Air Travel During Covid-19: A Veteran Traveler Tells All
Before we jump in, I would like to acknowledge my extreme privilege, as I know that many people don’t have the same opportunities or circumstances as I do right now.
In late November, I had my first foray into international air travel during Covid-19. This is a strange year. More often or not in my life, I’ve been hopping on and off planes on a monthly basis. After a lot of thought, I decided to fly during a global pandemic.
A few weeks ago, I made the decision to fly from Germany to Panama to visit my family for the first time in 14 months. Now that I’ve safely reached my destination, I’m sharing my experiences with air travel during Covid-19: the good, the bad, and the unexpected!
And when I say unexpected, think a 16-hour journey turned into a 35-hour trek around the globe with 2 layovers thrown in.
So let’s dive in.
Preparing for Safe Air Travel During Covid-19
When it comes to air travel during Covid-19, you can’t simply book your flight and head to the airport on the right day. To ensure smooth sailing, there are a number of steps I took, some of which were required, others I added to ensure the safety of people around me – and my own.
Step 1: Voluntary Self-Isolation
From the moment I booked my flight, I decided to self-isolate (I work from home anyway). I did not want there to be the slightest chance of catching the illness and spreading it on my travels. I would recommend going into quarantine – as much as possible – for 2 weeks prior to any trip.
Step 2: Staying Very Informed
An essential element of preparing for air travel during Covid-19 is to stay informed. That means reading up on all the requirements for exit out of and entry into each country you plan to visit. This includes the country you are returning to.
Before booking your flight, make sure you:
- Are actually allowed to enter your country of choice. You don’t want any bad surprises!
- Check if a Covid test is required (it usually is).
- Check if the country you plan to visit is considered a risk area by your home country. There will be implications for your return home.
- Find out what the procedure is for returning home.
And only then, if you still feel confident about air travel during Covid-19, should you book your ticket.
Step 3: Getting a PCR Test
My plane ticket to Panama was about 200€ cheaper than pre-pandemic. However, 3 Covid tests (2 down, 1 to go) will quickly rack up that bill.
While Panama is open to tourists from all countries, you must present a negative PCR test on arrival. What’s more, the test has to be less than 48 hours old at the moment of your arrival.
The test itself is not painful at all – just a throat swab. And for all my readers coming from Germany, I highly recommend getting tested by Centogene. They have private facilities across Germany, including one at the Berlin Brandenburg Airport. I got my test results in 12 hours.
Upon arrival in Panama, I was able to show my negative test result on my mobile phone, but would have gotten a printed copy if I had had the chance, just in case.
Step 4: Purchasing the Right Masks
Cloth masks just won’t cut it for air travel during Covid-19. In fact, many airlines such as KLM require a surgical mask to let people on board. (These are the disposable blue face masks that dentists tend to use). They do a great job of preventing the transmission of germs from you to another person, as I understand it.
I took things up one level and purchased some FFP2 masks (comparable to the KN95), which provide more protection for the wearer, as well as for others.
Make sure you do order you masks far enough in advance to account for any shipping delays. And as a backup plan, identify where you can purchase these in person. I ordered some on Amazon two weeks before my flight, but they never arrived (!) so I ended up having to buy some at my local drugstore.
Cancellations and Rebooking
As much as you can do your research, you must factor in some leeway when it comes to air travel during Covid-19. Especially when it comes to your travel schedule.
I originally had very decent flights booked, from Berlin to Panama via Paris in about 16 hours. But, due to cancellations, these flights got shifted around – not once but twice!
The first time, my flight from Berlin to Paris was cancelled, so I got rebooked on a flight from Berlin to Amsterdam. But then, about 6 hours before departure, the Berlin – Amsterdam flight also got cancelled. I was automatically rebooked on a 35 hour journey with two 9-hour layovers in Amsterdam and Mexico City.
This also meant that my first PCR test would no longer be valid when I landed in Panama. So I headed to the airport early and got a second test. Once more, the results came in about 11 hours later, before I had even boarded the plane to Mexico City.
While some people would have met this news with groans and eye rolls, I was actually thrilled at the idea of exploring two extra destinations on my way to Panama. I did some last minute research to confirm that, as an EU citizen, I was indeed able to exit the airport in Amsterdam and in Mexico City.
From my understanding, as there are fewer passengers, airlines tend to re-group people going in the same general direction to fill planes at about 70% capacity. So instead of having three flights a day from Berlin to Amsterdam, for example, there would only be one. And instead of having flights headed from Europe to various Latin American destinations, there were just 1 or 2 a day flying into major airports.
Committing to air travel during Covid-19 means embracing the (potential) chaos, and learning to expect the unexpected.
