How is international travel during the Covid-19 pandemic?

How is international travel during the Covid-19 pandemic?

My last flight was exactly 7 months ago from Denver to San Jose, Costa Rica. I remember my friend and I making fun of the guy boarding in front of us because he had a tube of Clorox wipes in his backpack. A few people on the plane were also wiping down their tray tables with these soon to be hard to find wipes. What is wrong with these people I thought to myself? Little did I know that was to become the new normal.

7 months later the whole world as we knew it has changed. Covid-19 travel is a whole new experience. And I actually kind of enjoyed it.

After spending 10 days in Costa Rica in March with friends, I headed by bus to Boquete, Panama for a 3-week house sit. 6 months later I was still there. There were some flight options out of Panama but I really had nowhere better to go at the time. Getting from Boquete to the airport in Panama City was also a complicated scenario that I didn’t want to tackle.

Eventually, I found another house sitting opportunity in Panama City which worked out great, and also left me with just a 20 minute, $8 Uber ride to the airport.

I had chosen to fly to Quito, Ecuador for several reasons. Firstly, I’d always wanted to go there. Secondly, there were no restrictions on entering the country other than you needed a negative Covid-19 PCR test. Copa Airlines had twice-weekly flights to Quito out of Panama City. I booked my ticket using 15,000 United miles, and with my $100 PCR test in hand, I was finally ready to say goodbye to Panama.

It was a traffic-free, 18-minute journey out to Tocumen International Airport and my Uber driver had me there exactly 2 hours before my flight. Well that wasn’t really necessary after all.

At the airport.

COVID-19 travel, PTY airport, Panama City, Panama
The check in counters

Before entering the airport I had my temperature taken and shoes sanitized. That was no different than entering a supermarket in Panama, it’s just a normal part of life there these days. Just like everywhere in Panama now, face masks are compulsory.

Upon entering the airport I made my way to the Copa Airlines check-in counters. I walked straight up to the check-in agent who was eagerly waiting for customers. Apart from my passport, she needed to see my negative COVID test results and an onward ticket out of Ecuador. As I have no idea how long I will stay in Ecuador I had booked and canceled a ticket to London from Quito. I just showed her the email confirmation I received before canceling the ticket and that was good enough. I do that a lot these days as I never really know where I am going next or how long I will be staying.

COVID-19 travel, PTY airport, Panama City, Panama
Where is everybody?

As there was nothing else to see in that part of the airport, I made my way to immigration and security. Once again, there was no line whatsoever for immigration.

I had overstayed my 6-month visa in Panama, but due to the country being closed the government had extended all tourist visas until October 31st without penalty. I was waved through with no questions asked. In fact, I think they felt sorry for me being stuck there for that long.

Next came security. Things here were pretty much like they were 7 months ago, just with no lines. I was starting to like this way of travelling.

Once you got to the airside part of the airport is when you realized just how different things were now. Practically all of the shops were closed and just a few food places were open but with no seating allowed. How any of them could survive with this few people around is beyond me.

COVID-19 travel, PTY airport, Panama City, Panama
No duty free shopping today

I rarely eat at airports anymore, or at least not when I have to pay for it. Through one of my credit cards, I have a Priority Pass lounge access membership. I didn’t really expect any of the lounges to be open but I had nothing better to do than go take a look. To my surprise, one of the lounges was actually open. I checked myself in and headed in for breakfast. I was one of two guests in the lounge.

COVID-19 travel, PTY airport, Panama City, Panama

Normally you would just help yourself to whatever food and drinks you wanted. Not anymore. There were very limited choices and everything would be delivered to your table. I went with the offer of eggs and pancakes, along with a hot chocolate. The hot chocolate was the only thing served hot that day. I was served a cold plate of scrambled eggs, pancakes, ham, and cheese. It came straight out of the fridge still wrapped in plastic. I can’t complain, it was free!

COVID-19 travel, PTY airport, Panama City, Panama
Cold eggs and pancakes

As there wasn’t much else on offer at the lounge I headed to my gate. I took a quick look around but there wasn’t much to see. I managed to find one working water fountain to fill up my water bottle and a bathroom to pee in before I got to my gate.

As I got to my gate I thought that I was late and everyone had boarded already. I checked my watch. I was plenty early. There was just no other passengers. Eventually a group of four Ecuadorian passengers showed up and ruined my dream of a private jet to Ecuador. But that was it! Yes, there were more crew than passengers on the flight. Just five passengers in total!

COVID-19 travel, PTY airport, Panama City, Panama
At the gate

The flight.

Boarding was a simple process with that few passengers. Each passenger was handed a snack bag and a bottle of water as we entered the plane. The bag also contained a hygiene kit with a mask, sanitizing wipes, and gloves. That was the only interaction with the flight crew for the entire 2-hour flight.

COVID-19 travel, Copa Airlines
Not the worst airplane food I’ve ever had!

Obviously, I had my own row and took a quick nap before our on-time arrival in Quito. Exiting the plane was also quite simple, but the crew insisted on making their announcements anyway. We were told not to stand up until the row in front of us had started to exit. Well, we all ignored that and just got off the plane without any social distancing issues.

COVID-19 travel, Copa Airlines
Plenty of room to stretch out

Arrival in Ecuador

Several masked, gloved, and gowned airport personnel were there to greet us. They took us to a checkpoint and checked our temperatures and made sure we had our negative COVID PCR results. This all took just a few minutes but I can’t imagine how long it would take with a full plane of passengers.

COVID-19 travel, Copa Airlines

After that it was on to immigration. That was a quick and easy process with five counters open and only five passengers arriving

I quickly made my way through the open but empty duty-free stores and on to baggage claim. The other four passengers just had carry-on luggage. My bag was the only bag going around on the carousel and wasn’t hard to spot.

I was questioned by two other police and customs officers, all in Spanish. They were mostly concerned about how much cash I was bringing into the country. They were probably hoping I had more than I did, trust me, this country could use it at the moment!

I exited customs to a completely empty arrivals hall. Nobody is allowed inside to greet passengers. The owners of my Airbnb had sent a driver to pick me up. He was waiting outside with my name on a sign and I was soon on my way to the historical center of Quito which would be my home for the next week, or maybe more.

The whole journey really couldn’t have gone any smoother. I wish air travel was always like this. I’m not sure how many airlines can survive with this few passengers. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that this pandemic is over soon and we can all begin travelling again.

Have you travelled since this whole pandemic began. Where did you go? How was your experience?

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