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Travelling from Spain back to the UK in times of COVID-19 – a personal account

DENNIE PASION BREXIT TRAVEL BLOG  © Michelle Chaplow

by guest blogger Dennie Pasion

Dennie Pasion is an English hair and make-up artist who has lived in the US, Dubai and South Africa, and has worked for Vogue, Elle, Vanity Fair and The Face. She recently moved back to the UK, and came to Andalucia to enjoy some winter sun in December. But earlier this month, she realised that, due to Brexit, that she had to return home within 90 days.

From my own personal experience, as someone who regularly travels around the world for work, I cannot say that global travel is exciting currently. In fact, it is full of ambiguity, fear and anxiety. For those of us who are compelled to return to our country of origin during a pandemic due to post-Brexit administrative issues, travelling has become a chore and a test of our patience.

We find ourselves isolated in a world where the only way to communicate is often online with automated customer service assistants. Very little human contact is on offer throughout the process of booking a flight or a COVID-19 test ...or so I thought.

I am one of those irritating people who is uncomfortable with technology, having spent many years distancing myself and living almost off-grid, in the final, dying moments of a simple life in a traditional analogue society. I was a loyal customer of Flight Centre, who organised all my international travel for me: its reliable, professional service took away any stress from the experience.

Unfortunately, this time I had no support back-up, only a mandatory departure deadline to leave Spain, and a week to plan my journey to the UK.

Preparation: booking flight and train journey

Although I wanted to fly to Newcastle, British Airways was the only airline with a direct flight from Malaga to the UK - London Heathrow, to be precise. I could not countenance a journey involving five stops and 59 hours travel time to save a few pounds, so I booked it. The next morning, I realised that the card payment for the flight had not registered, so I had to book again - and was shocked to discover that the ticket price had almost tripled over night. When I tried to reach out to British Airways, my anxiety kicked in. I was too afraid to lose a seat on the only flight, so I confirmed my booking and noted down the reference number.

COVID-19 tests

In February this year, the UK government announced that all passengers arriving must have not just one negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours before arrival in the UK, but also a confirmation receipt for a further two tests to be carried out at their place of quarantine in the UK (on day 2 and day 8). The form for these tests was filled in, and the fee paid, online.

My Spanish-speaking friend booked a COVID-19 test appointment for me at a hospital in Marbella – and this is when the human element comes in, thankfully.

When I arrived at the clinic in Marbella, the receptionist swiped and wiped everything. The doctor was waiting to guide me into the cubicle; the nose and throat swabs were efficient and painless; the receptionist then called my friend to say that I was ready to be picked up. I was given a slip with a reference number to check the results within 24 hours. The whole experience felt like receiving a hug. You remember a hug, don’t you?

When the time came to call for the result, I found I had lost the slip. After a frantic but fruitless search, I was resigned to having to do another test. I rang the hospital, and they said there was no problem: a copy of the negative test result was printed for me to pick up from reception, accompanied by reassuring smiles. This human touch provided a simple solution to what could have been a highly stressful situation.

Next, I booked a train direct from Kings Cross station in London to Durham, confident that four hours was enough time to get to the station from Heathrow Airport.

Malaga Airport
Malaga Airport

I took a taxi to arrive at Malaga Airport at 10.30, in plenty of time for my 13.15 flight. There was queue outside the terminal, as each passenger entering the building had to show documentation. A further queue inside wrapped around the pillars, as we waited to be checked in at a single desk. Only one other flight was scheduled to leave, to Casablanca, with few passengers checking in; the rest of the building was closed. The silence was overwhelming, except for the intermittent shuffle of bags and the whimpering of a few dogs in carriers. We waited like sheep.

Many people did not have the correct documentation and there were issues with luggage, due to travel locator forms not having been filled in until test results had been received. I had to check my baggage in at the desk, incurring extra costs, as I think did many others.

After passing through Security, I proceeded to Passport Control, where my passport was stamped with the all-important ‘Salida’ stamp, now that the UK is no longer part of the EU.

The flight from Malaga to London Heathrow

At the gate we waited quietly to board and were welcomed with a hand wipe. The masked crew and well-behaved passengers sat for a further hour as more passengers continued to board.

The flight was comfortable and painless, but with no food provided. (I was desperate for a cup of tea, but did not actually have one until boarding the train at 19.15 at Kings Cross station in London.)

