Travel expert Simon Calder answers refunds and cancellations questions
Trains – and often the lack of them – are dominating the travel headlines. Disputes between rail staff, train operators and the government have been dragging on for eight months, with no sure sign of an end to the strikes.
Ticketing reform is on the agenda, with Scotland soon to start a six-month trial of abolishing peak fares. But at the same time the stress continues, with the East Coast and West Coast main lines simultaneously closed on 18 and 19 February.
Travellers continue to be annoyed by the behaviour of some airlines, while cruise passengers who were told to leave Marella Discovery 2 halfway through a two-week voyage remain vexed.
The travel correspondent of The Independent, Simon Calder, tackled questions on all of these subjects and more.
Q: There has been lots of chat about replacing rail return tickets with two singles. I have a Network Railcard. As you know, there is a £13 minimum fare on weekdays. I can use it for a return trip priced at £20, which comes in at a handy £13.20 with the railcard. But if the ticket changes to £10 each way, the railcard will bring me no benefit. Will this change?
A: For people unfamiliar with the subject: the Network Railcard has been around since 1986. It is for use only in south east England (a weird area that includes King’s Lynn in Norfolk but not Norwich, Worcester but not Swindon and Exeter only if travelling from London Waterloo). Because of all the restrictions the Network Railcard is chiefly of interest for people aged 31-59 who do not qualify for other railcards.
The Network Railcard gives the usual 34 per cent off train travel, but only from 10am onwards from Monday to Friday. Also, as you indicate, on weekdays there is a minimum spend of £13. The aims are to stop people using the card for short-distance commuting, and to incentivise discretionary journeys further afield. But there are anomalies – such as the one you mention, whereby it is worth using the Network Railcard for returns but not single journeys.
The government has the eventual aim of scrapping return tickets and making everything “single-leg pricing” – which, in many cases, will involve sharply reducing the current single fare. After some leaks to friendly press last weekend, ministers were expected to announce a far-reaching overhaul of the ticketing system. In fact, single-leg pricing is coming only to parts of the LNER network where it does not currently exist (Edinburgh, Newcastle and Leeds to and from London).
Bringing in single leg pricing is a massive task, and I would be surprised if there is any widespread introduction before the next election, when a different party may take over and come up with a completely different plan. I am confident, though, that in the event of dramatic change, the Network Railcard terms will be adjusted as appropriate to try to stimulate leisure trips – and that you will be able to get a similar deal to now.
Q: Why is my commute fare between London and Bristol so unpredictable? One week the rail fare is £35, then it’s £85 or more. Buying weeks in advance doesn’t seem to help, and I live anxiously not knowing how much it’ll cost. I am Concerned the new “two singles” approach will increase it too.
A: Booking five weeks ahead for an early morning departure from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington on Great Western Railway (GWR), I am seeing a wide range of advance fares, mostly about £50 one way for the 90-minute journey – about £70 cheaper than then anytime fare. Coming back from the capital during the late afternoon/early evening rush-hour, the typical advance fare is £40.
The availability and price varies according to the exact time of the journey, especially in the morning. But if you are getting prices as low as £35, that is impressive. However, you be travelling at different times each day, which could be triggering the sharp variation in fares.
Advance tickets swiftly sell out. For close-in bookings when they have all dried up, or “walk-up” tickets when you buy on the day, take advantage of the “Didcot dodge”. This is a “split-ticketing” ploy that is perfectly legal if your Bristol-London train stops at Didcot Parkway, which (as far as I can tell) they all do.
Buy one ticket to the Oxfordshire town and then a second to your final destination.
Bristol to Didcot and Didcot to London are both about £37 for a standard anytime single, yielding a total fare of £74.70 compared with the Bristol-London price of £119.40 – saving £45 for exactly the same distance. This is the sort of nonsense that shows how much fares reform is needed.
Meanwhile you might want to consider the long-distance coach option. Whenever London-Bristol fares look absurd, I take the bus. Yes, even on a good day it takes an hour longer than the train, and is often subject to delays. But right now I am looking at tomorrow’s wide range of services on National Express (typically £11), Megabus (£12) and Flixbus (£8 early on, then £20).
