How will a no-deal Brexit hit travel in and out of the UK and Europe?
It’s prime time to start booking summer vacations, but for millions of people, the looming threat of Britain crashing chaotically out of the European Union could transform their annual break into a misery of delays, cancellations and bureaucratic nightmares.
Travelers seeking to head in or out of the UK face so many uncertainties that it’s almost impossible to plan effectively to avoid them.
Perhaps it’ll be business as usual. Perhaps they’ll spend hours, days even, trapped in snarl-ups at English Channel ports or airport lounges, with the rising heat of exasperation and anger — dampened only by the inevitable downpours of the British summer.
Disrupted vacations might seem trifling weighed against the huge trade deals at stake in the Brexit negotiations, but tourism across both sides of the UK border is worth billions of dollars and annual summer getaways are vital to the well-being of millions of key workers.
Later in January, the UK’s parliament is due to vote on a Brexit deal thrashed out by Prime Minister Theresa May, but with few expecting it to pass, the likelihood of the UK leaving the European Union without a deal is high.
So much of modern British life — from airport management to cheese production — is tangled up in European legislation that the sudden severing of ties, scheduled for March 29, just days before schools break up for Easter, will have huge implications.
Those traveling to and from the UK can expect significant disruption, according to travel industry experts. Aviation, currency, insurance, mobile phone roaming and passport control are all likely to be affected.
“Preparing for no deal is now an operational priority for the UK government. So we have to entertain that nightmare,” says Tom Jenkins, chief executive of ETOA, the European Tourism Association.
Jenkins says that a no-deal scenario could cause growing queues at passport control, with the European Union intending to treat UK passengers as those from a “third country” rather than those enjoying full EU rights under freedom of movement.
“This adds 90 seconds of border checks on each passenger,” says Jenkins. “This is hours of delays disembarking any flight, and days of delays at Channel ports. It will be a spectacular introduction to the red tape of Brexit.” Queues are likely to grow at UK and EU airports, he added.
Not everyone forecasts doom and gloom.
“Tourism is big business in the UK, just as it is in Europe, and huge quantities of money are spent from both sides each year by visitors from all over the world,” says Matt Dunne, operations manager at tour company Healing Holidays. “Therefore, the UK government and the EU will be keen to ensure this continues.”
What will happen to air travel?
While some, including Dunne, say airfares could rise in the event of no deal, air travel itself is expected to continue between the UK and EU even if an agreement isn’t struck. The European Union issued guidance in December 2018 saying it intended to allow flights from the UK into its airspace.
However, it was quick to clarify that this would only extend to “basic connectivity.” Britain’s exodus from the the EU’s Single European Sky initiative could have knock-on implications for air traffic management, significantly affecting airport runway capacities.
In an attempt to preempt post-Brexit confusion, budget airline Ryanair, one of Europe’s largest carriers, is among several that have set up UK-based subsidiaries to get separate UK certification needed if Britain crashes out. Meanwhile, the UK’s EasyJet has had to set up a European base.
The UK government has said it is studying the EU’s proposals, but that consumers could still book flights after March 29 in the event of no deal, “…with confidence.”
“Both the EU and UK have made it very clear that both parties want to ensure flights between the UK and EU continue in any scenario,” says Reigo Eljas, lastminute.com’s country director of the UK and Ireland. “The importance to retain the aviation links, which bring significant economic and cultural benefits, is clearly understood by both sides.”
Will passports still be valid?
And what about passports? Will British citizens, whose burgundy passports are currently emblazoned with the words “European Union,” still have valid travel documents after March 29?
Assurances have been made by the EU’s legislative body that visas will not be required, at least initially.
“The European Commission announced in November 2018 that, even in a no-deal scenario, UK travelers can still visit the EU without a visa, providing the same is offered to European citizens visiting the UK,” says ABTA, the Association of British Travel Agents.
However, the Commission has also confirmed that as of 2021, UK visitors to the EU will have to pay €7 (about $8) for the European Travel Information and Authorization Scheme (ETIAS), which can be bought online ahead of travel. This will last three years and ensure smooth entry at EU borders and airports, similar to the current ESTA scheme many tourists use to travel to the United States.
The UK government is also advising citizens to ensure they have at least six months’ validity left on their passport when entering the EU, up from the current 90-day limit. EU travelers heading to the UK are unlikely to face visa restrictions, as long as the UK reciprocates the EU’s offer.
However, the UK has yet to finalize its post-Brexit immigration strategy, adding further confusion.
What about insurance and medical emergencies?
UK travelers are also likely to face major changes when it comes to insuring themselves while traveling within the EU. Currently, travelers who need to use health services can show a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) to access free medical care in any EU country. Yet ABTA sounds a worrying note, confirming that, “In the event of a no-deal Brexit, UK registered EHICs will no longer be valid.”
“British travelers need to check their travel insurance policies carefully to ensure that they provide sufficient cover,” says Jo Mackay of Bookings For You, a holiday lettings firm specializing in France and Italy. “It is likely that insurance premiums could rise in the short term.”
ABTA, meanwhile, is advising UK travelers to check existing policies to see if they have emergency cover, as this will be required to cover costs if medical attention is needed and the UK and EU have not secured an agreement.
Will driving licenses be affected?
Those driving to the EU from the UK via the Channel Tunnel and major ports in southeast England will benefit from the fact that train and ferry travel are protected by EU rail regulations and international maritime law respectively.
However, drivers may need to get a special license in order to be fully compliant when on the EU’s roads. In official guidance released in September 2018, the UK government said, “If there is no deal with the EU, you may need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive in the EU.”
What about mobile phones?
Similarly, concerns have also been raised about the cost of using mobile phones in the EU when traveling. EU-wide agreements which came into place in 2017 saw punitive roaming charges banned, but consumers are being advised that a no-deal Brexit could mean EU mobile networks charging UK travelers to access data, make calls and send text messages, with the UK being seen as a “third country” in this case.
“Whilst the major UK providers have made clear statements that they currently have no plans to raise charges on roaming services post-Brexit, the loss of this EU regulation could leave consumers without a safety net when it comes to the cost of data whilst abroad in the future,” says Ernest Doku, mobiles expert at UK consumer site Uswitch.com.
The cost of travel for UK citizens is also likely to increase, although it could be beneficial to those traveling into the country as exchange rates are affected.
“With a no-deal we expect sterling to further weaken and make the UK an even more attractive place to visit,” says Rob Russell, joint CEO of AC Group, a UK-based tour operator. “Two of our biggest US clients have already seen an increase in sales for 2019.”
That said, the Britain that awaits them could be a vastly different place from that depicted in the holiday brochures if apocalyptic warnings about food, medicine and other shortages come to pass, not to mention the possibility of civil unrest.
Russell also sounds a note of caution.
“No-deal could have a huge impact on tour operators,” he says. “It is that knock-on effect that is potentially very damaging; it will put people off booking short weekend breaks, or making confirmed bookings. It might seem inconsequential to most people, but for tour operators it’s their bread and butter.”
Despite both sides initiating no-deal planning in a bid to ameliorate the worst effects of such a scenario, there remains a heightened sense of uncertainty within the travel industry. That in turn has left consumers unclear as to how the world will look if a deal isn’t signed off before the March 29 deadline.
All eyes will be on the UK’s parliament over the coming weeks, with travel experts hopeful that some kind of compromise can be reached.