If you’re a parent who has survived half-term week at home with children under lockdown, I salute you. Being cooped up indoors is trying, especially when your home doubles as a workplace, gym and crèche.
As we await next week’s plan for the UK’s route out of lockdown, the thought of being anywhere other than our own living rooms is of immense appeal.
Of course, the government has told us not to book holidays, either domestic or international. This, like so much of its advice, appears to have had the opposite effect to the one intended. The booking drive is on!
Online booking sites report that demand is way ahead of last year, especially for staycation breaks, and Mintel research forecasts that UK domestic holiday sales this summer could hit a 10-year high.
People are desperate to get away — and the travel industry is desperate to get cash flow moving again by taking advance bookings.
If, like me, you’re tempted to make one, there’s nothing to stop us. It would be wonderful to have something to look forward to. But with no guarantees about when restrictions might be lifted, how can we guard against the risk of losing money?
The first challenge is predicting when things might start to open up.
This week, the prime minister has been downplaying press speculation that households in England could be permitted to take a self-catered Easter “staycation”. Easter Sunday falls on April 4 this year, so a later break could offer more options.
But the next question is where.
Getting out of the country — currently illegal for almost anything — is one thing. Getting back in is entirely another, as the first guests (or should we call them prisoners?) checking into quarantine hotels found out this week.
If your overseas destination ends up being added to the 33 countries on the “red list”, there will be an expensive scramble to cut holidays short and get home — and a potential quarantine bill of £1,750 per adult when you do.
For this, you get to spend 10 days in an airport hotel room purpose-built for single-night occupancy. If your family bubble has been getting on each other’s nerves confined to a house, imagine how much worse this would be in a hotel room! It’s enough to convert anyone to the charms of Bognor Regis.
It appears older travellers are more gung-ho about venturing abroad. The rollout of the vaccine programme has coincided with a surge in bookings for Saga, the holiday operator for the over-50s, which insists that every passenger aboard its cruise ships this summer must have been jabbed.
Saga has delayed the start of its cruise season until May, in the hope that restrictions will have eased by then. By the end of January, around £140m of bookings had rolled in — nearly 70 per cent of its sales target for the current financial year.
Most younger UK adults will have to wait longer for their jab, which could prove problematic if a “Coronavirus passport” system is ever introduced.
In any case, the experience of chasing refunds for last year’s cancelled flights and bookings is not something I will forget in a hurry. If you were pushed into accepting a flight rebooking voucher, remember to use it.
It is possible to buy travel insurance that covers illness and cancellations arising from Covid-19, but don’t expect it to be cheap. And beware — if you don’t have an insurance policy in place when you make advance bookings, this could prevent a payout if your holiday is cancelled before you travel.
Lockdown gives us plenty of time to wade through all the terms and conditions, but this summer is already feeling like a toss-up between the risk of cancelled overseas sunshine or guaranteed rain back in Blighty.
So what’s is being booked up fastest? Domestic holiday booking websites report that UK staycationers are seeking isolated destinations, favouring self-catered holiday cottages in rural locations with lots of outdoor activities nearby.
A recent survey by Piplsay, the consumer research group, found that 42 per cent of those planning domestic breaks would travel by private car to reduce infection risk. You can practically hear the clanking of wine bottles stashed in the boot as they rattle over the cattle grids.
Similarly, camping and the middle-class variant of glamping are also proving popular — but city breaks and seaside getaways less so (who can forget the crowds on Bournemouth beach or Durdle Door in Dorset last year).
You’ll find plenty of inspiration for alternative day trips closer to home in Engel’s England (by my friend the journalist Matthew Engel) and Unwrecked England by the late Candida Lycett Green.
The further away you go, the greater the risks. I’d love to return to Scotland, Wales or Ireland this year, but I worry their timetables for lifting restrictions (or reimposing them) will be different from England’s.
As someone who has mostly favoured staycations over foreign holidays over the past few years, I can tell you they’re not cheap. Browsing booking sites this week, you would have to be bonkers to book anything using the cheapest, pay up-front rate rather than the inflated price that allows you to amend or cancel up to the day before.
So what are the alternatives? Depending on what the rules might allow, friends who live in interesting places, have second homes or gardens big enough to erect a family-sized tent in are fast becoming the most valuable contacts in your address book.
But I suspect that many of us are simply longing to go and visit family.
I cast my mind back 30 years, to a school classroom in Hemel Hempstead where I grew up. We were tasked with designing a leaflet to persuade tourists to sample the delights of our postwar “new town”. How we all laughed.
Decades later, and I’m dreaming about driving around Hemel’s infamous “Magic Roundabout” — one big roundabout ringed by six smaller ones — taking my parents for a pint outside the Winkwell pub, and looking for herons as we stroll down the towpath of the Grand Union Canal.
Despite my misgivings at the age of 13, this would be a paradise destination.
Claer Barrett is the FT’s consumer editor, and a financial commentator on Eddie Mair’s LBC drive-time show, on weekdays between 4-7pm: Twitter Instagram