News What does ‘essential foreign travel’ really mean?

All articles

What does ‘essential foreign travel’ really mean?

On 17 March 2020, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued a COVID-19 Exceptional Travel Advisory Notice, advising British nationals against all but essential international travel.

The FCO is the government department that looks after the safety of British citizens overseas. It collects information from on-the-ground sources, such as embassies, to determine whether it’s safe for UK travellers to visit a destination.

Practically speaking, the FCO’s foreign travel advice indicates whether UK citizens would have access to on-the-ground help in the event of an emergency overseas.

The current circumstances leading to a blanket advisory against all international (and, during lockdown, domestic) travel are exceptional. But the FCO constantly updates its travel advice for 229 world locations affected by conflict or other health- or safety-related issues.

COVID-19 aside, the FCO often advises against non-essential travel in many regions. So what does ‘essential’ actually mean? Skyscanner will help you understand these guidelines and what they mean for you, the traveller.

How does the UK define ‘essential foreign travel’?

The definition is deliberately vague. If the FCO advises against all non-essential travel somewhere, it means that if you decide to go there you won’t be protected from any risks you encounter. The definition reads like this:

“Whether travel is essential or not is your own decision. You may have urgent family or business commitments to attend to. Circumstances differ from person to person. Only you can make an informed decision based on the risks.”

So long as the COVID-19 pandemic still means border closures and lockdowns in countries all over the world, travelling for a holiday isn’t an option. A small number of commercial flights are still available – some major airlines’ policies are listed here – but only you can decide what qualifies as ‘essential’ enough to be worth the risk.

Note that some countries, such as Spain, UAE and New Zealand, are only allowing their own nationals to enter while the pandemic persists.

What does all this mean for travellers?

Have you booked a holiday you can no longer take?

If you wish to change or cancel your travel plans – or if they’re cancelled by the holiday provider – you should:

  1. Contact your airline or travel company to discuss refund or rebooking options (bear in mind that call waiting times are unusually long during the COVID-19 pandemic)
  2. Get in touch with your travel insurance provider to discuss compensation. Travel insurers only cover costs not addressed by the airline or travel company

How does advice against non-essential travel affect flight cancellations?

Over 100 airlines have cancelled flights since March 2020, often at short notice, due to the travel restrictions brought on by COVID-19. Currently, Ryanair has grounded 99% of its flights and all easyJet services are grounded until further notice.

If your flight is delayed or cancelled, normally you’d be entitled to compensation. However, the airline is not legally obliged to provide compensation is if the flight was cancelled due to ‘extraordinary circumstances’. These include extreme weather, a strike or flights grounded due to government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. But most airlines are currently issuing ‘waivers’ either for refunds or for flight credit to be put towards a future trip.

We’ve put together a full list of advice on what to do if your flight gets cancelled, which covers when and how to get refunds, and what to do if your airline goes bust.

You can find more information about airlines’ current cancellation, rebooking or refund policies on airline websites or via the International Air Travel Association.

How does advice against non-essential travel affect insurance?

No matter the circumstances, investing in comprehensive travel insurance before you go is the best way to safeguard the trip and its costs. Travel insurance policies provide cover for medical expenses, a trip being cut short or cancelled, and loss or theft of possessions.

However, many travel insurers will not cover you if you travel to a high-risk destination – that means places where the FCO advises against all non-essential travel. So make sure you check your policy wording carefully, as well as the FCO’s travel advice pages when booking your trip and buying insurance.

Check if your travel insurance policy includes cover for scheduled airline failure (SAFI). And if you paid for your flight with a credit card, contact the card provider to see if a charge-back is possible.

If you booked your trip via a travel firm that has an Air Travel Organiser’s Licence (ATOL), contact them to make a claim. When trips are ATOL protected, the travel firm is responsible for finding you alternative flights or providing refunds. COVID-19 travel restrictions may mean an alternative flight is not practical to organise, and a refund or voucher may be your only options. More information on how COVID-19 affects ATOL claims can be found here.

What if you’re in a location affected by this travel advice?

When you’re in a country where the FCO advises against all but essential travel, the UK government advises you to take a flight home as soon as possible. You should:

  1. Contact your airline or travel company
  2. Keep up to date with the FCO’s travel advice pages, which are constantly updated with information on returning from the country you’re in
  3. For updates, follow the UK embassy or High Commission’s social media for the country you’re in

One of the reasons that the FCO advises against travel to certain places is because consular assistance can’t be relied upon there. But you should still try to contact the UK’s embassies and consulates wherever you are if you need help.

Getting home

Where commercial routes are running, airlines remain responsible for getting their passengers with pre-booked tickets home. You should book a ticket on the earliest flight possible and worry about refunds and compensation when you get home.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government is putting up to £75 million towards special charter flights for UK citizens stuck in affected countries without commercial flights. You can find out if a special charter flight is available on the ‘Return to the UK’ section of a country-specific FCO travel advice page.

If you need to be evacuated

When evacuation in a foreign destination is necessary, you might have to incur the costs yourself. Currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK government is working with airlines to provide repatriation flights for UK citizens stuck in locations where commercial flights are grounded.

When neither of those options are available, read the FCO’s advice on staying where you are until it’s possible to come home. This includes following the advice of local authorities, securing suitable accommodation (read our advice on hotel booking cancellations) and contacting your travel insurance provider.  

Read more: Your COVID-19 travel questions answered

For more answers to commonly asked questions, click here.

This page was last updated on 16 April 2020. To our knowledge, the information on this page was correct at the time of publication. However, given the nature of the COVID-19 crisis, information will vary by location and change at short notice and over time. We will do our best to keep this page up-to-date, however this cannot be guaranteed.

This page has been created for general guidance only and has not been designed for you or any specific circumstances relevant to you. It is highly recommended that you check your government’s latest travel advice before travelling or making any decisions to travel.