Pandemic Travel – The Great Escape to Canada (and back, we hope!)

pauly7

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Well, I know that there has been a dire shortage of anyone on AFF travelling internationally recently and thus no international trip reports have surfaced for months and months.... but here is a thread to hopefully keep a few people engaged with the hope of international travel returning someday :)

The journey starts in Melbourne, where preparation for the trip has been intense, like no other trip I have ever had to organise. Normally it's a bit more fun and predictable. The biggest issue has been the shifting sands of government regulations that then force airline schedule changes. The second biggest issue is sorting out what are real flights and what is fake, as airline schedules are only published in short increments due to the changing conditions and change often.

Flights have been booked, cancelled and rebooked. We have been very careful to make sure we are booking fares that are refunded in $ (not interested in travel credit/banks) and with flights that presented the least risk to us from a health point of view as well.

When planning we had only a couple of ‘real’ options to get to Canada / YVR (Vancouver)
  • Qatar (into Montreal or Seattle then a hop to YVR)
  • Cathay (into Vancouver)
  • United (via SFO/LAX – but LAX relied on Air Canada playing ball...)
  • American (via LAX and onto DFW then YVR)
Our initial booking was Cathay for a couple of reasons
  • Our preferred airline of all the four options
  • Avoiding covid super hot spots of the US and Qatar
  • Most reasonably priced in J and PE
  • Status benefits and points
But then..... China changed the rules....
 

pauly7

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So as everyone knows, the rules changed for Hong Kong crew and quarantine requirements between flights.... without getting into the details, the net result was that almost overnight Cathay went from becoming a reliable option to a highly unreliable one as they began cancelling and reducing flights out of their network.

So that left us with the other three and to be frank, none of them were brilliant options...

We ruled out Qatar, simply too much covid hubbing through Doha and not only that, the variants are very concentrated there and a lot of cases on arriving Qatar flights made it less palatable

Which left us with the two US carriers, American and United:

  • From a personal travel preference point of view, I’ve never met a United trip I’ve ever really enjoyed. My experiences have been tainted with average service and hard product is still mostly years behind Qantas & the APAC airlines. I also have lower status with Star Alliance.
  • American I put ahead of United, not by heaps - but they do know how to look after their elites which would have been helpful. However the flight routings added a stop in Texas (DFW) which is yet another covid hotspot to add to LAX, wasn’t that appealing either.
Parallel to trying to rebook flights was obtaining government approvals:
  • The Canadian government has banned almost all international travellers and you are only able to fly into certain airports if approved. We applied for our exemption to the consulate and were contacted back in about 2 days to provide more documentation. Supplying this and a day later we had our official exemption to enter Canada for a period of time. Getting the usual visa (ETA) was easy and US clearance was simple too for transit. Organising the Canadian hotel quarantine was not... more on that later though!
  • The Australian government was a lot more..... rigorous, or perhaps ‘computer says no on the first time to scare people off’.... who knows. We were fairly confident we would be approved finally but got an initial rejection / asking for more information, which we provided. A week or so later our approval to leave the country was granted.
So back to the airlines..

We ended up booking United. We also have contacts at United, which we thought might come in handy should things go pear shaped, which things tend to do in todays world!

We also chose to go via SFO over LAX because UA had a more reliable schedule out of SFO to YVR, whereas there was a patchy and less frequent schedule of UA code share (Air Canada) flights out of LAX. UA was also flying a little Embraer out of SFO which was probably less likely to be cancelled than an Air Canada A319/320.

So our outbound itinerary was then changed to:

QF MEL-SYD / 737 / Y

UA SYD-SFO / 787 / Y+

UA* SFO-YVR / E190 / Y+

*United Express / operated by Sky West


So stay tuned for some international flight reports!
 

MEL_Traveller

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Good luck!

Just out of interest, I thought with planes being so empty all economy passengers would get three seats to themselves to sleep. Was there an advantage booking Premium Economy? Or more a case of trying to avoid being bumped?
 

jakeseven7

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Wow...... this will be epic. And a massive good luck.

FINALLY a trip report to somewhere other than Australia to read.

Will be interested to hear the levels of service on UA you get this time v previous and in general what is being provided in such empty flights!
 
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Hmm interested to see how this trip goes. We have friends who are American-Canadians and recently made the trip north. Even though the male partner is vaccinated they had to test for CV before entry, quarantine on arrival at home for 14 days and during the quarantine period self administer 2 CV tests. Anyhoo I'm hoping to hear from you that it's all smooth sailing and how much fun you have.
 

pauly7

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Good luck!

Just out of interest, I thought with planes being so empty all economy passengers would get three seats to themselves to sleep. Was there an advantage booking Premium Economy? Or more a case of trying to avoid being bumped?

Yes good point and I wouldn't have paid for 'Premium Economy' in this scenario with United either - because they don't really have one by our APAC definition of Premium Economy, its just a little extra leg room and a seperate cabin on the 787, thats it. We were upgraded without charge.
 
