May 25, 2024

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Easter travel chaos: what to do if your flight is delayed or you catch Covid | Consumer rights

Easter travel chaos: what to do if your flight is delayed or you catch Covid | Consumer rights

With many schools breaking up at the start of the month, the Easter getaway was supposed to be well under way by now – but instead it’s been a week of travel chaos.

Airlines have cancelled scores of flights a day, there have been delays at airports and ferry terminals and Covid cases are sweeping the country. We look at your rights if you find yourself seriously delayed or unable to travel.

I was due to travel this weekend but my flight’s been cancelled. What are my rights?

Airlines have cancelled more than 1,000 UK flights in recent days because of high levels of crew absences in part related to Covid infections, but also because they have not rehired enough staff since lockdowns eased.

If your flight was cancelled in the two weeks before its departure date and you have chosen to abandon the whole trip rather than find another way to get to your destination, you are entitled to a full refund of the fare you paid, plus compensation.

EU regulation 261/2004 compensation rules have been written into UK law, meaning you have exactly the same rights to claim flight compensation as you did before Brexit.

If your flight was short-haul – less than 1,500km – you are entitled to compensation of £220 a passenger. For middle-distance flights of 1,500 to 3,500km the figure rises to £350 and for a long-haul destination more than 3,500 km away it is £520.

The vast majority of cancelled flights involve easyJet and BA
The vast majority of cancelled flights involve easyJet and BA. Photograph: Amer Ghazzal/REX/Shutterstock

Can I ask to be rerouted or for the airline to pay for an alternative flight?

If a flight is cancelled before you are due to depart, irrespective of the reason, you have the right to ask to be rerouted on an alternative flight, either with the same airline or another one. In some cases the airline will offer this – BA told us this week it had been doing so – but it may not always be the case.

If an airline cancels your flight at the last minute and you are forced to buy a new flight with a rival carrier, you can claim the cost of the replacement flight. If your original flight was more expensive, however, you’d be better off requesting a full refund.

Be aware that airlines often refuse these requests or to cover things such as onward travel by another form of transport to your original destination, but you are entitled to the money.

If you are rerouted by your original airline and the replacement flight arrives more than two hours late, you are entitled to £220 compensation a passenger for flights of up to 1,500km.

Don’t the airlines have the ‘extraordinary circumstance’ get-out?

If flights are cancelled because of extreme weather or an air traffic control strike, for example, the EU 261 compensation rules no longer apply.

This does not, however, extend to staff absences, according to Coby Benson, a flight compensation expert at the law firm Bott & Co. He says airlines have tried to argue in a number of court cases that staff illness was an extraordinary circumstance and that they should be exempt from having to pay compensation, but they have been rebuffed each time.

The overwhelming majority of affected flights this week have been cancelled by just two operators, British Airways and easyJet, suggesting this is not an industry-wide problem.

My flight was cancelled more than two weeks before travel. Will I be compensated?

No, but you are entitled to a full refund or a replacement flight.

I missed my flight because I was stuck in a long queue trying to get through the chaos at Manchester airport. Will they pay up?

It’s highly unlikely. It might seem very unfair given that the airport has been in chaos all week, but Benson says he is not aware of any possible legal basis that would allow passengers to pursue the airport operator for their losses.

Long queues for check-in at Manchester airport
Long queues for check-in at Manchester airport. Photograph: Mark Waugh/The Guardian

Will my travel insurance pay up for a missed departure?

The better – ie. the more expensive – policies often include cover for missed departures. The exact circumstances vary, but they will generally protect you in the event you miss the departure of your international flight, ferry, cruise ship or train because of a strike or other public transport disruption. It is unclear, however, if they would cover the incidents such as this week’s airport chaos.

Policies usually provide missed departure cover if there is an accident involving the vehicle you are travelling in or it breaks down, but not general traffic delays.

What’s happening on the ferries to France?

A large number of P&O Ferries customers face having their Easter holidays ruined after fully booked DFDS announced it would no longer honour P&O tickets from Dover to France.

DFDS had been accepting P&O passengers since its rival suspended its Dover-Calais crossings on 17 March after it sacked nearly 800 members of staff so it could hire cheaper agency workers.

The mutual agreement was paused on 8 April because of a lack of capacity, leaving ticket-holders having to rebook with DFDS themselves or Eurotunnel. P&O Ferries has said it hopes to get its ships back in action next week.

P&O passengers unable to travel this weekend are entitled to a full refund, but unlike air passengers they are not entitled to compensation or rerouting.

Traffic queues to check in at the port of Dover
Traffic queues to check in at the port of Dover. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

What about the Stena route to Ireland?

