The first exodus of expatriates was about 3 months ago at the beginning of the pandemic and when borders were shutting down. Followed by a trickle of repatriation flights. But now that the end of the tunnel seems near, few of us have been cooped up abroad and life goes on… some imperatives will make you want to go back to your family on the other side of the world. It’s then a whirlwind of stress to organize this travel: from the scarcity of flights, change of rules and regulations at the last minute, last-minute cancellation of said flights, and hunting a clinic that does PCR within 48 hours… My husband had to go back to France. Here is a recollection of his experience to share what the new-normal international travel looks like at the moment. The flight was from Jakarta to Geneva via Abu Dhabi with Etihad airways. But the final destination was France. Geneva is very close to the border and it was more convenient for us. The journey took place on the 4th of July. Flight left Jakarta at 11:55 pm on Saturday.

Preparing an international trip under the new-normal

First come finding a selection of potential flights with your usual tools (Skyscanner, google flights). Once you have narrowed down a good few, you have to check the conditions for transit (if transit there is) – for Jakarta, there was already never a direct flight to France even before Covid. Then once you have selected the few ones that work, it’s about researching the most accurate entry information for the country you are going to and from the country you are leaving as well! These policies change almost every day sometimes.

Useful resources to check:

-> The embassy’s website of the countries
-> IATA website
-> Your airline website
-> The immigration’s websites of the countries

At the time of travel, from Indonesia, Jakarta to France via Geneva and Abu Dhabi, these are the information that we gathered from the above-mentioned website.

* PCR test – need to show original copy – done within 3 days before the flight. ( We think a Rapidtest could have been enough, but with the scare we got on the rumors of a change of policy, we didn’t tempt it and went for an ( expensive) PCR test).
* We did ours at Good Practice Clinic in Jakarta, which can provide it to you within 48 hours.
* For France, a declaration document to be downloaded on the Ministry of domestic affairs.
* Transit in Abu Dhabi doesn’t require any document as long as the transit time is less than 4 hours
* Transit in Geneva for French citizen is possible without additional documentation since 15th June (information from the immigration website of Switzerland)

Baggage policies are also changing depending on the airline, so I recommend that you look again at the airline website. In the case of Etihad in an economy ticket, you could bring 30kg of check-in luggage and then 2 pieces of carry-on. One small carry-on luggage no more than 7kg and another carry-on which is typically a woman’s handbag or a computer bag, small backpack weighing no more than 5 kg. However, with covid- the small carry-on of 7kg MUST be checked-in for free. I believe this is to avoid having too much luggage that is not properly disinfected inside the plane.

My husband also noticed that every single cargo that was boarded into the plane was going through additional sanitizing measures and covered with a pink sheet and that included passenger’s luggage.

New normal international travel – boarding & departing Indonesia via Soekarno Hatta International airport

It is generally advised to arrive 3 hours in advance for flights and one would think that because of Covid 19, the earlier the better. Truth is at the moment there are so little passengers that even as the document checks have more steps, it stills goes quite fast. Plus with Jakarta infamous traffic being at an all-time low, getting to the airport took no time at all.

Temperature checks are done upon entry into Terminal 3, before you scan your luggage at customs and hand sanitizer gel are available upon entry into the terminal. Only half of the entrance into the terminal is open.

The check-in process is slower as the control of documents is made by the staff at the counter, who have to cross-check all the entrance and transit requirements for each passenger total travel journey. The Check-in queue has stickers on the floor to manage social distancing.

There were no more than 50 passengers on this flight from Jakarta to Abu Dhabi, and my husband arrived 3 hours before departure, he only had 1 person before him before starting the check-in process. It took less than 10 min waiting.

The flight was a little before midnight, but the terminal was totally empty and not a single shop was open.

Once you have finished your check-in and proceed to the safety check, only 2 lines were open, one for the business & first class and another one for the remaining passengers. No changes in procedure due to the new-normal in this part of the travel experience.

At immigration, as we are currently on the emergency ITAS ( we are in the grey zone, where our current KITAS expired during the pandemic when all the immigration offices were closed ), the immigration officer took a photo of my husband, a photo of his passport and of the page on his passport with the visa.

Once inside the international zone, there was at this hour only one opened food & beverage outlet. All the duty-free shops were opened. However, it was eerily silent, VERY empty and you feel like it’s doom’s day. My husband told me it was very very creepy, especially at night.

