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A race against time: Azores to Austria to Australia

Mattg

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Three weeks ago, I was living in Vienna and about to embark on a week-long trip to Portugal. I would first spend a few days in Lisbon, then travel to the Azores Islands.

The coronavirus had become common knowledge by this point, but it was still relatively contained within just a few countries and Smartraveller was still advising to exercise "normal safety precautions" in most of the world. There were a few people wearing masks here and there - mostly using them incorrectly, I might add - but at that point I didn't see any reason not to take the trip.

After I arrived in Portugal, the worldwide situation deteriorated suddenly and rapidly. Trump declared a ban on travellers from Europe just a few days later. Then, just hours after I arrived in the Azores, the Austrian government announced that it would close most of its land borders, ban flights from certain countries and go into lockdown.

I cut my Portugal trip short and returned to Vienna, arriving just hours before the country effectively shut down. At this point, I wasn't even thinking about returning to Australia. After all, I had an apartment and an office in Vienna, and my visa is still valid until November. But just days later, the Australian government started announcing travel bans and DFAT updated its travel advice for the entire world to "do not travel". Within 4 days, Austrian Airlines was grounded and most other international airlines had already pulled out of Vienna. I decided to come home, but by the time I had a chance to pack up my apartment and deal with the necessary paperwork/cancellations/etc. the land borders were all closed and even Emirates had stopped flying to Vienna.

I ended up paying an arm & a leg to fly home on ANA, which miraculously was still offering flights from Vienna to Sydney via Tokyo. (ANA has already since withdrawn from the Vienna route, leaving just Qatar Airways flying there.)

When I departed Vienna, less than two weeks had passed since I set off on that trip to Portugal, unaware that my life - and the world - was about to suddenly change. I'm now back in Australia and self-isolating in Canberra.

This trip report tells the story of two races to get home - first from the Azores to Austria, and then from Austria back to Australia - before it was no longer possible.

I'll begin this story as I arrived in the beautiful Azores Islands, which just so happen to be the antipode, or the furthest place in the world that you can possibly get, from my home city of Canberra.
 

Mattg

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After a wonderful few days in Lisbon, I flew with Azores Airlines to Ponta Delgada, the Azores' largest city on the island of São Miguel, with a stopover in Horta on the island of Faial.

We had some stunning views of the island on our approach:

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On the day of my arrival, the Azores decided to start to screening all of the arriving passengers. They had not yet had any reported cases of COVID-19, but they didn't want to take any chances - fair enough. So, upon arrival in Horta, we were greeted by medical staff dressed in protective suits and masks, who asked everyone a series of health questions and took everyone's details. This process took around an hour.

I still had around 2 hours to wait until my connecting flight to Ponta Delgada, so headed upstairs to the airport café and observation deck. HOR is not a large airport, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for with these stunning views!

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Mattg

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The next flight was a short hop on a Dash 8 from HOR to PDL. The seats were exactly the same as you get on a QantasLink Q400 aircraft. The flight time was just 25 minutes or so, but we had some great views of the islands along the way!

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Departing Horta:

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Another of the islands along the way:

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Landing in Ponta Delgada:

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There were no assigned seats on this flight, so everyone was free to sit wherever they wanted.
 
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kpc

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Shame you didn't get a chance to spend more time there ....we spent 5 nights in Sao Miguel Island a year ago and had a great time.
 

Mattg

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About two hours after I got to my hostel in Ponta Delgada, I learned of the impending lockdown in Austria. I realised that I would need to get home quickly, so headed straight back to the airport. There was a TAP Portugal flight departing that evening, but I wasn't able to get on it. TAP also wouldn't let me change my existing booking home because their COVID-19 policy only allowed changes for flights more than 21 days out. (I wasn't the only one having issues - there were also dozens of Americans at the airport trying to get on the last US-bound flight before the travel ban kicked in. That flight to Boston was full.) I eventually had to buy a new ticket for a flight the following evening, but that did mean I at least had 24 hours to enjoy São Miguel Island.

The Azores are absolutely stunning! Ponta Delgada as a historic town is gorgeous. But the island as a whole also has lots of natural beauty, with beaches, lakes, hot springs and great hiking. There are lots of adventure sports on offer, as well as things like surfing and whale watching.

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Ponta Delgada also has a large port, which is used as a stopover point for ships sailing between Europe and North America. But this doesn't detract at all from the island's natural beauty.
 
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Mattg

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So, I had just one day to enjoy the island. Luckily, a friend that I met at the hostel had hired a car and offered to show me around the island.

