3. Wait patiently in your room for further instructions.
If you’re undertaking Australian Covid-19 hotel quarantine, the answer is “3.” That was my Monday evening: day four of my military-guarded, $190 a night, two-week stay at what may be the world’s only five-star hotel that doesn’t change the sheets, clean the room … or even let you leave during a fire alarm.
But perhaps I should start at the beginning, five weeks ago.
That’s when my 68-year-old mother received the call to head to St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, to receive a double lung transplant. With early-stage lung cancer and 28 percent lung capacity, her surgery was essential. So was I being there for the recovery.
The successful operation set in train the tourism equivalent of hell. There was a multiday ticket search, negotiations with foreign governments over special transit arrangements, a 3 a.m. vaccination, testing screw-ups, 68 hours of flying and transiting, more swabs, swipes, jabs and thumb prints than I care to remember, and now 14 nights in a prison-hotel.
If you want to visit an Icelandic volcano, catch the Trans-Siberian Express or go on safari in Africa, you may enjoy better luck. But if you want to go to a country where Covid-19 is under control, you can expect something like what I am about to describe, and possibly worse. Hong Kong has a 21-day hotel quarantine. In New Zealand, there’s a waiting list to enter, and you need to apply via the quaint-sounding “Managed Isolation Allocation System online portal.”
Stress for all the family
Here’s what you’re guaranteed not to get: a relaxing vacation.
The world’s uneven vaccine rollout is colliding with the world’s uneven Covid-19 control systems. The citizens of countries with widespread vaccination campaigns — including the United States, United Kingdom, Israel and UAE — are itching to take summer vacations and resume business as normal. But normal does not exist when it comes to traveling across borders: Around one-third of countries remain totally closed to visitors.
While there’s a lot of talk about “vaccine passports” — and the World Health Organization has issued interim guidance on how to roll them out — for now, Iceland, Belize, Seychelles, Lebanon and Georgia are the only countries accepting vaccination certifications from Americans as a reason to skip quarantine. Most countries are relying instead on draconian, expensive and labor-intensive systems to manage their visitors.
For those wanting to enter Australia, the problems begin with a government arrival cap. Only 6,000 people per week are allowed in Down Under, with a maximum of 30 passengers per plane. Correspondingly, there’s a 97 percent cut in scheduled international flights, and Qantas, the national carrier, is not running any at all.
The effect is that it’s only possible to enter Australia on a business or first class ticket: From the U.S., those start at $11,000 one-way. A year into the pandemic, 36,000 Australians are still stranded overseas, despite registering as wanting to return home.
I needed to hack the system to find a cheaper fare.
My second passport — from Belgium — was no help: Belgium isn’t even letting its citizens leave Belgium. After pursuing options via Fiji and Japan, I settled on an economy ticket taking me from New York to Detroit to Seoul and finally Singapore, which unlike other countries still has daily flights into Australia. From Singapore I would fly business class to Sydney, for a more manageable total cost of $4,700: still prohibitively expensive for many.
There’s no easy way to swap planes in Singapore Changi Airport during Covid. Of the handful of airlines that are allowed to process transfer passengers today, none will let you fly economy on the first leg and business on the second leg of a single ticket. Swapping between airlines within the airport is also banned.
That matters because the alternative — booking separate tickets with the same airline — means getting your passport stamped, collecting your luggage and then rechecking it: actions that typically trigger a requirement to enter a 14-day quarantine.
My savior was [email protected], a new “business exchange bubble facility” about 3 miles from the airport, created for short-term business visitors to conduct meetings in Singapore without the need to quarantine on arrival.
The facility consists of several wings of prefab hotel rooms, mini-gyms in shipping containers and meeting rooms — built in 2021 in a floodlit convention hall. It costs from $400 per night, and guests also need to pay $120 for the on-arrival Covid-19 test. All you need is a credit card and a business reason to be there: Luckily for me, Asia’s premier security summit and the World Economic Forum are taking place in Singapore in the coming months.
