Before landing in London’s Heathrow Airport last month, I thought I had a firm grasp on the new layers of pandemic travel — the testing requirements, screening procedures, locator forms, and health and safety protocols, to name a few.
I had recently taken a work trip from Istanbul to New York City, which involved two long-haul flights from two major airports, and after successfully navigating that process, I figured traveling through Europe would be straightforward.
But as I approached passport control, it felt like I had been transported back to the 1990s. In front of the electronic gates — which British, European and American citizens usually have the privilege of whizzing through — was a line of restless passengers holding wads of documents waiting to be examined by stern-faced immigration officers dressed in yellow vests.
I opened my folder and diligently checked my paperwork: the negative coronavirus test taken 72 hours before my departure; the five-page locator form detailing my quarantine arrangements; and confirmation that I had booked and paid for a $212 coronavirus test that would allow me to be released from quarantine five days after my arrival.
Still, as I reached the front of the line, I felt my anxiety growing. I’m a British citizen and I was coming home, but with all the extra scrutiny, it felt like there was still a chance I could get turned back. The officer took my folder and started scanning through the forms.
Then came the question that sent my heart racing. “Where’s your booking reference for your Day 2 and Day 8 test?” she asked. I didn’t have one. I had opted for the “test and release” scheme that requires you to take a test on Day 5 of quarantine, and didn’t realize that under Britain’s “traffic light” system, those coming from amber-list countries such as Turkey — which has since been bumped down to the red list — are also required to take tests on their second day and eighth day after arrival.
Thankfully, the officer allowed me to step to the side and book the additional tests on my phone. It set me back another $200, but at least I was allowed through. As I waited for my luggage, I felt exhausted and flustered.
I’m a travel reporter. I had spent the best part of an hour reading through Britain’s entry requirements. How had I still managed to get it wrong?
In the absence of universal requirements and criteria for entry, international travel right now is chaotic and confusing. Governments and developers are scrambling to roll out digital health certificates to make things easier. The European Union’s digital green certificate, intended to ease travel across the bloc, is currently being used by nine countries and will go into use in all 27 members by July 1.
The experience of traveling from Point A to Point B is overwhelming and jarring, especially if, like me, you spent the past year cocooning at home. Now, because of my work, I’ve taken eight flights over the past two months, and in each instance, the airports have been packed, planes have been full, and people have resorted back to old habits of pushing and shoving with little regard for COVID etiquette.
Added to the usual disorientation of international travel is the new dimension of adjusting to your destination’s point in the COVID timeline, as the pandemic plays out at different rates. Total lockdown at your departure point might shift to a more easygoing freedom when you deplane. Then the whole thing happens in reverse. Traveling back and forth in COVID time causes a sense of whiplash as you jolt between sets of rules and regulations, based on the state of the pandemic.
When I visited New York in late March after spending months in strict lockdown in Turkey, it was like getting transported to the future. Friends and colleagues in their 30s were being vaccinated, restaurants, shops and cultural sites were open, and people were socializing like it was 2019. It was exciting to be in a place with such upbeat energy and to see people in person, but it left me overstimulated and exhausted by the end.
Turkey was experiencing a huge surge in new coronavirus infections when I returned, and I went straight into the most stringent lockdown of the pandemic, which meant locals were required to stay at home except for grocery shopping and medical emergencies. I was jolted back in time. Tourists were exempt from the restrictions, but the novelty of visiting empty museums and walking through deserted streets wears off quickly. After all, what is a place without its local population and its restaurants, cafes, bars and culture?
When I arrived in London, I stepped into a kind of limbo, because I had to spend the first five days in quarantine at home. I was fully vaccinated and had provided a negative test to enter the country and it didn’t feel like I would pose a risk to anyone by walking through the park or grabbing a coffee. But breaking quarantine rules comes with a hefty fine of up to 10,000 pounds (about $14,000).
I received phone calls from a government task force several times a day checking up on my whereabouts and compliance with the rules. Once, I was in an online work meeting and missed the call, which sent me into a frenzy trying to figure out whether that would get me into trouble.
Even after I received the negative test result that set me free, it took awhile to adjust. By that point, London, like New York, was moving toward normalization, even though many people had yet to be fully vaccinated, so the lingering threat of the virus made social interactions awkward and challenging, especially as the weather was cold and rainy.
As a travel reporter, I am often asked by people for advice about navigating pandemic travel. Someone in Britain recently asked me whether they should take a four-day trip to Portugal. I said no. I told them if they wanted to make the trip worthwhile, they should budget in at least a week to give themselves time to prepare and recover from the journey and acclimate to their new surroundings. And then, just a few days later, Britain took Portugal off its green list and the idea of a quick trip became moot. More whiplash.
I spent the past two weeks in Switzerland where I happily embraced the serenity of staying put. There were times when I was tempted to cycle across the border to France or take a train to Italy just because I could, but after spending hours filling out paperwork and booking coronavirus tests for an upcoming work trip that would take me to four different countries, I quickly lost my enthusiasm.
On Friday afternoon, I landed in St. Martin, the half-French, half-Dutch island in the West Indies and embarkation point for the first cruise in North America since the pandemic shut the industry down in March 2020. I was excited, until I walked into the arrivals hall and was met with seven winding rows of passengers clutching bundles of documents as they waited to clear immigration and COVID-screening procedures.
I cleared the line in 2 hours, 20 minutes (I, at least, was working, not starting a vacation). The hotel check-in wasn’t any better. It took 45 minutes to get to the front desk, and when I asked about the delay the clerk said, “Sorry, ma’am, I am a little rusty, and because of the cruise, all the guests arrived at the same time.”
The next morning, embarking on the Celebrity Millennium along with 600 other fully vaccinated passengers, I was told I did not need to wear the mask I had dutifully put on that morning. It felt like I had time traveled to an era before the pandemic. But as I mingled with other unmasked passengers, I began to feel uneasy — my brain’s way of telling me it needed some time to catch up with my new reality.cor