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Since the start of summer when Europe started to open up (before the Government closed it down again with their non-sensical, months late quarantine restrictions!), many of our travel industry colleagues were sending us videos and feedback of their experiences in destinations around the Med.
So when John persuaded me to take a break from the relentless fight for survival that life as a travel agent has become, we decided to head for the safety of a quiet Greek island and experience first hand what the airport, flight and holiday experience is like in the post Covid world we are now living in …
Firstly, my choice of where to go and who to fly with …. Having had a very small handful of clients travel to the Greek islands in August, we already knew about the requirements from Greek authorities, completing the relevant PLF forms in advance of travel.
I booked us Club Europe with BA (using Avios points, bonus!) to Preveza. Having heard some awful stories about some of the low cost carriers flights with unruly passengers not adhering to rules and some package tour operators having to cancel flight routes at the last minute, I worked on the thinking that even if Lefkada went onto the ‘quarantine on return’ list, or that flight were to be cancelled, BA would let us move to another destination…
I know not everyone has been a fan of British Airways in the past, and (like most airlines!) they have ‘had their moments’. However, it did feel ‘reassuringly British’ and I have nothing but praise for the airside staff and cabin crew during our journey. The whole experience was painless!
We drove to Heathrow (LHR) the night before and found the Sofitel to be almost ‘uncomfortable’ in the enforced sterile environment. The rooms are stripped of any ‘comforts’ such as room service or mini bar contents and surfaces all bare and plastic, rugs, cushions and such like no longer exist. Even the tea and coffee was reduced to tiny plastic servings and paper cups…
We had reserved a table for dinner on the Saturday night and arrived late. Having previously had a great meal at Sofitel airport hotels we were looking forward to relaxing. Unfortunately, again due to Covid regulations, the restaurant looked and felt like a ‘staff canteen’. Bright lights everywhere, kitchen open to view and noisy, bare plastic tables with no tablecloths or place settings.
Limited menus (which were one time use paper sheets) and they were keen to process us and close, which took any relaxing enjoyment out of the equation! The worst part of the hotel experience was that it didn’t cost any less than before for the reduced level of service .. funny that.
To travel to Greece at the moment, all passengers must complete a detailed PLF form in advance of travel (we helped our clients with this, so if you are still thinking of travelling this year, don’t worry!). However, it’s slightly concerning that the PDF authorisation and QR code are not emailed to you until midnight (Greek time) the night before departure …. So at 10 pm UK time I was hovering over the phone to see (thankfully) that we did have the authorisation…
An easy walk from the Sofitel across a walkway into Terminal 5 and although all but one of the ‘outside’ doors to the departures hall is closed, there were plenty of staff and guidelines on hand.
Hand sanitisers are everywhere and of course everyone is required to wear a mask. This can be a face covering of cloth / scarf, it doesn’t have to be single use!
There are temperature check trials in place (Note: Heathrow have been asking Government for MONTHS now to let them carry out these pre flight checks and for some reason Govt is not keen to help, despite the fact that many countries world wide have been carrying out ‘rapid tests’ both pre departure (to ensure ‘sterile flights) and on arrival (to negate having to quarantine on return) … again the UK has been left behind … but I digress into a rant!
So, we both had our temperature checked and despite working up a sweat walking for 15 minutes from the hotel, amazingly it was normal. On to the BA Club check in … completely empty! Very sad to see. Staff were friendly and efficient, our QR codes were checked and bags checked in. Security was equally quiet and speedy, so we were soon airside.
In the public areas some seats are blocked off to maintain social distancing. The shops and most of the restaurants and bars are open as usual.
We went into the BA Club lounge, which was very efficient. Plenty of space, table service only and all tables well spaced. All booths and tables have a QR code which you scan onto your phone and make your menu choice on their App/website. Drinks and food arrived immediately, no waiting at all and all tables regularly cleaned.
The only thing I would comment on is the lack of choice, especially of hot food. For breakfast there was only a bacon roll or veggie version. As the chef is visible and at a cooking station, I would hope that they will soon include cooked to order options.