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pauly7

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Hmm interested to see how this trip goes. We have friends who are American-Canadians and recently made the trip north. Even though the male partner is vaccinated they had to test for CV before entry, quarantine on arrival at home for 14 days and during the quarantine period self administer 2 CV tests. Anyhoo I'm hoping to hear from you that it's all smooth sailing and how much fun you have.

I wouldn't call it much fun given the absolute mess of a situation Canada is in right now.... but I will take the smooth sailing wishes :)

Things have changed since your friends travelled, now all OS arrivals by air must go into hotel quarantine for up to 3 days (until your airport test comes through negative) then the balance of the 14 days in self organised quarantine. Test is prior to departure, at airport on arrival and day 11 of your quarantine.
 

pauly7

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So with our exemptions all lined up (with a massive touchwood nothing else changes) and our fingers crossed we prepared for our military style operation to leave Fortress Australia.

With all the paperwork, consulate requirements, exemptions, visas, first 14 day arrival plans etc etc – we built a digital and paper document wallet that looked like an encyclopedia. But we wanted to have everything ready and on hand for interested airline/government officials in Australia as we departed, the US and Canada...

Then Canada’s ‘interesting’ hotel quarantine requirement came in... For those not familiar with this, basically loads of Canadians were going off travelling to lovely places like Brazil and bringing back some unwanted passengers....

So rather than shut the border to their citizens they put in a 3 day mandatory hotel quarantine in 4 ports only at about $1500-$3000. You require a covid test prior to departure (For US and Canada) and a covid test on arrival at the airport in Canada. You then go to hotel quarantine while you wait for your result. Once negative you can leave but then have to complete out the balance of your time to 14 days in a pre-approved self isolation plan and do another self administered test at day 11. So if you got your test back after one day, you would be allowed to go and do 13 days in self isolation (1+13 = 14). What could possibly go wrong with that plan....!

Anyway hotel quarantine came online and the prices were very high, $3000 for 3 nights..... (makes Australia look like a bargain) and also the hotel availability was very limited as people rushed to book the pre-approved hotels on the list – you book and pre-pay them yourselves. The hotels weren’t exactly playing nice either, with no changes, no refunds on their quarantine accom packs.

Now as you can imagine with flights being cancelled and re-routed at the drop of the hat, no flexibility was a real issue. Calling a couple we got a very rude ‘tough’ message from the operators.

After much searching we resigned ourselves to booking a real dump for hotel quarantine at an eyewatering price that I wouldn’t normally personally pay ever, anywhere. Period. We literally logged into the portal for the last time, went to select the 3 star less than ideal hotel when..... BANG! 4 more hotels were added iterally in front of our eyes, business style hotels suites in downtown YVR and even better, half the price and twice the room!

We quickly rang the hotels that had been added and they were much friendlier, we explained our predicament and the manager took pity on us coming from so far afield and said they would find a way to help us if things got moved around. So was nice to have a human touch to a stressful process.

We quickly booked a 1 bedroom business suite and that was the last piece in the puzzle to get ready for the great escape!

First flight up: our QF commuter hop to SYD (which I’m sure everyone is dying to hear about ;)...)
 

MEL_Traveller

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Yes good point and I wouldn't have paid for 'Premium Economy' in this scenario with United either - because they don't really have one by our APAC definition of Premium Economy, its just a little extra leg room and a seperate cabin on the 787, thats it. We were upgraded without charge.

Gotcha. United introduced a true PEY in 2019 - 'Premium Plus'. Being rolled out on their 787 fleet, but obviously not reached Australia yet!
 

pauly7

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D day approached very quickly actually and to be honest have never been so prepared for a trip ever. Mostly I don’t really think twice about travel, having done so much through work and life but this trip needed so much checking and double checking and monitoring it was quite tiring.

First leg was a quick commuter hop from MEL->SYD on a QF 73H.

We used the ever trusty ‘Jimmy’, a driver used by those in the know at AFF who travel in and out of MEL and after another lovely trip in a spotless car to the airport we dragged all our international sized luggage into the QF domestic terminal on a warm Melbourne afternoon.

It was pleasing to see the QF terminal buzzing again, like it should be, with flights packed onto the large departures board. As most of you know I had the task of flying pretty much non-stop during the various waves of the Australian pandemic, working on just a ‘little’ project close to many AFF members hearts ;)

Anyway travelling through the pandemic back and forth was rather haunting and soulless, large open spaces built to hold thousands of people are downright creepy when they are empty, sometimes there was only 1-2 flights on the board in MEL and I felt like the only person left in the world.

So it was a welcome change to see it bustling and full of happy travellers, a lot of business are starting to fly again as well judging from the dress code and sharp looking folk moving through the premium lanes. Lots of interesting new routes out of MEL on QF on the board as well- marked down to explore them one day, so it was awesome to see.

Approaching bag drop, an eagle-eyed QF staffer monitoring the zone must have seen my tag and the teetering mountain of our bags and offered to help escort us to premium check in if it was easier for us, which we politely declined and thanked them and we quickly dropped the bags off and moved through premium security to grab a few minutes at the QF Business Lounge.

