Airline volume is up from the worst days of the pandemic, though it has certainly not returned to pre-pandemic levels. On a single day in June, the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened 502,000 people, down from a typical day of 2.5 million a year prior, according to New York Magazine.
And yet, of course, travel must, and does, go on. While some borders remain closed to international travel from certain countries with higher rates of Covid-19, plenty of travelers are confronting confined space with strangers, recycled air for hours on end, and long quarantines upon arrival. Travelers from the United States, which leads the world in daily confirmed cases of Covid-19, are subject to some of the most severe restrictions.
Here are the first-person accounts of three people who have traveled within the past few weeks, all flying from the US to different continents. Their experiences show just how different countries’ approaches to infection prevention are, and the practices that may become a new normal.
Seoul, South Korea
Traveler: Haesung Jeon
Origin: New York City, New York
Arrival date: July 1
The first thing I noticed on the flight was that all the flight attendants were wearing what looked like hazmat suits, plastic covers that ran the length of their torsos and arms, in addition to the required masks. It looked really uncomfortable, but then again, we all were—everyone on the flight was wearing a mask, myself included.
Upon landing, I walked the long stretch that led to the security check and saw that the panels that used to advertise tourism to South Korea had been replaced with child-friendly animations that stressed the importance of washing hands, complete with song.
Prior to passport control, passengers were required to fill out several additional forms: a travel record declaration (where passengers declared countries they had visited); a notice that laid out the 14 day quarantine requirement for all passengers and outlined the legal and punitive implications of breaking quarantine; a receipt for the quarantine notice; and quarantine guidelines that included instructions on installing a quarantine phone app.
Passengers were guided to a separate area where men wearing the same makeshift hazmat suits, face masks, and t-shirts that declared them “Korean Army Field Support Team” instructed us to install a “Self-Quarantine Safety Protection” app on our phones. People crowded around each of the soldiers, who individually checked to make sure passengers installed the app, and gave them the admin code necessary to activate it. The soldiers explained to us that it was used for self-reporting symptoms. I’m not 100% sure if it tracks our location, but every time I turn on the app, the Bluetooth function on my phone turns on automatically.
Next, we were led to another station with a row of soldiers stationed in cubicles, all wearing the same plastic covers and masks. Each cubicle was equipped with landline phones. A kind-looking young man asked me where I was staying and how I could be reached. He checked those details by personally calling the phone numbers I had listed on the quarantine form. Since I don’t have a Korean cell phone, I listed my dad’s number, but he missed the call, so I was asked to list another number. I gave my mom’s and, luckily, she answered, so I was sent through to passport control. I noticed that another man on my left had been sitting there since before I got there, waiting for his contact person to pick up their phone before he could be released to passport control.
After my passport was stamped, I was sent to a waiting area for passengers to be picked up by private vehicles. The area was spacious, with benches spaced at least six feet apart, but monitored by more soldiers. I saw more soldiers around, this time in their camouflage uniforms.
In the last 13 days of my soon-to-be-over quarantine, I have received a Covid-19 test (I paid about US$10); been prompted by the app to log my symptoms twice daily; was delivered a care package by the government, which included hand sanitizing gel, spray, masks, quarantine guidelines, and trash bags marked to indicate biohazard materials; and received several check-ins by my assigned municipal government official. Two of these check-ins were done by phone, but two were in person.
On day two of my quarantine, I was taking a jetlag nap only to be woken up by two women wearing masks. They were in my apartment and announced themselves by knocking on the bedroom door. I learned that they were government officials making sure I was adhering to my quarantine, and my parents (who were staying elsewhere) had let them into the building because I wasn’t answering their calls. They kept a safe distance while they waited for me to get my ID. I was only somewhat unsettled by their presence—after all, I was woken up by a stranger in my own home. But then again, better safe than sorry, considering what’s happening in places with fewer government regulations and less compliance from citizens.
Traveler: Amy Knibbs
Origin: Syracuse, New York
Arrival date: July 7
First thing on the morning of July 7 I stepped off my final flight between Syracuse, NY and Sydney, Australia, having made the difficult decision to give up the life I’d built in the United States to be in the same country as my family.
The flight was probably only around 25% capacity: The Australian government capped the number of overseas arrivals to 50 people per plane. You can no longer fly in unless you are a citizen, permanent resident, or immediate family member of a citizen, and Australians are no longer allowed to fly out (with very limited exceptions).
Obviously, it was nice to have a plane row to myself on the 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, but I wondered if we would even cover the cost of fuel and crew, who were still plentiful. Masks were mandatory but you could take them off to eat and drink; I made sure to keep my AC vents open.
When we disembarked in Sydney, we were ushered by airport staff and police through customs and to get our bags. The airport was eerily empty—the stores were all closed and there weren’t many passengers since there were almost no flights in or out.
Passengers had our temperatures checked by medical staff, who then individually asked us about Covid-19 symptoms. They informed us we would be subject to two weeks’ quarantine in Sydney hotels, paid for by the government. We also provided all our contact details for potential contact tracing, which is now quite well developed here.
