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.
The spread of coronavirus continues to dominate the news headlines and my thoughts and sympathies are with those families affected directly. As a writer who makes her living producing articles about tourist destinations, I’m also watching with interest as to how it might impact on travel. The situation is changing so fast it is hard to keep up.
To date, there have been lockdowns and quarantines in locations across the world. Various countries are refusing entry to nationals of a range of countries, and an increasing number are including UK passport holders on that list as the situation worsens here. I was supposed to visit Bergamo in northern Italy in March. Ryanair cancelled my flight with just over two weeks’ notice and I have received a full refund.
So how can you ensure that, as the virus spreads, your upcoming travel plans won’t be affected? In short, you can’t. But you can try to minimise the impact of coronavirus on your travel plans.
Keep abreast of changes and book last minute
Right now, the spread of the virus is hard to predict and as such, booking well ahead isn’t the way to go. Keep a close eye on where cases have been reported and book last minute for a place that seems unaffected. Though even if you do so, as the number of cases increases, you can’t rule out being placed in quarantine unexpectedly, as those held in the Costa Adeje Palace hotel in Tenerife (and many others since) have found:
Choose your accommodation carefully
Putting yourself in crowded places is perhaps a greater risk than if you opt for a smaller hotel or self-catering apartment. However, if you are quarantined, eating in replaces eating out and you would need to ensure you could cater for yourself in the place you’ve chosen as your base if you’re self-catering or opt for room-only. In terms of comfort levels, I couldn’t help comparing those confined to inside cabins on the Diamond Princess while it was quarantined in Japan with those waving at news crews from their balconies in Tenerife. At least the latter had access to fresh air and a view whenever they wanted. Nevertheless, ask yourself, would you be better off staying home than risking being stranded for an indefinite period.
Check your travel insurance
Policies vary, but check the small print of your travel insurance to ensure that it has adequate cover for cancellations and disrupted travel arrangements. Some businesses have stopped selling travel insurance altogether and others have altered the terms of their policies. Read the terms and coverage carefully; ask for advice or clarification if unsure.
Booking a package with a firm that is ATOL-protected might help. Some operators, desperate to drum up business, are offering free date changes if the situation changes before your departure date, which brings peace of mind to some extent. Travelling with a package operator would also mean if you couldn’t fly home as expected, there would be someone to help take care of your arrangements.
If you choose to travel to a place that has been designated by the FCO as a no-go, your insurance will be invalid – that’s if you can find an airline that will take you there, of course. Simply deciding that you don’t fancy taking a risk is, unfortunately, not a reason to get your money back, though some airlines are been more helpful than others when it comes to rearranging or rerouting flight bookings. More on your rights here, in this informative BBC roundup.
If you are dead set on going, it’s sensible to follow the advice of health professionals about hand-washing routines and pack some anti-bacterial wipes or hand sanitiser. Some sources suggest using wipes to clean shared surfaces such as aeroplane or train tray tables. Liquid or foam hand sanitiser would have the advantage of not leaving you with potentially contaminated wipes to get rid of. According to the WHO, plain old soap and water is likely to be just as effective. If you do use wipes or tissues, remember to dispose of them responsibly, such as in a closed bin. Read advice from a trusted medical source and don’t take the word of bloggers and travel writers – we know travel, but we are not medical professionals.
You may also feel calmer wearing a mask though reports of their efficacy are disputed. Wherever you are planning to travel, think about what might happen if you are quarantined. If you are on regular medication, ensure you take additional supplies to cover an extended stay. If that’s not possible, it’s wise to make sure you know the local brand name of the drug you take. Take a look at this useful website which lists brand names of drugs in different countries.
Take the opportunity to enjoy a staycation
If you’re concerned about the likelihood of getting stranded while travelling, perhaps it’s the perfect time to enjoy a staycation. Take the opportunity to explore the area in which you live with fresh eyes. Take a walk somewhere you’ve never been, visit that museum that’s been on your wishlist for ages or book an activity or experience such as a spa treatment, steam train day out or windsurfing lesson. That just might be the most stress-free way to have a holiday at the moment.
If increasing numbers of people choose not to book an international vacation, then those small-scale independent tourism businesses in your local area might be relying on your support to stay afloat. Reports such as these about France and New Zealand explain why.
Remember, do your research and make sure you are comfortable with the risks you are taking. It’s your responsibility to look after yourself, so whatever the type of holiday you’re considering, think it through before you book and make the decision that’s right for you.
Updated 12 March 2020