When should I book a holiday for?

Emma Featherstone
·17 min read
When should I book a holiday for? - Getty
When should I book a holiday for? - Getty

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has at last said he is "not advising against booking foreign holidays". And, from securing annual leave to finding a good-value trip in the school summer break, Britons know it pays to plan ahead (and it is, of course, not illegal to book). Plus, we all need something to look forward to this year, and an escape from the UK could deliver just that – whether your chosen tonic is a week by a pool in Spain, a Caribbean cruise or an overwater villa in the Maldives.

So, how can we make an educated guess as to where we will be permitted to visit, quarantine-free, in 2021? Firstly, the Government has laid out its criteria for both easing restrictions within England and determining which countries are safest to visit under its planned “traffic light” system for the resumption of travel.

The roadmap is underpinned by four “tests” linked to data. These work like a checklist that must be ticked off before the next stage of reopening is permitted.

Then, decisions on whether a country should be designated red (direct flights banned, returning Britons subject to a stay in a quarantine hotel), amber (tests and self-isolation at home, with some restrictions potentially waived for fully-vaccinated travellers) or green (tests, but no quarantine or self-isolation on return) will take into account:

  • The proportion of its population that has been vaccinated

  • Its infection rates

  • The prevalence of variants of concern

  • Its capacity to sequence the genomes of variants (the UK leads the way on this)

cyprus - Getty
cyprus - Getty

It is thought as few as 12 countries could be green-listed when the foreign holiday ban lifts. However, many nations are pushing for the return of international visitors. Some are highlighting their swift vaccine roll-outs as a route to reopening, others have specifically announced their intention to welcome back Britons this summer and a raft of nations will waive testing and quarantine restrictions for travellers who have been fully vaccinated.

We’ve taken each of these into factors account – alongside industry plans (cruise restart dates, when airlines and tour operators are expecting a bookings surge) – to help form a picture of when to book a holiday for each month this year, and to where. As will become clear, and as our consumer editor, Nick Trend, advises: “The best strategy for most travellers in 2021 will be to play a subtle waiting game”.


When to book? Now, for domestic holidays; hold off for foreign holidays.
Where to? England and Wales (Scotland from April 26).

Domestic holidays in self-contained accommodation can resume in England on April 12. This was confirmed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in an announcement on April 5.

“It is your collective efforts, our collective efforts, that has given us that crucial time and space to vaccinate more than 31 million people,” he said. “And the net result of your efforts and the vaccine roll-out is that I can today confirm that from Monday April 12, we will move to Step Two of our roadmap”.

llanddwyn island  - Getty
llanddwyn island - Getty

In Wales, self-contained accommodation reopened on March 27, and the country will welcome tourists from elsewhere in the UK on April 12. Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said in a statement last week that the government would bring forward regulations this week “subject to the public health situation remaining favourable” that would “remove travel restrictions within the UK and Common Travel Area”.

Meanwhile in Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that the 'Stay Local' message will be dropped from April 16, meaning that people in Scotland can travel anywhere in the country from this date. The Scottish Government is also hoping to ease restrictions further on April 26 by allowing people to cross the border and allowing self-catering accommodation to reopen.

Northern Ireland has also not provided a date when holiday accommodation can reopen. Its government continues to advise against non-essential travel between Northern Ireland and both Great Britain and the Irish Republic.


When to book? Wait for confirmation of the May 17 resumption (or make sure you book with a reputable tour operator, with good refund terms).
Where to? Destinations that are most likely to be “green-listed” first under the Government’s traffic light system (possibles include: Israel, Malta, Gibraltar, Caribbean).

International holidays could resume at the earliest date of May 17. However, the Government has warned that the current ban on foreign holidays may not be lifted by this date.

Those who wish to secure a date in their diary with less uncertainty might opt for a hotel or bed and breakfast stay in England: under the UK Government’s roadmap both should be permitted to reopen on May 17. If you are keen to book an overseas holiday for soon after May 17, look to the destinations that are meeting the criteria to be designated as green in the “traffic light” system (as outlined at the top of this article).

