Travel in times of Covid… journey’s end

Back home. It’s cold, it’s rainy, but it is home and I’ve managed to do a lot during those two weeks in sunny Venice.

I’ve logged the details of my travel arrangements in these crazy times, so now it’s time to tell you about the last leg and offer a few thoughts on the whole business.

Coming home was, with one glitch I’ll come to, a piece of cake. I got to Marco Polo airport in good time, found the easyJet bag drop, talked to the friendly woman there who wanted to see my boarding pass, my negative antigen test and the barcode that proved I’d filled in the UK Passenger Locator Form.

After that it was through to the automatic bag drop, a very quick trip past security and into an airport that was quiet if not exactly empty. Since I’m no longer an EU citizen, I went through a different passport check lane. Stamps now seem mandatory, presumably to make sure none of us is spending more time in the EU than we’re allowed.

The plane was on time and pretty much full. Unlike the last few British Airways flights to Venice I’ve taken, we were on a stand too, not a bus, which makes for a much more pleasant boarding process. I had to show my passport and antigen test certificate once more and then it was onto the plane.

Two hours later I’m in Gatwick and being herded to the e-passport gates where there’s a steady queue building. And here is the first delay I encounter in the whole process. The woman in front of me struggles to get her passport recognised by the machine but gets through in the end. Mine generates three failure messages then tells me to ‘seek assistance’. Assistance turns out to be a quite grumpy border control chap patrolling the miserable lines. He says quite curtly this is either because I filled in the locator form wrongly, or the data for the locator form hasn’t been updated on the system or perhaps it’s the machine. Then he tells me, ‘You’ll just have to talk to a human being’ and points me to a long queue of people who’ve been similarly rejected by the e-gates and are waiting in line to get to a desk.

Great. Given the passenger in front of me had problems too I’m guessing it’s the blasted machine. So I try another one… and I’m through first time, with no more checks to come, and my luggage turns up swiftly too.

So if the e-gate turns you back and there’s a long queue for the desk I’d try that. The e-gate I used going into Venice was quick and efficient and the passport desk chap smiley and charming. We don’t do that kind of thing in the UK it seems. Nowhere in Gatwick was I asked for the pre-flight antigen test. Clearly the border control people are relying on the airlines to do that job for them.

The final piece of the puzzle is that £61 pre-booked PCR test which must be done by day two. Swab down throat which almost made me gag then in one nostril, off to Royal Mail priority post box shortly. All this just three days after I had a negative result in Venice to get me on the plane. I hope it’s an end to forms and tests and websites for a while. Seen quite enough of those already, thank you.

Some of the things I learned on this trip…

  1. The airports were the part that worried me most but turned out to be no problem at all. I sailed through with the right documentation and, that wayward UK e-gate machine apart, experienced no delays. This may be because I chose to go through Gatwick. I’ve heard horror stories of Heathrow to do with delays both in immigration and baggage delivery. Gatwick it is for me for now, and easyJet I found a sight more impressive than they were the last time I tried them a few years back.
  2. You need to understand this process before you start to travel. It’s complicated, short on information at times, and if you foul up too late you may find yourself without the qualification to fly.
  3. Shop around for your tests and check both price and reputation somewhere like TrustPilot. I wasted £48 on a PCR test from Randox, a company I’ll avoid like the plague in future. Next time round I think I’d buy pre and post flight self tests from one of the companies the government certifies, not pay an arm and a leg to a company like Boots who charge twice the price. Or, for the flight home, get a local test since that worked quite well in Venice. And it’s time the government abandoned that expensive and fiddly PCR test on return for a cheaper rapid one. This is, as even a Tory MP said the other day, a needless rip-off.
  4. Take a tablet or laptop with you if you can because these forms are not easy to fill in using a phone. And if you don’t have any web connected device… well, I honestly don’t know how you can manage. The authorities assume we can all go online with a smartphone at the very least. If you’re not comfortable with the technology you need access to someone who is.
  5. Whenever you can, print things out. Test results, locator forms, boarding passes, details of where you’re staying and your flight home. It’s a lot easier pulling out a piece of paper than searching for essential items on a phone.

Overall this trip was an eye-opener. I got to Venice, quarantined for five days, managed my work in the city and returned with no real hassle at all, just a lot of extra expense and swabs stuck up my nose from time to time. When I was there the city was as delightful as ever, even with the restrictions the pandemic brought, though on that last day the new green pass restrictions came in. I didn’t have time to check out the assertion that the UK NHS double jab barcode will get you inside places as easily as the local one. The museum I spoke to said yes so long as you bring your passport too. The restaurant where they ran the UK barcode against the phone app they’ve been told to use to check eligibility. It said no. Teething troubles, one hopes.

Clearly the current quarantine restriction on Italy, and the uncertainty of when it will be lifted, make travel there impractical for anyone who doesn’t have to go. Even when that does happen and the rest of Europe opens up, I do wonder if I’d think the expense and work worthwhile for a short break. I spent under two hours in the air getting to Venice and perhaps three times that trying to deal with the new rules and tests. Next time round it will be less because I think I know the system, but probably not by much. And the test regime, which included that duff Randox one, added up to just about the price of the return flight.

Given Covid’s reluctance to disappear and the money some people are making out of all these new processes, I suspect we’re going to be lumbered with testing as part of going abroad for quite some time. And next year we’ll have to pay £7 for a kind of visa waiver to enter the EU, one that lasts three years. In spite of what you may have read, this isn’t the EU’s ‘punishment’ of us for Brexit or anything to do with Covid. It’s a long-standing border control procedure the UK was supporting back before the referendum when that loon David Cameron thought he could win the vote and keep us in.

One more form to fill. One more obstacle to easy movement across the Continent. Being there is still wonderful but getting there is not. Flying hasn’t been an enjoyable experience for years and it just got a fair bit worse. I do wonder how many of those going through the hoops with this year’s new rules will feel when it comes to booking next time round, knowing what’s in store.

One of the easyJet staff told me the company was running a reasonable number of flights but probably at the capacity of the winter months, not the busy holiday season. Then she added, ‘They told us things won’t get back to normal till next summer.’ A quick smile. ‘But then that’s what they said last year too.’