As we enter the final week before UK schools break up for the summer, travel anxiety is overshadowing the holiday mood.
With millions preparing to jet off on what could be their first foreign trip in three years, the “capacity crunch” is causing chaotic scenes in UK airports — and sadly, more disruption is expected.
On top of this, there’s the worry of rising Covid cases. And even if you successfully arrive at your destination, the slump in sterling will make everything more expensive once you get there.
As ever, my mantra is don’t despair — prepare! Here’s a financial travel checklist to help ensure you’re protected.
Be prepared for disruption
Airlines have already cancelled tens of thousands of flights over the next few months as they grapple with airport overcapacity. In theory, this gives passengers more time to rebook, but some are still happening at the last minute.
If cancellations are the airline’s fault, under European air passenger rights, it must rebook passengers on to alternative flights — even if that’s with a rival airline — plus reimburse additional transport costs (limits apply). Depending on the length of the delay, airlines could also have to pay cash compensation, provide meal vouchers and hotel accommodation.
However, if cancellations are beyond the airline’s control, passengers are not entitled to the same compensation. This week’s unprecedented decision to cap passenger numbers at Heathrow is one example (acts of terrorism and erupting volcanoes are others).
Whilst passengers are entitled to a refund, rebooking is a grey area. Airlines are urgently working to clarify the rules, but what’s offered will come down to individual airlines and what agreements they have in place with other airports and other carriers.
Some might rebook you for no extra charge, but high capacity means there’s no guarantee this will be on the same day, or even from the same airport — and the restrictions are bound to push up fares.
Make sure your airline has your contact details, especially if you’ve booked via third-party websites or tour operators, and download the airline’s app to be rapidly notified of any problems (yet another area of life where it pays to be digitally savvy).
Check your insurance cover carefully
“Spending 20 minutes out of your life to read your travel insurance policy thoroughly” could be the best investment you make this summer, says Malcolm Tarling of the Association of British Insurers.
Not all policies contain travel disruption cover; even if yours does, be aware of any limits and the excess charged. A recent investigation by Which? found that four in 10 policies offered no protection for cancellations caused by strike action. The Heathrow cap will undoubtedly test the limits of some policies.
Travel insurers generally expect you to exhaust any available airline compensation before pursuing a claim for any other losses, such as accommodation or hire cars. Keep receipts, screenshots and download any webchats to help prove any future claims.
Get your insurance in good time
Additional costs from travel chaos might be the number one worry this summer, but the primary purpose of travel insurance is medical cover — a far more expensive risk.
“Ideally, take out cover when you book your holiday, as that is when your cancellation cover for illness kicks in,” says Tarling.
Covid cover is another area where Which? found huge disparities — not all policies have the option to claim cancellation costs if you test positive before your trip.
Considering the problems with airport baggage handling systems, travel journalist Simon Calder’s advice is to fly hand baggage only.
British Airways will allow passengers up to 46kg of cabin baggage, providing size limits are met. If you do check a bag, he says, “assume that is the last you will ever see of it — it will probably be fine, but don’t pack anything irreplaceable.”
If your bag is lost, the maximum compensation airlines offer is around £1,000 and even then, you’ll need to prove you had items inside to that value. Travel insurers may not cover valuables or gadgets inside checked baggage.
For peace of mind, photograph the contents of your suitcase before you zip it up; ensure you have a sturdy luggage tag and a big label inside bearing your name and address and consider an electronic tracking tag.
Is your EHIC card still valid?
You can still use an existing European Health Insurance Card to access basic medical treatment for free within the EU until the day it expires. While it is not a replacement for travel insurance, it’s a handy thing to have.
Otherwise, apply for the replacement Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) for free via the NHS website (avoid rip off websites that charge). You’ll be emailed a reference number, and the card should arrive within 10 days. If you jet off before it does and need to access treatment, you can call NHS Overseas Healthcare Services for help.
Get a hire car waiver policy
Hire car companies are notorious for peddling hugely expensive insurance policies offering “extras” to cover the excess, or add-ons like tyre or windscreen cover.
Consider taking out cheaper “waiver” insurance with an independent insurer before you travel — we have an annual policy which costs less than £50. If an accident does befall you, you will have to cover the costs and claim them back afterwards, but considering the savings, it’s a risk I’m prepared to take.
Check your plastic
There’s nothing we can do about sterling weakness, but we can cut costs by avoiding foreign transaction fees on card purchases made overseas. Revolut and digital banks Starling, Monzo, Virgin and Chase all offer fee-free cards (plus Metro is fee-free within the EU). Apply online now, and you could get a card delivered within a few days. Most also offer fee-free ATM withdrawals, up to a limit.
Often, hotels and hire car companies insist on swiping a credit card — fee-free options here include Halifax Clarity and Barclaycard Rewards.
Harry Kind, a Which? travel expert, also reminds those using a credit card to book flights, holidays (and indeed anything costing over £100) of the added consumer protections this offers.
“If the travel provider cancels your trip or doesn’t provide what was advertised, Section 75 rules mean you can claim through your card provider to try and get that money back,” he says.
When you are passed a chip and pin machine overseas, always choose to pay in the local currency, never in pounds sterling. The rate shown on the terminal is bound to be a rip off — just think “pay in pounds, and you’ll be charged extra pounds”.
Beware of roaming charges
The joys of Brexit mean roaming charges for data, calls and texts have dramatically increased, although precise costs vary hugely. Check your provider’s website before you travel to see if you could save by buying passes or add-ons, or even set a data limit if you’re worried that you (or your children) will run up huge bills.
Price comparison site uswitch.com has a “Roaming Red List” of the priciest destinations, which include Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Saudi Arabia, plus a guide to the best roaming deals.
Another good tip? Use your home WiFi to download films, playlists and podcasts on to your devices before you travel (well, we can all dream of being this organised).
If you’re still consumed with travel anxiety, Calder stresses the vast majority of airline travellers to and from the UK this summer will complete their journeys more or less as planned.
So take a breath and remind yourself how lucky you are to be able to afford a holiday. Foreign travel is fast becoming a luxury that fewer people can afford — make sure you enjoy every minute of yours.