Long waits, less wriggle room, and a COVID-19 test to make your son cry. Long haul travel with kids during a pandemic isn't easy, but the people on the other end make it worthwhile.
When my family travel, we resemble the Griswolds: prone to disaster and guided by blind optimism. Long flights with kids have always sucked and we knew that travelling long haul during a pandemic was courting disaster, but this Christmas, it was a risk worth taking to reunite with family.
Travelling during a pandemic requires strategy. Ours was simple: pull our child out of daycare a week early, voluntarily self-isolate so we don't get pinged as close contacts and tell everyone, as nicely as possible, not to come near us.
Like Santa, travelling this holiday season means lists and documents: printed itineraries, International Vaccination Certificates, PCR test booking receipts, COVID-19 customs declaration forms, and a travel insurance policy most likely not worth the paper it's printed on.
Unfortunately, PCR testing requirements mean we arrive at Sydney Airport much earlier than we'd like to. My child, aged five, normally gets excited for a drive-thru PCR test, but refuses point-blank to get one at the airport. Thankfully the staff in full PPE are patient, but it's a drag pushing multiple suitcases through the testing zone and back out again with a bawling kid who's just had his brain scrambled through his nose.
We only wait 45 minutes for our test results to come back, but it's a long time for a hyper-excited child, and while the police officer carrying automatic weapons is a fascination for Mr Five, it's also an irksome reminder of the pre-COVID-19 terrorism nightmares that used to dominate travel. It's amazing how forgetful a pandemic can make you.
The good thing about travelling in a pandemic is that once you're checked in (a fast and seamless process with Singapore Airlines), there is absolutely no wait at customs and security. The bad news is Sydney Airport is a cheerless wasteland of closed retail outlets and boarded up stores. Five hours of hanging around an airport is gruelling, and by the time boarding starts, the kid is ready to explode.
Once we're settled on the plane, and I've disinfected every single surface with a brick-sized pack of Dettol wipes, both my child and I are buoyed by the promise of 24 hours of unlimited television. I have a dream, and it involves sleeping on the flight. But within an hour, he's broken his headphones, needed the toilet while the seatbelt sign was on, and is hungry, (but doesn't want the snacks I've packed).
Still, we're doing better than the parent in front of me who pops the top on his kid's sippy cup, spraying water over three rows of passengers and making both his children cry.
My Singapore Airlines flight is packed with children, toddlers and babies - some crawling, most crying, all heading overseas to see grandparents for the first time. Two men seated in front of me are taking their kids to Paris to see grandparents. Another couple with the coveted bulkhead seats are on their way to Scotland with a four-month-old to introduce to the grandparents. This plane is not full of sightseers. It's full of families wanting to be reunited.
All the parents on my flight are exhausted, relieved, yet still in a state of anxiety: with the knee-jerk reaction to Omicron, pretty much everyone I chat with thought they just wouldn't get out of the country. Travelling with kids right now is a tough decision to make: some friends cancel planned long haul trips to Europe at the last minute, while others won't book overseas holidays at all until Corona is done.
For me, reuniting with family feels like Squid Game: if the green light is on, you go, despite the apparent danger. I'm feeling fairly confident about my decision to fly my son overseas in a pandemic, until he throws a tantrum in front of an oncoming passenger vehicle at Changi airport, causing the driver to hit the brakes. Most things are shut at midnight in Changi, but we do find a quiet corner filled with Christmas trees to let him calm down and avoid other transiting passengers and their germs.
The advantage of Changi is that it's one of the world's most comfortable airports. The disadvantage is Singapore has a strong stance when it comes to drugs, and they pat down every passenger - including five year olds.
It's at this point we hit the wall: the kiddo is tired, scared and doesn't want a stranger touching him when it's seven hours past his bedtime and he hasn't slept. For years we've been drilling consent and body autonomy into him, and he's under the impression that if he doesn't want anyone to touch him, he doesn't have to let them. We've already broken that rule by making him get a PCR test. I'm feeling pretty crap again when I have to let the patient, but insistent, staff pat him down.
Our connecting flight is empty, and I am a wreck once I get on it. I fully admit to no longer feeling the need to wipe every surface down, to nag my kid not to touch anything, or constantly smother his hands in hand sanitiser. I have forgotten what a soul-sucking experience it is to travel long haul. Forget about pandemic-proofing my family, I just want to get there.
When we disembark at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport at 7am, it's pitch black dark, cold and empty. I expect a huge ordeal at customs, but the official doesn't even look at our meticulously filled out entry form. He doesn't glance at our negative COVID-19 tests. He doesn't care about our International Vaccination Certificates.
"Australia hey?" the guard says in Dutch.
"That's a long way".
He stamps our passports and we're done.
Except we're not. For us, there's a blissful moment of reunion when my kiddo runs full pelt into his uncle's arms, my husband gets to hug his sister for the first time in two years, and my father-in-law ignores both of us and locks onto his grandchild like a hungry octopus and doesn't let go.
I don't choke up until my father-in-law offers me a hug.
"I'm sorry I couldn't bring them home to you sooner" I stammer, two years of pandemic-induced grief, guilt and trauma bubbling over.
But when we head to the car, we discover our child car seat is too small for our giant five-year-old. The most imperfect way to end 30 hours of travel is to jump on public transport during peak hour with a jet-lagged five year old. But that's what my husband does, having to take the train with the kid while I am driven home with the luggage. The kid is delighted: the husband resigned to his fate. With trams overflowing at the other end, my husband carries our sleeping sack of potatoes two kilometres from the main train station to his parent's house rather than expose them both to germs.
It's an ordeal. But when they turn the corner onto our street, the kid wriggles down and runs the length of the street into his grandmother's arms, and the inconvenience of our long haul is worth it.
Sometimes, travel is about the journey. Sometimes the destination. But on this trip, we're happily here just for family.