Here YA regular contributor Kirsty muses on what it’s like as a kiwi trying to leave New Zealand during COVID and get back home to her adopted land of the Czech Republic. How hard is it to try to fly from New Zealand overseas again? Pretty flipping hard.
I know, I know. Are you trying to leave? Am I crazy? Isn’t New Zealand the place everyone wants to be as we suffer through COVID? Isn’t New Zealand like a COVID-free paradise right now? Isn’t everyone just hiking Roys Peak and enjoying flat whites and supporting their locals while not having to wear masks?
Well, we were, some of us at least. It hasn’t been sunshine and blue skies for everybody, but it sure hasn’t been as bad as in other parts of the world (*quickly touches wood*). Living on an island has its perks, but back in winter, I wasn’t feeling very perky.
From April to September, I was trying to book a flight to leave New Zealand during COVID.
No longer a kiwi in New Zealand, I was firmly established in the Czech Republic for a while with my German boyfriend. COVID hit while we were back visiting my family and holidaying in New Zealand. Somewhere around March, most flights to Europe were canceled, and we couldn’t get back. The borders shut (and are still shut). It happened so fast. We were grounded. In paradise.
As it turned out, the next six months were nothing like we could have ever imagined; our plans just disappeared in a puff of smoke. Martin left New Zealand during the main lockdown back in April on a repatriation flight to Germany. I thought I’d soon be following suit. Unfortunately it just didn’t work out like that. As luck would have it, trying to leave New Zealand during COVID was incredibly complicated.
First of all, air traffic in and out of New Zealand was pretty minimal from the get-go, with the borders closed to all but citizens.
Reflecting, I remember walking in Auckland city and looking up at a plane flying overhead and exclaiming ‘Look! A plane!’ like a five year old. Truth is, they seemingly disappeared overnight.
Air New Zealand had reduced capacity by 85%
Other airlines soon followed suit in slashing flights to New Zealand. Why? Because no-one was traveling here. Demand just dropped and there were only a few flights coming in bringing kiwis home.
The thing is, New Zealand is a bloody long way from anywhere. Obvious, I know, but it’s never been more starkly evident when you’re virtually cut off from the world. When your home is halfway around the world, you can’t just take a direct flight over.
To get in or out of New Zealand, it’s necessary to stop in lots of places in between, which means not only complying with the restrictions of the departure and arrival country, but also of all those you will visit in between. As Asian and Middle-Eastern countries shut down, it was no longer possible to transit anywhere.
It’s crazy, but you can still book flights…
Popular airline booking sites like Skyscanner and Kayak still offered flights with connections that had recently been canceled.
When exploring booking options, third-party sites like MyTrip, Goto, Travelgenio and Jetabroad were happily accepting your money and passing off responsibility of delivering you the product with lines like “We cannot guarantee [insert whatever here]”
But seeing as most connections are a combination of airline carriers, it’s actually pretty rare to book a long-haul directly with one airline these days.
Luckily, some big players stepped up.
After a few months of little to no air traffic, Emirates and Qatar Airways started operating long-haul flights again. Bingo, I thought I had found my answer: using one airline the whole way back to Europe. Getting to London was apparently the easiest, but getting directly to Prague was more difficult.
I gained memento in scouring the internet for the hundredth time, and decided on a Qatar flight via Melbourne and Doha, in August. It wasn’t ideal; it entailed an 11-hour stopover in Melbourne airport, which required you to check into a hotel if your transit wait is longer than 8 hours.
And it was expensive. But I was desperate. I slowly mentally prepared to click ‘book’ on a $2,600 flight. (For reference, it used to cost about $1,500 return between NZ and Europe).
And then… Melbourne’s Covid situation blew up.
We all know just how quickly things can change, and while things seemed all good in the Pacific, Melbourne got hit with a massive COVID wave, locking down the city for months. And just like that, all the flights between Auckland and Melbourne were cancelled.
To avoid transiting through Australia, Emirates was now the only option. With direct flights between Auckland to Dubai, I binned all my previous research and started again.
By chance, I stumbled across a $1,400 flight in September and nearly threw my credit card at the computer. My more sensible side nudged me to ring my trusty travel agent and check that this was, indeed, legit. After a few quick checks, it was all good to go- oh wait, hang on, what’s this about transiting…?
Dubai had started requiring negative COVID19 tests
As of some time in August, all arrivals to Dubai needed to present a negative COVID19 test taken no more than 96 hours prior to take-off.
I rang around ten different clinics in Auckland, trying to find out information about getting a COVID19 test for travel. I (naïvely?) expected it to be possible to get tests for travel. Surely there were many others in the same boat? But alas, there isn’t. Just the regular testing centres that do not and cannot prioritise your test. Oh yeah and it costs about $250. I spoke to the official Health-line who helpfully summarised what I’d managed to find out so far, adding that it’s best to shop around because private clinics apparently are offering anywhere between $180-$260 for a test.
My mind was blown. Without being able to get a guarantee that I would receive my test result back in time for my flight, I wasn’t going to book the flight. It seemed like a trap that I didn’t want to walk into, especially not with my refund from my original flights with MyTrip still pending, eight months later.
I accepted it: Dubai was off the cards
What a mission it is trying to leave New Zealand during COVID.
Deciding to give myself a week’s break in an effort of not driving myself round the bend. Let’s face it; it just wasn’t a good time to fly. I might end up being here for Mum’s birthday, Dad’s birthday, Christmas… heck! I stopped thinking about it; I wouldn’t say I liked how the stress never left my body, and the back of my mind was not getting a break from this.
Time to let it go.
The (f)light at the end of the tunnel
A week or so later, I was doing the rounds on the internet again and came across a flight with Qatar airways, via Doha, to Vienna. With a technical stop in Brisbane. In September. For $1,600. Eeeeee? Have my stars finally aligned?
A week more of checking all current requirements and restrictions with my travel agent, I decided to go for it.
Finally, I made the bank transfer and almost made the booking confirmation my laptop screensaver. Damn, did it feel good!
The journey that actually took off
In the middle of September, with my bags bursting with weetbix, Whittakers, and coffee, I headed to the airport, still skeptical this flight would actually happen.
Auckland Airport was literally a ghost-town; there were only two flights leaving. Each check-in took an excruciating amount of time, as 24 hours earlier, Austria changed its Covid policy. We now had to present either a negative Covid-test (good luck with that) or a booking confirmation of transport to show that you were leaving Austria immediately, within 48 hours of landing.
Sigh, Martin and I had to cancel our romantic hotel reunion…
Qatar Airways pulled through (and so did Ponsonby House of Travel)
A couple of months later and I’m sitting happily in our Brno apartment, with Martin a stones-through away.
At this point, I have survived COVID itself (more on that soon), and I’m enduring my third lockdown, as well as my third winter this year. I smile as I write about my dilemma of trying to leave New Zealand, because little did I know, that was to be only the beginning…
Are you trying to leave New Zealand during COVID or travel to get home somewhere during these wild times? Share!