Staff Corner Special Topic

Travel during Covid: Cara’s experience

I have to say five weeks later things have certainly changed. I tried to keep this as factual as possible, but sometimes I couldn't help the snark, watching people put others at risk. 
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Staff Corner: From Cara's laptop
Current location: The sky

Five weeks ago I took a flight to Ireland, and detailed the measures being taken in three different airports and two different airlines. I have to say five weeks later things have certainly changed. I decided to write this blog as I traveled versus after, with a follow up upon landing to see what measures were taken in the States. I tried to keep this as factual as possible, but sometimes I couldn’t help the snark, watching people put others at risk. 

For this travel, I started in Ireland, flew to Germany, then to the USA, on two different airlines and two types of public transportation.

Empty Dublin Airport
Social distance notice in Dublin Airport

Empty Dublin Airport

Social distance notice in Dublin Airport

Departure from Ireland

First stop Dublin – we flew out of Terminal 1, which on arrival was nearly empty, but checking in took ages, so I recommend getting to the airport pretty early, just to be safe. The airline allowed only one carry-on, so either one personal item or one carry-on bag. So, happy days, we got to check our carry-on… Little did I know mine would end up being delayed by four days after arrival, whoops. I’m not sure how a bag gets missed when there are hardly any flights going…

Ours was one of 13 flights – two of which were internal flights within Ireland for patients with cancer who can’t get treatment with current restrictions.

Security lines were a dream again – piece of cake. I think there were two lines open in total. So, very few people passing through.

A nice touch: They offered gloves and hand sanitizer in security lines; I tried to take a photo, but there was an angry man yelling at me saying no photos. This is the first I’ve seen this offered in an airport.

Nearly all the stores, restaurants and duty free shops were closed. All the drinking fountains were closed as well, so we couldn’t fill our water bottles, but you could buy bottles of water if you wanted.

Shops closed in Dublin Airport
Amenities closed in Dublin Airport

Shops and amenities closed in Dublin Airport

At the gate for boarding, we were the last ones on the plane (there was a tiny issue with my ticket, as they said I wasn’t booked on the flight, um, so they held the plane for us). 

We flew Lufthansa for this leg. I forgot to look up what model the plane was, but there were three seats on each side of the cabin with an aisle down the middle. It appeared to be a pretty new plane too, again I don’t know if this on purpose during the pandemic or just a coincidence. 

On board, the flight was jammer packed. I’m talking  literally every seat but one because it was occupied by a small furry friend. In my opinion, this was not the best strategy when dealing with potential health and safety measures. We were all crammed together and there was definitely no room for social distancing. I’m really quite surprised. 

I can’t comment on their boarding procedures, since we were late to board… I can report that when we got on the plane, we were provided with one sanitizing wipe, told no food would be served and that face masks were mandatory. 

Travel Tip: On my last trip, airlines varied with offering food and beverages, so I packed a ton of snacks and sandwiches. Most of the airports still had limited shops open to buy food, though.

On deboarding, everyone rushed up just like they would on a normal flight. Then the captain announces that we can only deboard 40 people at a time, as per the airport rules. I’m confused as to why this wasn’t organized prior to landing? Avoiding the herd mentality during a pandemic seems like a good idea to me… but what do I know?

Moving walkways closed at Frankfurt Airport
Seats blocked for social distancing at Frankfurt Airport

Moving walkways were closed

Seats blocked for social distancing

Frankfurt Terminal

There was good signage overall with social distancing and information about keeping yourself and others safe.

The airport also had blue ribbons blocking certain seats off, so people don’t sit next to one another. This was very well done in my opinion. It seems that if authorities don’t guide us travelers, or have precautions laid out or established, we fall back into normal routines pre-pandemic. Good on-ya Frankfurt!

There were a few food and shops open in the terminal. I’m guessing since not all flights were offering food, there was a good variety of sandwiches and drinks for a small fortune. Thank goodness for credit cards. Ha.

