First there was the travel ban. Then there was the stop-go brinkmanship of the traffic-light system. That was followed by the stress and confusion of the ever-changing testing and vaccination rules. And now… now we are finally free of virtually all restrictions, what do we get? Chaos.
The last week has seen the greatest shambles and general holiday misery that I can remember in more than 30 years of writing about travel. Queues snaking out of airport terminals, hundreds of last-minute cancellations, people stranded and unable to get home, airlines ignoring their legal responsibilities to passengers.
The causes seem to be pretty straight forward and, essentially, to come from a chronic shortage of trained staff both on the airlines and at the airports. You can blame this on the travel industry – for laying off too many people, failing to act quickly enough to re-recruit them and then taking more bookings than they could cope with. You could blame the government for catalysing the layoffs because of what the Association of Independent Tour Operators calls its “total lack of sector-specific support for the travel industry over the past two years” – an industry which, let’s face it, was hit harder than almost any other by the pandemic.
But what matters now for the millions of people who have booked holidays and flights for the rest of the summer is whether the travel industry gets its act together in time to prevent the current chaos continuing right through peak season.
The good news is that, though the summer is obviously the most popular time to travel, the pressures are at least spread over six weeks and aren’t usually quite so intense as they are during the one-week May half term. The bad news is that airports and airlines are still short of thousands of cabin crew, ground handlers and security staff and there are only seven weeks to go before schools break up. Few in the industry are confident that it will be able to turn things around in such a short time.
So what can we, the travelling public, do to avoid our holidays being ruined this summer? Here’s our handy guide.
Be aware of the pinch points
There will, hopefully, be a respite for the next six or seven weeks as demand falls and the industry regroups. During this time problems at the airports should ease, and while there may well be more cancellations, hopefully passengers will get a reasonable amount of advance notice. The real test will be the weekend of July 23/24 when the state schools break up – it’s traditionally one of the busiest of the year. The August bank holiday week will also be a major stress point.
If you haven’t booked yet, try to avoid weekends
The thousands of holidaymakers who have had their plans cancelled and the many more who have yet to arrange one now face a dilemma. Should they still go ahead and book a foreign holiday? It’s a tricky question to answer, especially if you are one of the many who haven’t travelled for a couple of years and were really looking forward to some guaranteed sunshine this summer.
Certainly, it seems highly likely that problems will continue until the autumn, so the safe option is to duck out and book a holiday in the UK instead. But if you are determined to travel, there are a couple of things you can do to reduce the risks of disruption. For a start, try to travel mid week and in the middle of the day when airports are relatively quiet. Secondly, fly into smaller airports, where there is less pressure of numbers. This is also true of ferry travel – you are likely to find it easier on the longer Channel crossings from Portsmouth for example, rather than trying to go through Dover.
Don’t rush to cancel flights
You might be tempted to cancel your flights and take the train or the ferry instead, but I would think carefully before rushing into things. It is true that, because of more flexible terms and conditions brought in because of covid, some airlines such as British Airways allow you to change your flights without penalty – but you won’t be able to get a refund and it may cost you more to book new flights because fares are likely to have gone up. There is also no guarantee that you won’t face long queues at St Pancras and at Dover – both the Eurostar terminal and cross-Channel services were exceptionally busy last week.
Book a package…
You will be in a far stronger position if you book a package which includes flights and accommodation through a tour operator, rather than buying flight-only tickets and arranging your hotel or villa separately. True, TUI – Britain’s biggest operator – was in the news last week because it has cancelled thousands of flights and holidays, but its customers are in a stronger legal position than they would be with an airline.
An operator is legally bound to look after you and if your return flight is cancelled while you are away, it must make sure you get home and find accommodation in the meantime. Also – if your holiday is cancelled altogether, you will get all your money back in one go. If you booked all your arrangements separately, then as well as having to reclaim your airfare, you will have to battle to get money back for your accommodation, car hire and so on.
… or book flights through a travel agent
If you do buy flight only tickets be sure to book them directly with the airline or with a reputable travel agent which is a member of Abta (abta.co.uk). You may find a deal on the web through a cheap online agent, but you are unlikely to have much protection or support if things go wrong, and if the flight is cancelled you may face a long struggle to get your money back.
Pay with a credit card
It won’t solve the problem of delays or cancellations, but you will have far more protection against the financial failure of an operator or airline by paying with a credit card than with most debit cards. Paying through a direct money transfer is the least secure method of all.
Get your timing right
When it comes to avoiding queues and delays, check your local airport’s website the day before departure and see how far ahead you should be checking in. You may need to allow more than the usual two hours, though passengers turning up too early (sometimes more than four hours ahead of departure) have also added to the problems over half term. Consider also paying for fast-track security. At Stansted, for example, it costs £7 per passenger and takes away the stress of long queues to get into the departure lounge.
Travel with hand luggage only
Of course it’s not always possible, but leaving those big suitcases at home will both significantly reduce your wait at the airport – you won’t have to queue to check it in nor wait by the baggage carousel on arrival – and you will also eliminate the risk of it being lost or delayed. What’s more your airfare is also likely to be at least £30 cheaper.
Stay on top of delays
One of the worst aspects of delays is not knowing how long you are going to have to wait. Airports and airlines are notoriously bad at giving passengers timely and reliable information. There are ways of getting round this, however. Flight tracking apps and websites – like flightstats.com – allow you to follow the progress of your inbound plane, the one which will be used for your outbound flight. They will tell you if and when it has taken off and when it will land. By adding (at least) half an hour to the landing time you can gauge the likely delay. If the delay is longer than three hours, and if the delay is the airline’s fault, you may be able to claim compensation. Hold-ups caused by bad weather or air traffic control problems, for example, don’t count.
Know your rights
If your airline gives you more than 14 days’ notice of a cancellation it only has to offer you a refund for the fare paid – but it doesn’t have to pay additional compensation. For cancellations at shorter notice, you may be entitled to compensation of between £110 and £520 depending on the destination and the cause. If you are already at the airport when it happens, your airline is also required to give you something to eat and drink, book accommodation for you if necessary and arrange an alternative flight for you.
Find the full details on your rights both for long delays and cancellations here.