Trains. Interrail: yes or no?
Q: I am thinking of following in my youthful footsteps and re-doing a four-week Interrail trip around Europe. But reading the Seat61.com website they say that you often have to pay additional booking/reservation fees, which could make it very expensive, and makes cheap flights more attractive. I am thinking of going from Glasgow to the south of France, then Milan-Venice-Dubrovnik—Budapest-Berlin and back to Glasgow. What’s your recommendation?
A: When Interrail began in 1972 it was revolutionary – offering unlimited travel on almost every train in Europe, with little need to book space or pay supplements. But things have changed. We now have budget airlines that compete aggressively on price and are often much quicker than rail.
Interrail still works really well for a lot of people, particularly if you are keen on making your travel mind up as you go along. The scheme now has much more choice: you can concentrate on smaller regions, and it is open to all ages – with reductions for the young and old.
But as Mark Smith – the international rail guru known as The Man in Seat 61 – says, many trains require supplements and mandatory reservations. So for your trip I would forsake Interrail and mix flights with trains and ships.
Fly from Edinburgh to Nice– currently £37 in June on easyJet. Then travel by ordinary, cheap trains along the Mediterranean coast and into Italy. Call in at Venice, but instead of continuing around the coast towards Slovenia I would head south along Italy’s Adriatic shore as far as Bari for the overnight ferry to Dubrovnik.
From the finest city in Croatia, buses (and ships) are the best way to travel north rather than by rail, making your plans day by day. Construct a relaxed itinerary via Budapest (possibly including a Danube ferry sector to Bratislava) and onwards to Prague and Berlin – from where you can fly straight back to Glasgow (currently £36 on easyJet).
This plan will minimise cost and time, and you will still have plenty of flexibility to take local trains. One final tip – take the European Rail Timetable, paper edition.
Boats. A bruising for cruising?
Q: Are cruises going to banned again, based on CDC advice, and if so for how long do you think?
A: My sole experience of cruising – aboard the first voyage to leave the UK once the ban was relaxed last year – was not exactly joyful. The pre-boarding testing regime was onerous. The mask rules not conducive to carefree travel. And the only way to leave the ship at a port of call was on an expensive excursion.
So while I do not expect cruises to be banned again by either the UK or US governments, for a while yet only true devotees will want to step aboard.
Allow me to delve more deeply into the latest warning from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC, the American health regulator).
On 30 December the organisation issued a stark warning against going on cruises: “Avoid cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status.
“The virus that causes Covid-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships.
“The chance of getting Covid-19 on cruise ships is very high, even if you are fully vaccinated and have received a Covid-19 vaccine booster dose.:
The CDC also urges cruise passengers should be tested between three and one days before getting on board and take a second test three, four or five days after the voyage (though anyone who has recovered from Covid-19 within the past three months need not do so).
“Passengers who are not fully vaccinated should self-quarantine for a full five days after cruise travel,” it warns – adding “It is especially important” that travellers at an increased risk of severe illness from Covid-19 avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, regardless of their vaccination status.
The UK Foreign Office picks up the theme, saying: “Although operators have taken steps to improve infection control, cruise ships continue to experience Covid-19 outbreaks, affecting passengers and seafarers. The confined setting on board and combination of multiple households enables COVID-19 to spread faster than it is able to elsewhere.
Yet whatever governments (and I) might say, right now many people are at sea aboard cruise ships. The cruise lines say they can offer cruising with confidence.
“We’re fully prepared with immediate medical evaluations, rapid testing and more critical care beds on each ship in the event of a suspected case of Covid-19,” says one of the biggest, Royal Caribbean.
A rival line, Princess, vows: “When you’re ready to sail again, we’ll make sure it’s as safe as possible. So dream on. Make plans. And let’s look forward to exploring this big beautiful world together soon.”
Q: Where do I stand on a cruise to the Canaries departing on 24 January with Tui that we just don’t feel comfortable going on? Can we move the date forward a few months without losing our money?
A: Travel firms, including Tui, will always be happy to discuss the possibility of changing plans – so long as it means they don’t have to give you a refund, and quite possibly can charge you a bit more money.
Planes. Now departing for Orlando, Dubai, Las Vegas ..?
Q: I’m due to fly to Orlando from Manchester imminently. What are the chances of me still being able to go?
A: Nothing is 100 per cent in the world of travel, especially at the moment, but I’ll give you 98 per cent. The most likely cause of being unable to travel is testing positive immediately before your trip.
Q: We’re booked for Dubai on 24 January – do you think it’ll happen?
