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Plans to restart foreign travel for millions of people could be doomed to fail if the government does not effectively consult consumers and reassure them that trips abroad will be safe, affordable and their refund rights will be upheld, according to Which?.

The government’s Global Travel Taskforce (GTT) is due to outline how it will restart international travel, currently set to reopen no earlier than 17 May, when it publishes its report in early April. However, Which? is concerned that limited opportunities for travellers to engage with the GTT could mean that their concerns won’t be addressed ahead of international travel reopening.

The GTT page on the government’s website says it is consulting with a range of groups, including the transport industry, international partners, the tourism sector, the private testing sector, and academia and policy institutes. Engagement with consumers seems to be largely limited to an email address that travellers can send their concerns about travel reopening to, and even this is not listed clearly on the GTT web page for passengers to find.

Today, Which? is publishing its list of consumer priorities for travel, which the GTT must take on board if its plans to restart international travel are to be successful. They focus on vital measures to build passenger confidence around the safety of travel, accessibility and affordability of Covid tests and vaccine passports and assurances that holidaymakers will not be left out of pocket by coronavirus travel disruption.

Which? is also urging people to share their experiences with the Taskforce of how the pandemic has affected their travel plans over the past year and their concerns ahead of travel reopening via email or social media in the two weeks left before the GTT is due to report.

For more than a year now, the consumer champion has been hearing from people who have been let down by their travel provider after the pandemic grounded most international travel, which saw confidence in the industry plunge to a record low.

According to the Competition and Markets Authority, cancellation and refund complaints have accounted for the overwhelming majority of complaints to the regulator since April 2020, with around 47,000 cancellation complaints about holiday companies since March 2020, and more than 10,000 cancellation complaints about airlines.

Though many holiday companies and airlines have since improved their performance, Which? is warning that travellers risk facing another summer of chaos and cancelled holidays if the government does not provide assurances around safety, testing costs, health travel certificates, and how bookings will be protected from changing travel restrictions and associated costs, such as Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) warnings against travel or the potential of costly hotel quarantine for arrivals from popular destinations.

With the risk of variants of the virus present in other countries being transmitted and brought back to the UK, it is essential that the government ensures that effective measures are put in place to ensure international travel is safe, particularly in airports. Last summer, Which? reported that passengers endured queues in Stansted Airport with no social distancing, raising concerns around how airports will cope this summer if mass air travel is allowed to resume.

Given the limited data available on the ability of vaccines to reduce transmission, Which? is asking the GTT to ensure that clear guidance is in place for airports to facilitate social distancing between passengers, particularly in instances where passengers from ‘red list’ countries are travelling.

Which? is also concerned that travellers could face astronomical costs for testing, which is likely to be required for entry into most destinations this summer. Most countries now require a negative test before departure and a follow up on arrival, and passengers also need a negative test to return to the UK, and further tests on day two and eight of quarantine. With PCR private tests costing around £120 each, the potential of up to five tests could mean travellers face paying hundreds more on top of the cost of their trip, potentially pricing people out of travelling.

Which? has also found that testing costs in the UK are considerably higher than in other countries. When it looked at the total cost of all the tests passengers would need for travel to a number of popular destinations across Europe, it found that the cost of tests were much lower on average compared to the UK. In Italy, for example, the average cost is €86 (£74) per test.

Additionally, Which? understands there will be a need for travel health certification, such as vaccine passports, but believes people need reassurance over how these will operate internationally, how their privacy will be maintained and their data protected, and what provisions will be made for those who cannot or do not want to rely on digital certifications. It is also essential that if certification is to be mandatory for travel, that it is provided free of charge.

The consumer champion is also urging the Taskforce to consider how travellers’ money will be protected if they cannot legally or reasonably travel to their destination because of coronavirus restrictions. Despite many airlines offering reassurances that passengers can benefit from flexible booking policies this summer, Which? continues to hear from people who are still out of pocket for holidays that were disrupted last year.

Suzanna Mahoney, from Leeds, booked a holiday to Lanzarote with Loveholidays in January 2020. She was due to travel in August 2020, but when the time came, Loveholidays informed her that the FCDO advice for travel to Lanzarote had changed and asked if she still intended to travel. Not wanting to travel against government advice, she chose the option of cancelling her holiday and was refunded the cost of her accommodation. She has not received a refund for the cost of her flights though, as they departed as scheduled, and has been left £1,600 out of pocket as a result.

Which? is engaging with the GTT and has shared its calls on the Taskforce to deliver for consumers. It is asking the Taskforce to ensure that travellers will be given clear information about changing travel rules by the government and travel providers, that international travel will be safe, that they won’t face unreasonable additional costs and that the financial risk to consumers is minimised, that they will be able to get their money back if their holiday can’t go ahead, and that any travel health certification will be private and secure.

Until the Taskforce has published its report, Which? is advising people not to book any international travel or holidays, and wait until details of the GTT’s roadmap have been revealed before making any plans.

Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said: “Many of us are looking forward to the opportunity to step on a plane and travel to family and friends or take a holiday again in the near future, but the past year has taught us that there are a number of risks involved with international travel that need to be removed or reduced before we will be comfortable doing so.

“Confidence in overseas travel has plummeted as a result of the pandemic, and government interventions for both the industry and passengers who have been let down by their operator or airline have been woefully insufficient. The Taskforce has a real opportunity to give passengers the confidence to travel again, but it must take their concerns into consideration, or else it risks another disastrous summer for passengers and industry alike.”

A spokesperson for Loveholidays said“As we have done with all our customers who had holidays booked to a destination where the FCDO subsequently advised against traveling, we asked Ms Mahoney whether she wished to go ahead with her trip and gave her the option to cancel or amend her booking. She opted to cancel and we waived our cancellation fee and provided her with a full cash refund for the part of the holiday that we are able to do so – her hotel booking. As a change of FCDO advice does not of itself trigger cancellation and full refund rights under the PTRs, any flight refund is dependent on Ryanair agreeing to do so, which to date they have not. This was made clear when Ms Mahoney chose to cancel.

“Unfortunately, some airlines including Ryanair, chose to continue to operate flights despite a change in FCDO guidance for that destination. In accordance with Ryanair’s terms and conditions, they refuse to provide customers with a cash refund if a flight is still going ahead even if a customer quite understandably chooses to not to travel in light of the latest FCDO advice. Ryanair holds the flight sums. If we had received a flight refund from Ryanair, we would have forwarded this to Ms Mahoney within five working days of receipt, as we have done with many other customers who cancelled in the same circumstances.”

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