Departing the lounge, there were trolleys stacked high with plenty of bottled water, so no excuse for getting dehydrated!
Once at the gate, it was a little crowded as there wasn’t much room to sit and several gates close to each other were boarding at the same time. However, we were called 3 or 4 rows at a time, and from the back to the front. (This of course is common sense and should be implemented as standard procedure to avoid the common ‘rugby scrum’ of boarding and disembarking planes!). We also had our QR codes checked again for entry to Greece.
Once on board, I was surprised to find that contrary to past Club Europe flights and having just two seats either side of the aisle (which the seat map still shows), with more leg room and bigger seats, the ‘cabin’ was simply the front of the plane with the same configuration of 3 – 3 and same pitch size to economy. However, the middle seats are not sold, so as two people travelling together you have the row of 3 seats between you.
The only difference is that you get an upgraded refreshment service, bigger luggage allowance, priority check in and use of the BA lounge… something to consider if you usually travel business class.
All passengers were given sealed hand sanitiser as we boarded the aircraft. Once on board the crew gave a thorough briefing, not just the usual safety announcements but explaining what is different to the current flight experience. Masks must be worn at all times (except when eating or drinking). There is no queuing in the aisles for the toilets. You are advised to check if the toilet light is green before leaving your seat.
Once at cruising altitude the drinks service was quick and friendly with a good selection of refreshments. In club we were given a pre packed light meal which consisted of a choice of sandwich with a small salad and a chocolate mousse & bottle of water. Slightly disappointing that both outbound and return were the same and would like to see in future the introduction of something other than bread!
However – we were on our way back to Greece and finally I was excited! I’ve never been so happy to be on a plane in my life. Sitting back with a glass of fizz and the latest Mma Ramotswe novel in front of me, I hardly noticed I was wearing a mask!
After 3 hours of smooth flying, we descended along the Adriatic passing the islands around Croatia, Albania and finally as I saw Corfu I knew we were about to land! Plus Mags had been tracking my flight ... so I received a 'Kalimera' message as soon as I turned my phone back on with this flight map!
Preveza (Aktion) airport is on the Greek mainland and serves the neighbouring destinations as well as the island of Lefkada. The runway is quite short and right on the sea, so a little hairy to descend quickly!
Once safely on the ground, the aircraft was disembarked the same way as it was boarded, this time from the front to the back. So we were amongst the first down the steps, a short walk across the tarmac to the airport building and straight into the arrival queue.
Despite the fact that the flight was full and there were only two immigration desks open, everyone was processed very quickly without fuss. Passports and QR codes checked again, another few steps to the luggage belt, bags there within minutes, out into the fresh air to remove masks and be met by our local rep!
Maria from CV Villas helped connect us with our hire car and explained the directions to us (I had already been in touch with her prior to our departure and she was always quickly available via What’s App for any queries during our stay). Unfortunately, the causeway which links Lefkada island to the mainland was closed (below), so there was a detour of around 15 minutes which took us around the outside of the harbour and lagoons between Preveza region and Lefkada island.
Just before we reached Lefkada I was excited to see a flock of flamingos feeding on pink looking estuary water. (Those of you who know of my love of flamingos and that I have an outdoor bar called the Pink Flamingo, will appreciate my excitement, lol!!).
CV Villas provided very comprehensive driving directions, the only part that was difficult to navigate was the impromptu diversion around Lefkada town, but we managed to get on the right road! However, I was glad I had taken with me a large scale road map from the office (we do usually provide our clients with good road maps in advance if they are hiring cars on holiday). Maria had map envy when she visited us at the villa the following morning!
Once on the coast road we continued to Nidri and down to Vlicho where we turned off to the Geni Peninsula and our villa which was located in the tiny ‘hamlet’ of Geni in Vlicho Bay.