Arrival at Heathrow Airport

The surprise at Heathrow was the long queue at Immigration, as the limited staff could not handle all the arriving passengers’ paperwork, so the line didn’t move. One kind security guard passed out bottles of water, but I didn’t take one in case I needed to use the bathroom and therefore lose my spot. Time passed and I began to panic - if I missed the train, I would have to quarantine in a hotel in London. I explained my situation to the kind guard, not expecting much help, but she lifted the barrier and guided me to the front with a smile, and within five minutes I was through Immigration.

The baggage claim hall was empty, with only two carousels operating. I was later asked if you must now go through the Green or Red channel, as opposed the EU Blue, but I don’t remember. I couldn’t see any stuff at Customs.  

Heathrow Express train to Paddington station in London

I had to run with my trolley loaded with oversized luggage to catch the Heathrow Express to Paddington. The guard dragged the bags through the doors before they snapped shut. As the train rattled along towards central London, I became aware that the carriage was empty, and that I hadn’t passed a single person in Terminal 5.

Meanwhile my Heathrow Express train came to a halt in Paddington on a platform that was vacant and dark, without any people or luggage trolleys. Luckily I found a parked trolley and made my way to the exit gate from the platform.

“I’m sorry but I don’t have a ticket,” I told the gate to the attendant “I wanted to pay on board, but I didn’t come across anyone taking fares.”

He looked at me for a moment and then looked around. In a flash, the gate opened for me to exit. “Don’t worry about it, darlin’,” said the human being with ocean eyes.

Kings Cross Station

When my taxi arrived at Kings Cross, the driver was nervous about me leaving my cumbersome bags with him, when once again I could not find a trolley. It was now just a few minutes until my train was due to leave. I ran into the station and approached a security guard, who advised me to go back out and wait with my bags whilst he went to find a trolley - which he did!

The guard was concerned that I might not be able to catch a direct train to Durham, so he wheeled my cart over to meet the station master. Kevin was someone you want in your life, a go-to person with a friendly, reassuring smile. Kevin the station master got me on that train to Durham, and even called ahead to his colleague to meet me. It was so comforting to know that someone would be there to help me off the train with my luggage. Kevin was a warm, caring, helpful and professional human being.

My friend Angela had been waiting for me at Kings Cross, but alas I could not access WiFi on the Heathrow Express to update her. I had been looking forward to catching up over a cafe latte with her before boarding the train. Little did I know that she had been waiting on the empty, cold, dimly lit station concourse with a flask of tea and home-baked cakes that she had made especially, knowing that nothing would be open and there would not be anywhere to sit. Sadly, she left before I arrived.

Super clean train
Super clean train

LNER Train from Paddington Station in London to Durham

Most of the LNER trains to Newcastle stop at Durham, my destination. The carriage, dressed in clean Virgin-branded red upholstery, was impressive. There was another passenger and at first, I felt uneasy. Crowds are anonymous, but singular people look suspicious in an empty carriage, especially with the announcement about the state of emergency every two minutes, “Be alert and report anything that does not look quite right...see it, say it, and we will sort it.”

I was sad that I had missed Angela; who can say when we will meet again.   I was even more saddened discovering that she had brought tea and cake.

The train is an excellent way to travel during these times - no checks, no removing shoes or throwing away precious face creams. The railways have regained their charm with their excellent personal service.

The English countryside is such a joy, especially before the crowds come back and I will continue to explore the island using this comfortable, convenient form of transport. Only one request...... more refreshment trolleys please!

My journey from Marbella to Durham, normally quite simple, was an adventure full of emotion, connections, and experiences, reminding me of the days when I use to travel frequently, memories that are layered with human interactions, not encounters with robots.

Covid UK home test kit
Covid UK home test kit

Costs

One-way flight from Newcastle to Malaga with Ryanair on 18 Dec 2020 plus a COVID-19 test = £268.

One-way flight from Malaga to London Heathrow with BA on 6 March 2021, Taxi from Paddington to Kings Cross, LNER train from Kings Cross to Durham, and PCR test in Marbella plus two in UK. = £ 1200.

Paperwork

PCR test at Clinica Ochoa Marbella – negative result printed.
UK Travel Locator Form completed online and printed.
Prepaid pack of two UK COVID self-tests, receipt printed.
BA flight boarding pass completed online and printed.
London to Durham train ticket bought online at Trainline.com and printed.

Advice

Allow three hours for airport check-in.
Take you own snacks, very little open.

Blog published on 17 March 2021