10

A: Go with the lateral flow. Cheap and quick. You are far more likely to be infected in the UK than you are in Mallorca.

Q: Flying back from Greece to the UK - do I need to book the day two test before I fly into the UK, or can I just do this on my return?


A: You cannot complete the passenger locator form for the UK without having a PCR test booked on day two, and you can’t get on a plane to the UK without a completed passenger locator form. So you must do it in advance.

Q: I want to fly back to the UK from Greece then the next day fly out of the UK again. Do I need to book/pay/take a day two test for my passenger locator form on return from Greece even when I won’t be in the UK on day two?


A: Unfortunately the passenger locator form – which you must complete before you travel to the UK – only allows for no PCR test if you are continuing your journey on the same day. So I believe you will need to book and pay for a day to test, which you can take immediately on landing.

Q: I’m a bit unsure with regards to the testing requirements. I have family in Spain and I have seen flights that depart the UK at 6pm on a Thursday and return at 4.30pm on the Sunday. I am looking at taking a test in the UK prior to my flight on Thursday and return to the UK using that test. Would that be OK, or is the requirement that the test is within 72 hours of the time you depart for the UK? What would happen if I’m delayed a few hours?

Sean R

A: All good: if you have a flight to the UK scheduled to depart on a Sunday, then you can take the test on the Thursday, Friday or Saturday. It would be very unusual to have an eight-hour delay, potentially scuppering the test you take, so I would proceed exactly as you intend. Buen viaje.

Q: How is the testing in Gibraltar? Are there long queues?

“Pete 66”

A: Free tests are given on arrival, and there can be a queue of up to an hour if a couple of planes land together – but you can return at any time up to 24 hours before touchdown and undergo the lateral flow test, which means that if come back the following day (walk across the runway before any planes have landed) then you can expect zero wait.

Q: Is there any chance that the requirement for a pre-departure test before your flight back to England will be withdrawn this year? I am looking to travel in September onwards.


A: On 16 July I was preparing to travel to France. I was about to begin the onerous and expensive business of sorting out tests: one to get me into France and the same one (because it was a short break) to fulfil the requirement for a pre-departure test before returning to the UK; and the pre-booked, post-arrival PCR test.

In the end it was all irrelevant because of the government’s bizarre late-night decision to create a new category, “amber plus,” requiring quarantine from France. So instead I travelled to Ireland on Monday, the day the republic opened to visitors who have been doubly vaccinated.

I mention this because it was a joy to travel from A to B and back again without having to procure and pay for tests; the only bureaucracy involved was a simple passenger locator form for Ireland, in which no one showed any interest.

But Ireland is the only foreign country in the world from which tests are not necessary when travelling to the UK. Even from low-risk “green list” locations, arriving travellers must test before travel to the UK and pay for a PCR test on the day they get back, or one of the two following days. Typically those tests cost £100 per person.

On Tuesday the easyJet chief executive, Johan Lundgren, said: “Green should be green … There should not need to be any restrictions in place.” But I fear his appeal will fall on deaf ears.

I think the pre-departure test before travel to the UK will be about the last one to go. Even though the government for many months last year maintained such a test was completely pointless, its tune seems to have changed completely.

Test-to-fly has the added advantage of (hopefully) identifying people who are infectious and therefore preventing them from boarding a flight.

The “Day 2 PCR test” is an expensive waste for almost everyone, especially fully vaccinated individuals. It will go first, I reckon. Good riddance.

Indian variant of AstraZeneca

Q: My airline has Malta still showing as not accepting the Covishield/Indian made AstraZeneca vaccine. As three of our party have unfortunately had one dose of this vaccine, what can we do?

Nikki Staffs

A: I have the following statement from the Maltese government, issued on 15 July. “Malta will allow persons from the UK to enter as long as they have the NHS Covid Pass. This includes persons who have had the two jabs of the AstraZeneca vaccines approved by the UK’S Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.”

In other words, if you have an NHS vaccination confirmation (eg on the app or the free NHS Covid letter) then Malta will now let you in.

Many other countries have stated that they will accept proof of vaccination using the AstraZeneca jab issued by the NHS.

Any airline that denies you boarding incorrectly will be liable to pay you compensation.

Passport control

Q: We are meeting our daughter from Spain at Gatwick airport. Her flight arrives at 4.30pm. How long you think it will take to get through the airport?

Name supplied

A: I would be surprised if your daughter spent more than an hour between touchdown at Gatwick and emerging from North Terminal arrivals (the only terminal currently open).

In terms of getting through the UK Border Force: it slightly depends on how near the front of the plane she is. Since international travel resumed at scale in May, the longest I have waited in a queue was 15 minutes at Heathrow, when I was at the back of the aircraft. Arriving at Stansted, when I was at the front of the plane, the process of checking my passport and passenger locator form (including the requisite PCR test) took two minutes.

