I extended a mustelid paw across the sea to visit the prehistoric standing stones of Carnac in France. I figured it would be a low-key attempt to test foreign travel post/during Covid. It’s not the first time I have been there, but there are one hell of a lot of sites in a very small area. The stones were good –
and it was an opportunity to remember what the point of this early retirement lark is. So I had a good time, also visiting Mont Saint-Michel on the way back.
France seemed to work well in my view
Firstly a shout out for the fine Starling Bank corporation, where you really can use your debit card like you would in Blighty, you get the Mastercard interbank rate and no minimum amount, fees, loading or whatever. And they will send you a notification of the transaction and cost in pounds, pretty much before you get to put the card back in your wallet. Foreign travel money done right. What’s not to like, apart from that every other bugger nickel-and-dimes you for this that and the other.
There’s a lot of argy-bargy ‘twixt buccaneering Brexit Britain and our nearest neighbours, whether it be Brexit in general, fish in particular, or submarine contracts though Albion seems to be thought of as a bit-player in that specific perfidy.
I am not used to carrying ID in public, one of the nice things about this country is that what’s not specifically prohibited is considered allowed, so unless you are carrying tools for breaking and entering or hurling a ton of metal around menacing bystanders, there’s not a general sus law of people asking ‘papers please’, though you may feel differently about that if you are young and black…
Whereas in many countries and France more specifically it is illegal to be out in public without ID. I’m of the general view that when in Rome etc, so I go along with it if they feel strongly that way. Similarly I wouldn’t go to Dubai and get pissed up, because they are uptight about things like that.
One of the things about the French is they are really big on masks indoors. I admit I find that really unpleasant, because it makes me paranoid, because it’s a big statement that all other humans are out to get you. Yes, I know it’s irrational, it’s how it feels to me. But that’s the way it is.
They don’t generally let you into restaurants (and public buildings like museums of prehistoric artefacts or the Locmariaquer sites) without a Covid vaccination pass as well. You will generally get into shops with a mask but no pass, so you won’t starve, but if you are an anti-vaxxer your life will be hard in France in a way it wouldn’t be here. In France this is done via a smartphone app called TousAntiCovid. Quite remarkably, I had found on expat forums that TousAntiCovid (TAC) will accept the NHS Covid Pass QR codes, which seems either a quaint throwback to earlier times of the Entente Cordiale or a tacit acceptance of the value of the British spending. Given the current state of Anglo-French relations which I would describe as frosty it surprised me. Note that this is not the same as the NHS letter you could request. This isn’t infallible – sometimes it helps to delete the app and generate a new NHS QR code and enter it in, and the fact that TousAntiCovid accepts your NHS codes isn’t necessarily a confirmation that it will go through the app restaurants and museums check it with. Fortunately the first place we went, the Carnac Archaeoscope, wasn’t a stickler for the check actually working, it just had to be there, but some places were less forgiving, so you need to sort it out. And this is where the rest of this post will descend into a rant.
Once upon a time you could travel with just a passport and a ticket
Nowadays, you need to maintain a serious IT operation on the road to jump through all the hoops. I can see a role for that endangered species, the travel agent or some sort of concierge service.
We had researched this, and took one PC and the infernal smartphone per head. I wouldn’t normally bother with a smartphone because a dumb phone has swappable batteries and lower battery consumption, and better RF performance and works better as a phone than a smartphone, and a PC or perhaps a tablet can do the IT requirements, if necessary off the phone data as a hotspot. However, TAC required a smartphone1. Not only that, it flays the living shit out of the battery life even if you turn data and Bluetooth off. I don’t know how to take a screenshot of a smartphone, but the TAC QR code is all you need, so a screenshot displayed as a picture in the gallery would work. Or a printout of the damn thing on a piece of paper, sadly I only got to see an old boy with a dogtag round his neck like a staff pass card with that TAC code on the ferry coming back, but there’s much to say for paper. It doesn’t run out of battery power, backups are cheap and in general this whole experience has made me a massive fan of paper rather than e-whatever. In fact the one piece of equipment I would add would be a small portable photo printer, to get rid of the smartphone liability. It’s a shame those things are so expensive.
