The following is a sequence of events for a trip to Europe cut short by Coronavirus (Covid-19) for three friends from the U.S.
The Coronavirus cut our 10-day trip to Austria and Slovakia down to just four nights in Austria. Here is the sequence of events for canceling our plans and catching an earlier flight home from Europe.
March 9, 2020: flying from Boise, Idaho to Vienna, Austria
On Monday afternoon, R, C and I left for Europe. We flew from Boise to Dallas, then on to London for a quick layover before landing in Vienna, Austria. The plan was to spend four nights in Austria and five nights in Slovakia. Of course, everyone was talking about Covid-19 (a.k.a. the Coronavirus), but no one was terribly worried at that point. At the time we boarded the plane, there was nothing to indicate that we should not board the plane. There were no canceled flights and no travel restrictions in Europe (other than to Italy). So, we took our wipes and our hand sanitizer and vowed not to touch our faces the whole time we were in Europe. Our flights looked like this:
- Boise to Dallas was normal.
- Dallas to London was normal except for an empty first and business class section. Economy looked like it always does with us packed in like sardines.
- London to Vienna was not normal. The plane was very empty, and I had entire row (all six seats) to myself.
- We saw less than a dozen face masks the entire journey.
March 10, 2020: arriving in Vienna, Austria
Our arrival in Vienna was a typical European arrival with nothing out of the ordinary. We went through customs, gathered our luggage and found our way to our Airbnb. Our host was delightful and seemed very calm about the situation in his country. We wandered a bit that evening and got some dinner. Although the streets were not crowded, they were not empty either. And there were plenty of other people dining in the restaurant with us. It felt like a typical Tuesday night in Europe.
March 11, 2020: exploring Salzburg, Austria
After a good night’s sleep, we caught a train to Salzburg. The train was not packed, but it wasn’t deserted either. We also noticed that there were a few people wearing masks here and there. Salzburg was lovely. We wandered around and explored to our heart’s content. We immediately noticed the lack of people. There were other tourists wandering around, but not nearly as many as there should have been. Not that I am complaining. We loved having the views of the Alps all to ourselves.
March 12, 2020: waking up to a travel ban from Europe to the U.S.
I will never forget waking up the morning of March 12. It looked like my phone had exploded during the night. Between the three of us, we had dozens and dozens of text messages, missed FaceTime calls, emails, Marco Polos, Instagram DMs, etc. I never really thought about how many ways we have to communicate these days until that morning. Understandably, our friends and family were concerned about what the travel ban from Europe meant for us. Since President Trump had made his announcement while we were sleeping, it took us a bit to figure out what was going on. Thankfully, by the time we woke up, there had been some clarifications to his original speech.
As U.S. citizens, the travel ban did not apply to us. But the whole situation left us feeling confused. Unfortunately, it was almost impossible to get any reliable information. We attempted to call our airline, but a recording told us they were experiencing a high volume of calls and they hung up. The U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) that R had signed up for before we left was no help. Neither was the U.S. Austrian Embassy’s website. With no clear direction on what our next steps should be and a full day of activities already planned in Salzburg, we shrugged our shoulders and got ready for the day.
Making the most of our time in Salzburg
It was a gorgeous day in Salzburg with blue skies and temperatures in the high 60s. We did not even need our coats. The first activity of the day was a yodeling lesson. I will spare you all a demonstration, but I will say that it was immensely fun. Our day also included a Sound of Music Tour. Although that wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, we went to some beautiful places in and around Salzburg.
After a long but delightful day, we returned to our Airbnb to see if there were any new developments regarding the travel ban. American Airlines gave us the same recorded message before they hung up. C got creative and called the Austrian line for American Airlines. After just a couple of minutes, she was able to speak to an actual person. When she inquired about the possibility of changing her flight, she was quoted a price of £2,700 to make that happen. No thank you. We all opted to continue our journey and travel to Slovakia the next day as planned.
March 13, 2020: waking up to a travel ban to Slovakia
When I woke up on Friday morning, rather than dozens of messages, I had just one fateful message from our Airbnb host in Slovakia:
“Hi B, I would like to confirm with you if your arrival is still valid. There are some travel restrictions and border controls. Best regards.”David
Border controls? A quick search on Google revealed that Slovakia had closed its borders to foreign travelers that morning. The timing could not have been worse. Unlike the U.S. travel ban, this Slovakian travel ban brought our vacation to a halt.
Figuring out what to do
We now had no plans and no place to stay that night. We again attempted to call American Airlines, but they gave us the same treatment they had been giving us every time we called. We even tried to call the Austrian line for American Airlines again. But that was futile as well. With limited options, we caught a train back to Vienna. However, rather than taking the train from Vienna to Bratislava as originally planned, we caught a bus to the airport to see if we could talk to an actual person about changing our flight home.
