My Trip to Europe during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted by North South Travel Blogger · Aug 04 · in Croatia

After nearly 5 months since my last international flight, it felt surreal to land in London Heathrow on July 12th 2020. It was the start of a journey which, for a good few months prior, I did not believe was going to be possible. But, I did it. I travelled internationally during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the trip was fantastic so I wanted to share my experience.

I had planned to take my Mum away for her birthday (booked nearly a year ago) but our Uniworld river cruise in Bordeaux was cancelled. However I kept a close eye on everything in Europe and when numbers started to drop and things started to open up, I decided to plan a new itinerary visiting Croatia which was open to both Canadians and British (I have a UK passport). Following advice from my preferred partners on the ground in Croatia, we chose to stay on the beautiful island of Hvar (which at the time of writing, still hasn’t had one confirmed case of COVID-19 to date). I also spent a few days in Germany with my Dad and brother before heading back to Vancouver.

Disclaimer: At time of writing, the Canadian government is still is advising against non-essential travel, and that can make your insurance void. I personally weighed up the pros and cons and made the decision to take the calculated risks and still travel. This write up is by no means an endorsement or suggestion to travel against the government’s advice. Deciding to travel is a personal decision. I just want to showcase how some of us can travel responsibly, safely and respectfully and help kick-start the devastated travel economy. Throughout my journey I took extra precautions to stay safe and completed my 14 day quarantine when I returned to Canada. As I am still working from home anyway and have a garden, it really wasn’t a big deal for me.

I visited three different countries and took five flights in total. To make it an easier read I have divided this write up into different sections.

Vancouver Airport

Eerily quiet, as was to be expected, the airport looked spotless and it easy to socially distance in the terminal as it was like a ghost town. As soon as you entered the airport there were signs and security staff ensuring everyone had their masks on. Air Canada have introduced touch-less check in terminals which are available to you if you had checked in online (which I always highly recommend). This enables you to scan your boarding pass from your phone to activate the bag tag printing without having to touch the screen.

I was particularly vigilant this check in to ensure my seat was on a row with no others, knowing this could of course change between then and departure, but I was hopeful as the plane didn’t seem that full. Air Canada staff reminded passengers to ensure they had completed the UK COVID-19 contact tracing forms online if they hadn’t already. There were touch-free hand sanitizer stations dotted throughout the airport. Before proceeding through to security, your temperature was taken alongside the standard boarding card check.

There were no lines at security but the usual measures still applied, so you do have to touch those trays so if you are hyper-sensitive you could wear gloves. I was happy to see a hand sanitizer station as soon as you left the area.

Nothing was really open at the airport which was strange. I usually would go to the Plaza Premium lounge but it was closed. Duty free seemed partially closed off but the lights were still on. Most food venues were shut but the retail shop for essentials was open. All water fountains were shut (which was a real shame, especially the touch-free stations, as I always take a reusable bottle to refill). A friend had given me the tip of asking Starbucks for some water in a large paper cup, which I then could transfer to my bottle- they were just shutting down as I approached but the kind server humoured my request.

All of the seats at the various gates had signs blocking off every third seat for social distancing measures. It was extremely sad to see only three international flights were operating that night. A stark reality of how decimated our travel industry has been.

Boarding was done by row order. Air Canada did a great job of constant reminders about social distancing and waiting your turn before boarding, though of course there were still people attempting to lurk around the boarding gate before their turn.

Flying with Air Canada from Vancouver to London Heathrow

I couldn’t help but smile to myself when I heard the crew announce “boarding complete” and I had the entire row to myself. To be fair, the flight was only around a third full, so most people had their own row but as this was my first long-haul flight since the coronavirus pandemic, it was a sigh of relief. There was no one in the row in front or me or to the left of me.

In Canada wearing a mask in mandated for the duration of your flight, with the exception of when you eat and drink. I was impressed that the staff seemed to constantly walk up and down the aisle and would politely enforce if necessary. Even before the COVID-19 days, I personally used to squirm a little when people nearby me coughed, and now of course that reaction is heightened by everyone, and I was anxious about having a tickle in my throat from being dehydrated but it was fine. I am very glad we do have to wear the masks. Yes, they aren’t the most comfortable things, however it is definitely doable (I had one on for about 12-13 hours for this trip airport arrival in YVR to walking in the fresh air in London). In my opinion it is a worth it to be able to feel a lot safer travelling during these times.

