I did it! I broke free! I hopped on a plane and took off for Colombia for three glorious weeks of fresh air, mountains, great food, nature, sun, sea and new friends.
Ah! The world of travel is a wonderful thing. It’s good for the soul.
As a travel professional, I used to have all the answers (or at least a lot of them), but things have changed immensely and continue to change on a daily and weekly basis. In fact, things have already changed since I returned home.
Things that were once ‘normal’ now are not. Rules that we have in Canada, are not the same everywhere else. It’s a whole new world of adventures out there, but after having an amazing trip myself, I’ve got to say it is totally worth it to get back out there.
I know many of you are curious as to what it is like to travel right now and have lots of questions and concerns, so let’s have a look at my first experience travelling in two years, starting at the Halifax airport, but much of this is applicable to any airport you might be departing from in Canada.
AIRPORTS, SOCIAL DISTANCING & MASKING
I did my online check-in 24 hours in advance, as per normal. There were a few extra questions and new information to read, but overall, the online check-in process is relatively the same. Unfortunately though, in the end I couldn’t get my online boarding pass because I needed to see a check-in agent.
If this happens to you, it is nothing to be concerned about. Sometimes it is a system error, sometimes there is something missing or incomplete on your file. Or in this case, it had to do with proof of vaccination.
Always check-in online in advance. This lets the airlines know you are planning to show up, gives you the opportunity to choose your seating if you haven’t already done so, means less chance of being bumped if the flights are overbooked and gives you your boarding pass so that you don’t have to check-in at the airport if all goes well. It means one less line up at the airport as you can normally go to baggage drop instead of the check-in line.
When I departed on October 18th, 2021 anyone travelling internationally had to have their documents manually checked to ensure they had what was required to enter their destination country. In my case, Colombia was not requiring Covid testing or vaccination, so there wasn’t much for the agent to check, but she did ask for my proof of vaccination which I had downloaded on my phone.
Make sure that your proof of vaccination is accessible without wifi or data. Although you’ll likely have data here in Canada, if you need to show your proof of vaccination in another country you may not have wifi or data, so it is best to have it saved to your home screen for easy access and have a paper copy, just in case.
Once my bag was dropped off, I headed to security. The line-up was long but moved fairly quickly. As per usual, staff were checking your passport and boarding pass. People were social-distancing, at least to some extent and being respectful.
The security area has a system where each passenger stands in a little alcove with plexiglass on three sides. You empty your pockets, pull out your liquids and laptop as per normal and put them in a bin. As you fill each bin you push it forward and it heads down the conveyor belt to be scanned. You’ll go through the screening gate as per usual. Don’t forget about steel in your boots, shoes, pockets or belt that might set off the alarms.
If no alarm rings, you wait for your items to come down the conveyor belt and then you take your bins, move them to the repacking areas behind you which are also set up individually with plexiglass barriers. Repack your belongings and you are on your way.
If you forget to remove your liquids from your baggage, have something particularly dense or unrecognizable in your luggage or are just unlucky, your bin may be sent to the second lane where you’ll have security personnel manually check your items and ask you a few questions. Try not to get panicked over it, you know, unless you are doing something illegal … then maybe it’s time to panic.
Past security, near the boarding gates (in Halifax, specifically) you’ll find that a lot of shops still aren’t open, but you’ll still be able to find a selection of before-flight necessities such as water, magazines, snacks and some gift shops. There just aren’t as many as there used to be. Hopefully, as travel comes back, so will these stores.
My gate was quite busy. With seating blocked off for social distancing, there weren’t many options to sit. With an hour until boarding, rather than standing around and crowding the area, I chose to walk to the next sitting area which was nearly empty.
When it was closer to boarding time, I returned to my designated gate, found a seat at the back and waited for my zone to be called.
Sadly the boarding process was much the same as in the past where people lined up and clogged the boarding area before their zone was called and it was hard to tell who was in line vs who was just in the way. Those who need extra time to board, families and premium customers are called to board first, and then economy class is done by zone, much the same as always.
Some Air Canada flights (possibly other carriers as well) have their zoning changed to board folks in window seats first so that people aren’t congregating in the aisle or climbing over one another. To be honest, this just makes sense. Why not keep this practice? It’s never any fun to show up at your seat and have to ask the person in the aisle to allow you in.
Onboard you’ll immediately notice that the planes are kept much cleaner than previously. Fingerprints are wiped clean off the windows and seatback entertainment systems and the in-flight magazines are no longer in the seat pockets.
On most short flights snacks, drinks and meal service are halted or limited. They are doing their best to have everyone keep their mask on throughout the flight, except when you are actively eating and drinking. Personally, I’m ok with that. I can survive a two, or three-hour flight without food or drinks. Of course, you can bring your own snacks and water on board, just make sure you remember to mask all the time when you are not actively eating.
