09 March 2020

Covid-19 Travel Advice and Returning Travellers

Different governments have different views about which countries pose the higher risk for catching the virus formerly known as Wuhan.

Starting with the UK - as of 8th March 2020 they advise against all travel to Hubei Province in China and the Daegu, Cheongdo and Gyeongsan areas in South Korea.
The UK government also advises against "all but essential travel" to the rest of mainland China and the 10 Italian towns that are currently on lockdown.  Since these towns are on lockdown, it's unclear how anybody could actually gain entry - so "all but essential" seems a weird category to put them in!

As far as returning travellers are concerned - the UK has put Iran, Hubei Province, the 10 Italian towns and Daegu & Cheongdo into their "Category 1" list which means you should self isolate for 14 days, even if you do not have symptoms.

The longer "Category 2" list comes with the instruction to self isolate only if you do have symptoms.  This list is mostly SE Asian countries - rest of China, Hong Kong, Macau, rest of South Korea, Cambodia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam - as well as the whole of Italy (previously it was just northern Italy).

In the USA, the Centre for Disease Control recommend travellers avoid "all non essential travel" to all of China, Iran, South Korea and Italy.  It also advises "older adults" or those with chronic conditions to postpone travel to Japan.  It puts Hong Kong in their "Level 1 - Watch" section which just means that travellers should use "usual precautions".

The USA just has one list for returning travellers, the equivalent of the UK "Category 1" list - where you have to self isolate even if you do not have symptoms.  And for the USA it's all of mainland China, all of South Korea as well as Iran and Italy - so covers a lot more than the UK list.  In addition, the US does not allow any foreign national to enter the country if they visited China or Iran in the previous 14 days.

Canada puts China, Iran and Northern Italy in their "Level 3 - avoid non essential travel" category and also suggests avoiding Daegu and Cheongo.  Hokkaido in Japan as well as the rest of South Korea are in their "Level 2 - Practise special precautions" with Canada advising "older people" and those with "weakened immune systems" to consider postponing visits to the area.  Hong Kong and Singapore are in the "Level 1 - Practice usual precautions"

Canada only requires returning travellers from Hubei Province, Iran and Northern Italy to self isolate even if they do not have symptoms.  All other travellers only need to self isolate if they develop symptoms.

Australia says "do not travel to" mainland China, Iran and Daegu in South Korea.  It also suggests that you "reconsider your travel" to the rest of South Korea.  And the Australian government says to "exercise a high degree of caution" in both Japan and Mongolia (which nobody else bothers about).

Australia requires any returning traveller from mainland China, South Korea or Iran to self isolate, even if they do not have symptoms.  In addition, if you are a foreign national you will not be allowed enter Australia if you have been in China, South Korea or Iran in the previous 14 days.  Although if you're returning from Italy you just have to be checked out, but do not have to automatically self isolate (and there's no ban on foreign nationals).  Similar to the UK with their "Category 2" list, Australia requires you to self isolate if you have symptoms after returning from Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore or Thailand.

Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs does not provide information on a single page - so you need to go and look up each country separately.  The DFA advises against all travel to Hubei Province.  They advise against all non-essential travel to the rest of mainland China, Iran, Daegu and Cheongo in South Korea, and the Northern Italian regions of Emilia Romagna, Veneto, Piedmont, and Le Marche.

Returning traveller information is also located separately on each country page.  Those returning from China, South Korea, Japan and the Northern Italian regions listed above should self isolate only if they develop symptoms.

Information as at 01:00 Monday 9th March 2020 - check links for latest information (and to check for errors) !

20 February 2020

Amsterdam and Rotterdam to London by Eurostar - direct

If you want to travel from London to Amsterdam by Eurostar tomorrow - there are three direct services (at 07:16, 11:04 and 17:16) which take 3:55, 4:17 (with a stop in Lille) and 3:55 respectively.  Eurostar website will also offer you another four services which take between 4:40 and 4:49 and include a change of train in Brussels.

