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I just took a two-week trip from Spain to the UK with my family – here’s what it was like, and what it cost

English Edition editor Simon Hunter recounts tales of passport-stamping, eerily deserted airports and extremely expensive PCR testing in order to reunite his children with their grandparents

A deserted Gatwick Airport departures lounge on April 8, 2021.
A deserted Gatwick Airport departures lounge on April 8, 2021.Simon Hunter (EL PAÍS)
Simon Hunter

[Please note, this is an article from April 2021 that we have reshared on our social media channels on December 31, 2021, as part of our list of most-read features of the year. The conditions for travel have changed since this blog post was published. Full details of the latest information can be found at the gov.uk website.]

My family and I just spent two weeks in the United Kingdom, so that my parents could see their two grandchildren. Now before we get into it, please spare me the outrage for having taken the trip. We’re all grown-ups, we know the risks, and we opted to travel anyway. We followed all of the rules and had to have four PCR tests over the space of the journey, so as safe as could be – plus my folks had their first dose of AstraZeneca a while ago now. And anyway, with all of Spain’s regions locked down, what else could we do?! We’re still bearing the scars of being locked down in our apartment last year with two kids under the age of six...

Before we left, me and the missus needed a clean coronavirus test to present at the UK border. Unlike in Spain, this can be an antigen test, which has the advantage of being cheaper – €45 – and the results come back very fast, meaning you have more of a margin in terms of getting it done before you fly.

One side note here – make sure you get your passport or ID number completely correct before you take one of these tests. As we were signing in to get ours, I left my wife alone for one minute and she managed to give a number on her passport to the receptionist that wasn’t her passport number but actually her DNI… A lot of frantic calls were required to sort out that snafu afterward.

Before you can fly to the UK you need to complete a passenger locator form for the UK government and you need to book your home testing

So, off to Madrid’s Barajas Airport we went. There were a surprising amount of people in the airport considering all the restrictions. And quite a few people not being allowed to check in to our AirEuropa flight due to not having the right documentation. Before you can fly to the UK you need to complete a passenger locator form for the UK government and you need to book and pay for your home testing: PCR kits will be dispatched so you can do a test on day two and day eight of your 10-day quarantine. Expect to be turned away at the airport if you can’t produce all the documents you need, including the negative coronavirus test result. I would also suggest taking them as a hard copy as well as on your cellphone.

Annoyingly the border police in Spain stamped my British passport on exit – under the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, this is not supposed to happen for residents.

Arrival at Gatwick was slightly surreal, first given the lack of travellers but also due to a huge number of armed police all over the place. Also, very surprising to see that the UK border officers do not wear masks – they’re just sat behind a plastic screen, which is pretty useless in terms of protection (according to the experts).

Also of particular note is that once in the UK border officers are responsible for everything: checking your passports, checking your PCR result and checking your passenger locator forms. Quite a tall order for the few staff that were there. We didn’t have to wait at all, but there have been horror stories recently of up to seven-hour delays at the border in Heathrow due to all the requirements (people arriving in the UK from red-list countries, for example, currently have to isolate in a hotel).

Once in England you can quarantine with family, and they are free to come and go from their home as they like. You cannot leave the house of course, and have to stay put until 10 days have passed and you got your day-eight PCR result back clean. The UK government called me and my wife every single day of the quarantine – which was particularly impressive – to check we were staying in quarantine, to enquire about the test results, and to give us information about Covid symptoms. You can also opt for the “test to release” scheme, which involves another test – and more cost – to get you out of quarantine slightly earlier.

The UK government called me and my wife every single day of the quarantine – which was particularly impressive – to check we were staying in quarantine

As for the home PCRs, the UK government has a series of suppliers for this – I randomly opted for one called DNA Workplace. You have to record a video of yourself taking the tests, and my six-year-old was also required to do them. (I really hope that the staff at DNA Workplace enjoyed the video of him firing snot out of his nose as I attempted to get the swab in there.)

Despite the difficulty of doing a PCR test on a small child and a reluctant wife, fortunately they were all valid and came back negative. DNA Workplace were particularly brilliant given the Easter weekend and actually sent a courier to our house on Good Friday to collect the samples to avoid delays with the postal system, and thus get us out of quarantine on day 10.

