When planning travel, it’s become increasingly simple to find guidelines and rules posted on official government websites and spelled out in blogs and news articles. However, the reality of what it looks like to travel can be sort of lost in the shuffle. Most people are reporting general information with few reporting personal experiences. So if you’re considering UK travel, here is what it’s like to travel to there with all their Covid restrictions.
Are you in or are you out?
The ability to travel into the UK depends on your vaccination status and where you’re coming from. Countries that the UK determines to have a high incidence of Covid, low vaccination rates, and high rates of dangerous variants are considered red countries. If you live in or have been in a red country for the past 14 days, your vaccination status is somewhat less important. That’s because quarantine is mandatory if you’re entering from a red country, regardless of whether or not you’re fully vaccinated.
The mandatory government quarantine is nasty business in the UK because you’re forced to book a government-approved quarantine hotel, regardless of whether or not you would have someone you could stay with during your visit. Of course, the cost is a whopping £2,285, which is entirely limiting for anyone who doesn’t have the extra cash or 11 extra vacation days laying around.
If you’re arriving from an approved country but not vaccinated, you still have to quarantine for 10 days, but you’re allowed to quarantine in the place you’re staying.
Requirements to visit from an approved country if vaccinated
We arrived fully vaccinated from an approved country, so that is the experience I will detail. At the time, you still needed a pre-arrival test, which has thankfully been scrapped as of this writing. Nonetheless, there’s still a bit of planning required to travel to the UK.
First, you have to determine if your vaccine is accepted in the UK to be considered fully vaccinated. That means you had to be vaccinated in one of the approved countries like the EU or the US. Even if you got Pfizer in Mexico, you’re still functionally considered unvaccinated to the UK.
If you’ve determined that you are vaccinated to their liking, you have to book a day 2 test and fill out a passenger locator form before you arrive. In that order. That’s because the passenger locator form requires a confirmation code that you obtain once you’ve booked and paid for your day 2 test. As of now, the test can be a PCR or antigen test, which helps alleviate the cost.
You can book a test through the government or through approved third party labs. I didn’t find that there was any cost savings from going through a third party. Many labs advertise low low prices but only offer those rates to nurses or people covered by the UK’s NHS insurance. The hassle of going through a list of dozens of labs was not worth the $20 I would have ended up saving if I did find a cheaper option.
Once you’ve booked your test and you have a confirmation number, you can fill in your passenger locator form. This must be done in the 48 hours before you travel, so it doesn’t make much sense to book your test far in advance. Even though we booked it just two days before arriving, our test kits were at our hotel when we arrived. The passenger locator form is like a visa application and requires detailed information about where you’ve been and where you’re going for the first 10 days of your travel. So if you’re staying in various hotels, prepare to spend 30 minutes filling it out.
Flying into the UK
Once you have all your paperwork proving you’ve jumped through all their hoops, you have to have this paperwork checked. We had everything checked at our departing airport, and then again at our connecting destination when we were flying directly into the UK. I’ve read a lot of reports about UK airports like Heathrow getting tangled at arrivals. But our experience was that the largest checkpoint was in the EU at the airport in Amsterdam on the way out of the EU and into the UK.
All UK-bound flights were routed to a fake gate, so there was a massive line of people heading to Leeds, London, Glasgow, etc. that were all waiting at the same gate to have their documents verified. Then we were verbally told the real gate our flight was departing out of. Despite having only an hour and a half between flights, we were able to clear the line, but I imagine this is something that sometimes makes people miss their flight.
Presumably because we had already been pre-vetted before arriving in Glasgow, we went through passport control as usual and had no other checks.
Taking the day 2 test
In all fairness, despite adding an annoying hassle (and cost) to our travel, the day 2 test process was absolutely seamless. Our at-home test kit packages were already at the hotel when we arrived. We waited until the second day and closely followed the instructions inside for how to administer, package, and ship our test. The kit comes with pre-paid postage so you just have to go online to find the nearest priority post box to ship your test.
We received the results via email less than 24 hours later. Unlike some testing labs which treat your test results like banking information and require a hundred ways of signing in and verifying your identity, the email from the NHS confirmed our negative results with the first sentence in the email. I can’t imagine what would have happened if we had tested positive. I certainly rather find out my vacation is ruined before I arrive at my destination and not three days later, but alas, such is their process.
Covid restrictions in the UK
Despite the fact that all major restrictions have been dropped (at least for the moment), the UK doesn’t let you forget that there’s a pandemic. In addition to giving the government every detail of your trip before you arrive via the passenger locator form, you also have to check in and out of venues you visit using a QR code. Bars and restaurants vary on their adherence to this requirement, but some places won’t let you enter until you’ve checked in on NHS. I have to admit, I didn’t once remember to check out of anywhere. But we also weren’t ever contacted because someone tested positive where we were.
The effort is meant to keep close tabs on the virus and make it easier to trace contacts who may have come in contact with an infected person. But it would probably make a lot of “freedom” fighters’ heads spin. So if you’re one of those people, maybe skip traveling to the UK for now.