We were handed Air Canada’s CleanCare+ bags which contained a small water, gloves, mask, hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes. I already had brought my own supplies as well so had wiped down my area before strapping in.

The Air Canada staff wore these white overcoats, reminiscent of hospital staff. The service was very quick and rushed, but understandable, wanting to limit contact with passengers. We were handed a brown paper bag containing lunch and another water bottle. I have to admit, it is very sad that this pandemic has caused the use of single use plastics to shoot up again. I noticed that in many places.

I was somewhat surprised that no pillows or at least blankets were given (as they are usually individually wrapped) but luckily I always take an extra wrap scarf as I find planes are often cold. As I had the row to myself I was able to stretch out and tried to get some sleep.

In “the morning” they handed us another paper bag which had a veggie croissant and some other snacks.

Touch down in London was smooth. I personally chose to wait until everyone ahead of me had cleared before standing up and heading down the aisle, but I did notice most people did the common thing of standing up as soon as we landed and congregating in the aisles.

24 Hour Stopover in the UK

As I approached Border Control, there was an attendant asking everyone to have their entry forms ready. To my complete surprise, the eGates were open for me to use as a British passport holder. I was NOT expecting this to be the case as assumed everyone would need to be screened in person to ask about their travel history and reconfirmation about quarantine plans etc. There were no lines and I was through in seconds without speaking to a human.

The bags were already loading onto the conveyor belt as I approached. It was incredibly quick and I couldn’t believe in was in the UK! I noticed one poster about COVID but that was it and it didn't even mention the quarantine rules!

Somewhat surprising, especially given how the UK has struggled with containing the virus in previous months. It did make me proud to live in Canada with our exemplary policies and education attempts around the virus and quarantine.

The UK Government rules express that you must quarantine in UK for 14 days if you arrive from a country not on their exempt list (Sadly Canada did not make the list, despite our COVID-19 levels meeting their risk assessment criteria. Many assume it is because we have no reciprocal agreement to allow UK into Canada…) I think some people misunderstand this rule, thinking you have to stay in the UK for 14 days, that is not correct. You simply must quarantine for your stay, for your first 14 days, but as soon as you return to the airport/leave the country, your quarantine period ends. It just means you can’t gallivant around and leave the place of quarantine unless you stay longer than the two weeks. Initially I was going to book into an airport hotel for the layover but at the time of booking, my hotel of choice, the Sofitel (attached to the airport) was still closed and I found other hotels only to be accepting essential workers as guests. In the end I decided to hire a car from LHR and drive straight to my hometown of Bournemouth (on the south coast, 90 minutes from the airport) and stay at my family home over night and return straight back to the airport the next day.

I rented a car from Alamo so headed to the bus terminal when I walked out of the airport. Luckily the van was waiting and I was the only person on the shuttle. The driver was masked, as was I. There was a sign to say they can’t help with bags due to COVID-19 however he did kindly help me with mine (I didn’t ask him to).

Alamo had emailed a few days prior encouraging me to do an online check in prior to arriving, which I did to confirm the credit card and sign the liability waiver forms and so on. Upon arrival to the car rental office, I was greeted by a staff member with a mask and an iPad, it was a touch-free check in service which was impressive. He asked me to show my drivers license which he visually checked and we walked over to the car. He explained about the enhanced cleaning protocols and my steering wheel had a disposable cover on, which was the final step to show their cleaning seal.

Off I went, it was a clear day and the motorway wasn’t that busy. My favourite thing to do is turn up the volume and listen to KISS FM which plays a lot of great old songs from my teenage years so always great memories. I got a great night sleep after seeing my immediate family for a BBQ at my childhood home. It was perfect.

London Heathrow

Typically one of the busiest airports in the world, it was rather strange walking into a near empty Terminal 5.

Most shops were actually open in the terminal with signs advising of the social distancing rules. I noticed only a limited number of take out food venues were open. The Fortnum and Mason Champagne Bar was the only option to "sit in". Lounges were still closed at that time. It was my mum’s birthday so we took a seat and toasted with some bubbles to celebrate our reunion and her special day.

