It’s been a long and difficult five months, but the return of international travel (albeit to a slim list of countries) has finally arrived. The UK government banned non-essential travel from the UK in January as part of the third national lockdown, with plans for it to resume in mid-May. Thanks to a speedy vaccine rollout programme, the third stage of the easing of lockdown has been green lit.
According to the roadmap, the resumption of international travel was subject to the “domestic epidemiological picture, the prevalence and location of any Variants of Concern, the progress of vaccine rollouts here and abroad, and what more we have learned about the efficacy of vaccines on variants, and the impact on transmission, hospitalisation and deaths.” At the time of writing, however, the India variant is causing some concern.
As many of you will be aware, the government has a traffic light system in place for England – read more about this here. Countries on the ‘green’ list have the least number of restrictions, the most important being the lack of quarantine upon return to England, and so are the most in demand.
I jumped at the opportunity to get away, even with a 0400 wake-up call. Portugal was the obvious choice given that there are currently only 12 destinations featured on England’s ‘green’ list – many of which, including Australia, Singapore and New Zealand, aren’t even open to UK tourists.
Departing the UK
While the UK government announced in early May that Portugal would be on England’s green list, it wasn’t until May 14 that the Portuguese authorities confirmed that they would accept British tourists on May 17. As the date got closer, we were still unsure whether Portugal would reciprocate due to the EU’s continuing ban on non-essential travel from countries outside the bloc, and the country’s extension of its “state of calamity” to May 30.
While you no longer need to quarantine upon arrival in Portugal (or when returning to England), there are various rules that you have to meet. For those of you that are lucky enough to be fully vaccinated (i.e. with two doses), these restrictions still apply. The NHS app can now prove vaccination status, but most countries still demand negative Covid-19 tests as part of their entry requirements.
To travel to a ‘green’ list country, travellers must book three Covid-19 tests:
- A pre-departure PCR test
- A rapid antigen test to take on the trip (for returning back to the UK)
- A PCR test on Day 2 of being back in the UK – this must be booked and paid for, with confirmation printed out or downloaded onto a digital device
It’s not a cheap process, costing approximately £200 for one person – note that there are various suppliers, and it’s worth shopping around to get the cheapest combination. Plus, there’s the risk that you will end up having to quarantine if your Day 2 test is positive, or if someone with whom you travelled has tested positive (you should be informed via NHS Test and Trace).
British Airways recommends a variety of testing providers, which include in-clinic testing with City Doc, airport testing with Express Test, and home test kits with Medicspot, Qured and Randox. I used Qured for the antigen test, and Randox for the PCR tests. See further details here.
Portugal currently requires all those entering to present proof of a negative RT-PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure. The test result certificate must identify the type of test taken and include your name, date of birth, the date and time the sample was collected and the date of the result. As our flight left at 0730 on Monday May 17, this meant that I could take my pre-departure test from late morning on Friday May 14.
I took my test at home at 1300 on Friday, delivered it to one of the provider’s ‘drop boxes’ an hour later, and received my negative result via email the following day (Saturday May 15) at 1637.
Travellers must also fill in a passenger locator form to visit Portugal – this can be viewed here. Details include your flight information (airline, seat number, flight number, date and time of arrival, and departure/arrival destinations), personal information (including the address that you’re staying at in Portugal), and emergency contact information. Once completed, you receive a confirmation email with a QR code – it’s best to download this onto your smartphone and also print it out.
Before you can check in online, you need to upload two Covid-19 documents into ‘Manage my booking’: your negative PCR test result, and Portugal’s passenger locator form. The Randox certificate was easy enough to upload – though I changed it from a PDF to a JPEG format as it wouldn’t let me view the former once I had uploaded it.
When it comes to the locator form, it’s not as straightforward. As the form is simply sent to you as an email with a QR code, there’s nowhere to download it to upload onto your booking. Instead, you have to download your confirmation email as a PDF (print to PDF) and then upload it to BA. The BA website doesn’t have instructions to do this, so you have to take your own initiative.
Once both forms are uploaded, you can submit them for verification, which (in my case) was done within the hour. Once checked in, I downloaded my boarding pass onto my phone (via the BA app).
While my check-in was at the First Wing in Heathrow Terminal 5, I saw that the check-in desks for economy were beginning to get busy in the main departures area. I had already checked in online so went straight to the First Wing, where my temperature was checked on my wrist.
Security opened at 0530 and a member of the BA team scanned my boarding pass, told me the wifi password for the lounge, and then I scanned my boarding pass at an e-gate. I did not have to show any documents other than my boarding pass. I then proceeded through security in the matter of minutes and made my way to the lounge.
The British Airways Galleries South Club, First Lounge and Concorde Terrace were all open to travellers. I got the chance to see the new Forty Winks sleep pods, which opened on May 17 in partnership with Rest Works – see more about this here.