Q: I was booked to travel with GWR last November. My train was cancelled so I was told to send my ticket by “signed for” post, which I did. This was during a postal strike. Royal Mail sent me £3 worth of stamps to cover the postage I had paid, but Trainline won’t pay out for the cancelled train.
A: This is most annoying. If the ticket was an advance one, for a specific train, and that was cancelled, I would imagine it is an easy matter to claim back the cash from the company that sold it to you; they surely have a record of the sale and the fact that it was cancelled. So do try again.
In future, booking direct with GWR will improve matters if things go wrong: I find the refund system for the train operator very efficient.
Q: I am travelling with my family to Gran Canaria on Sunday 12 February for a week, My passport expires on 1 May 2023. Will it be a problem, and if so what can I do?
A: After Brexit the UK asked to be treated as third country nationals, which means your passport must meet two conditions:
- Less than 10 years old on the day of entry to the EU.
- At least three months remaining on the intended day of departure from the EU.
Regardless of the issue date, your passport is not valid within the European Union from 1 February 2023 because it expires three months later.
All I can do is suggest either you get an instant appointment today for a fast-track one-week passport and hope that it can be collected in just a couple of days (which sometimes happen) – or try to wing it at the UK airport as you fly out.
I know that on occasion a blind eye has been turned by airline ground staff on departure and by frontier officials on arrival in Spain. There will be no problem coming home.
Q: Is there any advice you can give Marella’s cancelled cruisers as we ask for total refunds? We were forced to leave Marella Discovery 2 a week early, causing huge distress. To add insult to injury we weren’t even flown home to Glasgow. We flew from Montego Bay to Manchester and were put on a coach to Scotland, a journey that overall took 25 hours.
Complete cancellation at outset would have been much preferred. Instead we have refunds for half, which won’t replace our lost holiday. Can you advise?
A: Sorry to hear you are one of many hundreds of people left high and dry by the abrupt cancellation of the Pride of Panama cruise that was due to start on 31 January from Montego Bay, Jamaica. Marella Discovery 2, a Tui vessel, was due to visit Port Royal in Jamaica, Cartagena in Colombia, Colon in Panama and Puerto Limon in Costa Rica. For many passengers already on the ship it was to be the second week of “back-to-back” cruises that combined for an idyllic Caribbean meander.
A spokesperson for Tui tells me: “We understand how frustrating the cancellation of the Pride of Panama cruise on Marella Discovery 2 would have been. The cancellation was due to a technical issue with our catering facilities, which impacted our ability to provide our usually high service standards onboard the ship.”
Passengers whose cruise was cut short will get “a per night pro-rata refund” and £300 in holiday vouchers. The pro-rata refund, as you say, means that if you paid £2,000 for the two-week cruise, you get £1,000 back. The attitude appears to be that passengers derived a week of enjoyment and therefore should be refunded only half of their money back, though many people I have heard from say that from the day the cancellation was announced their holiday was effectively over.
Aircraft were sent out to bring passengers home after their curtailed cruises. But instead of direct flights to Glasgow and Birmingham, passengers for these airports were flown to Manchester and Gatwick respectively and put on buses to the intended destination.
For people in your position who spent many extra hours trying to get home, I have a morsel of good news. The Tui spokesperson tells me: “We are also proactively reaching out to those customers who did not fly back to their original airport, to offer them further compensation.”
Q: I am going to Bilbao in June to spend 10 days driving the northern coast of Spain. Any recommendations on places not to miss along the way?
A: What a fabulous trip. Initially, leave the car out of the picture as you enjoy the glories of Bilbao. The Guggenheim is gorgeous from the outside (resembling a deconstructed Jumbo jet) and its riverside location is worth appreciating from different dimensions. If you are short of time, don’t bother with the inside and instead wander through the picturesque Old Town.
Next, treat yourself to the narrow-gauge train through the hills from stunning Abando station in Bilbao to San Sebastián – one of the most magical cities in Spain. The shell-shaped beach is framed beautifully by headlands. The hill to the east shelters another magnificent Old Town and the best pintxos (the Basque take on tapas) in the region.
Return to Bilbao to pick up the car in about an hour by bus. Then head west along the coast, building in plenty of time in Santander – another great city.
Europe’s great outdoors are seldom more impressive than in the region of Asturias, where peaks soar to 2,000m and bears, wolves and eagles still roam. Stay for a night or two in one of the mountain villages.
