A frequent flyer has revealed that he managed to fly internationally multiple times over the past year without catching Covid – and is proof that global travel can be done safely if it’s properly managed.
Travel expert Gilbert Ott, who runs the flight tips site God Save The Points, told MailOnline Travel that in 2020 and 2021 he flew to New York (twice), Santorini, Los Angeles and Palm Springs and remained virus-free.
The 34-year-old said: ‘I have at least 10 tests to my name as proof, across varying periods of time. Each time I stayed in a hotel or Airbnb and observed quarantine and restrictions in each country.
Gilbert is pictured here with his wife, Laura, and baby daughter on an August 2020 British Airways flight to Santorini
Gilbert with his baby daughter in Palm Springs earlier this year
‘I believe there’s always some luck involved in life, but I also believe that all studies showing how safe air is on planes – 10 times safer than home, five times safer than a hospital – is a big factor to unlocking travel, and that testing is too. I feel safer on a plane, next to people who have tested negative, than in many environments nearer home.
‘I’ve spent more than 60 to 80 hours on a plane this year with no Covid or symptoms.
‘I’ve flown different airlines and seen each approach to clean planes.
‘I’m not advocating breaking the rules, but just highlighting how safe travel can be. I’m living proof.’
Gilbert, an American passport holder who divides his time between London and New York, said that while plane air is one of the very cleanest indoor environments you can be in – ‘because air constantly blows directly down and goes through Hepa filters’ – ‘the only time this isn’t perfect is at the boarding gate when the plane might not be fully loaded’. He said that he boards late to avoid this.
Gilbert added that he was ‘super-impressed’ with Virgin Atlantic – ‘from the three masks, gels and wipes each traveller gets to the food and work put into the service, I couldn’t fault it’.
‘British Airways was great, too,’ he said.
For anyone nervous about taking an international trip in the future, Gilbert has some advice.
He said: ‘I’ve actually preferred destinations where Covid-19 testing is mandatory, or vaccination is high because it means people on the flight should be safer than destinations which don’t require it.
Gilbert with his baby daughter in Santorini – a trip that he said was a real highlight
Gilbert said that he was very impressed with BA’s Covid security. He’s pictured here after touching down in Santorini
‘Choose destinations which are seasonal and sunny, where outdoor activity and or dining is easy. It’s not easy to eat out in New York in the middle of winter, but in Palm Springs, it is.
‘I picked private accommodations, such as villas without shared spaces or house rentals to avoid shared lobbies, gyms and other facilities where you can’t control the environment.
‘Even though indoor dining has returned, I’m still prioritising outdoor eating because of inside air issues, at least until vaccination rates are higher.
‘Choose destinations where people are taking safety protocols seriously. For example, Texas has dropped the mask mandate, so people aren’t always following it now, whereas New York and California are surprisingly excellent with mask-wearing, even better than the UK.’
Of the places he visited, Gilbert picked out Greece and California as highlights.
He said: ‘The best experiences included Santorini Sky in Greece, where everyone has their own entrance, villa and pool, and renting a house in Palm Springs, for a fraction of the price of shared accommodations in Los Angeles.’
And where’s next?
Gilbert said: ‘I’ve had a year of normal holidays, so will now tap out and let everyone else have their turn.’
What you need to know about testing…
By Denis Kinane, Chief Medical Officer at Cignpost Diagnostics
When travel is reopened, what part will testing play?
Currently, most countries say they will require holidaymakers to have a negative Covid-19 test no more than 72 hours before they travel. Most countries say this must be a PCR test, which can detect Covid-19 at an earlier stage as it is more sensitive than other tests, allowing greater confidence.
Will holidaymakers who have been vaccinated need to take a Covid-19 test?
The WHO has indicated that vaccines do not rule out current Covid-19 safety measures, such as mask wearing and testing. We don’t yet know whether vaccines stop people getting or transmitting Covid-19, so PCR testing is the most effective way of ensuring a holidaymaker is not carrying Covid-19 when they travel.
Will I need a vaccine passport?
When it comes to travel, the concept of ‘vaccine passports’ has become a hot topic. Desperate for a return to normality, many countries are contemplating endorsing ‘vaccine passports’ as part of their plans to reignite international travel over the coming months. Many are unhappy with the idea of ‘vaccine passports’ however, due to their concern that vaccine passports could lead to discrimination against those who have not been vaccinated for cultural or medical reasons, or because they are not on the government’s priority list. In response to this unrest, the EU is expected to draw up plans for ‘Green Digital Certificates’, which would show whether EU citizens have had the vaccine, a negative Covid-19 test, or have previously had Covid-19. This Vaccine certificate is consistent with the WHO’s recommendations.
Does the EU’s Digital Green Certificate remove the need for testing?
