Seven urgent travel questions answered by Simon Calder
From air travel’s fall from grace to Indian holiday visas, from high fares and compensation to post-Brexit passport rules, The Independent’s esteemed travel correspondent, Simon Calder, deals with readers’ most pressing queries.
Q: Why has air travel become so fraught with difficulties? Fifty years ago travelling by plane was exciting and reliable. Now it seems like an obstacle course.
A: I envy you having travelled by air in the 1970s. Fifty years ago I was a teenager. The notion of flying to Europe, let alone any further, was about as remote as the prospect of a trip to the moon. A few friends flew away to the Mediterranean with their (wealthy) parents on package holidays, but the main characteristic of aviation was exclusivity.
Normal people travelled abroad by rail or road and sea. Because even that was well beyond my reach, I was instead to be found hitchhiking at a series of dismal motorway junctions around Europe. I can confirm that was, to use your phrase, “fraught with difficulties” (some of them self-inflicted as a result of looking extremely unappealing in terms of hairstyle and dress, as well as smoking hand-rolled cigarettes as drivers passed).
From my time working at Gatwick airport in that decade, though, I can confirm that it was indeed an almost effortless process from train to check-in to plane. The first rudimentary security checks began in the mid-1970s, but unless you were flying to Northern Ireland they were best described as light-touch.
Today, thankfully, many of us can afford to fly. And many of us do, in much greater comfort; a few hours aboard a Ryanair Boeing 737 is far more agreeable than a Dan-Air Comet, which was a standard conveyance half a century ago.
The hurdles you mention need to be separated. Some are long lines and crowds due to the sheer pressure of numbers at busy airports; Heathrow handles four or five times as many passengers as it did half-a-century ago.
The worst part of any journey is generally the security search. Measures from metal detectors to X-rays searching for sharp objects and liquids brought in progressively as a response to murderous acts of terrorism. Yet in time, those security procedures should be eased and accelerated as technology improves.
I still find flying exciting, and mostly reliable. Two modern virtues that are far more important than any others, though: affordability, and extraordinary levels of safety.
Q: Any update on visas for holidays to India, please? I’m flying to Mumbai next year to join a cruise, which will also be calling at Goa.
A: Mumbai is one of my favourite cities: quintessentially human, with a vast and diverse population, intriguing culture and architecture, noise, colour, food and even an impressive beach. I also love Goa: a tiny state, full of interest and beauty. So in principle I am delighted to learn that you are planning to visit these parts of India.
If you can sense a “but …” coming, I am afraid you are right.
My strong advice to anyone hoping to visit India is that they should not book anything until they have their precious permit to visit. Over the years I have spent many long hours in various Indian visa offices, so the existence of e-Visas is a most welcome development (even though the online bureaucracy is still pretty intense).
But being able to obtain an e-Visa is far from certain. The Indian government withdrew them as the coronavirus pandemic began. When they were restored, the United Kingdom was notable by its absence from the list of eligible nationalities. The reason: a dispute over British rules for Indian visitors to the UK. For months, UK visitors with trips booked had to try to get a personal appointment at an Indian visa centre – and many people lost their holidays due to the long backlog. Finally, e-Visas for British passport holders were reinstated in December 2022.
I very much hope that e-Visas for India will still be available by the time your cruise takes place. Meanwhile, I wonder whether you booked your cruise through a travel agent? If you did so, it is their obligation to spell out the red tape involved – and explain the risk that you are taking by paying for a holiday without the certainty of being able to enter India.
Finally, when you apply I recommend that you consider paying extra for a five-year, multiple-entry e-Visa. This will allow you to visit India at any time you wish within the five years from the visa issue date without any further bureaucracy. And even if your passport runs out in the interim, the Indian High Commission says you can use an e-Visa related to an old passport so long as you bring the travel document with you.
Q: I am a regular traveller between Humberside airport and Tokyo via Amsterdam on KLM. The fare I have just been quoted is 42 per cent higher than my last trip. I know Putin’s war has caused a change in routes to Asia, but are prices likely to decrease?
A: The factors at work here are complex. The cost of providing an airline seat between Europe and Japan is much higher as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Airlines are typically paying one-third more for fuel than a year ago before Putin’s invasion. (The exact amount depends on a range of factors, notably the “hedging” position that each carrier has adopted – buying fuel ahead at a fixed price.)
In addition, airlines flying to east Asia are using more fuel. The closure of airspace over Russia, Ukraine and Belarus has increased the flight time from Amsterdam to Tokyo by at least two hours, to an average of 12h30m – with some inbound trips taking 14 hours as they go the “wrong way” round the world – flying initially away from Amsterdam on a journey over Alaska and northern Canada. Not only does this hugely increase fuel burn – it also has staffing implications and increases wear on the engines.
As a result of the higher costs, capacity has shrunk compared with the pre-war, pre-Covid levels. Overall the average reduction of available seats is down by about one-sixth.
Between the UK and Japan the reduction is even more pronounced due to special circumstances. Previously, many of us flew on Aeroflot from London via Moscow to Tokyo – a fast and straightforward journey. The Russian national airline is now banned from Western airspace.
Cathay Pacific was a leading provider of capacity between the UK and east Asia, but the Hong Kong-based airline is still way below its pre-pandemic operation as it emerges from some fairly extreme travel restrictions.