However if you want to travel from Amsterdam to London by Eurostar tomorrow there are no direct services - because there currently aren't any UK immigration desks at Amsterdam Central station.  So not only do you need to change train at Brussels, you also need to pass through immigration there - adding even more time to your journey.  This means that on a normal weekday the Amsterdam-Brussels-London trip will take 4:47, 4:51, 5:00, 5:18 or even 5:50 if you're unlucky.

That changes on Thursday 30th April - when the UK Border Force starts operating in Amsterdam, and the first direct train departs at 18:47 taking 4:10 to get to St Pancras International.  On Friday 1st May they open their desks twice - for an 07:47 departure, and then again for the 18:47 service - both of which take 4:10 to get to London.

Exhausted after those three shifts, the take the weekend off - so you're back to clearing immigration in Brussels.  The connections on the four services that Eurostar offer aren't as good as during weekdays - so the journey times are between 5:22 and 6:25 (which includes 104 minutes in Brussels).

But from the following weekend they do a shift every Saturday morning for the 07:47 departure, and another every Sunday evening for the 18:47 service to London.

Rotterdam also gets a UK border post from Monday 18th May.  Up until then the journey time on the Thalys to Brussels, clearing immigration there, and then the Eurostar to London is between 3:59 and 5:07 on a weekday.  At weekends it's quite similar, ranging from 4:04 to 5:07

The 07:47 service from Amsterdam will depart Rotterdam at 08:28 (and the 18:47 Amsterdam service at 19:28) and the total journey time for these direct trains will be 3:29

The UK Border Force staff get the first weekend off.  But from Saturday 30th May the once daily Eurostar weekend service from Amsterdam is available to catch from Rotterdam.

The 3:29 journey time for the direct service compares with 3:16 for the early morning and evening London to Rotterdam trains, and 3:28 for the late morning direct service.

Whilst it's obviously a much more relaxing (and productive) trip not to have to change trains and clear immigration half way through your journey - the actual time savings aren't as large as you might imagine.  For Amsterdam departures the direct services takes a minimum of 37 minutes off your journey (although more typically 50 minutes).  And for Rotterdam departures it reduces your journey time by at least 30 minutes.

Part of the reason why the time savings aren't greater is that the direct services from Amsterdam take 15 minutes longer than the two faster services in the opposite direction.  And from Rotterdam the trip to London takes 13 minutes longer than vice versa.

Maybe Eurostar will be able to squeeze these minutes out of a future timetable - but for now you're left with a 30 - 50 minute saving, and a more comfortable journey.

15 January 2020

Ryanair - Why you should always pay in original currency

Ryanair used to be a complete ripoff when making payments in foreign currencies - they would charge you in the currency of your credit card, whilst adding a hefty margin, and not give you a choice about it.

Then they mended their ways, and would charge you in the original currency.

Then they went back to their bad old ways - but with an escape route if you spot it in time !

Now they have changed again - offering you a choice of currencies.

In this example I'm booking a flight that 16.99 EUR and I've put in a UK address ... so the first choice is in GBP

but 15.48 GBP represents a 6% commission for Ryanair on the GBP - EUR fx rate

and 179.05 NOK would be a 6.2% commission for Ryanair on the NOK - EUR fx rate

and 76.48 PLN would also give Ryanair a 6% commission on the PLN - EUR fx rate

and 190.94 SEK would give Ryanair another 6.2% commission on the SEK - EUR fx rate

and finally 20.14 USD represents a 5.9% commission for Ryanair on the USD - EUR fx rate

Since most credit cards charge 3% on foreign purchases - and some don't charge anything - this means you should always pay in the original currency of the flight.

13 January 2020

Star Alliance gold status

Although the received wisdom in the frequent flyer community is that Aegean Airlines gold status is the easiest to obtain - I thought it was worth a check to see if that really is the case.

