At London St Pancras, a ghost station for much of the past two years, the sun was shining through the glass roof and Elton John’s piano, sealed up for Covid, was ringing out again. Happily for Eurostar, the start of the half-term getaway brought the return of queues of passengers snaking up along the shopfronts, heading to Paris and Amsterdam.
“I’m so excited, I’m like a child!” said one woman lining up with her boyfriend for the 10.22am departure, a 22nd birthday present of a trip to Paris.
She was not the only one feeling that way. On the day many schools in England broke up and Covid travel restrictions lifted, tour operators and airlines have seen the first mini-boom of 2022. With families heading abroad on ski holidays and city breaks – and summer bookings flooding in – the battered travel industry expressed cautious optimism that this year normality is returning.
Business has taken off since the announcement in late January that England’s Covid test requirements for the vaccinated would be removed, saving costs and hassle, and giving customers confidence to book after the uncertainty of the traffic light regime that changed permitted destinations weekly.
The need for post-arrival or day two tests officially lifted just hours earlier at 4am Friday, and Eurostar, whose survival has been in question, was buzzing again. The cross-Channel service’s station staff were busy urging passengers to move along, prepare their negative Covid tests – still a requirement for France – and wear their masks.
“Avancez, c’est bon, juste-là – it’s great to see that it’s so busy, but …” said one happily stressed Eurostar employee, herding people into the right queue. This is the first day, she says, in a long while that trains have been so packed, with 700 or so people on each. Several of the nine departures to Paris were sold out entirely. In the depths of the pandemic, the solitary daily train was barely occupied.
Now there were couples off to Paris – “it’s Valentine’s, our first,” one said – as well as groups heading to the ski slopes, and families taking their first holiday since Covid.
Kelsey Burdon, from Chelmsford, was heading with her partner and two children to Disneyland. “It’s our first trip in two years. We booked a long time ago.” Not having to test on return was a happy bonus: “We’ll save a lot on the day two tests.”
Pete Hovden, from south London, who works in IT, was taking his son Charlie to see Paris Saint-Germain play football. The rule change hadn’t been a factor, he said: he had recently managed to go on a skiing trip that was rescheduled three times, and travelled round Europe during the pandemic. “I don’t think people worry so much after two years of this – they book and accept they might have to cancel,” he said.
Travel agents say that the uncertainty has left many looking to experts to arrange their holiday. Hays Travel, which took over the collapsed Thomas Cook high street agencies in 2019, took a third more bookings the week after the change was announced, up to the level just before coronavirus first hit.
Dame Irene Hays, the firm’s chair, said it was “remarkable to see”. Greece, Spain and Turkey were booking as ever but there was “phenomenal interest in destinations further afield”, from Mexico and the Caribbean to Bali and Dubai. Customers were spending an extra £500 for an average family holiday, she said, for better accommodation and a longer stay.
EasyJet said ski, city and beach holidays had sold well, with Geneva, Amsterdam, Tenerife and Málaga the top destinations for a busy half-term. Spain, Portugal, Greece, Switzerland and Germany had all recently lifted travel test requirements for vaccinated UK travellers, giving “completely test free holidays options”, the airline said.
MAG, owners of Manchester and Stansted airports, expects 1.5 million passengers over the next 16 days (with schools in some regions breaking up next Friday) – more than 20 times the number a year ago. “There’s a real sense of excitement for travel as we head into the summer season,” said chief executive Charlie Cornish.
Gatwick was set for its busiest day of 2022 with about 50,000 passengers on Friday – and also announced it would reopen its South Terminal on 27 March, when British Airways will restart short-haul flights from the airport. Gatwick mothballed one of its two terminals in June 2020 when numbers had fallen by 95%, but now anticipates a busy summer, welcoming 5,000 more people back to work at the airport. Its chief executive, Stewart Wingate, said: “Things are shaping up quite nicely – this is remarkably different. Airlines want to fly and passengers want to travel. In a little over six weeks we’ll be starting to grow again.”
BA will operate more flights to cities such as Barcelona and Lisbon this half-term after seeing a “boost to bookings” from the Covid test changes. At both Gatwick and Heathrow, unnamed volunteer employees were donning Peggy the Pegasus and Leo the Lion outfits ready for family check-in. Tenerife, Madeira and Lanzarote were the most searched for destinations, BA said, with holidaymakers flocking to the Canaries.
One Canary Island exodus may not make a summer, some warned. Heathrow airport said it had seen an “Omicron hangover” affecting demand. And Abta, the travel association, said that half-term was promising but not a key moment for most tour operators. A spokesperson said: “Quite a few things still need to change and remain stable for us to get back to pre-pandemic levels – but it’s definitely improving.
“There’s very much a feeling this year that people are going to jump on every opportunity to travel. A lot of people have decided, great, we’re finally going to go away – and [they] are off.”