The heel of the boot

Peter and I recently returned from touring Italy’s “heel of the boot” known as Puglia (or Apulia) but before I dive into the details of our trip, I want to talk about everyone’s least-favorite topic and provide a little insight into our outbound and inbound travel days.

England’s travel corridors

The United Kingdom and Italy have similar [somewhat accurate] Coronavirus statistics. Northern Italy was the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe for many weeks until the United Kingdom assumed that unglamorous title for what felt like months.

The data is as of September 18, 2020.

CountryTotal casesTotal deaths
United Kingdom382,00041,705

At the time our departure on September 20th, Italy was one of a handful of European countries on England’s travel corridors list. This meant that we were not required to self-isolate for 14 days upon returning to England and because Italy was welcoming UK tourists with open arms, we didn’t have to self-isolate in Italy either.

Note: As of today, October 15th, Italy has been removed from the UK travel corridors list.

Note: The UK has four states and each has its own travel corridors list.

As a general guideline, all four UK states use the “number of cases per 100,000” (over a 7-day period) statistic to determine if a country/region is on or off of their travel corridors list. A country/region with more than 20 cases per 100,000 is in the danger zone of being removed from their travel corridors list.

Note: When a country is removed from the travel corridors list, and barring there are flights and/or trains to get us there and back, we can still travel to that country but we will be subject to a 14-day quarantine upon arrival and/or upon return.

Below were the statistics for a few random European countries on September 17th, 2020. Our biggest concern at the time was not that England was going to remove Italy from its travel corridors list but that Italy was going to impose a 14-day quarantine on UK arrivals or ban UK arrivals altogether because UK cases were (and still are) on the rise.

The data is as of September 17, 2020, (exception: Greece, September 15, 2020)

Country# new daily cases# cases per 100,000
United Kingdom3,39534.5

Italy’s Coronavirus protocols

Peter and I are USA passport holders and USA passport holders are still banned from entering European Union countries, however, each EU country has the authority to override this ban and allow entry to USA passport holders.

Our [new normal] first step in travel planning is to contact the embassy of the country we want to visit. I contacted the Italian embassy in London to find out if we could travel to Italy and, if yes, what documentation was required from us to ensure a smooth and successful travel day.

I copied the email I had sent to the Greek embassy in July and sent it to the Italian embassy. My email explained that (1) we are USA passport and UK Residence Permit holders and (2) requested information on required documentation and confirmation that it is OK for us to travel to the country.

Their verbatim responses are below.

Greece: “A U.S passport holder who is resident in the U.K. can travel to Greece provided the said document does not expire soon. You are eligible to travel to Greece with valid UK residence permit.”

Italy: “Since you are US nationals you are not in need of a Schengen Visa to enter Italy, therefore as Visa Office we are not able to assist you in this matter as the borders authorities have full authority to evaluate each case.”

Whilst I was thrilled to hear that the current occupant of the White House had not yet totally destroyed the USA’s relationship with the European Union, Italy’s response was less than helpful.

I knew obtaining clarification from the Italian embassy was probably not going to happen, so we decided to book our trip and deal with the potential consequence of being denied at Heathrow airport.

About a week before our departure, we received an email from British Airways with helpful links to country-specific websites where we could read and understand the coronavirus protocols and gather the necessary documentation for Italy.

The protocols for Greece and Italy were very different.

Greece – ★★★★★

Greece required us to fill out an online Passenger Locator Form which then generated a QR code that was emailed to us around 10pm (12am Greek time) on the night before our departure. The form was simple and straightforward. You can read more about this here.

Italy – ★✩✩✩✩

Italy was all over the board with what was required and the English translations on the forms, websites, etc. were very poor and confusing.

1 – Per the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Italy required a 4-page Self-Declaration Form. This paper form was given to the British Airways crew before disembarking at Brindisi airport (our arrival airport).

2 – It was absolutely clear from the British Airways link that some regions in Italy required regional forms to be completed (Sicily and Sardinia) but it was unclear if Puglia required a regional form. (They did/do and we filled it out but it was never sent or given to anyone.)

Two days prior to arrival, we received an email from our first masseria (more on this in a future post) reminding us to fill out the online regional form.

3 – Both of our masserie requested emailed copies of our passports for “quicker check-in”. We felt these requests were absurd so they were ignored.