No. According to the EU’s launch announcement, the certificate will be given to any EU citizen who can provide evidence that they have been vaccinated, have recently tested negative or have acquired antibodies after recovering from the virus. Around 24million people in Britain won’t receive their second vaccination until late summer and autumn, including many of those aged between 18 to 40 who are in the lowest risk groups, so testing is essential for them to travel abroad this summer. In addition, the WHO has made it clear that being vaccinated in itself does not fully mitigate the risk and Covid-19 safety measures will have to be retained.
What are the different types of Covid-19 tests?
Broadly, there are two different types of testing. One to find out if a person currently has Covid-19 and the other determines whether they have previously had the virus, been vaccinated and built-up immunity (antibodies).
PCR (Polymerise Chain Reaction) is currently the most common form of testing in the UK and at 99 per cent accuracy, is seen as the most reliable test for viral carriage. If you have been tested by the NHS in a testing centre, or have been sent an NHS test in the post, this will have been a PCR test. A swab is used to collect a sample from the patient’s tonsils and inside their nose and this is then sent to a laboratory to test for genetic material called RNA. Bioscientists can then see whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the virus that causes Covid-19) is present.
A rapid antigen test, also known as a lateral flow test, detects proteins on the surface of the virus, called antigens. Inserted into the nose or throat, the swab is then inserted into a tube of liquid. The liquid is then dropped onto a small strip, which will show two lines if it is positive, one line on the top if it is negative or one line on the bottom if the test is invalid. Lateral flow tests use similar technology to a pregnancy test. These tests are the cheapest option and return results within 30 minutes, but are less accurate than PCR tests, as they can only detect a high load of the Covid-19 virus, so they can miss up to one third of positive cases. In addition, because of the low prevalence of Covid-19 in the population at present, they are also likely to have a high level of false positives. Antigen tests are therefore most accurate when used within a few days of the start of your symptoms, when there is a higher viral load present in your body. SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory group, has warned that with mass testing using lateral flow tests, false positives and false negatives could have ‘critical implications’ for effectiveness, so follow-up confirmatory tests are extremely important with lateral flow positive results. Given SAGE’s advice, lateral flow can only be considered a red light rather than a green light indication, meaning that facemasks, social distancing and viral hygiene will still be necessary.
A similar process to PCR testing, LAMP (loop-mediated isothermal amplification) tests are the least common. They require a swab from the nose and throat and give results within 90 minutes. Similarly to lateral flow tests, LAMP tests can only detect a high load of Covid-19 virus, so they can miss people in the early stages of infection. Samples can be processed on-site and are analysed to confirm the presence or not of SARS-CoV-2 RNA.
Antibody testing looks at whether your body has produced any antibodies to fight against the virus. This is done via a blood test and must be taken from a Covid 19 patient whose symptoms ended three to four weeks before. This test then determines whether any antibodies are present. Currently, there are tests in development that would allow a person to submit their own blood test from home.
Which test will holidaymakers need to travel?
For a definitive list of testing requirements, travellers should visit the official Gov.uk website. It is important that holidaymakers check the rules for the destination they are visiting as it will be their responsibility to take the right tests.
What about returning to the UK?
The UK has a testing process that is even more rigorous than the departures process as it requires arrivals to isolate for 10 days and have negative PCR tests on or before day two, and on day eight of their entry into the UK.
Why are testing rules different by destination?
These are political decisions based on countries’ own experiences of Covid-19, the need to get their tourism industry up and running, and the safety procedures they already have in place.
How can tests be used to open up travel?
A combination of testing and vaccinations will provide the pathway out of the current crisis. The use of lateral flow tests have become more commonplace in recent months and there are some clear benefits to these tests. Results can usually be read within 30 minutes and they are a much faster indicator of infection than PCR tests, meaning positive cases can isolate immediately, breaking chains of transmission. However, they are also less accurate than PCR tests, which can detect Covid-19 even if only present in the smallest of traces.
Challenges on testing going forward
One of the biggest hurdles to the reopening of society will be one of confidence, as both consumers and the government must have complete faith in the accuracy of the tests taken to open up all sectors of society safely. Lateral flow tests are fast-acting and cheap, but also miss a significant proportion of positive cases. In comparison, gold-standard PCR tests, whilst costlier, produce significantly more accurate results. This has initiated a debate around how the government finds a balance between protecting lives and the cost-effectiveness of their testing strategy, one which I suspect will continue to rage on until the end of the pandemic.
Is a combined approach the solution?
It’s clear Covid-19 testing is going to become a normal part of life, at the very least until the UK’s vaccination programme is complete. There are advantages and disadvantages to every type of test, so now, the challenge is to determine the most effective combination of testing. In my view, as long as people understand the limitations of lateral flow testing, using a combination of the different technologies available to us is the best solution.