TAC also showed me how piss-awful the battery capacity of smartphones is. TAC would easily get me below 40% battery by the evening from a 100% start in the morning, and because I loathe smartphones like the tattooed surveillance agents of darkness they are I am not used to drip-feeding the suckers off any USB teat that is to be found in the surroundings. However, I do have an old power pack consisting of three 18650 Li-ion cells and some electronics to make this into a USB out, and this was hardly depleted at all returning the phone to 100% overnight. I would say a phone battery is less than a third of the power pack’s 10400 mAh nominal capacity. Oddly enough I saw a fair few of these outboard batteries used by the French, who actually seem to use their phones much more for talking to each other rather than diddling about with text which is what I see more here. Perhaps TAC has pushed them that way. In another smartphone epiphany it was also pleasing to see that most French tourists take their photos using half-decent small mirrorless cameras or SLRs rather than chimping with their phones. Frenchies aren’t smartphone paragons by any means, I saw enough families walking through the pleasant nature and the remarkable stones with the adults diddling on their phones studiously ignoring their children and surroundings. but I would say living in the metaverse is a fair bit less than it is in the UK.
There is a myriad of things you have to get sorted before travelling, and also for your return. Nearly all of them are easier on a PC than a smartphone, because data entry, particularly of non-words like passwords and form codes and serial numbers is a misery on a smartphone and error-prone as hell. I was warmed up to this by someone who had been abroad on holiday in late August, and I thought he was overdramatizing the pain, but no. It is cheaper now, but you can still balls it up royally, as Kat from Wandering Bird tells us here, and she clearly travels a lot more than I do, so it seems easy to get caught out!
You can sum up the learning in one simple phrase
In paper I trust.
All else is backup/optionality and will fail you when you need it most. But seriously, guys. It’s like the blessed numbskulls who had a hissy fit when the O2 network failed a few years ago and they had their debit cards on their phones so they were stranded. Bonkers. Don’t introduce needless unreliability, use the card or at least have it as a backup.
Things that could bugger your trip up if you need a smartphone app as a prerequisite:
- The phone hardware fails. Impact with ground, coffee spills, or old age
- The phone software fails or is hacked
- Your network connection fails or you get locked out
- some back-end process the specific app needs goes titsup, a la Wandering Bird fail
- Your battery runs out (and cannot be changed)
Seriously, people. If it’s mission-critical and you have any alternative choice at all DO NOT RELY ON A SMARTPHONE. Just don’t. There’s too much that can go wrong FFS!
It may be convenient. If it works. But it’s a bugger when it doesn’t, eh? So print two copies of your ticket, QR code, whatever.
Most of the time all that happens if your smartphone fails is you don’t get to see cat videos for a while, and you might have to think for yourself for a while rather that while away your time on earth being horrible on anti-social media or watching drivel on Youtube. But the stakes are raised if like the Wandering Bird you don’t get to go away, or even worse, fail to get back home!
In paper I trust
L’enfer, c’est les autres, avec leur kids
I generally don’t travel in school holidays, because, well L’enfer, c’est les autres. More specifically les autres with their damn kids. You also don’t want to go to the megalithic sites in Carnac before October anyway because you have to join a guided tour to get into some of the more popular sites, where you can wander freely in the shoulder season once the kids have gone back.
corrupt firms and incompetent testing
However, I made an exception for the return journey because our corrupt politicians and their corrupt mates have been fleecing travellers for a while now with PCR tests, and clearly their mates had a lot of PCR tests they wanted to sell, so Shappsy-boy didn’t actually declare that you could use cheaper lateral flow tests until after half term had started, and I had left a week before. So I figured I would fix that in France, rather than prebook a PCR test before going, paying an extra £80 for the privilege. This is something I want to pay as little as possible for, particularly the part that goes into the back pockets of, ahem ‘sponsoring’ ministers.
Now as it is I don’t mind paying something because travel is not an essential thing so it would be a bit off to burden the NHS with this, but I do mind the corrupt and barmy system of private firms on the make. Apparently the usual scam is to do a bait and switch, and true to form, the cheapest provider at the time at the top of the alphabetical list would do cheap tests but happened to be out of stock until November the 7th, which is as useful as a chocolate teapot for those returning from half term.
I chose Boots as the provider, and they charged £21 a head, which is not too bad, 10% above the lowest price. The instructions is the box itself made by a crew called Hughes Healthcare were serviceable. The instructions on the Boots website providing the wraparound service to track the results were written by a poorly educated intern who called a QR code on the LFT cartridge a barcode, so I tried to scan the barcode on the box, and the whole customer journey was unreliable, grief-stricken and hard to follow. The best tip I can give you is that the LFT has to be read between 15 mins start and 30 mins.
