I know. Gatwick, when we have perfectly serviceable airports here in the North of England. Not my choice to depart from a location five hours’ drive from home in Barnsley, necessitating an overnight stay in a (super-welcoming) Premier Inn before our 10am departure and an exhausting return journey back up a rainy A1.
I won’t bore you with the story of changed, cancelled and combined flights, but since our holiday originally germinated in January 2020, we had attempted to book with three different airlines – Ryanair, Jet2 and EasyJet – from a total of five different airports – Leeds-Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool, Luton and eventually Gatwick – before I was finally able to print out the boarding passes that guaranteed us a return flight for dates to match our accommodation, a villa held over for a full year by the kindness of the Croatian owner.
Despite the mind-boggling array of Covid tests required, the endless form filling and the nagging anxiety that I’d forgotten to jump us all through a vital hoop, we did it.
Was it worth it? Leaving the UK to travel to a green-list country, but one which when we departed on August 24 was teetering on the amber ‘watch-list’?
That was a worrisome day, last Thursday, waiting to see whether we would suddenly be required to source and order remotely Day 8 PCR tests for my 19-year-old son Jack and his girlfriend on their return as both have received only one vaccination so far. And of course, they would have been required to quarantine for 10 days.
In the end Transport Secretary Grant Shapps decided to spare us the agony and Croatia stayed green.
We’d already booked and paid for all our Day 2 PCRs as required, £40 each from a registered online company. A registered online company. That was just one challenge I had to meet in the weeks before we left.
I saw those post boxes overflowing with tests bought and paid for by rule-abiding travellers and did wonder just who was benefitting. And questioned the logic, which differs from country to country and often seems wildly contradictory.
A Day 2 PCR test comes with a reference number and without that number, you can’t fill in your passenger locator forms for return to the UK. Believe me, without those passenger locator forms correctly completed to present at the airport of departure, you’re going nowhere.
And leaving Croatia at least, you also need a rapid flow antigen test in the 48 hours before departure. I ummed and ahhed. Should we take them with us – we used a super-efficient online company before departure which delivered test results to my inbox within a couple of hours? But what if the rules changed, as well they might?
We ended up in the Terra Medica Portakabin at Pula airport, where a perfunctory woman shoved a swab up each of our noses for around £20 a turn.
So was it worth it? Yes, on balance. We landed at Gatwick into the deep gloom of a British August afternoon. The blue sea and olive groves of Croatia seemed very far away as we dragged our carry-on cases towards passport control. The final hurdle.
We’d seen the photographs of Heathrow arrivals a few days earlier, where people were reportedly queueing for three hours due to delays checking paperwork and a shortage of airport staff. My heart sank.
As we weren’t travelling with small children, though, a friendly Border Force officer pointed us towards the ePassport gates. Four of us made it straight through; I imagine our passenger locator information from Pula airport was shared automatically because no-one asked to see a scrap of evidence of the antigen tests we’d paid for before departure, or details of our vaccination status.
However, my husband, who has grown a beard since his passport photograph was taken, was trapped in no man’s land – despite five attempts, the scanner refused to recognise him.
He had no choice but to join the snaking queue, and ended up stuck behind a solo traveller, who – it seemed – had somehow managed to evade every previous security channel to turn up at UK passport control with no passport or papers to allow him entrance to the country.
As he was carted off for processing by an exasperated official I could only watch in awe. How had he managed to get so far, when I’d spent £500 on tests, a ream of paper, and a set of printer ink cartridges, just to get us to Croatia and back? Just one of the many questions this holiday raised.