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London: Lots of changes, but everything stays the same

November 1, 2021

In my 41 years at British Airways, I reckon I must have traveled to London around 300+ times, plus a year living and working in London in 1979.  I guess that dates me, but certainly not as long as London’s been around. 

My many visits since 1970 don’t hold a candle to the almost 2000 years that London has existed, but in the 50 years since I’ve been going in and out of the UK, London has stood its post.  Politics change and politicians come and go, but London stands firm.  It always has and always will.

Over the past 20 months, I’ve been pining to go to London – see my friends, shop in Knightsbridge, Kensington and Oxford Street, attend the wonderful theatre and just take in that British blanket of language, food, drink and ‘joie de vivre.’

On September 20, my wife and I received our third booster vaccination, and two weeks later we got our annual flu jabs.  We were ready to hop over ‘the pond’ to London.  Now the magic question, aside from buying an airline ticket and making hotel bookings, what pandemic bureaucracy were we going to face in light of previous travel when all we needed was a valid passport?

On October 4, the UK Government relaxed some of the inbound requirements such as quarantine rules and multiple Covid tests.  From what we could decipher, all we needed was proof of vaccination and/or a negative covid test taken 72 hours prior to departure, and a Covid test within 48 hours of arrival.  Seemed easy enough.

What we also learned upon making our airline booking, was that we needed to use the ‘VeriFly’ app that contained all the necessary information enabling us to fly to the UK without a lot of bother on British Airways.  Luckily I have a brilliant wife that totally understands the world of technology and apps.

Forty eight hours prior to departure, we loaded the required information into VeriFly: photograph, flight and itinerary information, home address, address in the UK, passport information, and proof of vaccinations and/or negative Covid test results. 

Even though it sounds cumbersome and time consuming, and it is,  once you received the VeriFly green check mark, you’re set.  Of course, you have to repeat some of the process for the return trip, but just to be able to fly away and get out of the ‘homebound rut’ is worth all the pre-flight preparation.

Once checked in at Miami International, it was all old hat.  There’s the usual TSA queue, but with Global Entry, we didn’t have to remove our shoes, just our iPad and personal computer, mobile telephone and whatever else metallic or weird shape item that might give the TSA a second glance at all our carry ons.  We whizzed through.

Once on board the British Airways flight we found ourselves in the new Club World (business class) cabin.  No more ‘ying-yang,’ (I actually liked flying backwards), but now it’s a herring bone, front facing configuration of 1-2-1 on board the Boeing 777. 

The seats, which easily convert to flat beds, are very comfortable and I had no problem stretching out my 6’2” frame.  There is plenty of cabin storage space above the seats and several nooks and crannies to store small items such as wallets, mobile phone, etc.  In one compartment there are several plugs for chargers and earphones.  My only gripe with these handy compartments is they are not lit and it’s tough to see without a small light in the compartment.  After feeling around the plugs, I got the gist of what goes where.  It’s a huge improvement over trying to find a charger plug under your seat or at some strange spot near the floor.  The new business class also affords more privacy with individual sliding doors.  

Also airline regulations require the wearing of a face mask throughout the flight except while eating or drinking.

The service and food on the eight and one-half hour flight was excellent and all seemed to go exceedingly fast.  We actually arrived early and had to be bussed to Heathrow Terminal Five; actually easier than schlepping downstairs to the train, waiting for the train, the short train trip and then up the escalators to UK Border Control.

The UK immigration process is now very quick – slip the passport into a reader, your picture taken simultaneously, and off you go.  There were no queues whatsoever and we were onto the the baggage hall in less than a minute.  And luckily, our bags were on the carousel as we arrived.   

Now for the arrival Covid test.  We knew beforehand we must be tested within 48 hours from arrival, so we pre-booked our Covid test through Expresstest.co.uk. referred to us through a friend that already had traveled to London the previous week. 

Unlike the USA where most testing is free, you have to pay for the tests in the UK.  But it’s all worth it!  Once out of the baggage hall on the lower level of Terminal Five, we turned left and within 30 seconds, found the Covid testing site.  Within a few minutes of checking in, the tests were administered and we were off to catch an Uber for Central London. 

And by the way, the UK Government very recently changed rules regarding the type of Covid test and now only a lateral flow test is required.

Riding into town on the M4 seemed like homecoming although it had only been two years since our last pass through London, but when you’re used to being in London many times in a year, it was thoroughly unique and a happy blessing.

Very first impressions as we drove up to our hotel in Kensington was why aren’t all the people walking around wearing masks.  Yes, we spotted a few people with masks, but most were without face coverings.  

Upon checking in at our hotel, The Bailey’s Hotel, across the street from the Gloucester Road Underground station, we were relieved that most of the hotel staff were wearing masks.   During check-in, we were advised our room, because of Covid precautions,  would only be cleaned and serviced every three days, but if we needed fresh towels, bathroom toiletries, tissues or toilet paper, etc., it could all be readily replenished by asking the concierge.  And it always was during our ten-day stay. 

