Prior to jetting off to Crete on July 31, 2020, it had been 167 days (5 months and 16 days) since we had been on a plane, on a train, on a bus, or in a car. Ironically, we hit all four of these modes of transportation on the same day when we were traveling back to London from Saalbach back in February.
Additionally, our most recent journey on public transportation (London Underground/Overground and buses) was on March 13, 2020. That puts us at 5 months and 7 days (160 days) and counting!
During our 103 days in lockdown (a period defined when restaurants (eat-in) closed to when they reopened, March 23-July 4), we primarily stayed in a two-thirds mile radius from our flat. I went on a handful of walks that took me slightly beyond that radius but I could never walk further than my bladder could take me because there was nowhere to pee.
With the exception of my walkabouts, we only left our two-thirds mile radius one time during that 103 days. On April 19, we rode our bikes to Buckingham Palace, down along the River Thames, and then back to our flat.
The weather that day was gorgeous and people were out blowing off steam. Looking back at the video below, there are so few people out-and-about but at the time, streets were typically empty with the exception of people walking to and from the shops.
Greece’s Coronavirus cases
Greece has gone through this pandemic pretty much unscathed.
Greece has a population of about 11 million people but has only had ~7,000 cases and ~228 deaths. The European coronavirus outbreak occurred during Greece’s off-season. During this time (February-April), there were no tourists visiting Greece and, therefore, very little risk of cases being imported.
Within the past few weeks, there has been a rise in cases in several European countries, Greece included, but Greece’s case and death numbers are still extremely low. As an example, there were 251 new cases on August 14 which is just shy of doubling their old daily record of 156 new cases on April 21.
Brexit and Coronavirus curves
The UK and the EU have a complicated relationship at the moment and the pandemic has complicated matters further. The UK stopped being a member of the European Union on January 31, 2020, but the UK and EU have been following the same trade, movement, and other rules as though they were still married. On December 31, 2020, the UK and the EU will be permanently divorced and that, quite frankly, is going to be another scary period.
Perhaps somewhat due to the divorce but mostly due to a fumbled government, the UK has been on a different coronavirus curve timeline than the rest of Europe. In retrospect, the UK should have gone into lockdown at the same time as Europe but we didn’t and due to this, the UK has found themselves having spikes when Europe is having lulls and vice versa. This makes opening up borders for non-essential travel complicated because it can only occur when the UK and Europe are both in lulls and timing those lulls is difficult.
The lull period of travel from the UK to Greece was, in my opinion from July 15 (when Greece opened up to UK visitors) to the present time. At the moment, I believe that there is a moderate risk of a quarantine being imposed on travelers entering the UK from Greece in the near future.
We took advantage of this lull and visited Crete from July 31-August 8 and we did this as safely as possible by taking taxis to/from the airport and staying in a house in the countryside versus a hotel or B&B in Rethymno.
USA passport holders
Peter and I are USA passport holders.
USA passport holders are banned from entering European Union countries at the moment.
How were we going to make this happen?
Our journey to Crete began in early July when I contacted the Greek embassy in London to find out if we could travel to Greece and, if so, what documentation was required from us to ensure a smooth and successful travel day.
I received a response from the embassy within 24 hours and it contained good news. Our UK Residence Permits were our golden tickets for entering Greece. With this green light, we booked our flights and accommodation and hoped that the “travel bridge” (defined as two countries allowing travel between them and without a required quarantine on either side) between the UK and Greece didn’t collapse in the meantime.
Two days before our departure, we completed Greece’s online Passenger Locator Form (required to enter Greece) and we received our unique QR codes the evening before our departure (they were sent at midnight Greece time, not midnight UK time as expected).
Heathrow airport: check-in
Let me just start this section by stating that everything at Heathrow airport seemed to move in slow motion. There was a fifth of the people normally at the airport but everything took 10x longer. Arriving two hours before departure was barely enough time to check-in, get through security, and get a quick bite to eat before the gate opened for boarding.
Travel days are always long but feel even longer when wearing a face mask. Wearing a face mask is just another thing to deal with on top of carrying passports, permits, forms, phones, backpacks, boarding passes, etc.
At the entrance to the terminal, there was a hand sanitizer pump, a stack of disposable masks, and antibacterial wipes for luggage trolleys.
The check-in area of the terminal was almost completely empty. Our first stop in the terminal was to drop our bags and check-in for our flight. We were not able to check-in online, likely because we are USA passport holders trying to travel to a country where USA passport holders are currently banned. Or maybe there was another reason but we are pretty confident it was because of the USA travel ban.
