Booking a holiday in the middle of a pandemic is a minefield.
There are so many things that could go wrong, even if you book months ahead of time: your flight could be cancelled as travel restrictions change. You could suddenly be plunged into local or national lockdown. The destination you’re travelling to could tighten its rules or close its borders at the last minute. You could catch coronavirus or be told to self-isolate.
The list of potential pitfalls is extensive and the landscape is changing at such a pace it can be a struggle to keep up. Government ministers seem to only be exacerbating the confusion, accused of giving mixed messages after health secretary Matt Hancock declared he had booked a summer stay in Cornwall, while transport secretary Grant Shapps warned: “People shouldn’t be booking holidays right now, not domestically or internationally.”
But luckily for Brits keen to put a future getaway in the diary – even if it is only in pencil – many travel companies, tour operators and even airlines have introduced flexible booking policies since coronavirus started scuppering the best laid plans.
And this feature will be key to winning back customers, according to experts.
“It won’t necessarily be the companies who offer the cheapest prices but those which offer good value and super flexible policies,” said TravelSupermarket in its predictions for 2021 travel.
Here’s everything you need to know.
What is flexible booking?
In normal times, most holiday providers and airlines don’t offer much in the way of flexibility unless you pay extra. Need to cancel at the last minute? At the very least you’ll lose whatever deposit you’ve already paid, and the costs will only be reclaimable from your travel insurance if you’ve booked a specific level of cover and meet the set criteria.
But during the pandemic, most travel companies have introduced at least some level of flexibility to improve consumer confidence. It varies depending on who you book with, but generally means up to a certain date before travel you can change when you want to go, or in some cases amend the destination, without having to pay a penalty charge (although if your new dates/destination is more expensive, you’ll likely have to pay the difference in price).
Even airlines, which are notoriously inflexible, have changed their tune. In many cases, customers can move their flight dates multiple times without a charge.
Which tour operators and travel companies are offering it?
Pretty much all of them are offering a degree of flexibility – but some are better than others. Key things to look out for are policies that offer numerous free changes to your booking, including allowing you to move the dates should your local area be put into lockdown or you are asked to self-isolate. It’s also a good idea to pick a company where the initial deposit is low, or that allows you to carry-over the deposit to a future booking should you have to change your plans.
Abercrombie & Kent has one of most flexible booking policies on the market – for all new bookings made up to 30 April 2021 for travel before 30 November 2021, guests have the flexibility to change or postpone their holiday, for any Covid-related reason, up to 15 days before their travel date. “A&K will not charge you should you choose to change to a new destination or move your travel dates and you can rebook to travel any time before 30 November 2021,” says the company.
Not only does Tui offer flexible booking, it also throws in free Covid cover. The UK’s biggest tour operator is letting customers make free changes to bookings up until 21 days before departure, providing they were a) made between 22 December 2020 and 28 February 2021, travelling before 31 October 2021, or b) made before 22 December 2020, traveling before 30 April 2021. Tui includes coronavirus cover for every customer as standard at no extra charge, which lets you amend your holiday for free if you contract Covid-19, are officially required to isolate or your local area goes into lockdown.
Kuoni has also been commended for its flexibility; its Flex+ Guarantee on selected holidays (with specific airlines) to the Indian Ocean, the Far East and Europe, allows customers to change their mind, for any reason, at up until 10 days before departure (21 days for European holidays) – and cancel free of charge with a full refund.
Luxury operator Audley allows holidaymakers to rearrange a trip at no cost up to 45 days before departure (on bookings made by 31 March 2021 for travel by 31 December 2022). That means they’ll move your travel dates or switch you to another destination at no expense. It’s also offering a full refund for customer cancellations to certain long and short-haul destinations when made up to 14 days before departure.
Adventure holiday and tours company Explore also allows traveller to transfer their trip free of charge up to 10 days before departure; while British Airways Holidays lets you change a booking for free or cancel it for voucher credit with three weeks’ notice for all holiday packages booked for travel before 30 April 2022.
There are plenty more good examples – just make sure you read the fine print before booking and go with a reputable brand. For extra peace of mind, ensure that what you’re booking is a package, and that you are guaranteed your money back in full within 14 days should the provider have to cancel the holiday.
Which airlines are offering it?
The short answer is: most of them. We’ll limit ourselves to looking at the major UK and Irish airlines.
British Airways’ flexible booking policy means customers who book to travel before 30 April 2022 are able to exchange their booking for a voucher, or move their dates without incurring a change fee.
Virgin Atlantic is letting customers change the dates of their travel up to two times as well as change the names once, with the associated fees waived (though fare difference may apply) for any bookings for travel up to 31 December 2021. The airline will also waive the full fare difference if your new travel is completed before 31 March 2021. You can rebook to travel any time up to 31 December 2022.
EasyJet says passengers can transfer their flight fee-free up to 14 days before departure: “Only if the new fare is higher will you be asked to pay the difference.” You can also transfer to a new date or opt for a voucher or refund if your flight is impacted by a lockdown travel ban; transfer fee-free if your flight is impacted by new quarantine requirements as long as you make any changes within a week of the government announcement; and request a cash refund or voucher if your flight is cancelled.
Even Ryanair has dropped its flight change fees for all new bookings made before 31 March 2021, for travel before 31 October 2021. You can now make up to two flight changes for travel by 31 October 2021, as long as you make the amends at least seven days before departure and pay any difference in fare.
Although Jet2.com has been praised for its customer service when handling refunds for cancellations during the pandemic, it appears to be the only major British carrier which has not waived the fee to change a flight booking. “If you’ve made a booking that’s currently unaffected and you would like to either amend it or cancel, this will be in line with our terms and conditions. You can also talk to your travel insurance provider for more information,” it says. “Each date change has a £35 administration fee, and we may charge any difference in fare.”