FREEDOM is just a few weeks away – from May 17 we will finally be able to holiday abroad.
But just how different will international travel be in this new post-pandemic world as countries around the globe continue to battle the devastating disease?
? Read our coronavirus live blog for the latest updates
If my experience of travelling to Cancun in Mexico this week is anything to go by, it will not be easy.
Legally allowed for work purposes, I was reporting from the Caribbean idyll as industry leaders and tourism ministers gathered at the World Travel and Tourism Council’s global summit at the Moon Palace resort in Cancun.
The challenges I experienced will soon become a reality for millions as travel resumes.
No longer is it simply a case of packing your passport, sun cream and foreign currency.
This is how my trip went, and how it will be for you when travel finally gets going . . .
The armed policeman at Gatwick Airport peers at my Travel Declaration Form and demands to know why I’m going to Mexico.
Despite it being perfectly legal for me to travel for work — and I have two letters confirming my credentials — it’s still a nervous wait until he declares himself happy and waves me through to security.
If he hadn’t approved, it could have meant a £5,000 fine, just for turning up at the airport.
I’m on my way but just getting to this point has involved multiple online forms and new expenses.
Although travel is illegal right now, what I’m going through will be the same for anyone who wants to head to a country on the amber list of the UK’s new traffic-light system from May 17.
That list is yet to be revealed but is likely to include favourite destinations including Spain, Greece and France. After taking a test in Mexico before I return to the UK, I must quarantine at home for ten days after my trip and take PCR tests on days two and eight.
I have opted to pay for a Test to Release on day five to reduce my quarantine to six days.
Just to leave the country, I have to confirm these tests are booked and provide proof. My days two and eight tests cost £210, the Test to Release a further £99.
I must show confirmation of my booked tests — and my declaration form — at check-in and again to the armed police.
Gatwick’s North Terminal departure lounge is deserted. Just WHSmith, Pret a Manger and Boots are open — as well as, randomly, the Hamleys toy store and a couple of clothes shops.
There’s no chance for a celebratory pint, as all restaurants and bars are closed. But the welcome from British Airways cabin crew as we board is genuine and they are smiling as they hand out sanitising wipes and antibacterial gels.
Masks are mandatory for the entire flight, save when you are served food.
Fed and watered, I strap on a new mask — it’s recommended you change them every four hours — and doze off.
Waking a couple of hours before we land, to a second light meal, I’m surprised at how easily I have adapted to mask- wearing for long periods.
And I’m very grateful for the mask as we emerge into the crowded confines of Cancun airport.
Mexico currently doesn’t require any tests to enter the country, just a couple of paper immigration and health forms you have to fill in during the flight.
Waved through customs with a flourish of stamps on my passport, it’s then onward to a packed baggage-claim area. Multiple flights from the US and beyond have arrived simultaneously and the halls are teeming with tourists. After the emptiness of Gatwick, this is a shock.
The WTTC summit is the first big travel conference since the pandemic, with 600 attendees forming a “bubble” and daily testing included.
The next three days fly past in a blur of daily tests, summit sessions and interviews — and preparing for the return journey is the next challenge.
SCREENSHOTS & QR CODES
Luckily, the hotel has decent wifi so using your phone to fill in the government’s Passenger Locator Form as well as health statements required by the Mexican authorities is at least not expensive — albeit not that easy, with forms failing and websites not working.
Ensuring the last rapid test we take at the hotel passes the requirements of the UK Government for my return — and proving it on all paperwork — is not without its complications either.
With a flight from Cancun to Mexico City then a British Airways one to London, we need two separate forms to show at the Mexican airports as well as our negative test result.
Keeping my phone charged is essential, as it is needed constantly to show screenshots of the forms and QR codes at airport security checkpoints.
At the final check-in for our British Airways flight to the UK we have to show our locator form, negative test, booked tests for the UK and more.
Many airlines have already been fined for allowing passengers to board without the right paperwork so the checks are comprehensive.
The final hurdle is then our early afternoon arrival at Heathrow. With headlines warning of six-hour delays, I was prepared for the worst. In reality, with so few flights the queue is just 20 minutes and after I nervously hand over my final forms, and phone, I am home and dry.
Now comes my quarantine at home and tests to prove I am Covid-free before, finally, I’ll be able to leave the house some time next week.
I have already had daily calls from the government checking I am quarantining at home.
My experience has shown travelling will be more complex — and expensive — but for those desperate to escape to sunnier climes or reunite with loved ones, it’s a price we must pay.
With a digital health passport on the way, I worry those not so familiar with smart phones, apps and online accounts will struggle with the process.
But with patience, it is possible to travel once more.
SUN & SEA IS WORTH IT
My trip wasn’t all work – early morning and evening we had the chance to explore the delights of the Moon Palace resort.
Temperatures topped 30C each day and the blue skies and gentle sea breezes were intoxicating to a lockdown-weary Brit like me.
I took an early-morning walk along the wide white sands and after 25 minutes had still not reached the end of the hotel property.
The resort is vast, with low-rise blocks grouped around gardens filled with palm trees. There are multiple pools by the beach, as well as a vast waterpark.
Daily entertainment and a huge number of sports and kids’ activities were on offer.
The ultra all-inclusive concept means there are 13 restaurants to choose from, serving everything from Mexican and Brazilian steakhouse to Japanese and Indian cuisine.
We had a superb meal in the Riviera Maya restaurant, in the resort’s spa and golf club. The fact it was a ten-minute buggy ride from the lobby gives you an idea of just how big the resort is.
Drinks are decent quality in the resort’s many bars and even your room features full-size bottles of spirits as well as soft drinks and beer.
COVID: Travel to Mexico is currently not possible.
If the country does go on the amber list after May 17 you will need to take a test to return back into the UK, to self-isolate for ten days and to take two Covid PCR tests on days two and eight.
If the country is on the green list it will involve one PCR test on return and no quarantine.
If it goes on the red list, you will need to quarantine in a hotel at a cost of £1,750.
GETTING/STAYING THERE: British Airways Holidays offers seven nights’ all-inclusive at the 5star Moon Palace Cancun from £1,329pp travelling on selected dates between September 6 and 30, 2021.
Includes flights from London and 23kg luggage allowance. Book by May 11 at ba.com/mexico.
The pandemic has had some impact – one section of the hotel remains closed due to lack of demand.
I stayed in the Sunrise section of the resort, normally used to welcoming British guests and with rooms near the beach and main pools.
Reminders we are still in the middle of a global pandemic are everywhere.
Masks are required indoors and all staff wear them both inside and out.
Many guests were wearing masks while strolling the grounds and not once did I see anyone breaking safety rules.
But for the masks – and multiple sanitising stations at the entrance to all restaurants, bars and shops – it all felt astonishingly normal.
It may have taken extra effort but for the chance to relax on such sun-kissed shores once more, it was totally worth it.
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