Initially to get to Aegean Airlines silver status you need either:

12,000 Tier Miles and two Aegean/Olympic flights or
24,000 Tier Miles 

And then to upgrade to gold status you need either:

24,000 Tier Miles and four Aegean/Olympic flights or
48,000 Tier Miles

So in order to go from zero to gold you need either:

36,000 Tier Miles and four Aegean/Olympic flights or
72,000 Tier Miles

But then to retain gold status you only need:

12,000 Tier Miles and four Aegean/Olympic flights or
24,000 Tier Miles

This compares to an airline such as Thai Airways - which requires the following for gold:

50,000 Qualifying Miles within 12 months or
80,000 Qualifying Miles within 24 months

And then to retain Thai gold they still require the same amount of miles per year / two years.

Aegean Airlines are also sometimes more generous in calculating their Tier Miles - so for example a Thai Airways business class flight booked in C class will earn 150% in Thai's own frequent flyer programme, but will earn 200% in Aegean's.

WhereToCredit is an excellent website to check out which programme to credit your flights.

Looking at a real life example - an itinerary such as LHR-BKK-CTS return in business class (assuming C booking class) would earn: ( 5,958 + 3,152) x 2 x 200% = 36,440 Aegean Tier Miles.  So it would get you straight into Aegean gold if you took a little LHR-ATH-LCA trip later in the year.

So the moral of the story is that whilst Aegean is only a little easier to get to gold, the lower retention requirements are where it really shines.

02 January 2020

2020 Fares Unfreeze

Whilst the Mayor is today tweeting about his claimed "fares freeze", the reality (as we have previously seen) is different !

For many TfL users, the daily caps are what impacts them - and they are increasing inline with national fares - something that isn't under the Mayor's control (although he fails to mention this).

So for example, a day travelling around Zones 1 & 2 in London will cost you an extra 20p in 2020.

And for many TfL users, the weekly caps are what impacts them - and these are again subject to the national fare increases, and something which is again mysteriously missing from all official announcements and emails !

A week travelling around London's Zone 1 & 2 areas will cost you an extra 1 gbp in 2020.

For completeness - the full 2020 fare table is shown below:

And for more comparisons over the last five years, have a look a DiamondGeezer's blog post.

01 January 2020

Belgian Trains "Happy Ticket"

The Belgian Rail operator NMBS/SNCB offers a special deal over the Christmas & New Year period - a day return from anywhere in Belgium to anywhere in Belgium for just 10 euro!

The deal is so good that it will often be cheaper than buying a single.  And it's also so good that if you're travelling across the Belgian border, it will be cheaper to buy a "Happy Ticket" to the border, and a separate ticket for the onward journey.

For example a single from Charleroi Sud to Calais Ville is normally 42.70
But splitting the journey into a 10 euro "Happy Ticket" from Charleroi Sud to Tournai (near the french border), the remaining trip from Tournai to Calais Ville will cost you 24.70 - a handy 8 euro saving.
And a journey to cross a more distant border could save even more.

The "Happy Ticket" is available for the weekend in mid December, and then all the way from 21st December to the 5th January - full details here

Using the main https://www.belgiantrain.be/en/ website the fare comes up for any applicable journey within Belgium.  But using the https://www.b-europe.com/EN website for international train journeys, the "split ticket" fare (unsurprisingly) doesn't appear - so you have to work it out for yourself.

I bought my ticket from an automatic ticket machine in Charleroi Sud station, and the main screen (in english) highlighted "Promotional Fares", and it came up straight away.

A quick search of the internet suggests that it's been going a few years - so hopefully it will be back again next year.

Maybe this map of the Belgian Rail network will inspire some train travel next festive season!

22 December 2019

EMA to London

East Midlands Airport sometimes has some excellent fares - but it's not always the easiest to get to ...

