International Travel During COVID

International Travel During COVID

What to Expect & How to Prepare

For the past five months, while the global pandemic has disrupted virtually everyone on the planet, life in Anguilla has felt bizarrely normal in some ways. Beyond the fact that most businesses have been shut down (no small matter), the fact that the island is COVID-free has meant no masks, free interactions, no mandates for distancing or limits on celebrations, and perhaps the most important thing: zero concern about contracting COVID. When we chose to depart the island to head to Greece and then to Africa, we knew we were leaving the safety and ease of living in our bubble. It’s a scary thought for many and unthinkable for some but I generally felt ready for the change and a bit of a brush with life outside of the island. As hoteliers preparing to welcome guests back to Anguilla in the (hopefully) near future, I genuinely hope that our experiences of traveling and of observing hotels and facilities in action in locations that are not COVID-free will teach us valuable lessons that we can turn into actionable policies for our own operations. All that to say as a preface, we are travelers who are entering the international travel space as the most disconnected people with arguably the most uncertainty around protocols in the time of COVID. For most people, masks in public spaces, sanitizers readily available, etc. have become part of everyday life, but as a newbie delving into the COVID world, I wanted to share some personal observations around international travel during COVID, what to expect, and how to prepare. If you’re going to breeze through this and want to get to the most important stuff, scroll down to Immigrations and Documentation! 

What to Expect at the Airport

International Travel During COVID

Generally speaking, the volume of travelers is a fraction of what it once was, which means the distancing becomes a much easier prospect. The check-in and security processes were minutes-long. We faced zero lines and were through incredibly quickly. When I booked our flights to Athens, our connection time in Amsterdam was 1 hour and 30 minutes. Generally speaking, I’d find that way too close for comfort. During our flight, we landed a few minutes early, scooted through security and immigrations (more on immigrations below), and had over an hour of waiting time before our next flight boarded. I’m pretty sure that’s never happened ever in my history of travel.

Security seems to have taken a slightly different approach as well to allow for fewer touchpoints. We rarely had to take out all of our liquids, electronics, etc., and instead moved them right through for machine screening. I had one bag pulled for additional screening in Amsterdam, which took just a few minutes since there was no line to contend with.

I had my temperature taken about three times during the transit process; it was quick and not an issue in the slightest as it takes mere seconds (though I imagine it would become an issue if you’re running a fever). As far as masks go, everyone that we saw in all airports was abiding by the mask rule minus diners who could remove their masks to eat and drink. There was talk prior to our flight about ‘surgical masks’ being required, which made us raise our eyebrows about our grey cloth masks. Some travelers wore the full face shields as well, but we generally found that to be the exception. Our experience was that masks, in general, seemed to be okayed at this point as long as they fully cover your nose and mouth. Hand sanitizer is readily available everywhere, with stations in airports for sanitizing. On the airplane, you’ll be given sanitizing pouches for cleaning your hands prior to eating, and our transatlantic flight provided us with a 50ml hand sanitizer in our amenity kit.

As far as airport amenities and services go, most dining outlets and duty-free seemed to be open as usual, with markers on the floor for social distancing. With such few travelers moving through, the distancing component really wasn’t an issue or a conscious concern since it happened naturally. Seating at the gates and in the lounges all noted social distancing measures as well, and in some airports every other seat was blocked to enforce the rule a bit more strictly.

Generally speaking, all of the measures in place made international travel during COVID feel less intimidating and totally feasible. The number of touchpoints has been greatly reduced and all staff members were wearing masks and gloves throughout.

On the Plane

International Travel During COVID
Our flight from AMS to Athens – 3 of 24 seats filled.

