Following the easing of travel restrictions from the UK to some European countries in July 2020, and with the timing of where we were in our adoption process, my husband and I made a last minute decision to book a trip to Spain (between 18-25 July). I am being specific with the dates as the UK Government changed its travel advice to Spain on July 26th and I want that to be clear.
How we felt before travelling abroad
I have been very wary of people and despite having booked some UK trips for this Summer, I had no intention of flying anywhere. But with a potential change in our adoption process (which could change things pretty quickly), and with some friends having travelled to Spain, we decided that a week at Finca Cortesin (my favourite hotel in the world) would be the perfect place to unlock (my current favourite post lockdown expression).
A week before our trip to Spain, we spent 3 days away in the Cotswolds, less than 90 minutes from our house, and our stay at the Daylesford Cottages at the Wild Rabbit and some lovely yoga and pilates classes at the outdoor tippee at the Bamford Haybarn Spa (not open for treatments then) prepared me for being able to ‘see more people’.
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I made some very public statements that I would be staying in the UK for the whole Summer, but during lockdown, in all honesty, there was only one place we wanted to return to – and when we deemed it was safe to do so, I did not even think twice.
What we needed to do prior to departing
Spain requires all visitors to complete a form up to 24 hours prior to arrival. This form was quite simple and was emailed to us by the airline (and can be found here).
The health protocols required to visit Spain were quite straightforward: they would like to know where you have been, where you are staying in Spain, how to contact you if a local outbreak occurs and how you are feeling (and if you have been with anyone with Covid). We were sent a QR code which we were asked to have ready to be scanned on arrival.
Our Heathrow airport experience
On our trip to Malaga, we departed from London Heathrow Airport. Our flight was originally scheduled from Gatwick but BA is now only operating from Heathrow which was beneficial to us.
We arrived 2 hours before the flight, expecting a quiet airport experience (as evidenced by many others on social media). Well, we had quite the surprise as we got to terminal 5! Never ever have I seen the terminal so busy in my life – and never ever did I have to queue for an hour at the First Wing. Worth watching the Instagram highlights as video speaks louder than words or a still image.
Everyone was very calm and social distancing was maintained (aided by the luggage trolleys, of course).
Masks have to be worn at Heathrow Airport at all times.
Once we got through to the First Wing area, things were back to normal. Each group of travellers checked in individually as per normal. Those travelling to Italy had their temperatures checked.
Security was slow – only one of the First Wing belts was open, which was a shame as it could have been more pleasant. We were told to take shoes off (which is never normal in the UK) and I felt that walking barefoot was even more dangerous than shoes on, but what do I know? Wear socks.
There were plenty of hand sanitiser stations.
The BA First Lounge Experience
The lounges at Heathrow had reopened a week or so before and despite the number of people using the First Wing, the First lounge (for BA Gold Cardholders, Oneworld Emerald) was surprisingly quiet.
The way it operated changed significantly – there was no buffet and no self service of any type.
Service at the BA Heathrow First Lounge has been historically poor (namely when compare to Gatwick) and we were very pleasantly surprised by how the online ordering system worked, and how quickly things were brought to us.
There was plenty of space for everyone and perspex dividers in between seats for protection and hand sanitiser was widely available.
Shopping and Dining at Heathrow T5
All I can tell you is that everything was open and shops had signs saying that only X number of people were allowed in at one time.
With the time we spent at check in, we barely had time to have breakfast at the lounge, let alone shop. I fully intended to, but there was no time.
A number of readers had asked if Pret was open and it was – with queues around the corner. So allow time, just in case.
Boarding the plane
Seats by the boarding area are not all available in order to allow for social distancing. BA changed the boarding system so it is done by seat row from the back (and not by group numbers), and despite it being a good idea, it was confusing. Why? Because the screens did not relay that same information and people just didn’t know what rows were being called.
I will say that everyone was trying to social distance at the gate and when they joined the queue and everyone was quiet and calm. That helped things a lot.
We were seated in row 1 so were one of the last to board – and did get a bit of traffic on the jetty but again fellow passengers did try to social distance.
Our flight to Malaga
I was a bit apprehensive about the flight and purposely did not plan to eat or drink as I did not want to use the loos.
