First up – let’s be clear – everyone has their own view on risk. Both in terms of how they perceive the risk, what’s acceptable to them and therefore whether the reason for it is worth it.
Certainly that’s how we approach pretty much everything in life and travel during the Covid pandemic has been no different. But at the end of the day – everything in life is a risk and you have to pick which ones to take. People take risks all the time – crossing the road is a risk, driving is a risk. Having a glass of wine. Giving birth. And so on. Knowingly or not, people are always choosing which risks are acceptable to them – travel during the Covid pandemic is just another such choice.
From our perspective, the risk to us personally is not that high with travel. If anything, escaping the UK with it’s relatively high risk situation for a country with a far lower risk level is actually safer for us. Plus we’re both comfortable accepting this risk the same way we accept the risk of other infectious diseases when travelling. We take sensible precautions and ensure we have good insurance cover. Therefore our bigger concern has been about managing our risk to others. As such we try hard to be responsible travellers – following all the local required regulations to protect both ourselves but as importantly – others.
So for us, the risk level is acceptable but I understand some people will still see travel during the Covid pandemic as a risk not worth taking – and that’s absolutely fine. It’s your choice and zero judgement here either way.
For others who may be considering their own view and wondering what the reality is like – this is our experience from our recent trip to Prague from the UK.
Airport Hotel The Night Before: Covid Impact - High
Often on our travels we’d get the train down to the airport. Cheaper and greener so good all round. But for a short trip like our week in Prague it worked out better to drive down the day before. That way we didn’t add to the public transport risk and we got to visit S’s parents on the way down. Therefore I found us a really good deal on a park/stay deal at Heathrow. One of those “mystery” hotel ones where (when you’re a travel nerd like I am) it’s pretty quick and easy to work out what hotel it will actually be.
So we ended up in the T4 Hilton with 8 nights parking for less than the equivalent cost at either the Travelodge or EasyJet. Nice. It’s one of those weird things about life after FIRE – old habits die hard. I don’t need to spend time finding these kind of deals. Our travel budget would more than allow to just book and get on with it. But where’s the fun it that?!
Anyway – I digress. Let’s get back to the experience of travel during the Covid pandemic. The hotel is attached to Terminal 4, one of three which is closed at Heathrow – only 2 and 5 are open as at the time of writing this. Which by itself goes a long way to showing just how much travel numbers are down. We arrive and park in the very empty carpark easily enough. No difference here.
Entering the hotel – the changes are immediately apparent. It’s very (very) quiet. Like just us and the mask-clad receptionist. A little eerie to be honest when it’s such a big space. Only the first floor is operational – the lifts are not to be used. Pretty much all the communal areas are closed with the exception of one restaurant which is running a vastly reduced menu. Basically it’s a good job we didn’t pay full price for what is very much a reduced experience.
It’s very obvious the hotel has gone to a huge effort to be very safe. There’s good control over social distancing – clear places to queue for reception. Our room is sealed with a “clean” sticker and is spotless. Mandatory masks all round. It’s a very different experience – lots of very visable reminders of the current situation in the UK.
We rarely eat at the hotel where we stay and this night was no different in that respect. Instead we walk out and get a decent dinner at the pub down the road. It’s one of those rare balmy summer evenings in the UK so it’s nice to make the most of it and it’s a very pleasant walk there and back in the evening sun. The pub itself is much more hit/miss with it’s Covid precautions – the signs are in place but there’s little enforcement. Though with it’s large beer garden and ordering system it doesn’t cause us any concern.
Once back at the hotel we tuck up into the extremely comfortable bed for a good nights sleep in order to begin our journey to Prague early the next day.
At Heathrow Airport: Covid Impact - Med/High
Another advantage of our Hilton deal was that our car just stayed in the hotel car-park and we kept the keys. So no need to negotiate either a long-stay park & ride or a Meet/Greet system this time around.
Instead – another sneaky (?) tip – the public transport between Hatton Cross and Terminals 1 – 5 are all free to use. And there’s a stop right behind the Hilton / Premier Inn. So no need for an expensive taxi (~£15-20) or to take the Hopper (£4.50 each ) – just walk literally 2 mins around the corner and the 482 or 490 run about every 15-20 mins.
The bus was an interesting mixed experience. Everybody wore masks as mandated by the government – but the max 14 passengers sign was clearly being ignored. Still plenty of space for all at the time we were on it though. It’s a little weird how things you never noticed before suddenly become apparent – like how many surfaces you touch that are shared by others during a simple journey. Again, its not something that worried us since you can manage that risk but if you are nervous / extra cautious – you might want to avoid the bus.
Arriving at the airport and it was immediately noticeable how much busier everything got. As a result of Terminals 1,3 and 4 actually being closed – all air traffic was only going through either Terminal 2 or 5. So it wasn’t very different in terms of numbers to our previous experiences.
There were more cafes/shops open than we’d expected, although plenty still were shut. All had clear processes on who could enter when and where. Some were followed much better than others. One thing we found a little bizarre is that whilst it was masks on throughout the airport, if you sat down in one of the cafes/restaurants – it was masks off. Presumably so you can actually eat and drink!
