Brexit: how will it impact travel to the UK?

  Great Britain has voted to leave the European Union: how will this impact American travelers?

Great Britain has voted to leave the European Union: how will this impact American travelers?

Unless you have been totally out of the loop since Friday, you have probably heard about Brexit, the impending departure of Great Britain from the European Union (EU). On Thursday, the British voted to leave the union of European states that was formed in the aftermath of World War II to minimize the chances of another catastrophic war. The idea was that countries that were knitted together economically and politically were less likely to go to war against one another. On that front, the European Union has been a resounding success. However, various political issues in recent years have lead to tension in some member states with some citizens wishing to re-exert national sovereignty. In the United Kingdom, their particular concerns culminated in Thursday's voting result.

I do not want to get into the politics or economics of Brexit. There is a cacophony of analysis on so many dimensions regarding the future path of post-EU UK. However, I have seen much less discussion of what will be the impact of Brexit on American travelers to the United Kingdom. In short: not much.

Will entry requirements change?

Though immigration was an issue in Thursday's vote, tourist travel to the United Kingdom, especially for Americans, will remain largely unchanged. Even if broader British immigration policies change dramatically, Americans visiting for tourism should expect business as usual - a visa is not required and almost certainly won't be in the future. What if you are entering or leaving the United Kingdom from or to a European Union country? This is a little more nuanced but, again, expect little change.

Will it be more difficult to travel from Great Britain to EU nations?

Again, almost certainly not. To understand movement between the United Kingdom and the majority of the rest of the EU, you need to understand the Schengen Area.

Even as part of the EU, Great Britain was not part of the Schengen Area (Click to enlarge)

Originally conceived as part of the Schengen Agreement, this area has abolished internal border controls between participating states. Within the Schengen Area, travel from one nation to another is much like traveling between US states. For example, when I flew from Paris to Berlin last year, I did not have to present a passport upon arrival in Germany. (The downside for the travel buff is you no longer get all those cool passport stamps as you move throughout much of Europe.) This is where the nuance comes in: not all EU members are part of the Schengen Area, and one of those "opt-outs" is Great Britain.

  Even now, traveling between the UK and EU countries requires presentation of a passport

Even now, traveling between the UK and EU countries requires presentation of a passport

Not belonging to the Schengen Area, even as an EU member state, travel between Great Britain and an EU Schengen country required one to present a passport. Two years ago, I took the Eurostar from London to Paris and back. I had to present my passport to enter France and again to return to London (British border control was actually in Gare du Nord in Paris!). On the Eurostar, this, fortunately, was far less involved than clearing passport control and immigration in an airport. So, for American tourists moving between Great Britain and the European continent, here too, there is little reason to expect changes in your travel experience.

What if Scotland and Northern Ireland leave the United Kingdom?

Some pundits expect that, in the aftermath of Brexit, Scotland and Northern Ireland could leave the United Kingdom ,potentially rejoining the European Union. This could change how tourists move between England and these two countries, but even that is a low probability. Going back to the Schengen Area, Ireland maintained an opt-out as did Great Britain in order to not interfere with the ease of movement between itself and the UK. If Northern Ireland were to reunify with the Republic of Ireland, this arrangement could well remain unchanged, but, even if Ireland joined the Schengen Area, there would likely be little difference in traveling from London to Dublin than from London to Paris. 

As for Scotland, if it becomes an independent state with EU membership, given that it shares a land border with England, it might choose to opt-out of the Schengen Area for reasons similar to Ireland. The bottomline is that, no matter how things change with Scotland and Northern Ireland, there is no reason to expect any real difficulties to travel among these countries beyond possibly showing a passport .

What about the value of the British pound?

As we discovered when we woke up Friday morning (or Thursday night, if you were up late enough), we saw one of the most significant impacts to the traveler of Brexit: the British pound was crashing versus other global currencies. Exchange rates are not just the concern of investment and finance professionals. International travelers are directly impacted by the relative strength of their home currency. While there are significant economic concerns from a soaring dollar against foreign currencies, in the narrow sense of buying power for Americans traveling to the UK, the crashing pound is good news in the short term. As I have written, I am in the midst of planning a trip to Europe that will include several days in London. As I listened to news reports of the falling pound, my initial thought was I could save some money if I can pay for any of my London travel right now. 

After the Brexit vote, the British pound crashed versus the US dollar and the Euro (Click to enlarge)

On Thursday, a £100 purchase would have cost $150. One day later, that same purchase would cost approximately $138. With significant travel spending, that discount adds up. Two of my hotel nights are using rewards so I only have two paid nights during my trip. Because I tend to change my hotel arrangements as I plan my trip, I value flexibility enough that I am reluctant to lock-in my room now. What I do plan to look at are things like museum passes, rail tickets, topping off my London Underground pass, etc. Where I can go ahead and make those purchases with minimal loss of flexibility or other risk, I will jump on it.

Because there is no way to predict when the market will correct - personally, I think the financial market response to Brexit is way overblown and I expect investors to come to the same conclusion fairly quickly - if you are traveling to the UK soon, if you can lock in this exchange by prepaying for parts of your trip, that could save you significant money.

Summary

This is no doubt an uncertain time for United Kingdom and Europe. However, American travelers to the United Kingdom will largely feel little impact in their day-to-day travel experience. As in any time of uncertainty, there is the chance of political demonstrations. As is always the case when traveling abroad, avoiding such situations is probably wise. Protest strikes could disrupt travel, but strikes are always a looming fact of life in Europe. If they happen, whether due to Brexit or any other issue, you just have to roll with the punches. The most important thing to remember is to not worry and just enjoy your trip to UK! I know I can't wait to arrive in London!