What it’s like travelling in Europe during COVID-19

Last Thursday I decided to brave the global pandemic and head off to Germany for a few days.  I think there’s a lot of apprehension about travelling at the moment, so thought it would be helpful to write up my experiences.

For those that follow me on insta, I documented a fair bit of it on my story as I went, but this is a fuller account for those that don’t mind reading a bit.

My plan was to fly out to Munich with Lufthansa, spend a couple of days there, then take the train to Berlin, and fly home from there. This was primarily driven by the sheer lack of flights – most destinations are down to once a day service at best. For example London to Munich normally support nine Lufthansa and six British Airways flights per day. It currently has a single Lufthansa flight.

London to Munich

As there are so few flights at the moment, Heathrow is only running with two terminals open, Terminal 2 and Terminal 5.  British Airways (and soon some other oneworld airlines) are operating from Terminal 5, and everyone else from Terminal 2.  The others are closed completely.

I took the Heathrow Connect getting off at Heathrow Central.  The walk from there to Terminal 2 was pretty eerie with very few people, although it did get a little busier past the entrance to the tube.

Half the trav-o-lators were turned off, meaning that people had to walk in the middle closer together.  Also, there were no signs directing people to socially distance and use the escalators (as opposed to the lifts) up to the departures level.

Access to the terminal was being restricted to people with only a boarding pass, and there was another un-socially distanced mass of people crowing round the tensabarrier.  The member of staff took a quick glance at my mobile boarding pass and I walked in, past the normal T2 set-up and straight towards security.  Fast track was closed, so used the regular line.  Thankfully there was no queue at all.

Interestingly they were enforcing that everyone took their shoes off (to reduce arch activations apparently), but within a few minutes was through.

There are currently no lounges from any airline open.  There was only one place open serving food, which was Leon on the ground floor level of the terminal.  The queue was definitely not at the 2m socially distanced level and it took me roughly 30 mins from joining it to walking out with something to eat.  Whilst the terminal isn’t dead there’s clearly a demand for more food outlets than just Leon alone can currently serve.

By that point, I had to make a speed walk over to T2B where my flight was departing from.  No idea why it couldn’t have been the main terminal given how many gates were free in T2A.

I arrived just as they announced priority boarding.  I hadn’t yet eaten my food so quickly wolfed it down and joined the mass of people milling about.  Having no idea if people were just standing around or what, I showed my boarding pass and passport and joined the queue leading to the aircraft.  This then led to another (not very socially distanced) queue of people waiting on the airbridge.  Some things never change.

Cabin crew were welcoming people at the entrance with a box full of alcohol wipes for you to help yourselves to.

I was semi-surprised to see how full the flight was.  Most middle seats were taken and I’d estimate it was somewhere between 85% and 90% full.  Thankfully the Senator seat block worked so the seat next to me was empty.

Push-back was delayed slightly with a set of steps at the rear-doors which couldn’t be removed as they’d broken down.  Once that was resolved, we pushed back and in an all-time first for me, taxied straight to the end of 09R and took off immediately.  No waiting about, no queuing at all.

Service onboard in economy consisted of a 500ml bottle of mineral water.  I believe business class get normal catering.

The flight was a very short 1 hour 20 minutes and before long we were on the ground at a very quiet Munich Terminal 2.  Disembarkation was normal and walked to passport control in a virtual deserted terminal.  Immigration was entirely unremarkable except for the e-Gates were restricted to German citizens only.  Everyone else from the EU/EEA had to queue up to be seen by the Police.  That was a quick scan of the passport and through into baggage reclaim.

From then on, it was the normal Munich experience of the S-Bahn to the Hauptbahnhof and I had booked into the aLoft Hotel, directly opposite.

Selfie outside Munich Terminal 2

Munich to Berlin

After a couple of days in Munich it was time to jump on the train to Berlin.  Using the rather excellent Deutsche Bahn app, I’d book a €55 one-way first class ticket which included a city ticket at either end of the journey.

The app is pretty good in that it even allows you to pick a seat during the booking process, a feature that seems to have been removed from a number of UK train operators’ websites recently.

You’re also able to ‘check-in’ for your journey on the app, a couple of minutes before departure.  You simply confirm that you’re in your booked seat (or if you’ve moved elsewhere) and then the ticket inspector won’t bother you for the journey or ask to see your ticket.

The journey itself was uneventful.  The train was very quiet with perhaps seven or eight people in the carriage.  At seat service was available (although items were paid for) and there was wi-fi too.  The views on the high-speed section between Bamburg and Erfurt were pretty spectacular, although unfortunately wasn’t able to get any decent photos.

