Almost twenty years ago, the horrific events that transpired on September 11, 2001, changed travel forever. In the immediate aftermath, many of us thought that removing belts and shoes, tossing our beverages, and foregoing metal utensils on flights were part of temporary measures.
Now we don’t bat an eyelid at the stringent airport security screening, improved security on aircraft and thorough identification checks that modern-day travel involves. Who even remembers when travel was fun? When you could hang out at the gate until final boarding and say farewell to loved ones or be invited into the cockpit to greet the captain!
After travelling last summer and again this year, I’ve been wondering if Covid has also changed travel forever. Will we always wear masks on an aircraft where recirculated air carries greater risks of spreading a virus? Will we need to be tested before and after each international flight and be armed with vaccine passports? Will we always feel Tense? Exposed? Unsafe?
In June 2020 some of these questions were on my mind as we planned to leave England for Canada. We were in the height of the early Covid wave, living in strict lockdown in London. Flights leaving the country were few and far between. As non-Canadians, landing in Canada required government permission and we nervously awaited the required approvals. It’s hard to look back at that time without remembering the anxiety that permeated the air, enveloping everyone in a permanent cloud of collective panic.
A couple weeks before we were due to travel in July, our flight was cancelled because of Covid restrictions, and the airline wasn’t going to resume flights until September. I had already wrapped up my contract, we had terminated our lease, and most hotels weren’t accepting guests – the one nearby was being used to house the homeless. In other words, we had to leave England. I literally lost hair trying to get another flight booked close to our original date.
On July 20, travel day, we rolled up at Heathrow. Only travelling passengers could enter and the normally bustling airport was a ghost town. At that time airlines weren’t demanding negative Covid tests, just a barrage of questions about symptoms and whether you had travelled in the last 14 days.
All the shops were closed. A single fast-food outlet was open, and the line stretched to eternity especially with social distancing. Everyone wore masks and the few passengers in the departure lounge avoided each other studiously, sitting several seats apart. People avoided looking at each other, possibly in fear of telekinetic viral transmission. Back in 2020 it was anyone’s guess as to how the virus was being transmitted, and I was armed with my own anti-bacterial wipes to clean every surface we had to sit on or touch.
There were mandatory temperature checks before boarding. Business class was reduced to a bare-bones affair and there was minimal interaction with the flight attendants. Without the distraction of a drink and nibbles before take-off, I got busy sanitizing our seat and surroundings.
Masks were mandatory for the duration of the 8-hour flight and a plastic bag with PPE: mask, gloves, hand sanitizer and wipes replaced the typical goodie bag. Hand lotion would have been a welcome addition. Meanwhile, meal service was a single vegetarian option served on a tray with only bottled water as beverage. We were encouraged to eat efficiently and replace our masks as soon as possible.
Upon landing we went through all the screening questions at Pearson. We left the airport and went straight into quarantine for two weeks. Not one of us even put a big toe outside the door. And then, we settled into a year of ‘on and off’ strict lockdown in Ontario. Unfortunately, it was more ‘on’ than ‘off’ which thwarted any plans for holiday travel throughout the year.
It’s no wonder therefore, that I had all but forgotten last year’s experience of travelling during Covid. But as I made plans this June to jet off with the kids and spend a few weeks in the USA, I started realizing just how much travel has changed from the ‘before times’.
There are so many new regulations now that you can’t plan an international trip in two days and jump on a flight. So, if you’re thinking of a getaway sometime during the remaining months of 2021 here are a few tips from my experience of travelling in Covid this summer.
- Assess your personal comfort level
It’s time to reckon with how you really feel about the safety of travel as new variants emerge. Also, find out how your hosts feel. Will they be ok entertaining indoors when you pop by for a visit? Or is it strictly patios and backyard shindigs? If you aren’t comfortable, reconsider. A tense holiday where you feel anxious isn’t worth the expenditure.
- Check those travel documents
If your passport is expiring any time soon maybe it’s time to plan a staycation. I waited six months for an appointment to renew my daughter’s US passport in Canada. So, we travelled to the States to apply there but had to wait several weeks for the new one to arrive. Long wait times may be similar in other countries too so check passport expiry dates and renew early.
- Research regulations in your destination and for your return!
What are the airline regulations? What’s required for you to land? Do you need proof of vaccines and negative test results? Do you have to download an app and complete registration before checking in for your flight? Will you have to quarantine upon arrival? And for how long? Do you have to pre-book a quarantine location? Pay close attention to the details on this one. If you are in the US – The EU has just announced new regulations for US travellers.
On the flip side – what are the requirements for you to return home? To return to Canada and avoid quarantine we had to show proof that we were fully vaccinated and had negative Covid PCR tests. Plus, we were tested again upon arrival at the airport.
- Buy airline tickets early
Believe it or not, flights aren’t cheaper right now even though airlines are desperate to recover business. Plan your trip and secure tickets months ahead, if possible. Many airlines are still waiving change fees, so you won’t be out of pocket if plans shift. Otherwise, invest in travel insurance.
- Book your car rental way in advance
I found out the hard way that there is currently a shortage of rental cars in the US along with exorbitant rates for even the most basic models. Shop around for deals and book early.
- Plan your activities and make reservations
With reduced capacity because of Covid, reserving tickets with specific entry times is essential for most attractions. To visit Disney, we had to buy our tickets and then reserve the date based on which park was available.
- Arrange your Covid Testing
Know what test is required by your destination country. Antigen tests are cheaper but some countries, like Canada, only accept the pricier PCR test. It’s more expensive too if you need test results in under 24 hours.
Booking your test in advance saves you time in lines at busy airports. I did the regular PCR test at Fort Lauderdale airport for $100 per person and got the results within two days. But you also need to time your test carefully – our return flight was delayed due to mechanical failure and the airline scrambled to find a replacement aircraft to get us out of Charlotte and into Toronto before everyone’s Covid tests expired!
- Carry extra masks
You will go through those things like water and lose a few too. Plus, a fresh mask after a few hours in the airport or on an aircraft is always welcome. With the new variant on the loose you may wish to upgrade to medical grade masks – just a suggestion; I used the non-medical type.
Eat before you leave home for your flight and carry your own snacks. Fewer airport food outlets may be open, and lines are longer with social distancing and new sanitizing measures.
- Maintain your sense of humour, relax and be grateful!
Overall, travelling during Covid-times is more expensive, less comfortable, and more inconvenient. Despite it all, nothing beats seeing somewhere new and visiting with friends and family. For many of us, being able to travel again is another step towards restoring a sense of normalcy. Planning carefully, taking precautions, and treating fellow passengers with kindness will help you make the most of every moment and enjoy your return to the skies.
And as for when these changes will end? It’s hard to predict.
Until then, safe travels!