The realities of long haul travel during a pandemic

First of all a little disclaimer – I am not writing this in an attempt to promote travel during these times, just simply as a resource for anyone that does need to fly elsewhere and is curious to know what the situation is like. From my POV, I was travelling to Kigali, Rwanda from Dublin via Amsterdam with KLM, to visit family who are living in the country.

So 2020 eh, what a year it’s been! Absolutely everything we’ve come to know for so many years has been altered dramatically for the foreseeable future and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it but adapt and try to keep a smile on our faces. One of these things happens to be my all time favourite thing to do – travel. With the virus spreading like wildfire, summer was cancelled, autumn city breaks were a no go and Christmas skiing is definitely off the cards. However there are some circumstances in which you’ll find yourself strapped into the not-so-comfy chair of a Boeing and recently I’ve found myself in one of them.

Before you dig out the suitcase there’s a rigmarole of guidelines to read through and laws to make sure you’re strictly following. In fact, as I write this I’m sat in the bed of the hotel room I’m quarantining, waiting on my Covid test results. The ease of travel is a thing of the past and if you do want to cross borders you’ll need to be prepared. First thing to do is check out your destination’s government website for any passenger locator forms or other laws they have in place for the virus. It might sound obvious but in the overwhelm on a trip during times like these, it’s easy to forget not every country is operating the way yours is. For Rwanda in particular, there’s a digital locator form you must fill in and print to get the QR code you need to enter the country – I suppose it’s not dissimilar to track and trace in Europe. Next you want to check out what the situation will be when you land and make any hotel bookings necessary for the quarantining period that’s required on arrival. After you’ve done that there’s the question of a negative Covid test so pay attention to the particulars such as the time frame you’ll need to get it in. The same could apply to your chosen airline so give that a Google as well. For me, Rwanda required a negative result 120 hours prior to entering the country and KLM required it to be negative 72 hours before flying. I booked my test at Code Blue in Dublin for next day results but I won’t lie it was extremely pricey, setting me back €175! At this point running through my checklist, I had a hotel booked that was approved by authorities as a Covid quarantine safe hotel, my passenger locator form filled out and printed, a printed version of my negative test result and an in date passport (it’s also important to have hard copies of each form as some border control prefer that to screenshots). Step 2 was to make it to the airport on time for the 5:55 am flight to Amsterdam.

As you can imagine, airport etiquette has changed quite a bit thanks to Ms Corona. Obviously, the face mask has become part of daily life but be prepared to plaster that thing over your mouth and nose for the guts of 15 hours straight. I’d suggest bringing a few so you can swap them over between flights and make sure they’re disposable ones as some airlines are fussy about binning them after the flight. On arriving at the airport to drop bags, leave extra time! I was definitely surprised to see the long queue at the KLM desk, expecting it to be empty. Things are moving a bit slower at airports now due to confusion, people having the wrong forms or not understanding the requirements of entry to certain places – basically it’s all just a bit more chaotic then usual and there’s document folders flying around everywhere. All in all, Dublin airport is very chill, they don’t have any controls to go through, you might just find there’s less shops open but when I was there yesterday the coffee places were still serving and duty free was in operation. In terms of seating on the flight, for the short hall people were seated next to each other, you just all had to keep masks on as expected.

Alright so the first leg of the journey is done and dusted – here’s where the fun begins. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol was pretty packed. Everything was open as far as I could see in my panic to find my gate (tip here if you’re travelling to Rwanda, it may come up on the board as a flight to Entebbe as that’s the final destination of the route). Depending on what country you’re travelling to, you’ll need to find the health screening unit which will be listed as a gate beside your country on the flight boards. Once you get there, your temperature will be taken and you’ll have to fill in a screening form declaring you’ve no symptoms and haven’t been in contact with any confirmed cases in the last 14 days. When that’s done, officials will stamp the form authorising you’ve got no temperature and tell you your departure gate. Again don’t dilly dally here thinking the gate on the board is the last one because you’ll have to factor in time to make it through the health check first, trust me the coffee can wait! Here comes the part where having your passenger locator forms completed before you fly will save a hell of a lot of stress. When you do get to your gate, you’ll have to show flight attendants all your forms – so Covid test results, clear temp check, locator form, boarding pass and hotel booking. To give some context, our flight was delayed 30 mins due to people not having their form done online. On the plane, KLM were great to be fair, people were spaced out and they were strict at adhering to guidelines of both governments to avoid unnecessary contamination. At this moment, it’s time to settle into a blockbuster and relax for the next 8 hours.

Touching done at around 8 pm, getting through customs was a bot of a challenge. Restrictions in Rwanda are very serious and the country is doing an amazing job at containment, only seeing around 3 cases a day. Met with an army of white coats and blue paper gowns, your temperature is checked again by a multitude of screening robots and a health official checks your test results, records your locator code from that form I’ve been banging on about and then waves you through to passport control where you have to go through the usual questioning on arrival. They’ll ask you reason for travelling, occupation, hotel bookings etc and then give you a visa which you’ll pay €50 / 30 USD for. Following that, you go through to the baggage hall, pick up your bags and head outside. The Rwandan airport is lockdown and only hotel drivers and authorised officials are allowed to drive into it. Because of this, you’ll need to tell the information desk where you’re staying and they’ll direct you to a driver that will take you to the hotel. I’m not sure how it works in other countries but I believe it’s quite similar in places like Australia where the army pick you up to transfer you to quarantine – don’t hold me to that though! At the hotel, you’ll have your temperature checked again, more hand sanitiser and shoe cleaning to then check in for your 24 hour quarantine session. In my case, I got to the hotel at around 9:30 pm and waited in my room to be called for my Covid test at around 12 am. After your test you go back to your room, which is where I sit now and wait to be emailed with, fingers crossed, a negative result from which you are free to explore (in a face mask at all times, including outside)!

Travelling at this time is not impossible, it’s just not at all convenient. There is so much red tape involved – and rightly so – that if you’re thinking of chancing a holiday far away, I’d say maybe hold off for now. I’ve honestly never been through so many checks, had my temperature taken so many times and had to produce so many forms over and over again. Of course, when I get back to Dublin there’ll be a two week quarantine waiting for me as well so just bear all this in mind before digging out the flip flops. As I said above, this is not a post to tell everyone how to get back travelling, I’m just sharing what was a bizarre experience to look back on when Covid was a thing in history books and also as a guide and insight for anyone curious or that needs to be travelling long haul during the pandemic.

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