During the week we spent exploring Lefkada and Meganisi (both by boat and car) we found empty beaches, empty tavernas & many closed up hotels, apartments and tavernas. The locals shared a common theme with us as tourism everywhere of course has suffered this year due to Covid restrictions. The only indication that anything had happened at all was that we were required to wear face coverings when entering shops. In tavernas only the staff wore masks. In Lefkada town, the ‘café culture’ we experienced on our last day was of a typical sunny Sunday morning anywhere in the world – friends and families enjoying morning coffee and brunch outside cafes and bars along the waterfront…
(See separate blog about Lefkada & Meganisi here)
Maria kindly reminded me about the requirement to complete the online locator form for UK immigration in good time before our flight home … of course as a travel professional I was previously aware of this, but as I thought, the cumbersome online questionnaire takes forever to complete (especially as everyone needs to complete a separate form!) and asks the same questions over and again …
As only a small number of specific islands within Greece currently require quarantine on return to the UK (and this does not include Lefkada) I was surprised to be asked questions relating to where I would be staying in the UK and if we were able to self isolate … as usual, any instructions from our Government have contradicted themselves many times over!
Eventually, having completed (twice) the complicated locator form and received the receipt which we were to have ready to show at the UK border, I had a very large glass of wine!
24 hours before our return flight I received an email from BA saying the flight was busy and asking us to check our hand luggage into the hold … cheek! However, this rang alarm bells as the last time this happened (returning from Kefalonia a few years ago), we were almost bumped off the flight due to a similar message! So I checked us in online and made sure we got to the airport in good time..
Of course on Sunday afternoon when we dropped off the car at the airport and lugged our (very heavy!) bags into the terminal building it was about 33 degrees and the masks did feel very uncomfortable. We made it to the front of the check in and although it took a while for the desks to actually open, once through security there was air conditioning on the other side, phew!
Preveza is a tiny airport and as such there was no lounge and very limited, cramped seating at the gate with one tiny café which ran out of everything in no time.
Boarding this time was not quite as orderly, but people were still well behaved! We pushed back about 20 minutes late (not sure why as we appeared to be the only aircraft on the tarmac).
Again, the crew were friendly, the service efficient and the flight mainly smooth. Coming into Heathrow we were reminded again of security, immigration and mask wearing procedures and once on the ground, disembarked 3 rows at a time from the front to the back.
Inside terminal 5, the shuttle train had a very limited service so most of our flight decided to walk instead of wait 10 minutes for the train. This resulted in a VERY long walk through the terminal to the passport control area.
As I expected (as all my travel buddies and clients alike have witnessed since March) there was no social distancing in the passport queues, no checking of passports and most importantly, we were shoulder to shoulder with people who could have been on a flight from a destination which DOES require two weeks quarantine on entry to the UK even though we did not. This is a disgrace ... but no surprise.
Border Force have no way of knowing (as they don’t ask!) where you have just come from or offer any advice through signage / leaflets or otherwise as to the procedure relating to the specific destination you have arrived from …. Complete madness.
So we sailed through the electronic gates (you just pull down your mask for the electronic recognition), walked straight into the baggage re-claim hall (again where there were luggage belts next to each other some from isolation required destinations and others from isolation not required locations …
Bags retrieved, we walked through the ‘green’ door into the arrivals hall, picked up a snack from M&S and walked back to the Sofitel car park to find the car …
So, in summary, would I recommend travelling by air at the moment? YES, I definitely would!
It is desperately sad to see the suffering within the world of travel and tourism, companies collapsing daily and people in destinations such as the Greek islands who rely on tourists have had a whole summer season wiped out.
At Travel With Jules we have seen our entire year of 2020 bookings cancelled (with the except of just 5 families who managed to get to Greece in August), and mainly these are due to the Governments confusing quarantine and travel advice…
We have to believe that some time (hopefully sooner rather than later) the blanket travel ban will be removed and freedom of movement can return. Many countries around the world are already successfully using rapid testing on departure which creates a ‘sterile flight’ and in some cases they also test on arrival.
Why the UK is always last to the party is anyone’s guess but one thing is for sure, as soon as we are able to travel the world again the flood gates will open!
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