Since “lockdown” was eased, as a travel incentive provider, we have been really keen to find out how well hotels, airlines etc. have adapted so they can welcome us back safely. It’s hugely important for us to be able to reassure clients and prize winners about their forthcoming experiences. We want first-hand experience that people can travel safely so that our clients feel happy making recommendations to the brands they look after.
Following on from Natasha’s UK country house hotel experience to Luton Hoo, our director, Michael, boarded our first flight since March, and headed off to a much-loved European city that is a favourite with our clients – Amsterdam.
Here are Michael’s notes and thoughts on our first overseas break since “lockdown” was lifted.
At the airport – on arrival
The last time I flew was back in February, Covid was grumbling away in China, but still seemed like something that wouldn’t reach us. Just under 5 months on, and I’m off to Amsterdam to see how the travel industry is adapting.
I arrived at Heathrow’s T5, dutifully popped a face covering on (an addition to the packing!) and headed towards departures. The first thing I noticed was the signage. There’s plenty of it, but it’s informative, not forceful, it’s relaxed and reassuring, as are the staff floating around for guidance. Reminders about face coverings and a simple request to sanitise your hands before entering new areas are the only real differences, that, and fewer passengers. Numbers are ramping up, so it’s worth making the most of the relative calm that is currently the airport, if you can find somewhere you’re happy to visit, and that will welcome you as a guest.
Security was a breeze, although the staff did appear to make an additional effort to ensure everything was out of pockets etc. – probably to avoid any unnecessary contact.
You’re requested to maintain a face covering throughout the airport, except when you’re eating, and the majority of outlets are open for business. Some have revised ordering systems (e.g. QR codes), all have hand sanitiser galore, but considering the “new normal” is still quite new, the airports are running with a confident slickness.
Boarding your flight
At the departure gate, the plane is boarded from back to front, with rows called out in order. This creates a relaxed, no rush boarding experience. I appreciate this may not last forever as schedules are ramped up, and passenger numbers increase, but once again you can’t help but think this is quite nice. I believe the flight was around 70% full.
As you board you’re issued with an antiseptic wipe for your seat and table, and some more hand gel – arguably this should have always been the case! The onboard announcements reassure you of the cleanliness of the aircraft and that you need to wear your face covering, ‘please try not to wander around or use the toilet’. I quite like the new additions – who hasn’t craved an antiseptic wipe for their seatback table before? Food and drink are also being served, but no ice.
On arrival into Amsterdam
Amsterdam Airport, Schiphol, is huge. Very few people were wearing face coverings and the emphasis is on social distancing, and hand washing. The Dutch authorities have their own guidance, and I assume they are also ahead of us in terms of how the pandemic has affected and continues to affect their cities and nation. This guidance was relatively frequent and given verbally in a relaxed manner, there was plenty of hand sanitiser stations throughout the airport.
Before departing you’re requested to complete a medical questionnaire for the Dutch government. It’s no hardship, and form filling is likely to become the norm after December and Brexit anyway, so good practice. For your information I was never asked for the form. The version the British Government request you to fill in is online, and slightly more confusing.
Getting to the hotel
I opted for a taxi to the hotel, not due to apprehension, but because I landed relatively late. The driver requested a face covering be worn (he was wearing one), and he asked where I had come from and for a mobile number. The car had a protective ‘sneeze guard’ between the driver and me, but this is standard in a lot of cities. The city seemed relatively busy for a Monday early evening.
At the hotel
On arrival at the INK Box Hotel, a boutique property which is part of the M Gallery Collection, which is in turn part of the hotel giant Accor, there was member of staff at the entrance to assist with guest arrival. The hotel ask you to sanitise at a station away from check in, and whether you have any symptoms – I assume a large hook appears if you say ‘yes’ which drags you directly back to the BA check in desk!
Having passed the test, check in was normal, besides a discreet screen. They gave me the low down on what the hotel have done, and are still doing during this period, more detail on that shortly. The nicest touch was a tote bag, with a ‘comfort kit’ inside. This contained some hand sanitiser, a face covering (for public transport, which is compulsory) and a map of Amsterdam.
The hotel has implemented a one way system around the hotel, and lifts are used for either up or down only. This works really well in addition to the fact you can’t share with anyone outside your family unit, so no more awkward lift chats – more hand sanitiser for the ride too.
