After travelling to Madeira with Tui earlier this week, TTG’s special projects editor Madeleine Barber reports on the new holiday travel landscape – and how changes have affected traveller sentiment.
With stringent Covid-19 testing and stricter health and safety rules, there’s no doubt holiday travel in 2021 feels different and comes with new challenges.
But exactly how much of a hassle is it to meet the requirements?
I flew to the Portuguese island of Madeira with Tui on Monday (17 May), the day the government allowed international leisure travel to resume, to explore what Brits can expect from package holidays this summer.
So is the promise of sun, sea and sand enough to make holidays worth the extra effort?
The first – and perhaps largest – hurdle clients need to conquer is testing. Tui is leading the way in simplifying this process by offering its customers subsidised test packages from Chronomics.
A £20pp Green package comprises a lateral flow test and a PCR test to meet the UK government’s requirements for a pre-departure test and another test within two days of returning from a green list destination.
Tui’s Green+ package costs £60pp and also includes the test(s) required by the customer’s destination which for me, as I’m not vaccinated against Covid-19 and was heading to Madeira, was a Fit to Fly PCR test to be taken up to 72 hours prior to departure.
The operator organised for my Fit to Fly and lateral flow tests to arrive at my home three days before travel.
I was told to complete the former and return it to the lab immediately, while the latter was to be packed and completed 48 hours before the flight home.
I was relieved to receive my negative Fit to Fly test result just 15 hours after submitting the samples, and after speaking to holidaymakers staying at my hotel, Riu Palace Madeira, it seemed many shared the same relief.
“The testing process wasn’t that bad, it’s just the thought of the result not coming on time, but ours did come on time,” said Tonette and Lee from Leicester. “We had to drop it off [at a Tui store] in Birmingham, and we got the results back the next day.”
Another couple I spoke to, who were expecting to return their tests via Royal Mail, were taken by surprise when they discovered they had to drive two-and-a-half hours to a Tui store to drop off the samples.
A third couple, Kelly and Simon from Manchester, also found organising Covid-19 testing demanding but ultimately, thanks to the holiday as a whole, worthwhile.
“It’s stressful because we didn’t know how to do anything,” said Kelly. “We spent a significant amount of time researching what we had to do before we go, what we have to do while we’re here and what we have to do when we get home.
"I’m not sure it would be [worth it] for everybody, but for us, it is.”
Before arriving on the Portuguese island of Madeira, all travellers are required to register at madeirasafe.com. Once registered, they must upload a certificate detailing their negative PCR test result (once obtained from the testing company) and retrieve their accompanying QR code. Any arrivals that haven’t completed this process will be denied entry at the border.
At check-in on return, Tui asks that customers provide proof of their negative lateral flow test (a photo must be uploaded to the Chronomics website in exchange for a certificate) alongside a completed Passenger Locator Form, which must feature a reference number for the Day 2 PCR test yet to be taken.
A few teething problems were to be expected with the technology involved in this testing process given it was in its first few days of operation, but fixes are in progress and Tui promises customers a seamless process going forwards.
Over the past year we’ve become familiar with and, dare I say, accepting of, the social distancing, hand sanitising and face mask-wearing required in public spaces. At Gatwick and on the Tui flight, all the expected protocols were in place and I felt perfectly comfortable in the company of fellow travellers.
“A lot of friends said [being on the first flight] was brave, but we felt very safe in [Manchester] airport, on the plane and here too,” said Kelly. “In terms of safety, I’ve not felt once that anything was an issue.”
“You have that security that if you’re travelling you know everyone else has tested negative and [the testing is] quite stringent; we’re not worried,” added Simon.
On the morning of 17 May, Gatwick airport was by no means busy, but nonetheless there were plenty of holidaymakers setting out on their family holidays and couples getaways. Departure boards showed 27 destinations on the green and amber lists, from Funchal to Kingston, Jamaica. The low number of passengers allowed me to get through security at speed and boarding ran seamlessly.
While it’s not feasible to maintain social distancing at 37,000 feet, like Simon, I felt reassured in the knowledge passengers had all tested negative for Covid-19 just hours before jumping onboard.
Onboard with @TUIUK, passengers are required to wear face masks, while the aircraft is regularly disinfected. Social distancing may not be feasible at 37,000 feet, but knowing your fellow 128 travellers tested negative for Covid-19 hours before travel is reassuring @TTGMedia pic.twitter.com/F52wrTSN3P— Madeleine Barber (@MadeleineLilyB) May 17, 2021
In-destination, at Riu Palace Madeira, everyone was respectful of the rule dictating guests must wear face coverings in all public areas except the pool. Others, such as following a one-way system and using one tong per person at the breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet were not being accepted as easily, although temperature checks on arrival and knowing all visitors were either fully vaccinated or PCR test-approved kept any potential worries at bay. The resort welcomed 110 British tourists on Monday and is set to double that number by next week.
“I feel absolutely comfortable,” said Lee, with Tonette adding she’d encourage other Brits to holiday abroad: “Don’t be concerned, people are taking precautions, just do it!”
While some all-inclusive holidaymakers might be loath to leave the resort, those who do so will be met with warm welcomes. Madeira’s vaccine roll-out continues apace (they’re currently vaccinating those aged 50-60) and the government has recently started prioritising citizens who work in tourism and hospitality. Paired with the island’s low number of Covid cases, this means Madeira is operating its activities, restaurants and hotels as normal.
The only caveat is a 10pm curfew on serving alcohol in bars, restaurants and resorts. This seems a small price to pay for a summer holiday in the destination and hasn’t even slightly deterred the Brits I spoke to.
“We were supposed to go to Cornwall next week and it cost just £200 more to come to Madeira so it was a no-brainer!” said Tonette.
An intensive care nurse from South Wales named Nicola advised travellers to proceed, but with caution: “Now everything is in place, if you want to go, go, just be sensible.
“I would advise everyone to get a jab, even if they don’t want it, and tell them not to worry,” she added.
Tui is currently organising all sorts of excursions from its resorts in Madeira, including whale watching, canyoning and rides on the cable car and wicker toboggan run, so customers don’t need to worry about reduced activities or services.
One concern some guests did have was regarding the UK government’s green watch list and its effect on their future holidays.
“If there was a country that was on the watch list and we were not sure whether it would turn [amber] while we’re there, that would probably put us off going,” said Simon, adding: “But if it’s on the green list, and you’ve got the money for testing, crack on!”
This seemed to be the overarching sentiment from travellers staying at Riu Palace Madeira this week. Worries about catching Covid-19 had been left at home, with many saying they felt safer in Madeira than in the UK. And while the testing requirements add an unwanted complication to holiday travel, guests are willing to overlook this if it means they get their long-awaited summer holiday.
Lee summed this up nicely. “It was a bit of a faff with everything we had to do online but once you get through that it’s plain sailing – it’s really worth it,” he said.
And I am inclined to agree. The new processes that need to be completed are the kinds of processes that after you’ve done them once become second nature. Making that extra effort is only really extra effort the first time you make it, and at the end of it, you’re rewarded with all the excitement, rest and relaxation a holiday brings. So would I book a holiday to a green list destination this summer despite the stringent Covid-19 testing and stricter health and safety rules? Absolutely.
Madeleine Barber is TTG's special projects editor. She travelled to Madeira with Tui on one of the first flights out of the UK after the government lifted its restrictions on international leisure travel this week.