A: Yes, have a great trip. January is the best month for gentle weather in Dubai. For a cheap and unusual day out take the local bus (number E16 from Sabkha bus station or the Old Souk in Deira) to the desert outpost of Hatta
Q: My family and I are booked for Las Vegas on 20 February. It’s our third attempt! I know that cases are high here and in the US. I appreciate there will be testing. We are all OK with that as we are boosted to the max. Looking into your crystal ball, do you see any countries closing their borders again?
A: I see some countries closing borders over the next few weeks, but I would be very surprised if the US puts back its barrier on British visitors.
Conversely, the currently ridiculous testing regime imposed by the UK on arrivals from anywhere apart from Ireland is certainly not going to get any tougher, and may only get easier. So look forward to it.
Q: Is there any way around the airlines’ awful customer service policy of not refunding flights that cannot be taken due to travel restrictions? We were due to travel to Berlin on New Year’s Eve but due to the restrictions were not allowed in. But we cannot get our money back.
A: Just before Christmas, France and Germany closed their borders to the UK. While Germany’s travel ban ended yesterday, many people over Christmas and the New Year found themselves in this unenviable position: you booked a flight and were fully expecting to be able to go, but sudden government action made your plan unattainable.
Had the flight had been cancelled – as many were following the travel bans imposed by France and Germany on British visitors – you would be entitled to a cash refund (so long as you didn’t cancel or change your booking before the airline announced the cancellation).
Yet the airlines insist that if the plane took off, they fulfilled their contract. There was a seat on board for you. The fact you were not allowed to occupy it was not, they say, their problem.
The UK Competition and Markets Authority has the general principle that if a contract cannot be fulfilled (for example because you are not legally allowed to travel), then the arrangement should be annulled and you should be fully refunded.
The airlines, however, dispute that this applies to international air travel.
I have every sympathy with you: not least because if you had turned up for your flight to Germany, you would have turned you away by ground staff working for the very airline that claims you have a seat on board.
In the clear light of the post-pandemic era, there will need to be a test case to assess the position of people like you who are legally unable to make a journey.
At this stage all you can do is wait– unless you want to be that test case.
Q: Wanting to travel to Qatar in February. What are my chances?
A: If you want a percentage, Andrew, then I will give you 85 per cent. But I really wouldn’t be thinking about booking anything until a few days before departure.
Q: We were planning on a couple of day in Edinburgh, 4-6 January. We wanted to do the usual touristy things like the Castle, Distillery tour, Catacombs. Would you recommend still going? It appears most attractions remain open.
A: Just before Christmas the Scottish government stepped up its Covid rules, saying: “Businesses should re-introduce protective measures such as 1m physical distancing and protective screens.
“Hospitality returning to table service for service of drinks.
“Wear your mask as required indoors and on public transport.”
But Edinburgh is one of Europe’s greatest cities and deserves to be enjoyed. Don’t miss an evening of beer and folk music at the wonderful Royal Oak pub.
Angela Crolla, who lives just outside Edinburgh, has helpfully added: “My advice is go. You would be best to book your attractions online to ensure you can get entry as numbers are restricted but you will find hand gel at every door entrance and cafes restaurants etc are still open.
“Face masks are mandatory so have plenty of medical grade disposable face masks with you and enjoy.”
Let’s test again
Q: We’re returning from Lanzarote on 14 January. What are the chances that the test to return will be removed on 5 January?
A: The next review of UK travel restrictions may reduce the onerous and expensive regime currently in force. My advice as always is: do not book your test until the last possible moment, to avoid the risk that you will buy a test you do not need.
Q: I’m due to fly to Cape Town on 19 January. But I tested positive for Covid over Christmas. I’ve read that you can continue to test positive up to 90 days after catching Covid. So I may fail the PCR test needed to get into South Africa, and the test to get home. Should I cancel my trip? Are there any other options?
A: Sorry to hear about your positive case. While in theory you can remain apparently infectious according to PCR tests up to 90 days after recovery, in practice I am seeing plenty of anecdotal evidence that says you will be just fine.
I have just been talking to somebody who was infected and confined to quarantine in Dubai and got out, with a mandatory negative PCR test, two weeks after first testing positive.
Q: We’re currently in New York. We’re being told we can’t just turn up at JFK and get an antigen test. Can we use the free NYC pop up tests for a certificate? We’re getting mixed answers.
A: Multiple travellers to New York have confirmed to me that the pop-ups are acceptable. Check with a hotel concierge to find the best. Make sure you get one with an official certificate, though.
Q: Cyprus have just introduced an additional PCR test - now requiring a 48 hour test before departure. Am I right in thinking that the time you take the test has to be within 48 hours of departure, not the test result?