Pouring over such data is hardly going to muster up holiday excitement. That said, a quick glance at the “red list” map – the countries from which direct flights to the UK are banned and returning Britons face an 11-day stay in a quarantine hotel at a cost of up to £1,750 – shows that no European countries are currently included (Portugal has previously spent time on the list, however). The higher infection rates, and lower percentage of vaccinated population in some European countries compared to the UK would likely put them on the amber list. Meanwhile, the lack of genome sequencing capacity in some African countries (there are no SARS-CoV-2 sequences available for about 40 per of the countries on the continent), could keep many on the red list, at least in the short term.

malta - Getty
malta - Getty

Some destinations looking on course to be in the green category come May, include:

  • Israel (55 per cent of its population is fully vaccinated; 59 per cent have received their first dose)

  • Gibraltar (delivered enough doses to have fully vaccinated 90.4 per cent of its population; it is also inoculating Spanish residents who work in Gibraltar and it has an infection rate of 2 per 100,000 people in the last seven days)

  • Malta (11th in the table of first dose vaccinations; 32 per cent of its population has received the first dose)

  • Caribbean countries: Barbados (215,700 people have received the first dose; its seven-day case rate is 15.68); Grenada (its seven-day case rate is 0.88).

Israel could be among your best bets for a late May holiday (if the travel ban lifts). It is top of the world league table for vaccinations. "As Israel vaccinates its population, the tourism and hospitality sectors are reopening, allowing us to plan for the return of tourists soon," Israel Minister of Tourism Orit Farkash-Hacohen said in March.

Malta, meanwhile, is surging ahead of the rest of the EU in its vaccination drive. It plans to reopen tourism from June 1. Tolene Van Der Merwe, UK and Ireland director of the Malta Tourism Authority, said: “Malta is a very popular destination for British holidaymakers and is a key contributor to Malta’s economy, so we are excited to welcome back fully vaccinated travellers from the United Kingdom.”


When to book? Again, wait for confirmation of the May 17 resumption (or make sure you book with a reputable tour operator, with good refund terms); your options may broaden if you wait until after then though.
Where to? Greek Islands; Balearic Islands, Canary Islands, Madeira.

June 21 is set to bring “freedom day” under the UK Government’s roadmap out of lockdown. All legal limits on social contact could be removed and nightclubs even should be permitted to open. If the data enables this, then it could spark a surge in holiday bookings.

Summer holiday favourites including Greece, Spain and Portugal have said they would welcome vaccinated Britons, or those with a negative Covid test, in May. And in the second quarter (April–June 2021), Europe is expected to have achieved a significant uptick in its vaccine rollout, potentially pushing more European countries onto the UK’s green list.

Jet2 is preparing for the Canary Islands to see an influx of British tourists from late June. Trips to Tenerife or Lanzarote could be back on the cards. If you do book now, you should do so with a tour operator that will refund you if prohibitive travel restrictions are in place for your destination. Jet2 Holidays will refund or transfer your trip if you would have to quarantine on your return home, for example.

In 2020, the UK Government began to grant regional corridors: for example, the Canary Islands were green-listed in the Autumn (while mainland Spain remained on the red list), individual Greek Islands were granted green status due to lower infection rates than the mainland and Madeira and the Azores were split off from mainland Portugal. If a similar approach is taken this year, it could broaden our European holiday options.

zakynthos - Getty
zakynthos - Getty

Greece began to pre-empt the return of visitors this summer back in January, rolling out the vaccination programme on its islands. Meanwhile, the Portuguese island of Madeira is already welcoming travellers who can provide evidence of vaccination (perhaps a handy option for those who expect to be fully vaccinated come June).

Among the operators with best flexible policies to account for Covid-related travel restrictions are Kuoni, Explore, Exodus, Audley Travel and Trailfinders.

Some European cruises could be back on the menu by this point: regional line Celestyal Cruises has scheduled voyages from May 29, for example. Celebrity will begin sailings in Athens from June 19.


When to book? Wait until May 17, or a confirmation of that resumption date.
Where to? USA; Iceland.

