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A not so adventurous Portuguese holiday

Given that admin heavy and precarious “up until check in” holidays appear to be in all of our immediate futures, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about a recent trip to Portugal, hopefully to encourage more of you to do it and to make it easier when you do! As a family, we haven’t done badly in lockdown for getting away, having managed a couple of UK based breaks when the law of the land allowed. It (almost) goes without saying we know that makes us lucky, although everyone’s lockdown has been long for different reasons and everyone I know has needed a getaway more than they could adequately communicate. But this trip to Portugal was to be very different to anything else we’d attempted even before the end times. It was booked for 2020 to celebrate my mother in law’s 70th birthday, and involved eight adults and four children. It had been kicked into the long grass several times before desperation for Sun and togetherness superseded the perceived riskiness of it. I was thrilled, despite the fact that it would involve my first attempt at international travel as a mother of two. I left the trepidation to my husband who told me this morning that he hadn’t psychologically committed to the holiday going ahead until we cleared security at Manchester! There were a few layers of admin to clear, first of all for the airline (Ryanair, who required proof of at least a lateral flow test, on paper (not online) and also wanted to see the documents required by the Portuguese authorities such as proof of vaccination and a passenger locator form. Completing the forms were a pain and somewhat time consuming and it will be for every family to decide exactly how much time they wish to dedicate to process in exchange for some days away- I know several people who just didn’t have the motivation/time/inclination to jump the hurdles. That said, we found that the forms were fairly intuitive and easy enough for people who’ve spent a full year reluctantly working online! To be honest, I’ve spent more time on the internet working out which Sex and the City character I am (Carrie, obviously) than filling in the forms. When we got to Manchester airport, it was relatively quiet and the plane was half empty. The only time social distancing wasn’t possible at all was at security where I openly snorted at the tannoy message telling us to keep two metres apart. Ryanair were terrifically hot on masks- I was chastised a few times as although my one year old daughter generally demonstrates more maturity than Lawrence Fox, she is a vehement anti masker and pulls them from my face at every given opportunity. The Portuguese are taking COVID very seriously. At the airport, I was again told off even though the airport official saw my daughter tear my mask off my face with delight. Social distancing wasn’t hard to enforce in a very light and airy Faro Airport. Driving around the Algarve you can see how much of the area is focused on holiday making and isn’t hard to imagine how difficult repeated lockdowns and travel restrictions must have been for the economy of the area, so it was entirely unsurprising to find that every attraction we went to was scrupulously clean and queues were longer as extra attention was paid to resetting and cleaning. Supermarket hygiene details were in overdrive and again, mask wearing was often compulsory. It was our experience that in this particular amber country, where vaccination rates are lower, it was extremely important for everyone to be seen to be taking their responsibilities seriously. To us, and to some more nervous travellers, it often seemed that Portugal was safer than the UK. Our large family group featured a couple who had isolated (where possible) for much of the pandemic. They found the pinch points of the airport and some experiences at the supermarket difficult. But I know that in the great scheme of things they were happy to have travelled and that these were discomforts that they willingly took on but with very gritted teeth! I am sure that our family holiday went ahead due to it being villa based. Communal facilities are going to take a while for some people to feel comfortable in again and, of course, each family will have to make their own decisions on that. Whilst in Portugal we mostly ‘ate in’, which for some would not make much of a holiday; those of us with small children often find themselves swapping the domestic duties of home for the same in hotter weather. But with a large group of adults willing to take on shopping and cooking duties, the load was somewhat lighter and of course, eating tapas for dinner in 20 degrees of heat whilst watching the sun go down over the Atlantic Ocean sure makes a difference to Stockport. On our arrival in Portugal we had to book a slot to take a lateral flow test for our return. This again, was really easy and it’s actually possible to book them from home if you want to be super organised. The set up in the centre of Albufeira is brilliant- an almost military operation- and only took about an hour out of our day. And as has been reported by plenty of those travelling this year, our Continental cousins are either more thorough with the nose swabs than their UK counterparts or they’re getting their revenge for Brexit. The last hurdle to negotiate was a test on return to the UK. There were certainly cheaper ways than we did it but on our return to the UK, my husband was due at his work with vulnerable adults within hours, so we went for the more ironclad PCR tests- although lateral flow tests would have done. You can even send off for a self administered test and drop the kit in a designated postbox which, if you don’t mind the inconvenience is very much cheaper than a visit to Randox at Manchester Airport. Of course, different countries have different requirements when it comes to tests, and the rules seem to change astoundingly quickly, so it’s important to remember that this is only about Portugal! Much has been made in the media about the increased cost of holidays for families who need to fork out for tests and thankfully the costs have been somewhat reduced. However tempting it is to focus on the fact that someone somewhere is making a tonne of cash from these tests, it will be part of the travelling regime for some time to come and if we want our annual dose of sun, sea and sangria, then these costs will be ones that we need to accept. And so, on our return, I couldn’t help wondering whether this trip to Portugal had been the tonic that we all needed and how we would do it differently next time. In short, I came to the conclusion that I would perhaps go for a shorter time than 2 weeks- my 4 year old, having been mired in sameness for 18 months of lockdown, was eventually completely unmoored by the variety of company and lack of routine. And when it comes to booking next year’s holiday, there will be a far greater focus on not lifting a finger with no ‘big shops’ at the supermarket and plenty of trips to the local cafes. Our travelling life may not ever be the same again, but the necessary protocols were easier to navigate than we thought and although how much you want to go and have a ‘normal’ holiday (involving communal pools, restaurants and the usual tourist traps) is, at the moment, a matter of conscience, the paperwork and tests shouldn’t put you off. Somewhere like the Algarve had holiday options aplenty, both for those who are and aren’t ready to emerge from their cocoons. Written by Carolyn Morrel

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