Around the World · Top Travel Tips

Travel in the Time of Corona

Since we covered 3-hour walks to the airport last time, I’ll skip that today. Still, travel in the time of Corona remains its own kind of adventure.

When it comes to international measures and travel restrictions, we’re now nearly four months in. And yes, it’s still hard to believe that much time has passed.

Much of it has been uncharactaristically quiet—for me and, of course, many others. But in June the time came to hit the skies again: back to the US to pick up my daughter from her (Philippine) summer break.

And with it comes this rare opportunity to write a travel-themed post:

What to Expect from Air Travel during COVID-19

Phase 1: Booking Tickets 

If there’s one lesson I can definitely say I’ve learned, it’s not to book flights with Icelandair during coronavirus outbreaks. 

The first time I took their flight connecting the US East Coast to Europe was in 2014. Overall it was a short, easy, and affordable journey. 

Thus, in March of the oh-so-ominous 2020, when my $150 direct flight from New York to Amsterdam with Norwegian Air (I know right!) was canceled, I found myself booking this Iceland-route again. 

So I’m in New York, ready and waiting for my new flight and, at the last minute, it’s also canceled.

Lesson #1: Don’t book with airlines that have a high cancelation rate. To check an airline’s historical performance, visit FlightStats.

This time, at least, I’m automatically rebooked on a series of other flights—through Boston and Paris, because why not. But I make it to Amsterdam and all is well.

Fast-forward two months, and I’m booking a flight back to the East Coast. If only someone could tell me why I chose Icelandair again.

A few days before the flight, I—of course—happen upon an email announcing the cancelation.

(Nothing against Icelandair—their support is great—but it begs the question, has the airline been flying at all or are they just selling tickets for fun?)

Thankfully their customer service was easy to reach—which is a lot more than can be said for Gate1, or just about any other third-party booking site for that matter. (Yes, that includes you, Vayama.)

Lesson #2: During a coronavirus outbreak, it’s best to book directly with your airline. They are far more likely to be reachable by phone when dealing with changes—which are also very likely.

Having paid Gate1 an extra 50 euros for a “flexible” ticket and 10 euros on top of that for a “premium” support package, the notice I received read (loosely translated) as follows:

Important information about your booking

One or more of the flights in your booking have been canceled. Because of this, it will be impossible to travel. Unfortunately, we cannot help you at all at this moment. Are you stuck somewhere? We recommend contacting the local authorities. Considering the circumstances, we cannot offer you any assistance. 

So I start looking through their website and emails for a phone number and when I finally find one (the one I paid 10 euros for), I get a man telling me, “Sorry, we’re not around to help you. Please use our contact forms.”

Response times, by the way, range from 3 to 5 weeks.

Lesson #3: If you do book through a third-party website, be sure to carefully read the actual airline’s policy.

Firstly, to make sure it still applies if you don’t book with them directly.

Secondly, because you probably don’t need to spend money on the add-ons that promise more flexibility or better support. You’ll either be getting it automatically because COVID, or not getting it regardless.

And that was that. Time to book a new flight. We’ll hound these guys down for a refund later, my sister assures me; right now, you need to get to your daughter.

This time, no booking sites. I’m going directly to the airline. In this case, it’s American Airlines (not my favorite, but it’s all that’s available).

Note to reader: What follows is a somewhat lengthy account of random mishaps that made my travel experience that much more exciting. To get back to airplanes and useful advice, skip on ahead to Phase 2.

To pay with my card from the Philippines, I need to get a text message to my Philippine sim card. But I’m in Luxembourg and the sim card in my phone is a Dutch one.

I call my mom back in the Netherlands and ask her if she can grab my old phone, which I’ve left at her house. Once the code is sent I have 15 minutes: can I explain how to power on the phone—with its finicky old buttons—draw the unlock pattern, and find the right messages app in this limited window of time?

It works! Thank you, mom, for jumping to my aid.

But the card doesn’t work, so I have to try something else. Turns out that while the Dutch AA site doesn’t have PayPal, the British one does—so I go for that.

Payment submitted, confirmation received.

Time to enjoy the last evening at my sister’s and get ready for the long train ride home.

In this case, the long German train ride. And in as much as these industrious folks can be relied upon for all manner of things, you can trust that their trains will not run as scheduled. 

