In two weeks, I planned to board an Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi bound for Japan.
Landing in Tokyo, my plans were to wander the city's myriad neighbourhoods: feasting on ramen at a restaurant in Shinjuku, discovering anime in Akihabara and visiting boutique stores in Nakameguro. From there, I was going to take the bullet train to Kyoto to lap up ancient culture and then fly to the island of Yakushima to visit one of the world’s oldest trees. About 20 million tourists were expected to visit Japan this summer for the Olympic Games.
But the Tokyo Olympics aren't happening this year and flights are suspended in the UAE, so the closest I’m likely to get to Japan is to splurge on takeout sushi and pop on a Hayao Miyazaki movie.
The world is a changed place. Restrictions and lockdowns to prevent the spread of coronavirus mean that, as we move towards the summer, people are staying at home.
The UAE joined several countries by suspending all passenger flights in and out of the country. This is why Air China’s updated schedule caught my eye last week when I spotted a Beijing to Dubai service on sale, with seats available for a flight on May 7.
But hold on, Emirates and Etihad – the UAE’s two major airlines – have suggested UAE flights would not resume any earlier than mid-May. So why is Air China selling tickets on a flight that almost certainly will not operate?
Why are airlines selling tickets for flights that might not operate?
Delving into the subject, I realise it's not fair to single out Air China. Several airlines continue to sell tickets on flights that are unlikely to operate.
It's clearly a bid to stay afloat. Airlines are trying to increase revenue by selling tickets for future flights because they are in crisis right now. Bookings have fallen sharply and travellers are seeking refunds for grounded flights at an unprecedented level – Emirates has announced it had a backlog of 500,000 refund requests.
After all, once that Dh5,000 for a November flight to the Seychelles is paid, it’s the airline's to spend. Even if you receive a refund, with many fares the airline is likely to retain a hefty slice of the pie.
And while most airlines have upgraded waiver and cancellation policies in the age of Covid-19, many of them don't offer cash refunds, only travel vouchers.
I get a whiff of dishonesty when I think about airlines selling hundreds of tickets for flights they are not confident will operate. That said, if we want there to be a travel industry to return to when the pandemic is over, we may need to pause for thought.
A win-win situation?
There are certainly bargains to be had, if you can afford to spend at the moment and choose a destination you're confident you'll want to go to at any time.
A quick look on Google and Skyscanner shows you can find a Dh998 round-trip from Dubai to London or Dh1,685 from the UAE to Johannesburg. And these deals aren’t only for travel in the next month – when no one is likely to fly – they exist through autumn and into the winter months. Some airlines are also making moves to bring forward their winter 2020/2021 schedules so travellers can book flights for further down the line.
Pre-pandemic, I had flight alerts set up for an August trip to Nashville. My partner purchased tickets for a Matchbox 20 gig in this famous musical city and we planned to go there, then drive down to New Orleans. Last month, the best fares for this trip were all more than Dh5,000. Today, I can find a flight for Dh3,700.
Not without risk: so choose a destination you'd fly to at any time
That said, I haven’t booked the flights yet.
If the gig is cancelled, we’re already going to have to try to get refunds on those tickets and I don’t want the hassle of trying to do the same with flights. What’s more, I’m fairly convinced US travel restrictions will still be in place in August.
It’s not a trip I plan to take again, so it doesn’t seem worth the investment of time and energy to book flights now that are very likely to be shelved.
So instead, I’m looking at booking flights home to Scotland. Travelling back home is essential for me and, no matter how long travel restrictions are in place for, I know at some point I will want to make that journey.
The pangs of sadness about being so far away from my family during this pandemic have only strengthened my desire for a trip home.
Emirates is the only airline that flies directly from the UAE to Scotland. Their December flight prices, usually premium given Christmas demand, have almost halved. Typically, economy tickets hover above the Dh5,000 mark. Today, a return flight to Glasgow is Dh2,800.
Emirates has also joined several airlines in introducing flexible waiver policies for flights booked now, so if I do book, I’ll be covered should Scotland introduce a no travel policy or if it is listed among countries the UAE advises against visiting.
If that happens, I’ll have the option of requesting a refund or re-booking for another date. They’ll even let me change my destination to any other place in the same region. These policies vary greatly by airline, though, so if you book, be sure to comb through the fine print.
What about involving a travel agent, letting someone else do the leg work for me?
Can travel agents help?
Maggie Bootsman, general manger of the UAE's Travel Counsellors, says “challenging times have proven the value of relying on an experienced travel professional who can take care of every booking detail, pay close attention to the latest travel advisories from relevant government bodies and be there for customers wherever they are in the world, and whatever the time zone".
She has a point, but the key word here is reputable. I’ve heard too many tales of travellers who have not been offered refunds from travel agents or operators, despite airlines confirming that, while customers must go through agents for any changes, they should expect the same flexible waiver policies as customers who book directly.
There’s also the risk of whether airlines will actually weather this crisis. Since the onset of the pandemic, several have spun into financial difficulty, with Cathay Pacific and Qantas grounding the majority of their fleets, and others such as Virgin Australia and Flybe collapsing.
No matter how flexible an airline’s cancellation policy may be, if they go under and I have a booking with them, I’m not guaranteed to see any of that money again (let alone ever being able to redeem any frequent flyer miles.)
Will travel be allowed again any time soon?
Another factor to take into consideration is, if quarantine rules stay in place for those entering the UAE, and travelling home is going to mean an enforced isolation period, does it make sense to travel this year?
Ultimately, it's about anticipation versus disappointment. For me, the emotional boost of having something to look forward to during a time when there's not a lot of positivity around, the certainty of knowing I will want to visit home at some point (so the ticket will eventually be of use) and the fact I have two nieces or nephews due imminently, makes my decision for me. And so I pull out my credit card.
Glasgow, I’ll see you in December, inshallah.