I have also canvassed the experiences of other travellers, and they also report straightforward processing at passport control (with varying degrees of interest in their Covid paperwork from officials). “Red list” processing for hotel quarantine takes longer, but of course this will not affect your daughter.

Post-Brexit passport problems

Q: When the UK government passport checker gives you a date for valid travel to Europe, is this the actual date by which you can travel and return, or do you need to build on top the requirement for a passport to have six months validity after return? I have contacted the Passport Office and they won’t give me an answer.

Mel L

A: I have repeatedly told the government that its online information about the validity of British passports in the European Union/Schengen area is wrong. Officials do not appear interested in correcting it. Generally the UK government’s (inaccurate) passport checker is very conservative, so if it says you’re good to go then you can be pretty sure you will not encounter problems.

American adventures

Q: I commuted back and forth to the US for work for 10 years until the pandemic struck, are there any signs I might me allowed back in any time soon? I’ve been double jabbed since May and have a visa.

Jonny R

A: There’s chatter that President Biden may be considering easing the proclamation that bans British visitors going direct to the US. But nothing definite yet, I’m afraid. Meanwhile you can always launder your status in Mexico for a couple of weeks, though be warned that carries some risk that the Americans could impose a ban on arrivals from their southern neighbour.

Distant dreams

Q: My wife and I have been fortunate to have been granted a sabbatical from our jobs and plan to travel to Asturias in Spain for two months in September 2021 returning in November. Then in January 2022 we plan to travel to New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Canada. What do think is the likelihood that these trips can go ahead?


A: How wonderful to be spending autumn in northern Spain. That trip looks certain to go ahead.

But please let me caution against your plans for January 2022. I would be extremely surprised if either Australia or New Zealand were to be welcoming UK tourists in by then. And any multi-country itinerary can trigger massive complications in the coronavirus era.

Italian connection

Q: I need to pay the balance for a trip to Italy, which is happening the first week of August. When are we likely to find out whether or not Italy will extend its five-day quarantine rule for UK travellers beyond its current date of 30 July?

Name not supplied

A: Like many countries, Italy is watching Covid infection rates in the UK with alarm. Since 21 June, anyone arriving in Italy who has been in the UK in the previous two weeks must present a test taken in the 48 hours preceding entry. This can be a cheap and swift lateral flow test, but must be privately obtained; you cannot use an NHS test.

The arrival must also self-isolate for five days, at the end of which they take another test and leave quarantine if it is negative. (Children under six need not test but must self-isolate.)

Oddly, “travellers transiting Italy in a private vehicle for less than 36 hours” need not quarantine, according to the Italian Embassy in London.

The rule is due to expire, as you say, on 30 July, but of course it could be extended. Typically Italy make changes around three days in advance, so you will not know what its policy will be for UK arrivals from 31 July for a week or so.

Regardless of what is decided, assuming you have booked a package holiday then I urge you to pay the balance if you can afford to do so.

There is a significant possibility that your trip will go ahead as normal, in which case you should have a happy and safe holiday. But if you would be expected to quarantine on arrival, the trip would have to be cancelled. If that happens, you can expect a full refund of the whole cost of the holiday within two weeks.

It may sound counter-intuitive to pay out more money to guarantee either a holiday or your money back, but that is the way the system works. Deciding not to pay the balance would mean that you lose the deposit.

Positive tests abroad

Q: Have you heard of any “test to release” procedures available if you do have a positive test abroad? Or do most of Europe insist on the full self isolation time scale ? We are travelling to Crete next week so obviously focusing on Greece.

Sjm 34

A: If you receive a positive result from a Covid test at any time, you must follow the rules applied by the health authorities in the country you are in,

Here’s what I know about testing positive in Greece: “Mandatory isolation if they test positive for SARS-Cov-2, following a sampling test. In this case, the travellers and their travel companions are accommodated in quarantine hotels, where they will undergo further PCR testing to confirm the initial diagnosis. Guests will stay in seclusion hotels for a maximum of 10 days. The expenses of the accommodation in quarantine hotels are covered by the Greek state.”

Which isn’t ideal but it’s much better than some countries, where you cover the cost.

Q: What happens if you’ve had Covid in the 30 days prior to your holiday and therefore your test to fly pre-return flight comes back positive but from previous infection. Would you have to quarantine in the country you’re returning from?

Also if you made it back but day two test positive- also due to previous infection, where does that leave you? (My daughter has Covid now and we are going to Greece in just under three weeks.)


A: As above, anyone heading overseas has to take the risk that a pre-departure to the UK test will be positive – at which point it is your duty to inform the authorities in the country you are in and allow their rules to take the natural course.

Any positive PCR test back in the UK will trigger quarantine, I’m afraid.

Previous infections

Q: Please advise about travel after recent Covid infection - PCR may be positive for 90 days so how can I travel with my children who have had it recently? US make allowances for covid recovery - what are the U.K. doing about this? Massive issue for thousands of people.