There used to be a regular shuttle bus to the "East Midlands Parkway" station - but it is now just an hourly service run by Elite Cars - departing the station on the hour, and departing the airport at 20 mins past the hour (operating between 9am and 5pm) for the 10 minute journey, costing 6 gbp

December 2019 update: the bus service between the Parkway station and the airport now appears to have been withdrawn. A taxi appears to be the only option.

If you miss the hourly Raillink, Uber estimate a fee of 10-13 gbp for the trip
Elite Cars (who operate the Raillink) charge 12 gbp for a taxi journey

Using Monday 12th November 2018 to look for a sample fare - from East Midlands Parkway station there are departures at 14:56 and 15:56 (taking about 1.5 hours stopping just twice on the way) which cost 26 gbp

Total cost either 32 gbp using Raillink or 38 using a taxi

Another option is using is to use Nottingham station - which has a half hourly service (formerly known as Skylink Express) called the Clifton Skylink which takes just over half an hour which costs 6.50 gbp.  There's also the Nottingham Skylink that departs every 20 minutes, but which takes almost an hour and costs 5.20 gbp

Again using Monday 12th November 2018 to look for a sample fare - from Nottingham station there are departures at 15:45 and 16:45 (taking 1:39 and 1:55 respectively) which cost 26 gbp

Total cost (using the faster bus) would be 32.50 - but the journey might take considerably longer than via the Parkway station

To get to Derby station there are three buses an hour on the Derby Skylink service which take about 40 minutes and cost 4.70 gbp

On Monday 12th November 2018 the fare from Derby station to London is 49 gbp for any of the afternoon half hourly services which take about 1:40 to complete the journey

The final option is to use Long Eaton station via the Nottingham Skylink with the three services an hour and a journey time of just 23 minutes, costing 3.30 gbp

Long Eaton has just one direct train an hour to London (e.g. 15:40 and 16:40) which takes just over 1.5 hours and prices for 12th November 2018 are 49 gbp.  Using a ticket splitting website you can get the price down to 24.50 gbp with an increased journey time of 2.5 hours

The total cost would be 27.80 using the slower train

If you are tempted to get the train to Loughborough and the Skylink bus to the airport - be warned that according to Google Maps, it's a 12 minute walk from the station to the bus stop - so you would need to add that into your journey time.

For me the quicker journey time from East Midlands Parkway appears to be worth the slightly higher price than the Long Eaton option.  Although having done the journey to Long Eaton recently - it's quite a pleasant bus ride through the countryside to the airport.

28 November 2019

Luton Airport train prices

On 22nd October 2019 Luton Airport Parkway joined TfL's "Contactless" scheme

No longer do you *have* to buy a paper ticket ... although sometimes it may be cheaper.  Remember that this is contactless only - your Oyster card will not work at Luton Airport Parkway.

Standard fares using Contactless are 15.50 gbp peak (both morning and evening) and 12.00 gbp off peak.  This pricing also applies from any Zone 1 or Zone 2 station - so you no longer will get charged separately for getting to St Pancras.
Adding in the separate bus fare, the prices become 17.90 gbp and 14.40 gbp

If you use Contactless for a journey from Zone 2 Overground without entering Zone 1 (for example from Kensington Olympia via West Hampstead Thameslink) the fares are 12.00 gbp peak and 7.80 gbp off peak
Adding in the separate bus fare, the prices become 14.40 gbp and 10.20 gbp

If you use Contactless for a journey from Zone 2 Underground without entering Zone 1 (for example from White City via Shepherds Bush and West Hampstead Thameslink the fares are 13.70 gbp peak and 9.30 gbp off peak
Adding in the separate bus fare, the prices become 16.10 gbp and 11.70 gbp

The normal paper ticket fare from St Pancras to the airport (including the bus) is 17.40 gbp (a saving of 10 pence compared with buying separate tickets) - with no obvious change in price between peak and off peak.
However this fare can be reduced by using a Railcard - so for example if you are travelling after 10am, the price drops to 13.00 gbp and if you are travelling at a weekend the price is 8.65 gbp

The normal paper ticket fares from Kensington Olympia to the airport (including the bus) is 18.60 gbp - and this drops to 13.00 gbp after 10am on weekdays and to 12.30 gbp at weekends if you have a Network Railcard.

