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HomeTravelExpert Simon Calder answers travel questions as restrictions ease

Expert Simon Calder answers travel questions as restrictions ease


The travel correspondent of The Independent spent most of the weekend in something of a geo-political no-person’s land, following certain concerns about the acceptability of a quasi-diplomatic passport of unusual provenance.

But with some petty bureaucracy taken care of, Simon Calder re-emerged on Monday in Sydney, Australia – which opened to international arrivals after two years of closure.

As the sun rose over the Opera House in Australia’s largest city, “The Man Who Pays His Way” paused long enough to dispatch this compilation of answers to readers’ pressing travel questions.

Australian adventures

Q: I plan to go to Australia. I am unsure about testing. I believe I would require a PCR in UK before leaving for Australia. But what happens if I want to stop over for a day somewhere along the way to Australia? This would mean getting a test en route for the second stage of journey, presumably.

Morag

A: Despite many rumours to the contrary (and indeed an assertion I heard while checking in on Saturday for the first leg of my journey to Sydney) you don’t need a negative PCR test result for Australia. It is acceptable to take a cheaper, faster lateral flow test within the 24 hours before departure.

Given that Sydney is a minimum of one refuelling stop away, it is important to know how “departure” is defined. Is it the time your first flight leaves in your itinerary, or your final flight into Australia?

Happily, I can confirm that it means within 24 hours of the first leg – assuming you are taking either direct flights or a reasonably swift connection. In my case, I took a test at 7.10pm on Friday for a departure at 7pm Saturday and was allowed on board. My connection in Tokyo, the hub where I changed planes, was three hours.

I am not sure how far you could push this. For example, I like flights that arrive in Singapore early in the morning: I leave the airport and spend the day exploring the city-state before an onward overnight hop to Australia. I don’t imagine a 14-hour “change of planes” would be allowed. So you might go for the PCR option anyway, because you can have that within three days of your departure to Australia.

You could, for example, take a PCR test in the UK on Monday at 6pm, which would then be valid for connections to Australia from Singapore up to 3am on on the following Friday.

As always, though: please don’t book any tests until very shortly before departure (certainly no earlier than a day ahead) to avoid the risk of paying for tests that you turn out not to need. Rules are changing fast, and by the time you travel to Australia they may be very different to those I have complied with.

Passport problems

Q: In October 2017 my husband renewed his passport nine months early so it shows an expiry date of May 2028. We realise it actually expires in October 2027. But when filling in API [Advance Passenger Information] data which should we use as the expiry date: the one printed on the passport or the correct date?

Christine Jones

A: Your husband’s passport expires in May 2028, and I hope he enjoys using the document to the full.

When completing online forms such as API and the infuriating UK passenger locator form, he should always use the expiry date as printed on it.

Your concerns are about a European Union rule, which the UK was party to making, which says that anyone seeking to enter the EU needs a passport issued in the past 10 years. Once inside the EU, he can stay for a further 90 days. For example arriving on 1 October 2027, he could remain until the end of December (beyond the 10 years, a test that applies only on arrival).

But that is just one annoying rule from a relatively small part of the world. I am unaware of any other nations where the same tiresome condition applies. From America to Australia, your husband can carry on using his passport right up until its expiry date six years from now.

Testing times

Q: Do you know when the US are doing a travel review – maybe dropping need to test before arrival?

Mark 88

A: Nothing about the US approach to international travel in the time of Covid has been swift – except for former President Trump is banning of British (and European) visitors in mid-March 2020.

The Americans will get rid of the rule when they’re good and ready. Perhaps July?

Q: Just wondering if you have any idea when or if the requirement for PCR testing travelling to Dubai will be relaxed at all?

Lisa C

A: Lots of people who have recovered from Covid recently are understandably concerned about the “90 days” warning – the NHS saying not to take a PCR test for three months after infection, in case their result is a false positive. In practice, though, many travellers who have had Covid find that they test negative, even on sensitive PCRs, after a couple of weeks.

The Gulf states have been generally slow in the changes they have made, and while I am sure the requirement will be eased soon, I would not make any plans on the basis that you will be able to to get a cheaper and quicker lateral flow test, or perhaps no test at all.

But let me hazard a guess: Wednesday 2 March. Or a week either side.

Q: Do you know when/if Poland will remove the requirement for a Covid test before entry from a “third country” such as the UK, even when fully vaccinated?

Oatcake

A: Revisiting Kraków and Katowice in southwest Poland was one of the most memorable trips I made in late 2020 (agreed, there wasn’t too much competition), and access was really easy.

A reminder that the current requirement is a lateral flow within 24 hours of arrival, even for fully vaccinated folk. It might seem onerous, but bear in mind that last year Poland was on the UK “red list” for some time – making travel between the two extremely difficult.

Were you to twist my arm, I would guess the restriction will end on Tuesday 1 March. But please don’t hold me to it.

Q: The Netherlands seem to be lagging on opening up/testing relaxation. Any idea when they may move in line with countries such as France?