We opted for breakfast every morning; the offering is a full English breakfast buffet except that a waiter has to fill your plate at your direction.  It’s a Covid thing.   And then hand it to you at the end of the hot food buffet line.   You could self-serve your own cereal, fruit, juices and baked goods.   Coffee, tea, hot chocolate could be ordered from a waiter.  Breakfast was excellent!

During our stay, the hotel was constantly bustling with people, checking in, checking out, meeting other people; the reception area seemed always busy with the concierge constantly on the move assisting clients with London information, carrying bags or just general directions or  chit-chat.

Once settled in at Bailey’s, we set off for Kensington Palace and the Princess Diana wedding dress exhibition.  The dress exhibit will be on display through January 2, 2022.   To say it’s a popular exhibition is an understatement; seemingly Princess Diana lives on in everyone’s mind and thoughts.  Outside in the gardens, there also is a statue of Princess Diana with three children, a symbol of her love and affection for young people. 

On the weekend, we ventured to the famous Oxford Street and Bond Street shopping areas.  Sadly, there were many closed or abandoned looking shops with dirty windows and papers strewn on the insides, but for the most part, all the big Oxford Street department stores as well as chic, posh Bond Street boutiques were open and many had long queues of people waiting to get in.  The famous Knightsbridge shopping temple, Harrods, also was full of customers.  Life appeared as though it was trying to get back to normal.

Missing in the street crowds were Americans.  Yes I heard some ‘American English,’ but not a lot.  It was mostly Europeans, Middle Easterners and Asians.  I heard lots of German, French and Italian plus other languages thrown in.  Oh well, anything to bolster the British economy.

I also spoke to several hotel concierges about the return of tourism to Britain – their dire wish was “bring back the Americans.”  It can only be hoped that with the reduction of Covid cases, more people being vaccinated and the dismantling of some of the rigid and expensive testing protocols in the UK,  Americans will once again start heading back to “Blighty.”

Walking the streets, one could not but take in the crowds not wearing masks.  It seems Londoners and visitors have just taken for granted that the Covid threat has retreated or that most people feel confident that their jabs will protect them against virus and its variants.  People walk about as if nothing has happened.  We, of course, wore our masks whenever we ventured out of our hotel room.

Note: London Transport and UK railways require that masks be worn at all times on buses, the underground and regional trains, but it is not enforced.  

The theatre experience was quite interesting.  We enjoyed three theatre occasions.  When purchasing the theatre tickets, we were advised that we were to have our Covid vaccination certificates available for review upon entering the theatre.  At only one of the three theatres were people wearing masks and ushers requesting a review of the patron’s Covid vaccination cards.

Towards the end of our week, we had to look forward to getting our Covid tests in order to return to the USA.  The rules vary depending on whether one is vaccinated or not.  Again we made an appointment with expresstest.co.uk and proceeded with our tests at Heathrow’s Terminal Five.  We did the testing on a Sunday and within a few hours, we received the negative results and loaded the information onto VeriFly and we were ready to go. 

Two days later we checked in at Heathrow for the return flight to Miami, and with the VeriFly app, check-in was a breeze.  With our bags in the airline’s hands, we went through security to the duty free shops, which really weren’t duty free at all.

The UK has eliminated VAT refunds so there are no real bargains to be had, and duty-free is really a misnomer.

We found better bargains at some of the big department stores, and for liquor, wine, candies and chocolates,  local supermarkets had superior deals and lower prices.  The supermarkets all advertise deals with three for the price of two or buy one, get one free or buy the second at 50 percent off.

Out from the ‘fake’ duty free area and moving towards our gate, the crowds were somewhat present, but not awful.

Our flight to Miami was uneventful and we arrived ahead of schedule.  Once we disembarked the aircraft, we were told to line up for a passport and Covid check, but in fact, no one checked anything, and we whizzed to the Global Entry machines.  Passports read and photo taken simultaneously, we walked to baggage claim. We barely waited five minutes for our bags to appear on the carousel.  And once we were reunited with our bags, it was a quick exit to the taxi rank and 30 minutes later we were home.

The whole experience was what I term a very ‘happy trip.’  We met with friends, ex-work colleagues, saw theatre, rode the big red buses and the underground, walked about the city and the numerous shops and familiar neighborhoods with little or no worry of being infected by the horrendous virus. We took every safeguard possible and have survived to tell lots of stories. 

If you’re vaccinated and can muster through all the protocols, which could easily change every other week, go for it!  You’ll have no regrets and be much the wiser and happier.  Lots of changes in travel and the travel process, but it’s pretty much basically the same!

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One Comment
  1. Peter Hanley permalink

    Super Lampl job….Though it has been a few decades since visiting London in person….felt like I was there after your travelogue. Glad all went well and you guys are back on terra-firma. All the Best. pH

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