Traveling During The Coronavirus Pandemic Could Be A Disaster. Here’s What Happened To Us.
Do not travel.
I repeat, do not travel.
We’ve heard a lot about how it is socially responsible not to travel and risk spreading the highly contagious Corona-virus any faster and further than it has already spread. Yes, an obligation to social responsibility is must, but for the more “carefree” and devil may care attitude ones out there who might not give a hoot about social responsibility, here’s a hard truth I’m throwing your way; you aren’t ready for what’s coming.
Instead of a relaxing vacation, you’re going to be hit with a combination of sleepless nights coupled with a huge dent in your bank account by the time your trip is over; assuming you do make it home eventually.
And how do I know?
Well, I left on a vacation BEFORE the outbreak escalated to the heights it is today, and even then, my trip was saddled with so many potential screws ups caused by the Corona-virus that there’s no way you or most people would be able to deal with without tearing your hair out. (i'm bald so i'm fine)
(The Souk of Khan El Khalili, Cairo; Egypt)
I am an avid traveler, 98 countries and counting. And I daresay that makes me just a little more at ease navigating my way around the world, more so than a good number of people.
And yet, the ridiculous number of screw-ups I had to deal with on this trip was a first, even for me. Curve-ball after curve-ball was thrown at us (and my colleague/travel buddy), and I am fortunate that I can even be back home in Singapore, serving my 14 days Stay Home Notice (SHN).
And truth be told, if lady luck wasn’t shining on us, regardless of how well I had dealt with the curve-balls, it could have gotten a lot more wrong. I could be in quarantined in a foreign country, with no way to get home.
[Summary of Trip Itinerary]
(At the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, Egypt with the River Nile behind me)
I had planned to visit Egypt with my colleague, Luke. There are no direct flights from Singapore to Egypt. And when we first booked our tickets, Iran had just shot down Ukrainian Airlines, so flying via the Middle East, wasn’t our preferred option. The fastest way to Egypt via a layover in Europe (no news of Corona-virus at that time) was Rome, a destination of Singapore Airlines, also my preferred airline to fly.
Here is a summary of our overall route:
And the major destinations (not withstanding side trips) within Egypt:
When we left for our trip in early March 2020, the Corona-virus was up and about, but it was in no way a pandemic of any sorts. Adhering to the government travel advisory at that point of time, it was just China, Iran, South Korea, and parts of Northern Italy that was discouraged (at this point even Northern Italy was not under lock-down). For the rest of the destinations, whether to cancel or go ahead was a personal choice one had to weigh depending on;
Is your destination affected? (nope, not Egypt, neither was Rome, and I was there for just a layover)
Have you bought travel insurance? (well, I did, but it wouldn’t cover the costs if I decided to cancel the trip of my own accord)
And I guess the message back then was, “life has to go on and we can’t close ourselves off to the world”. So yes, after checking the current travel advisory at that point of time and weighing the above 2 points, the trip was a go.
So now that you know our general, overarching itinerary, let’s take a look on the various curve-balls thrown at us.
[The Lock-down of the Northern Italy]
Okay, I wouldn’t exactly classify this as a curve-ball, but this was announced when we were already halfway around the world on the plane. We were due to fly off for Cairo the next day in the afternoon. This was our first reality check.
What if we the entire country got locked down? What if Egypt banned flights inbound from Italy? Our Egypt trip would probably have been ruined and we would have to make additional plans.
Fortunately, Egypt was still accepting flights from Rome, so off we went.
[The Lock-down of the entire Italy]
We had just arrived in Aswan, Egypt on a sleeper train from Cairo when we got the news.
Shucks, just a couple of days after the lock-down of Northern Italy, it had now escalated into a lock-down of the entire Italy. Questions started running through our head;
How were we going to fly back to Singapore? Our flight home was from Rome. Should we call Singapore Airlines to re route our flight to another destination? That would cost additional money, should we do it?
We received a change in flight timing notice, so I guess our flight from Cairo to Rome is still on? Singapore Airlines hasn’t canceled our flights from Rome to Singapore as well.
But should we still fly in to Rome regardless? Just to get locked down? Doesn’t make sense does it?
(The UNESCO heritage sites of Philae Temple and Abu Simbal)
After consideration, we decided to just carry on and enjoy our vacation since our flights weren’t canceled. No point thinking up a storm as of now.
[The Cancellation of AirItalia. We are stranded in Egypt]
We were on the train from Aswan to Luxor when I received a flight cancellation notice from AirItalia, probably the worlds most irresponsible airline. They canceled on us without out giving us an alternative flight, and without any explanation as to why the abrupt cancellation.
With the flight cancellation, this was getting real.
We had a flight out from Rome to Singapore, but we didn’t have a flight from Cairo to Rome. We did a quick check, there were no other flights out from Cairo to Rome. This time, we were well and truly stranded in Egypt.