Nick Young

A: On Friday, 25 February, mandatory quarantine for all arrivals from the UK will end. But you will still need a lateral flow test taken within 24 hours of departure to the Netherlands, unless things change.

Q: Can you see Morocco easing their entry requirements (similar to what Tunisia have just done) anytime soon? I am due to fly Gatwick to Agadir on 31 March and would be great if could avoid PCR costs!

Tommo Young

A: Yes, I can. Morocco has had a pretty messy time in the way that it has dealt with tourism during the pandemic. It banned British flights for 16 weeks. As it slips further and further behind its north African rivals – Tunisia and Egypt – pressure will grow for easing the current tricky rules.

As always, book and take your test as late as possible, to avoid paying for something you don’t need.

Q: Could you help clear up the testing entry requirements to Barbados. I’ve read in a couple of places that a lateral flow is fine but the guidance to me looks to be PCR only, noting both have to be administered by a professional. Thanks!

Justine J

A: I am not sure what you are reading, but the only online information that I pay attention to is is that issued by Visit Barbados. The island’s tourism authorities specify that a PCR test is required. But now you need one only before your departure to Barbados, not on arrival (unless you get pulled aside for a random check).

Q: I know you haven’t got a crystal ball but we have a twice-cancelled trip to the Okavango of southern Africa coming up in May – a holiday of a lifetime. We are flying via Johannesburg. I am terrified of failing the PCR at last moment. I’m tempted to postpone again. What do you think the chances are of South Africa and Botswana ditching the PCR by May?

Claire GG

A: I am sorry to read about your concerns. I would not cancel, but I would be circumspect my activities in the two weeks before departure to try to ensure there is no infection. As “competitive reopening” of travel industries continues, there is a good chance that either or both of Botswana and South Africa will ease rules, perhaps allowing a pre-departure lateral flow or perhaps no test at all. But don’t bank on it.

Q: When do you anticipate Chile opening up without testing requirements?

Coopon

A: In good time – by which I mean I wouldn’t be looking to visit this beautiful, friendly nation until halfway through September. I am sure that it will be open and accessible by the southern spring, unless world events take a turn for much worse.

Risk management

Q: When you book Jet2 flights it recommends that you take out travel insurance at the time of booking. Do you agree with this, or is it OK to be taken out a few weeks before the holiday? It’s for a summer family trip to Spain and Italy.

Are there certain travel insurance companies that you would recommend for travel insurance including good Covid cover?

Sam

A: If you book a trip and you decide to take out travel insurance to cover it (which is generally a good idea) there is only one rational time to do so: at the same moment as you commit to the holiday. An insurance policy for a family of four will cost the same whether you take it out six months, six weeks or six hours before departure.

Part of the value of travel insurance is that you get the benefit of cover such as cancellation on the grounds of illness or injury immediately you take out the policy. And sadly I have heard from too many people in the past who decide not to take out insurance at the time, and then are left unprotected when life takes an unexpected turn.

Holiday companies, travel agents and others will encourage you to take out their preferred policy – understandably, because they get commission on it. But it is generally better to shop around. I prefer travel specialists rather than general insurer: I happen to have an annual policy with Staysure and in the past have used Columbus and Insure and Go.

Covid cover is offered by a range of companies, and I look for the following:

  • Cancellation if you (or a travelling companion) test positive within two weeks of the trip starting, including immediately before departure.
  • Quarantine cover, including extending stay due to self-isolation – together with extra travel costs.


Since many good insurers have a tiered system (the higher the premium, the better the cover), study the level of protection that is best for you. And pick the company that provides what you need at the lowest price.

Italian jab

Q: What about Italy for minors who are not vaccinated? When will green passes be reviewed?

Shazza37

A: Italy’s Covid rules have proved a real mess for British visitors (especially families) this winter. “Green passes” for accessing venues, and the even more onerous “supergreen passes”, requiring vaccination, have blighted trips to the Alps and the cities.

Through the past year of the coronavirus pandemic, Italy has not been especially helpful towards British visitors; it was much easier to visit in July 2020 than in the same month in 2021. But I predict the picture will be much clearer by Easter, when the Italian government realises it is falling behind competitors in appeal to UK travellers and removes restrictions.

Booking tripwires

Q: I’ve booked flights for my family plus another family in the same booking for British Airways.

If one member of the party tests positive in a PCR meaning that one family in the booking can no longer fly, would I be able to change my flights for one family but the other family still able to fly?

The website seems to say that any changes to the booking will affect all passengers.

Lisa C

A: In my experience, multi-person bookings with British Airways can be dismantled to allow some but not others to travel. But it’s a slow business that can normally only be done by phone.

You won’t thank me for pointing out what you know already, but in these uncertain times every booking should be made in the spirit of “what could possibly go wrong?”. With that approach, I imagine you would not have put two families on the same booking.