A: The new demand from Cyprus takes effect on 4 January. Timings are always from the testing time, not the result.
Q: I live in Portugal, and my daughter is due to fly out for a visit from the UK in three weeks’ time. Will she have to have a PCR test 48 hours before she leaves the UK, and again before she leaves Portugal? Or are lateral flow tests acceptable, as long as they are done by recognised agencies (ie not self tests?).
If lateral flow tests are OK, when should she have them? She is double vaccinated and boosted.
A: I’m not sure why, when or how the PCR test has acquired the status of default test for travel? Very often a cheaper, faster lateral flow is acceptable.
Portugal needs a lateral flow test that is professionally administered (eg at the airport before departure), and the UK needs a lateral flow on the day of travel or one of the two previous days – though that may not be the case in three weeks.
Q: We are currently in Zermatt due to fly back in three days. We have just had our antigen tests done in resort (both negative), however the certificates they gave that meet all the UK requirements have big red banners saying “this is not a travel document”.
Will we be able to board with these? It would cause huge disruption as we cannot get to the airport early enough to test there, and would have to cut our skiing short.
A: It sounds as though you have not booked a private test for the purposes of your journey home? If it is simply a routine in-resort test required for local purposes then it probably will not be acceptable for the airline (which is the hurdle you need to overcome).
I imagine Zermatt has some pharmacies where they will be happy to take a considerable number of Swiss francs from you for a quick lateral flow test a day or two before your departure.
Q: We are due on a package holiday to Nerja in southern Spain in January but our flights have been changed and we now have the opportunity to cancel and get a full refund. I’m conflicted as have concerns about catching Omicron on holiday, testing positive and having to quarantine abroad.
A: Many, many people have concerns about testing positive while abroad. If it is a real anxiety, and having to self isolate would cause you problems in terms of other commitments, then I would reluctantly agree that cancelling for a full refund is a reasonable approach.
But living an outdoor lifestyle in southern Spain gives you a much lower risk of contracting Covid, in my opinion, and so I would certainly be on that rearranged flight.
France and beyond
Q: As a UK citizen, is it possible to fly to Geneva from the UK and then enter France via train? If so what checks or requirements are there to cross the Franco-Swiss border?
A: The bizarre thing about the French travel ban is that it appears to be extremely easy to circumvent. According to my research, there is nothing to stop a properly documented person travelling to Geneva – or Basel, another Swiss airport on the border of France – enjoying a slightly overpriced cup of coffee in Switzerland and then entering France.
The same applies if you fly to Milan, Turin, or Genoa and head across to Nice and the south of France (though the coffee will probably be cheaper and tastier in Italy). But this clearly breaches the spirit of the French travel ban.
You would, of course, have to comply with all the rules for entering Switzerland as well as the prevailing regulations for France.
Q: We are hoping to travel to Switzerland 22-29 January with flights booked from Heathrow to Basel airport. This apparently means we will have to comply with both French and Swiss Covid rules (even assuming the French have relaxed their stance on UK travellers by then). We are minded to change the flights now to Zurich to avoid the uncertainty. What would you advise?
A: ”EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg”, to give Basel airport its full name, lies within French territory. An access road leads direct to Switzerland. Even if you intend only to travel on this road and have no intention of visiting France, the airport authorities say: “Passengers with Swiss citizenship or a residence permit for Switzerland are subject to Swiss regulations. All other passengers – including those from Germany – must comply with French regulations.
“Prepare thoroughly for your journey by ensuring that you are aware of and comply with the current rules and have all the required documents ready at the airport checkpoints.”
So you need to clear all the French hurdles (which, at present, include a general ban on British travellers) as well as meeting the Swiss requirements.
Yet since there is a bit of time to spare, I recommend you practise “masterful inactivity”. In other words, doing nothing deliberately. In the next three weeks, I predict that there will be considerable easing of travel rules. If am wrong, then Zurich looks a good bet.
Q: I have a skiing holiday booked in Avoriaz, France, on 5 February. What are the chances of the French lifting their travel ban before then; or should I just rebook to Austria or Switzerland for the sake of certainty?
A: Don’t rebook yet. I reckon it is 98 per cent likely the ban will be over. Avoriaz, as you probably know, is lovely.
Q: I am due to be travelling to Italy in January 2022. Arriving in Geneva, travelling through France and the Mont Blanc tunnel to the Aosta Valley.
I presume based on current French restrictions this wouldn’t be possible - unless the French government change the restrictions on UK travellers?
A: Plenty of British people have defied the French ban on UK travellers by going in via a third country, but this is clearly in breach of the spirit of the border closure.
