A PANDEMIC IN PARADISE

It’s CORONA TIME.

*Disclaimer: I fully appreciate that for many travel is not a reality in 2020, in particular for Australians who are required to seek an exemption to leave the country (holidays are banned).

Destination: Ibiza

After 119 days of being confined to my one bedroom apartment and the radius of my neighbourhood my little legs would allow (side note: I did manage to run a half marathon almost by accident during lockdown when stretching my once daily exercise as far as possible) BoJo announced the much awaited air-bridges between the UK and the rest of the world. For those of you who haven’t been following the UK news, this translates to countries which have a reciprocal agreement with the UK that travellers between those two countries do not have to quarantine or isolate at either end. There are a few exceptions to this, such as Greece who were initially doing random temperature testing at airports and requiring those tested to self-isolate until such time as the results are produced.

Our original itinerary for the year had looked something like skiing in France, seeing family in Australia, vacationing in Mykonos and Malta, Morocco and Croatia. But with all trips cancelled (and the Australian friends we had arranged to do each with not permitted to leave Australia), we had to look further afield.

Our criteria included: an air-bridge country, with a reasonable COVID-19 rate (ie not worse that the UK US), short flights and reasonably priced given the situation. In search of sunshine, we landed on Mykonos and immediately scrambled to book flights. Less than a day later the Greek government announced that flights from the UK to Greek airports would be banned until 15 July 2020 and so we hastily changed our destination to Ibiza, the Spanish Isle renowned for clubs and boozy backpackers, but which it turns out also has a lesser known bohemian spirit, blue water and fabulous restaurants.

Fast forward a month and we were able to put the flights we had originally booked to Mykonos to use.

Bear in mind that while it seems like we have opted for tourist traps to visit, there are limited options available to fly to from the UK without quarantine restrictions in place and it is preferable to stay somewhere with an established health care system (prepping for the worst case scenario). The number of air bridge destinations have been decreasing weekly at the discretion of the UK Government, and Spain came off the list the week after we returned. Other popular haunts which are now also off the list are now France, Croatia, Austria, Malta, Monaco and the Netherlands. Portugal was originally off the list but has now been removed. The logic to the changes is apparently based on the number of COVID-19 cases per population of the respective countries.

Having never been to Ibiza, I had honestly no idea what to expect, and even less how to plan given the parameters of the COVID situation and to be honest it wasn’t as bad as I had expected – until we travelled to Greece a month later. I will set out what we got up to in a separate post, but below is my summary of all you need to know about travelling during COVID.

TRAVEL

Domestic airport travelUber; Stansted Express with Greater Anglia
Fly London > IbizaRyan Air
Fly Ibiza > LondonBritish Airways
Fly London > Mykonos returnBritish Airways

Booking flights

SkyScanner turned up reasonable flights for our travel dates which were inbound with RyanAir and outbound with BA. However, the safer option is to book directly through the airlines website (rather than the third party agents suggested by SkyScanner) to ensure refunds in the case of cancellation.

The world wide web is full of horror stories of third party booking agencies and travel agents refusing to give refunds for cancelled flights, despite the airline agreeing to issue a refund. Booking directly through the airline did slightly increase the price of the flight however was ultimately worth it for the peace of mind and the ease with which we rebooked our original flights to Mykonos with BA, who offered free cancellation or change of date free of charge.

Getting to the airport

RyanAir flies from London Stansted which turns out to be a bit of a trek from central London where we live (read: Uber to London Liverpool Street Station was £10 and 2 train tickets for the Stansted Express to Stansted were £40 total). You are required to wear a face mask on all public transport in the UK, including Uber and on flights. Serious mask tan after 10 hours of mask wearing that day.

Departure

Stansted and Heathrow airports were completely empty. The only shops open were WH Smith, Boots and once through immigration there was a Pret. The lounges were closed at Stansted, however there was one lounge open at Heathrow which offered a limited beverage service and the bathroom facilities were not available.. The strange thing about the closure of the airport was that it forced all the travellers awaiting departure into one tiny seated area which hindered any form of social distancing.