Austria unlocking

Q: Austria has announced it is dropping restrictions on 5 March but there is a lack of information about travel. My two sons, aged 12 and 15, have had two vaccinations but currently still require a PCR to enter. Has this been dropped?

Steve Graham

A: The 5 March date is, I understand, purely for domestic life: all Covid protection measures are to be lifted except for wearing masks on public transport and in shops.. As things stand, if your sons had their last jab more than six months ago they will need a PCR.

Portuguese problem?

Q: Not for the first time over the last two years, I’m seeing conflicting advice about entry to Portugal. I’ve read that mainland Portugal no longer requires prophylactic self-isolation of 14 days for anyone who has visited various southern African countries in the previous 14 days.

The Facebook page of South Africa’s embassy in Lisbon says the requirement was removed on Valentine’s Day. The Reopen.eu website has removed references to this requirement but our Foreign Office website says that self-isolation is still required.

Fred Smith

A: There’s no indication that the requirement depends on nationality or origin of the flight to Portugal. IIt’s only the official Portuguese site that counts. Nothing I can see here affects people who have been in southern Africa.

French lesson

Q: I am looking to take advantage of a cheap weekend break following the French removing the pre-departure tests for us Brits. I have booked a trip to Montpellier in a couple of weeks time. Have you ever been there, and is there anything you would recommend to do or see?

Richard B

A: This city in the deep south of France is a marvellous location: historic, beautiful and friendly, with great places to eat and drink thanks partly to the large student population. Montpellier is a short way inland (and astride the main railway line running from Paris, Lyon and Marseille to the southwest and Spain. But a beach is a short bus or bike ride away.

You can find plenty of specific recommendations in our most recent 48 hours in Montpellier.

Storm warning

Q: We are due to fly to New York for five nights with British Airways Holidays, booked as a package. If bad weather means we do not get to travel, either on our shuttle from Manchester to London Heathrow or onward from there to JFK, could we ask to be transferred to the direct flight from Manchester to New York if that would save the trip?

Name supplied

A: Devastating weather has wrecked the travel plans of tens of thousands of people this month – with Friday’s Storm Eunice doing particular damage and Monday’s Storm Franklin following up.

I’m interested that you didn’t book a nonstop for a winter trip in the first place, and instead chose a routing via an airport, London Heathrow, that is extremely susceptible to disruption. In normal times, it is the busiest two-runway airport in the world, with little slack in the system.

During extreme weather it is normal for flights to be cancelled en masse at Heathrow, because the “flow rate” of arriving aircraft is reduced: air-traffic controllers cannot handle the usual number of flights. Short domestic hops are often the first to go, rather than profitable long-haul departures.

Anyway, if there is disruption on the day on either sector, it is certainly worth asking to be transferred to the nonstop Manchester-New York JFK flight on Aer Lingus (sister airline to British Airways). Either ask airport staff or try the difficult business of getting through on the phone to BA.

If it works and you get switched, you would have a much better journey: Manchester airport is 110 miles closer to New York than is London Heathrow, and you will also save many hours compared with your indirect trip: flying in the wrong direction for 45 minutes, then hanging around for an hour or two.

Regardless of severe storms, changing planes always increases complexity and risk. It can cut costs. But if you are going to do it, then next time can I suggest you transfer at Dublin to reach the US? Not only is it less of a detour, but you can pre-clear US border formalities at the Irish airport, meaning that when you arrive you are treated as a domestic arrival and can head straight into Manhattan.

Fare deals

Q: I know that flight prices are dynamic and that generally the closer to the date you want, the more expensive it is. I also understand that occasionally prices can drop after you book. However I’m wondering if my case is an extreme example of this?

On 18 January I booked two easyJet flights from Geneva to Belfast for late February for £131 each. That was the morning. In the evening I went back to book two more flights, this time at £156 each. I checked a day or so later and the price had risen again, to around £180. Phew, I thought. However I checked yesterday again and now they are just £120 each, a week before we fly. Am I just unlucky or it is more common than I think? Any advice or tips to try and avoid this?

Graham 65

A: “Yield management” – trying to fill every seat on a train, boat or plane is a dark and very approximate art.

Every airline aims to increase prices steadily as departure date approaches. In a perfect world, people who commit early will always get the best deal. But each departure has a booking profile: the airlines know how many seats they need to have sold by certain dates in order to fill the plane. If sales prove sluggish, the fare comes down again.

At present I am buying tickets very late indeed, because so much can change between buying and travelling.

Sometimes that means I pay a fortune (eg nearly £200 for the one-hour flight from London Stansted to City of Derry two days ahead). But you can sometimes get some decent fares very close to departure: London-Dublin in two days’ time is just £24 on the early morning Ryanair hop from Stansted.

Travellers to and from London are in the strongest position to wait and see, because on a route such as Geneva there are plenty of flights and lots of competition.

For a journey such as Geneva-Belfast, however, you are in a difficult position. There are few departures and the alternative route – via Dublin – may well be unpalatable. So the only possible test is: are you happy with the price you paid? And then try really hard not to look again.

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