Travel in Times of Covid – Bring it ALL!

A break from work to talk about the travel experience during Covid…getting from the US to anywhere.

Obviously, the last few months have entailed constant observation of Covid conditions both in the US and abroad – from infection rates to vaccination numbers to public health protocols.  Even then, it was hard to project what direction the Czech Republic would take and when – specifically when it came to letting Americans into the country (for anything but essential reasons).

Essential travel had been permitted…but where does a legal summer internship that was able to be carried out remotely for a few weeks fall??  That depends on how you define yourself and which airline/gate agent you get processing you through check-in and transfers.  Therefore, instead of trying to argue my way in with just a CEELI official letter in hand, I waited.  Prepped with my invitation and vaccination card.

The week before June 21, the Czech Foreign Minister tweeted out that travel would be possible from that Monday forward – no requirements or obligations.  I was cautiously optimistic, waiting to be sure that government directives – and certainly tweets – did not contradict themselves (which I was told is a common thing for the Czech Republic).  Over the weekend, the Health Minister also tweeted a similar message (promising but not yet selling me on it), and by Tuesday the 22nd, the Czech embassy in Washington webpage proclaimed a similar story as well.  I was now free to be in Prague for my internship… no essential obligations or reasons to travel required, no vaccination cards necessary, no negative PCR tests required, and no additional forms to fill out).  YET the trick was still – how do I get there?

Since all signs pointed to yes from Czech authorities, I looked and booked my flight – strategically.  Which airlines and airports would be more stringent with restrictions…even just for connecting flights??  You see, just having the green light from Prague was not enough, I had to follow procedure for any country I passed through and company I used for air travel.  I ultimately went with Austrian Airlines through Vienna, calling Lufthansa and almost dialing the embassy to triple check that I would meet all of the requirements for transit.  By the end of the day on Tuesday, June 22nd, I had my flight booked for the next week.

(Then came the big question of – “How to Pack”…which while an interesting subject matter when analyzing pre-Covid, Covid, and post-Covid dress etiquette, the topic does not get its own space here.)

On Tuesday June 29th (TAKEOFF DAY), I left Virginia Beach early morning, armed with a folder full of documents to present to the airlines agents once arriving at Dulles.  The pack contained my typical flight itinerary and copy of my passport that I always travel with…this time, however, my documents folder was a littleeee thicker.  Taking no chances, my folder now contained:  a scanned and printed copy of my vaccination card, the printed negative results of a PCR test I had taken within 72 hours of my flight, a letter from CEELI confirming they intended to provide accommodations and employment, a printout of the announcement from the Czech embassy in Washington webpage, AND a copy of travel restrictions/protocol according to the Austrian embassy in Washington for those intending to transit through Vienna.

I was hours early and ready to present my case.  Ultimately, I was just asked about my negative PCR test and nothing else from Austrian Airlines.  Slightly disappointing given the folder of preparation I was ready to present, but I was overjoyed that I managed to make it through what I thought would be the first in a series of hoops…and I was never again asked any Covid related questions (beyond some debate over my N95 mask instead of a KN95 one, which was mandatory for the rest of my time in transit).

Nonetheless, worry returned in other more traditional forms of travel stress when I was placed on a standby list and not assigned a seat until AFTER boarding had already begun.  Furthermore, playing with my odds and the hope that trans-Atlantic flights often arrive to their destinations early, I was facing a 40-minute layover in Vienna…which I saw slipping away before my eyes as the flight out of Dulles was delayed 40 minutes. 

Repeatedly during the flight, I checked the screen to see if we were making up any time…but it was still showing me an arrival of about 30 minutes before my next flight was due to take off – 30 minutes in which I was supposed to deplane, go through customs in Vienna, pass through security, and reach my gate before it closed a few minutes early.

*To interject a positive spin – I found myself in an exit row and seated next to a lawyer who had given talks at CEELI before!  The very place I was headed to, he was already familiar with as a faculty member.  This time though, he was on his way to Malta instead of Prague.  For those nine hours, however, I seized upon the opportunity to learn about new facets of law I had not considered before – money laundering and asset recovery… which I found tied into my past-life and career (of archaeology) when cases arise over cultural heritage artefacts, etc.  This interaction gave me a look into how CEELI life would have been on a normal year when programs are up and running around the villa every day (versus the remote trainings now with some staff on site) … opportunities to talk to legal professionals about what they know best and learn from them.

And jumping back to my travels, my good fortunes stayed with me.  While my layover required hopping to the front of the plane to disembark and SPRINTING through the airport PLUS getting waived through quickly by kind customs agents, I MADE IT to my second flight.  (…my luggage on the other hand, did not.)  Traveling through Vienna went as smoothly as possible, and I had only a short 35-minute flight to recover my breath before touching down in Prague – greeted by a car to take me to Villa Grebovka, home of the CEELI Institute.  Morning of Wednesday, June 30.

Next time…first impressions of my new office and home.