Upon checking in for our Ibiza flight, as we were flying with Ryan Air, I was required to bring a paper booking confirmation, to be stamped by Ryan Air, and to be issued a paper boarding pass at the airport. This is a requirement for all Australian passport holders, irrespective of COVID and/or whether or not you are a UK resident. If you don’t do this, Ryan Air will charge you approx £50 at the boarding gate for the privilege. I want to say Ryan Air has to make their money somehow, but as the Ryan Air flights cost us more than double the return flight with British Airways, this isn’t strictly true.

I approached the Ryan Air counter with some trepidation, as I had read on a different online forum of an Australian flying to Spain the day prior being denied by Ryan Air because they didn’t believe the air-bridge applied to non-UK or EU citizens (despite her having a British residence permit). After a number of frantic phone calls at her (and Ryan Air’s end), the situation was resolved. Lo and behold, upon presenting my passport, the Ryan Air clerk took one look and said ‘everything should be ok, but let me just check’ and disappeared into a hole in the wall. Ten minutes later he was back, but his unexplained absence suggests it would be wise to keep track of what your visa/passport will and won’t entitle you to come check-in.

Prior to entering Greece, all travellers are required to complete a passenger locator form (PLF) 48 hours in advance. This leads to the generation of a QR code which is emailed to you at 12AM on the date of your flight (10PM London time). The barcode attached to the QR code determines whether or not you will need to undergo a swab test upon arrival in Greece. Now that this system has been in place for a few weeks, travellers have determined that if your barcode begins with a ‘4’ you will not be required to undergo testing, however if it begins with a ‘7’, you will. Various iterations of this have been discovered, but it seems generally that if your barcode begins with an even number you will not be tested and the opposite stands for odd numbers.

For this reason, you are not able to check in online for flights to Greece, as the airline requires you to present the QR code at the airport in order to allow you to board the flight. This slows the check-in process at the airport considerably, so worth getting there early. A number of people were refused entry to check-in as they had not completed the QR code.

The approach in the UK is incredibly more lax, whereby we didn’t receive any notification of the need to complete a PLF, except upon landing at Heathrow upon return from Greece. Upon returning from Spain there were some representatives at Heathrow asking travellers if they had completed the form, but they were not actively checking the email that is produced upon completion of the form. Upon return from Greece there wasn’t any such representative.

The flight

Both our arriving and departing flights were remarkably smooth, and for the first time in my life, our return flight from Ibiza departed 20 minutes ahead of schedule. The same was to be the case upon departing Mykonos however a Wizz Air plane had a ‘missed approach’ twice and so we were ultimately delayed.

On both flights we were required to board a bus to the plane and social distancing was not observed on either bus (in fact BA was trying to cram as many of us as possible on the bus). More incredible was the scenic tour of the respective airports, which have effectively become plane parking lots as flights are grounded worldwide.

The experience on both airlines on our Spanish trip was completely different. While RyanAir crew didn’t mention the pandemic at any stage and wearing of masks wasn’t enforced, they did note that passengers would be required to ring the call bell should they wish to use the bathroom and shouldn’t otherwise leave their seat until instructed to do so by staff. Food and drink service was standard on Ryan Air (ie pay for anything you want).

On British Airways, the cheery pilot welcomed us over the PA system and had a quick chat about ‘this hopefully short-lived situation we are going through’. He apologised for the inconvenience of some of the measures the crew would have to take to ensure safety on board. These included using the call bell to use the bathroom, handing out of sanitiser packs upon boarding, which included gloves and sanitiser wipes and the disembarking process, which was done in rows of three, such that you couldn’t disembark the plane until all other passengers in the rows in front of you had disembarked and your group of three rows were called. Food and drink service was not standard on BA, such that the crew did not linger in the aisle, but rather handed out triple-wrapped packs that included 1 packet of Tyrell’s sea salt chips, an oat cookie and a small bottle of water. There was no choice of meal and no alcohol service.

