Just over eighteen months ago I set off for Italy with my passport, a boarding pass on my phone, breezed through Gatwick, then, a couple of hours later, through the e-gate in Venice Marco Polo and was on my way into the city.
This weekend I will be making the same journey and it couldn’t be more different. It’s not just the latest cocktail of Covid, the Delta Variant (which I shall henceforth refer to in the UK by its proper title, the Johnson Variant). There’s the equal disaster of Brexit too.
What does this mean in practice? Hands up… I don’t yet know in great detail. I’ve yet to make that journey. But I am now through much of the preparation which is more complex than I imagined, and still hazy in some quarters. Lots of things are being asked of travellers at the moment, by organisations that offer very imprecise information on how to meet the demands they’re making.
So I thought I’d set down here the steps I’ve gone through in the hope of penetrating the maze of new rules so that I can make that two-hour flight to Venice I once took for granted.
Today I’ll cover the pre-flight preparations. After that I will update you with what happened at the airport, and try as best I can to tell you what quarantine in Italy is like and finally the steps required to get back into the UK. Please bear in mind this is my experience and my understanding of the rules as they pertain to travelling from the UK to Italy today. It’s entirely possible I’ve got a few details wrong. I guess I’ll find out. It’s entirely possible all this will change again shortly. The only certain thing we know at the moment is pretty much everything is uncertain.
That said, I have to go. This is essential work, a new book I’m contracted to write that will grind to a halt if I can’t do local research and talk to people over there. I can’t risk being locked out of Italy altogether if conditions worsen over the summer thanks, in no small measure, to the incompetence of our government. I’m also quite interested to see what five days of being locked up with my book do for the work.
Travellers from the UK to Italy currently have to quarantine for five days on arrival. So flights and traffic are fairly sparse at the moment. I was originally due to go out later this summer. My pressing research needs and the prospect that the Johnson Variant may persuade other European countries to follow Bulgaria’s lead and ban us altogether made me bring everything forward.
Not easy. BA wanted more than £400 to change just the outgoing section of my trip — I didn’t even look at the cost of the return journey, and I hate Heathrow anyway. So I will put the BA booking on ice and use EasyJet. They were operating just two flights a week from Gatwick but I got a flexible ticket with the ‘perks’ of Speedy Boarding (I wonder if it will be speedy this time) for just over £200 return. How that goes I’ll let you know.
Lesson: Don’t hang around finding flights. They’re not easy to come by. If by some miracle Italy does open up more then more flights will come online. And more demand for them. Be quick, be flexible.
My usual apartment was booked up. There were plenty of alternatives available on Airbnb, however (since I’m working and this is a lengthy trip a hotel isn’t an option). But here’s the thing — you need to quarantine in the property for five days. I asked all the letting operators if a) they were OK with this and b) whether it was practical in terms of deliveries.
The answers were quite mixed. One came back and in a state of semi-outrage said, ‘We can’t possibly allow someone with Covid on the premises!’ Several did the quite Italian thing of saying, ‘It’ll be fine.’ Most assumed I knew nothing of Venice, of course, and understood full well some of this wasn’t exactly accurate. The truth is I couldn’t find delivery services from any of the main Venice supermarkets. One apartment operator stood out over all the others, and the place looked good too. She’s kindly offered to do a supermarket shop for me and fill the fridge when I turn up. I’m also taking a few dried posh pot noodle style delights and have promised myself a slap up frittura mista at my favourite restaurant on the Lido on Freedom Day. Without some kind of delivery service I think you could be a bit stuck.
Lesson: If you have to quarantine make sure it’s practical and check out if any local restaurants will deliver.
Update: This post has generated a lot of interest and feedback. Many thanks to Anna (@mothninja) / Twitter for tipping me off there is a delivery service in Venice for lots of different kinds of food and drink. It’s CocaiExpress. You need to download the app for iPhone or Android and register to see what’s available and it’s all in Italian. Have signed up and will give it a try!