In the end, we filled out three forms:

  • Italy’s self-declaration arrival form – given to the BA crew prior to landing in Italy
  • Puglia’s regional form – lugged around in our luggage for a week and ultimately recycled
  • Italy’s departure form – given to the gate agent prior to departing Italy

Just to give you some idea of how complicated travel has become, the papers on the table in the photo below are country-specific forms! Piles and piles and piles of forms!

Italy’s Coronavirus compliance measures

During our eight days in Italy, we found that compliance with wearing face coverings was very high. Face coverings are required indoors at all times, except when seated at a table in a restaurant or cafe. This means if you need to use the toilet, you must put your face covering on before leaving the table.

Face coverings are also required outside where social distancing is not possible such as in the narrow alleys of the towns we visited. The compliance rate in our area of London in a “narrow alley” scenario would be ~10% and in Italy, it was ~90%.

Another stark contrast between England and Italy was the number of people who sanitized their hands upon entering shops, restaurants, hotels, etc. In England, the hand sanitizer bottles mostly go untouched.

In Italy, they were used constantly. In a country where queuing is definitely not the norm, it was shocking to see people queue up to sanitize their hands.

Coronavirus compliance measure signs were everywhere in Puglia. Below are some examples.

One of the funniest memories from this trip was seeing mobster-looking Italian men standing by their motorbikes with face masks looped around their wrists, ready to put on their faces at a moment’s notice.

Heathrow airport: check-in

We left our flat at 5:15am and arrived at Heathrow Terminal 5 at 6:00am. Currently, flights are only operating out of Terminals 2 and 5.

Note: There are only four terminals at Heathrow airport. Terminal 1 closed in 2015.

At the terminal entrance was a sanitation stand that should have included face masks, hand sanitizer gel, and antibacterial wipes but it was wiped out.

The terminal was busier than it was for our Greece flight but completely empty at the same time. Many people were traveling to Greece which was a little surprising because several Greek islands were removed from England’s travel corridors list a few weeks prior.

Heathrow Terminal 5 check-in on September 20, 2020

We paid for our flights to Italy using a portion of a British Airways voucher we received when we canceled our trip to Kenya. In order to use the voucher, Peter had to call British Airways and book our flights by talking to an actual human.

We arrived at the check-in counter at 6:05am and there was immediate confusion. We were not sure if the confusion was because of our USA passports or something else but after a few phone calls, the check-in agent revealed that something in our booking process had failed and that our flights had not been paid.

In short, our tickets had been issued but the payment from the voucher failed during the transaction. Luckily, there was a technical person in some office somewhere that manually pushed the transaction through (our flights were paid and a second voucher for the remaining balance was issued). This process took a staggering 25 minutes!

Due to all of the confusion with our flight payment, the check-in agent did not question our USA passports nor did he even glance at our UK Residence Permits.

Note: We learned whilst waiting for our tickets to be sorted that no one is allowed to check-in online at this time due to the ever-changing country restrictions and entry requirements.

Heathrow airport: security

Back in July when we traveled to Crete, it took us about 25 minutes to get through security, a process that usually takes 10 minutes. This time around, it took us about five minutes which was welcomed because we needed to make up the time that it took us to check-in.

Heathrow airport: airline lounge

The airline lounge was less chaotic than it was during our Crete trip. Ordering food and drinks via the app was better and it was a much more pleasant experience all around.

Heathrow airport: terminal and boarding

As with our trip to Crete, we had to traverse from Terminal 5 to 5a via the tram and Terminal 5a was a ghost town.

Boarding was done in chunks of 10 rows which sounds great and compliant but the reality is that there is no social distancing once boarding begins. People still gather around the desk at the gate and we all smashed into a queue on the jet bridge with no distance between us.

It’s like we all forgot the rules – or maybe subconsciously we do not care since we are all going to be “sardined” into an airplane anyway?

In-flight experience

The in-flight experience was the same as it was during our flight to Crete as outlined here. In summary, underwhelming and full of single-use plastic.

Italy immigration (Brindisi airport)

With the exception of people keeping somewhat of a social distance and wearing face masks, the immigration experience at Brindisi airport was normal. The officers did not question our USA passports and did not ask for our UK Residence Permits.

