I’ve never found it harder to resist booking a trip than over the last few days. The UK vaccine rollout continues apace; I’m finally old enough to be booked in and if all goes according to plan, I will be fully protected (as much as any vaccine can do so) by mid-June. Of course currently, international leisure travel is banned here in the UK, but each day, my social media feeds and inbox bring news of more countries that will permit entry for vaccinated travellers without the need for quarantine. Everyone, it seems, is competing to have us back. So why haven’t I booked?
One thing I learnt last year was that predicting what the situation with travel will be in the weeks and months ahead is fraught with uncertainty. After the Icelandic government altered their quarantine arrangements, I had to reschedule my trip in a hurry, dropping everything to leave almost a month ahead of my planned departure date.
The information about current entry requirements is fairly easy to obtain – my go-to is the FCDO travel advice which is a UK government site updated regularly. From this, I have a tentative shortlist of countries to which I might travel later in 2021. But as coronavirus case numbers change, so too can national policies. In other words, just because somewhere is saying they’re welcoming us now doesn’t mean their borders will still be open in the summer.
Inbound quarantine restrictions are also a factor. The UK government currently have a “red list” of countries which trigger a compulsory inbound quarantine for ten days on arrival in England. Whether that takes place at a hotel or in your own home depends on where you have travelled and the route you take to reach England:
“If you’re travelling to England you must either quarantine in the place you’re staying or in a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days because of coronavirus (COVID-19). What you need to do depends on where you travel in the 10 days before you arrive in England.”
Costs for the managed hotel option are significant and certainly a deterrent- as intended. I’m sure those who have already booked are hopeful, maybe even confident, that their destination won’t appear on the list. At some point, as yet unspecified, this requirement will be lifted, but with case rates still worryingly high in some parts of the world, there are no guarantees.
The requirement for a PCR test (or two) is an added complication. There’s a lot of variation between countries. Some offer testing on arrival with a requirement to quarantine or at least limit activities until a negative result is received. Others require tests to be carried out in advance, usually within a 72 hour window. A positive result would scupper your holiday at the last minute, as it’s hard to find an insurance policy which would cover cancellation in those circumstances.
Even if it’s negative, it could add a considerable sum to the cost of your holiday. In the UK, such tests should be done privately and are quite expensive. Abroad, the cost of testing varies a lot. Last year, I paid around £50 for two tests in Iceland but nothing for the test on arrival in Madeira. It’s worth doing thorough research in advance to avoid getting a bill you weren’t expecting. Test to release on the inbound leg currently adds another cost.
Some countries, tour operators and airlines have indicated they’ll require guests to be fully vaccinated before they are eligible to travel. In some cases, such as Iceland, this removes the need to take a PCR test so long as you carry official proof. Being vaccinated isn’t likely to be a problem for the over 50s, as we’re not permitted to travel internationally until at least May 17th. But younger travellers might need to wait until autumn until they receive that crucial second dose to qualify. Vaccine passports are also probably going to be a requirement, but the precise nature of the document, how to apply and how much it will cost is still being worked out. As with many things during the pandemic, governments are having to play catch up as the situation evolves.
The holiday itself
As numbers continue to spike in countries across the world, quite rightly governments are reacting with local or national lockdowns. When that happens, visitor attractions are an early casualty. Some trips would be worse affected by this than others: the trips I made last year to Iceland and to Madeira largely focused on walking outdoor trails. Aside from dining, much of what I did wouldn’t have been affected by the closure of museums and other indoor attractions.
Hit the jackpot, of course, and you get to experience popular places without the crowds. I visited St Petersburg just before things really kicked off last March and toured its breathtaking palaces with no waiting in line and no jostling to see their exhibits. That was an extraordinarily special thing. But it’s a gamble; if you’ve always wanted to visit a particular attraction but it’s closed, ask yourself whether that would ruin the trip. Had I been in Funchal and missed out on the famous wicker toboggan ride, I’d have been disappointed; thankfully they were able to operate.
The industry perspective
The impact of the global pandemic has been horrendous for tourism-driven companies. Even the most profitable airlines have taken a huge hit and there are no guarantees that routes or even airlines will be around. Make a booking and you do your bit to help to save the industry, but if it all goes belly-up you potentially won’t see your hard-earned cash again. If you do plan to pay upfront, check your insurance policy and make sure you’re happy with the cover it provides.
