Travel was far from my mind when Scotland first went into lockdown in March 2020. It became evidently clear that travel would not be something I would enjoy for months, even years. A huge blow to a travel blogger and small business owner who relies on travel and tourism to pay the bills! But due to a twist of fate, my husband and I ended up going on two international trips together in 2020 and the start of 2021.
In November 2020, we travelled to New Zealand and at the start of 2021, we spent three weeks in Singapore. Both countries were Covid-free when we visited, while cases were rapidly going up in Scotland and the wider UK.
We spent almost three months abroad, so I thought I’d share my experience with you. The world of travel is certainly different to what we are used to!
Disclaimer: This article isn’t intended to encourage anyone to travel- it is to give you a glimpse into travelling overseas during the pandemic. My husband and I travelled to New Zealand and then to Singapore for essential reasons, and you’ll see why after reading this article [please read until the end so you get the full picture]. If it wasn’t for these reasons, we wouldn’t be travelling- full stop. Travelling around the world now is incredibly unpredictable and risky. I’m amazed we managed to make it to New Zealand- the number of hoops we had to jump through just to set foot on Kiwi soil was ridiculous! We have followed all rules set out by the governments of the countries we visited, since they were first announced in March 2020.
The reason we travelled to the other side of the world
In April 2020, I got a call that no daughter wants to receive: Your father has cancer.
It was Level III bladder cancer, and if my dad was going to live, he needed treatment ASAP. First, he went through chemotherapy to shrink the tumour so he could have an operation to remove the remainder of it, along with his bladder and prostate. After his operation, he needed radiation to zap the last bits of it away.
He would live the rest of his life with a stoma bag [a bag placed on the outside of the body that collects urine] and there is a high chance that cancer may return.
The Haggis hadn’t met my father- he was too sick to come to our wedding- and so we knew we had to do whatever it took to visit him.
The long, hard process of getting to New Zealand
There were SO many obstacles getting to New Zealand- it was a stressful process.
First, we had to apply for permission to apply for a critical purpose visa for Craig. New Zealand had shut the border to almost every apart from citizens- had the border been open he wouldn’t have required a visa [UK passport holders can enter New Zealand for up to 3 months without a visa].
Applying for permission was free, and when we were approved, we then applied for the critical purpose visa. The visa cost $190 NZD and it wasn’t guaranteed Craig would be approved. We had to wait several weeks to find out.
We ended up booking our flights at the same time, because flight availability was difficult and the prices were quickly rising. At the time there were only three airlines flying to New Zealand: Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Qatar Airways. We chose Qatar Airways, because they were the cheapest and we didn’t require a Covid-19 test to board. They also departed from Edinburgh, which is close to where we live.
Two weeks later Craig received an email saying his visa had been approved. We did a happy dance around the room, and then – I kid you not – a few minutes later I received an email from Qatar Airways to say our flights had been CANCELLED.
I called them and all flights departing Edinburgh had been cancelled. We could switch our flights to depart any city in the UK, however all flights were fully booked, two weeks either side of our travel dates. We couldn’t change our dates because it was the only time Craig could get time off from work.
The customer service rep said to try calling back in a week to see if any availability comes up- but my experience from working as a travel agent told me that it would be nearly impossible for us to get on a flight.
They offered me a refund but I told them I’d try calling back in a week. I had to try everything, right?
I called my parents and broke the news. They understood- and we agreed we would try again next year. The reality of how hard it was to get home really sunk in. I felt awful for anyone who had to travel back to see a dying relative or to go to a funeral- they just wouldn’t make it in time.
When I called back a week later, expecting to just ask for a refund, the friendly customer service assistant told me that they had just PUT ON A NEW FLIGHT ROUTE FROM EDINBURGH! I couldn’t BELIEVE it. We booked our seats departing just one day later than our original flights.
But it wasn’t over yet. We had to complete two weeks of managed isolation upon our arrival in New Zealand. Initially, the government covered the cost of managed isolation, but then after August, they announced that anyone arriving in New Zealand would have to pay for their stay. It was going to cost $4,050 NZD for both of us.
Many Kiwi expats [myself included] were devastated. We campaigned online and in the media, and after a week of television, radio and news interviews- I was exhausted. Seeing the hurtful comments online had an impact on my mental health. Paying for quarantine was another huge obstacle in our path- it would cripple us financially.
The government came to an agreement that you wouldn’t have to pay for managed isolation if you were staying for longer than 90 days, or if you were visiting for critical reasons.
We applied for dispensation on the New Zealand Immigration website, citing that we were only visiting due to my father’s ill-health. We also had to submit a letter from my Dad’s doctor outlining his condition.
Three weeks later, our application for dispensation was approved! All we had to do now was pray our flights went ahead. I wouldn’t truly believe we were going to see my family until we were on the plane.
Luckily, there were no further issues and on November 30 we arrived in Auckland! The airports were eerily quiet- an airport worker at Edinburgh Airport said there were usually 300 flights departing every day, but today there were only 13!
I counted less than 30 people on our flight. We had lots of space and were able to score a row each so we could lie down and sleep for most of the flight. We also had to wear a facemask for the entire flight, and at our boarding gate we were handed a face shield which we were also required to wear. However, we could remove both when we were eating and drinking.