In summary: use Contactless apart from - if you are staying near St Pancras it is usually cheaper to buy a paper ticket (apart from if you are travelling off peak without a Railcard) and if you are travelling at a weekend from a Zone 1 or 2 tube station via St Pancras

It's also worth highlighting that if you have a Railcard and are in Zone 2 near an Overground station - it's actually slightly cheaper to take the tube to St Pancras, and get a paper ticket from St Pancras than travel via West Hampstead Thameslink

If you don't have a Railcard:
From Zone 1 tube station - use Contactless - 17.90 gbp / 14.40 gbp
From St Pancras during peak - use paper ticket - 17.40 gbp
From St Pancras off peak - use Contactless - 14.40 gbp
From Zone 2 Overground - use Contactless - 14.40 gbp / 10.20 gbp
From Zone 2 tube station - use Contactless - 16.10 gbp / 11.70 gbp

If you do have a Railcard:
From Zone 1 or 2 tube station weekday - use Contactless - 17.90 gbp / 14.40 gbp
From Zone 1 or 2 tube station weekend - use paper ticket - 11.05 gbp  (8.65 + 2.40)
From St Pancras station weekday - use paper ticket - 17.40 gbp / 13.00 gbp after 10am
From St Pancras station weekend - use paper ticket - 8.65 gbp
From Zone 2 Overground weekday or weekend - use Contactless - 14.40 gbp / 10.20 gbp
From Zone 2 tube station weekday or weekend - use Contactless - 16.10 gbp / 11.70 gbp

24 November 2019

2018 and 2019 Transport for London fares

I've written before about how TfL have a nasty habit of deleting the old fare tables from their website, so you can't see what the price rises over the years have been.

In preparation for the next deletion, here is the 2018 fare table:

and the 2019 fare table:

For comparison - the price of a Zone 1 & 2 weekly travelcard over the last four years:

2016  32.40 gbp
2017  33.00 gbp
2018  34.10 gbp
2019  35.10 gbp

23 September 2019

Qatar Airways frequent flyer devaluation

Back in late May 2018 Qatar Airways devalued their frequent flyer points by around 40% - so overnight points that you could have redeemed to distant destinations could only get you to mid haul destinations.

When the Qatar Airways annual accounts were published in August 2018 - for the year ending 31st March 2018 - there was no mention of any post balance sheet event or upcoming windfall gain.

The only significant change was the hiding of revenue generated from the redemption of frequent flyer points.  In the 2017 financial statements there had been a separate "Frequent Flyer programme" line under "Other Operating Income"  - but in the 2018 financial statements this had been removed, and the previous year figures restated.

However the "Unredeemed Frequent Flyer Liabilities" line did survive - so we were able to see that it increased 18% from the 514.5m QAR in 2017 to 608.9m QAR in 2018.  This increase was significantly higher than the headline Scheduled Passenger Services revenue that went up by less than 2%.

With the recent release of the 2019 accounts, we finally got to see how much of a windfall Qatar Airways made from the devaluation.

This year the headline Scheduled Passenger Services revenue increased by over 14%, with a shift to longer flights following the blockade by other Middle Eastern countries - total passenger numbers increased by just 1.1%

With an increase in revenue, if the devaluation hadn't occurred, I would have expected the "Unredeemed Frequent Flyer Liabilities" to increase by something like 20% - to a total close to 731m QAR.  In fact the liability dropped to 462.2m QAR - which is almost 40% below would have been expected.  And chimes with the overnight reduction back in May 2018.

So whilst it was Qatar Airway's overall loss that made all the headlines in the news over the past few days - the loss would have been worse by about 58m gbp if they hadn't raided their frequent flyer points programme !