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A hop, skip, and a COVID test away

Justin Armour | October 2021

Sales Executive

We’ve been waiting for this moment since COVID first hit the news and everything shut down, holding our breaths anxiously for that next trip in an all-too-tiny seat on an all-too-small plane. Months of staring at destination vacations on computer screens, turned into a year and a half of wondering when pixels would turn into reality; dreams haunted by memories of “anywhere but here,” turned into recurring nightmares of a staycation in Brighton. Now that we’ve weathered the storm and red lists grow greener by the day, what does the reality of flying look like? After travelling to and from Canada, one of the stricter countries in the world for COVID regulations, I can say that you can safely exhale now… though don’t be surprised when your next breath is in a queue.

Now that we’ve weathered the storm and red lists grow greener by the day, what does the reality of flying look like?

Artur Tumasjan

First off, let me say that travel has never been a particularly romantic experience for me. Some people love the anticipation of preparing for the trip, filling bags with purpose-purchased clothes and sunglasses that they’ve only ever worn indoors because, let’s face it, this is England. Their excitement builds with every thought of white, sandy beaches and sweet drinks soon to be consumed in copious quantities. It all crescendos as their wait to board the plane to somewhere else, somewhere better, comes to an end.

While that wasn’t my experience for many years (I’m an anxious-flyer), packing my bag to go home had never been so easy. I am ecstatic that I can finally see my family again, or go to an actual beach somewhere warm over the winter. Two years ago, I would have dreaded the idea of writing out travel checklists and going over them, but now I almost look forward to them. The bad news is that COVID has only made said lists longer, and more expensive. The good news is that although it seems complicated now, things will surely only get more streamlined from here… right? Let’s find out!

If you’re nervous, let me just reassure you, the fact that you’re reading about how COVID has altered travel to North America means you’re already ahead of the game.

I couldn’t tell you how many people at Heathrow seemed dumbfounded by the idea of completing additional COVID-related tests/paperwork prior to arrival. Here are some of the things that I had to do in order to get on the flight: fill out a Canadian customs arrival form, upload proof of vaccination, upload proof of a negative PCR test (taken no more than 72 hours before departure time), download the VeriFly app, and present proof of Canadian citizenship. And I needed to have all of this proof in digital or physical form. All of this was checked by agents at the check-in desk and AGAIN at the gate before boarding. Remember those fancy self-service check-in kiosks designed to speed up the process? They’re purposely cordoned off and gathering dust, destined not to be used again until at least some point in late 2022 or beyond. As much as all of this document-checking is painful, it’s to avoid the rather unpleasant and costly alternative of being refused entry to Canada after a long-transatlantic haul.

After a nearly 8 hour flight, I could almost be forgiven for thinking I was home free once my plane landed, but it wasn’t meant to be. In an effort to control the number of people in the customs hall, only 5–10 rows of passengers were let off the plane at a time. For yours truly, whose seat was in row 53 (a number that will be seared into my memory for the rest of my life), that meant an additional two hours on the plane before I was allowed to queue to speak to an agent. If you’re planning on travelling to the US or Canada with any sort of regularity, do yourself a favour and get a NEXUS card or Trusted Traveller designation ASAP. For the price of $50 and an interview, you’re essentially buying a fast pass through security and customs. It saved me 1-2 hours of standing in a queue at customs, and is good for 10 years. People spend more than that to join the short line at Disney World, though I can’t promise Mickey Mouse at the end of the queue.

Next up was getting through customs. As much as the typical “friendly Canadian” stereotype tends to hold true – and our love for all things maple (keep your disgusting corn syrup away from me) – Canadian customs agents are incredibly keen on ensuring that all COVID paperwork and documentation is completed properly, even if that means being rather stoic. But is that the price you pay to enforce rules that protect Canadian lives?

As sure as maple is the superior syrup, all things are relative, so let’s take a look at how you lot are doing things on the other side of the pond.

It's six of one, half-a-dozen of the other.

On the return to the UK, the differences weren’t remarkable to begin with: you need proof of a negative rapid antigen test (significantly cheaper and less accurate than PCR) taken no more than 72 hours before flight departure, proof that you’ve booked a Day 2 test after arrival, and a completed passenger locator form. While this is the nuts and bolts of flying these days, the reality is that the new rules are only as good as the enforcement. None of my COVID-related information was checked on arrival in the UK. Customs was so busy that they weren’t checking the details and just wanted to make sure you were visiting legally. If you had a passport, or a BRP (biometric residence permit for non-citizens), you were passed along.

So sure, things have changed a lot, and yes, there are more steps to remember before you fly. But, as much as things have changed, we’re adding wearing face masks, taking medical tests, and spending longer in a queue, to already taking off our shoes, throwing out liquids containers, and getting body scans. Flying hasn’t been a fun-filled experience for decades now, so what do these new measures really add up to? As the saying goes: it’s six of one, half-a-dozen of the other. 

It’s exciting that travel is back, and while the world is still finding its feet, the steps ahead will only get more sure and land on rapidly solidifying ground. 

So take a deep breath, book your COVID tests, and put on the most comfortable pair of shoes you own, because while our heads are in the clouds, our feet will be firmly planted in the queue.

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