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We walked around the Salto do Cabrito nature reserve, then had a delicious seafood lunch by the beach in Ribeira Grande.

Salto do Cabrito:

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Ribeira Grande:

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This was such an enjoyable day. Except for a few businesses being closed, you wouldn't have known there was a pandemic causing havoc across the rest of the world. Everything was so... peaceful.

It was a shame to cut my stay in Ponta Delgada short, but I still had a really nice visit. I can't wait to return when the world returns to normal!

By the way, a quick shout-out to Out Of The Blue Hostel in Ponta Delgada, where I stayed. This would have to be one of the nicest hostels I've stayed in. It was immaculately clean, had a huge garden, the staff were so friendly, they served a delicious free breakfast in the morning and I met some wonderful people there.

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tgh

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I have always wanted to visit the Azores, not sure I am going to make it anymore but the wish remains.
Loving the tr...
 

pagingjoan

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I second (Third? Fourth? :)) all the thanks, Mattg.

And I recommend the Azores to anyone with an interest in places off the beaten track and retaining their own individuality.
We were there a few years back, and visited five of the islands, if memory serves me right.

A delightful step back in time to a simpler life.
Here’s to a time when we can resume such adventures. :)
 

Mattg

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I headed back to the airport that evening, this time with a confirmed ticket. I would fly that evening from Ponta Delgada to Lisbon, stay overnight, and then continue the following morning to Vienna with TAP Air Portugal.

Our plane at PDL:

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Ordinarily I would have had access to the SATA Plus lounge at PDL, but it was closed due to COVID-19.

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I waited in the terminal instead:

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The inbound flight arrived punctually, but our flight back to Lisbon was quite late because it took nearly an hour for the passengers on the inbound flight to disembark. The captain explained that the Azores government had decided to implement new health requirements while the inbound flight was already in the air, which involved every passenger having to fill out a form and disembark in groups of 3 for health screening. This was just a day after they started implementing the (less rigorous) health check that I received. (Just a day later, the Azores went further and effectively banned all but essential travel from the outside world. Anyone that arrived would be subjected to two weeks of mandatory quarantine - much like in Tasmania. How quickly things change!)

Most of the airport shops in Ponta Delgada were closed so I was very hungry by the time I boarded the plane. I was hoping that there would at least be food available for sale on the plane, but there wasn't. Everyone was served a complimentary packet of chips and drinks, and there was no other food available - not even for purchase. The flight attendant gave me an extra bag of crisps when I said I was hungry, but he didn't have anything else to offer me.

The flight was around 1/3 full, mostly with tourists that were leaving the island. For some reason there were quite a lot of Canadians on my flight that were going home early.

I arrived in Lisbon at 11pm and took the metro to my accommodation for the evening. It was a Saturday night and eerily quiet! The metro was empty and most shops, bars and restaurants in Lisbon were closed - except for a 24-hour pharmacy that had a huge line.

I slept for a few hours before catching an Uber back to the airport for my 7.40am flight to Vienna. The TAP lounge in LIS was still open, so I was able to get some breakfast before boarding. It was quite a nice lounge - as you'd expect at the hub airport of a full-service Star Alliance carrier. I was surprised that the self-serve buffet was still open, although all of the snacks and plated dishes were individually wrapped.

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The LIS-VIE flight was quite full, but I had an exit row to myself so was very comfortable. Breakfast was served, which was pretty good for an intra-Europe flight. (I note that TAP stopped serving meals on short-haul flights the following day - I got a notification about this as no food was available on the flight I originally booked, which I wasn't able to cancel.)

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The crew were really good and it was an uneventful flight.

We arrived in Vienna around midday on Sunday, and the airport was unusually quiet. I was relieved to be back, and headed home from the airport on an almost empty train.

This notice was displayed at the airport train station:

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Mattg

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I spent the following week effectively in lockdown inside my apartment in Vienna. I only went outside a few times, and when I did, it was surreal. Winter was finally over but the once-bustling streets of Vienna were empty. Here are a few photos from around the city in mid-March 2020:

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This sign says “Opening hours: Closed due to corona”

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Mattg

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At the beginning of that week, things were still relatively normal in much of the world - including Australia. Then, DFAT issued the "do not travel" warning and Australia suddenly decided to shut its borders. I had had no intention of returning to Canberra, but by the end of the week, I came to the conclusion that it was my only realistic option. My travel insurance was now void and if I didn't leave quickly, it looked like I may not have an option to return home later at all due to airlines getting grounded and countries closing their airports to transit passengers.