Perhaps the oddest thing over all about the airport experience is how little the actual fundamental processes had changed. Whilst the shops and restaurants were all clearly trying to make an effort – this was not the case with anything else. Like literally zero attempt at social distancing in the airport. All the queues were as per normal, no 2m gaps between people like supermarkets have had to do. So people were all huddled together in close lines per normal. There was nothing special about check-in either, with no masks worn by the attendants and no disinfectant available. Defn bring your own!
Likewise for security, toilets, waiting areas. All of these were just the same as normal – you wouldn’t think anything was different. The only difference / social protection came from wearing your mask. I have to admit it’s unclear to me why all the commercial operations had to go to such efforts if the airport itself didn’t. Go figure.
So overall – take your own disinfectant and if you are especially cautious be prepared to implement your own safe distancing from others if that concerns you. For us, we found it fine but it could be chaotic for some I suspect.
On The Aircraft: Covid Impact - Med
Our flight was with BA so worth bearing in mind it may well be different with other airlines. We actually had our flight cancelled on us twice by BA and it was a pretty difficult process to get through and re-book. I appreciate they are trying to manage the economic fallout but it’s certainly evident compared to previous experiences.
The other consequence of being bumped twice was knowing that this flight was going to be busy – as BA clearly looking to condense people onto a smaller number of flights given the overall drop in passenger numbers.
So it wasn’t surprising when all the seats were full – no empty middle seat policy here! So yes, you’re going to have to expect to sit next to a stranger still.
There was no real change in boarding process at all – groups of numbers called with about 10 rows of people at a time. So you will still be squashed together in the aisle whilst putting your hand luggage away. There was no request or signs to keep any distance apart either when queuing at the boarding desk or in the airplane aisle.
So similar to the airport – the big change continued to be the mandatory mask wearing. Although the three people in the row of seats in front of ours did not wear their masks, apparently due to asthma. Now bizarrely, if I suffered from asthma – which as best as I am aware increases your risk from Covid – I’d personally be more keen on wearing my mask. But go figure – as said, everyone has a different risk tolerance!
No drinks or trolley service but a plastic bag with some water, biscuits and a bag of crisps was handed out to all, along with a hand-wipe. For those interested in these things – you didn’t need to get a steward to accompany you to the toilet – you were just supposed to check it was unoccupied beforehand. Not exactly relevant when you flight is under two hours – shorter than my old commute to work!!
A slight change to the disembarking process – with groups of seat numbers being called at a time whilst everybody else remained seated. Well mostly. I always feel really sorry for the air stewards as they struggle to convince people to follow what they are saying! The idea was clearly to avoid crowding the aisle but it failed miserably – they’d have been better off calling every 4th row etc but you can just imagine the level of confusion that would have caused!
It’s all a bit of a moot point anyway when you consider how many shared surfaces you are touching throughout your journey. Your best bet by far is to protect yourself and others through keeping your mask on and plenty of hand sanitiser/washing of hands. Again, I never felt especially at risk. It’s little different to doing your grocery shopping at a big supermarket, you just have to be sensible and manage it as best you can.
Prague Airport: Covid Impact - Low
Prague and the Czech Republic as a whole has managed to maintain a very low number of Covid cases and deaths. Like, the latest data I could find indicated they have had ~350 deaths compared to the UK’s 46,000…. So if anything we’re drastically reducing our risk spending time here than at home. And as mentioned earlier, our bigger concern by far was to ensure we aren’t endangering others rather than the risk to ourselves.
Again, without going into politics here, let’s just say as a result of the low Covid impact here in Czech Republic, the impact on normal life is vastly different than back in the UK. It’s just very noticeable just how minimal the impact is here. Everything is open, running at full capacity, people are out and about.
Literally the only difference was keeping our masks on through the airport and the biometric passport machines were not in use but otherwise, zero difference here to previous visits.
Once through the airport then, unless we’re on a late flight, we always catch the bus from the airport to the city center. It’s so easy to do, especially with our backpacks. There are a couple of choices depending on what area of town you are staying in but we get the 191 which goes direct to Andel – only costs £1! The facemask rule on public transport has been dropped since the start of July but we kept ours on, as much to make others feel better as for the risk to ourselves to be honest.
Prague City: Covid Impact - Low
Life feels practically normal here and it does make you realise how much the UK has changed as a result of the far higher number of cases. That feeling of normality continued as we checked in to our hotel. Hand sanitiser is available for use in all entrances but otherwise – everything is as before.
As far as we have seen so far, everything is back open and running normally. There’s no need for booking tables, leaving contact details, masks – nothing. I guess when you have a zero daily death rate – there’s no reason to do otherwise. I’d been curious as to what kind of reception travellers would get but we’ve experienced no negative reactions at all.
This is actually our first time ever travelling in the peak school holiday period – as usually we avoid it for obvious reasons! Numbers are clearly down, exploring the old town is much quieter than usual. We’d usually just avoid it since we normally come near Christmas and it’s always packed and far less authentic to us than roaming the wider city. But it’s actually fun to see it in the summer with all the open air tables and beer gardens.
As far as travelling during the Covid pandemic goes – I’d actually say our own personal risk is far lower through this travel than staying in the UK. Our main concern has been around protecting others from unintended harm.
Responsible travel is enabling us to enjoy exploring again and support local tourism – both things which are important to us. As such it’s a total pleasure and privilege to be here – but more about what we’ve actually got up to next time!