Top tips for travelling abroad during COVID-19 pandemic
Emma Chadwick | 9th June 2021
VIVA UK Lifestyle Magazine goes to Portugal – 5 tips when travelling abroad during COVID-19 pandemic.
VIVA went on holiday, for the first time in a year, and discovered you need nerves of steel to travel in a pandemic, especially when the Government decides to end the fun, without warning?!
We learned some real time tips on trying to vacay in what’s literally the most testing times for holidaymakers and the travel & leisure industry right now.
Here’s our real advice for holidaying in a pandemic that should hopefully reassure you that it’s safe to fly or travel and reiterate why the Government should re-open the skies now.
1. Paying through the nose for tests
When we left, Portugal was a green destination and spoiler alert, that lasted for not quite a day. So even though green while we were there, that still means a hell of a lot of testing.
We met Europeans who confirmed they get tests for travel, for free. So why, why don’t we, as it’s a hefty add-on especially for families.
There’s lots of packages around to help with this and we opted for the ‘green’ package from REVIV which cost £199 for two PCR tests which you need to book 24 hours before you travel and on day two when you return. Just to note, the day you land is day zero, so it’s two days after that. Confused you will be.
We did this because our local clinic REVIV is literally around the corner and we could walk in and do a nasal swab (no throat). It was a great service and we got our results that night as a courier waited to whisk them off for analysis, so we got out ‘Fit to Fly’ certificates in plenty of time. They also changed our day two test when, well when you all know what happened, Portugal turned amber.
Having a bit of money makes more difference than ever when it comes to pandemic travel, so if you’re on a tight budget or trying to take your kids, it’s probably out of bounds which just about sums up England now, where those with dosh have more freedom, Mr Shapps for example has his own private jet. Remember that when he’s telling you what you can do for your holiday!
Another example where having financial wriggle room helps the stress levels, is sorting out your test to fly back which you need to do within three days before. This can be the cheaper antigen test. Now there have been calls that Brits should be able to take an antigen test with them on their hols so this can be even cheaper and a little less hassle, but guess what, the government said no, again.
And when the country you’re in goes amber, giving you less than four days to get out, it meant a scrum for tests in Portugal. Again, we paid extra and had them done in our hotel room, no hassle and the results that night. It cost us 75 euros.
You can get it for half that if you go to a clinic, but we heard horror stories of people having to queue for hours and not getting results back in time to fly because the service was swamped by the sudden status change.
2. How to book your holiday without losing money
Ryanair check in online via the App.
There’s a lot of advice to get a packaged holiday so you’re covered for changes, but VIVA’s approach has been to get cheap flights and book the hotel separately, or you could choose a UK holiday instead.
This works and we used Booking.com where you pay on arrival and can cancel up to 24 hours before check in, which means you haven’t forked out in advance. You don’t have to wait for a refund or as many tour operators do, have to choose alternative dates rather than getting your cash back.
We were able to simply cancel a second hotel we’d booked for Cascais on the coast when we cut our holiday short to beat the deadline without losing any money.
We bought flights for as little as £120, gambling that we could afford to take that hit if holidays went pear shaped again. We added hold luggage and priority boarding a couple of days before the flights.
You can of course reclaim refunds from certain airlines if you don’t fly but it’s an immense hassle as they seem to have a policy of arguing the toss and making it as difficult as possible to deter people.
In fact, because we had got refunds through our credit card for previous flights, even though Ryanair agreed the refund, they said they wouldn’t release our Portugal flights until we had paid back that refund. Two days of hanging on the phone they released our Portugal flights and agreed they’d make a mistake.
But again, shady behavior and one where we very nearly about to part with our hard-earned cash to stop the stress, so beware of this little trick.
We were able to change flights easily as we decided to do so early as we could see the media rumblings and that the amber change was coming. It cost us just £50 but many people got stung with much higher costs.
It probably goes without saying to book everything you can via credit cards because if you’re getting no joy on refunds from travel companies you can do a section 75 request via your credit cards. This says you have not received goods and you can get your money back this way. And there has been a huge rise in refunds via credit cards as travel companies have disputed claims.
