Q&A: Will I be able to go on holiday this year?

Where can I go, if anywhere? Am I entitled to a refund? Can I travel if I’ve been vaccinated?

Right now, with Level 5 lockdown restrictions limiting people to travelling 5km from their front doors, the prospects of a holiday anywhere seem remoter than a kayak tour around the Galapagos, but the restrictions won't last forever, and people will be able to travel again.

That's great news. But when?
We were afraid you might ask that. The timing is a much harder question to answer. The restrictions we are living with will remain in place until March 5th. But even the most optimistic of forecasters – and there aren't many of them – believe life is most unlikely to return to anything close to normal for months rather than weeks. Even if restrictions are eased in early March, the best people can hope for is a drop to Level 4.

And what does that mean again?
It is dispiritingly similar to Level 5, to be honest. What it does mean is that people will be allowed to travel within their own counties again. We will have to get to Level 2 before we are allowed to become cross-country travellers once more, and we'll need to contain Covid-19 even more before we will get the green light to cross international borders.

Is the Government upbeat about the prospects of that happening soon?
No. At a Government press briefing last week, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar suggested international travel to and from Ireland may be off the table for all of 2021. "Maybe it will be the case that international travel is not possible this summer, this Christmas. I don't want to close off that possibility today, but maybe we'll have to," he said, to the dismay of virtually everyone.

And what does Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan say?
That's not good news either. On Monday night he was pretty downbeat about the prospects of holidays in sunnier places this year. "I don't think we're headed for a summer where millions of people from this part of the world, from Europe, can expect to be heading to beaches that are in other than their own localities," he said.

“I don’t think it’s realistic for us to foresee a situation where in the summertime, this year, that we will see a summer that’s characterised by the kinds of things that we all like to be in a position to do, which is fly off to other parts of Europe and the world for summer holidays.”

So is it safe to book a foreign holiday for the last part of the year?
We have heard worse ideas, but even that possibility is shrouded in doubt. If you are not tied to school terms you could book a holiday somewhere sunny in October or November and hope – we can't stress enough that it would be a hope rather than a certainty – that the world, or at least a significant chunk of it, will have been vaccinated by then.

Is that likely?
Beware of all forecasters who say they know where we are going to be. Last April, when we were in the early stages of the pandemic, many travel experts were suggesting that, although the summer was most likely going to be a write-off in travel terms, October would be the new July, and people would be on holidays again. But that didn't happen, and even though some people ignored official advice and travelled to sunnier spots over the winter, the numbers travelling were dramatically down on past years.

But I saw on the news that people were still going on holidays. Should I can chance it?
People have certainly been travelling for nonessential reasons during lockdown. One day last week nearly half of all passengers arriving in Ireland were returning from a holiday, according to Taoiseach Micheál Martin. He told a meeting of Fianna Fáil that of the 800 passengers, 542 were Irish and 397 had been on holidays.

If they are doing it, why can't I?
Because it is irresponsible. And because the rules have changed dramatically in recent days. As of this week, anyone caught trying to leave the State to go on holiday will be faced with a €500 fine. There are also new requirements for PCR testing and mandatory hotel quarantines for certain air passengers if they cannot provide a negative predeparture Covid-19 test. There are also new quarantine rules for people travelling from Brazil and South Africa, because of the new variants of coronavirus there.

What is happening elsewhere?
Things are up in the air pretty much everywhere. New Zealand has effectively said it is closed until 2022. And, across the EU, borders are going up and restrictions are in place. Last week the Austrian authorities fined close to 100 people, including some Irish citizens, for going skiing in St Anton am Arlberg against the rules. Other countries are effectively shutting themselves off to all non-essential travel.

What about Spain?
We're not surprised you asked. It is the most popular destination for Irish tourists, with more than a million of us going there in a normal year. Before Christmas the Spanish tourist industry was optimistic it would be open for business from March. Then, last week, its prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, told the United Nations World Tourism Organisation that the country's "internal plan is to promote a strategy that includes vaccination of the Spanish population at the highest possible rate. And we are going to advance with the vaccination at the highest rate until reaching 70 per cent of the population with immunity by the end of the summer." He concluded by saying that "only mass vaccinations will open the way to the normality that we want".

So that's that, then
Or is it? His tourism minister, Reyes Maroto, rolled back his comments almost immediately and said she expected the country to welcome tourists from late spring. "Our priority in 2021 is to reactivate tourism and resume safe mobility on a global scale as soon as possible. We hope that at the end of spring, and especially during the summer, international travel will resume and travellers will choose Spain as their destination."