The Airport Experience
Traveling through airports was definitely an eerie experience. Especially transiting through the usually buzzing Schiphol, one of the largest European hubs. Both in Berlin and in Amsterdam, the panels that announce flight arrivals and departures were perhaps a quarter full – and the flights listed covered the whole day.
While the Mexico City Airport was much busier in comparison, I would say it was operating perhaps at 50% capacity. Many check-in counters and gates were closed. There were more people wandering around than in Europe, but all were wearing masks and respecting social distance.
When I went to check-in for my flight at around 10 a.m., I would say it was compatible to checking in to a 4 a.m. flight pre-Covid. There was some activity, but it was definitely still quiet.
Security and Immigration
A quiet airport didn’t prevent me from waiting in line for a good 1.5 hours in Berlin (fewer passengers meant less staff, and they loved going slowly at check-in and security).
At Schiphol, however, I sat virtually alone in the departures hall for an hour, which could easily accommodate thousands of travellers. I then breezed through security and immigration.
Airport Shops and Cafes
At both Berlin and Amsterdam’s airport, the shops and cafes were open, although the latter for takeaway only. Masks were required at all times, except while eating.
At the Mexico City airport, people could sit at airport cafes. Servers were wearing masks. Mexico is not in a lockdown to the same extent, although wearing a mask in public is required.
As you can see by now, air travel during Covid-19 has changed a lot. Let’s talk about the actual flying portion.
It is 100% compulsory to wear a mask on the plane and at airports, Most airlines insist on at least a surgical level mask. Some people were wearing face shields on top of their masks, although they were still in the minority.
Onboard service has drastically changed, with the goal of reducing crew-to-passenger contact.
We could no longer order special meals in advance, and there was no vegetarian or meat option at meal time, as there previously was. Everyone got a vegetarian box (with cheese, so not vegan). So if you have dietary restrictions – or you absolutely need some meat – you should bring your own food.
Furthermore, there was no duty-free onboard shopping, which I personally thought was an improvement!
On the flight from Berlin to Amsterdam, I sat in a row with one other person, leaving the middle seat free. I experienced the same thing flying from Amsterdam to Mexico City. Finally, on the plane from Mexico City to Panama, I had an entire row of 3 seats to myself.
Airlines made an effort to put some distance between people who weren’t traveling together, which I believe all passengers appreciated.
As I mentioned, air travel during Covid 19 allowed me to experience two additional cities on route to my final destination. I was so psyched to get out and explore Amsterdam and Mexico City. Although the trip was 35 hours in total, the time seemed to go by much faster, perhaps because it was broken up by these layovers.
As an EU citizen, I was allowed to leave the airport in Amsterdam. There was no security or immigration and the Netherlands do not have a mandatory quarantine. I was able to catch the train from the airport station and reached the city centre in about 20 minutes. Once in Amsterdam proper, I walked around for a few hours, keeping my distance from others.
Like Panama, Mexico is open to tourists from all countries, so getting through immigration was a breeze. Leaving my luggage in a storage room at the airport, I caught a local bus to the historical city centre. I wandered around until it was time to return to the airport.
My style of exploring a city is very conducive to social distancing, as I most just walk and take pictures. So I’m very grateful that air travel during Covid-19 did not mean I was stuck at the airport for both 9 hour layovers.
Immigration and Customs
As there were few flights coming in at the same time, the queues for immigration and customs were drastically reduced at every checkpoint. Leaving the EU, I got asked a couple of basic questions before being told, “have a good flight”. In Mexico, I quickly got a new stamp in my passport. In Panama, I got my fingerprints recorded and was on my way.
Is Air Travel During Covid-19 Safe?
With all the extra measures (mandatory masks, social distancing on board, infrequent crew contact), air travel during Covid-19 seemed, in many ways, much safer than prior to the pandemic.
Most passengers will also have received a negative Corona test shortly before flying. Anyone with visible symptoms (colds, cough, fever) would be denied boarding. At many checkpoints throughout the airports, mostly in Latin America, I got my temperature checked.
But don’t just take my word for it. I found this interesting study by MIT, which helps each person evaluate the risks of flying based on their particular circumstances (vulnerability of people at home, number of cases in their communities and their own health).
It is more important than ever to fly responsibly, be aware of your surroundings and follow simple safety measures.
Air Travel During Covid-19: You Have to Really Want It
All in all, I had a positive experience with air travel during Covid-19. After 3 months of jogging around the same 3 km track, I was definitely up for the adventure. Of course, my particular circumstances (young and healthy, no kids, no business meetings and staying with family instead of at a hotel) allowed me to take a more relaxed approach to flying.
Some people might see the extra safety measures and the extensive layovers as too burdensome to justify a trip. However, I see things differently: air travel during Covid-19 is very much possible and safe – you just have to really want it enough to overlook the chaos.