Duty free was open in London to Mum’s delight as she has a tradition of buying new perfume every time she is at the airport, however as a safety precaution no perfumes were open for testers so we had to take a bit of a gamble with our purchase (luckily we loved them once we opened them).

I was also thrilled as the water stations were open!

Flying with British Airways from London Heathrow to Split, Croatia

Surprisingly, our flight with British Airways was 95% full, so Brits are definitely travelling now. BA made you board by row number to attempt some degree of social distancing. I had strategically booked myself in the window seat and my Mum on the aisle, hoping no one would take the middle seat, and that worked out beautifully.

You must wear masks at the airport and on the plane (most were adhering). On-board you received a pre-packaged bag with two snacks, water and some antibacterial gel and wipes.

We couldn't buy any other drinks (boo we wanted prosecco!)

We had to fill a health declaration form on-board for Croatia. Again, people crowded the aisles eager to disembark but we chose to take a seat and relax until the plane was near empty.

5 Nights in Hvar, Croatia

We landed at Split airport, it was tiny, just our flight in the arrivals hall and bags were quick. I had filled out this detailed online form for entry in advance, printed it, alongside proof of my accommodation booking (apparently a requirement) but border control didn't ask to see anything! We were met by our driver in the arrivals hall, where you may usually shake hands, this time you just exchanged smiles (under our masks) and off we went (hand sanitizer in the car too of course).

We headed straight to the ferry port and made the 5pm fast catamaran across to Hvar (takes around an hour). You had to wear your mask to board and for the duration. The ferry was a third full I'd say. When we arrived in Hvar, staff from the hotel took our bags but told us to walk to the hotel, along the beautiful marina.

We were greeted by friendly doormen who were wearing masks but you could see were smiling with their eyes. The front desk hosts welcomed us with a glass of prosecco (my kind of check in!) and talked us through their modified check in experience. I had to swipe my own credit card and scan my own passport with the devices they placed on the desk and then proceeded to sanitize before putting it away.

Our room had a paper seal which broke as we unlocked the door, signaling we were the first to enter the room once the thorough and enhanced cleaning was complete prior to our arrival. I thought this was a nice touch.

The hotel General Manager told me this was a very special time to be visiting the island as it was only at around 20% of usual visitor levels, so we would get to experience Hvar like it was in the late 90s before it got more touristy.

For full details of my amazing European summer holiday experience click here for blog post on Croatia.

Flying with Eurowings from Split to Cologne, Germany

Split has a brand new, spacious, modern terminal as it was expecting a record breaking year of visitors. Before you can go to the check-in counters you must take some hand sanitizer and there was a staff member enforcing this. The check in counters have screens. To go through to security it is a automated gate where you scan your boarding card to minimize people contact. Once through security, I sanitized again and headed towards the gate. You go through passport control and I noticed the other side of the gates were very busy, so I decided to opt to sit at the large seating area before walking through (with a small handful of others) as we could have rows to ourselves, and I relaxed there until they started boarding my flight. Everyone lined up to board, but as my usual practice (even pre-pandemic) I sat down until the boarding was almost complete and I was one of the last to board.

This flight was completely full, I mean every single seat. Eurowings did not give out any special kits. It is a budget airline by nature (though the flights aren’t always THAT cheap), you even have to pay for water… I was so tired after my early start that day, that as soon as I took my seat and sanitized the area, I put my noise cancelling headphones and slept right through until landing.

This plane disembarked from both the front and back of the plane (I love when you go up or down stairs onto the plane from the ground).

I saw an airport bus parked up and got a bit nervous, remembering how they typically are jam packed, but to my relief, I was stopped in my tracks as the bus had met it’s new 50% capacity limit so we had to wait a moment for another bus to pull up.

There was a massive line up for passport control, and people didn’t seem to pay attention to the social distance markers, so I decided to take a seat and wait until the line was no more before passing through the security check.

The baggage claim area was very busy, but again I just took a step bag and waited for the crowd to die down, I wasn't in any urgent rush.

Guests are allowed to meet you in the arrivals hall in Germany, they just have to wear a mask. It was great to be greeted by my dad in the arrivals hall as it’s been 7 months since we have been together.

Flying back to Canada- from Dusseldorf to London to Vancouver

We were up at the crack of dawn as my flight was at 6.50am and it was about 45 minutes away from my dad’s house. After saying our final goodbye, I headed inside.