Interestingly, by the time we travelled to and from Greece a month later, this time both ways with BA, they had given up enforcing the bathroom-call-bell rule, but did ask people to just check there wasn’t people queuing before attempting to go o the bathroom. They did still enforce the disembarkation protocol.

Interestingly, and maybe because the flights were short-haul, the crew wore limited PPE, and some did not wear masks. This was not exclusive to either airline. The planes themselves did not appear to be overly sanitised, and there was no ‘reek of disinfectant’ that others have mentioned. I think this may have been the reason for BA handing out the sanitary packs upon boarding.

In terms of capacity, both flights were about 60% full and we had a spare seat next to us on both flights. I expect this will probably change in the future as we travelled almost immediately after the lifting of travel restrictions in the case of Ibiza, and there had been an increase in patronage by the time we went to Greece.

Registration and logistics

Spain

Given the air-bridge agreement between Spain and the UK, quarantine was not required at either end of our journey. As of Saturday 25 July 2020, the UK Government has announced that travellers returning from Spain will be required to quarantine. Lucky escape for us.

48 hours prior to boarding, we were able to check-in for our Ryan Air flight, following which we received a form from the Spanish Government’s Health Authority, which required us to fill in our details for the duration of our stay in Spain and note whether or not we had had any symptoms of COVID-19. Once you had completed the form this metamorphosed into a QR code which you were required to show marshalls at Ibiza Airport (you couldn’t leave the airport without having this scanned, unless you tried really hard to get lost in the waves of anxious holidaymakers). \

Greece

Prior to entering Greece, all travellers are required to complete a passenger locator form (PLF) 48 hours in advance. This leads to the generation of a QR code which is emailed to you at 12AM on the date of your flight (10PM London time). The barcode attached to the QR code determines whether or not you will need to undergo a swab test upon arrival in Greece. Now that this system has been in place for a few weeks, travellers have determined that if your barcode begins with a ‘4’ you will not be required to undergo testing, however if it begins with a ‘7’, you will. Various iterations of this have been discovered, but it seems generally that if your barcode begins with an even number you will not be tested and the opposite stands for odd numbers.

For this reason, you are not able to check in online for flights to Greece, as the airline requires you to present the QR code at the airport in order to allow you to board the flight. This slows the check-in process at the airport considerably, so worth getting there early. A number of people were refused entry to check-in as they had not completed the QR code.

The UK

We didn’t receive the same when we checked in for our return flight to London, but upon dropping our bag at the airport we noticed a sign with a QR code for travellers to the UK. This form was extremely long but was said to be a requirement for all passengers arriving in the UK. The form is accessible by the QR code and your responses are processed into an email and sent to you upon completion. Nonetheless, it wasn’t mentioned on board our BA flight (who were otherwise comprehensive in informing us of the requirements upon landing such as changing terminals and quarantine) and when we reached immigration there were some officers standing around stating ‘make sure you have completed your form’ but nobody was actively checking that the form had been completed before we departed the airport as they had in Spain. Strangely, the form asks you to clarify if you are exempt from quarantine, and the air-bridges were not mentioned as a reason for exemption which may confuse some. Upon return from Greece there was no representatives at the airport checking the PLF had been completed.

Other

The requirements will obviously always be different depending on where you are travelling from and where you are travelling to. Australia currently won’t allow people to travel outside the country except where they can prove they are ordinarily resident overseas. There is currently a travel ban on people entering Australia such that only 350 people are allowed into Sydney per day (and none into Melbourne). Only 30 people are allowed on each flight, meaning that airlines are restricting flights to business and first class passengers only. There is currently a $3,000 per person fee for quarantine in Australia and you are not able to choose which hotel you are assigned.

HOTELS

We stayed in two different hotels during the time of our stay in Ibiza, Aguas Grand Luxe Ibiza and W Ibiza, both in the Santa Eulalia area. Both had only just opened following a COVID related closure immediately prior to our arrival. In Mykonos we stayed at Mykonos Bay Hotel, Mykonos Town and Zephyros Hotel, Paraga in Mykonos and at Sunset View Hotel on Paros.