We arrived at the airport expecting long lines and chaos. The news reported people standing in line for hours to change their flights and we were not looking forward to experiencing that. However, we arrived to a deserted airport. Our American Airlines flight out of Vienna was operated by British Airways, so we headed to their customer service desk. With our vacation plans cut short and things changing every day, we asked if we could exchange our tickets for an earlier flight. The kind and calm agent was not able to change our tickets since they were issued through American Airlines. However, she was able to book us on a different flight with a different airline (United) at no extra charge.
Making the choice to come home early
It all went so smoothly that we were not sure how to feel. Sad to go home early. Relieved to have a plan in place. Anxious about what we would be coming home to. Grateful to find a kind and efficient agent to help us out. It was a weird experience.
Our new flight to Frankfurt would leave early the next morning. We would then fly to Denver and on to Boise. I was not happy about cutting my trip short, but given all the uncertainly and ever-changing conditions, it seemed the best course of action. We spent the rest of afternoon canceling reservations and finding a place to stay that night.
Making the most of our time in Vienna
After securing a hotel for the night, we made the best of our last few hours in Austria. We had dinner at Griechenbeisl, the oldest restaurant in Vienna. It is the kind of place you normally would need a reservation for on a Friday night. But we walked right in and enjoyed a lovely meal of Austrian dishes. We then wandered around the city and took in all the wonderful architecture and monuments. It was lovely. There were a few other people wandering the streets, but it kind of felt like we had the whole city to ourselves.
March 14, 2020: waking up to a canceled flight, but still able to get home
For the third morning in a row, we woke to bad news. (At this point, I was getting really tired of waking up to bad news.) Turns out, our flight to Denver had been canceled sometime in the middle of the night. This was because the U.S. government had designated 13 airports that would handle all flights from Europe (Denver didn’t make the cut). We proceeded to get ready and head to the airport, figuring we could work it out there. By the time we checked in, they had already rebooked us on a flight to San Francisco. We were not looking forward to an 11-hour flight, but by that time, we were just ready to get home. Less than a week later, our flights home looked like this:
- Vienna to Frankfurt was about a third full.
- Frankfurt to San Francisco was about a quarter full, with only a couple people sitting in first and business class. Back in economy, I had four seats to myself, which gave me lots of room to spread out and get comfortable. The flight attendants were extremely chatty and relaxed.
- San Francisco to Boise was mostly full. 10 of us on the flight from Frankfurt were headed to Boise.
- We saw dozens and dozens of masks this time around.
Going through customs
When we deplaned in San Francisco, the first thing we noticed was the police officer standing outside the airplane door. Then we saw medical staff milling about. When we got to customs, R and I headed to the Global Entry line whereas C headed to the other line, which was much, much longer. A typical Global Entry experience includes a quick visit to a kiosk followed by a quick visit to a customs agent. It usually takes 5-10 minutes. This time around, we got stopped at the kiosk. Our wait to see a customs agent took about 40 minutes. In the grand scheme of things, 40 minutes is not a lot of time. But because the line moved so slowly (and we were tired), it felt like it was taking forever.
Going through CDC screening
We were led to a temporary set up where CDC agents and volunteers, were screening travelers. It was a bit of a disaster. I filled out a form and then waited for my name to be called. A CDC agent spent a few minutes asking me some questions and taking my temperature. I was then given an information card and some basic instruction for my 14-day quarantine. When the three of us compared notes afterwards, we realized that all three of us had been told something slightly different. The whole experience was a little discouraging and my heart went out to all of those people who were just trying to respond to the situation the best way they could.
After waiting in yet a third area, I finally received my passport back and a “welcome home” from a customs agent. All of that took about 1.5 hours. R and I did not have a lot of time to spare, but we had enough time to make our connection to Boise. C, on the other hand, did not. She had a similar experience to ours, but hers took a lot longer—about two hours more. Luckily, there was another flight to Boise that night and we were all able to get home together. Turns out that 11-hour flight that we were not looking forward to was actually a blessing, since San Francisco was not as busy as some other airports. We heard horror stories about Chicago and Dallas, where people had to wait 5-7 hours and then ended up sleeping in the airport! Thankfully, that was not our story.
The travel ban from Europe to the United States did not initially affect our vacation, but the travel ban to Slovakia stopped it in its tracks. Thankfully, we did not have any major issues (or financial woes) changing our flights, canceling our reservations or coming home early. It was a disappointing end to a long-awaited trip, but it made for a good story. I am grateful to have had a lovely time in Austria, and I am looking forward to making it back to Slovakia sometime soon.
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