For as long as I can remember, Heathrow airport has always employed “queue managers”. These are people who direct you from one queue to another queue with the goal of keeping queues a consistent length but they always fail at this very simple task. It is a pointless job that always causes more problems and bottlenecks than smooth sailing.
We approached the first queue manager of the day at the check-in queue. He requested to see our QR code. We showed it to him and were permitted to enter the roped queue leading to the check-in counter.
Protip: Some agents and queue managers wanted to see the Passenger Locator Form QR code only and some wanted to see the full PDF so do yourself a favor and print out the PDF so that you don’t have to keep fiddling with your phone and so that people will not be touching your phone.
The second queue manager of the day stood at the front of the queue. She also requested to see our QR code. We showed it to her and were permitted to go to the next available check-in counter. This is when things got tricky.
There were about eight check-in agents working the counter but only one was wearing a face covering. Plexiglass on the counter kept the agents separate from the passengers but if I’m being totally honest, the plexiglass is worthless because (a) no one can hear the other person through the plexiglass so we all bent around it and (b) the agent is constantly leaning over to deal with the bags on the belt and exposing her to “passenger breathing particles”.
The agent scanned our passports and a “NOT OK” warning displayed on the system. She was confused by this and attempted to call her supervisor but that call went unanswered. She stood up and walked around, asking other agents why USA passports would be coming up as “NOT OK”.
No one knew the answer so we informed her that USA passport holders are banned from traveling to EU countries but that we confirmed with the embassy that our Residence Permits were our golden tickets and she said, “OK! Let me see them!”.
She inputted our Residence Permit numbers in the system and the warning cleared. We said goodbye to our bags and walked to security.
Heathrow airport: security
Queue manager number three was at security. She managed to do what Heathrow queue managers do best and direct us to the longest security queue.
In normal times, it takes about 10 minutes for us to get through Heathrow security but on that day, it took about 25 minutes. We got to the airport two hours early because we expected our passports to cause issues and for things to move a little more slowly but the lengthy check-in and security queues made a pretty good dent in our two-hour gap.
The only difference with security was that we were required to remove our shoes. We don’t know if this is coronavirus related or simply just a new procedure. I observed no physical distancing in the security area, specifically in the “collection” area after the items exit the scanning machine.
Heathrow airport: airline lounge
After clearing security, we walked to a British Airways lounge. It took about five minutes to check-in due to yet another lengthy queue and limited staff. It was lunchtime and we were starving. Due to coronavirus, we knew that we would not get a meal on the plane so we needed to eat prior to boarding.
Like many things, the lounge experience has changed. Gone are the self-serve tables of drinks and food and in their place is an app where you order food to be delivered to your seat.
We ordered food immediately and it was delivered to our seats within five minutes. We stuffed our faces and then noticed that it was time for us to go to our gate. We packed up our things, went pee, and started walking to the tram to traverse from Terminal 5 to 5a.
We waited ~10 minutes for the tram. In normal times, this wait would have been about three minutes. It was whilst waiting for the tram when I mentioned to Peter that everything was moving in slow motion.
Heathrow airport: terminal
We boarded the tram and 30 seconds later we were dumped at Terminal 5a. It was a ghost town! There were only two gates and one newsagent open. All restaurants, cafes, and bars were closed.
Heathrow airport: boarding
Boarding commenced almost immediately after we arrived at the gate. Boarding was done in chunks of 10 rows with priority boarding given only to families and those requiring extra assistance. Your airline status or booking class gets you nowhere these days.
The queue agent requested to see our boarding passes and QR codes before we could join the boarding queue. These documents were again requested by the gate agent. The gate agent asked me to remove my face mask for identification but Peter was allowed to leave his on.
I do not recall any agents wearing face coverings and there was certainly no physical distancing between gate agents and passengers or passengers and passengers for that matter.
Gate agents needed to inspect documentation, including the QR codes on phones, and with the combination of passengers needing to physically hand over documents and agents needing to usher people through quickly, physical distancing just wasn’t a thing. And there were a lot of people who touched my phone. A lot.
We expected some questions at the gate because of our USA passports but there were no questions and we breezed through. And at this point, we’d shown our QR codes five times.
We sat in our seats in the exit row and I thought to myself, “only one more hurdle: Greek immigration”. I snapped this photo in disbelief that I was actually on a plane. I honestly did not think I would be on a plane until sometime in 2021.
The in-flight experience was meh at best.
During the first round of service, they handed out a hygiene bag. The hygiene bag was a tiny plastic bag that included an antibacterial wipe and sachet of hand sanitizer. When finished with the wipe and sanitizer, we were instructed to place the rubbish back in the tiny plastic bag and tie it with the handle ties. They’d come ’round to collect the rubbish a bit later.