The only way out was to buy an additional air-ticket out to another destination, and get Singapore Airlines to reroute our Rome departure to another city. From experience, I knew Istanbul would be the cheapest airport to fly to from Cairo that also had a Singapore Airlines flight back to Singapore.
Which brings us to the next curve-ball.
[I Can't Reach Singapore Airlines]
To make an overseas call to change our Singapore Airlines flight would be insanely expensive. I tried messaging them on Facebook, but the “bot” could not answer my questions. I tried posting my questions on their page, but they still didn’t answer any of my questions, which was basically, how much and how should we go about re routing our flight to Istanbul? Would they need confirmation from me? Or would my friends or wife be able to arrange this on my behalf without my speaking to them?
My wife tried calling them, but after an hour, no operator had picked up her call. Friends and readers told me the queues at the Singapore Airlines office in ION Orchard were 4 hours long. Wow, do I really have to ask my wife to take leave just to settle this?
Fortunately, because I posted a Facebook post on our plight, many people started texting me to ask if I needed help. A good friend of mine happened to be at ION Orchard and went to the Singapore Airlines office to sort this out for me.
Problem solved. Singapore Airlines did us a favor and waived most of the change fees (thumbs up to SQ for that), and all I needed now was to buy a flight ticket to Istanbul. That unfortunately would be an additional cost on my end.
(I am at the Valley of the Kings, Queen Hatsheput's Temple, and Luxor Temple)
Later I realized that the reason for the usually prompt Singapore Airlines not answering our calls and having 4 hour queues at their office was due to many people spamming them with cancellation requests and questions about their flights in view of the rapidly escalating Corona-virus. Not the airlines fault but I thought it wouldn’t have cost much to have a separate response team for “REAL” emergencies, like the one we faced, instead of being held up by cancellation requests by other passengers whose flights were due months later.
Anyway, this latest curve-ball was solved, so its back to vacationing as usual.
[Egypt & The Middle East hit by massive storm. Roads, Railways, and Flights closed]
Not Corona-virus related, but when bad things come, they all come at once.
Egypt and the Middle East had been hit by a massive storm. We were already on the platform, waiting for our sleeper train from Luxor back to Cairo when news arrived that there would be no train service as the storm had caused a train collision. We went to the bus station, no buses were moving because the roads were flooded. Naturally, planes weren’t flying either.
(Stranded at the Luxor Railway Station with other travelers after we discovered the trains weren't moving)
Now what? After all the hard work solving our flight home, were we going to miss it yet again because we couldn’t get into Cairo for our flight?
The massive storm was due to last for 3 days, we had a flight out in 2 days! Not to mention even more costs on hotels and additional transport to get to Cairo. And with the storm, even if we did get to Cairo, would the planes still be flying?
(The Giza Pyramids, the last remaining wonder of the original Seven Wonders of the World)
Fortunately, we managed to get a bus out from Luxor to Cairo the next morning. It took another 11 hours to get to Cairo because the bus had to navigate its way through the floodwaters, but yes, we reached! While this curve-ball was managed eventually, we had lost all the time we planned to spend in Cairo. This meant, with the little time we had left before our flight, instead of visiting the pyramids proper, we could only admire them from our hotel.
But oh well, shit happens, and at least we got to see them. And now we have our flight home.
[Potential Curve-balls 6 & 7]
[Turkey and Egypt Closed Their Airports the day AFTER we flew out]
(Having a beer overlooking the Blue Mosque in Istanbul while waiting for our flight home)
So, the end of the story is, we did manage to get to Istanbul, and we did manage to get home to Singapore; where as I type this, I am serving my 14 days Stay Home Notice (SHN).
But this story could have had a very different end.
The Corona-virus Pandemic has been escalating rapidly in the past week since I’ve been back. A day or two after we flew out from Istanbul back to Singapore, their airport has been closed. If our flight was one day later, we would have been trapped in Istanbul.
Tourists in Luxor, Egypt, woke up to find themselves confined to their hotel rooms because of a semi lock-down due to the escalating Corona-virus situation in Egypt. Their holidays are ruined, and they are potentially stranded in a foreign country for god knows how long.
Either situation could have had us in it. We were just one, maybe two days away from being quarantined in either Istanbul or Cairo instead of serving our SHN in the comfort of our own home. Even if we did manage to get back, it would have been more costs, and potentially a more harrowing experience at the end of it.
This blog-post is written to remind myself of one of the more eventful trips I’ve been on. And if you happen to chance upon this post, let this be a reminder to you, not to travel during this period. The curve-balls above happened BEFORE the Corona-virus Pandemic escalated to what it is today. We were fortunate to “worked our way around” these curve-balls with a smattering of “Lady Luck”.
But traveling in the current environment, at the height of the Corona-virus (is this even the height of it?), you’ll face not just curve-balls in your travel plans, but expect to hit full on by a battering ram of screw-ups.
So yes, you’ve been warned. Stay home folks.