It wasn’t the panicked chaos that I expected. There we sat, my wife and I, while our two boys played off in a corner. The waiting room was half-empty for the last flight out of Egypt prior to the country closing their airspace due to the global pandemic. In general, the crowd of Brits, Americans, and Canadians that packed the gate seemed pretty calm. Half were wearing masks, while the occasional person was decked out in a full hazmat suit. Some were on their originally scheduled flights out of the country. While others, like us, had their travel itineraries completely up-heaved. For us, just getting to the Cairo airport had been a lesson in patience, persistence, and seeing just how many mixed messages occur during a countrywide lockdown. After three days of near-panic, it looked like we might actually get home.
When we flew out for our family trip to Egypt, news of the Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic was really just hitting the headlines. It was big news in China and had just started becoming a thing in Italy. Heading out to Egypt, we were aware, but not overly concerned about exposure. Airlines and borders were running smoothly, and the world, while on edge, was still functioning normally.
It’s mind-blowing just how much things can change in 10 days.
As we sauntered down the halls of the Cairo airport on the way to the last flight to leave Egypt prior to the airspace closure, the gravity of the global situation was on display. Throughout the airport, Duty-Free shops sat with empty shelves. The tarmac of the airport was littered with planes, most of them parked and empty.
My heart, which had been racing as we rushed to get through security, was finally reduced to a flutter. At one point, as my family rounded a corner towards our gate, I just stopped. As I was staring out the window at the surreal scene that lay in front of me, my wife, Christina paused and asked what I was doing. “Just looking,” I said. “This may be one of the weirdest times in the history of travel, and I just wanted to take a moment to actually take it in.”
Here’s What I Learned When We Were Caught In Egypt During The Covid-19 Pandemic
Our trip to Egypt started relatively smoothly. The boys had decided that this year they wanted to see the pyramids of Giza and learn more about Egyptian history and culture. We always try to get our kids involved in the planning process, and with Egypt already on our radar, it wasn’t hard to get everything into place. We had read quite a bit about the things you need to know about traveling in Egypt. And the consensus in the industry was that working with a local agency is one of the best ways to take the burden off of what can be a challenging country to visit independently. This decision proved to be a Godsend when the reality of the breadth of travel during the Covid-19 pandemic came to pass.
Through the 20 countries that I’ve traveled through with children, I’ve experienced a lot. I had a two-year-old disappear in Uruguay. I’ve gotten completely lost while boating in Bermuda. And I’ve even written about one of my most disastrous hikes in Newfoundland. But nothing in my 20 years of travel could have prepared me for the Covid-19 shutdowns throughout the world. Here is what I learned as I tried to get my family out of Egypt and back to Canada.
Things Can Change Fast
When we arrived in Egypt life was business-as-usual. The only indication of the Coronavirus presence was a bottleneck in the immigration process as all incoming travelers needed to fill out a health questionnaire and have their temperatures checked and recorded. But beyond that and the occasional mask-wearing traveler, things were normal. Like many travelers, we were focused on having the best experience in a new country. The news of what was happening outside our travel bubble seemed pretty far away. Our entire Egypt itinerary had already been booked. We were partnering with Traveline Egypt, one of the country’s veteran local-based travel agencies. We were confident in our choice to travel to Egypt with our kids.
The seriousness of the pandemic began to dawn on us after we had been in Egypt for about 5 days. We were preparing to board our Nile cruise from the city of Aswan to Luxor. The Movenpick Cruise, which can normally ferry 142 visitors, only had 8 passengers. Christina, the boys, and I made up half of them.
But while I chatted with the guides about the number of cancellations and the impact on the travel industry, things still didn’t seem to be out of control. There were talks of screenings, but the idea of a shut down seemed far from the surface. But that all changed when we made the 6-hour drive from Luxor to the beach town of Hurghada on the coast of the Red Sea.
It was during the long drive from Luxor to Hurghada that the situation went from 0-100 MPH in the blink of an eye. First came news from the Canadian Government that travel restrictions were being put in place. This seemed to affect those visiting Canada rather than citizens. The hammer came when the Egyptian government announced that it would be closing its airspace to both outgoing and incoming passengers within 48 hours.
Here we were, in this ideal destination. The clear turquoise waters for the Red Sea spread out in front of us. C’s 9th birthday celebrations were to be the next day. We had planned a full day of snorkeling and fishing with the boys that he was SO excited for. But instead of getting celebrations in order, we, instead, shifted to “logistics” mode.