There has been much chatter around a restart of non-essential travel between the US and the UK. Indeed the US is pushing ahead with its vaccination drive: 237,796,305 doses have been administered as of April 13. Some 32 per cent of the population has received their first jab and 19 per cent are fully vaccinated. Hospitalisations from Covid have also been on a downward trajectory. The latest report from the CDC shows hospital admissions of patients with confirmed Covid-19 decreased by 70.1 per cent rom the national 7-day average peak of 16,522 admissions on January 9, 2021. Infection rates have dropped off significantly since January, but this fall has started to slow. The seven-day rate is currently 135.7 per 100,000.

President Joe Biden said last month that he hoped the US could “mark independence” from Covid-19 on July 4 with the successful roll-out of vaccinations. On April 6, he announced that all States should open vaccine appointments to all adults by April 19, moving the date forward two weeks.

Coronavirus USA Spotlight Chart - cases default
Coronavirus USA Spotlight Chart - cases default

Meanwhile, the director of the USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a watershed report on April 2, indicating that the country’s top scientific health body is preparing to loosen the pandemic-enforced bonds on its US$233 billion international tourism industry. The UK has not yet confirmed if fully vaccinated Britons will be able to skip testing requirements for travel. The CDC has recommended this however: it said last week people who are two weeks past their second vaccine jab no longer need a coronavirus test before or after trips, nor do they need to self-quarantine after travel, unless it is required by a state or local jurisdiction.

Airline schedules also signal optimism: Aer Lingus, the Irish flag carrier, last month confirmed the start of transatlantic flights leaving Manchester Airport from July 29, flying to both New York City and Orlando, Florida.

Should travel to the Med resume in earnest by July, Britons favourite summer destinations (Spain, Greece, Portugal among them) may well be experiencing a surge in demand. Countries outside of the usual summer destinations, with consistently lower rates of Covid-19 and which are already welcoming vaccinated travellers without quarantine could be a good bet for greater availability.

Those groups, including people aged 50 and over, who have or are soon to receive their first dose should have received their second by July. Among their options could be Iceland (current seven-day rate 13.78 per 100,000), which has extended its waiver of quarantine and testing of vaccinated arrivals to UK travellers. “We are excited to safely reopen our borders to fully vaccinated British citizens, as well as those who are no longer susceptible to the virus,” said Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, Head of Visit Iceland. Visiting Iceland will guarantee some daylight during overnight hours.

Those eager to return to South-East Asia should note that Thailand plans to reopen the island of Phuket to fully-vaccinated tourists, quarantine-free, from July 1.


When to book? Wait until May 17, or a confirmation of that resumption date.
Where to? Europe.

The EU is on track to have 70 per cent of its population vaccinated by July. All of the UK’s adult population should also have received a jab by then. Should the one-dose Janssen vaccine be rolled out to younger adults, then some 18-30 year olds could be deemed fully inoculated by August. Families dreaming of lazy days on a Greek Island, the Costa Brava or the Algarve might find this to be the most fruitful summer month (although, of course, in peak school holiday season). Croatia may also find a spot on the green list and should be welcoming Britons.

split waterfront - Getty
split waterfront - Getty

Last month, Croatian Minister of Tourism and Sports, Nikolina Brnjac, met with the British ambassador to Croatia, Andrew Dalgleish, to discuss the resumption of travel. She said Croatia “would be ready to receive tourists from the UK as soon as epidemiological rules in their home country allow it.”

Should you wish now to secure an August holiday in Europe now to avoid a post-travel announcement bookings rush or price surge, a package break with flexible terms and a generous approach to Covid disruption would be best.


When to book? Now, with the right long-haul package; wait for a Europe trip.
Where to? Seychelles; Europe.

The Seychelles is currently on the UK’s travel red list, despite having the world’s second fastest vaccine roll-out (39 per cent of its population are now fully vaccinated; 66 per cent have received the first dose). Most tourists would also be visiting private island resorts, therefore negating the infection risks that might come from encountering large crowds.