I also think toilets were regulated with the amount of users, as I saw a long line out of them, but I’m not 100% sure if that was every toilet or just the one I saw.

Oh and the moving walkways – you know the fun ones, where you can stare at your phone and not bump into someone or even a poll and whilst avoiding exercise at all costs, well those were shut down and roped off too. Not sure why? Maybe too many hands touching the railings?

German letter for COVID

Letter from the German Federal Ministry of Health for passengers arriving in Germany. Is it really necessary to say “first emerged in Wuhan, China”...?

In the gate check-in area there were very few passengers. This next leg was operated by United Airlines. So far, in my opinion, they have been the most organized airline to fly on. But then again, I’ve only flown on three different airlines.

They announced that there would be no food served on the plane due to health and safety… however on the flight I had a “lovely” veggie korma served… so not sure what that was about. I enjoyed my overpriced sandwich from the terminal and gave the korma a miss.

We had a document check at the gate; there were lines on the floor for where you should stand… but no one paid attention. I have to say, people, even staff, are a lot more relaxed than five weeks ago.

We had a brand new plane again, a 787-I10 (I finally looked at the type of plane – go me). I’d really like to know if new planes are operated on purpose for COVID-19 or if it’s a coincidence.

They boarded by rows, starting in the back of the plane first. This is what they did last time, and it makes great sense versus boarding by zones or groups. But then again, if late people board it’s hard to social distance if you have an aisle seat. I really don’t know any other way around this with boarding to be honest.

United left the middle seats open like last time, so that was fantastic. However, not every other row was empty like before. Not only did that feel safer, but it made for a more loungey, spacious flight.

I confirmed with a flight attendant if keeping the middle seat vacant was the plan for this flight – she said it was. I told her our last flight was totally full and we sat next together with no room for distancing. She mentioned that they would likely have done the same thing if it had been a full flight… So I’m not clear if middle seats are being left open because they simply can with so few passengers, or is it going to continue into the future?

We were offered sodas and water, no coffee/teas, probably due to safety, and then we had the food served that I mentioned above.

Prior to landing, we received the below re-entry documentation for the USA:

Health declaration for arrival to EWR

I personally was happy to see that we would get our temperatures checked. It was comforting knowing that something would be done on arrival. However, I would imagine this isn’t doable for many countries, as the US has enormous amounts of resources to accommodate this.

Landing in the USA

Deboarding was easier than I anticipated, and I was surprised (in a good way) at the measures taken.

Deboarding the plane was organized by section, trying to keep people apart as much as possible. I mean, there were probably 50 people on the plane, so that wasn’t all that hard to do, but still the effort was there. I would think planes with two doors could also organize a decent deboarding process too… but would be curious about how this would work.

On landing at Newark International Airport, first we had to show our signed official documentation stating that we will quarantine and where we could be reached. 

Following this check, we stood in another line, and had our temperature taken with a fancy thermometer that scans your forehead. If your temperature is acceptable, they collect your quarantine document and waive you through to immigration. If your temperature is not normal, I would guess they put you in some room for questioning and leave you there for hours without food or water, but then again, maybe I watch too many movies. I’m sure they get you looked at straight away by a professional and provide guidance on your next steps…? Or perhaps they don’t allow you entry? I really have no idea.

This setup was reasonably organized – again I think giving passengers a heads up on what to expect would have been useful, but perhaps there are reasons to not tell us.

I was asked by the immigration guard where I had traveled, why I was traveling and specifically if I had been to certain countries, such as China and the Middle East, and then was waived on through.

Next was the baggage check… nothing unusual here or different from before. Just submit your customs form and you’re good to go. I’m writing this two days after travel and my luggage still hasn’t arrived; it’s chilling in Frankfurt somewhere.

Newark Airport was the emptiest I’ve ever seen it in 20 years. Hardly anyone around, so it was pleasant. The only place open was a Starbucks in the terminal I was in.

There were social distancing reminders on the floors and a few signs around.

