The travel correspondent of The Independent was last seen heading for Lapland for his traditional catch-up with the elves one month ahead of Christmas. But from as he headed across the Arctic Circle, a fortunate cosmic alignment of the Northern Lights and his satellite phone enabled him to tackle readers’ questions for an hour.
Q: We cancelled a hire car booking for a three-week trip to Florida back in 2020, which was going to cost £680 for an SUV. Now we are replanning the trip for 2022 and hire car rates are through the roof due to a shortage of vehicles at hire car firms, who among other things, sold them off to stay afloat during the pandemic. The cost for a three-week trip in summer of 2022 is now a staggering £1,900 for an SUV, even after significant shopping around. Have made the booking with free cancellation – hoping to be able to rebook something cheaper next year. Any suggestions for what else we might do?
“Raised on Tetris”
A: Car rental rates – along with many other elements of travel – have surged as demand returns and supply remains constrained. For my trip to Florida next week, even a small car is going to cost me £75 per day. At that price, £110 per day for an SUV doesn’t look too bad – and I would keep your penalty-free booking “live” for now.
The soaring rates are a complete reversal of the picture before the coronavirus pandemic, when hiring a car was excellent value with thriving competition. But as the Covid-19 crisis crushed the car rental business, inevitably surplus vehicles were sold off – and, more importantly, not replaced at the usual pace. As with airlines, keeping a lid on capacity is an excellent way to drive prices up.
Predictions are always difficult – especially, as people say, when they are about the future. I think it fairly likely that competition will build by next summer, and you may find a better deal. But meanwhile some thoughts about how to keep rates down.
1 Don’t pick up at the airport – the extra fee and additional taxes can easily add 15 per cent to the cost of a rental compared with a downtown/off-airport location. While an airport pick-up may well be worthwhile if it’s a short rental of a small car, for your three-week SUV extravaganza the premium may make the difference of £150.
2 Is your rental car really necessary for the duration of your trip? If you were to fly into San Francisco, for example, and spend a few days there, a rental car would simply be an expensive liability. Only hire a vehicle for the days for which you need the mobility a car can offer.
3 When you pick up the car, avoid further financial damage by steadfastly declining all extras. It’s actually worth discreetly recording the transaction (eg on voice notes on your phone) and saying loudly and repeatedly, “I don’t require any extras or upgrades”. Last time I rented at San Diego, I failed to do this and was stung for an upgrade I didn’t know I had accepted.
Q: We are travelling to Florida at the end of January. Have you seen any indications that the testing requirements may change by then. Either on the way to USA or returning to the UK? And when should we book?
A: A brief restatement of US and UK requirements for fully vaccinated travellers.
Outbound to US: negative test (lateral flow is fine) on the day of the flight or one of the three preceding days. For my Friday flight, I had my test on Tuesday to get it out of the way. A signed Attestation and proof of full vaccination – download of NHS certificate will do. I think the form-filling might reduce, but the pre-departure test may not.
Inbound to UK: completed passenger locator form, for which you will need proof of a test (lateral flow is fine) on arrival in the UK or on one of the two following days. This testing requirement may well come to an end – it seems to have little useful purpose beyond enriching testing companies.
Regardless of what may or may not happen in terms of these rules, I would recommend booking only very late on. While Florida is a joy in winter, there will not be significantly strong demand for the Sunshine State. I booked my flight 10 days ahead and found a decent deal (£500 return on British Airways to Orlando – out from Gatwick, back to Heathrow). I suggest you start looking in earnest about two weeks out.
Q: I am holidaying in California from December for more than 60 days the attestation form asks me to organise a vaccine if staying more than 60 days. I am fully vaccinated along with a booster how should I answer this question?
A: The required attestation is one of the most complicated documents I have seen – on a par with the UK’s largely useless passenger locator form. Question 5 in Section 2 that asks for confirmation: “I attest that I agree to be vaccinated and have arranged to become fully vaccinated against Covid-19 within 60 days of arriving in the United States, or as soon thereafter as is medically appropriate.” But that applies only to unvaccinated travellers. Anyone who can tick the box for question 1 (“I attest that I am fully vaccinated against Covid-19” just signs the form to complete the attestation. Everything else is for unvaccinated folk.
Q: There are some media sources that suggest that up to 12 countries – including Germany, Austria and Norway, could be added to the UK’s red list. Have you heard anything about this? Is this likely to happen do you think? From what I understand the red list was about variants of concern rather than cases, wasn’t it?
A: I think it is most unlikely that we will see European nations with very high case numbers added to the red list. Despite the sudden reinstatement of South Africa and five neighbouring countries, the prevailing view across more and more of the world is that travel restrictions should be based on the individual traveller’s situation – in particular, have they been fully vaccinated?