We arrived on time at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof and I jumped on the S-Bahn to the Zoological Gardens and the walk to the Intercontinental where I was staying.

Berlin to London

After a couple of days in Berlin it was time to return home.  The UK Government has a quarantine scheme running at the moment, which requires you to fill in a locator form online up to 48 hours before departure, which I duly did.  I’m eligible for an exemption so was also required to have a letter explaining this accompanying my form.  With both printed out, I jumped in an Uber to the still operating Tegel airport.

Last time I flew BA here, which was a while back, I seem to recall them being in the main hexagonal, terminal A.  It appears they’re now in C which is off to the side of the airport.  Like at Heathrow, there was a boarding pass check before entering the terminal and I showed the staff my iPhone.

Unlike the main part of Tegel, the C gates had central security and I can only describe it as a shit-show.  There was a massive, slowly moving, non socially distanced queue of people.  At the front, there was a cut through line where the staff seemed to be letting in every single family.  Perhaps half of the staff weren’t wearing their masks properly, just across their mouths.

It took roughly 40 minutes to make it airside.  It was one of the most disorganised, un-Germanic and needlessly inefficient airport experiences I’ve had in a long time.  It made even Frankfurt seem pleasant.  I can only figure that they know the facility is going to be closed in November with the opening of the new Berlin Brandenburg airport so they’ve effectively given up.

The aircraft landed on time, taxied to the gate and I saw that the passengers disembarked onto non-socially distanced buses.

Boarding the inbound flight started early, using the regular Group 1 to 5 boarding process.  I was near the front, of the queue and made it to 12A of the A320neo.

British Airways, like Lufthansa on the outward sector, were handing out alcohol wipes and gel upon boarding the aircraft to all the passengers.

Again, the flight was very unremarkable except for a few extra announcements both about the fact that wearing masks was mandatory and the requirement to have filled in the UK Government Passenger locator form upon arrival.

In-flight service was slightly better than Lufthansa in that whilst we got a slightly smaller 250ml bottle of water, there was a packet of crisps and bag of pretzels thrown in too.

Before long, the flight deck crew had announced ten minutes to landing.  Like on the outbound sector with no waiting to take off, there was absolutely no holding at all on approach to London and we parked at gate 12 in T5A.

Interestingly, in order to maximise social distancing, British Airways asked that everyone remain seated on landing, and they called out six rows at a time for disembarkation.  This really didn’t seem to make much difference, both given the other points of the journey were people mixed, but also the fact that you were close to the same people anyway.  Surely they should call out alternate rows instead?

Anyway, I was off the plane and headed to the UK Border.  At the entrance to the tensabarrier maze, there were a number of Heathrow people asking to see people’s UK Government passenger locator forms, either printed out or the email you get with the PDF.

There were perhaps 50+ people who hadn’t and were all huddled around their smartphones filling in the form, again, all crushed up against each other with no semblance of 2m gaps between them.

There were quite a number of UKBF agents working the desks so it only took perhaps five minutes to reach the front of the queue, where I presented my locator form, exemption letter and passport.  The agent scanned the passport, looked at the screen glanced at the front page of my locator form and wished me on my way.  The whole process took perhaps ten seconds more than a “normal” interaction with a border force agent and they seemed very unconcerned with the new process.

From there, it was back through customs (South Customs was closed), and out into arrivals on back to the Heathrow Connect to Ealing.

Thoughts

Overall, I was surprised at how normal things were generally.  Yes, everyone is wearing masks.  There are no lounges.  But the fundamentals are exactly the same as they always were.

If you’re worried about coming into close proximity of people, then travelling is not for you at the moment.  There are too many occasions when you’re less than 2m or even less than 1m apart.

The other annoyance is that wearing a mask for an extended amount of time is uncomfortable.  I’ve got one with a valve which helps to reduce my glasses steaming up as much, but it’s still a pain.  For a shorthaul flight, it’s tolerable; longhaul I think would be bordering on unpleasant, although for an overnight, I don’t know how you could sleep in one?

Finally, the much vaunted UK Government quarantine in practice seems to be not terribly rigorously enforced.  I’ve no idea what checking goes on in the background, but given you could fill in the form at the airport, show the PDF to the agent who scarcely looked at it, I’d say there’s significant scope for abuse.  However I think the mere fact we have one is sufficient deterrent for most and to dampen demand.  Which is a shame.

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