Flying to Australia in a Pandemic
When we made the decision move back to Melbourne last summer, we naively thought that this whole "Covid thing" would be over by Christmas. Oh, how wrong we were! In the early months of the pandemic Australia seemed to have things under control, but all that changed in July when a breach in hotel quarantine in Melbourne led to a huge outbreak and one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Melbourne closed its international airport indefinitely and Australia put a cap on the number of returning citizens allowed in each week. We dithered for a few weeks about whether or not to buy flights or to wait, and when the situation did not look like it was improving we decided it would be better to lock something in sooner rather than later.
We booked through an amazing travel agent, John Castell, who works for Flight Centre in Canada. John was very up to date with all regulations around flying into Australia. His advice was to only consider United, Delta or Air New Zealand, as those were the only airlines that had been consistently flying between North America and Australia. We went with United in the end, it was both the cheapest and most direct route for us. Our flights cost about $1700 CAD per person, and our original route was departing December 27th, flying from Toronto to San Francisco with a 3 hour layover, and then on to Melbourne.
In October, with no sign of when the airport in Melbourne would open again, United cancelled all flights to Melbourne until at least March. Our initial options at this point were not great. United wanted us to accept a refund for the cancellation and then rebook flights to Sydney, which on that date now cost over $4000 per person. Our other option was slightly more affordable, which was to rebook with Air New Zealand, coming in at about $2500 per person, although this route came with an extra stopover in Auckland.
It was at this point that Flight Centre John somehow worked his magic and got us rebooked to Sydney with United for no extra cost. Whew!! This is the second time we've had a travel agent with Flight Centre save us. I'm not sure if anyone remembers our whole debacle when we were due to fly to London with Ella when she was 10 weeks old and we didn't have her passport in time for our flights. I am forever going to be booking my flights with Flight Centre, the $39 booking fee they charge is well worth the hassle you save by not having to deal with airlines on your own!
The next change to our flights came about a month later, when Air Canada (who we were flying with for the Toronto - San Francisco leg of the flight), cancelled all direct flights between Toronto and San Francisco. We now had to add in another stop, making the flight path Toronto - Vancouver - San Francisco - Sydney. The layovers were very long, making the total trip over 40 hours. Not ideal with two kids! So we decided to break up the trip into two days, leaving Toronto the morning of the 26th December, with an overnight at the Grand Hyatt airport hotel in San Francisco. This way we would also get a chance to meet up with my brother, who lives about 45 minutes from the airport in San Francisco. He had a baby in March, and I was super excited to be able to have the chance to meet my baby nephew Camden.
Our last little hitch came a few weeks before we were due to fly. New lockdown restrictions came into effect in California, and the Grand Hyatt cancelled our hotel stay, saying they were only taking reservations from essential workers. However for reasons I still don't fully understand, we were able to book into the A Loft airport hotel, which was a five minute shuttle ride from the airport. Again, John handled all of the booking and rebooking of our hotel, so it was less stressful for us to figure out.
It was definitely more complex navigating flights and layovers during the pandemic, however overall we had a pretty smooth booking process compare to others who have been trying to get back to Australia. There are numerous stories in the media of Australians who are stranded, either due to restrictions in whatever country they are living in, or due to the lack of available flights due to the caps on returning Australian citizens. The cost of flights has also sky rocketed, which is understandable as these huge planes are flying to Australia with only 30-50 people on board. We were lucky to book when we did, and to be flying through North America where the airlines have been much more ethical in terms of their booking processes than some of the others. Yesterday Australia announced they were reducing the number of Australians able to enter the country by 50% until February 15th, due to the new strain of coronavirus discovered in the UK. I am simultaneously thankful that we made it here when we did, and frustrated for all of those who were planning on travelling in the next six weeks who will be bumped off their flights due to the new caps.
And with all that context out of the way, here is a recap of our journey:
The day of our flight Andy and I were up at 4am, packing snacks for the kids and putting the last few things in our suitcases. We’ve ended up with seven bags to check in, one carry on suitcase, a backpack each and our travel pram. We left our house at 6am on a very cold and snowy morning.
It was busier than expected at the airport, and even though we checked in online we ended up having to line up as the self check-in machines wouldn’t scan our passports. We waited in a very long line and the kids were pretty tired. Ella was a super star, helping us push bags through the line, but Ollie was pretty grumpy.
Getting Ollie to wear his mask was a real failure. He was not used to it as he's barely gone anywhere that a mask would be required since March. An employee at the airport in Toronto asked us to put it on him while we were getting our carry on luggage screened and he lasted for about 10 seconds. We fought with him about it for a while but then just gave up. No one else asked about it the entire trip. The guidance is children 2 and older must wear a mask, but Air Canada allows some leniency for children aged 2-6. Ella is used to wearing her mask at school so it was not a problem for her at all.