Ridgeway 1

A: For test-before-travel back to the UK, don’t use a hypersensitive PCR test – lateral flow is cheaper, faster and less likely to give the impression someone is infectious when they are not, I understand.

Q: Do you know if there will be any update to guidance on travel for those recently recovered from Covid? Can test positive for up to 90 days after, the EU and USA recognise the issue and allow proof of recovery but currently UK doesn’t.


A: The EU makes allowances for people recently recovered from Covid, but as with so many aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, the UK is an exception to standard practice. I cannot see this changing imminently. Sorry.

Flex flights

Q: Are any domestic airlines offering totally flexible bookings? I know BA are sort of but you can only cancel (for a voucher) or change up to three weeks before. With the way the government are working three weeks is too risky!

Chris J

A: The best way to get complete flexibility in your booking is to book at the last possible moment – though this of course could mean fares are very high.

But I am unaware that there is a time limit on British Airways. Last time I checked, it was possible to change your booking any time up to the closure of check-in. And if I am not mistaken, easyJet and Ryanair offer much the same.

Speaking up

Q: One of the issues I see in the current chaotic travel situation is that there is no unified voice for disgruntled travellers to coalesce behind. Each airline speaks independently. What body should step up and act as a unilateral spokesperson for travellers and travel companies?


A: Good question. The short answer is that Abta, the travel association, is the closest match to your proposition. It represents travel agencies and tour operators. Airlines UK, meanwhile, speaks for British-based airlines.

Cash flow

Q: Do you have any advice on getting money back from the online travel agent GoToGate? I’ve been waiting nearly a year after flight was cancelled by the airline. When I manage to contact someone I just get the runaround from airline and GoToGate, each blaming the other. There seems to be no way of resolving this.

“Tosh SE1”

A: Prior to Brexit, it would have been very easy: seek a refund from this Swedish online travel agent through the European small claims procedure. Sadly when we left the EU we opted to give up on that option.

If your flight was cancelled by a UK airline, you could try getting legalistic with them – but that approach is likely to be rejected because you chose to enter into a contract with a foreign company rather than direct with the carrier.

The best hope: see if your card issuer will be at all flexible on a chargeback. When I was in a similar position, with (based in the Netherlands), my bank refunded the £77 owed for a cancelled flight in March 2020.

Smoking on planes

Q: Was there ever a time you were allowed to smoke on a plane? If you were, that blows my mind.

Mel Clements

A: For most of the history of civil aviation (which I shall date from 1919), smoking on board was possible. Yes: for decades it was deemed acceptable to have toxic substances lit by naked flames in the cabin of a passenger aircraft, producing fumes that were then inhaled by everyone on board the plane.

The demarcation between smoking and non-smoking areas was pretty arbitrary. All seats had ashtrays in the armrests. The right to light up might begin at row 21, which was bad news for non-smokers in row 20. Or cabin crew would simply announce that the left-hand side of the plane was designated the smoking section.

On the one occasion I flew on Concorde (in 1986, paying £150 for the right to be a Securicor courier), a cigar was offered immediately after dinner – with cabin crew offering to light it. That was around the time that moves in the United States started to limit smoking – ahead of the rest of the world. Initially, cigars and pipes were banned, followed by a prohibition on smoking on domestic flights of under two hours. By 1988 that had extended to all internal flights, as I discovered to my horror on a six-hour Anchorage-Minneapolis journey.

In the same year, British Airways took its first tentative steps, with smoke-free flights on a small number of services. I cursed my luck to discover that Heathrow-Vienna was one of the routes, as I was booked to fly it. BA even banned smoking on Los Angeles flights, though only one departure a day – so you could switch to the LA smoking service if you wished.

The spreading smoking ban on planes helped persuade me to give up the evil habit in 1990, but BA became totally smoke-free only in 1998.

Virgin Atlantic was the first UK airline to ban smoking on all its flights in 1995. “We agonised over the decision,” the former chief executive Steve Ridgway told me, “but I was determined that we would be first.”

The practice is largely eradicated now worldwide, though on a Russian domestic flight from Vladivostok to Moscow – a 4,000-mile, eight-hour trip – it was clear that one of the bathrooms at the back of the plane had been unofficially assigned as the smoking section.

Hypersonic travel

Q: After Branson and Bezos went into space, I’ve read that hypersonic flights could get us from London to Tokyo in a couple of hours. What do you think?

Mark H

A: Concorde was based on 1960s technology and was ridiculously inefficient. But even in the 2020s I can’t see any prospect of hypersonic travel for a few more decades, by which stage I hope to be hopping around the UK with my personal jet pack.

Airlines have been much more focused on indulging business travellers so they don’t notice how long the flight is taking, and I expect that to continue.

Also, the coronavirus pandemic means business travel has largely collapsed and for the next few years travellers will be staying closer to home – and if you’re only going as far as Frankfurt or Milan, it really doesn’t matter if it takes two hours or 20 minutes, with all the faff at the airports before and after the flight.

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