Now, back to me. I have a holiday booked for 2021 that was originally booked for 2020. Where do I stand?
In a big queue. As many as 500,000 people are in the same position as you. A lot of people had booked overseas holidays for last summer that they agreed to transfer to this year. According to travel agents, some of them are running out of patience and looking for their money back. Under long-established rules, people do have the right to a refund if a holiday is cancelled through no fault of their own.

There is also a fully bonded voucher system that protects people’s money should they choose to accept vouchers instead of cash refunds. It is worth remembering that the travel industry has had its worst year in history and is facing another bleak year this year. If you have already booked a holiday for this summer, it might be as well to wait until closer to departure before you make any decisions.

And if I book now?
People who booked before the pandmic are likely to be treated somewhat differently from people who book with a more complete picture of the world in which we now live. The latter will be afforded less comfort when it comes to refunds and rebookings. That makes it all the more important to book with your eyes open and to be clear what the refund policies are before handing over any money. Flexible options and small deposits will trump perfection this year more than ever.

Anything else?
It is also worth considering booking with a travel agent or tour operator. Booking independently dramatically reduces your rights and your chances of redress should things go wrong.

And what are my rights again?
EU regulations provide for passenger rights in the case of cancellation of transport services, while the package-travel directive provides protection for travellers who booked packages with a tour operator. People with package holidays are entitled to a refund if a trip has to be cancelled as a result of the current crisis. And they have to get their money back within 14 days. In the case of a cancellation by the carrier, passengers have the choice of reimbursement or rerouting. Refunds must be processed within seven days of a passenger's request in the cases of air and sea transport, and 14 days after the offer has been made or the request has been received for bus and coach transport. The time limit is a month in the case of rail transport.

I'm nervous about travelling, though
You are not on your own. Irish people are now the most anxious in Europe, and confidence in travel has been falling, according to a recent State of the Consumer Tracker from Deloitte Ireland. It pointed to a decrease of 19 per cent in consumers' intent to spend on travel and a decrease of 11 per cent in those planning to travel for leisure over the next three months. Confidence in staying in hotels was down by 6 per cent; confidence in air travel was down by 5 per cent. All told, 47 per cent do not think it is safe to stay at a hotel right now, up 3 per cent on the previous wave.

In a normal January, travel agents and tour operators do as much as 40 per cent of their annual business, but that has not been the experience this year, as people remain cautious. Travel agents say bookings are very sluggish for the early part of the year but there are at least some positive signs of a pick-up in the third quarter.

But domestic travel can still happen, right?
That is certainly the hope. Last week Eoghan O'Mara Walsh, the chief executive of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation, said that, "hopefully, the domestic market will be able to consume the tourism product from the summer onwards". He also said he was hopeful of "overseas tourism, but probably in quarter three and quarter four of this year".

What about long weekends away?
There has not been a lot of interest in city breaks at least for the first eight months of this year, but, according to the industry, there are bookings for September and October, a time when people hope vaccines will be rolling out and the end of the pandemic will be in sight.

If I can't go anyway, is there any point in taking holidays at all?
You probably have no choice. There have been no changes in employment rules as a result of Covid-19, so you when it comes to carrying over annual leave the normal rules of your contract apply.

Generally speaking, that means holidays accrued in 2020 must be taken within six months of the end of that holiday year, so if you have a couple of weeks owed to you from last year you’d be as well of taking them before the end of June. It is also worth bearing in mind that, with certain conditions, an employer can compel you to take annual leave.

What about when kids are off school?
Off school or homeschooling? It probably doesn't make much difference in any event. The February midterm break is coming up, but the virus doesn't care that much about that, and you won't be able to travel outside your 5km. We can't say for sure what will happen over Easter, but the chances of anything even resembling a holiday, at home or abroad, over that longer break is pretty remote.

But what if I have been vaccinated? Will that make any difference?
It actually might. Some countries, including the Seychelles, have relaxed quarantine rules for people with proof that they have been vaccinated. Other countries, including Cyprus, are planning to do the same. Although the idea of vaccine passports may sound unusual, they are very common in some parts of the world. People are not allowed travel to parts of Africa without being able to prove they have been vaccinated against yellow fever, for example. Some airlines are already planning to trial vaccine schemes, and some cruise operators are likely to insist on vaccination certificates before they will allow passengers to board.