Let me start by saying that I find Business Class travel a total treat and it’s something we generally will splurge on with our points bookings for longer flights. If you are able to swing it, I think Business Class is 100% worth the expense when traveling internationally during COVID. The seats are naturally distanced from one another with the larger seats and longer pitch. During our flight from Amsterdam to Athens in Business Class there were three of us seated with 24 available seats. Our flight from Aruba to Amsterdam had a much fuller Business Class but it still felt extremely comfortable and isolated. That said, economy was far from full (on all of our flights) and the attendants seemed very flexible with allowing people to switch seats after takeoff to occupy empty rows.

Masking on an International Flight

International Travel During COVID

Masking is generally required on all flights, and international flights – no matter the length of time – are no exception. We had a 13-hour journey from St. Maarten to Amsterdam and had to wear a mask at all times except during food service (more on that below). We are far less used to masking than the majority of the world and I still didn’t find it too cumbersome of a process. It’s a bit annoying, and I felt like a mummy with my eye mask and face mask on but in the big scheme of things, it’s not enough of an issue to dissuade me from traveling. In fact, in some ways it made me feel a bit more comfortable knowing that everyone was masked. During my most recent flight (five months ago en route to Washington, DC) the lady seated behind me was hacking up a lung, mouth uncovered, right into our seats, for virtually our entire flight. I covered my face with a scarf until we disembarked. COVID was just starting to become a concern and I was horrified to the point where I almost asked a flight attended to have her (or me) moved. When I recall that moment, that uncertainty, and one person’s general lack of consideration, I have a better understanding of why masks are universally enforced at this point. If they help make travelers feel safer and perhaps actually keep people safer, then the awkwardness of wearing a mask for a day is a small price to pay.

Tip: A friend of mine suggested rolling a respiratory blend of essential oils (DoTerra’s Breathe blend) inside the mask when you’re using it for an extended period. Scott and I both found this brilliant. The masks get a bit stagnant after hours of use so the fresh blend of peppermint and eucalyptus helped keep the mask fresh and helped keep us fresh.

Food & Beverage Service

International Travel During COVID

No one seemed to really know if food would be served on the flight. I assumed something would need to be served on a transatlantic long haul but there were rumours that it was extremely limited. I can only speak to our long-haul flight with KLM, but our experience was very pleasant.

We were given two choices of hot meals, and the only real shift I could see was that more disposable items were used (e.g. disposable napkins and utensils in Business Class when they typically use cloth and metal utensils). Drink services included soft drinks, wine, and beer, though not a hugely extensive selection. My guess is that during normal service there are a few more items offered (and probably a physical menu) but what we had on this international flight was perfectly wonderful. I was happy to have food service at all, to be honest!  Masks can be removed during food service.

Immigrations and Documentation 

International Travel During COVID

Okay, if you skip everything else in this post and read only one thing, READ THIS. Documentation, documentation, documentation. Bring physical copies of everything. If you think you need it, bring it. If you don’t think you need it, maybe bring it anyway.

  • Bring a physical print out of your itinerary and your record locator number. I had a hiccup upon check-in since the flight I booked had been changed a couple of times due to flight load shifts. This caused an issue with my check-in since I was associated with a ‘different flight’ (which was the same flight but a different number). Wi-Fi when traveling internationally can be tricky so avoid the stress of having to look up your details on the go. Bring the paperwork just in case.
  • Negative COVID Test – A negative PCR test isn’t required for all passengers and it’s not required in all destinations but if you’re able to get a COVID test with a decent turnaround time, I’d suggest doing it. I was asked to produce my tests at every single counter. Yes, if our destination didn’t require them I probably could have given a reason as to why I didn’t have them/need them, but having a negative test on hand allowed us to breeze through without questions. Also, things change so rapidly right now that testing requirements could change literally within days. Having a test helps avoid any unexpected hurdles.
  • Passports – Sure, this is a total no-brainer, but obviously be aware of your passport limitations. Scott and I were able to enter Greece as I’m a European citizen and he has spousal privilege. Americans are generally not allowed to enter at this time, though these matters evolve regularly. If you’re like us (one EU passport + one US passport), bring your marriage certificate. We showed our marriage certificate upon arrival to the Netherlands. The immigrations officer (who was very friendly) asked about our relationship. We explained we were married and showed proof of marriage, which granted swift entry.
  • Documentation for Entering Your Destination Country Check the requirements and then double-check before you leave. From the time we booked our trip until the time we departed, things changed multiple times. COVID tests were originally not required for Greece but they were by the day we departed. Certain passports were granted access and some were denied access from the time we booked until the time we arrived. Things change DAILY. Also, there are certain entry requirements that aren’t really disclosed so a bit of research beforehand is more important than ever. For example, Greece requires that passengers fill out a Passenger Locator Form (PLF) prior to entry. A QR code is then generated at midnight on the day of your arrival into the country. If you don’t have this, they will not let you on the plane. The airlines don’t necessarily tell you this, but it is a pretty clear requirement if you look at Greece’s tourism information. Don’t count on your air carrier to be the distributor of information; do your own research to be prepared. We had multiple people on our flight to Amsterdam to Athens that did not have either a COVID test and/or the QR code and were denied boarding.

