What It’s Like to Take an International Flight During COVID-19

What is it like to board a plane during the pandemic, and to fly for hours at a time? One writer shares her international flight experience from the United States to East Africa.

What It’s Like to Take an International Flight During COVID-19

Qatar Airways is working to restore many of its routes that stopped in the early days of the pandemic.

International travel before the pandemic was, for the most part, pretty darn predictable: I could book a flight months in advance and feel confident that borders would stay open to Americans by the time I departed. Transit hubs were more or less straightforward, and if my flight got canceled, my airline would likely have a number of alternative flights that would get me to my destination with relative ease. Boarding? That was as simple as strolling up to the gate agent and flashing my passport and ticket. But those days are long gone—thanks to COVID-19.

When Rwanda decided to reopen its borders on August 1, my travel partner, AFAR CEO Greg Sullivan, and I both felt compelled to learn what it’s like to move around the world during this unprecedented time. We were curious to see what the experience would be like in Rwanda, which appeared to be setting an example for East Africa—and the world—with its tight protocols for international visitors that included negative COVID-19 tests five days before our departure, upon landing, and even 72 hours before exiting the country. We were ready to embrace the new realities of international travel while also acknowledging the immense privilege of doing so during East Africa’s high season with a fraction of the tourists.

We chose to fly Qatar Airways, which is working to restore many of its routes that stopped in the early days of the pandemic, and currently flying to 90 destinations. Before I traveled, I watched the airline’s cleaning protocols videos: In addition to the heavy PPE for the crew and thorough sanitizing of high-touch areas like seatbelts and tray tables, the airline conducts thermal screenings for cabin crew prior to each flight, and is serving all food and utensils with plastic coverings. Still, the prospect of catching something and having to quarantine in Kigali weighed on me, so I brought my own sanitizer wipes for my airplane seat, just in case.

I also brought along the hot new amenity for long-haul travel: face shields. Qatar Airways goes as far as to require them when boarding; economy class passengers need to wear theirs the whole flight, while business class passengers can take theirs off when seated, as the airline’s QSuites have large partitions that act as a physical barrier between you and the aisle. (Qatar Airways provides face shields for passengers who have not brought their own.)

Boarding my flight, with Qatar Airways staff greeting me in their heavy PPE, almost felt apocalyptic: No fewer than 50 passengers boarded with me on the giant Airbus A350, which normally holds more than 300 people. The disbelief continued as I watched New York City fade into the night sky after takeoff, and I contemplated what my travel journey would be like at every turn.

Not too long after takeoff, though, things on my flight began to feel surprisingly . . . normal. Dinner arrived promptly—though the flight attendant and I couldn’t exchange smiles through her face mask—and I watched a few episodes of Modern Family to pass the time before sleeping. This sense of normalcy certainly wouldn’t always be the case during my trip, which took me from New York City to Doha, Doha to Nairobi, and then Nairobi to Kigali. But as I spent time comparing notes about this surreal time in travel with the Doha-based airline staff, and as I later connected with others—Micato safari guides, Rwandan villagers, and national park staff—I found comfort in the fact that we are all facing this unprecedented moment in travel history together.

What to consider before taking an international flight during the coronavirus pandemic

If you’re thinking of taking a long-haul international flight during the pandemic, be sure to study the situation in your destination, and read the CDC’s guidelines on how to take precautions. Here are seven things to know:

Don’t always count on an empty plane.

Stories of near-empty flights during the pandemic abound. And often, that’s true: My international Qatar Airways flights between New York City, Doha, and Nairobi were mostly empty. But my regional Rwandair flight from Nairobi to Kigali was nearly full, and social distancing was not an option. I was reassured by the fact that everyone on my flight had to get a COVID-19 test within five days of departure in order to board the plane, but that close human contact felt a little unsettling after months of maintaining social distance. I switched from my cloth mask to an N95, and I wore my face shield, even though it wasn’t required.

If you are anxious about sitting so close to someone else, read up on your airline’s flexible booking policy, and monitor seat capacity around you.

Expect limited services everywhere.

