Italy travel advice: How will tourists be affected by coronavirus lockdown?

Simon Calder
Italy travel advice: How will tourists be affected by coronavirus lockdown?

After the unprecedented closure of a major European country to British travellers due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus Covid-19, the Foreign Office has stepped up its advice to travellers.

In line with the controls and restrictions imposed by the Italian authorities on 9 March, the FCO now advises against “all but essential travel to Italy”.

Soldiers wearing masks control passengers arriving at the Milan Central railway station on March 9: AFP/Getty

These are the key issues that readers have raised since the Foreign Office stepped up its advice.

How many British travellers are in Italy?

The Independent estimates there are between 30,000 and 40,000 holidaymakers and business travellers in Italy – as opposed to UK citizens who are living, working or studying in the country.

What should they do?

The Foreign Office says: “British nationals remain able to depart Italy without restriction. Airports remain open throughout Italy. However, airline schedules are subject to change and some flights are being cancelled.”

This last sentence is an understatement.

Up to and including 9 March 2020, there appeared to be sufficient flights leaving the country to allow British people to return home in a reasonably orderly fashion.

But British Airways appears to have cancelled all 60 of its flights connecting Italy with the UK on 10 March, with no indication of when some of them might restart.

After easyJet initially said it was continuing with its schedule on 9 March despite the warning against travel to northern Italy, the airline now appears to have grounded all flights between the UK and Italy. Some still appear in the schedules, but it may simply be that the cancellations have not been processed.

Ryanair has severely cut back on its services, but appears to be continuing some flights in order to get people home.

In advice that has not been updated since the all-Italy lockdown, the airline is telling passengers: “While inbound traffic to northern Italy has suffered large numbers of ‘no shows’ over the past week, there are many thousands of non-Italian visitors currently in the Lombardy and other affected regions who are scheduled to return home.”

Ryanair is currently running “a severely reduced schedule of international flights to/from Bergamo, Malpensa, Venice, Parma, Rimini and Treviso, which will only operate on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays”.

The airline is likely to contact passengers with arrangements for taking them home. It says: “The situation is changing on a daily basis, and all passengers on flights affected by travel bans or cancellations, are receiving emails and are being offered flight transfers, full refunds or travel credits.”

It is likely that greater clarity will emerge from the airlines in the next few hours and days. Others may follow Ryanair in operating what are effectively repatriation flights. It may even be that the UK government lays on some flights.

But travellers who appear not to have a flight option – or those who are rail passengers – should make plans to leave the country by other means.

Remarkably, the Italian long-distance train service is operating near normally, and is even selling reasonably good fares – for example around €50 for the nine-hour journey from Rome to Nice in France via Genoa or Milan.

Note that there are controls at train stations to check the temperatures of passengers.

Nice will be the best “escape route” for many travellers, since it offers a wide range of onward flights and trains.

From northeastern Italy, the most obvious departure point is Verona, from where trains run across the Brenner Pass to Innsbruck in Austria. However, Innsbruck has relatively few flights, and travellers should continue to Munich for a better choice of onward travel options.

There are also rail routes across Switzerland, with Basel probably the best city to aim for.

If the airline you planned to fly with operates from one of these cities, you should ask if you can be flown home; British Airways and easyJet have a wide range of flights from these cities and should cooperate with a request for, say, a passenger booked from Rome to fly home from Nice, or for Venice travellers to access Munich flights.

Who pays?

Assuming your flight from Italy has been cancelled, then theoretically the airline meets the expenses that are triggered. Indeed, the European air passengers’ rights rules require the cancelling carrier to find, and pay for, alternative transport. They are also obliged to provide meals and accommodation while you wait. But there is no chance that they will be able to organise any of this, due to the overwhelming volume of concerned travellers contacting the airlines.

So you will need to pay for everything and then try to claim back the outlay. If your flight booking was cancelled, the airline is the place to start. However, in these strange times it may be that their unlimited financial obligation to disrupted passengers will be suspended or capped.

Travel insurance is the next port of call. The Association of British Insurers says: "Travel insurance policies may cover some out-of-pocket losses, and also help you to leave the area if a warning to return back to the UK comes into effect while you are there, if you are unable to get assistance from any other source."

The degree of cover you may get for a disrupted journey depends on the quality of the insurance. A cheap no-frills policy will probably offer little or no help, while a more expensive and comprehensive option is likely to meet costs that cannot be recovered elsewhere.

I am booked to travel to Italy in the next few weeks. What are my options?

For as long as the Foreign Office advises against travel, it would be irresponsible to go – and invalidate your travel insurance.

Furthermore it is very likely that your flights will be cancelled. Therefore you should assume you are not travelling and instead set about recouping the money you have spent.

How do I get a refund?

This advice applies only for trips scheduled to start up to and including early April. It is too early to say what arrangements for subsequent departures might be.

Assuming your trip is cancelled because of the no-go order, your rights depend on the way in which you have organised the holiday.

The easiest situation is when you have booked a proper package holiday. That may be a skiing holiday, a city break or a cultural trip; the key issue is that flights and accommodation were bought in a single transaction. (This also applies to cruises and rail-inclusive trips). In such circumstances the holiday company owes you a full refund within two weeks – though in these difficult times it may take longer.

If you have bought different elements individually, then you will have to approach each supplier. The easy part is likely to be recouping the air fare, as the airline should pay you back fairly automatically if it is unable to fly you.

Other elements will depend on the attitude of the company. Hotels and rental car firms may or may not be prepared to offer refunds – bear in mind that their business have been traumatised. If you have booked through an intermediary, then it may be trickier still.

Any costs you have not been able to recover may be met by a good travel insurance policy.

I am travelling later in the year – what are my options?

You have the option to cancel, of course, but to do so now would mean you would lose some or all of your money. For example, easyJet is saying: “If you cancel, miss, or do not take your flight unfortunately we will be unable to provide you with a refund.”

From Easter onwards, access to and within Italy may improve, or get worse, or stay much the same. But while it is a time of great anxiety and concern, there is nothing travellers with advance bookings can do but wait and see how circumstances evolve. These are unprecedented times for travel.

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