3. Form filling fun!
British Airways' detailed paperwork.
We had to fill in a passenger locator form 24 hours before landing in Portugal, which was from the Portuguese authorities and was easy to fill in, roughly five minutes to do.
On our return we had to fill in the UK passenger locator form, again 24 hours before, which was not easy and doesn’t work. For some reason it asks you the same question twice, throughout. It is meant to send you a QR code on an email, but it doesn’t, so you’re advised to take a picture of the code when you download it.
We needed to show both locator forms travelling through Lisbon airport but not at Manchester. In fact, there are notices in Manchester airport saying spot checks are in place.
I think that’s because they know they don’t work. In fact, the UK passenger locator form looks like some junior did it on a Survey Monkey – remember the Test and Trace excel fiasco anyone?
4. Airport travelling
British Airways exceptional customer service.
Manchester airport was eerily quiet when we flew out. We breezed through passport control and security, although at Manchester you have to use about three trays, one for liquids, one for electricals and one for the rest of your hand luggage which is lots of faffing. I separate mine into three separate bags before I go. At Lisbon airport you just have to separate your liquids, so I’ve no idea why you can’t do that in the UK.
The good news is you can now get proper duty free not EU discounts and the duty-free area had booze, tobacco, scents and giant Toblerone’s a plenty.
There’s not much open food and drink wise and they closed by 7.30pm. Boots and WH Smith are open if you need last minute bits.
Coming back, it was a scrum and tempers were high as pi**ed off holidaymakers vented their frustrations.
Because of Brexit they told us, our digital systems don’t tie in, so there were long queues while Lisbon officials manually checked we had our paperwork in order. We were then given a postage stamp sign formed which ticked off our Covid-19 test, Passenger Locator form and flight details and were told not to lose it or we wouldn’t get on. Gulp?!
Everyone had to do this queue even if you’d checked in online or didn’t have hold luggage, so it was a mad dash through to make the flight in time.
Coming through Manchester, the electronic gates are being ‘upgraded’ so again the queues were long and took an hour to get through passport control. There was no security so many people were queue jumping and the crowd had to police this themselves. At one point it looked like there could be handbags, but common sense prevailed.
5. Is it worth travelling abroad in a pandemic?
Travelling during a pandemic. Ryanair.
My advice is that you really have to weigh up how much stress you can handle and how much money you have, which isn’t fair and penalizes families as well as the less well off.
When we travelled it was outside school holidays, so it was a fraction of the traffic you’d normally get which made it easier to show paperwork and get through the journey. Even though there were still queues on the return run, they were nothing like the horrendous tales of four hour waits in searing heat we heard about at Faro airport (we travelled from Lisbon).
If you get cheap flights – and there are bargains to be had – this can offset the cost of tests. You can shop around for tests too and get family bundles.
You also need to have ‘just in case money’ that’s not going to land you in debt should you need to suddenly quarantine either end. And obviously you should ideally have some flex with work. We took laptops and can work from anywhere.
Don’t rely on insurance to bail you out as this has been a struggle for many claimants and can take time to come through. Again, it seems many companies dispute and stonewall to keep hold of your money for as long as possible.
Watch the traffic light system. We had thought that any changes to the traffic light system would be announced on June 7 (because that’s what we were told) not implemented on June 7. So, one thing we learned was to travel just after such announcements, if at all. And not to rely on it.
Manchester Airport testing centre.
What if they decide to put a country from green list to red. I could just about stomach isolating at home, but hotel quarantine looks a proper rip off and horrendous. It’s clear that the government is doing everything it can to make it almost impossible to holiday abroad so be careful the goalposts don’t change on you.
If I had to go through the whole experience taking children, I probably wouldn’t. Having to disappoint them, keep them unstressed when they can see people around them losing it, wouldn’t be a good time.
But we were two adults travelling without kids and with the money to smooth things over if we needed to.
And for me, there’s nothing like the excitement of getting off the plane and exploring a new city. Lying by the gently rippling pool was the most relaxed I’ve felt since the pandemic started and was the reboot I needed.