Earlier in July, I took a flight from London Heathrow to Montreal in light of my work assignment in London coming to an end. I was a little nervous about flying especially given that this particular flight is trans-Atlantic and thus on the longer side, but I had flown from Amsterdam (where I was quarantining for the bulk of the pandemic) over to London at the beginning of June so I had a rough idea as to what to expect. I’ll go over both journeys as they were quite different, and will touch on my experience with Canada’s 2-week mandatory quarantine.
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AMSTERDAM TO LONDON
After quarantining with my boyfriend and his family in the Netherlands, I had to head back to London at the beginning of June with the imminent expiry of my Schengen visa and my upcoming move from London back to Canada. We booked a ticket with British Airways roughly a week prior to flying, and prices were 2-3x the standard (it probably didn’t help that we had booked so last minute). The day of, we entered Schipol airport wearing masks and armed with multiple bottles of hand sanitizer, but quickly realized that the “vibe” was much more relaxed than we had assumed. Many workers and passengers were going mask-free, and everyone seemed much more chilled than we had anticipated.
The airport was much more quiet than usual, but by no means was it a ghost town. They had limited the areas of the airport that could be accessed and kept passengers in a ring-fenced area, but shops in that zone were open as per usual. We purchased books, snacks and some water for the flight, unsure what the food and drink situation would be on board.
When it came time to board, the gate workers were making an effort to call people row by row to avoid crowding at the gate and when boarding the plane. At this point, all passengers were masking up. Some people had more heavy-duty air-filtering masks, and others were donning surgical masks or handkerchiefs repurposed as face coverings.
Onboard, I was shocked! The plane was FULL. Every single seat was taken and people were struggling to find spots to store their carry-on luggage. This was super strange and foreign to me after months of practicing social distancing and avoid crowded public spaces at all costs. I was slightly appeased by the fact that everyone was wearing face coverings, but it was still disconcerting. This was probably due to the fact that the UK had announced a mandatory quarantine period for travellers arriving in the UK that Monday or later (all the London residents quarantining abroad were now in a rush to get home!), but I thought that the airline would’ve made an attempt to block off seats regardless. I was also surprised when the flight crew handed out pretzels and water bottles. Nice, but unexpected.
At London Heathrow airport, the mood felt immediately more sombre & serious than at Schipol. Everyone wore face coverings and all shops were closed. This seemed to make sense given the Netherlands’ much more laid back approach to the virus vs. London’s strict, albeit delayed lockdown measures.
LONDON TO MONTREAL
After spending roughly a month in London, it was time for me to head back to Montreal. I was flying out from Heathrow once again, and took a private transfer to the airport to avoid lugging tons of luggage around on the tube. The airport was quite busy when entering (I mean, relative to the times), but everyone was wearing masks and the environment felt quite safe. An employee asked us for our boarding passes ahead of entering the airport as they want to ensure you’re actually travelling and that you’re not there 10 hours before your flight – they’re doing their best to avoid congestion.
Once we passed through security, we realized that almost everything was shut down. Only a number of stores & restaurants were open (WHSmith, Leon) and my personal Heathrow favorites were shut down (John Lewis L). It was still relatively busy, and we saw travellers who were clearly travelling for pleasure and not returning home. We removed our masks and stuck to a quieter spot in the airport to eat, but we definitely missed that relaxing feeling when you grab a drink and hang out in the terminal prior to boarding.
Onboard, the COVID flight reality was definitely there – the plane was EMPTY. I was told there were 200 empty seats on that particular flight. Oddly enough, they had sat the passengers that were onboard very close to one another. Thankfully, I had an entire row of 4 seats to myself which is basically the equivalent of business class but in economy (sort of). My first observations were that all flight crew were wearing proper PPE (masks, gloves, and some were even wearing doctor-style plastic lab coats of some sort) and there were no blankets/pillows offered despite this being a trans-Atlantic flight. For our first in-flight “service,” we were offered plastic baggies with a small plastic water bottle, plastic gloves, a mask and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. I actually really liked that they did this, as it allows you to tailor how protected you want to be – I had my own mask and hand sanitizer, but I like that they gave me the option to up my protection with gloves or a mask change if I would like to. The one downside is it was a lot of plastic – a recurring theme I noticed with the rest of the services as well.
There was no drink service onboard the flight, but we were served cold meals on two different occasions. These consisted of pre-packaging food & snacks (think sandwiches, crackers), but they were palatable and any type of food was welcome! Again, the downside is that this pre-packaged approach meant a lot of plastic.
Upon landing at Montreal Trudeau, disembarking happened super fast and going through customs was really quick as well. Given Canada’s 2-week mandatory quarantine rule when coming in from abroad, you’re asked to provide information about where you’ll be quarantining along with your contact details so they can follow-up on you throughout that 14-day period. The customs agent didn’t really question me at all and I breezed through painlessly. One thing I wasn’t aware of is that no one is allowed to enter the airport asides from those travelling, so I had to lug my 4 suitcases (!) outside myself – probably the most difficult part of my journey if I’m being honest.
After landing in Montreal, I went from straight home from the airport, making no stops along the way. The two weeks flew by, although it was a strange feeling not being able to go for a walk or even go onto the street. I’m lucky to have a pool and a backyard and I was working remotely throughout, so I kept busy and the quarantine period didn't impact me from a financial perspective. I didn’t leave my home once – the penalty for breaking the quarantine rules can result in a fine as high as $750k and/or jail time. I don't know how strictly they're enforcing these crazy penalties but (1) I was not willing to risk it, and (2) these policies are in place for public safety reasons and I was fully onboard with respecting them. I ended up not having anyone call me or physically check-up on me during the two-week period, although I have acquaintances who had multiple visits to their home when they were quarantining. I did receive a couple of emails from the government just reminding me of the rules & what to do during the two-week period, but these were not personalized and I wasn’t to reply to them.
Overall, the experience of travelling during COVID times was definitely different than normal, but was relatively pain-free. I felt really safe on my Air Canada flight (and apparently they've gotten a 5/5 safety rating for their COVID measures, at least from what I can see on Skyscanner), and the two-week quarantine rule is doable if you have the ability to work remotely, and if you have some private outdoor space like a balcony or backyard that you can use to get some fresh air.
what to pack.
✧ reusable face mask (it's mandatory!)
✧ a book to help pass the time (one of my favourite reads of 2020)
✧ reusable water bottle - you'll only get mini ones served onboard
✧ travel blanket since you won't have one given to you onboard
✧ good headphones that plug in so you can take advantage of in-flight entertainment