Ah. The big one. This is a complex subject and one I will be returning to as my journey continues. In a nutshell the tests I will require at the moment are…
Pre-flight. You need an antigen test — not the more expensive and time-consuming PCR — certifying you as fit to fly carried out no more than 48 hours before departure. I’d assumed these were relatively easy to find locally. I was wrong. If you’re outside a big city test centres are hard to come by.
The only place I could find locally was Boots. Again, you need to deal with this well in advance. You have to fill in a lengthy form to establish an account and upload a photo of your passport. After agreeing to pay £59.99 you’re taken to a calendar with available appointment dates. Only there did I discover there was just one appointment left locally to fit in with my trip. Boots don’t take your money until you’ve had your appointment but all the same this seems an odd way of doing things.
Anyway, I turned up for the appointment, met a lovely young woman who stuck a swab up my nose very gently. In and out in ten minutes and twenty minutes later on the way home I got an email saying I could log into their website for the result. It was negative. Would have been nice if the email said that and sent me the certificate.
You can get cheaper testing kits that you do at home. Check the offers here. I’ve bought a couple from Cerulean for £29 each and will let you know how they go when I need to use one. This should be less than 48 hours before my return flight to the UK. So if you want a home test to take with you on the trip you need to buy it before you leave. They are available at airports in Italy and, to some extent, in cities, though how practical that is from here I don’t know. Will check it out when I get there, since at the end of my Italian quarantine I will need one. Cerulean have no idea whether theirs will suffice for that by the way. When I asked I was told, ‘I’m sorry we can’t comment on the testing requirements for another country. You may need to contact your airline or a tour operator.’ Which is pretty typical of the response you get from a number of those taking your money at the moment. These tests are, by the way, rather more expensive than their equivalent in the EU. Can’t imagine why… 🤔
There’s one other test to think about at this stage. I’m double jabbed so I don’t need to quarantine on my return to the UK. But I do need to take a PCR test on day two of my return — and I need to have that booked before I fly back in order to be allowed into the UK. I’ll go into the details of that later when I order one online from Italy. My friendly Boots assistant — I think I’ll use Boots again — said booking one week ahead should be fine. Apparently PCR tests are easier to find because they take the store a lot less time to process than the antigen one (I assume they simply send the PCR sample to the lab).
Lesson: Book early to get the right test at the right date and order your self-test antigen kit before you go if that’s what you want to use.
You need to fill in an EU Digital Passenger Locator Form. Without it I doubt you’ll even get on the plane. This is a lengthy form much like a Visa waiver for the US. But you can’t fill it in until you have accommodation with a proper postal address. Nor is it saved part way through. I will have to fill in something similar to get back into the UK — with that vital reference number for the booked PCR test. But I’ll come to that later.
Lesson: Gather all your information before you even try to fill in the EU form.
How do you keep all this stuff?
So I have boarding passes for both directions, my antigen test certificate and the EU locator form. I also have proof on my NHS app that I’m double jabbed which isn’t needed for this journey at the moment but handy to have around.
All of this can be stored on a phone or an iPad, and in recent years e-tickets have been the way I’ve usually travelled.
Not any more. People are going to want to go through this material, at check-in, on arrival in Italy, perhaps along the way. I don’t want to be fiddling with a phone to try to find it.
So it’s back to ink and paper. Everything — passes, certificates, forms, and my water taxi booking (I can’t use public transport to get to the city) — is in a plastic folder, printed out the way it used to be. Twelve pages in all.
None of this is hard. But it is time-consuming, it demands you understand what is being asked of you, and it isn’t good for last-minute travel. I have to go to Italy for work. Whether I’d put up with all this hassle and extra expense for a holiday… I doubt it.
But come Sunday I will, I hope, being telling you how the journey went.
It’s the first Saturday after the schools have broken up. Gatwick will be busier than at any time this year, or so the newspapers claim.
Interesting times ahead…
If you want to keep up with the future posts in this thread I suggest following me on Twitter by the way. They’ll be flagged up there.