We are currently in the middle of an international crisis where most (if not all) countries have implemented travel restrictions that make all but essential international travel impossible. What is it like to travel during a pandemic? Here's my recent travel experience.
Beppe walking through an Empty Terminal A at Boston Logan Airport
Changing Travel Plans
I live my life on two continents. I'm a US citizen married to an Italian, and while we spend a majority of our time in the USA, our travel business that focuses on active travel in Italy makes it necessary to travel to Italy several times a year.
Normally in May we are beginning our first busy period of the year running tours in Italy. This year, that has all changed. We were supposed to fly from the USA to Italy in early April for our annual guide meeting and to see off our first tours. The guide meeting, the tours and our flights were all canceled as we figured out how to adjust our private lives and our business to fit this new reality.
From March 11 until May 3, 2020, all of Italy was under a complete lockdown where people could not leave their homes except for food or emergencies. On May 4, "Phase 2" began, with a gradual easing of restrictions to take place throughout May and June. We decided to fly back to Italy on May 5 once Phase 2 had started and bought the tickets three weeks before our departure.
Flights to Italy were hard to come by, but we did know that Alitalia was guaranteeing one daily flight from New York (JFK) to Rome. We booked an itinerary that included that flight and began to prepare. I periodically checked the reservation online to make sure it hadn't been cancelled. Flight times and numbers changed but the reservation remained intact. Or so I thought.
The day before our scheduled flight I had a question about excess luggage, so I called Delta to ask (the flights were booked through Delta). When I got through and said I was flying to Italy the next day, the customer service rep stopped me before I could ask my question and told me my flight had been canceled several days before. I had never been informed.
She found a note on my file saying "flight canceled, inform passenger" that was probably put there by an Alitalia employee. Alitalia and Delta are both part of the Sky Team and reservations with either are supposed to be seamless, but obviously something went wrong in this case.
Beppe then called up the Italian Consulate and the Embassy and asked what happened to the guaranteed flight. As far as they knew, the flight was still on. He called up Alitalia and the rep said the flight was canceled for the rest of May. No reason was given, but we suspect money from the Italian government that had been subsidizing the flights ran out.
There was nothing we could do; the flight was gone with no warning. Delta's customer service and communication are usually excellent and I am sure the issue was with Alitalia, however I did file a complaint with Delta since I booked the original flight through them.
After the shock wore off I called up Delta again to find a new flight. That week a new route had started up again from Detroit to Amsterdam, and from there we could get to Italy. They honored the original ticket price (which was very low) and the only stipulation was that the destination could not change. While a flight to Turin or Milan would have been more convenient, we stuck with a flight to Rome. We had a rental car waiting for us in Rome as well.
Our new route departed on May 6: flights from Boston to Detroit to Amsterdam to Rome, and then the rental car to drive from Rome to Turin. Due to restrictions in place for people arriving from outside of Italy we were not allowed to take public transportation or get picked up by anyone we do not live with. Before leaving the USA we had to alert the local health authorities in Turin of our arrival. Upon arrival at home we would have to go into a mandatory 14-day quarantine during which we have to take our temperatures twice a day and report if over 37.5 C, or if we had any other COVID-19 symptoms.
The Start of a 30-Hour Journey
We weren't traveling light: we had six pieces of luggage between us, including two bike cases. My sister drove us in to Logan Airport in her pickup truck. We had to leave early so that her young girls could be back home before nap time. It was the quickest drive from the South Shore of MA to the airport that I remember in my lifetime. We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Of course, it wasn't necessary. When we entered Terminal A we were the only two passengers there pre-security. The first thing that hit me was how dark it was. Most of the lights were off. And then, the emptiness. I scanned the long counter area to find a human to help us. Down at the far right, there were two counters open.
Bikes and Luggage Loaded for the Trip
When we approached the counter, we were immediately helped by four people who checked us in quickly and took away our oversized bags. There were other employees walking around, wiping down surfaces with disinfectant wipes. Everyone (including us) was wearing a mask. I asked one of the agents how many Delta flights were going out that day and she said, "nine."
Six of Delta's Nine Flights
After checking in we walked towards security and while we were still quite a distance away I made eye contact with the one TSA agent who was checking passports at the security checkpoint. We walked up to her and she checked our documents. We did have to take down our masks for a moment so she could verify who we were. Going through security was quick and uneventful. We both have TSA precheck and were given pieces of paper to hand over once we reached the belt so we didn't have to take out our laptops or remove our shoes.
Entering Terminal A was surreal. I did not see one other passenger in any direction. Besides TSA agents and a few other workers, there were no other people. All shops were closed, as well as most restaurants. We walked the length of the first part of the terminal to take it all in.
Video from an Empty Terminal A Just Past Security
We had access to the Delta lounge on this day, so we went up. Again, we were the only passengers there. There was one employee at the desk and another walking around. We checked in and entered. The bar was closed, per Massachusetts regulations. There was no hot food or buffet. There were prepackaged snacks, soda and bottled water available. The coffee machine was working. Bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes were available throughout.
We had the Sky Club to ourselves.
We started up a conversation with the employee who was walking around. He said that although it was strange for the lounge to be so empty, after one month like this most employees were used to it. He said on a typical day the two Delta lounges at Boston Logan Airport would see a combined 1800 passengers. The average number each day in April was 18. During our two+ hours in the lounge only two other passengers came in.
30 minutes before our flight we went down to our gate. Everyone was wearing a mask. Boarding was different from usual as the gate agents called people up by rows, starting from the back of the plane. The only exception were those seated in first class and those with the highest frequent flier status who could still board at any time.