But many companies are offering flexible bookings, and we know a lot more about who did the right thing in 2020 when it came to refunds thanks to this useful survey by the travel team at Which? If your gamble pays off you can win big. Hotels have slashed their rates, meaning you can enjoy luxury on a modest budget, while outside of peak season, the cheap fares we’ve come to expect from airlines are there for the taking. However, in my experience, last minute flights in 2020 were pretty affordable and accommodation was widely available even on the day, so if you’re not too fussed about where you go and where you stay, there’s an argument for waiting.
But a word of caution: the vaccine rollout might change that for 2021 as costs are always influenced by supply and demand. If more Brits feel confident to travel abroad this summer, the prices will reflect that increase. But last March we couldn’t have imagined a winter booking could be risky, so who knows what the situation will be like later this year?
The changing rules
The Icelandic government has acted quickly and effectively throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Regulations have changed fast to address changes in the infection rate and if you’re planning a holiday, you need to do so on a flexible basis to adapt your trip to those varying parameters.
When I booked my flights I planned to visit Iceland in September; I’d already had to switch my flights from Gatwick to Luton after easyJet altered their schedules. In June, when I made those arrangements, it was on the understanding that I would need to either quarantine for 14 days or take a single COVID test on arrival and then, so long as my result was negative, continue with my holiday. The test was originally quite expensive but was later reduced to about £50. In the grand scheme of things that wasn’t excessive.
At the end of July, the rules were changed. A second test 4-6 days later would now be required at no extra charge. While testing in the capital was easy to arrange, my itinerary placed me on the other side of the country. The regional health care centres that had been set up had shorter hours and as a consequence, I would need to be a little more flexible. Adding an extra level of inconvenience was the fact that I was due to fly out on a Monday which meant if I couldn’t arrange a test on Day 4, I’d have no way of being tested on day 5 or 6 as weekend appointments weren’t available.
Then late on Friday August 14th came the announcement that from August 19th, all arriving passengers would be given the choice of either a 14 day quarantine or taking a COVID test, quarantining for 5 days and then taking a second test. At the time it was unclear just what the restrictions on movement for those five days would look like. By the time the government website was likely to be updated, I’d probably be stuck with it, or be forced to cancel.
I decided to bring my trip forward to depart in mid-August instead of September and thus avoid the need to quarantine. A few hours on the computer that weekend and a slightly condensed itinerary (to reduce the amount of time in Reykjavik) left me with a ten day trip during which I could pretty much cover the same ground as before.
What was the testing process like?
Passengers on our early morning easyJet flight were invited to disembark row by row. Instead of the usual jockeying for position, this staggered approach meant that there was no queuing in the terminal building. Each person, continuing to wear the mask they had worn during the flight, was called in turn to one of a bank of cubicles for their test.
I was invited to sit and to remove my mask for the test to be administered. The throat swab was done first and was relatively comfortable. The second, a swab to the top of the nose, was more intrusive and made my eyes water. But like the vaccinations for tropical diseases I’ve had in the past, such medical procedures are just part and parcel of travel.
Awaiting the result
In all I was off the plane and out to the rental car centre in well under an hour. The rental was ready and with paperwork filled in and a socially distanced handover, I was soon on my way. I’d made the decision to avoid Reykjavik this time. Though the number of coronavirus cases in Iceland has been very small, the majority have, not unsurprisingly, been in the capital region. Instead, I headed east. It was within the regulations to stop at a supermarket, though visitors at that time were asked to keep clear of restaurants and other busy places until their test result came through. In most respects my holiday continued as normal and I was free to book tours.
I drove on for a socially distanced hike at Seljalandsfoss waterfall. I’d been there on my wedding day in 2014 but it wasn’t practical to visit the almost concealed falls nearby. This site would usually be busy in August as it is one of the few waterfalls you can walk behind. However, this year numbers have been considerably lower. My negative test result came through by text around 4 hours after I had been tested, which was a relief. Despite having no symptoms and being cautious at home, there was still that tiny chance of being asymptomatic.