First things first – unlike some airlines, BA is not blocking the middle seat in economy, which throws away any notion of social distancing if you are flying solo. If you’d like an empty seat, the only way to do so is to book business class. Simple as that.
As you board the plane (by seat rows, from back to front), you are now given a plastic bag with an antibacterial wipe and some hand sanitiser gel.
All passengers and crew have to wear masks at all times (except when eating) and various announcements were made throughout the flight.
What is different than flying BC (before Covid)? In economy, BA now gives you a bag with a bottle of water and some snacks and in business class you receive a box with a sandwich, dessert and some water. An almost normal drinks service is now available in business class except that there is no ice or lemon (because we all know it is affected by Covid. Not). BA also uses plastic glasses now in economy – all this waste is quite unbelievable).
One of the most asked questions was if you can use the toilets onboard. The answer is of course you can, but you are asked to keep an eye on the light and only get up when it turns green so that you do not queue down the aisle (or galley). Again, being in Club Europe pays as it is a smaller cabin (although ours on both flights was 13 rows), but it all worked well.
I felt that there was a great spirit of ‘we are in this together’ and everyone wanted to make it work. Maybe I am having a romantic view of the whole thing – I got a little bit emotional when the captain said he was so happy to be flying again and a little bit more when I heard the familiar ‘doors to manual and cross check’.
Arrival at Malaga Airport
When we landed (ahead of schedule which was a nice touch), we were greeted with the longest immigration queue I have ever seen in Malaga airport – due to social distancing. It took around 20 minutes to get through passport control and when we got there, they did not scan the passports at all.
Following that, we had a secondary check which had no queue and involved a temperature check and the scan of our QR code.
There was clear signage about social distancing in Spain (1.5 metres) but not of masks – but it was widely reported that masks in Spain were non negotiable and there was that.
We took a taxi to our hotel in Malaga which was very easy to do, and both the driver and us had to wear masks.
We hired a car after our stay in Malaga so we would avoid taxis (which was our preference). Avis worked very well from Malaga Train Station and we then dropped off at Malaga Airport also without any issues.
Wearing masks in Spain
The current regulations in Spain state that you have to wear masks at all times except when you are in your room/house or private car, when eating or drinking, swimming or sunbathing. At all other times when in public, you need to wear a mask. Not ifs or buts.
The level of compliance was 99% and we saw this being policed in Malaga on the seafront promenade and in the town centre later that evening.
Needless to say, everyone who was working – at restaurants, at the car rental, at the hotel, in each shop, EVERYWHERE had to wear a mask.
And do you know what? It felt incredibly reassuring and safe. I felt this let people social distance a little bit less at times but 90% of times, it was perfectly ok.
When we were at the beach in Malaga (we spent 2 days in Malaga at the Gran Hotel Miramar before heading to Finca Cortesin), we saw public health officials walking around the beach (back and forth) and ensuring people were wearing masks when they were going on beach walks and also that there was a clear path by the sea for people to walk (without beach towels). These officials also checked for social distancing.
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Which masks to get?
At home in the UK we had been wearing cotton reusable masks (with a washable filter) and I packed 4 disposable masks for the plane (for both of us for both journeys).
In Spain, I couldn’t help but notice that most people (90%) were wearing disposable masks during the day and after 24 hours, it was clear why: heat, sweat and sunscreen do not mix well.
Finca Cortesin, where we stayed for 6 days, gave us a KN95 mask daily (or more if we wanted but we felt one was absolutely fine) and we really liked them (as much as one can ‘like’ a mask). They have more layers for your protection but crucially, its shape allowed for easier breathing and talking. I ordered some more on Amazon (they are around £2 per mask) and urge you to do your own research about this topic. I don’t know enough about it.
At the hotel
At the hotel we were told we had to comply with the local authority directives and all staff would be wearing masks. Obviously they were not calling the police but asked us to follow the rules.
Most people did – and a bit of peer pressure (not sure if that is the right expression) went on as the week went by. The scenario here is: from your room to the restaurant, from the restaurant to the loos, from the sun lounger to the beach restaurant.
You did not wear a mask when you were eating or drinking, sunbathing or swimming.
In terms of cleaning, we had received an email before arrival stating the protocols that had changed at the hotel namely the usage of ozone machines and UV disinfection techniques. Our passports were checked and I think our temperatures were too (I am trying to remember and I cannot – my apologies).