On arrival in Toronto, it is still quite a hike to get from the domestic area where you arrive at the international area where you depart. It’s about 1.5 kilometres and 15 – 25 minutes walking depending on your pace and the functionality of the escalators and moving walkways.
There were definitely fewer people at the airport and fewer shops open, but the airport was far from empty. There were still lots of shops open if you needed food or simply wanted to shop.
The first bathrooms you come to are always the busiest. If you are not in dire need of a washroom, wait until you are near the shops to hit up the loo instead of in the arrival and departure areas. It’ll be less crowded and for the women reading, you won’t likely have to wait in line like you do in the arrival and departure halls.
In Toronto, I chose not to sit at my gate as seating was already full when I arrived. It’s interesting that they’ve blocked off seats for social distancing, but there are not fewer people on the planes. What ends up happening is that because people can’t sit due to social distancing, they end up congregating, standing at the back of the chairs or along the back wall which bottlenecks streams of people going to the bathroom and passing by from gate to gate.
I chose to sit at the general area by the bars with the tables and free for use tablets as there were fewer people and lots of space to spread out. You can’t control whether others follow social distancing requirements or not, but you can remove yourself from crowded areas whenever possible.
You don’t need to be at your gate until boarding time, so find an uncrowded place nearby and relax with lots of distance until you need to go to your gate.
At boarding time, social distancing pretty much went out the window as people congregated in line ups early and stood around waiting for their zone to be called. Luckily almost everyone I saw was adhering to the use of proper masking. Occasionally you’d see a nose poking out over the top of a mask and children without masks. Or you might see someone with their mask around their chin while they chatted on the phone, but overall people were making their best efforts to remain masked.
On my flight from Toronto to Bogota passengers in Premium economy were provided with clean care kits that had hand sanitizer, a disposable mask and a sanitary wipe. Passengers in economy class weren’t offered anything extra. Pillows and blankets were placed on everyone’s seat before boarding. Even before Covid I didn’t normally use these and always struggle with where to store them. I often end up putting the pillow on the arm rest under the elbow that I lean on and the blanket gets shoved under the seat. I wish these were handed out only to those who request them to save on plastic wrapping waste and laundry. I suppose there is nowhere to store them though so it is easier to give one to everyone.
We were served dinner and then, being already close to midnight, I drifted in and out of light sleep until about an hour before landing when another meal was served.
When I arrived in Bogota, it wasn’t much different than Toronto, or any other international airport. I picked up my luggage and made my way out of the international terminal over to the domestic terminal to recheck my baggage. I had given myself a five-hour layover instead of a one-and-a-half-hour layover since I needed to change terminals and recheck in. Officially one and a half hours isn’t enough time for this as you currently need to check in 2-3 hours in advance for domestic flights.
Once I was checked in, I headed to my gate and once again chose to stay away from the crowds by sitting at the back of my gate area. Even at 6am in the domestic terminal it was quite busy with lots of people sitting, wandering around and stopping at shops for breakfast or coffee. I was pleased to see most everyone masking and social distancing in the main areas was normal.
Bathrooms were constantly being cleaned. It’s normal in many other countries that bathroom cleaning staff are stationed at each of the bathrooms. They clean almost continuously, always wiping down sinks, handles, taking care of overflowing garbage cans and making sure toilets are functioning properly. The bathroom stalls in Bogota airport also had nifty little door latches that you open and close with your elbow instead of your hand.
Inside the domestic terminal, I was one of the few international visitors. Whether others were Colombian, or South American, I’m unsure but it was clear North American and European tourism had not yet rebounded.
Boarding time was one hour before flight departure which seemed a bit excessive for a domestic flight and smaller plane, but once I got to my gate we were loaded on buses by zone. They miscalculated a bit as the plane wasn’t quite ready to receive passengers though. One of the staff members popped their head in to let us know (in Spanish) that we’d need to wait 20 minutes or so before the plane would be ready to receive us.
The bus windows were open, but there was little to no airflow. Luckily everyone was masked, but social distancing was non-existent on the bus. The sign stating max 30 passengers was not adhered to with 40+ passengers on board and standing room only. In the past, you’d never think anything of this, but during Covid-times it was a little uncomfortable, especially being in a country with lower vaccination rates. It was one of the only times in my entire trip I was uncomfortable from a covid-perspective.
SOME THINGS CHANGE AND SOME THINGS STAY THE SAME
Just like ‘the old days', flights regularly have flight delays be it weather-related, mechanics or delays in cleaning and restocking. We were delayed by nearly an hour once we were boarded and on the tarmac. As it turned out, the early morning fog had delayed all the morning’s departures so once the fog dissipated the queue for take-off was backed up.
After a beautiful flight from Bogota to Pereira, seeing mountains, rolling hills and volcanoes peeking through the clouds, I finally touched down and was ready to meet the leaders of my mountain biking trip who were at the airport waiting for me.