Newark Airport

Travel tip for delayed baggage – I called and asked the airline to reimburse me for things I had to purchase (they didn’t offer this information) and instead, they provided me $50.00 for my trouble. I didn’t have to show receipts or anything, just straight up gave me money. I’ll be ringing again tomorrow, as I am really stuck for clothes, so make sure you keep in touch with the claims department, and keep all of your receipts.

Public Transport

Okay, so for the final leg of the journey we had to take trains to our final destination. This entailed two lines of public transport. The first was the New Jersey Transit to Penn Station in New York City.

New Jersey Transit at 5:00 PM on a Tuesday was virtually empty. I didn’t see any signs, notices or hear any announcements about social distancing. I could have missed them, though.

Penn Station – Holy Guacamole!

I cannot remember any time in my entire life I’ve seen so few people in Penn Station. If I hadn’t been so tired, I could have actually counted the number of people in the station. There also was not a lot of seating available, as it was blocked off, so there was a decent number of people sitting on the ground.

In the state of New York, you have to wear a mask in public, so I did see a lot of people abiding by this, which is very good. The food shops were mostly all open and servers had masks on and most wore gloves too.

So, here’s what I’m not sure about. Was Penn Station empty because of the pandemic, or was it empty because of the 8:00 PM curfew due to looting, or all of the above? Or maybe people just don’t feel safe. I would reckon it’s a bit of everything, which makes my heart hurt.

We went outside to get some air before our train and then had a wander. I really was blown away about how few people, taxis, cars and just life was depleted from the area. It felt like the Twilight Zone, and frankly made me sad to see such a vibrant epicenter be so tamed and tired.

I did find joy in the billboards and photos all around the station supporting frontline workers, really powerful statements all around.

Penn Station

Amtrak – Last leg

The Amtrak train to our final destination was virtually empty as well. I cleaned the seats, as I did on every leg of the trip, and we had a lovely journey to our final stop. There was no one really around us, so we didn’t have to pay too much attention to social distancing, which made the trip easier.

3 days after travel

Quick update: I was called by a public health nurse to check up on me; the nurse actually rang two days after arrival, but I didn’t see the message. She wanted to be sure that I was quarantining, as per the instruction we received on the plane.

She asked if I was quarantining, reviewed symptoms and asked if I had any. She also asked about my personal health, if I had any health issues and reviewed my biographical data. She said she will contact me every day to check if I have any symptoms.

Out of curiosity, I asked her if this call and tracking was being done for everyone inbound to the USA or I was picked at random. She said to her knowledge every traveler is being called. Another colleague has recently traveled to Chicago and was not called by a public health nurse, this is the reason I was curious if it was being done to all inbound travelers.

I then asked if this was a federal mandate or a state mandate to contact all travelers, and she wasn’t sure.

I was actually surprised to have this call, and while it’s weird and invasive being checked on daily – it is holding people accountable to keep themselves and others safe, which I support personally. Plus, it’s keeping nurses and others in the field employed.

4 days after travel

Travel tip for delayed baggage – It’s day 4 and the baggage finally arrived by FedEx. Make sure you open your luggage right away when you get it, even at the airport. I’m in a habit of doing this, as I’ve had stuff “go for a walk” or break. I had some damage in my bag, so I rang again and spoke with a lovely lady who offered me $175 vouchers for the inconvenience. I’m perfectly happy with this, as I travel quite a bit. It was nice to have such a pleasant experience with compensation, usually I have to get grumpy to get it. Thank you, United.

6 days after travel

Quick update: Received a letter from the local county’s Public Health Services department outlining the terms and conditions of the Precautionary Quarantine with contact details in case symptoms emerge.

New York City

So that’s it. I’ll be back on the plane in a few weeks, so we shall see what that entails. Until then, stay safe, continue to fight injustice and be kind to others.

Signing off,

Learn director cara simon poses for a professional headshot wearing a brown jacket.

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