The Business Lounge is operating with the QF Club now open as well in MEL so it was busy, but not rammed which was perfect as the QF Club is now absorbing some of the load. The food has kicked up a notch with the pre-plating so sometimes good things can come out of bad circumstances! We just got a light mezze plate with whipped hummus, pickles, local cheese and vegetables plus some mineral water and soaked in the view of the bustling QF piers, packed full of A330’s, 737’s, 717s, Q300’s and a solitary 787 which was running up to Brisbane I think. Love a ride on the 717 so now MEL is a base for the 717 fleet, I'm happy to see more of them around.

Dropped down to the gate a few mins early as QF tends to board early these days and yes they were, Premium Boarding worked well today and was enforced which was nice to see and a good pattern I have noticed recently. The flight was full and uneventful, to be honest I snoozed most of the way up, the other half may have had a soothing beverage or two, and then after grabbing our bags which were almost first off the bus, we were in Sydney for our overnight to then catch our ride of town on United.

Next up: The longest check in experience of my life, Sydney International Airport aka ‘Ghost Town’ and the United 787 review to SFO

(PS to those that messaged - will have photos don't worry)
 

pauly7

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Apologies all for the delay in posting this up, has been a little hectic and interesting to navigate through two foreign countries in various stages of pandemics and lockdowns! Thank you for your messages of concern, we are just fine :)

----

An early morning rise for our United international flight out of Sydney. In pre-pandemic days I was very much in the camp of arriving with minimal time to spare and basically walking straight to the plane, the allure of lounges and airports have worn off on me with the amount of travel I do! But not this flight... We arrived at the airport almost 3.5 hours prior to our departure – a world record for me thats for sure.

A ghostly SYD international terminal awaited us, a reminder of what it was like travelling domestically through the pandemic lockdown in Australia. There were more pigeons waddling around than people, but at least finding a drop off zone was a breeze. Our driver said he hadn’t been to the international terminal for about a year!

Inside the terminal was silent, an empty echo chamber with some clacking of boots as aiport staff walked around. We had the normal US pre-check before we got to the counter (by a maskless SYD security agent.....) who was very interested as to why we were leaving! And luckily we did allow a lot of time to check in as it took us about 45 minutes from when we made it to the counter.

Complicating matters was the fact we were going to two countries and an issue with Border Forces override codes not working. The check in staff were lovely and we weren’t worried because we were 100% certain we had everything lined up correctly. We had paper copies of everything in plastic sleeves (so we could easily sanitise later) and the staff said they wish everyone was so organised!

A few desks down we saw another guy being denied boarding for some reason, which was sad to see as he was quite upset. We didn’t catch on why.

Finally after 45 minutes going through documentation, several calls to Border Force and the Canadian government we were good to go. We were told cheerfully there was a grand total of 18 people on our flight and we had a whole Y+ cabin to ourselves and 2 others! We knew there was not much open airside, so we followed the clacking of the airport staff footsteps and found a landside cafe open and had some over priced, Sydney quality coffee :) and a snack to kill some time.

Here are some eerie photos of a deserted SYD airport...
 

pauly7

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6F4D2145-6150-4FD3-9CFD-77D0CD879FF2.jpeg

Despite no people, check in took ages!

FB002CBB-CDB5-4974-8F88-A4AF5A6D8A67.jpeg

They really should turn some screens off and save some power!
 

pauly7

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10A78C7F-A5B1-48F1-843B-08CF0FAC7C58.jpeg
Thirsty? Too bad.

499492C1-0E5A-4F28-B250-8729B955F88F.jpeg

A little annoying as this bird was heading to YVR directly but not taking passengers…. :( Leaving us to navigate the United States of Covid… We seriously thought about knocking on the door as asking the pilots for a ride ;)
 

pauly7

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Finally we found our ride to SFO, a United 787 at a far flung gate as far away as you could get, waiting patiently for us as it was loaded to the gills with freight bound for the US. It sure wouldn't be making any money off passengers!

Once on board we arrived to our section and as promised there were only four of us in Y+. You were not allowed to change cabins or move seats, but we had been spaced out with rows and rows between us all so there was no need to!

The United FA's took a very keen interest in us as we were the only Australians on board and they seemed to be very excited to have a chat to us, many times, all the way to SFO ;) It was nice - because otherwise the flight would have been a little boring as the IFE was average. Now I've said before I don't rate United - and I still don't, their hard product is average in my opinion, but our service from the staff on this flight was just lovely, delivered with care and kindness.

They put us together a massive 'care pack' each that took up the 2 seats next to us (we sat 1 row behind each other) - we each got business class amenity packs, business class blankets, pillows, lumbar support, multiple Y class pillows and blankets, and massive 1.5L bottles of water that were replaced through the flight without asking.
 

jakeseven7

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That’s so nice the crew took extra good care of you.

Wow looks like a ghost flight!

This is the most bizarre trip report on AFF ever! It’s unbelievable....
 

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