✉ Can I vape in the UAE? I have read so many differing opinions on the internet and want to make certain I don’t run the risk of spending my holiday in jail!
Given the harsh jail sentence (25 years reduced to ten) handed out to British football coach Billy Hood for possessing CBD vape oil, your concern is understandable. E-cigarettes were legalised in the UAE in 2019 and the same laws for vaping apply to smoking, so only vape outdoors and in designated smoking areas. You should carry the vaper in your hand luggage on the flight and be quite certain that your vaping juice doesn’t contain CBD.
✉ I’d like to reduce my carbon footprint and travel by train or boat rather than fly. Can you recommend any nice resorts within relatively easy reach? I speak French and Spanish and would like to be by the sea and to do a bit of sightseeing.
You can reach Spain’s Catalan coast in a day from London via Paris. Get your cultural fix in Barcelona and then take a half-hour ride to Sitges, one of the region’s smartest resorts, with a lovely sandy beach, cobbled old town and great restaurants. A night’s B&B at the seafront Hotel Estela starts at £96 in May (hotelestela.com).
Another option is to make your first stop Figueres, Salvador Dalí’s home town, where you could spend a day exploring the Dalí Theatre-Museum, then take the 90-minute ride to Blanes, a relatively quiet resort on the Costa Brava with a magnificent clifftop botanical garden, Marimurtra, and a superb beach, Cala Sant Francesc. Hotel PI-Mar has rooms starting at £49 next month (hotelpimar.com). There’s more trip inspiration in rail buff Tom Chesshyre’s Slow Trains Around Spain: A 3,000-Mile Adventure on 52 Rides, now out in paperback (£9.99, Summersdale) and Lonely Planet’s new Guide to Train Travel in Europe (£19.99).
✉ My son Theo had a skiing accident in Austria in January and dislocated and fractured his shoulder. He needed an operation but we had bought insurance that included £2 million in medical expenses from Europ Assistance via the British Airways website, so we thought we were OK. Europ Assistance authorised the necessary surgery by email, Theo had the operation and then the next day the company rang him to say winter sports were excluded from his winter sports cover. I had to pay more than £9,000 before the hospital would release him (which luckily I was able to do). EA then decided that winter sports were covered after all but that cover was capped at £2,300. Authorising surgery, then changing your mind after the operation and refusing to pay is just extraordinary and I want my money back. Can you help?
This was truly shocking behaviour from Europ Assistance but perhaps not entirely surprising: the insurer has a pitiful score on Trustpilot and many reviews highlight appalling customer service. It did not respond to my requests for comment on your case and so I turned to British Airways, which was quick to take action: you were refunded in full (less the £30 excess) within a few days. But BA should surely be reconsidering retaining the company as its official travel insurance provider if this is how it treats its customers.
✉ I have been waiting 16 months for a refund of the £1,419 I paid to Opodo for Vietnam Airways flights to Vietnam and Cambodia. I have tried a number of times to speak to someone at Opodo and have been told that, due to the time that had elapsed since the refund had been requested, I was “high priority” and that my case would be flagged to the correct team, but nothing has happened. I’ve also contacted Vietnam Airways directly. While it responded promptly, it was unable to help because I’d booked through an agent and I was told I had to seek a refund from Opodo. I’m at a loss as to where I go from here.
None of the online giants has covered itself in glory during the pandemic but the delay in getting your refund was mainly due to the fact that Vietnam Airways, like so many airlines, has been very slow to reimburse its passengers. Apparently, although Opodo submitted your refund request in October 2020, Vietnam Airways only responded in April 2021, rejecting the application and asking for a new one with further information. This was then only accepted in January but the refund was denied because Paypal doesn’t allow refunds one year after the original purchase. After I sent details of your case Opodo speedily reimbursed you via bank transfer. It said it had highlighted to you that the refund could take some months to be processed by the airline because of the backlog of requests.
Polar bears in Churchill, northern Canada
✉ We’re planning to try to see polar bears next year and aren’t sure whether there’s more chance of spotting them in Churchill in Canada or Svalbard in Norway. Also, when would be the best month to see them?
Polar bear spotting in Norway and Canada are two very different experiences. From Svalbard it’s a summertime cruise, ideally around mid-June when the pack ice begins to melt and the 3,000 or so bears in the archipelago and Barents Sea are usually more concentrated in the remaining icy areas. You’re also very likely to spot other polar wildlife, including walrus, arctic fox, whales and reindeer, and constant daylight (the sun doesn’t set from April 20 to August 22) will add to the fun. Hurtigruten has five-night cruises around Spitsbergen’s northwestern corner on an expedition ship from £1,395pp, including a night in Longyearbyen and transfers (hurtigruten.co.uk). If you’re happy to splash out on a small ship expedition that can get closer to the action, the Kinfish carries between 12 and 16 passengers on its Arctic safaris and has a huge bridge — open 24 hours a day — which means there’s plenty of room for everyone to bear-spot. A ten-night trip next June starts at £8,795pp, excluding flights (naturalworldsafaris.com).
In Canada, the place to be in October or November is the edge of the Hudson Bay in Churchill. Bear sightings are pretty much guaranteed, the landscape is a flat tundra that extends for miles and you’ll search for them in a tundra buggy (think monster truck), perhaps staying in a tundra lodge, styled like a train with sleeper cars (and bunk beds) that curious bears might well decide to inspect. There’s also a chance of seeing the northern lights. A five-night trip costs from £4,819pp next June, excluding flights (mycanadatrips.co.uk).
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