Upon check-in at Aguas it was noted that as of the next day, being Monday 13 July 2020, wearing a mask in public would become compulsory in Spain, with the exception of restaurant dining and at the beach. We were required to wear a mask in all common areas of the hotel, including at the breakfast, except when sitting at our table. I note that this was not as strictly enforced at the W. The hotels in Greece did not enforce the wearing of face masks, except at the breakfast at the Sunset View Hotel. Greece was generally much more lax in this respect and the wearing of face masks in shops was very rarely enforced.

Hotel rooms

Our hotel room at Aguas was serviced daily, including new sheets and towels and the staff were not concerned whether or not you were in the room. By contrast, upon arrival at the W we were regretfully informed that due to COVID-19 and our stay being less than 5 days, our room would not be serviced for the duration of our stay and that all high touch surfaces, such as room furnishings, including cushions, books, lamps and mini bar items had been removed from the room. They did inform us that we were welcome to call should we require fresh towels or other amenities such as shampoo and these would be attended to immediately, however upon calling these never transpired and it took us going to the reception the next day to request soap and shampoo for them to restock the room. Worth considering whether it is worth paying for premium service from this perspective.

Our rooms were cleaned daily at all hotels in Greece.

Breakfast buffet

For those mourning the death of the breakfast buffet, it appears to have evolved into COVID safe form. At Aguas, we were immediately seated and required to order any hot food by a QR code which was placed under the laminate of the table (so that it couldn’t be touched by multiple guests). The breakfast buffet remained, but it was roped off and required a mask to attend. The buffet was limited to juices, yoghurts and pastries and you had to get the attention of a staff member to provide them for you – which basically took all the fun out of it. There was no breakfast included at the W, which I think will be the go for lots of places in the future.

At the Sunset View on Paros, you were required to ask staff to retrieve food for you from the breakfast buffet, while the breakfast buffet was in full force at Zephyros (yes I know, wtf).

By the pool

Gone are the days of towels in abundance. At both hotels in Spain, towels had to be supplied by the staff (as opposed to being available in a basket by the pool). At the W staff would bring the towels to you and wrap them over the sun lounger in order that you couldn’t physically touch it the cushions on the lounger.

Towels were available from staff at the hotels in Greece but they weren’t phased about where and what you sat on.

OUT AND ABOUT

As mentioned, face masks become mandatory in Spain the day after we arrived, but this was pretty manageable as you could take it off at restaurants, at the beach and by the pool. All nightclubs were closed but most restaurants were open. The situation was completely different in Greece and you could be forgiven for thinking COVID-19 didn’t exist. Bars and restaurants were open, people packed the streets and masks were few and far between.

In Ibiza, every restaurant we went to we were supplied with a QR code in one form or another and the restaurant’s menu was available through a website pop-up. Despite this, orders were still taken in person so you could still interact with staff, all of whom wore masks. The only deviation from this practice was some of the more traditional restaurants in Ibiza town who brought around blackboards with the menu. Some restaurants required you to sanitise your hands before entering but for most a mask was sufficient and only some were strict about whether you wore it around the restaurant, such as going to the bathroom. In Greece the restaurants were almost always without exception a hard copy style menu. Some endeavours were made to reduce handling but these were limited.

In Ibiza, we went on a day trip one day to Formentera island, where they temperature tested us before boarding the half hour ferry and enforced the wearing of masks on board. From Mykonos, we caught the ferry to and from Paros where we spent 3 nights – although there were some announcements requiring the wearing of masks, these weren’t enforced and people didn’t abide by them.

It was hit and miss as to what stores were open in Ibiza – I’m not sure whether this was because of siesta time or whether the downturn in tourists meant it wasn’t worthwhile for many shops opening. There were some stores closed in Greece however most appeared to be open and the beach vendors were in full force as always.

If you are thinking of travelling, enjoy and stay safe and always carry your own mask and sani.

XX

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