Summer of travel chaos: what’s happening and why?

As pandemic travel restrictions eased across much of Europe this summer, travel chaos ramped up. We take a detailed look at exactly what’s causing the problems and – if you need to travel in peak season — how best to navigate the scrum.

We look at the key issues and how to avoid the worst of the post-pandemic, peak-season pandemonium. 

Photograph by Getty Images
By Sarah Barrell
Published 16 Aug 2022, 06:04 BST

Strikes, cancellations, staff shortages, Brexit red tape and rising travel costs: the UK’s return to mass travel after a three-year Covid-19 hiatus isn’t the summer of love many of us were hoping for. Heathrow Airport is experiencing a breakdown of services, resulting in huge queues at security, a cap on flight numbers and a lot of lost luggage. Other airports aren’t coping much better either, with three-hour queues to clear immigration for late flights coming into Stansted now a regular occurrence, and similar issues around the clock at Manchester. Meanwhile, ongoing rail strikes are disrupting services nationwide, and, if you do manage to make it to your destination, it’s likely you’ll be paying three times as much for your hire car. We look at the main issues experienced this summer, and recommend how to avoid it. 

Airport disruption

The Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions that brought travel to a halt in 2020-21 saw heavy job and salary cuts. With international travel having ramped up again in 2022, staff across the industry, from pilots to baggage handlers, are seeking pay increases and better working conditions. With many airports and airlines still running on skeletal staff and experiencing strikes, expect delays at check-in, snaking queues to get through security and passport control, and an increased chance of your hold luggage going missing.

How to deal with it: Arrive early, pack light. Get to the airport with plenty of time to navigate queues and bring your own snacks. Shops and restaurants are crowded and stocks can sell out fast. Take carry-on luggage instead of hold, and, if the airline has the option, pay for priority boarding: this gives a more generous cabin bag allowance and the option to board first — so you’ve more chance of finding space in the overhead locker above your seat, and a lower chance of having it forcibly checked in.

Cancelled flights

Airline staff shortages, strikes, caps on airport traffic on the ground and in the sky, and carriers flying with reduced fleet: lucky is the traveller who makes it out and back without at least a few hours’ delay this summer.

How to deal with it: Know your rights: if you’re travelling with a UK or an EU airline — or from either of these two regions — and your airline cancels your flight, it’s legally obliged for them to offer you a full refund or a rerouting as soon as possible, even if with a different carrier. Additionally, while waiting for rerouting, your airline must provide food and drink, or pay for a hotel if you’re stranded overnight. If your flight gets cancelled within 14 days prior to travel, or your flight is delayed for three hours or more, you’re entitled to compensation, too – unless it’s for such reasons as bad weather (stipulations vary according to airline or insurance policies) or airline and transport strikes. Read more information on refunds, rebooking and your rights. The Civil Aviation Authority also provides a comprehensive overview of your rights, and the different methods and levels of compensation available.

Rail strikes

With rail travel a popular way to access many of the UK’s airports, notably in London, strikes are adding another layer of potentially costly complication for travellers.

How to deal with it: If you have to travel to or from the airport or your holiday destination by rail on a strike day (the next one is slated for 13 August), check with your operator, as trains have not been cancelled across the board — some companies run a limited service on strike days. But book well in advance to be sure of seat. Rail operators are offering the option of either a refund on tickets coinciding with strike days (even if your train isn’t cancelled) or the option to rebook. If you plan to drive, book ahead for airport parking; fees have gone up post-pandemic but are even more costly if you pay on arrival. 

Confusing Covid-19 regulations

Most of Europe’s popular summer travel destinations, such as Greece, Italy and France, have dropped all Covid-19-related entry requirements and restrictions for travellers. But this isn’t the case with every EU country. Spain, for example, still requires UK travellers to show proof of a double dose of Covid-19 vaccine on entry into the country or a sequence of negative Covid-19 tests.

How to deal with it: As Covid-19 infection rates are still rising and falling around the world, countries may reactively reinforce restrictions, so check your destination before you fly.

Delayed passport issuing

Adding to the red-tape chaos, the UK is experiencing a delay in passports being issued. Again, a lack of staff post-Brexit and delays caused by lockdowns have slowed the usual process, and that’s hampered by a surge in applications as travel has ramped up for the summer season.

How to deal with it: Fast-track applications (which cost around double the usual £75.50 fee) are processed same-day or within seven days, but that’s only assuming you can secure an appointment and make it, in person, to the Passport Office. If you apply online or by post, it’s a maximum 10-weeks wait, but there are plenty of news stories where passports turn up too late for travel — around 550,000 British travellers are currently waiting for their passport to arrive.

Car hire costs

Many travellers are finding car hire rates have increased two- or three-fold this year, or, even more troubling, there are no cars left at some destinations. During Covid-19’s travel shutdown, car hire operators sold off their fleets, and are now trying to fulfil peak summer demand with scant supply, pushing prices up.

How to deal with it: Book a fly-drive as a package for the consumer protection it confers, and rental may be cheaper or perks available if you sign up for a hire company loyalty scheme — or use your airline frequent-flyer status.

Delays at ports and borders

The reality of post-Brexit travel is biting at ports and borders, as more checks need to be carried out which causes delays. This has been compounded by European workers moving back home from the UK, leaving key travel industry roles vacant. Since the UK’s departure from the EU, travellers moving between the Continent and the UK are subject to extra checks — UK passport-holders now need their documents stamped and checked, for example, which consumes more time. As peak holiday season resumed this summer after a three-year hiatus, the bureaucratic workload and staff shortages has caused huge queues and tailbacks, as seen most notably at the Port of Dover in recent weeks, with delays of up to six hours commonplace. Compounding the problem: the M20, the main road in and out of Dover, has been partially closed while it acts as a giant lorry park for freight vehicles awaiting post-Brexit-era checks before travelling to France.

How to deal with it: Give yourself plenty of extra time at the airport, to allow for new border control checks.

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