In hindsight, I think returning to Australia was the right call. But at the time, it was a very difficult choice to make as I simply didn't have enough information to make an informed decision. I spoke to a lot of friends to get their input, and they helped me decide. But unlike all those armchair critics that had a go at the Australians stranded overseas last month, I didn't have a crystal ball to predict the future.

Frankly, I was devastated to have to leave Vienna so abruptly. I had set up a nice life over there and was so looking forward to the summer. I didn't even have time to say goodbye to most of my friends. But once I made the call to come home, I had just a couple of days to pack up my apartment, hand back my office keys, cancel utilities & internet contracts, de-register with the local authorities, etc. etc. It was a hectic time and this was made even more difficult by the fact most of the city was shut down.

Another problem quickly emerged: How on earth would I actually get home? I had planned to use Qantas points to fly back on Emirates, but they stopped flying to Vienna with almost no notice and I wasn't able to leave on that last flight. Normally, I would have just crossed the border into a neighbouring country and picked up a flight from there instead, but this wasn't possible as all of Austria's land borders were shut. This was the notice displayed at the airport train station on the morning of my departure:

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I could have picked up a flight from London, but there was no way to even get from Vienna to London by this point.

Eventually I came up with a plan to fly from Vienna to Dublin, which was still possible at that point, and take Emirates from Dublin to Sydney via Dubai. But a day before I was due to travel, Emirates grounded all flights. That was no longer an option either.

With assistance from @madrooster I identified that the only two realistic options were to fly ANA via HND or Qatar Airways via DOH. Neither airline had award availability and Qatar Airways wanted a totally ridiculous amount of money, so I booked on ANA. It still wasn't cheap for a one-way economy ticket, and there was a ~15 hour layover in Tokyo. But at least the flights were still operating.
 

Mattg

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Vienna International Airport was quiet when I returned from Portugal, but it was deserted when I left for Australia. There were only two shops open in the entire airport, and just a small handful of flights departing. Austrian Airlines had already grounded all regular flights, and there were so few flights operating that they had to list some flights multiple times on the arrivals board just to fill in space.

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These were all the flights departing that day and the following day (not all listed are even flights - some are trains):

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There was no queue whatsoever to check in for my flight with All Nippon Airways. I asked if the flight was very full and the guy laughed. Nope, there were around 20 passengers booked. At least social distancing wouldn't be a problem!

I was informed that all airport lounges at VIE were closed, and sure enough, the airport was like a ghost town after clearing security and immigration. It was eerie.

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boomy

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Summer in Vienna is fantastic, hope you get to experience it next year. What made you move there, apart from it being the most liveable city in the world?
 

Mattg

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As I mentioned before, there was a very light load of just 20 passengers on my Boeing 787-9 flight from VIE to HND.

This was our aircraft, parked alongside Qatar Airways.

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Boarding was very slightly delayed "due to departure preparations", but announcements were made every few minutes apologising profusely for this until group 1 was called forward for boarding. NH206 still departed right on time at 11.50am, and as seems to be standard procedure for Japanese airlines, the VIE ground staff bowed and waved as we taxied off towards the runway.

I was one of 5 passengers in the forward economy class cabin on the Dreamliner. Everyone had a row to themselves, so it was a very relaxed and comfortable overnight flight.

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I've flown ANA in economy class before and found both the hard and soft products to be excellent. This flight was no exception. Although ANA went with a 3-3-3 configuration on their 787s, the legroom is very generous and the seats are comfortable. There was a pillow, blanket and headphones at every seat.

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Meals were served promptly after take-off. Instead of giving each passenger a printed menu, the flight attendants have laminated cards with pictures and descriptions of the meal choices in Japanese and English.

I went with the Japanese seafood option for lunch, which was delicious and came with plenty of fresh accompaniments. This was followed by chocolate gelato.

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I hadn't eaten before getting on the plane (due to all the airport shops and lounges being closed), so I asked the cabin crew after lunch if they had any snacks. Not only did they have snacks, but they had lots of extra meals on board and were very happy to bring me another one. So, I tried out the Western lunch as well:

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The beef with vegetables was also nice, but I did prefer the Japanese option!

I watched a few movies and enjoyed the view out those fancy Dreamliner windows as we flew east towards the sunset over Poland, Belarus and Russia.

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I also had a read of the in-flight magazine, which was full of articles about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. :oops:

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The ANA crew were nothing but friendly, engaging and professional. They came through the cabin regularly to offer drinks and snacks during the night.
 

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