Well, the first one did: it left and arrived exactly as planned. The second one, though, stopped dead in its tracks some ten-to-twenty minutes from its final destination.

I did my best to piece together the German announcer’s updates: train cannot proceed; must take a detour. Siebzehn minuten delay. Then is was sechzig minuten delay. Indeed, we arrived in Duisburg an hour later—convenient enough, because that’s when the next train in my direction was set to depart.

There I am, on the last train, scheduled to arrive at 7 pm now instead of 6. Still enjoying my audiobook.

Maybe halfway to my desintation, the train stops and a conductor comes by. First he talks in German, then some English; when I tell him I’m going to Holland, it’s broken Dutch. Something about needing to move to another part of the train. So I get up and walk toward the front. 

I’m pretty confused, though. When I get to the first-class compartment I start looking around, trying to figure out how far I’m supposed to walk. By the time I step out on the platform, luggage in tow, to see what’s going, the Holland-bound half of the train has left the station.

I ask the conductor on the platform (only fellow not wearing a mask), where the train to Arnhem is. One hour, he says.

On the bright side, there’s still a bit of sunshine on the platform; I sit in it and keep going with the book.

There’s a change-of-platform announcement, so I carry my trolley up and down the stairs to the other side. Then another announcement: back to the other one.

Always good to have a stretch of the legs.

It’s after eight when I make it back to Holland—just in time to deal with another airplane issue: though I got a confirmation the PayPal booking didn’t work and I have no ticket. So I book another one. Same flight: there really only is one from Amsterdam to the US right now, and it’s routing me through Dallas.

Phase 2: At the Airport

So booking was a bit stressful. But getting to the airport?

I take 30-minute a train from Utrecht to Schiphol, arriving at 7:40. By 8:10, I’m sitting near the gates having a coffee. This has to be some kind of record.

The longest line I stood in was three-people-long—me being the third.

Honestly, as crazy as it’s been so far, once I’m at the airport it sinks back in: I love traveling. It’s absolutely exhilarating. 

Right now, I’m having a coffee in Amsterdam. This evening, I’ll get to see my brother in Dallas. Tonight, a friend in Virginia. Then it’ll be my daughter and me in DC, California-bound—and I sure can’t wait for the sunshine. April was an exceptional month in Holland but it’s been getting grey again. 

Just enjoying the brew for now. On-board service promises to be minimal and I’m flying American, so I can’t expect much from the coffee anyway.

Phase 3: In the Air—What to Expect

Masks. You’ll definitely have to wear them while boarding and deplaning. Officially, they should stay on for the entire flight, except while eating. But of all the flights I’ve taken recently, only one short one was full; all others had ample empty seats to keep every passenger spaced apart.

I’ve also heard the airline staff make announcements along the lines of, “Wear your masks, but please also be respectful of those who, for some reason, cannot.”

Food. On shorter Delta flights you’re given a “snack bag” with a water bottle and some cracker-type stuff (which neither my daughter nor I, nor the passenger who offered us hers, had any interest in).

Before boarding one flight, an airline staff member told passengers to buy food at one of the airport restaurants if they wanted a meal since nothing would be served.

Long-haul flights will provide one hot meal but every food item will be packaged—including the dinner roll (yech).

At least American Airlines wasn’t stingy on alcohol.

Drinks. Though alcohol and hot beverages were served on my flights earlier in June, the latest news from airlines such as KLM (leave it to the Dutch to be stingy) is that alcohol will not be served.

They’ll bring the cart around with cans of coca cola, but apparently there’s no way to serve a can of beer or those signature little wine bottles without breaking the COVID rules. 

And what about coffee? The email I got from KLM says, “Also our drinks service has been simplified; we will only be able to offer you water or soft drinks. Of course, you are most welcome to bring your own snacks. Please note that food & beverage shops on some airports may be closed.”

Phase 4: Landing in the United States

Health Checks. If arriving in the US on an international flight, expect a slower deplaning process. Passengers will be let off the plane twelve at a time and stopped for a health check. 

You’ll get a health declaration form before boarding, fill it out, and hand it to health checkers at the airport after landing. If you look healthy, they’ll check a box. Your temperature should also be taken. 

Quarantine. Again, if arriving in the US on an international flight, you’ll be given a form to keep track of your health and temperature for fourteen days. This, and any quarantine—as I understand it—is voluntary.

When you’re ready, fly safe.

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