To summarise, this was our process:
- Get permission from Craig’s work to take 6 weeks off over Christmas
- Apply for permission to apply for a critical purpose visitor visa for Craig
- Apply for the critical purpose visa
- Book flights
- Re-book our cancelled flights
- Apply for dispensation to avoid paying for managed quarantine
- Complete two weeks of managed quarantine
Completing managed isolation in New Zealand
We were assigned a managed isolation hotel on arrival. We had no idea where we would be- it would either be in Auckland, Hamilton, Rotorua or Christchurch. We lucked out and got the Pullman hotel in Auckland.
Arriving in New Zealand was interesting. Army soldiers directed us onto buses that took us to our hotel, and when we arrived, there was a makeshift fence surrounding the hotel so no one could escape. There were also several army, police and air force workers ensuring that no one tried to make a run for it.
Did this bother me? No- I knew what I was in for, and they were here to protect everyone. They were all super friendly, and asked us questions about life in Scotland and made jokes. It was fantastic to be around that cheeky Kiwi humour again.
Everything was very well organised for check-in. Social distancing was easy to maintain between staff and guests. They even gave us free sim cards on arrival.
Our room was comfortable, and shortly after we checked in a nurse called us for a mental health check. She asked if either of us thought we might have any mental health issues during quarantine, and if we did, to call them ASAP.
I was impressed- it was nice to know that they cared. She also explained that each day a nurse would knock on our door, take our temperature and run through the list of Covid-19 symptoms.
Every time that a nurse knocked on our door they were super friendly. I am SO grateful for the front-line staff, they are putting themselves at risk and doing an incredible job with a smile.
We were to stay in our rooms for 14 days, and we could only leave if we wanted to exercise. There was a circuit set up on one of the higher floors, and you could access it several times a day for 30 minutes at a time. We had to maintain social distancing while walking, and there were army guards standing around to make sure no one got too close to each other.
Some people took their walking very seriously- kitted out in gym gear, headphones blaring, grumbling under their breath if you walked too slowly for their liking. It took us exactly 100 steps to walk around the circuit; we soon made it our challenge to try and hit 10,000 steps every day.
We would start our mornings with a workout in our room, then we’d get showered, have breakfast, and go for our morning walk around the circuit. We’d then chill out in our room- I would read, Craig would play the Playstation [yes- he brought that with him!] and then we’d go for another walk in the afternoon. It was important to keep a routine- I think that saved our mental health and kept us motivated.
Three meals were delivered to us every day; we would hear a knock on our door at 8 am, 12 pm and 6 pm and find our food in a paper bag outside our door. Luckily, our meals were really tasty! The portion sizes were also generous, so we didn’t go hungry. We also ordered groceries from the supermarket, and a few nights we ordered UberEats.
We had our first covid test on day three, and our second covid test on day 12. It was a requirement that we produce two negative covid test results before we could be released. We passed both tests, and before we knew it, we were free!
Escaping Covid-19 for 5 weeks
Craig and I both agreed it felt really weird to be in a country where social distancing wasn’t required. We were so used to giving others a wide berth in Scotland that it gave me anxiety when someone would walk past me, close enough to touch. Social distancing had perpetrated my psyche; it was crazy just how much I’d adapted living in a pandemic.
It felt strange not wearing a mask indoors and seeing posters for summer gigs pasted onto walls in downtown Auckland. There were certainly some moments where I would panic I forgot my facemask, only to remember ”oh yeah- there’s no Covid here!”
We were required to wear a facemask on our flight from Auckland to Palmerston North- but aside from that, everything was so bizarrely normal in New Zealand.
It was great to be free. It was amazing to hug my family, my friends, to have large family get-togethers. All the small, simple things we’d been deprived of for months.
I seriously needed this- and I know everyone who was living with Covid did too. I felt awful for my friends and family in the UK who were still living through the lockdown.
We knew we didn’t have long in New Zealand, and so we wanted to make the most of it. We travelled as far south as Queenstown and right up to the Coromandal Peninsula- so roughly 3/4 of the country.
We went hiking, ate fish and chips on the beach, went kayaking down the Wakamarina River and stand up paddleboarding on Lake Taupo; we saw kiwi at Pukaha National Nature Centre, went zorbing, took a tour of a Maori village, and sailed downhill on the luge.
We spent New Year’s Day fishing in the Coromandel, ate freshly caught mussels, spent a blissful night in Canvastown and attended my cousin’s gender reveal party.
We even had another wedding so my father could finally walk me down the aisle! We didn’t take a moment for granted. That’s the thing about a pandemic- it makes you grateful for your freedom and makes you want to seize the day.
Travelling to Singapore during Covid-19
A few days before we were meant to fly home to Scotland, Craig got a phone call from his work asking if he would be able to travel from New Zealand to Singapore for a job.
Craig is a UAV Pilot, and carries out inspection work on oil rigs, wind turbines, electricity towers and more. He’s an essential worker.
Since Singapore had closed the border to the UK, the guy who was meant to do the job couldn’t make it. At the time, New Zealand was one of the five countries that Singapore was allowing entry.