Finally, the Chinese giants – Air China, China Eastern and China Southern – previously provided plenty of low-cost seats via their hubs in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou respectively. With the People’s Republic still not open to international tourism, that supply has dried up. With demand as strong as ever, the only way for fares to go is up.
As supply increases – which it surely will, given the high prices airlines are commanding – prices should subside. But the deterioration of sterling against the US dollar, reflecting the relative decline of the British economy since the Brexit decision, doesn’t help. The days of £600 or £700 return fares from the UK to Japan seem permanently over.
Q: I was recently bumped off a connecting flight in Qatar because it was overbooked. Am I due compensation?
A: That all depends in which direction you were travelling, and the airline you were on. If it was the continuation of a flight from the UK which you had booked as a single transaction (eg flying Manchester-Doha-Bangkok) then you should certainly be due £520 in compensation under the UK’s air passengers’ rights rules.
Similarly, if you were flying from Doha to the UK or the European Union, on an airline based in either jurisdiction (such as British Airways or Air France), then once again you would be eligible for compensation.
However, flying on a non-EU/UK airline from a non-EU/UK airport those rules do not apply, and you might need to rely on whatever the carrier is prepared to offer.
Q: We were due to fly with Lufthansa from Barcelona to Frankfurt and then a connecting flight to Liverpool. The flight was cancelled due to industrial action in Frankfurt. But Lufthansa are refusing to send a refund. Please advise?
A: Lufthansa has had a pretty lousy couple of weeks. On 15 February an IT failure caused by workers accidentally severing fibre-optic cables during construction work grounded hundreds of the German airline’s flights.
Two days later, you were caught up in a massive strike by airport workers at very short notice. Unlike in the UK, unions in Germany need not give advance warnings of walk-outs.
When the Verdi union called out its ground-staff members at key German airports, Lufthansa had no choice but to cancel all flights from Frankfurt and Munich: more than 1,300 in total, affecting over 200,000 would-be passengers.
A Lufthansa executive, Michael Niggemann, said: “We are not a party to the collective bargaining and have no influence on it – nevertheless, our guests and we are massively affected.”
Many of those caught in the IT chaos on 15 February may be contemplating a claim for compensation under European air passengers’ rights rules. But the 17 February strikers did not work direct for the German airline, so you cannot expect a cash payout.
Depending on your situation Lufthansa may well be obliged to reimburse you. If you decided not to travel, a refund should be automatic. If you did travel, but could only do so by booking another flight – such as Barcelona to Manchester nonstop – then Lufthansa probably owes you the cost of the ticket. (The only way the airline could get out of paying is if it can show it offered a timely alternative or said it would book replacement flights for you.)
In addition, Lufthansa must meet reasonable expenses for hotels and meals incurred as a result of the cancellations, even though they were not the airline’s fault.
As a more general point, the more complexity you build into a trip – such as a change of planes between Barcelona and northwest England – the more you are a hostage to misfortune. Paying a premium for a direct flight is, I believe, often worthwhile.
Love in the time of Brexit
Q: I am a EU passport holder. Can my wife, who has only a British passport, legally travel with me to France and stay over the 90-day limit without a visa?
A: As with so many aspects of travel after Brexit, I would love someone who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU to explain exactly what they had in mind for such situations.
The principle seems to be: the European Union guarantees freedom of movement within the EU to all citizens. Preventing a spouse (or permanent partner) of an EU citizen from living with them would impede that freedom.
Therefore with sufficient proof (which is likely to vary from one EU country to the next) it should be possible for a UK citizen to accompany their EU spouse. But all the official advice I have seen is hazy and I fear I will have to fall back on “ask locally”.
Read more on Europe’s 90/180 rule: How long can you stay in an EU country and how does it work?
Q: I am looking to book a family package holiday to Tenerife in May. Is now a good time to book or are prices likely to drop?
A: May is set to be an interesting month from a travel perspective, so I have done some research for you. The first weekend of May (6-7) is notable for the King’s coronation. For those more interested in travelling than royalty, it will be an additional bank holiday weekend, with Monday 8 May a day off work for many.
With Monday 1 May still being the usual bank holiday, the chance for a 10-day break in return for only four days’ holiday is likely to increase demand, and hence prices, for flights. But most families with school-age children will not be able to avail of a week off.
At the end of the month, the usual Spring bank holiday on Monday 29 May also coincides with half-term for many schools in England and Wales. This is likely to drive up demand even more sharply. But anyone travelling between the long weekends should be able to find a bargain.
As a benchmark, I looked at the cheapest week’s package I can find from Tui for a departure on each of the Mondays in May, based on two adults and two children travelling together and staying in self-catering accommodation.
On the first day, flying from East Midlands and staying in Puerto de Santiago, the price per person is £337. On 8 May, it’s flying from Gatwick and staying at Playa Las Americas: £287.
Travelling a week later (15 May) from Gatwick and heading for Puerto de Santiago, you would pay £286 per person.
By 22 May, Luton is the cheapest UK departure airport, again to Puerto de Santiago, at £342. And as predicted, the 29 May outbound is most expensive at £486 – for that original flying from East Midlands and staying in Puerto de Santiago. That is 44 per cent higher than at the start of the month, but I would buy at that price now.
Indeed, all of these holidays look pretty good, bearing in mind they include flights with luggage and coach transfers to the hotel as well as the accommodation itself.