Passport stamping update – April 15, 2021

Since the publication of this article, the British Embassy in Madrid has responded to a request for confirmation as to whether UK nationals with residency in Spain should have their passports stamped when entering or leaving the country. A spokesperson for the British embassy said “UK nationals who hold a valid residence document (TIE or green EU residence certificate) will not need a visa, should not have their passport stamped or be subject to routine intentions questioning, nor be required to prove sufficient means of subsistence at the Schengen border. If you have had a stamp placed in your passport, this will be null and void once you are in Spain/the EU as your residence permit negates its effect. If you are resident in Spain, you should always travel with your valid passport and residence document. Showing your residence document should negate any stamp in your passport when entering or exiting the external Schengen Border in the future.”

On day 12, we had to go get our PCR tests for our return, again for me, my wife and my six-year-old. At this point, it’s probably time to talk about the cost. This was a hugely expensive trip, with all of the testing coming in at about €1,400 all in all. If things stay like this, for now, travel is going to be the preserve of only those who can afford it. My six-year-old had to do all tests apart from the one before we flew to England. My three-year-old was exempt, as are all children under the age of six. But if he had been a bit older, the cost would have been more like €1,800 in testing for a family of four. (I have since been reliably informed that we could have opted for a cheaper, quicker LAMP test for return to Spain – I wish I’d known that before...)

Gatwick was very weird on our return journey. The check-in area and departures lounge were almost completely deserted, and again there was strict examination of your documents before you can check in. The requirement that seemed to catch most people out was another UK government one: it’s currently against the law to fly out of the UK apart from a series of exceptions (ours was “Ending a temporary visit [Non-UK resident]”), and you must complete a form specifying what your reason for travel is at risk of a hefty fine should the information be false.

If this situation continues, and the requirements remain so costly, the days of hopping back and forth between European countries are going to be on hold

Everything was pored over before we could check in – I had to present my passport and TIE Spanish residency card – and there were even armed police at the entrance to security checking again that you were eligible to travel and had filled out the necessary forms.

Once through security, it was eery in Gatwick – everything shut and just a handful of travelers. My wife said it was dystopian and it really was... just another of these weird scenes that have become normal sights during the pandemic.

It’s worth pointing out that the behavior of the other passengers was exemplary, apart from a few masks slipping down from time to time. That’s with the exception of one woman in the check-in line, who refused to put her mask on when I asked her to, and her even more moronic younger companion who actually took his off given their collective outrage at my request that they follow the rules. As luck (or misfortune) would have it he was sat right behind me on the plane, still with his mask off, and pretended he couldn’t hear me when I demanded he put it on. Eventually a member of the cabin crew had to come over and sort him out. At this stage of the pandemic I really can’t understand why people can’t just be civil and follow the rules on masks…

Back in the capital

On our return to Madrid, they tried to stamp my passport again, even though I’d presented it along with my Spanish TIE residency card. The officer said that they will be stamping them in the future as it is obligatory, which could be problematic for long-term residents, and is not what the Spanish authorities are supposed to be doing, according to the British Embassy in Madrid. I am fortunate enough to have an Irish passport too, so in the future it might be better to travel using that.

Once we were through the border, in Barajas they have a completely separate line for passport control and the health checks. They scan the QR code you get when you complete Spain’s passenger locator form, and then a separate team of healthcare staff had a very long hard look at our PCR test results, and made sure that all the details tallied up with our passports, and so on. But of course that’s it – no quarantine, no follow-up, no nothing. Relatively lax, perhaps, given the fears over the spread of the more-contagious strain of the coronavirus that was first discovered in England.

As a family, we’ve been very lucky to have not lost any income during the pandemic, and my parents were also kind enough to help out with the cost of the trip. But obviously, if this situation continues, and the requirements remain so costly, the days of hopping back and forth between European countries are going to be on hold.

Ah! And before I finally sign off, what on Earth is happening to the weather in England?! One day I was barbecuing in the sun and the next it was snowing. Perhaps our next trip can wait until August 2022 and some slightly more clement weather...

100% can relate

Posted by Simon Hunter on Wednesday, April 7, 2021

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