The great 17 May getaway: airport queues, cheering captains and nasal swabs

·7-min read
<p>All aboard: Passengers check in for the first holiday and leisure flights from Gatwick Airport, as easyJet relaunches flights from the UK to green-list destinations </p> ((David Parry/PA))

All aboard: Passengers check in for the first holiday and leisure flights from Gatwick Airport, as easyJet relaunches flights from the UK to green-list destinations

((David Parry/PA))

And we’re off! After a 19-week ban on international leisure travel, from 17 May foreign holidays are finally legal again (albeit under a convoluted traffic light system).

Not only that, but great swathes of the domestic tourism industry can reopen too, with hotels, B&Bs and tourist attractions in England ready to welcome back visitors.

To celebrate, The Independent’s travel team made the most of the great unlocking by partaking in previously prohibited trips, both abroad and at home. Here’s how they got on.

Simon Calder, travel correspondent: Faro, Portugal

Back to the USSR: the hassle and complexity involved in even a short hop to Portugal is at least as bad as travelling to the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Within hours of the UK government unlocking leisure travel after a 19-week ban on holidays, 30 flights departed from eight airports across England to Portugal – the only major European country on the “green list” of quarantine-free destinations.

Fares for the first Ryanair departure from Stansted to Faro were cut to £22 in a bid to lure passengers on board, but in the end only 150 of the 189 seats were filled.

Simon Calder jets off to FaroSimon Calder
Simon Calder jets off to FaroSimon Calder

Every one of those passengers had spent significantly more on a Covid test. On Friday afternoon, the Portuguese government announced British holidaymakers would be allowed in, but only if they could produce a negative result from a “gold standard” PCR test. The authorities added that it must be taken within 72 hours of departure, but for Monday morning passengers, that was irrelevant – they had less time than that to source the necessary test and wait for the result.

At dawn on Saturday I travelled to Heathrow airport – not to fly anywhere, but simply because the testing centre promised results within 48 hours. I paid four times the cost of my air fare for the test, and the negative certificate arrived 26 hours later.

I also had to complete Portugal’s passenger locator card, to generate the QR code necessary to enter the country.

Stansted airport at 6am felt about a quarter as busy compared with normal levels of activity. The security check was friendly and swift, and around half the shops and catering outlets were open.

The ground staff had their work cut out at departure gate 49. Ryanair prides itself on stripping away airport procedures and cutting out the paperwork: it was the first airline to demand that passengers checked in themselves online. But now there are two lines at the gate: a “pre-queue” in which Covid tests are checked, in exchange for another piece of paper that you show to the gate agent, along with your passport, to be allowed on to the plane.

Heading straight for the bar...Simon Calder
Heading straight for the bar...Simon Calder

On the long walk to the gate it was clear that some passengers had neglected to take the Covid test – or had simply run out of time waiting for the result. They will not be travelling today. Yet, conversely, two passengers made it all the way through the airport to gate 49 without masks, and were allowed on board only after other travellers handed them their spare face coverings.

On board, the service was friendly and professional – though an overnight foul-up meant there was no tea or coffee on board. The plane left, and arrived, five minutes early, touching down just after its stablemate from Manchester.

Touching down in Faro, despite the previous palaver, felt just right: the seductive mosaic of islands and lagoons serving as the overture to our arrival in the airport serving the Algarve. The tourist board was out in force, handing out souvenir face masks and sanitiser to the new arrivals. Within 10 minutes I was sipping a coffee and anticipating the joys of exploring fishing villages strung along the coast, the hilly Algarve hinterland and a cold Sagres beer with the sunset. Bliss delayed is bliss intensified.

The summer is on. Your papers, please.

Cathy Adams, travel editor: Madeira

My usual 2am wake-up call is my toddler, so bouncing out of bed in the middle of the night to catch a flight abroad felt... unusual.

Although it’s only a 45-minute drive to Gatwick from my house, the journey from the UK to the possibility of international travel – in my case, the Portuguese island of Madeira, one of the few viable destinations on the green list – took far longer and was much more complicated than “normal”, as Simon describes above.

Cathy checks in at GatwickCathy Adams
Cathy checks in at GatwickCathy Adams

On Friday, I had to take an at-home PCR test, and immediately sent it off to a lab for processing. (Then I had to pack a lateral flow test to be taken while in Madeira before I fly home on Tuesday.) I received my negative result on Saturday morning, at which point it was immediately uploaded to the “Madeira Safe” website, which generated a unique QR code.

All this information, alongside my passport, was presented bleary-eyed at the Tui check-in at 4.30am at Gatwick’s North Terminal, the only one operating right now. Hearteningly, the Tui flight I was catching, a brand-new Boeing 737 Max no less, was busy: families and couples both young and old were packing out the seats. The flight crew were jubilant, and the pilots – both captains – were overjoyed at flying Real People once again.

One of the first ‘green list’ planes out of the UK on Monday morningCathy Adams
One of the first ‘green list’ planes out of the UK on Monday morningCathy Adams

Three and a bit hours later, at 10am, we were approaching Madeira – surely one of Europe’s most spectacular runways. The asphalt is built into the side of the cliff on the south side of the island, and planes typically fly straight past it before turning sharply over the sea to descend. It’s one of those truly heart-stopping landings, where it looks like the plane is about to clip the water before it comes hammering onto the tarmac.

The view from the Riu Palace MadeiraCathy Adams
The view from the Riu Palace MadeiraCathy Adams

The welcome was literally, and metaphorically, warm: the air hot like sauce, and hotel and airport staff beaming at the sight of British holidaymakers walking through the doors once again.

After a swift check-in at the Riu Palace Madeira, I was left with that delicious feeling you get when you travel. The sea in front of me, windsurfers dotting its choppy white froth, baby blue sky overhead and the whole day stretching ahead of me. Travel might involve a few more Olympian-sized hurdles these days, but the thrills are still the same.

Helen Coffey, deputy travel editor: A new London hotel

Unlike my esteemed colleagues, I already knew there would be no convoluted yet exotic overseas trips for me. As a flight-free pledgee for 2021, the number of green list destinations available to me totals precisely zero. But nevertheless, there were still plenty of previously prohibited travel experiences to try: staying in a hotel again, for one.

NYX Hotel London HolbornHelen Coffey
NYX Hotel London HolbornHelen Coffey

Deciding to go for something hot off the press and not too far from home, I booked in for a stay at the new NYX Holborn. This millennial-friendly brand, with 12 outposts in European cities, hits precisely the right notes of being flamboyantly stylish, conveniently located, and not too onerous on the wallet.

Helen Coffey
Helen Coffey

I checked in mid-morning and appreciated the fact that the “new normal” barely felt different to the “old normal” – yes, myself and the reception desk worker were wearing masks, but other than that the process was reassuringly swift and easy. Mere moments later, I was gliding into my first hotel room in around six months, relishing the statement artwork’s bold splashes of colour, the postbox-red Smeg fridge filled with snacks, and the professionally made gargantuan bed, promising to deliver a superlative sleep in 12 hours’ time.

Is it bedtime yet?Helen Coffey
Is it bedtime yet?Helen Coffey

A few hours later I got another (literal) taste of the great unlocking: I was free to dine in the onsite restaurant indoors. No ski jacket, thermals or umbrella required. I was perfectly temperate, in fact, as I scoffed down sea bass ceviche followed by tequila and chipotle prawn tostadas. Other facilities were finally open to me too – namely the hotel’s designy spa area and “fitness suite”.

The strangest thing? It all felt incredibly, decadently normal.

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