So take a photo of it on the paper in that time window, and preferably two. Only then start duelling with the website From start to finish the process took over an hour – the test itself was the easy part.
We travelled with Brittany Ferries, who seemed to be on the ball in that they sent through what was needed before travel, sent it through in good time and with links to the government URLs of both countries
If the answer is a smartphone the question is wrong
There are a thousand beautiful ways to start the day that don’t begin with looking at a phone. And yet so few of us choose to do so.
I detest smartphones for many reasons – they do a lot of things, but few of them well. There is nothing I can think of that is improved by inserting a smartphone into the process, with the possible exception of watching some berk walk into a lamp post holding one.
They make rude shits of us all, ignoring the people with us for the lure of AI directed novelty. They have already made a misery of a lot of work with metrics and monitoring.
But this trip has introduced me to a new evil. Government by smartphone – algocracy. You had to fill in a passenger locator form, which I recall from days of yore as a landing card. Back then, the airline or shipping company would distribute these to pole during the journey and you would fill them in with a biro. For the US there was a visa waiver form, the one talking about moral turpitude. Also to be filled in by hand with a biro.
driving resilience out of travel, one electronic form at a time
Now you need a working IT system and network connection. Which is not always easy en route. Since we travelled by car, the extra weight wasn’t a problem, but good luck with flying Ryanair with hand luggage only. OTOH, if you fly Ryanair then you deserve all you get.
You can avoid work requiring a smartphone by retiring early. You can avoid most of the uses of a smartphone by not being a rude berk and actually paying attention to your environment rather than the metaverse.
All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone
Blaise Pascal, 1670
But you can’t avoid the government, and we seem to be sleepwalking into a dystopian algocracy like the Chinese Social Credit system, with the first step being that you have to have smartphone to interact with government services. At least in 1984 the government paid for the telescreen. I don’t know if there is a paper version of the Passenger Locator form – I didn’t want to find out the hard way that there wasn’t.
The direction of travel is creepy, nasty, and a lot of the tech complexity was emitted by Blighty rather than the French 2, who accepted the paper version of the NHS Covid passport at the border crossing. The IT was required for the Day 2 testing and the Passenger Locator form, both of which web forms seemed to be coded by interns with no idea of user interface design. They also needlessly demand you register an account, with the usual incomprehensible mix of lower and upper case characters, numbers and special characters. Which as any fule kno is so absolutely dead easy to enter of a touchscreen keyboard – not.
I don’t have an objection in principle to the Covid regs, but requiring me to run a network-connected IT operation on the move does piss me off – I would like there to have been a paper option for all this crap. Not everybody has or can use a smartphone, and this requirement makes travel plans needlessly fragile. A bunch of paper forms and pens has a resilience that is hard to beat, and if they insist on electronic capture then the fixed site (port terminal, airline) should provide the network-connected and hopefully secure form filling capability, even if it is a last-resort backup
It worked out fine this time
Nothing actually went wrong on this trip, but I had been warmed up to the added complexity by the guy that went in August and the timely reminder of the NHS app going titsup on the 13th of October –
the outage highlighted the problems that can be caused by putting a single centralised system at the heart of modern life. In an era when people expect their online accounts to work instantly, a single government-run app briefly falling offline can in effect close international travel for much of the population.
Well, yes. NEVER RELY ON A SMARTPHONE for anything important. We keep on getting the reminders.
However, it took a lot of pre-planning, a lot of printouts, and a fair amount of research to get all my ducks in a row for this frightful increase in complexity. Perhaps this had been creeping up pre-Covid, though I don’t recall this level of complexity and smartphone-dependence from when I went to Malta in 2018. It doesn’t have anything to do with Brexit – don’t take food into the EU, because, well, we’ve all seen welcome to the Brexit, sir
Indeed, with Brexit you get lots of stamps in your passport, one on ingress and one on egress, it starts to look exciting like James Bond’s again, after a couple of decades of stamp-free travel to the EU. And you can bring food back into the UK for personal use, so we took some French delicacies back.
I don’t think they’d have launched lastminute.com nowadays because you need a couple of days to get a handle on all this crap… It’s also on a per trip basis – not so bad if you go for two weeks, but more of a grunt if you go on a weekend break, or try to attend a conference or business meeting.