He said yes- but as long as my wife can come, and we booked our flights!
Singapore was Covid-free [at the time]. A day before we left for Singapore, a community case was detected in Northland in New Zealand. It was well contained, but it just goes to show how quickly things can change and alter your travel plans.
The process for entering Singapore was more straightforward than the process to get to New Zealand. Before we could enter we had to:
- Apply for an Air Travel Pass [free]
- Pre-book and pay for a Covid test when we arrived in Singapore [$160 SGD each]
- Fill out the SG Arrival Card [free]
After completing the above, we booked our flights and packed our bags.
Arriving in Singapore
Like out flight to New Zealand, we were required to wear a facemask during our flight. You could only remove it when eating.
There were around 30 people on our flight, so I was able to snag three seats in a row to sleep for most of the flight.
When we arrived in Singapore we had to show our Air Travel Pass confirmation and our SG Arrival Card information too. They took our fingerprints and let us through. We were then directed to the area where the Covid tests were being taken. They took a throat and nasel swab from each of us, and then we were free. Kind of.
Craig’s client picked us up from the airport and dropped us at our hotel we would be quarantined until we got our test results. We were staying at the Mandarin Orchard for the entirety of our stay, and they had a special wing for anyone quarantining.
At check it, they took our temperatures and gave us our room key, instructing that we could only use it once to open the door, then it would expire. It was a smart way of keeping you confined to your room!
By the time we got to our hotel room it was late and we showered and went to bed. We woke up the next morning to find a letter under our door confirming our test results were negative! We packed our things and went downstairs to check into the room we would be staying in for the rest of our time in Singapore.
Being a tourist in Singapore during Covid
As condition of our entry, we had to download the Trace Together app, and check in and out whenever we entered a building.
We were staying on Orchard Road, which is filled with shopping centres. Each shopping centre had someone sitting at the door making sure that you were checking in using the app, and at most entrances you were required to have your temperature taken.
It was a little annoying having to line up sometimes and wait to get inside, but the system was clearly working. An amazing [yet, terrifying] feature of the app is that it would tell you how many people you’d come into contact with that day.
For example, here’s a screenshot:
Crazy right?! By the end of the day I usually had several thousand exchanges with others. It really puts it into perspective how easily the virus can spread.
Another condition of being in Singapore was that we had to wear a face mask at all times when we were out of our hotel room. This even included when we were outside! It was uncomfortable at first because it was 30+ degrees every day and 80%+ humidity, but we soon grew used to wearing a mask outside.
The only time you could take your mask off is when you were eating.
You were also meant to maintain social distancing of 1 metre around others, however no one really bothered.
In summary, while in Singapore we had to:
- Check-in and out whenever you were entering a shop or building with the TraceTogether app
- Wear a facemask, even when you’re outside, unless you’re eating
- Maintain social distancing of one metre
Because there were virtually no tourists in Singapore, I felt like I had a more local experience. We spent one day at Universal Studios and didn’t have to wait longer than 10 minutes to get on a ride! But even with no tourists, Singapore was still a busy and bustling place.
We were in Singapore during the Chinese/Lunar New Year celebrations, however due to Covid many of the events were cancelled. Many shops that attracted tourists in Chinatown had closed down to lack of tourists too. Covid is still having a very heavy impact on Singapore, despite that Singaporeans can live an almost-normal life.
Flying home to the UK
I had to have a Covid test and produce a negative result before my flight home. I also had to arrive in the UK within 36 hours of taking that test or I faced a £500 fine. I booked an appointment online to see a doctor, and got an appointment for the following day. The process was quick and easy!
They emailed my results through the next day and I booked my flight from Singapore to London. The check-in process was simple; the airport was quiet, and again there were around 30 people on my flight. Facemasks were mandatory, like my other flights.
When I arrived in London, I noticed a difference right away. Sure, we had to wear facemasks in the airport, there were places to sanitise your hands, and there was signage up, but people didn’t seem to care about social distancing. Everything seemed so much more relaxed in London- which I guess is unsurprising given England’s complete and utter failure in containing the virus.
As I was going though security there was no way I could keep my distance from others. The most bizarre thing was in the boarding lounge we were instructed to keep two metres apart, but when I boarded my British Airlines flight to Edinburgh the entire plane was full, and we were squashed in like sardines.
Clearly, the systems that New Zealand and Singapore have implemented are working well. The United Kingdom, not so much.
I felt safe and supported in New Zealand, and fairly safe in Singapore too. But being in London, even if it was for just a few hours, made me anxious. It was a good thing I’d have to self isolate for 10 days at home in Scotland*.
Overall, my experience of travelling internationally was stressful, difficult and expensive. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone wanting to go on holiday for leisure. We wouldn’t have travelled if it weren’t for my dad, but I am so glad that the stars aligned and we were able to escape Covid for a few months and spend some time with family and friends.
*I arrived in Scotland on the 14th of March, and anyone arriving after the 15th of March is required to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days at your own expense. You’re also required to have a Covid test on day two and day eight of your quarantine. I was able to self-isolate at home for the 10 days.