The 39 hotel quarantine 'red list' countries
The 39 hotel quarantine 'red list' countries

Its spot on the red list is, like other nations in southern Africa, due to the South Africa variant. Come September, there will be more data on how effective vaccines are against this variant (although individual countries’ capacity to sequence the genomes of variants may now have altered). The Seychelles has already opened to all visitors, regardless of vaccination status (with the exception of those visiting from South Africa). The archipelago has steady temperatures throughout the year, from lows of 23C to highs of 30C. It could be the ideal autumn break for nature lovers: April to October is the best period for bird-spotting and hiking in the Seychelles.

Those without school age children might also choose to postpone their foreign holiday until September when the rush has quelled. As Covid restrictions begin to ease, European city breaks could prove more appealing. A return to Paris, Rome or Barcelona might be on the menu.


When to book? Hold off until the summer.
Where to? Europe for the school half-term; Maldives for long-haul.

The October half-term break could provide another opportunity for sun-seeking families to enjoy a European sojourn. By this point we should have a clearer idea of the Government’s strategy. Whether they impose last minute deadlines (such as the six hours Britons had to return from Spain last July to avoid self-isolation on their return), or follow a more lenient approach, such as that called for by Mr Charles, of The PC Agency. “Ideally there will be a two-week notice period before countries are switched from one colour category to another,” he said.

maldives - Getty
maldives - Getty

Luxury-seekers could head for the Maldives, which has kept its tourist industry open since last July. Much like the Seychelles, Britons would likely be heading for a private resort, making social distancing easy. As it stands, the Indian Ocean nation has vaccinated 47 people per 100,000 of its population. This should help to bring down its infections, which currently sit at a seven-day rate of 224.58 per 100,000 people. If you book ahead be sure to choose a flexible package, such as Kuoni’s Flex+ offering.


When to book? Now, with the right package; wait to plan your own your itinerary.
Where to? Caribbean; Florida.

Caribbean holidays become more attractive as the hurricane season draws to a close. Cruise lines are set to resume Caribbean sailings in the summer, but some will require passengers to be vaccinated (and others will require Covid tests for those who are not immunised). By November, most UK adults should be inoculated, opening up cruise holidays.

Given that many Caribbean voyages depart from Florida, the reopening of the US would make such a trip much smoother.

Observers of the Covid restrictions across the States will note that Florida has remained one of the most open throughout the pandemic: if you are seeking a US holiday this year minus face masks outdoors and with hospitality and shopping as open as possible, the Sunshine State should be high on your list.


When to book? Summer, with the right package; wait to plan your own your itinerary.
Where to? UAE; Caribbean; Australia.

Despite its spot on England’s travel ban red list the United Arab Emirates (including Dubai) is third in the worldwide race of vaccinations. Some 8,596,722 doses have been administered, 89 per 100,00 people. Dubai remained one of the last of a handful of places open to Britons ahead of the November lockdown last year. The success of the UAE's vaccination programme should help to reduce its seven-day infection rate (currently at 149.4 per 100,000). As 12 months of the pandemic have shown, a lot will have changed by December, but the Emirate was striking the right balance between Covid precautions and holiday escapism last year, according to Emma Cooke.

Coronavirus Australia Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus Australia Spotlight Chart - Cases default

Australia is among the Asia Pacific countries to have pursued a zero Covid approach and has been shut off to tourists for the best part of a year with a strict hotel quarantine policy in place for arrivals. However, Australian airline Qantas is to resume international flights from October and the worldwide situation should be making strides towards normality by December.

The reopening of tourism may also be affected by Australia’s relative slow vaccine roll out (and lack of herd immunity): it has so far administered a total of 844,309 doses, working out as 3.4 per 100,000 people. Any agreement still standing between New Zealand and Australia on a mutual travel corridor would, of course, also come into play (a no-quarantine bubble between the two countries is set to launch on April 19.

That said, Australia’s tourism industry has suffered without foreign visitors. “From Tourism Australia’s perspective, attracting international travellers will form a critical part of the tourism restart and recovery in Australia,” said the Australian Tourism Board in a statement.

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