Q&A: what would UK Christmas Covid rule changes mean for your bookings and tickets?

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Long-distance train tickets have been bought in advance, flights arranged, hotels booked, restaurant reservations made and even turkeys reserved at the local butchers. Although the government in England says the Christmas meet-up rules are not changing – legally three households can bubble together over up to five days (two in Wales) – Boris Johnson is pleading for “extreme caution” at Christmas, saying that people in high prevalence areas should if possible avoid travelling to a low prevalence area.

So what happens if you feel you should now change your plans? Will it be a battle to obtain refunds if you cancel your Christmas festivities?

I booked a long-distance train ticket in advance to visit my parents at Christmas but I now don’t think I should travel. Can I get a refund?

Probably not. The (usually substantially cheaper) advance tickets that university students buy up to three months in advance for cross-country travel are not refundable.

But all is not lost. The ticket can be exchanged (up to departure) for a new ticket on a different time or day. The drawback is there is a fee of up to £10 for making changes, and crucially, you’ll have to keep to the same route.

I’ve booked Christmas flights I will no longer need – what are my rights?

An airline is only obliged to refund customers if it cancels the flight. If you simply decide you no longer wish to fly – and you didn’t book an expensive refundable ticket – then you are relying on the airline’s goodwill.

EasyJet has been offering those with a reservation the chance to cancel, and to switch free to another later flight – but only up to 14 days before the flight was due to leave. Many people will now find themselves outside that date – at which point a £49 per passenger fee is applicable, which may or may not be worth doing.

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Ryanair is also allowing one free flight change, which must take place, a more helpful seven days before the original departure. In its case you can switch the flight to dates up to 30 September 2021.

British Airways is allowing passengers to cancel and to take a voucher instead. In most cases passengers can make these changes online.

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We have booked a Christmas Day lunch at our favourite local restaurant and paid a large deposit for our group. Can we get it back?

It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for restaurant owners who have spent the last few weeks creating Christmas menus, ordering in food and arranging staff rotas. Those that have recently been forced to close as the capital moved into tier 3 had just a day’s notice. But as they will be cancelling you, rather than the other way around, they will be obliged to return any deposits paid. But it could take time; as we reported in July, even big chains were taking as long as three months to return deposits. Understandably, they will encourage you first to rebook rather than cancel, or await their reopening.

You are in a different position if the restaurant is in an area where it is permitted to remain open, but you want to cancel, maybe because a key member of your family can no longer join you. You will have to rely on the goodwill of the restaurant.

Many restaurants will have taken a non-refundable deposit for a Christmas Day booking. For example, the Toby Carvery chain says its £10 a head deposit is non-refundable.

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My in-laws booked a hotel room for Christmas Day rather than stay at our house. Now the government says people should if possible avoid staying away from home overnight. Can they get a refund?

Better news here, with most hotel rooms booked recently at the major chains sold on a refundable or reschedule basis since the pandemic took hold. Booking.com mostly displays hotels with free cancellation, although terms vary. In some case full refunds are paid up to 24 hours before, others require cancellation a week before to get all your money back.

Premier Inn has switched to a model where even its cheapest, non-refundable advance rate allows the traveller to change their arrival date and shift it into 2021. Its other rates offer full refunds so long as the cancellation is either three days before or up to 1pm on arrival day.

If you booked an entirely non-refundable room, and the hotel has not been forced to close under tier 3 rules, then you are in a much more difficult position. You could argue that the changes to the rules on Christmas gatherings has ‘frustrated’ your contract, but you are unlikely to get far.

We reserved (and paid a 50% deposit) on a large turkey at our great local butchers. Now we will only need a small one as we have decided to have just a small gathering at Christmas. Will we get our money back?

The signs encouraging shoppers to “place your orders now” have been outside butchers for weeks – plus warnings that deposits are at risk. For example, one London butcher, Morley, says on its site: “Please note in these uncertain times we are asking all customers for a non-refundable deposit of £30.”

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Just accept that 6kg turkey you ordered for a family feast will now have to be turned into many more meals. If you’re overwhelmed, the Guardian has lots of recipes for turkey leftovers.