I tried to sign up online, but the system failed every time for three days. Eventually my application was processed manually over the phone, and I was soon armed with a “Safe Travel Pass” approval letter from the Singapore authorities.
I thought I was set, and I was wrong.
When New York state opened up vaccinations to frontline health care workers, I qualified as a newly minted primary caregiver. Getting the vaccine was a no-brainer: It would keep my mother safe and possibly help me in any dispute with border officials during my journey.
Receiving my first jab at 3 a.m. in a municipal building in Manhattan 15 days before my trip to Australia was elating, until I found out I would be in Australia for the second jab: Moderna’s doses are offered four weeks apart, rather than two.
It proved a moot point: The governments of all the countries I was passing through are interested only in negative test results.
I didn’t meet a hurdle I couldn’t trip over in this journey, so of course I nearly fell at the most important barrier: testing.
Seoul, Singapore, swabs and swipes
Each country has slightly different rules, and sometimes parallel rules for citizens and visitors. That created confusion about when to start the testing clock. For example, Singapore requires a negative PCR test within 72 hours of departing. But departing from where: your home, or your final flight?
Since getting approval to enter Singapore was linked to my Seoul-to-Singapore flight (rather than my initial flight from Newark), I figured I needed to start my 72-hour clock based on that, and therefore take my test within 48 hours of leaving the U.S.
It couldn’t be a rapid antigen test, and with a Monday morning flight, that suggested I needed to take the test on Saturday morning. With the labs that process test results typically closed on Sunday, I risked not getting the results back in time for my flight.
My only sure bet was to join a concierge medical service that promised quick test processing via its own internal lab. I’m now a member of One Medical ($199 later) and took a test three hours before my first flight.
The problem: Delta wanted to see that test result when I checked in at Newark — 90 minutes after I took the test. While the Singapore government only required that I upload proof of the test result in the [email protected] app before arriving, cash-strapped airlines like Delta do not want the liability of boarding passengers who could be rejected on arrival.
The testing service at Newark airport was useless: They offered PCR tests with results four days later; my flight to Detroit was boarding in 45 minutes. If I missed that initial leg, there would be no way to make up the lost time and make my Singapore-to-Sydney flight. I’d have to start all over again.
I called and emailed One Medical, and begged Delta to let me show them the test results when we landed in Detroit, to no avail.
As I worked through my cancellation options, my test results arrived via app notification just six minutes before check-in closed. Thankfully, Delta accepted the screenshot test result as evidence. As I would learn trying to board my flight in Singapore two days later, some airlines insist on notarized paper results.
With only 40 minutes between flights in Detroit, my second flight commenced boarding before I’d disembarked the first plane. I raced along the concourse, was the last passenger on board, and promptly found myself with a Covid bonus: Every economy passenger had a full row of seats to themselves, enough for a makeshift lie-flat bed.
Escorts for all
In Seoul, the escorts arrived: at first helpful, but eventually creepy. I would think I’d been left to my own devices, only to find a new escort popping up from nowhere demanding to know why I took the escalator instead of the elevator to get my test results checked (because no one told me not to), or why I was walking toward the bathroom instead of directly to my gate (because I wanted to visit the bathroom).
The escort system only worked because there was virtually no one in Incheon Airport. Normally the airport (much like Singapore’s Changi Airport) would see about 200,000 passengers pass through each day — far too many for even hundreds of escorts to keep control of.
More remarkable were the Korean Air flight attendants who worked in full medical scrubs and wore industrial-style clear protection glasses — on a mostly empty flight between two Covid-free countries that consisted only of passengers with negative test results.
By the time I approached the Singapore immigration counters, I was getting tired. Enough to take my hand off my carry-on suitcase at the top of an escalator, and watch it tumble, nearly wiping out three innocent travelers.
But that wasn’t what made me memorable to the Singapore border officials.
My transit papers confused them: They had never heard of [email protected], the overnight semi-quarantine hotel I was booked to stay in. And so I was sent off to a special room to wait, as no less than nine officials tried to figure out what to do with me.