I fully expect the French ban, which is plainly absurd given the extent of omicron in France, to end within the next week or two. But if you are travelling sooner than that, a flight to Turin looks the answer.
Q: My son is going to Cologne on 7 January by train . The first leg is Eurostar to Brussels. Can you confirm whether he needs to comply with French Covid rules to transit through France on Eurostar? He is double vaccinated and boosted, and also has temporary German residency.
A: Eurostar is able to carry people London-Lille-Brussels without reference to the French ban.
Q: I am a British citizen with German residency. I drove across to the UK to be with family for Christmas. I have seen on the Eurotunnel website that I am no longer allowed to transit via France, although the French Interior Ministry seems to have said this is incorrect. Do you have any clarification on what is happening here?
A: France has eased its rules on British people resident in other EU countries, so you should be able to travel through without any problem. Personally, though, I would always go for Eurostar as a train passenger rather than driving. As mentioned above, you can travel London-Brussels without a problem and change for Cologne and beyond.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who were due to travel to France via Geneva? My airline is currently stating that moves and refunds are subject to normal terms and conditions (therefore very costly to move or cancel).
A: In general airlines say that if your trip is going ahead, you are not entitled to a full refund. While Geneva airport is partly in French territory, you can travel into Switzerland without reference to the France rules. This is not much help for all the people heading for the French Alps, for which Geneva is the main gateway.
All the more reason to book a proper package holiday – in which case much stronger consumer protection kicks in, and if you can’t have the holiday you booked you get all your money back.
Q: My parents are due to fly out to Italy. Do you think it’s likely the government there will introduce stricter rules like France has?
A: No. France is an outlier in terms of its Draconian response. The government in Paris could have tightened the testing restrictions – and perhaps added self isolation with an additional test on arrival – but chose instead to have a blanket ban on British travellers.
In contrast, tightening testing rules is the strategy adopted by Italy, the US and others.
Q: We are due to go to Tenerife. One concern is being away when there’s a lockdown at home. Do we need to finish the holiday?
K from Belfast
A: At last I have a chance to be helpfully optimistic. A significant number of people are concerned that, in the event of a lockdown nation, they have to return to the UK.
On the contrary, my advice is to stay away as long as possible because it’s going to be an awful lot more pleasant than in the UK.
There is no legal obligation to come home, and the only problem I foresee is that airlines will be cancelling flights – so you may need to adjust your homeward departure a little.
Q: I am travelling to Italy to ski in the Dolomites – but entering via Innsbruck. Will we have to take a PCR for entry to Austria, or can we just do rapid antigen within 24 hours for Italy as we will be transiting? And one of our party has less than 120 days between second vaccination and booster so she would have to quarantine if no transit exemption.
A: I can imagine that when you elected to travel via Innsbruck in Austria to reach Italy, the outlook was much sunnier. New restrictions from Austria in response to the Omicron variant have made things much complicated.
Purely mathematically, the risk associated with multi-national trips is higher than a simple there-and-back. In your position, I would be looking at switching (or even buying a completely new flight) to an Italian airport. Ryanair has lots of capacity from London Stansted to Treviso – handy for the Dolomites – in January for £10 each way, though of course you have to add luggage charges.
If you choose this route, then see when you get to the Italian Dolomites what the rules are for crossing to Austria – you may be able to fly back on your original flight.
Q: Given potential changes, what do you think the chances are of a holiday to the Canaries in January? Or where else would you advise for a last-minute January break in the sun?
A: The Canary Islands always comprise an enticing location in January, and you should find some excellent deals – providing not too much capacity has been cancelled. Best islands: Tenerife and Gran Canaria, because they each have a great city (Santa Cruz and Las Palmas) to explore if the weather is less than perfect.
The UK government’s 5 January review may ease the onerous, complex and expensive testing regime.
New Zealand opening?
Q: My Dad lives in New Zealand. I have already missed his 80th birthday and will miss his 81st birthday next month.
Can you give us your best guess as to when I will be able to travel to New Zealand to see him? I have a UK passport.
A: “From 30 April 2022 onwards, New Zealand will begin opening to fully vaccinated foreign visitors,” ministers in Wellington say. This date is the southern hemisphere equivalent of the end of October in the northern half of the world. So holidaymakers will not necessarily be queuing up, those with close family ties will want to be there.
But there is no guarantee, I am afraid. The New Zealand government also warns: “Covid-19 keeps throwing new curve balls and we have to respond in a way that continues to protect lives and livelihoods without putting in place restrictions and lockdowns unless absolutely necessary.”
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