Back on the coast, I adore A Coruña, a lively resort with a spectacular shoreline. A mile’s stroll from the centre along the seafront promenade of Paseo Maritimo takes you to the Torre de Hércules – a Roman-built lighthouse dating back to the first century.Santiago de Compostela is the cultural highlight of northern Spain, with a splendid cathedral built on the site where the remains of St James the Apostle were said to be discovered in the ninth century.
If time permits, make your way to Finistera, which the Romans regarded as the end of the world. From Spain’s Land’s End, go north to the pretty fishing port of Muxia or south to the ruggedly located port of Vigo down by the Portuguese frontier. In between, the scenery is never short of spectacular.
Q: I submitted a refund claim to my airline last October. I am still waiting for a response and payment. I tried calling to check progress. Told relevant team isn’t taking calls, no-one else can access their system to find out what’s happening, and no managers are available to speak to me. Still no further forward. Any advice on what I can do to resolve the situation, please?
A: How frustrating. All I can suggest is that you write a Letter Before Action explaining that you will go to Money Claim Online after two weeks unless they settle your claim. Citizens Advice has a good template letter on its website.
Q: I booked car hire via my airline for a trip to Lanzarote. I still use the original UK paper driving licence, which I am entitled to do until I am required to change at age 70. But on arrival the rental firm refused to give me the car because I didn’t have a photo driving licence. The airline also refuses a refund.
A: How infuriating. You are, as you will appreciate, in a small minority by having a paper driving licence with no photo. These were issued many years ago with an expiry date on the eve of the holder’s 70th birthday and can be happily used within the UK (assuming nothing changes, such as moving house). But since the 21st century arrived, photocards have become the norm. The AA warns holders of paper licences “might need an International Driving Permit” in some European countries.
You can also be pretty sure that buried somewhere in the terms and conditions of the car rental firm will be a requirement for drivers to have a licence with a photo on it. I have fallen foul of the tangle of rules by not taking my passport to pick up the car (resulting in a frustrating return trip the following day); I have even seen foreign visitors to the UK turned away because they could not produce the credit card they booked with.
What about the airline’s position? After all, you booked through it in good faith. Well, it will no doubt say its car rental offer is supplied by an intermediary, which has its own conditions.
Because of the scope for things to go wrong when hiring a vehicle, I prefer to book direct with a big car rental company – who will, in my experience, make clear what is expected from the renter. Finally, you might want to change your licence for future rentals abroad. It will cost £20.
Q: I have booked a trip for three days in Gibraltar in March. Is there enough to see and do or would it be worthwhile taking a day-trip to Tangier from Algeciras?
Robster, via the latest Ask Me Anything at independent.co.uk/travel
A: Gibraltar has been transformed over the decades from a slightly rundown sort of place to one of the most diverse and spectacular locations in the Mediterranean. I have spent a week there on a family holiday in 2021 and was not tempted to stray any further (which was just as well; it was during the Covid era and stepping across the frontier into Spain was forbidden without going into quarantine on the return to the UK).
With a vertiginous rock at its heart, Gibraltar has some remarkable sights. The “Thrill Seekers Trail” is one of the world’s greatest urban hikes. It straddles the Rock, combining ancient paths and centuries-old military tracks embellished with 21st-century structures that provide high-altitude thrills and vertical views. At the top, there’s a glass-bottomed viewing platform: the Skywalk. Lower down, the Windsor Suspension Bridge is strung out above a 50-metre gorge between two military batteries, and particularly thrilling on a windy day.
Gibraltar’s strategic position between Europe and Africa has made it significant for tens of thousands of years: traces of Neanderthal man have been found in caves on the eastern side of the Rock. The limestone promontory itself is riddled with tunnels created for military purposes but now turned into intriguing tourist attractions.
The range of places to eat and drink has never been wider, with the waterfront now properly used as a lovely location to drink and dine.
For a day trip, the furthest I suggest you go is out into the Strait to watch the whales and dolphins frolicking – though you might also want to wander across the Spanish border to the town of La Linea for some tapas before your flight home (the main square is a 10-minute walk from the airport. In the unlikely event that you run out of activities, Algeciras itself is well worth exploration – no need to venture to Africa.