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Flying from the UK to Spain (and back) during the pandemic – getting through the red tape

I recently flew from Manchester to Malaga in order to visit the luxury resort of Sotogrande and, given that many people are travelling overseas again for the first time in a long time, I thought it might be helpful to document my experience of all the ‘red tape’ in case it helps others who are making a similar journey. What did I need? Spain was on the UK‘s amber list of countries which meant I needed: – to have proof that I was double-jabbed (or to have had a negative PCR test with 72 hours of travel) – to have completed the SpainTravelHealth (SptH) form at spth.gob.es – to have a D2 test on my return (and have ordered this prior to leaving the UK) Note that from the 4th October, the UK’s amber list is being scrapped in favour of just a red and green list, so double-check on the official websites for your precise requirements when you come to travel. Also note that exact requirements may be different for Spanish islands and/or for entry via Gibraltar, so just be mindful of that. Preparing for travel In theory, preparing for my trip should have been relatively straightforward. Sadly, that wasn’t quite the case. Weeks before I travelled, I downloaded the NHS app (different to the NHS’ Track and Trace app) to check my COVID status. It clearly showed that I was double-jabbed and thankfully – as you will read later – I had the foresight to download the proof of both my vaccinations. As my departure drew nearer, I used the Ryanair app to do online check-in and visited the SpTH site to complete the necessary health form (which has to be done within 24 hours of travel). Unfortuantely, the Ryanair app wasn’t working. I could see my booking but, when I went to click on ‘check-in’, I kept getting the message “Ooops, error! Oh dear: An error has occurred. Have another go.” I tried visiting the Ryanair website and it said it was down for maintenance. I tried telephoning Ryanair but that got me nowhere. I messaged @askryanair on Twitter and got no response but, seeing other people’s messages to the same handle, could see that I was not alone in experiencing difficulties. Since I couldn’t yet check in, I thought I might as well fill out the SpTH. Only I couldn’t do that because, one of the things I needed for the completion of that form, was my seat number. It wouldn’t let me complete the form without this, but I wasn’t able to obtain it with Ryanair’s app and website not working. I guess I couldn’t have just entered my seat as ‘1A’ but didn’t want to get into bother for providing incorrect information. Oh well, I thought… I’ll double-check my COVID status is still in order. I went on to the app and saw that it had had a slight re-design. I clicked on ‘Get your COVID pass’ and then ‘Travel’ and it said “No COVID-19 records found”. I did some Googling and feared that my double vaccination status had been removed because I had recently caught COVID. Although I had completed my 10 days of isolation and was free to travel, my jabs were not showing. I called 119 and was immediaetly asked “Have you had COVID recently?” to which I answered “yes”. And I was told I’d have to wait 5 days for my COVID status to be sent in the post. That was no good – I was due to travel in less than 48 hours! I explained that I had previously downloaded a copy of my COVID status and asked if I could use that. She checked the expiry date of that status with me, and said I would be fine to use this. Phew – at least that was one thing that was sorted. Ordering the D2 test was fairly problem-free but does need doing before you leave. I ordered mine from Randox Health for £48 but there are many other providers out there. Just check that they are on the government’s list of recommended providers. Thankfully, the Ryanair app came back to life and I was able to check in. I did this for my return flight also, just in case the app should go down again. This then allowed me to complete the SpTH form. I had problems with this on the website for some unknown reason, but was able to complete it from my phone. All in all, the experience was a little more stressful than I think it should have been but I got there in the end. Top tip: if you can – and this won’t always be possible for everyone – get all your paperwork together as soon as you can. If you need a COVID status mailed to you, and you don’t have 5 days to spare, you could be in trouble. Personally, although I hate the idea of printing everything off, I would recommend it – particularly at the moment – in case apps are not working, your phone runs out of battery, or whatever. The day of my outward journey to Spain For what it’s worth, Ryanair never looked at my paperwork prior to boarding. They just wrote “DOCS OK” with someone’s initials on my boarding pass, and asked if I had completed the SpTH form (I said ‘yes’), but didn’t actually look at my COVID status. (This was different to someone I spoke to in Departures who was travelling wih Ryanair to Rome – he had his COVID status checked by the check-in staff – so there seemed to be some inconsistencies there.) The outward journey was seamless and stress-free. For the most part, there was good observance of mask wearing at both airports (Manchester and Malaga), with the odd exception (but you never can be sure if that is for medical reasons). On arrival in Spain, my paperwork was checked more closely. After passing through passport control, those arriving were asked to get the SpTH QR code ready before joining the queue to go through. This was checked, and I was asked for proof of my COVID status which I was able to present in printed form. Staff were armed with forehead temperature detectors but these weren’t being used on everyone (and weren’t used on me), perhaps only being used by those showing a slightly higher-than-normal temperature on infra-read cameras, I’m not sure. As soon as I had passed through, I was sent a text message that read:
COVID-19 information telephone number of your Autonomous Community of destination, Andalucia : 900400061 / 955545060. Health emergencies: 112.
I also received an email that read:
Welcome to Spain, If during your stay in our country you have symptoms compatible with COVID-19 (fever, cough or shortness of breath), stay in your accommodation / place of residence and telephone the health services of the autonomous community that you have indicated in the health control form, according to your given address of residence in Spain: Andalucía, phone: 900400061 / 955545060 Thank you
