June 29 is coming, and with it the first wave of socially-distanced summer escapes. So what should holidaymakers expect?
Next Monday, travel restrictions lift and hotels, restaurants, B&Bs, campsites and visitor attractions can reopen, making the first home holidays in over three months possible.
So what can we expect, where should we book, and what's available?
Is anyone booking?
Big time. With so much uncertainty around overseas travel, and school set to return in some shape by early September, bookings for July and August are full steam ahead.
I’m seeing most interest in self-catering, coastal hotspots and popular resorts - particularly well-known hotels and resorts with lodges or apartments on the property... but there is availability, too (see below).
According to Fáilte Ireland’s latest research, 57pc of us are planning a short break in Ireland in the coming months. Intentions are keenest among the under-45s, while older travellers remain reticent.
How different will socially-distant staycations be?
We’ll see the same great places and faces, but prepare for lots of Perspex, yellow stickers, cashless payments and hand sanitiser at every turn. You’ll need to bring your own masks and sanitiser, to plan food and loo breaks more carefully than ever, and to manage kids’ expectations.
Center Parcs reopens on July 13, for example, but its Subtropical Swimming Paradise and spa will stay shut until at least July 27. Co Mayo’s Mount Falcon Estate is doing creative things, including a new outdoor food and entertainment hub, but when I called this week, I learned that its leisure centre won’t open this summer. At Parknasilla (pictured top), all meals will now be by reservation.
All are great holiday options, but my point is that you should call ahead. And seek cancellation policies to ensure maximum flexibility - in case of last-minute changes or (God forbid) clustered outbreaks or closures due to Covid-19.
Should we book cafés and activities ahead, too?
Yes. While you may well find tasty takeaways and brilliant activities on spec, don’t bank on it. This is peak season, and distancing guidelines mean many places have to reduce capacity (and some, like the Irish National Stud in Kildare or Cool Planet in Co Wicklow, are only taking bookings by appointment), so arrange everything from breakfast to pool times in advance.
As Pat Crotty of Paris Texas Bar & Restaurant in Kilkenny puts it: “While we encourage bookings and will manage them so that we don’t have a queue, a quick call to check availability might get a table at your preferred time, even if that means right now!”
The Griffin Group, whose hotels include Monart and the Ferrycarrig in Co Wexford, is developing mobile phone apps not only for customers to check in and out, but to order and pay for meals from their tables. In Co Clare, Hotel Doolin will send menus to guests when they pre-book, have larger tables, and enhanced takeaway options.
The prices look high. Are we being ripped off?
I don’t think so. What we’re being asked to do is pay peak season rates to holiday in Ireland. Many of us used to package holidays abroad may be experiencing bill shock - but taxes, rates, rents, insurance and other costs make this an expensive country in which to run a hospitality business.
And remember, those businesses have lost much of 2020 to closure and cancellations, and now have to pony up for pricey new hygiene measures.
Clearly, price-gouging will always be with us, and healthy debates are necessary to keep everyone honest, but the danger of crying “rip-off” without looking at what the price tag includes, without comparing like with like, is that we’ll further damage Irish tourism (and jobs) at the worst time.
If I can’t find a ‘cheap’ holiday, what about ‘value’?
Look midweek, think about three or four-night stays, and search areas like the midlands, too. Before you book, call directly to ask for the best rate, or add-ons like dinner or room upgrades. Look out for added value in packages that include meals, activities or family passes, too.
Co Wexford’s Ashdown Park Hotel, for instance, is doing full- and half-board rates, and family breaks from €124.50 a night include dinner and a daily pass to attractions like Wells House or Hook Lighthouse.
Hotel Doolin has offered a four-night family escape at its self-catering houses with evening meals and family passes for local activities from €800.
I’d expect to find the real bargains in autumn, when school returns - if overseas visitors are still scarce, that could be the time to try Ireland’s five-stars and luxury properties.
What about self-catering?
It’s the new loo roll.
The notion of self-contained properties where holidaymakers can monitor who comes and goes has clearly struck a chord, with bookings surging when the June 29 opening date was announced.
Bear in mind, though, that this follows months of cancellations. “From €750 to €1,800 for a place that sleeps six to 10 would be a general overview for summer,” one source says.
Trident Holiday Homes has discounts including 10pc off select bookings from June 29 to July, and a search this week threw up three-bed homes in holiday villages in Bundoran from €746, Brittas Bay from €900 and the Burren from €1,020 for a week in August.
Try sites like dreamireland.com and loveconnemaracottages.com, and keep your eye on letsgoselfcatering.ie, which is due an upgrade this summer.
Remember, you can call and speak to staff, too.
You won’t have the sea, but you get real bang for your buck (and some great lakes) in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Co Kildare’s Kilkea Castle Estate also has lodges, and a deal offering four nights for the price of three from €340.
Looking for creative solutions, I also chanced on Milk Harbour in Grange, Co Sligo, where Geraldine and Steve Barker have adapted their B&B and boathouse into self-catering apartments. Prices start from €910 and €1,050 this summer (it’s not for kids).
Will we get holiday or staycation vouchers?
We don’t know, but the idea is definitely catching on.
Sinn Féin is the latest group to suggest a concept already underway in Malta, Slovenia, Iceland and elsewhere - this week proposing a €200 voucher for every adult, and €100 per child, to be spent in pubs, restaurants, and hotels around the country.
The Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (ITIC) has suggested €500 per household; business advisory firm BDO a €250 tax credit. In Kerry, 56,000 households are being given €100 worth of discount vouchers redeemable in tourism sites across the county.
The idea is to support jobs, stimulate spending and tax receipts, and provide a morale boost all-round, but would clearly be tricky to get right and could cost a fortune.
Watch this space!
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Is there staycation insurance?
Blue Insurance has launched staycationinsurance.ie, providing cancellation and curtailment cover - including if you are diagnosed with Covid-19.
It starts from €7.99 for three days, covering claim amounts of up to €750-€1500 depending on the premium, but has to be bought at least 17 days before check in.
I haven't heard of any others at this point.
I feel a bit anxious leaving home. Is it safe to travel?
Fáílte Ireland has issued safety guidelines for hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, campsites, self-catering, visitor attractions and activity providers. All are governed by the principles of sanitisation, staff training and social distancing (currently two metres between household groups, but that may change).
A national Covid safety 'stamp' is expected for businesses to display, but obviously, safe holidays will depend on our own behaviour and responsibility, too.
Read up on the Covid measures, get on the phone to a human being, talk about what you want from your holiday, and query what makes you feel uneasy.
You can’t put a price on peace of mind (and holidays are supposed to be relaxing, anyway), so you might also prefer to wait a few weeks and see what the feedback is from early holidaymakers.
NB: All prices, opening dates and facility details subject to change, availability and public health guidelines.
It’s strawberries and southeastern sun. It’s opera and hurling with heart; a storied lighthouse and sandy beaches stretching as far as the eye can see. It’s rolling farmland, ghost stories on the Hook Peninsula, and wolfing down chips at Kilmore Quay.