It may be that the “variant of investigation” that has alarmed medical experts spreads quickly across Europe, in which case all bets are off.
Q: I would like clarity about the €430 maximum duty free allowance for goods for travellers flying to the EU from the UK. Government websites make it seem very strict. The way I read it, anyone carrying a laptop and smartphone would be over this limit and liable to pay duty, but that seems unlikely as we would have had horror stories about it in the press by now. Is this limit only for new items or gifts purchased outside the EU? I’d also like to know what kind of documentation might be required at customs – would delivery confirmations be enough or proper receipts with breakdown of VAT? And what in practice happens to people who don’t have receipts for something of value that looks new? I’m a UK citizen preparing to return to Spain, where I am resident, but now rather unsure about what I should pack.
A: As a brief refresher, the UK has chosen to give up the previous freedom to take more or less anything anywhere in the EU without fuss. Instead, the decision to leave the Customs Union means private travellers are subject to the limits that the UK helped to set while a member. The upper limit for goods (except tobacco and alcohol, for which other limits apply) is €430 (£363) if you arrive in the EU by air and sea. There have, indeed, been cases of these being applied – but, given the relatively low number of people travelling, not many.
Anything that could be easily sold locally could count – old or new, receipted or not. As you indicate, a top-of-the-range iPhone could easily exceed the limit. Customs officials, though, are more likely to be after goods that they suspect are being exported in order to be sold – last week a British traveller was asked to pay €400 (£337) in duty for three e-bikes he was carrying in his van.
The only sure way to avoid problems is to organise a customs carnet in advance – though this will cost around £360, and must be done through the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Q: We are due to go skiing in France at Xmas. We are two adults and a 17 year old and a 13 year old. Other than our youngest we will all be double jabbed. Do you think that our holiday is likely to take place?
A: It’s a mess, I’m afraid. The increasingly standard rule is that under-12s escape testing or vaccination requirements. At present France will want evidence of a negative test (lateral flow will do) taken within 24 hours of departure. That’s the easy part – the 13-year-old will probably need to test repeatedly after arrival, too, in order to meet France’s rules for access to venues and transport – including ski lifts.
Q: We’re worried that we’ve had the Indian batch of AstraZeneca and that we might have problems getting into Portugal. Should we cancel?
A: Please don’t. The only recorded problems pertaining to Indian-manufactured AstraZeneca jabs that I am aware of date from early summer. For about 36 hours, Malta mystifyingly turned away travellers with these excellent vaccinations. There’s plenty for travellers to worry about without such unnecessary concerns. I hope you have a wonderful time in Portugal.
Q: We have been owed a refund from a UK based travel company now for more than 18 months. We have called them, we have emailed 45 times (and got 4 responses, which include commits to pay the refund – payment and details of which were clear in our contract with them) and still nothing. Do you recommend the small claims court or is there any other way to get our money back? We do not appear to only people who are having this issue with this company.
A: Sorry to hear about your predicament. I am not sure what kind of holiday you had booked – for example, a proper package gives much more consumer protection and should mean you get your cash back even if the company were to go bust.
As things are, my first course of action would be to talk to the card issuer, assuming that is how you paid for your trip. While you are way beyond the time limits for putting a charge into dispute, they may be able to offer some help. However, the chances are relatively slim.
Assuming you get nowhere with the card company, write a Letter Before Action giving the holiday firm two weeks for the money to appear in your account – then follow up, if necessary, with Money Claim Online.
Q: My airline have twice now emailed me to phone them at my own cost about a Washington DC booking. This has totalled £103 in mobile costs.
I’ve complained but they’ve refused to reimburse or schedule a call. Do I have any further recourse?
A: How infuriating. I am not surprised, though, that the airline has declined to refund your costs. I am genuinely puzzled about the circumstances that led to such a shocking bill, because in the absence of a roaming deal I would always be looking for a Skype option – where the costs are likely to amount to pence, not pounds.
If the airline has cancelled the flight and wants you travel on a different day, remember that you are entitled to be flown to and from Washington DC as close to the original schedule as possible, even if this requires an airline to buy you a ticket on a rival carrier.
Hungary for more
Q: How many days is about right to visit Budapest, considering our ages – in our 70s?
A: Regardless of a traveller’s age, the Hungarian capital demands a minimum of three days – starting a day in the ancient hilltop settlement of Buda (on the right bank of the Danube), with two days to make the most of Pest (left bank) – with superb architecture, an excellent market and an absurd number of places to eat and drink very well.
With an extra day, you can take a rewarding trip by boat along the river to the spectacular Danube Bend, north of Budapest.