The day of my return journey to the UK For my return journey, I had to fill out a Passenger Locator Form (PLF) on the government website which was straightforward but for which you need to probably set aside 10 minutes to complete. I also needed to have a negative antigen (lateral flow) test in order to travel. I opted to do this at Malaga Airport. Sadly, this proved to be not so straightforward. The queue to get this test was not so bad, but getting the result proved – for me, at least – to be rather stressful and problematic. I filled out a form, and my details were put on to their computer system. I was shown the screen to ensure that they had the correct email address for me (which they did). I went into another room to have the test – a swab of one nostril only (no swab of the tonsils) – and was told I would receive the results by email in 20 minutes. I then proceeded to check in at the Ryanair gate, but my lateral flow test result did not come through on my phone. I waited much longer than 20 minutes, but still nothing. In the end, the girl on the desk allowed me to check my luggage in and scanned my passport and boarding pass, so that I could continue through security (I think assuming that there was just a slight delay and by the time I was due to board, the test result would have definitely come through). So on I continued.. passport control was no problem and I joined the queue to board, approximately 40 minutes before my flight was due to depart (and by now probably an hour after my test). But still nothing. I started to worry a little. The boarding gate was opened and, sure enough, I was told that I couldn’t get on the plane until the test result had come though. I checked my emails – still nothing. I checked my spam – nothing. I telephoned the number on the piece of paper I was given by the test centre but just got a recorded message saying ‘the number had not been assigned’. I scanned the QR code on the same paperwork, entered my passport number and test reference code, and got a message that seemed to suggest this auto-generated an email to me with my test result. But when I looked at my emails – still nothing. At this point, with most passengers having now boarded, panic was starting to set in. I asked the boarding gate staff what happens if the result isn’t sent and they said that under no circumstances would I be able to board (no surprise there). They said they had never encountered anything like this before. I felt helpless – I couldn’t seemingly speak to anyone at the testing centre. One of the ladies on the gate tried to help me – she too was unable to call them and tried entering the details into her phone. Then, all of a sudden, she said “Is this your test result?” and showed her iPhone screen with my details on it which she allowed me to photograph. She had entered the details and it had downloaded a file to her phone. I have recently switched to Android and later found my test under ‘Files’ on my phone (rather than send an email, it had dropped a file there when I entered my details via their QR code but I’d like to think I’m relatively IT literate and yet it hadn’t made this obvious at all). So, with 5-10 minutes to spare, I had the missing piece to my rather panicked jigsaw… my passport, my boarding pass, my PLF and now, thankfully, my negative COVID test. Phew!!! To this day, I still never received the COVID test results by email as the airport testing centre promised. The D2 test afer my return I did the required D2 test and returned it via a specialist Randox Health postbox on the southbound side of Killington service station on the M6 motorway. Just two days later, I was getting calls from NHS Test & Trace, telling me that I had tested positive and needed to self-isolate. I explained that I had just done a negative test prior to my return from Spain and that I had tested positive a few weeks previously. I was advised to call the NHS COVID helpline on 119 and eventually informed that I would have immunity for 28 days from the time of my first symptoms but that I could continue to test positive for anything up to 90 days. Based on this information, and the fact that I had no new symptoms, I was advised that I didn’t need to self-isolate but that I would need to contact the British Embassy in London in order to get this latest ‘positive’ test cleared from my record. They sent me a text with a number to call. It wasn’t until after I hung up that it occurred to me there isn’t a British Embassy in London – embassies are generally located in capital cities of other countries. The number I had been given was, in fact, for the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. On the third time of calling them (I got cut off twice), I was told that they weren’t the people to speak to and that I should contact the Home Office’s dedicated COVID line. I did this on the day NHS Test & Trace contacted me (a Saturday) but received a recorded message that told me the limes were closed until Monday. I continued to receive repeated calls from Test & Trace over the weekend. I explained my situation and they said that they would make a note to try to remove it from my records. I called the Home Office line on the Monday and, after more than 20 minutes listening to muzak, was told that they couldn’t help and to call 119, sending me in a complete loop back to where I’d started! I called 119 again and, after another 20 minutes, was advised to email dhsctesttrace.customerfeedbackteam@nhs.net to get my COVID pass / exemption from isolation. I received a response the next day, littered with grammatical errors so not instilling me with huge confidence, that essentially said I had been given misinformation by the NHS and that I could have another strain of the virus. I was asked to provide the number I called from when calling 119, the date and time I called, and the name of the call handler I spoke to. I provided the information (except for the call handler name which I did not know) and requested that they send me a recording of the call, to cover my back since fines for not complying with the rules can vary between £1,000 and £10,000. They never replied. Conclusion Now that I have resumed travelling internationally, and despite all the problems I encountered, I would feel more confident about going through the process again, especially now that rules are being relaxed slightly. That said, issues can arise so it’s best to be as prepared as you can, as early as you can, to avoid potential pitfalls. Have you travelled internationally recently? Where from and to… and how was the experience for you?

