Flying During COVID – Lessons Learned
Image: Transit time in Doha with a giant stuffed animal keeping things interesting…
Let me start this post off by saying I am not recommending flying during the COVID-19 pandemic. My wife Jammie, daughter Journie and I, put our trip off for months. The infection risk and all the added logistics you have to think about while flying in these weird times, kept us from booking tickets. But we finally caved to mounting pressures including the fact that, for COVID-related reasons, Journie and I had to go to Sweden to renew our passports. Here’s what we learned about flying nowadays:
Ticket prices are reasonable but extra COVID-related travel expenses add up
We flew from Manila in the Philippines to Stockholm, Sweden (via a short stopover in Doha, Qatar) for about USD 700 each. Because Jammie (an American citizen) needed to prove she had a ticket out of Sweden, we bought her an additional ticket from Sweden to Poland for less than USD 20 (yep, you read that right.) In case we needed to make changes to our flight dates, I booked the main flights directly with the airline, Qatar Airways. Third party discount sites are often cheaper but can be a hassle if changes are necessary.
The tickets we bought would have been considered reasonably cheap even before COVID. But there were significant added costs to factor in. Qatar Airways, along with every other airline departing Manila, required negative RT-PCR COVID test results from adult passengers. Not only that, the tests had to be taken at most 4 days before flying by each adult passenger.
These tests had to come from an approved list of testing centers and the one we picked cheerfully charged us USD 130ish for each test. Also, the airline wouldn’t accept printouts of online results so I had to make an additional 5-hour roundtrip into Manila from the province of Tagaytay where we lived, racking up Grab (like Uber) and bus expenses to get an officially-endorsed set of test results.
Travel prep hassle is at least doubled
Airlines are taking major financial hits due to less people flying. So communicating with their skeleton staffs is frustrating to say the least. It took me hours to do basic research on the rules of flying with Qatar Airways. At one point I was on hold for an hour on a long distance call before I hung up. There were an insane amount of important questions that needed answers. What kinds of COVID tests were accepted? Would they allow Journie and I to fly on temporary passports? Were there COVID-related requirements for our stopover in Doha? Each airline has its own rules and there are horror stories of passengers turned away for technicalities like their COVID results being one day older than they should have been. Also, Sweden doesn’t allow Americans and many other non-EU citizens into the country due to the pandemic so I was worried Jammie would be rejected by Swedish immigration. Luckily, I found out foreigners are admitted if they are married to Swedes!
Allow 2-3x the usual time for check-in
On our departure date from Manila, we got to the airport over 6 hours ahead of time. I’ll admit that was a little excessive. Check-in took about three times as long as usual despite the fact that we were so early there was virtually nobody in line. There were all kinds of checks and questions. I had obsessed over the airline requirements and had all our ducks in a row ahead of time so we were eventually cleared to fly but I was sweating.
Things get easier…
After we were successfully checked in and past security, things got a lot easier. Airport cafes, restaurants and shops were all hungry for business so everyone was really nice to potential customers. Same went for the cabin crew that went out of their way to put everyone at ease. It’s weird sleeping with a face mask and shield on but you sort of get used to it. While during our travel prep I had been paranoid about the infection risk of flying, the actual flights were fine. People wore protective gear (sometimes even hazmat suits), tried hard not to touch stuff and sanitized A LOT.
As much as I don’t recommend flying during COVID, I’m glad we did it. We got to take care of business that had been put off for far too long. From a mental health perspective we feel a lot less cooped up now that we are no longer locked down against our will. And like many potentially stressful things in life, the anxiety before the event proved to be worse than the actual thing.