Police glared at us like would-be criminals, and it was not until later that I learned that there had been two attempted escapes from quarantine that week, resulting in AU$1,000 fines. Even more, all passengers on a plane from a neighboring state with an outbreak had disembarked in Sydney with no checks or contact tracing whatsoever, illuminating a hole in airport systems.
We were politely escorted onto buses, still under the watchful eyes of law enforcement, and the Australian Defence Force loaded our bags. At the Sydney Harbour Marriott hotel, we waited an hour for the army guys to unload our bags, which hotel staff were forbidden to touch. Hotel staff were eager to delineate between hotel policy and government policy because they’ve already gotten some bad reviews from people in quarantine. They were the ones making jokes about taking us to our “prison cells.”
We filled out dietary forms for our three free meals per day, answered another set of questions from state police, and received a whole stack of information sheets about why we were required to quarantine and what that would entail. The police even have a whole information sheet on surviving quarantine psychologically. In short, once inside, we were not allowed to leave our rooms for any reason. I don’t even have a key to my room.
You can’t smoke anywhere in Australian hotels anymore, so the smokers were going to have a very hard time. One guy on my bus was clearly starting to worry. I’ve heard in other hotels they are escorting people outside individually to smoke, but that doesn’t happen here. Here, you can receive one bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer per day (per the Responsible Service of Alcohol guidelines), although I’ve heard at other hotels they make it very difficult to access, so any alcoholics would also struggle. Knowing that Australians are drinkers, the hotel is giving a 30% discount on their booze prices, which just shows you the usual markup. If you had any other kind of addiction, you are in real trouble.
We get a call from the nursing team every day to check if we have developed any symptoms or other medical issues, including mental health. I got a text from the Australian Red Cross offering a volunteer I could talk to if I needed, and a call from a clinical psychologist offering support. Mostly, I only see hotel staff when I pick my food up from my doorstep, but there is a private security firm paid to sit on my floor by the elevators and the police are both in the lobby and outside the building.
The meals are mostly okay, but by day eight, cereal for breakfast every day is really starting to get old. It’s maddening being so close to Sydney cafes but not wanting to spend AU$8 (about US$6) on a cappuccino from the hotel room service! I’m sick of plastic silverware, disposable containers, and lukewarm food. We can receive one delivery per day (although they are fairly relaxed about it), so I’ve ordered food, received care packages from my family, and a friend dropped off a puzzle.
I’m one of the last in Sydney for whom quarantine is free. Going forward, they will charge AU$3000 for mandatory hotel quarantine, which is a significant financial outlay for expats returning home.
But, in general, I’m relieved to be a citizen of a country that takes the virus seriously and was lucky enough to have warning before it spread in the community. We have only had 108 deaths in Australia with a population about three times the size of New York City (25 million). I’m hopeful that life will return to normal faster here than some other places that are still suffering so profoundly, like the US.
Traveler: Owen Dodd
Origin: Newark, New Jersey
Arrival date: July 12
I was definitely nervous to be traveling, especially with all of the border restrictions in place, but things went much more smoothly than I expected. Getting to Newark was surreal because the airport was so much more empty than I’ve ever experienced before, eerily so. But this also made the whole process really smooth. I think it took me about 15 minutes to check in, drop off my bags, get through security, and arrive at the gate.
Almost everyone I saw at the gate was wearing a mask, save one or two people, who I tried to steer clear of. It was quite strange just how quiet the terminal was. Maybe because everyone was more on edge than normal, there was almost no talking, the only real sound being the constant Covid-related news headlines coming from one of the TVs.
Going into the trip, I was probably most worried about the flight being full and having to sit next to other people for a long time. But it turned out that there were only about 30 or so people on the entire plane, which meant there was plenty of room to spread out.
At border control in Copenhagen, I had to provide paperwork to get into the country due to the travel ban, some of which was documenting my ‘worthy cause’ (in my case it was visiting my partner here—Danish police say ‘sweetheart’ is one of the accepted relationships that justify visitation). I also had to provide a signed paper from a doctor stating that I had a negative Covid-19 test 72 hours prior to arrival.
The 72-hour timeframe was challenging because of how long some tests are taking right now, so I had gone to get tested twice, once four days before (results came back in 18 hours), and once two days before (results were back 24 hours later). I was able to get the paperwork filled out for the first results when I went back for my second test, but wasn’t able to get the official paperwork for the second round of results because the clinic was closed the day of my flight. Luckily the border control agent accepted the paperwork for the first results, even though they fell 12 hours outside of the 72-hour window.
Everyone at the airport in Copenhagen was wearing masks, but as soon as you stepped outside the airport, no one was. The contrast crossing the threshold was fairly striking. Because I had my negative test results upon arrival, there was no guidance for me to quarantine, and I haven’t heard anything else from the government since getting here. I’m still adjusting to the fact that life here seems to be much more normal than in New York, which I’m sure will take some time, but I’m very happy to have made it!