The new-normal international travel: boarding your plane

Boarding was done in a stricter orderly fashion and boarding starts earlier than before the pandemic (even considering the small number of passengers). I believe it’s why it’s important to be at the airport earlier. Boarding staff requires strict social distancing upon queuing and during boarding, so it’s very slow.

Social distancing while boarding

The plane from Etihad was configured with a 3-3-3 seating arrangement. The middle seat being left empty, unless it’s the same family. The flight attendants are consistently repeating not to change seats unless instructed by the cabin crew.

The new-normal international travel: the overall flight experience with Etihad airways

Flight attendants of Etihad airways were wearing a protective blouse on top of their uniform, protective glasses and gloves for the entire flights.

A blanket and a pillow were provided in a bag, which was clearly sanitized. A wellness kit was also given to every passenger. This kit contains a mask, gloves, and disinfecting wipes.

Meals are still given, in the case of this night flight, one meal after take-off and a snack slightly before landing in Abu Dhabi.

Queuing for the toilet during the flight is prohibited and passengers are expected to wait at their seat. It is possible to walk and stretch your legs, but not in the galleys, where the toilets are located and meals are prepared while respecting social distancing with other passengers.

The new-normal international travel: the transit in Abu Dhabi international airport

Upon landing in Abu Dhabi, a traceability sheet is handed out, and it’s more like a statement declaration than one asking for contact details. (you are only transiting after all).

In Abu Dhabi, there was no temperature checkpoints, the airport has installed temperature cameras at some strategic points which take people’s body temperature. There was no interference with the passengers’ flow and transit procedures, no additional delays, or process for transit passengers.

Only Costa Cafe was open in Abu Dhabi airport at this hour. Of course, there were much fewer passengers than usual.

The new-normal international travel: Landing and off-boarding procedures

Upon landing, passengers are required to remain seated. (no rushing up to queue in the middle of alley grabbing your overhead luggage!) The off-boarding of the plan is done in an orderly fashion by area and instructions are given by the cabin crew, all of this while respecting social distancing between travelers as much as possible.

The remaining of the transport from the plane to the immigration inside the airport (both in Abu Dhabi and in Geneva) has not changed. Everyone on the same bus (maybe more bus to keep people not cramped) and queues are set up to respect social distancing.

No further temperature checks in Geneva and upon landing in Switzerland, a proper traceability sheet is required to be filled out, with full contact details and some information about the next day’s itinerary.

Switzerland also provides every passenger with hygiene safety measures and advice in French, German Italian, and English.

No change in the way we pass immigration at arrival and pick up the luggage in the terminal at Geneva’s airport.

Upon landing, crossing the border from Switzerland to France was done without issue and French authorities didn’t ask to see the declaration documents that we thought needed to be filled up. We are French citizens, so maybe that’s why.

A side-note: coming from Asia where masks are mandatory and one everyone’s face. It came to a shock to my husband to see that only half the Swiss and French didn’t wear any… as it’s advised but not mandatory!

Conclusion of this new-normal international airport experience

The most stressful part of the overall experience was making sure we had a PCR test results on time! Plus, in Indonesia that is bloody expensive (2,6 million equals about 167 euros when in France it costs 50 euros). This is no small expenses to add on top of your travel plan.

We also had learned at the last minute from the news (panic mode on) a change of regulations that may have rendered the trip impossible, but thankfully it was to be applied sometimes a few days after the journey occurred… So really, these travel plans can only be done at the last minute as we never know what can happen to the flight (being canceled) or suddenly the country that you are flying out from becoming a “red zone” with new rules and regulations.

It’s important to find a ticket that has an unlimited free change policy – as maybe if your PCR doesn’t come on time or regulation changes, then you can postpone your trip to the next flights to gather the missing documents.

The travel in itself is not un-pleasant, especially as you have more space in the plane (with the empty seats for social distancing) only the airport experience is creepy, especially at night. The traffic of passengers being still so little, that these huge structures are eerily silent and give a doom’s day feeling. Also, almost no more café’s to pass the time while waiting for boarding. I believe lounges are also closed now for business and first-class passengers.

I hope this recollection of experience will ease some people’s fear for traveling, especially expatriates who must go home after months abroad. I believe that it’s going to be more expensive and require more preparation work, but it’s not impossible at all and the overall experience is not unpleasant under these “new normal” conditions.

Credit for the banner photo: on Unplash by Camila Perez

This article was written by Sarah Floriani