Car rental

This time around, we rented a car from Europcar which was another first for us. When I booked the car, I opted for “full cover” insurance because of what I had read about driving in Italy (more on this in a later post).

Protip: At Brindisi airport, the only car rental company that is physically inside the terminal is Sixt. After bumbling around for a couple of minutes, we finally found the car rental building (adjacent to the terminal).

Between the plexiglass and the agent’s face mask, I could barely understand what he was saying to me but what I gathered was that he (1) wanted to know if I wanted to purchase additional insurance and (2) was telling me that he was giving us a VW Polo with an automatic transmission.

Note: Automatic cars are not plentiful outside of the USA (and Canada?). There are some rental car companies that offer automatic cars but you will pay 50-100% more to rent an automatic car than a manual car in the same car class. Or you will be forced into a more expensive car class because the lower car classes do not offer automatic transmission cars.

First, insurance. I was completely confused with his insurance upsell because I had purchased additional insurance when I booked and paid for the car. I declined his shockingly expensive offer of €30/day (£218 for the duration of our rental!).

As we were walking to the car, everything clicked. The additional insurance I purchased at the time of booking was through an unknown third-party, not Europcar.

What this boiled down to is that if something were to happen, we would have had to pay Europcar for the damage and then submit a claim to the third-party insurance company and hope for reimbursement – a process that I am confident would have been as clear as mud and frustration-free.

Protip: We do not have a car in the UK but prior to this trip, Peter and I discussed buying a one-year auto insurance policy through a company in the UK that would cover rental cars. This is a much more economical way of obtaining additional insurance than purchasing additional insurance with every car rental. For example, a one-year insurance policy costs about £60 and I paid £40 for our car rental in Italy.

The reason why we did not purchase a one-year policy prior to this trip was that we do not foresee ourselves traveling to a destination where we will need to rent a car until early 2021 (hopefully!).

And now that I am writing this post, I am making a mental note to research if our auto insurance policy in the USA will cover rental cars outside of the USA.

Second, automatic transmission. When he told me that our car was an automatic, my gut reaction was that he was trying to upsell us and I was not having it! I was like, don’t you dare try to give me a car that is easier to drive!

Except he was not upselling us.

He was giving us an automatic transmission because that’s what they had in stock or because they needed that car to be moved from Brindisi airport to Bari airport and we were the perfect tourists to move it for them because we had a one-way rental.

Note: The one-way fee was an exorbitant £72 (37% of the total rental cost).

Long story short, our BRAND NEW Golf Polo with an automatic transmission was loaded with options and I loved it! It was incredibly easy to drive and park. We racked-up 421 miles (677 km) over our eight-day holiday.

Another great thing with that car was that it did not have any signage on it indicating it was a rental car (Sixt had a huge orange stick on the back). I’ve always felt that rental signage is an advertisement for crooks to damage the car or for locals to drive extra aggressively to intimidate foreign drivers.

Our experience with Europcar was very pleasant and I appreciated that the car interior was not wrapped in plastic like our car rental in Crete.

Bari airport: departure

As mentioned previously, we flew into Brindisi airport and out of Bari airport.

The departure to the UK from Bari was easy peasy. The only out-of-the norm thing was that we were required to complete a covid departure form which basically declared that, to the best of our knowledge, we were covid-free and did not have any symptoms.

Heathrow airport: arrival

I’ve written a little about travel corridors and after arriving at Heathrow from Italy, the efficacy of travel corridors is questionable.

Italy was (and currently still is) on England’s travel corridors list, however, we were dumped into UK immigration with a HUGE flight from India and another HUGE flight from the Middle East. Both of these flights departed from places that are NOT ON the travel corridors list.

There was a scrum of about 500 people funneling into the roped queues. There was no social distancing and some people were so close that they were physically touching.

Perhaps I am oversimplifying this process but wouldn’t it be more covid-secure if arrivals from countries/regions that are NOT ON the travel corridors list arrive at one terminal and arrivals from countries/regions that are ON the travel corridors list arrive at another terminal?

Being commingled and smashed together in a tight space almost completely defeats the purpose of travel corridors.

Coming up next, a quick post on Puglia basics like geography, accommodation, and a rough itinerary for the travel planners out there.

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