Travel agents are busier than ever, but dealing with red tape, refunds and vaccine passports
Oh for the days of booking your holiday, packing a suitcase, jumping on a plane and setting off for the sunshine, when the biggest problem was trying to remember your passport.
If only things were so simple.
No matter where you want to head off to in the world, the spectre of Covid casts a shadow over those seeking the sun. Is it safe to go there? What documents do I need? Will I be able to travel freely around the country when I get there? For the younger travellers, will the bars and nightclubs be open?
Booking a holiday used to be fraught with decisions on where to go, where to stay, what the beaches were like. Now it’s: will I need to quarantine when I get home, do I need a Covid vaccination certificate and can I get one in time to travel, will I need to wear a mask while sunbathing? And with red, amber and green lights flashing across the world as one country opens its doors to travellers from the UK and another shuts them, what happens when I’m there and the signal changes?
The holiday industry may be back in business, but though the doors to travel agents are open they are working in a very limited market and the questions keep coming. It remains advisable to tread carefully to avoid your holiday turning from a beach-lover’s dream to an expensive red tape nightmare.
A revival of the high street travel agency of sorts, but not everything is as it seems.
At Gallagher Travel in Londonderry, managing director Heather Fielding said staff have had to be quick to respond to the reopening under restrictions, and the path through the minefield is constantly changing.
“Requirements vary from country to country, depending on where you’re travelling from and also where you’re arriving into,” she said.
“We would have customers who are living in Northern Ireland but arriving into Dublin so you have to be aware of the regulations in Dublin first and then what has to be done when travelling back to NI.
“It’s important that people cover all angles.
“Although some countries may be on the amber list, you have to look at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office guidance because if they advise against travel, that means most insurance will be null and void.”
According to Heather, staff are advising people to book a package so that they have protection should the travel advice change.
She adds: “For people who do want to go away, we’re advising to go with the main tour operators.
“And make sure you have adequate insurance in place that covers Covid, should you get it before you go and because so much testing is required prior to arriving back to Northern Ireland.
“With so much to take into consideration, the actual booking of the holiday is the most straightforward part. It’s looking at the regulations for the country you’re going to and coming back that takes the most time.”
She said Governments have to pay attention to the plight of the travel industry.
“Yes, we are busy, but busy dealing with the red tape, arranging refunds, trying to sort out last minute vaccination passports,” added Heather.
“Most of the bookings we’re taking are for next year but that doesn’t help us rescue what remains of this summer.
“Deposits are taken but that goes to the tour companies, not the travel agent. We’ll see nothing until next year and that’s putting a tremendous strain on the industry. We need governments to step in and look at sector specific support. We can’t go on for another year like this.
“They may have placed some destinations on green lists or amber lists, but this needs to be a two way street.
“They can say countries are open from this end, but you’ll still find there are problems from other countries. We have no option other than soldiering on the best we can. We’re open for business, but the market is extremely limited.”
According to Heather, America would see around 40% of their normal business – but that is not happening at all.
“Cruises have also been a major part of what we do. That’s not happening either,” she added.
“And over winter a lot of our customers would be older people with the time and disposable income to go away to warmer countries. But they are the ones who struggle most with downloading all the online forms they need. Everywhere you look there’s a hurdle.
“If we get word later this week that further countries are to be placed on the green list we’ll get a surge of enquiries, but it’s not that simple. Depending on restrictions on whatever country people want to travel, getting the right insurance can be expensive, and the way things change so quickly, travelling without insurance isn’t the best idea.”
A series of problems have emerged in recent days with Covid certificates. Last night the Department of Health admitted the system had “experienced a technical difficulty and availability will be temporarily interrupted”.
It is no surprise to Heather.
“We’re also having real issues with Covid vaccination passports,” she said.
“Some people who have booked and are a day away from their holiday are having to cancel at the last minute due to the backlog in getting the passports through.
“None of this is helping the industry. We’ve been vaccinating people for six months now. Surely this should have been sorted pro-actively rather that reacting at the last minute when it’s too late for many people who are losing out on their holidays, and the industry which is continuing to lose out on business?
“But the biggest fear people have is testing positive when they’re on holiday.
“Depending on what country you’re in you could find yourself there for some time. That’s why a lot of people are looking to the usual spots like Spain and the Balearic islands, places where there are plenty of return flights if they need to get home in a hurry should restrictions change overnight.”
At Oasis Travel, Northern Ireland’s largest independent travel agency, the return of summer vacations after a year left on the runway, coupled with the complexities of where to go and what restrictions there are, has at least provided a chink of light.
“Every country has different entry requirements and we understand how challenging this could be for customers,” said Alison Hamilton, who is sales, marketing and cruise development manager with the travel agency.
“We have seen a real increase in new customer bookings with us for that very reason.
“All our staff have the tools at hand to help customers book their well-earned trip abroad with the knowledge we can help and advise them every step of the way.
“We also have reduced rates for anyone needing a test either to travel out or when returning. Knowing we are there to help really is comforting to customers when booking their holidays.”
Already this summer almost 1,000 travellers from the UK have received consular help after testing positive for coronavirus abroad — the biggest fear among travellers.
People hoping to escape abroad in the summer have been warned that more than 100 countries and territories have restrictions or requirements on UK travellers.
Italy currently insists on five days of self-isolation for travellers who have been in the UK over the past two weeks before touchdown. Croatia last week announced new testing requirements for British visitors.
Having reopened nightclubs, the Dutch government has been forced to close them again following a surge in cases. Bars in the Netherlands, where Amsterdam is a popular citybreak, have been ordered to shut at midnight.
Malta announced last week that it will only admit those who have been fully vaccinated.
While the rules on quarantine have been eased for vaccinated people returning to the UK, multiple tests could be required for people coming home.
Anyone who tests positive before travelling home will not be allowed to make the journey and must follow the instructions of the health authorities.
Jennifer Anderson, consular director at the Foreign Office, said: “The success of our vaccine roll-out means people who have been fully vaccinated in the UK can now travel to amber list countries, without the need for quarantine on their return, with the exception of those returning from France.”
France was moved to a new “amber plus” category last week, another warning to holidaymakers that rules can change in the blink of an eye.
Ms Anderson said: “Travel this summer is still different from before. It is essential that travellers plan ahead and familiarise themselves with the rules and requirements of the country they plan to visit to minimise disruption and avoid disappointment.”
The risks are there in black and white, and the best piece of advice from those in the travel business is to seek advice.