Many of the travel amenities we normally expect are still operating at limited capacity. When I arrived at JFK Airport around 9 p.m. in New York City, the American Airlines lounge I had intended to use had closed at 8 p.m., and as far as I could see, there was not a single open restaurant after security. (I waited until after takeoff around midnight for dinner onboard.) In Doha, the enormous Qatar Airways lounge was open, and the staff was hypervigilant about cleanliness. There was a buffet, but only staff could plate your food, and in the bathrooms, an attendant was present to clean the stalls between each use.

Organize—and download—all travel documents.

Passports and visas won’t cut it anymore. You’ll need to have other kinds of documents handy these days, such as negative COVID-19 test certificates, completed symptom questionnaires for entry and transit (presented as a QR code in the case of Kenya), and even proof of a hotel stay at a designated quarantine hotel (a requirement in Rwanda). I was asked repeatedly for required documents at hotels, airports, and even national parks. I didn’t always have Wi-Fi to retrieve the forms I needed, so I made sure to get a screen shot of any test confirmations or forms I had received or filled out online.

In Kigali’s airport, I had to present my passport and negative COVID-19 test multiple times, sanitizing my hands and shoes and getting my temperature checked in between. These extra steps are a recipe for misplacing a key document, so keep everything in one place, and ask your outfitter in advance about what you’ll need—and when. For an app that keeps all of your dates and docs organized, TripIt is a favorite.

Have a Plan B (and a Plan C).

Trip insurance is a must during a pandemic. We went with Trip Mate at the recommendation of our outfitter, Micato Safaris, because Trip Mate spelled out its COVID-19-related trip interruption coverage clearly. Beyond having trip insurance, you should also consider booking flights, hotels, and tours that have flexible policies. Qatar Airways, for one, announced in May that in the event of a border closure, it would allow travelers to change their destination to another one within 5,000 miles, free of charge.

Stay on top of the COVID-19 testing rules of your destination—and your stopover.

Every country has its own COVID-19 testing requirements before entering, so check the rules when you book, and then keep checking for changes. (One of the biggest anxieties I had on my flight was whether any of my COVID-19 tests might be outdated due to changing rules). Monitor the COVID-19 testing rules of your transit hubs, too: When our flight into Kigali was canceled, we looked at flying into Kigali via Tanzania, but we didn’t have time to take another test before departing. We had no choice but to transit through Nairobi, which limited our connecting options into Kigali.

Be your own pharmacy.

I created a portable medicine cabinet in my carry-on for two reasons: to boost my immunity in case I encountered any bugs while in transit and to have a few crucial meds handy if I came down with something. Everyone will have a different philosophy on preventative measures, but mine included Vitamins C, D, and E, zinc, and melatonin for combating jet lag for the first few nights (a well-rested body fares better when exposed to germs). I talked to a travel specialist before I left, and she recommended an oximeter, which checks your blood oxygen saturation and can detect whether your lung capacity has been reduced due to sickness. Experts say that a reduced blood oxygen saturation level of below 95 can indicate a respiratory issue like COVID-19, even when you’re otherwise asymptomatic. At $24, it seemed like it wasn’t the worst investment for a little peace of mind while traveling during a pandemic.

Dig deep into your reserves of patience, grace, and empathy.

Being a good guest is just as important as being a good host, and as travelers and hospitality workers alike try to find a new normal, it’s more important than ever. Just think of the gate agents, who are required to stay on top of the new and ever-changing entry policies of dozens of destinations as they’re checking you in. Also be aware that almost every part of travel, from check-in to boarding, will have new procedures you’re not accustomed to, so plan for it by building in extra time.

Case in point: Upon landing in Kigali, before we bleary-eyed passengers even got to passport control, we needed to disinfect our hands and shoes at one checkpoint, show our passport and negative COVID-19 test, and answer questions about symptoms at another. It was something of a hassle, sure: But in the grand scheme of things, patience is always a small price to pay if we want to be respectful visitors in the places that have graciously invited us back.

>> Next: 6 Things to Know About Taking Road Trips During Coronavirus

Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of AFAR.
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