Stena announced earlier this week that it was cancelling all ferry services between Fishguard in south Wales and Rosslare until 12 April. Ticket-holders have been told that they can travel on Irish Ferries services from Pembroke docks instead.

This will not present too many problems for drivers, but foot passengers and cyclists face having to make the 27-mile journey themselves. Stena staff told Guardian Money this week that no alternative transport had been laid on, but that passengers not travelling in vehicles could ask for a full refund if they didn’t wish to travel.

Am I allowed on a flight or ferry if I have Covid?

The advice from most experts is that you should not travel if you are displaying Covid symptoms. Few would argue that is morally the correct stance.

The government’s guidance for England published on 1 April states that if you have tested positive for Covid, you should “try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for five days”. It doesn’t say you can’t travel. Rather it says that if you leave your home during this time, there are steps you can take to reduce the chances of passing it on to others, including wearing a mask.

How far you are likely to get if you try to travel with Covid will depend on where you are going and, perhaps, whether you are visibly ill.

Rory Boland, the editor of Which? Travel, says: “While the government advises that people do not have to self-isolate when they have Covid, some airlines and ferry operators will ask you not to travel with them.

“Most travellers we hear from who have symptoms of Covid take a test beforehand and, if they are positive, decide that isolating at home is the responsible thing to do.”

He also says flexible booking policies and travel insurance “will continue to be essential to ensure passengers aren’t left out of pocket if they get Covid and can’t travel”.

If you do decide to carry on with your plans, you may be able to catch a flight or ferry, but you could be turned away if you are clearly under the weather. Stena Line, for example, states: “When checking in, you will be asked to state your health condition. Passengers with any indication of suspected Covid-19 will be denied boarding.”

According to easyJet, for some journeys at some airports there may be a temperature check carried out at departure and/or arrival, depending on destination requirements.“Where there are temperature checks, if you do not pass, you will not be able to fly,” it says.

Those heading to the popular Easter destination of Morocco still have to present a valid vaccine pass and proof of a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours of boarding. It is also conducting random rapid antigen tests on arrival for selected groups of passengers.

In terms of coming back to the UK, since 18 March, anyone entering the country no longer needs to take a Covid test or fill in a passenger locator form, whether they are vaccinated or not.

Which destinations are test-free?

The government has removed the last Covid restrictions in England and a growing number of other countries are easing their rules, but many still have requirements for people arriving from overseas.

France dropped its requirement for a sworn statement that you have not had any Covid symptoms recently on 31 March. Fully vaccinated travellers only need to present proof of vaccination, though those flying into the country are required to fill in an EU passenger locator form.

Most adults travelling to Spain can enter without needing to do a test. You must, however, show valid proof of being fully vaccinated and fill in a Spanish “health control form” before you travel. The rules are different for children and teenagers. Unvaccinated youngsters aged 12 to 17 can provide a negative PCR or similar test taken within 72 hours prior to arrival. Spain is one of the countries that says it may do temperature checks on arrival and carry out additional tests if there are concerns.

Fully vaccinated foreign travellers entering Canada “by land, air or water” are longer required to do pre-entry tests as of April 1. You still have to submit your travel and vaccination details via the ArriveCAN website or app though, and on arrival border services staff may stop you and say you’ve been randomly selected for a mandatory Covid test.

It’s a fast-moving situation, and not every country making changes is easing its requirements. Which? recently published a guide to “16 test-free travel destinations for a no-hassle holiday,” including Mexico and Iceland.

What about cruises?

If you are going on a cruise, be aware that many operators have quite strict rules at the moment. P&O Cruises, Cunard and Saga are among those that currently require you to do a Covid test at the terminal before you board. In the case of Saga it’s two tests.

As you might expect, if you test positive, you won’t be getting on board. P&O Cruises and Cunard say that if that happens, you and any guests travelling from your household will be given a “future cruise credit” to the value of your holiday. Saga says that your cruise will be postponed until a later date.

There are other rules too. Cunard stipulates that if you or a member of your household tests positive for Covid within 14 days of your holiday, you won’t be allowed to travel. Saga says you will be denied boarding if you have returned to the UK from an overseas trip in the seven days before your cruise.

Will my travel insurance pay up if I catch Covid abroad?

It all depends on what cover you were offered when you bought the policy. Most travel insurers will cover any medical bills if you catch Covid while abroad. Some will pay for the extra accommodation and new flights required for a delayed return, but plenty will not. It really is a case of digging out your policy documents.

Staysure’s enhanced and generous Covid cancellation cover, for example, only applies to policies bought after 29 April 2021, and only as long as the customer has had their recommended vaccinations. It will cover the cost of cancelling because one or all the party goes down with the virus. Plenty of other policies won’t, particularly those bought some time ago.