Q I hope this is a passport validity question that you haven’t yet answered. I am travelling out to the European Union on 28 May. My passport expires four months after my outward journey. I will be away for less than a month but I haven’t yet booked a return flight. So therefore I cannot demonstrate my “intended date of return” to anyone who asks. Is that a barrier to boarding the outward journey?
A Congratulations on coming up with a fresh question on the subject of our travelling age: passport validity in Europe. The short answer is: “No, it will not be an impediment to boarding a plane, boat or train to the EU.” Airlines, ferry operators and train firms have quite enough on without getting involved in deep exploration of their passengers’ plans.
But there’s more to it than that. The decision to leave the European Union and the withdrawal agreement that the UK government negotiated makes us third-country nationals. Prior to Brexit, there was no problem at all about not having any kind of return ticket booked – while in the EU, the only check that frontier officials were allowed to make of British citizens was that their passport was valid and matched.
How times have changed. Third-country nationals are told by the EU: “You might be asked to also show documents proving your purpose and conditions of stay (for example, tickets for further journeys and return tickets; reservation of accommodation) … as well as evidence of sufficient means of subsistence.”
In theory, then, you could be refused admission to your chosen EU country. Not having a return ticket could raise a quizzical official eyebrow, and the fact that your passport has only four months to run – limiting your maximum legal stay to one month – might raise the other one.
I have travelled widely to Europe since the Brexit transition phase ended and these new rules took effect, and have been given the third-degree only once: on entry to the Netherlands. Officials wanted to check my return journey and available funds, as they are legally required to do. But more recently I have travelled to Spain, Portugal and Italy with no return trip booked, without a problem.
Whichever approach you encounter, assuming you do not turn up at passport control with all your worldly possessions, and have a plausible explanation for why you have no ticket booked home, I cannot foresee a problem.
Q I’ve been asking, if not pleading, with National Express for many months now as to when they’ll be running full services again. For example, their Lichfield to Sheffield service hasn’t been running since pre-pandemic. All their social media tells me it’s much the same for other services but they won’t give me a straight answer as to why they still aren’t running or when they will be. Can you get any more sense from them?
A All privately run and funded transport providers (which includes National Express and Megabus) have endured an absolutely terrible pandemic. Their mission – to provide safe, economical transportation within the UK – was completely undermined during large parts of the past two years. Unlike train operators, they were not handed £1m per hour to keep largely empty services running. So I’m not at all surprised to see that it’s taking time for National Express to reestablish all the old links, and it may well be that some never reappear.
During the pandemic instead of companies exiting the market, the entire long-distance coach industry has actually become even more competitive, with the extremely well-funded FlixBus moving in on key inter-city routes. As a consequence, many of the links that might previously have been operated on a break-even basis (or even at a modest loss) are simply no longer sustainable.
Fortunately for the good people of southeast Staffordshire who need to reach Sheffield and the rest of south Yorkshire: CrossCountry runs frequent, well-subsidised trains direct from Tamworth – or you can hop on a local bus to Burton upon Trent and pick up the train there. Booking a month ahead, I am seeing plenty of Advance ticket availability from Tamworth to Sheffield (a rail journey of under an hour) for £21.30, which can be reduced by one-third for railcard holders.
Q Can you explain to me how Ryanair can charge you £45 to change a flight when you do it yourself, online? I understand that there will be a charge for a fare difference, but that looks to me more like a penalty. Is it legal?
A Ryanair, in common with every other airline, sets its own tariff for amendments to bookings. The fees do not need to bear any resemblance to the actual costs of the transaction, but instead reflect the carrier’s overall fare policy: you get a good deal if you book well in advance, but any changes are expensive.
The £45 charge (reduced to €45/£39 if you are changing a euro-denominated ticket) is part of the contract you made when you bought the original flight. At the time the airline agreed to fly you on that specific departure. As many of those of us who have tried to change a flight will testify, immediately you seek to vary the original contract the costs mount. Very often, if I need to change a Ryanair flight I simply buy a new ticket, whether on the same airline or a different one. Only if both the original and the replacement flights are particularly expensive is it worth going through the financial pain of changing, I find.
In the olden days before the budget airlines, though, things were worse: changing a cheap flight was effectively impossible. The “legacy” carriers, such as British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa, did not allow any amendments to their very cheapest tickets. So I regard the present situation as acceptable.
Ryanair is certainly more expensive than easyJet (£25 if made 45 days or more before departure, otherwise £42), Jet2 (£35) and Wizz Air (£27-£36). But Europe’s biggest budget carrier is actually more generous than many of its rivals in the first 24 hours after you book direct.
Passengers have a 24-hour grace period to change dates and times of flights, and even reverse the routing (eg Manchester-Malaga rather than Malaga-Manchester) free of charge. You will, understandably, be charged any price difference between the original fare paid and the lowest total price available on your new flight. And as is industry practice, if the new fare is lower, you won’t get a refund.
Q Are you aware of any plans to update travel advice to Sri Lanka, given the country has declared a state of emergency? I fly there in June and things do not appear safe at present.
A Sri Lanka is in political turmoil because of its deep economic plight. Partly because of the near-total collapse of its tourism industry during the coronavirus pandemic, there are nationwide shortages of fuel, food and medicine. As the suffering intensifies, so do the political protests against the Rajapaksa family – who hold many of the key posts in government.
As The Independent has reported, the prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has resigned, and anti-government protests are continuing. On Monday, eight people were killed in the clashes. The Foreign Office warned yesterday: “An island-wide curfew has been imposed with immediate effect. Strike action has been called by trade unions for an indefinite period. This may cause disruption to public services, including transport.”
But the FCDO has stopped short of advising against travel to Sri Lanka – and while life is evidently far from normal, reports from tourists suggest that this is a reasonable stance.
The travel guide Paul Goldstein, who has just returned, told me: “I had read about the protests in Colombo and immediately thought that if my country was facing this sort of inflation I would protest too. Did it worry me about travelling with my family? Not in the slightest. Almost all tourist areas are a long way from the capital. A drop in visitor numbers now would be very damaging; Sri Lanka needs support not over-reaction.”
Were the Foreign Office to reimpose a warning against travel – as it did following the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019 – then anyone booked on a package holiday in the very near future would get their money back. Airlines, too, are likely to be flexible on refunds. So I am afraid all you can do right now is wait.
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