I was offered tea and coffee, a glass of champagne (too early I’m afraid), and a non-alcoholic drink. I was also offered a breakfast menu, but wasn’t yet hungry. To minimise contact, the airline has launched an online site ‘Your Menu’ where can order your own food and drink, which is brought directly to you.
I wasn’t in the lounge for long, as wanted to get a taste of the main terminal, where the shops and restaurants were open and ready for business. As I left the lounge, I noticed that the staff were already wiping down and cleaning surfaces that we had occupied.
We boarded from Gate A13 on Level 2. The flight was full and BA sent me a text beforehand asking if I wanted to check-in my luggage free-of-charge (I didn’t). Fellow travellers included people going to Lisbon for work, to reunite with family and friends, and for leisure. Boarding began at 0650 and was done by rows, starting at the back of the plane, so Club Europe passengers were not given priority.
As I was seat 12F, I was called towards the end of boarding at 0710, but the queue was quick and I was through in one minute. I was asked to scan my own boarding pass, and a staff member checked my passport, asking that I briefly lift my mask down.
We queued in the air bridge for about seven minutes, with social distancing signs throughout to remind you to keep your space. As I boarded, I was handed an antiseptic wipe, and overheard the cheerful cabin crew staff saying that it was “so good to see a never-ending queue”.
This was an A320 aircraft with 168 seats in two classes: Club Europe (12 rows with 72 seats) and Economy (96 seats). It was a three-three configuration of ABC – DEF.
In Club Europe (business class), the middle seats are kept empty so people are only seated in A, C, D and F. Of the 72 seats, therefore, only 48 are occupied. In our case, the empty seat gave us more space for our belongings.
I was in seat 12F, a window seat on the last row of business class, with a curtain separating the cabin from economy. This is an emergency exit row (as is row 11) so I had to store my laptop bag in the overhead locker for take-off and landing, which might seem like a pain but is worth it for the extra leg room.
In Economy class, passengers were sat directly next to each other. There is a washroom at the front, and two washrooms at the rear of the plane. When I visited, the staff had just cleaned it with sanitising equipment, and there were sanitising wipes in there for guest use too.
Boarding was complete by 0729 and we started taxiing at 0732. The flight took off at 0750.
To join the wifi network, there’s a sticker on the seat in front stating that you need to visit shop.ba.com, where you can choose from a number of packages. It costs £1.99 to use messaging apps, £4.99 for web browsing and video streaming for one hour, and £7.99 for the duration of the flight. I didn’t purchase any of these as it was a short flight and I could get on with writing about my experience. Without the wifi, the BA site allows you to manage your booking, and onboard menus are “coming soon”.
There is a storage area in the foot locker, and power for the laptop and USB charging in the same area.
The flight felt very quick and smooth, and I was comfortable in my seat. Everyone was wearing masks apart from when eating or drinking (or if exempt).
Food and drink
Breakfast service began at 0830 and you could choose between a traditional Full English, an omelette, or cold meats and cheese. The problem with being in the last row of Club Europe, however, is that they run out of options by the time they reach you.
As I didn’t fancy a Full English (the only meal remaining), I instead had the yoghurt and fruit that came with it, and two croissants. I also had an Earl Grey tea, while my neighbour enjoyed a Bloody Mary.
The plane began to descend at 1000, and the landing at 1010 was slightly bumpy. The cabin crew then announced that travellers shouldn’t leave their seats until their row number was announced to allow for social distancing. Club Europe was the first to disembark as we exited the aircraft from the front of the plane.
I expected border control to be a long affair, but it was actually incredibly speedy. An airport representative showed us that a lane had been set up specifically for UK travellers – this will be looked at for other countries in the future, too – and I was through passport control within five minutes.
I had to show my passport and negative test certificate (I had both paper and digital versions just in case). When I began to show my locator form, I was told that this wasn’t necessary as it was all automated and they could see that I had completed it when they scanned my passport.
As we made our way through the airport, I spotted staff in PPE spraying areas such as baggage claim, which assured me that the cleaning protocols were being followed.
As we left the terminal, Portuguese journalists were ready at the entrance to interview arrivals – a mirror image of what we had done in Heathrow earlier that morning.
It was hard not to enjoy this flight given the circumstances. We’ve all been longing to get abroad for months, and seeing blue skies from my window seat put a beaming smile on my face (hidden by my mask, of course). Service was excellent, everyone was in good spirits, and I felt safe throughout.
The downside is that you don’t get a choice of meals when you’re in the last row of Club Europe, despite having paid extra for a business class ticket, and there was no priority at boarding – though we did get to exit the aircraft first.
Border control was quick when we reached Portugal, allowing me to reach the hotel by lunchtime, where I’m now sat amidst Portugal’s ceramic azulejo tiles, with the sun streaming through the window. Let’s hope the return journey is just as smooth (and sunny)!