'I made check-in for my flight to Croatia – minutes after the quarantine list was announced'

Charlotte Lytton
Dubrovnik - istock

What do you call a woman with four non-refundable flights and no destination? As Britain’s air bridge promises shifted from hopeful to fiasco in recent weeks, I am one of many who has been caught in the great bookings crossfire. That was until just moments ago.

Granted, this approach might (charitably) be considered a little gung-ho. But annual leave requirements at work meant picking a date in the near future where there was nothing to do; I landed on early July, hoping that a sanctioned trip might by then be feasible. The June 29 restrictions review was in the diary, and booking last minute flights is a bit of a habit of mine.

Of course, all of the requisite caveats apply – time off is lovely, holidays are a luxury and I could have taken a non-essential trip and quarantined on return – but a foot broken 15 minutes after midnight on New Year’s Day followed by three months in a moon boot and crutches that I was only free of the day before lockdown began made the idea of going anywhere that wasn’t the surrounding streets more alluring than ever.

So when the term ‘air bridges’ entered the Covid lexicon last month, things appeared to brighten: could we go away, like normal people? Western Europe in the summer would be pretty low on my non-pandemic hitlist but it seemed the safest bet; Sicily became the nominally chosen destination, with flights looking reasonable after a quick search. "Great, yep, sort that out next week," I thought.

A few days later, flights to Palermo, normally around the £70 mark, were £389. Between the advancing school holidays, decimated flight schedules and a severe national case of cabin fever, the ticket gouge had begun. Okay, Plan B; where’s like Sicily but not Sicily? Tricky to say when you have not actually been to Sicily, so Croatia was quasi-arbitrarily chosen, partly because it came with the benefit of not being somewhere I’d spent much time; only one trip there, in fact, as a 19-year-old interrailer, inadvertently lodging with a very angry woman who spent all day staring at the living room wall and a husband who had no teeth.

Palermo - istock

At that stage, the much-awaited announcement was a couple of weeks off; might as well just wait to hear whether a quarantine-free option would be presented, but good to know there was a reasonable backup. As days and weeks wore on, though, the extent of the bridge to nowhere fiasco ramped up; countries were on the list and back off again quicker than you could say ‘remember when people were stockpiling loo roll?’

But then there came the arrival of a picture via WhatsApp. Of seafood. At a restaurant. In Portugal. That was open. Where people were having fun. And sitting next to each other. In a group. Like the old days. Obviously, this stuff was happening; the UK’s shambolic attempts at pandemic navigation had simply landed us well behind our European neighbours, whose lockdowns had been lifting weeks earlier.

There was something about seeing someone I knew engaging in normal activity that flipped a switch. Portugal’s continued coronavirus success coupled with flights going into Porto and out of Lisbon that were cheap enough to be really unfortunate, but not totally catastrophic if they ended up being ditched in favour of an approved destination, made it worth sealing the deal (fingers crossed firmly while doing so). Also, I really wanted to eat that octopus – and more than that, not clean up afterwards.

Fast forward a week and Portugal’s outbreaks – small by comparison, but there nonetheless – meant lockdown measures were being reintroduced; bars closing after 8pm, that sort of thing. Not ideal, but doable. But then came the news at the weekend that it would be traffic lights, not bridges, and that Portugal would be red, red, red.

Porto - istock

"Right," I thought, "fire up those Croatia flights, baby." A second set of (slightly pricier) tickets were duly booked on Saturday (June 27), departing today. The announcement was coming over the weekend, we were told; we could know the fate of our booking within hours. Then it was coming on Monday. Then ‘the coming days’. Wednesday came and went. Yesterday’s draft list was apparently thrown out at the eleventh hour after disagreements between Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and Nicola Sturgeon.

“You must be pulling your hair out,” messaged my mum. “I continue to pray,” my boyfriend said. Plan Cs, Ds and frankly half the alphabet began swirling: head to the airport and by the time of arrival, book a flight to the first place that the Government says doesn’t require quarantine on return; take the flight to Croatia if the news arrives on time and it's on the list; put up a tent in the living room and quarantine in that from now until I forget how to say the word ‘bridge.’

A refundable accommodation search (there are currently requirements around proof of residence for some visitors to Croatia) begins late Thursday night, after work. Two hours later, at 23:25, a colleague texts to say there’s no sight of either country on the draft list. Bit of a setback, there, but the announcement is coming in the morning. Which it obviously won’t, but it’s hard to see how deep you’re in when there’s too much water in your eyes.

The likes of online check-in, carry-on bag fees and boarding pass downloading had all been deferred, as there seemed no point filling out forms and paying for extras that would go unused; by the time of (shock!) no-announcement on Friday afternoon, the desperate airport dash (prolonged by a last-minute misplacing of face mask) was underway, trying to fill things out on the phone on the delayed bus. Check-in online had closed; of course it had.

We then had to run through central London to the train, because missing that with the need for a desk check-in would make us too late to board. 3pm, no news. On the shuttle bus to the airport, a woman scolded me for having moved my mask beneath my chin while attempting to respond to the driver. Officiousness is not victim to this illness, clearly.

Standing at the check-in desk, I dared a hasty check – surely the hundredth by now – to see if the list was out. The headline says no Portugal, but scrolling, scrolling, until – yes! – Croatia is on there. Joy! It’s a fleeting sensation, tempered by the need to pay for check-in across the vestibule but, improbably, after everything, it’s happening. Or it is at least a step closer to. Now we just need to clear security...