Our flight from Toronto to Vancouver was about 60% full. We were in the centre row of the plane, which was four seats across. Ollie was not happy about having to sit still with his seatbelt on while they de-iced the plane. “This is NOT fun” he kept angrily saying. You’re telling me!
Both the kids were really tired on this flight. Ollie had a nap on Andy for the last two hours. Ella would lie down but couldn't fall asleep. We gave the kids old iPads and headphones for Christmas which were a godsend on the flights.
Our layover in Vancouver was about 3.5 hours. The international terminal was deserted. It was very eerie, I've never been in such an empty airport before. Not much was open except for a Tim Horton's in the international terminal, so we found a spot where we could sit and eat and the kids could also have a run around. Normally I’d be paranoid that they were annoying people, but it was so deserted that this wasn't an issue, and I wanted them to burn off some energy before getting on the next flight.
Our flight to San Francisco was pretty uneventful. It was 2.5 hours long and we had two rows of three for the four of us. Andy sat with Ella and I sat with Ollie. The kids were well behaved and mostly just played on their iPads, coloured or read books. Ollie amused himself for a good 20 minutes driving his cars off the tray table on to the floor, and then picking them all back up to start again. They both had window seats which was good entertainment for them. It was much easier to seperate the kids and deal with them one-on-one on this flight.
When we arrived in San Francisco we had to pick up all seven of our checked bags and then head out to the hotel courtesy shuttle. The kids loved watching the bags come down the chute on the baggage carousel. It’s nice to see things through their eyes for a change, this ordinarily very boring task of waiting for bags actually seemed somewhat entertaining.
Check-in at the A Loft hotel was all pretty straightforward. The shuttle was a quick five minute drive from the airport and the hotel lobby was empty. We had booked a suite with a king bed and a big corner sofa which had a pull out bed. Ella thought a bed coming out of the sofa was the coolest thing ever. By this time it was around 5:30pm, or 8:30pm in Toronto. The kids were exhausted; it had been a long day and was past their bedtime. They were also hungry as we didn't get anything to eat on our flights, so we ordered some dumplings from a nearby Chinese place on Uber Eats, and got them showered and into their PJs. We were worried about the sleep arrangements as they have never slept in the same bed before, and Ollie has never sleep in anything without bars. However they were both so exhausted that they slept all night on the pull out sofa, and Andy and I crashed not long after them.
The next day our flight was not until 11pm. I booked the hotel room for two nights so that we could have it up until we had to leave for the airport. Around 11am my brother and his family came to meet us at a park across the street from the hotel. They brought us a picnic lunch and some snacks for us to take on the plane which was so great. And we met baby Camden!! Of course it was bittersweet as we were physically distancing and so weren’t able to pick him up and cuddle him like we would have wanted to. But this was a good second best.
We had gorgeous weather, 15 degrees and sunny. The park was along water and overlooking the airport, so we had a close view of planes landing and taking off which was pretty cool.
Once Mike and Ashely left we tried to get Ollie to take a nap, but that was an utter failure. The kids were going a bit crazy in the late afternoon and we had trouble keeping them occupied. I ended up taking them to the park again to get a bit more fresh air and have them run around - again on a mission to tire them out before our flight! They ended up crashing around 6pm, which gave Andy and I a chance to tidy the room.
We had to wake them up two hours later to catch the shuttle to the airport, and they were NOT happy about that! This was probably the hardest step in the whole two days of travel. The kids were cranky and we had to get all our luggage back to the airport and checked-in. United were pretty strict about the weight of our baggage and made us repack anything that was more than 1 pound over the limit. Is there anything more embarrassing than opening and repacking luggage at the baggage counter? Ugh. The only thing that made it less painful than usual was that there were hardly any other people there, and it seemed they were being equally strict with everyone.
But once that was over it was pretty smooth sailing. The international terminal was empty, and there was just one Japanese eatery open at that time of night. We had to fill out an Australian Health Declaration (we did this a few days before our flights) which the flight staff checked prior to boarding.
Our flight only had 40-50 people on it, as expected. We were in the second last row, and there were only a handful of other passengers in our section of economy. We had an awesome flight. Within an hour everyone was asleep in their own row, and we pretty much stayed like that for the first half of the flight. I can't tell you how good it feels to wake up on a 14 hour flight and realise you only have seven hours left. Ollie only stayed awake for 3-4 hours before going back to sleep for the rest of the flight. Ella also had another two hour nap. It was by far the easiest transatlantic flight we've ever been on.
Once we arrived in Sydney we had our temperatures checked and a health screening at the airport. Again the airport was empty. We spoke to police and were directed onto a bus with other families, waiting to be taken into our mandatory hotel quarantine. We only had about a 15 minute wait before the bus drove us five minutes down the road to our home for the next 14 days - Adina Apartments Hotel. All in all the process of getting here was pretty smooth, considering the caps on returning citizens to Australia and the whole pandemic thing. We feel really lucky to be back and are currently awaiting our second Covid test results in quarantine. I will update the blog with our quarantine experience soon!