The room was immaculate and felt very, very clean. Obviously, you expect this from any hotel room, but at the current time, this offers more reassurance than ever. Various “shared” items have been removed (i.e. hotel mags etc.) and the TV remote and Nespresso packaging have been disinfected and vacuum packed – pretty impressive, and again it only offers more reassurance. It really does not take anything away from the hotel experience, if anything it makes it better. The only concern is the additional plastic waste, but that’s a much bigger story.
Around the city and dinner
I took a wander after check-in, face covering, and sanitiser stuffed into pockets. The city felt busy for a Monday, with bars and restaurants operating like normal. ‘Brown cafes’ were busy, and I was told that the red-light district has been operating again since 1st July, each to their own! Social distancing in bars and restaurants was fairly non-existent, but this may be because they are further down the road than the UK. I made an effort to social distance and sanitise hands discreetly when it felt appropriate, but due to the lower rate, you feel more relaxed – rightly or wrongly. In fact, the city felt like it was pandemic free, a refreshing change to the UK in its current form, I really enjoyed it.
I got an Uber to Café Binnenvisser, a small restaurant in a quiet suburb (they only opened last August, so this has been a rollercoaster!). The usual Uber experience, but with the addition of a face covering for the man upfront (and me) and again, there was a ‘sneeze guard’ between us. The restaurant was full, but not overflowing, it may always be spaced out like this, but it felt like a restaurant did 6 months ago. Without going into what I ate (if you’re a foodie and want to know, drop me a line.), the restaurant was relaxed and the only subtle difference was that reservations and a deposit were required. For context it wasn’t swanky, but I assume they may have suffered with similar problems when lockdown was eased, as our restaurants currently are – no shows.
To avoid a busy restaurant at breakfast, upon check-in you make a reservation for your preferred time or you can have room service. The buffet has been adapted, and is essentially served at your table, with an a la carte option too. Pastries came in cool bakery style paper bags, with the excellent breakfast team serving everything else at your table. They are keen to keep service moving, without you feeling rushed, and the restaurant getting too busy. Here social distance was applied, plenty of space between tables, and people were seated away from each other.
INK Hotel Summary
In general service levels seem heightened, and as I said above, I think hotels need to focus on this as it offers so much reassurance – the INK Box are doing a really fantastic job. They are offering a brilliant home away from home experience, doing everything they can to keep you reassured and safe, without any of the personal service suffering. I could not recommend them enough.
The team at the hotel didn’t know I would be writing about my experience, and during various conversations they explained that visitor numbers were increasing on a weekly basis. Like all hotels, they are delighted to receive guests again, and this could not be any plainer to see.
I got an Uber to the airport, the driver again wore a face covering, as did I. The now familiar informational reminders played throughout, and once you hit security you are requested to wear a face covering again. The format at Schiphol Airport is very similar to Heathrow, gallons of hand sanitiser and passengers spaced out safely. Boarding is done in reverse and the BA crew handed out the same sanitiser packs we received on the way out.
On arrival into Heathrow, fewer flights mean customs is a breeze, in fact it was brilliantly quick. There were no additional questions or checks at Heathrow, although I noticed they were trialling a camera based thermal temperature check – I’m not sure what happens if you appear bright red, and I was pleased not to have to find out!
Whilst it was a whistle-stop trip, lower than normal passenger numbers made it a pleasure. Once you get the initial face covering “thing” in your head, everything else seems practical, not over the top. In Amsterdam, I felt safe, and it was genuinely lovely to wander around and eat out.
Whilst travel prizes and incentives in the short term are most likely not high on the agenda, if you are lucky enough to be able to travel with an element of spontaneity, and you know what the “covid picture” is like on the ground, you can really enjoy some once in a lifetime experiences. Visitor numbers are similar to those experienced in spring but with the added benefit of the summer weather, so typically overcrowded resorts (e.g. Santorini etc.) can be enjoyed in unusual calm.
These are just my opinions, and I appreciate we all feel very differently about the pandemic and how it’s played / is playing out for us, but I hope this helps a little if you are considering heading off somewhere yourself, or planning to use travel as an
in 2021. Obviously by then, we hope that things will have improved further, but like I said above, if you select your destination sensibly and base your decision on the information at hand, you can enjoy a break overseas without any drama.
NB: Travel’s been my job since I was 17(!), so it would be unprofessional of me if I didn’t advise the following, and this applies whether we’re in a pandemic or not! Check with your travel insurer on their cover, especially relating to Covid-19. Regularly check-in with the FCO’s (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) advice on your chosen destination, and on any restrictions that may apply when re-entering the UK. Ensure you check with your airline, hotel etc. what their policy is should you wish to either not travel, or if advice changes against travel, do this regularly as it is changing regularly.