The problematic second test
Four days into my trip I’d reached the tiny village of Borgarfjörður Eystri down a gravel road and over a mountain pass in the East Fjords. The nearest test centre was at Egilsstaðir, in a temporary structure beside the main supermarket, but as I’d planned to stay the next night in Seyðisfjörður, another village in the same region, that wasn’t a big deal. The test centre was open mornings only, so I could call in and get tested, spend part of the day hiking in Stuðlagil canyon and then head out to Seyðisfjörður by mid-afternoon.
There was just one small spanner in the works: the Icelandic authorities suggested it wasn’t possible to take the second test until you had received an official barcode. This would come through late afternoon. By that time, the Egilsstaðir centre would be closed and by the time the next closest testing centre opened, it would be Monday afternoon. By then, I would be somewhere on the road beyond the centre in Akureyri and the remote West Fjords region.
A face to face solution
I decided the best thing to do would be to go to Egilsstaðir anyway and discuss it with them face to face. By then, four days and one hour had elapsed since my first test at Keflavik. At first, I was told it wasn’t possible to test without a barcode. When I explained that the following Wednesday (day 9) would be the next time I’d be close enough to a test centre to avoid a 6 hour round trip drive, they had a look on the computer to see if the system would allow a test to be registered. Fortunately, it could and I was identified via my passport number rather than the missing barcode. Incidentally that barcode eventually came through about 5pm.
Holidaying almost as normal
Mostly I’d chosen ensuite hotel rooms for this trip, whereas in normal circumstances I’d have probably opted for guesthouses with shared bathrooms to save money. I decided I would feel more comfortable being the only person to use the shower and toilet facilities and considered the extra cost worth the additional peace of mind.
Different hotels operated slightly different policies for breakfasts; in many cases the breakfast buffet was still put out, but with separate sittings and fewer tables to spread guests as far as possible. Masks were not necessary in public areas, but the use of hand sanitiser and sometimes also gloves was encouraged. I chose to eat picnic lunches most of the time, though the lobster rolls from the van at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon were too tempting to pass up.
The sunny and surprisingly warm weather meant I could also eat al fresco most evenings on terraces or outdoor patios. I ate in just a couple of times, once in a restaurant that had just two tables. The absence of North American tourists coupled with the presence of Spanish and Italian tourists meant that when eating early (as is my usual preference), places were largely empty. Given that hand sanitiser was absolutely everywhere (even in remote long drop toilets on nature reserves) and staff were enforcing social distancing, I felt safe all the time.
Sightseeing in a pandemic
One of the big advantages of choosing Iceland over a city break destination is that most of the visitor attractions are out in the countryside and away from people. I did have a couple of disappointments: the Elf School in Reykjavik has closed for the duration of the pandemic and a Eurovision-themed walking tour I’d planned to do in Húsavík was not operating. I also found that several places had shorter than expected seasons, such as the Keldur turf houses, now part of a farm museum. But the ride I booked with Glacier Horses operated as normal, the horses enabling social distancing with no need for masks.
I did take two boat trips. The first, a Zodiac excursion out onto Jökulsárlón, required the use of weatherproof gear and lifejackets to be worn throughout the trip. The latter were disinfected after each boatload of passengers returned but I didn’t see similar measures being taken with the suits. In contrast, on the whale watching trip in Húsavík, the company made it clear before payment was taken that no additional gear would be provided. Lifejackets were stored on board and accessible to passengers but no one wore one. As it was relatively mild and calm weather, I was fine in my own winter jacket and waterproof trousers – in fact, I didn’t even need those out of the wind.
I also couldn’t resist the geothermal baths that Iceland is so famous for. On previous trips I’d visited the Blue Lagoon but this time it didn’t fit in with my plans. Instead, I enjoyed visits to the Mývatn Nature Baths and also GeoSea in Húsavík. The latter in particular blew me away with its breathtaking location overlooking Skjálfandi Bay and a setting sun reflected in both the baths and the sea.
Would I do it again?
As someone who loves to plan trips meticulously – a hang up from travelling as a teacher when trips had to be scheduled in peak season – it was quite a big deal to be so spontaneous. Iceland once again didn’t disappoint, and to be able to travel in such glorious summer weather minus the usual crowds was a huge privilege.
To keep abreast with current visitor regulations and procedures, visit covid.is where you’ll find more details of testing, what you can and cannot do while in quarantine and up to date case numbers by region.