During the second round of service, they handed out a bag of refreshments. Airlines have always been heavy into plastic waste but the plastic waste they are generating now is tenfold. British Airways said that they have switched to the “bag of refreshments” so that time spent in close proximity in the galley is minimized but honestly, there is absolutely no need for the refreshments to be encapsulated in a plastic bag.
The third and final round of service on our four-hour flight was a beverage service.
We disembarked in rows of four. This meant that at any given time, only four rows of seats could have passengers standing. It was lovely!
Greek immigration (Chania airport)
After disembarking, we walked across the tarmac from the plane to the terminal and joined the short immigration queue. After all, it was only our flight in immigration. I approached the desk first and handed the officer my passport and UK Residence Permit. She tossed the permit back at me, stamped my passport, and waved me through.
To say I was shocked was an understatement.
We were met by a second officer a few feet from the immigration counter. He asked to see our QR codes before we could descend down the steps to the baggage claim.
At the bottom of the steps, we were met by another officer and required to show our QR code again (literally seven seconds later). Greece randomly tests incoming visitors and this officer was responsible for directing people to baggage claim or to the coronavirus testing area.
I was selected for random testing whereas Peter was allowed to go directly to baggage claim. I can only describe this random selection process similar to going through airport security where 90 percent of the bags go through the scanning machine without problems but the other 10 percent get kicked off to the side for further inspection. I was that 10 percent.
I rounded the corner to the testing area and met a friendly fireman. He scanned the QR code on my phone and then scanned a test tube. This was the eighth time I’d shown my QR code.
He handed me the test tube and directed me to the nurse behind the curtain who would conduct the test.
I gave the nurse my test tube and she compared the test tube to my Passenger Locator Form (the ninth and final time I’d have to show it). She smiled and told me to say “ahhh” and then she shoved the cotton swab down the back of my throat. It felt like it was in there for 90 seconds but, in reality, it was probably more like 15 seconds. I was just happy the test was via the throat and not the nose.
Test done, she pointed at a sign that gave me my next instructions which were to basically stay away from people as much as possible until the test results are in (expected within 24 hours). To my surprise, only those who tested positive would be notified, so no news was good news. I nodded, said thank you, and joined Peter at baggage claim.
At baggage claim, I kept a giant distance between myself and everyone else. I suddenly felt like I was an infected person after being randomly tested even though I hadn’t felt that way before the test. The test played a mind trick on me!
When renting a car, it is always best to divide and conquer to avoid lengthy queues. So I left Peter to deal with the baggage claim whilst I dealt with the car.
We rented from Sixt, a first for us, and I’m not sure I would rent from them again. The counter agent did a really hard sell on purchasing extra insurance which not only left a bad taste in my mouth but also made me question if they run damage scams. As an example, she said that if someone scratches the car, we will be responsible for it (and have to pay an exorbitant amount) and the way she phrased it made me wonder if they actually have someone running around intentionally scratching cars.
I stood firm on my extra insurance refusal, took the keys, walked out of the airport, and tore my face mask off of my face. It was a lovely feeling. Up until that point, I’d been wearing it for over seven hours.
Protip: Bring two face coverings when traveling so that you can swap to a fresh one when needed. And don’t leave the second one in your bag in the overhead bin because getting out of your seat for any reason other than a trip to the toilet is frowned upon.
We walked to our Fiat Panda and noted its perfect size for touring Greece. It was in great condition both inside and out.
We’d been outdoors for about two minutes at this point and I was already dripping in sweat so my priority at this point was starting the car and turning on the air con.
I unlocked the doors and was met with more plastic. I really feel that all of this plastic wrap is complete overkill. A more comprehensive and less wasteful approach would have been to provide an antibacterial wipe to the customer so that they can wipe down the interior as they wish.
Wrapping only the steering wheel and gear shift is cherry-picking and if the car rental company really wanted to be covid-secure, then the customer shouldn’t be touching the plastic either as it was potentially handled by someone who may have left behind virus particles on the plastic. And what about the blinker lever and temperature controls? They aren’t wrapped in plastic.
We texted our house rental hosts that we were leaving the airport and exited the parking lot.
The drive from Chania airport to our house in the Rethymno (pronounced “reh-thim-no”) countryside took two hours due to road construction. Normally, this drive would take one hour and 15 minutes. Unfortunately, we kept our hosts waiting for an extra 45 minutes but they were so kind and, in true Greek fashion, they weren’t the least bit bothered and offered us a 1.5 liter of olive oil from their farm almost immediately after walking in the door.
Coming up next, life among the olive groves and the cute town of Rethymno.