Eurowings was not allowing online check in for whatever reason so I arrived to find a massive line at the terminal. There were markers on the floor to encourage you to keep your distance.

I held my breath as my bag was weighed, knowing I had purchased a few treats and my bag was likely over. To my luck, she printed my bag tags and I was on my way. I imagine as the lines were still so long behind me they wanted to avoid any delays at the check in so just allowed it. Phew!

Security was smoothly and everyone boarded via an orderly line and a staff member enforced each passenger to take hand sanitizer before boarding the plane.

The Final Stretch- London to Vancouver

As I was flying with two different tickets and not on a “through-ticket” I gave myself plenty of time to connect between flights, way more than I usually would, but just to be safe. It meant I had 6+ hours at the airport, so I found a spot at the bar and loaded up the laptop. Vacations always tend to end for me once I am on the journey home, so I went back into work mode. Though I decided to treat myself, as the budget starts when you get home, right?!

At check in, they did ask you health related questions and before boarding our temperature was taken.

The Air Canada flight was much fuller on the way home, it was a code share with Air India so there were a lot of connecting passengers on the plane. As I checked in I asked the agent to check my seat and she moved me to the last empty row. I was very fortunate again to board and have no one else next to me. Passengers on-board were less adherent of the mask policy, I felt for the staff who had to continually remind people several times throughout the flight.

Both meals were vegetarian for some reason on this flight. The food was just OK but I had eaten at the airport and brought some snacks so it was fine. I have to say, I forgot how great the entertainment system is on Air Canada. I watched four great films and before I knew it, we had touched down in Vancouver. I was home!

Walking through arrivals, I came to a huge line up - people were required to fill out a physical form for contact tracking. I was shocked, and wish I had thought to look into it earlier. I said to the guard, there must be an electronic way to do this and he advised us of the ARRIVE CAN app. I am surprised this app was not better communicated prior to travel. It should be on the reminder email from the airline, or they could have given out the forms on-board, like the old landing cards were distributed. There were only a handful of stations and I noticed small groups gathering and everyone sharing the provided pens. I decided I didn’t want to be with the crowds so I grabbed a form, lent against my book and used my own pen in the corner and proceeded on my way as it was quicker than waiting for the download to finish. But I highly suggest downloading it for future travel.

At border control, they briefly questioned me about my trip and asked me about my quarantine plans. You were then sent to a secondary counter, manned by Public Health Canada staff who asked me about my plans in my detail. I mentioned I was going home and once they knew I lived with my partner, they made me call him on my cell phone so they could speak to him, to gain his verbal consent that he would also be adhering to the quarantine. They read me the rules and penalties and made me sign a document before letting me continue to the baggage claim.

There was an abundance of signage around the airport reminding you of the Quarantine Act and severe penalties if you break the law. You were told you were not supposed to take your mask off until you arrived to your place of residence/quarantine.

I was relieved to see my partner waiting for me in the loading area and it was time to head home. He had already stocked up our food (and drink), we both are able to work from home and we are fortunate to have a large patio so I wasn’t too concerned about quarantining.

In Summary

Would I travel again during the pandemic? Absolutely. Having taken several flights, and experiencing different hotels and various transportation methods, I feel more confident of our ability to do this fairly safely. Quite honestly, the biggest threat to your safety is other passengers around - but for the most part, people were respectful and adhered to the rules. There are little tips and tricks you can do to further enhance your healthy and safety like I explained throughout this article.

It is vital that everyone travelling adheres to the absolutely basics:

- Wash your hands often and for at least 20 seconds

- Take hand sanitizer with you and extra antibacterial wipes or gel

- Be mindful of other people around you, keep your distance!

And of course, most importantly DO NOT TRAVEL if you are sick, have symptoms or have had potential exposure to someone who has been infected prior to you travelling.

As I approach the end of my quarantine and reflect on the incredibly special times, reuniting with my parents, having a much needed break from this chaos and work stress and I come back with a greater appreciation for travel and reminder to never take our freedom and ability to travel for granted again.

If you want to read about the fun stuff and our experience travelling in Croatia, staying on the gorgeous island of Hvar, click here.

If you have any further questions about my trip and the experience, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly.

Stay safe and well!

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