The pitfalls of long-haul travel in the COVID-19 age

I'm halfway to Germany before I realise something: I don't actually know if I can get into Germany. I have no idea what the COVID-19 restrictions and regulations are there. I don't know what I need to enter the country; I don't know what I need to exist in the country. I have no idea what's about to happen.

In my defence, I was never supposed to be in Germany. Right now I should be somewhere between Zagreb and Doha. Instead I'm sitting aboard a rattling old Croatia Airlines plane – a plaque at the front proudly states that Pope John Paul II flew in this aircraft in 1998; so, 24 years ago – making its way from Split to Frankfurt.

Last night, I was in Dubrovnik. I'd just finished dinner at a rooftop restaurant in the Old Town, the air still and cool and beautiful, and I was winding my way down paved stairs in a narrow alley. Suddenly, this huge gust of wind blew through, whipping grit into my eyes, forcing me to stop and cover my face.

I had no idea then, but it was the start of something. That wind kept howling through the night, and into the light of dawn. It was bending the tree trunks as I made my way out towards the airport, whipping through leaves and tearing at branches.

It was still blowing as I stood in front of the departures board and watched as flight after flight was cancelled, including the crucial first leg of my journey home to Australia, flying from Dubrovnik to Zagreb to transfer onto Qatar Airways.

There was chaos in the airport, predictably. We were told to line up in front of the Croatia Airlines service desk, which was staffed by just two people who had to deal with several hundred stranded passengers, sorting out all of their onward connections, allaying all their fears.

That's a high-stress situation. Some Americans in front of me were losing their minds. The queue was shuffling forward achingly slowly. Everyone was bunched together, straining to move forward, shoulder to shoulder; most not wearing masks either, given the mandate in Croatia was recently dropped. People were angry, worried, on edge.

And I was thinking to myself: oh yeah. I remember this. I remember long-haul travel.

See, you do try to forget this sort of thing in between holidays. As my fellow travel writer Ute Junker says in our most recent episode of Flight of Fancy, the Traveller Podcast, it's like childbirth: if you remembered what it was really like, you wouldn't do it again.

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And so I had pushed all of the airport dramas, the cancelled flights and missed connections, to the back of my mind. For the last few years we've all been itching to travel, desperate to go anywhere for any amount of time. A couple of delays or hassles? Not a problem. Easy. Bring it on.

Yet there I was in Dubrovnik, and the true annoyance of flight drama was returning to me. Travel, I realised, is back: the good bits, but also the bad. And COVID-19 has done nothing to ease the situation. In fact, it has made it worse, piling on extra stress, fraying nerves even further, adding difficulties that never used to exist.

Case in point: I reached the front of the Croatia Airlines queue. The woman behind the counter grabbed my passport, punched a few details into a computer, and then sighed and rolled her eyes. I got it. I had already checked: tomorrow's Qatar flight out of Zagreb left too late to meet the connecting flight to Sydney, which would mean I was delayed an extra two days instead of one.

She kept on tapping on that computer though, heroically looking for some other way, and came up with a plan: there was a bus about to the leave the airport, going four hours up the road to Split. I could take that bus, get to Split airport, then take a Croatia flight to Frankfurt, stay overnight in Germany, then fly Frankfurt to Doha, Doha to Sydney the next day.

I would arrive home 24 hours late. It wasn't great, but it would do.

And so I sat on that bus as it wound its way up the beautiful Dalmatian coastline. I dashed into Split airport and just scraped into check-in. I boarded the plane to Frankfurt and noticed the Pope plaque and settled in for a few hours.

Now, mid-air, I remember I have no idea what it takes to get into Germany. I guess they wouldn't have let me on the plane if I didn't have the right documentation, but still, I'm in the dark here. My phone is on flight mode. I don't know which certificates I need, if I require testing, if I'll be allowed to move around.

Welcome to flight dramas in the COVID-19 age. Turns out I need my vaccination certificate – check – and my new flight itinerary, which has also handily been printed out for me. All other pandemic restrictions in Germany were dropped on April 1. So then I'm into glorious Deutschland and I'm sitting at the Paulaner beer café drinking a giant hefeweizen and eating a sausage and marvelling at how this all happened.

Travel is back. The good stuff, the bad stuff, and a whole lot that never even existed.

Have you experienced delays or cancellations since international travel restarted? Do you think it's worst since COVID-19, or unchanged? What's the worst delay you've experienced on your travels?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwaterTwitter: twitter.com/bengroundwater

See also: Almost every country in the world is now open. Except my favourite one

See also: I just flew into Europe and realised I've forgotten how to travel

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