Staff Interactions and A Critical Takeaway

Let’s lay something out there about international travel during COVID: it’s much more of a pain in the ass than ever because you have to think ahead far more than you’ve ever had to historically. You need your COVID tests, printed paperwork for health checks, extra documentation to enter certain countries, perhaps even marriage certificates. It’s a whole thing, and yes, it feels like at any moment you could make a misstep with paperwork and be denied entry last minute (we saw this happen multiple times during our journey). That all said, I think it’s important to realize that it’s also a pain in the ass for airport staff. During the boarding process for our flight from Amsterdam to Greece, the attendant had to check for our negative PCR tests, had to check that we had a valid QR code to enter Greece, and had to check our documents. That was never in their job description prior to COVID but they’ve begun acting as gatekeepers for health processes in addition to normal airline tasks. And, by the way, they’re doing this day in and day out for all travelers, not just once or twice. Generally, we found airport and airline staff throughout our journey were very friendly and gracious during this process, recognizing that the process is more cumbersome for us as travelers, but I think also maybe a bit grateful to see people traveling in safe and managed way. I’ve had plenty of less-than-friendly experiences with airport staff in my past travels but I’d genuinely say that it felt friendlier during this journey, perhaps because we’re all cutting each other a little slack as we figure it out together.

So, the general takeaway about international travel during COVID? If you’re prepared, it’s a fairly smooth process that’s made less stressful by the fact that airports and airplanes are far less busy than ever. One thing I didn’t touch on in this post is quarantine protocols in your destination and/or home country. The places we’re going explicitly do not require quarantine but do have testing requirements to mitigate their risks. This isn’t true throughout so again, research and continue to monitor to make sure you’re not impacted by this. We will have to quarantine for 10 – 14 days when we return home, and we’ve been made aware of this already. Whether or not that quarantine period is worth it is a hugely personal decision predicated on the amount of time away, job requirements, and personal sentiments. Travel is a very sensitive topic at the moment and international travel even more so. Safeguards are in place for a reason, though, and I think it’s really important that we respect the rules along the way so we can continue to enjoy travel in a safe way. Yes, it’s a different world and travel landscape than it was earlier this year, but I continue to remind myself that we are fortunate to live in a world that’s so globally connected with the ability to travel in the way that we do. If we can make travel a safe space, play by the rules, and be courteous of one another along the way, perhaps we can help manage tourism-based economies and health simultaneously.

Shannon Kircher, The Wanderlust Effect

More about Shannon Kircher

Shannon Kircher is the founder and editor of The Wanderlust Effect. Founded in 2009, she has continued to document her international escapes as an expat in Europe and the Caribbean. Additionally, Shannon is the founder of Compass & Vine, a luxury boutique travel design firm, and is the Director of Marketing for the Frangipani Beach Resort. Shannon holds an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and is a current candidate for WSET Level 3 in Wines & Spirits.