Once upon a time booking a holiday was an exciting experience. The world was our oyster and foreign holidays were our invitation to the feast.
But all that euphoric, happy-go-lucky holiday planning has become a thing of distant pre-pandemic memory, and as I count down the days until the beginning of my first foreign escape in over 17 months I find myself trapped in a hellish state of flux.
It began in mid-May, when we first accepted defeat and waved goodbye to the deposit we’d paid for a group sailing holiday in Croatia (already postponed once from last summer) – the operator planned to go ahead with the trip, but we couldn’t afford to part with the remainder of the balance without knowing if we’d be able to travel to the Dalmatian coast restriction free. Shortly afterwards, easyJet cancelled our Croatian flights – requesting a refund, rather than vouchers, meant we had a pot of money on standby to book an end-of-July break at the last minute, when we hoped the green list would be bountiful and rules for vaccinated travellers might be eased.
From the beginning this last-minute approach to booking a holiday has put me on edge. I’ve never been one for gambling, I’m a stickler for certainty and, some might say, an obsessive organiser. Up-to-the-wire planning just isn’t part of my DNA. These traits, while usually helpful when juggling holiday plans, have been my downfall in recent weeks as we approach D(eparture)-Day, driving me close to breaking point.
My pre-holiday diary from hell has been a rollercoaster of emotions and I have no doubt thousands of other Britons are experiencing the same turbulent ride.
We are due to depart in just over a week’s time for a week-long break in Spain; here’s an account of my daily game of holiday Snakes and Ladders.
Speculation was rife that the Government was preparing to scrap quarantine rules for double-jabbed travellers returning from amber-list destinations. At the time I was overcome by a fresh dose of optimism – my partner Dan and I have both been fully vaccinated since mid-May, so this would be our ticket to freedom and my family’s holiday home on Spain’s Costa del Sol, which has lain empty for over a year.
While I’m lucky to be able to work from home and isolate (so in theory could travel somewhere on the amber list, insurance pending, at any time), Dan runs his own business – after what has been a turbulent and often traumatising year for the self employed, an additional 10 days away from work to quarantine, on top of the time already booked off for the holiday, is quite simply out of the question.
I was hopeful this speculation would soon be reality – Freedom Day was approaching in the UK and with so many colleagues and friends having enjoyed restriction-free foreign trips during the pandemic, surely it was time for our holiday stars to align with Government travel restrictions?
After weeks of speculation the day on which Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed that, from July 19, fully vaccinated could book an quarantine-free amber-list holiday was a joyous one. Within minutes of his announcement, I’d used refunded savings from our Croatia trip to book seats on a flight to Malaga, due to depart three weeks later. I was elated – finally it was happening and the last-minute approach was paying off. I remember reassuring Dan: “What could possibly go wrong in three weeks?” How naive of me.
My euphoric state didn’t last long. Once the initial excitement and Whatsapp thread of itinerary ideas, pictures of beaches we could visit with the friends who were joining us, and suggestions for top paella spots had quietened down, the realisation kicked in. There was a mountain of admin to climb, from testing to insurance to vaccine passports, before I reached my sun lounger.
First, I tackled insurance. At this stage, an hour or so after the announcement, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) was still advising against all non-essential travel to Spain. I telephoned Staysure, an alien move by a millennial like me, but I needed to make sure we were covered, for both Covid-related claims and travel against Foreign Office advice, with an actual person. This all came at a premium, of course.
I woke up to learn that a matter of hours after I’d spent a large portion of my lunch break on hold with our insurers, the FCDO had in fact lifted its advice against travel to Spain, so that premium policy was somewhat unnecessary. Sod’s law.
By chance I checked in with the married friends who were travelling with us, to check all their personal details – most notably that names on their passports matched those on their NHS record and vaccine certificate. They didn’t. The first, of many hurdles, we were set to face on route to the Costas.
Our friend’s NHS record was updated after a somewhat grovelling phonecall to the local medical centre and the weekend was generally stress-free – luckily I’m not a die-hard football fan. I signed up for alerts on Spanish restrictions from the Foreign Office and even began researching car hire. But we weren’t out of the woods. News that Spain’s Balearic Islands’ position on the green list was in jeopardy was cause of concern and proof of the ever-fluid restrictions. Could I hold my nerve?
A day earlier than expected the Transport Secretary announced changes to the Government’s travel light system. This was the last chance for Spain to go green before our trip – an unlikely prospect given the surging cases there. But the green list was somewhat redundant to us anyway, we were happy in the knowledge that from the following Monday (July 19) we’d be permitted to travel to both green- and amber-listed destinations without having to quarantine on our return.
However, in a hilariously ironic move Grant Shapps moved Croatia to the green list – “Guess what?” I texted our sailing group. “We could have gone on our original trip after all.” At this point, I reminded myself to laugh, in fear of crying.
I ended the week feeling positive, with less than a fortnight to go I could almost smell the intoxicating allure of gambas pil pil at my favourite Spanish restaurant. I spent my Friday evening booking our tests, one to be taken within 72 hours of our return to England and a second on day two back at home. During the process I tied myself in knots – double- and triple-checking I’d put in the details accurately, would be supplied with the correct documents and would have test results in time.
I tried to ignore news of nations, even those recently added to the green list, closing their borders to Britons – “Spanish businesses need us as much as we’re desperate to visit,” I affirmed.
A blow nobody was expecting hit – the Government announced that France was to be added to a new ‘amber plus’ list, forcing all travellers, including those who are immunised, into isolation on their arrival in the UK, due to concerns over the Beta variant, from July 19.