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Housekeeping cleaning our room daily to the usual Finca Cortesin standards and I have zero concerns. The rooms smelled of the normal Cortesin fragrance and we smelled lovely of Penhaligons after each shower. Turndown took place daily and I firmly believe the hotel took some of the procedures they already did in the back of the house and made them client facing.
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Hygiene in public spaces
We visited a variety of restaurants in Malaga, Marbella and Estepona and with the exception of the Plaza at Puente Romano (which had the seats placed for normal capacity, which I found most odd. It was not full when we went there for a pre-dinner drink and we would have left if someone sat next door to us).
It was wonderful to see every single table at restaurant and bar being sprayed and clean between clients and I thought I was seeing things when we were in Malaga and they were cleaning the public beach sun loungers with actual cleaning products AND produced an American Express compatible payment machine. Pigs flew.
Hand sanitiser was present at every possible moment of your journey – legally every restaurant, shop, place has to provide it visibly and we had no issue finding it. Obviously I had my own too.
How did it all feel?
After a few days, we were used to wearing the masks. Everyone was wearing them and it did feel we were all in it together. We struggled with the heat and sweat but we cannot complain. If I had to wear the mask for 2 hours at one time, it was a lot less than anyone who was working in hospitality had to. We actually have no right to complain.
Our experience at Malaga Airport was a bit different than Heathrow. Our check in was late opening and sadly Iberia did not place any queue management measures indicating where the different queues would be. This caused some passenger anger when everyone had to then create business and economy queues which was completely avoidable. Social distancing went through the window.
Security was virtually empty (and BA renewed its fast track and lounge contracts now). We were allowed to keep shoes on.
Duty Free was open (with quite a few queues to pay as only 2 tills were open… with about 20 people queuing in each) but then everything except a cafeteria and Burger King were closed. The queues at each were significant (and no social distancing) and I was grateful the lounge was open.
At the lounge, things were very civilised and you went to a counter to order and a member of staff would plate everything up for you and give you any drinks you’d like.
Boarding the plane was sadly the usual – I can’t even call it organised chaos. Gate C31 is one of the usual gates we have and there is not a lot of space to wait to be called to board in pre Covid times and when they did call the gates, it was like nothing was happened and people queued like the good old days.
We stayed far away and were the last ones to board and I believe that it is something I will continue to want to do.
Flying back to the UK
In order to fly back to the UK, there is a Public Health Passenger Locator Form that the UK government required to be completed 48h before arrival, which was also emailed to us by the airline. The questionnaire was designed mostly for visitors (which I don’t think are flying in hordes to the UK) than residents returning home. Not once was I asked if I had any COVID symptoms, but I was asked questions like who I was staying with? No one. Until when? Forever. And it was quite long. We were told to have it ready for inspection on arrival.
We were surprised with the news that Spain was to be taken off the UK travel list on this day (from midnight of the 26th July 2020) when we were boarding the plane.
Our flight was fine – I felt more relaxed than on the previous one, but thought that the rumours were not true. We landed at 22.45pm which meant we did not have to quarantine, and were met with rather rather professional looking sign which most people did not see.
No one also checked our forms at all and we left the airport with our luggage and got into our taxi. Our driver didn’t have to wear a mask and that actually felt quite shocking.
How did we feel?
I felt very safe in Spain – some may think it was too much, but it was my choice to go and the Spanish government made it clear in the form that there were rules we had to adhere when visiting the country.
We were given a window to travel to Spain (our choice!) by our adoption agency and we clearly wanted to go to Finca Cortesin (which was made for social distancing) and that is exactly what we did. We took every single step to protect ourselves and others and I am grateful that we were able to go.
On the morning after arriving, I woke up with a significant cough and the NHS system approved us for coronavirus tests which came back negative the following day. My cough has continued for 3 more days but I am not sick (also very grateful for it).
We felt very safe in (dare I say much safer than back home in the UK) and I am glad we travelled to Spain.
I hope this article answers any questions you may have about travelling to Spain – but if there is anything I have not covered here or on my Instagram stories, feel free to send me a message on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
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PS. If you are looking for supposedly FCO-friendly trip ideas, I have quickly rounded up a selection of past trips that may give you an idea or two.