They weren’t the only ones who hadn’t heard of the facility: I passed 32 hours there without seeing a single other guest (or daylight). Staff said I had booked only the sixth-ever meeting at the facility. But before I was allowed to leave the airport, I had to take a midnight Covid-19 test and was issued a “Stay Notice” (under penalty of up to six months in prison) requiring me to stay in the [email protected] room that I was then escorted to, until my negative test result arrived.
Reconfirmed as negative, I was free to wander around enjoying the Orwellian chic vibe, and take my required business meeting in a prison-style room, my guest separated by a glass wall. I even relaxed with a fancy Korean foot mask I bought in Seoul.
Instead of relaxing, I should have been checking if I had the right format of test results to present at Changi airport the following morning.
One of [email protected]’s many rules is being made to sit in one’s room like a child, waiting for approval to check out. Perhaps that’s what they meant by “understated warm hospitality.” That took a while, and when I arrived later than planned to the airport, the Singapore Airlines staff were not happy with the format of the results from my recent midnight test.
To be fair, the results looked like I could have typed them up myself, so I was sent to get a more official-looking version from the airport medical clinic. But my escort and I returned to more bad news: The new doctor’s memo was still not good enough for the airline staff. With the clock ticking, it was starting to look like Newark all over again.
The difference this time was money: my business class ticket. I was paying Singapore Airlines $3,600 to get on that plane — and it wasn’t the fancy food or the free eye mask that I wanted from them. What I really needed was for them to sort out this test mess. So I stamped my feet, flashed my other negative test and then a photo of my mother in the ICU. I got my way.
Eight hours later I arrived in Sydney, but it would be another 15 days until I could see my mother. (Surprise! The day you arrive in Australian quarantine is Day 0 rather than Day 1.)
Now, I’m sitting at a desk in my room on the 21st floor of the Amora Hotel in Sydney. I can’t open any windows, and the room won’t be cleaned during my 15-day stay, but I’ll have new linen and towels left at the door on Day 8. There’s no microwave, but thankfully I can order groceries online to supplement the set menu, and buy supplies like dish and laundry liquid to wash items in the sink. I can open my door to collect the three meals delivered daily, but I can never leave: The guard in the corridor and the armed forces downstairs see to that.
The foot mask I applied in Singapore? It continues to strip layers of skin off my feet, and leaves disgusting trails of dead skin flaking off across the carpeted hotel room floor.
But if I sit in the bathtub mid-afternoon I can catch direct sunlight, and even see a sliver of Sydney Harbour. A dedicated mental health nurse calls each day to check on me. “Is there anything we can do to support you today?” she asks. “Let me out to exercise,” I reply, “even prisoners get exercise.” She laughs and I laugh too, because there’s nothing else to do.
It’s bizarre to watch TV news: For three days, the state of Queensland hyperventilated about contact tracing a single case of Covid-19. After finding seven linked cases, 2.5 million people have been locked down. It feels like overkill, coming from New York, but also reckless as mask-less crowds line up for Covid tests, without distancing. But this is how Australia stays safe. Just six of Queensland’s 5.2 million residents have died from Covid, and Australia’s national death toll is 909. Compare that to 31,026 dead in New York City alone.
And this, sadly, is what most international travel is going to look like for the foreseeable future. If you have a lot of money, there are shortcuts. If you have the time, the connections and the passports, there are ways to tweak the systems (Would you like to quarantine on a yacht in Thailand?). But for most people, it will be too expensive or complicated to make the trip.
There are also some elements that are simply immovable, no matter your circumstances.
A cousin of mine tragically discovered in January that there’s no way to shortcut Australia’s quarantine. After making the dash home from France and still stuck in his hotel, he was unable to say goodbye to his dying brother who passed away on his final day of quarantine.
Thankfully my mother is well enough to call every day — her lung capacity now at 97 percent; her voice deep and strong for the first time in 20 years.
Only eight days to go now.