Was the Government trying to punish both holidaymakers, and travel journalists working the weekend shift? How dare we hope that foreign holidays would be able to take off this summer? I began to feel foolish for even thinking it was possible.
As the UK celebrated Freedom Day, I found myself searching for the definition of ‘holiday’– the result from the Cambridge Dictionary: a time when someone does not go to work or school but is free to do what they want, such as travel or relax.
Relax? I should be so lucky.
Instead, as the claxon sounded for the start of double-jabbed travel, I realised I’d most probably be spending my week in the sun constantly checking the news, reading case reports and refreshing Grant Shapps’ Twitter feed – would it feel like a holiday? No, it sounds worryingly like a normal day at my desk.
I woke up feeling sick with nerves, worried about what other bad news the morning’s headlines would bring. I was greeted by further reports that Spain would be next in line to be added to the ‘amber plus’ list, as cases of the Beta variant surge. The million dollar question: when?
My mind raced through every possible scenario: ‘What if we hold out we might get lucky?’ ‘What if we rearrange then find out we could have gone?’ ‘What if we go and the rules change while we’re there’ ‘What if the rules change before we go, but we’ve missed the deadline to change our flights?’
Booking a holiday in 2021 requires nerves of steel and I started to realise I’m just not cut out for it. I spent my lunch break in a hunch of panic and despair. Dan, seeing my anxiety, even suggested he might be able to isolate – but in reality that’s not worth the burden on his newly reopened business
Should we look to change our destination? I scoured the Government’s advice pages and realised we have the entire green and amber list to choose from, but we need to find a destination where there’s a low risk of ‘amber plus’ status or closed borders.
“Could Malta be an option?” I asked my scramble brain. It’s green, it’s open to vaccinated travellers and it wouldn’t cost us to change our flights – but we’d have to move quickly, we have less than 48 hours to make the most of Ryanair’s ‘zero flight change fee’ promotion.
With the clock ticking considering the hassle of switching to a totally different holiday, to a destination I’ve never visited before, is totally out of character. The admin race would begin again – contacting insurers to check we’re still covered, test providers to make sure they’re still valid and hunting for an Airbnb or hotel with a flexible cancellation policy, all whilst trying to explain to my dog sitter that our holiday plans are changing again – is it worth the headache?
At this rate, a stay at the local pampered-pooch kennels, with three meals a day, plenty of exercise and a spa treatment looks inviting.
A new day brings fresh perspective and a positive headline – changes to Spain’s rating might not be imminent. I see this as a sign to stick; to twist at this stage would drive me to delirium, plus my nightly trawl through case rates proved Malta’s own are also on the up.
If our gamble doesn’t pay off and Spain goes busting onto the ‘amber plus’ list, well, it sure as hell would make for entertaining reading.
The seven-day countdown has begun and with it news that restrictions in Andalusia are being tightened to curb the spread of rising infections. I trawl through local Spanish news sites to learn that a curfew (between 2am and 7am) is set to be imposed in Marbella and there are new capacity limits on indoor dining and bars across the region.
But I’m not overly panicked (for once), in fact there’s news that the mayor of Marbella, Ángeles Muñoz, is claiming the latest figures – 1,028 cases per 100,000 inhabitants – are false, due to the fact there are almost ‘triple’ the usual number of residents in the region during the summer – lowering the case rate to “probably around 300 or 400″ per 100,000, according to Muñoz. Eitherway, as a group of four the tightening rules (hopefully) won’t impact our plans, to dine outdoors, lounge by a pool and remain in relative seclusion.
My positive outlook is further bolstered by The Telegraph’s reader comments (leave your own below). Graham Butler shares that he read this diary while sitting on his hotel balcony in Marbella, overlooking the Mediterranean, having arrived yesterday. He reports no queues, no issues with social distancing and in fact more airport staff than passengers. In his words, travelling to Spain was “a piece of cake.” C Lawernce gives me further hope, after also finding herself “constantly on edge and in a heightened state of anxiety” she’s now at her holiday home on a Greek Island, reaping the rewards of this torture.
As upsetting as it is to hear, I’m somewhat comforted by the likes of Sue King, who has also been worn down by the experience of booking a foreign holiday – thousands are also going through the same ordeal. She writes: “I’ve given up on my longed for holiday to Kefalonia postponed from last year. I can’t take the stress of worrying about testing, traffic lights or isolating, as I’ve just started a new job. Booked a week in Yorkshire instead.”
With a week to go, I really hope it doesn’t come to that.
As the weekend approaches, Spain makes it into the headlines again – this time reporting, alongside Portugal, for almost 30 per cent of all cases linked to foreign travel. It’s a worrying statistic, but the numbers are comfortingly small (of the 38,237 people who returned from Spain in June, 0.7 per cent had Covid). But it does bring back worries of what happens if we test positive before our flight home? Our lengthy efforts to avoid quarantine back home in the UK will be for nothing, instead, we’ll face isolation in a foreign country. I convince myself it’s a risk we must take, and dig out the kitchen scales in order to weigh my work laptop, in case I’m forced to stay in Spain and log on remotely – how much of my measly 10kg cabin baggage allowance will it take up? Never did I think I’d see the day when I sacrifice bikinis for a MacBook.
In reality, this shouldn’t be top of my to-do list though, priorities include downloading our vaccine passports on the NHS app, registering our tests and filling out all the essential paperwork for the Spanish border officials. It feels as if we’re approaching the point of no return.