A View of Terminal A from the Sky Club
The flight was not full, but there were more people than I expected. I estimate the flight was at about 30% capacity. Delta is social distancing on their flights and passengers were spaced out. The plane was clean, much cleaner than I'm used to. Flight attendants, all wearing masks, came through and handed us all disinfectant wipes. Even though my area seemed clean, I used my wipe to disinfect my touch screen, tray table and seatbelt buckle.
Sanitizing Wipes Given to Each Passenger
Flight attendants minimized the amount of trips they had to take down the aisle. After the flight took off they came through once more with packages that included a bottle of water, a package of crackers, a package of cookies, and a small packet of hand sanitizer. The packages were the same in all classes. In the first class cabin, the usual complimentary drink service was not available.
Delta's Snack Pack
I did not use the restroom in this flight, so I don't know what it was like. I imagine it had been cleaned using the new hygiene standards that Delta has in place.
Arrival in Detroit and Preparation for Travel to Europe
We had a few hours in the Detroit airport and decided to stay by the gate. It was busier than Boston, with more shops open and more people, but still felt empty. Most people were wearing masks. Nobody seemed to be in a rush, which seemed off for an airport. The was a cautious, serious feeling in the air, but everyone remained calm.
The restroom I used in the terminal was spotless. During the wait for our next flight we made some calls and checked emails. About an hour before takeoff, every passenger was given a health declaration form that we were supposed to hand in once we arrived in Amsterdam.
Health Declaration Form to Enter Amsterdam
After the forms were handed out, certain passengers were called up to the desk one by one and I was one of them. Every passenger who did not have a European passport had to prove they could enter Europe. I showed my residency paperwork and was approved to travel.
When boarding started the first class cabin entered first, then everyone else by row starting from the back of the plane. As we were called up we had to stand six feet apart as each person entered. This was a contactless boarding that utilized facial recognition software. As we approached the gate we had to take down our mask in order to be scanned in. We also had to show that we completed our health declaration form.
Beppe Getting Ready to Board
The flight was not full at all. We estimate the were 60-75 passengers. This was another Delta-operated flight and so they were practicing social distancing on board and everyone was spaced out. Beppe and I were seated in a three-seat middle section that we had to ourselves. The rows in front of us and behind us were also empty and by mid-flight we had each taken our own row. The flight was just as clean as the first flight we took.
Aside from everyone wearing masks and the plane being almost empty, the flight seemed normal. We had a regular food service and everyone on board was calm. Beppe and I slept for a good portion of the flight.
Ben & Jerry's for Dessert on the Flight to AMS
Arriving in Amsterdam was overwhelming. Our connection time was under an hour, which I didn't think would be a problem given the small number of people traveling, however there were many new protocols in place. Everyone traveling to Italy was directed to the same gate in the terminal where we had to stand in a long line. We never had to hand over our health declaration forms for Amsterdam and instead were given two copies of health declaration forms for Italy. One of those had to be given to gate agents before we boarded and the other was for arrival in Italy.
Beppe Filling out a Health Declaration form at AMS
There were at least two flights to Italy leaving within 15 minutes of each other and due to all of the additional screenings and paperwork both left late. It was clear that a streamlined system for all of the regulations was not yet in place. There were large lines of people and lots of confusion.
Waiting in Line in AMS for a Temperature Check
We waited in line to fill out the health declaration. We waited in another line for a temperature check. Then, more paperwork: a declaration that we had a residence in Italy and that we would need to travel through different regions to get to it (movement between the regions was prohibited at the time, except in cases of necessity). All of our paperwork was checked and my residence documents were checked as well.
Self-Declaration to Enter Italy
Into Italy and the Start of Quarantine
Our flight took off about 15 minutes late. It was less than half full. This flight was operated by KLM. They were following social distancing protocols on the flight; even Beppe and I were seated in our own separate rows. There was no drink service and the flight attendants asked that we not stand in the aisle to wait for the bathroom and instead wait at our seat. The plane was not dirty, but it was noticeably less sanitized than the Delta-operated flights.
Arriving in Rome's Fiumicino was another surreal experience: dark, nearly empty and much less activity than in Detroit. We deplaned and before we could get to our luggage we had one more checkpoint to pass where all of our documents were checked and we were asked why we were in Italy and where we lived.
We found an open bar on the way to our luggage and stopped for a coffee. There was one person working and no other customers. Beppe approached the bar and ordered. We were served coffee in to-cups and did not linger long.
Beppe Waiting for the Car Rental
After we picked up our luggage we went to the rental car area to get our vehicle. We had a seven+ hour drive ahead of us. I thought that we would be stopped several times en route to our house, at least crossing from region to region, but we weren't stopped at all. Traffic was not bad along the way and there were mostly trucks on the road. About half of the rest stops and restaurants were open.
We arrived at home the night of the 7th to start our mandatory 14-day quarantine. Our kitchen was well-stocked, thanks to Beppe's mom who lives close by. As I write this, we are finishing up our last days in quarantine. While we have not been able to leave, we have been well-fed and cared for!
Home-Cooked Meals and Other Food Waiting for Us
Once our quarantine ends we will be able to leave the house and travel around our region. Masks are mandatory when we will be around other people. Businesses are beginning to open. Travel between regions begins on June 3. On that date visitors from other European countries can enter the country without going into quarantine. There is no word yet on when people from outside of Europe will be able to return.
Have you traveled recently? Will you travel in the near future? Tell us about your experience or your thoughts.