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is Editor of A Luxury Travel Blog and has worked in the travel industry for more than 30 years. He is Winner of the Innovations in Travel ‘Best Travel Influencer’ Award from WIRED magazine. In addition to other awards, the blog has also been voted “one of the world’s best travel blogs” and “best for luxury” by The Daily Telegraph.

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    1. It’s not as daunting as you might first fear! Even despite all the problems I had with my experience (I think I was unlucky), I would feel quite confident next time around.

  1. I think we’re only a few days away from a switch to lateral flow tests so it should be that travelling gets a little less stressful in the next month or so.

    1. I’m not sure what I think of the reliability of lateral flow tests. I have had a conclusive positive test from the many I have done, and yet I have done two PCR tests (each at around the same time as I was doing lateral flow tests) and both came back positive.

  2. The government should learn that they must have systems that work and an objective of reducing red tape. If not they are likely to have an even further reduced travel and tourism industry making an ever dwindling contribution to GDP and HMRC revenues.

    1. I have to say I don’t envy any government in handling the COVID crisis. That said, there certainly need to be some robust measures in place to prevent misinformation from being given out… particularly, if you take my case, when I was being told I didn’t need to self-isolate, but seemingly that was incorrect. Things like that shouldn’t be allowed to happen, but I do imagine it’s quite a challenge getting all the systems correctly set up and running as effectively as they should.

    1. Don’t forget that the rules change from today, with the abolishment of the green and amber lists (there’s a red list only), so things are a little easier now.

  3. Having to travel during the pandemic is indeed a bit of a hassle, but I’ve done it several times now on several routes between and in Africa, Europe and Asia. What bothers me the most is the lack of clear information in one centralised place. It shouldn’t be that hard to create a website telling you exactly what you need to have and do when stating your point of departure and point of arrival. Then again, having worked in the travel industry for several years now I know it isn’t always as straight forward.

    1. I’m glad to hear your trips sound like they have been relatively incident free. A website such as that would certainly be handy, but I suspect would be a bit of a headache to keep up to date.

  4. You do well not be too phased about traveling again given the stumbling blocks you encountered. I’m sure there will be teething issues with all of this, but it sure does put you on edge when you know your plans could change drastically despite well-intentioned efforts.

    1. I think once you’ve been through it once, you realise it’s not so bad and, so long as you prepare as best you can, everything *should* be fine. I do feel I was particularly unlucky with the stumbling blocks that I was presented with – I’d like to think I wouldn’t have the same issues next time.

  5. Gosh what a nightmare and so much stress to have to go through for travelling, they were the days when going abroad/ holidays were a fun exciting happy time and now it stresses every on out.
    I’m glad you got it all sorted eventually!, after such a chaotic time!.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with everyone.

  6. It has not helped older people/pensioners having to get QR codes, fill in online locator forms and other online information because not all pensioners or younger people are able to understand it all,or even have the latest mobile phones to have QR codes sent to them, or have I ternet knowledge, but the government wants this to happen so that we don’t want to travel abroad anymore.

    There should be more help for people to be able to fill all this in on paper rather than online, but we are now forced into being robots of the future!.

    1. A very valid point. It must be difficult for older people who are not technology-savvy but still want to travel. It is easy to forget that there are still many people out there that did not grow up in the era of the internet. Learning IT skills later in life can be a challenge for people, just as learning a new language can be more difficult as we get older.

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