We knew with these cancellations in-effect, we needed to get back to Cairo for our best chance to secure a flight back to Canada. Our current flight was for 23rd of March, 4 days after the airspace closure would take effect. Thankfully, our flight from Hurghada to Cairo was scheduled prior to the closure. But due to the short notice of the travel ban, there were only a limited number of flights available out of the country. The earliest one that we could book was for March 20, a day after the Egyptian airspace closure would take place.
Don’t Hold Your Breathe For An Immediate Evacuation
As I write this, I’m home. We did manage to get an emergency flight on EgyptAir out of Cairo that opened up at the last minute. But there were countless travelers who were not able to get out. And, even now, on the day I was originally scheduled to leave Cairo for Canada, there is still not much consensus on whether most governments will re-patriate the citizens that were stuck traveling abroad. As airports and airlines dropped like flies, there were thousands of people worldwide with no way home. And for many, it looks like they may not have an option for some time.
The big lesson that I learned is that the second you know that a travel ban is coming, you need to act. Christina and I were on the phone with our agency or on the internet scouring for flights constantly. In the end, the flight that we were booked on was an EgyptAir flight that was added to the flight schedule. Our contact at Traveline, Ramy Yousef, was the one who contacted us about it. Their aviation department saw it pop up. This flight did not even show up on the EgyptAir website when we were checking ourselves.
As our soldout flight from Hurghada and Cairo loaded, I was blown away by the number of empty seats available. It was the same for our fully booked flight out of Cairo to London. The flights were no more than three-quarters full. It seems in their attempt to book flights out of the country, many travelers were unable to actually make it to the flights that they had booked. This meant that there were many seats available for those wanting to attempt standby flights. And it seemed like not many had wanted to attempt that form of booking.
Obviously, booking standby can never be guaranteed. But whenever you enter a scenario with as complex a logistical situation as an airspace shutdown, it’s never good to rely on a single solution and hope that it will work out. Plan for the worst. And always assume that what you know can change with almost no notice.
While we were transiting through Cairo, London, and Toronto, it was fascinating to see just how empty the airports were. There were no panicked throngs at the airports desperately trying to book any flight out of the country. In fact, it seemed as though those who had not been able to secure airline tickets online had resigned to the fact that they would be stuck waiting.
News Can Be Unreliable
As with many situations as complex as a pandemic, news changes fast. I mean, here we stood in Hurghada and in the past two hours the entire function of the world was changing in front of us. And with any complex media, the amount of disinformation is staggering. While we spent our time making calls and organizing flights, the news coming in would change by the minute. Sometimes outgoing flights were still allowed. Sometimes we would read that only non-Egyptian citizens were allowed to fly. Other times it was only internal flights would be allowed.
News can change on a dime. And the logistics become even more complicated as flights between connection countries muddy the water. Both governments and airlines are notoriously slow to act during events like this. They are huge organizations with many levels of communication. We were registered with the Canadian government Global Affairs department, yet it wasn’t until we were home, safe in Canada, that we actually received a notice about flights that were being allowed to fly during the Egyptian airspace shut down. This was two days after it had happened. The airlines were no better. Our original Air Canada flight (on a Lufthansa Star Alliance leg) was booked for March 23, four days after the shutdown. We were never actually notified by either Air Canada or Lufthansa that the flight was canceled. In fact, it was only as we booked our March 20th flight that we noticed that the flight had been scrapped.
Because of the flight from Cairo to London that our agent was able to secure, we were able to spend the last 24-hours in Hurghada relaxing. We kept our existing March 18 flight from Hurghada to Cairo and had one last night in Cairo, which we spent in the hotel preparing for the long trip back home.
Our original plan for flights was to fly from Cairo to London to Toronto on March 23. When we were alerted of the airspace closure we booked the earliest possible flight out of the country on March 20th. This flight, would take us from Cairo to London to Toronto but still took off one day after the airspace closure on March 20th. So, after securing our Mar 19 EgyptAir flights from Cairo to London, we booked a second set of flights from London to Toronto via Munich for the following day.
The flight to London was uneventful. We weren’t screened for fever prior to flying out of Egypt. Nor were we when we landed in London. In fact, at Heathrow, the immigration officers weren’t wearing any protective gear. Masks and gloves could only be seen on passengers.
We headed to the Hilton Heathrow hotel expecting to have a relaxing 27-hour layover until our flight to Munich. We spent WAY too much money on copious amounts of Domino’s Pizza (no contact delivery) and settled down for some entertaining British tabloid TV.
Early Flight To Toronto
We woke the next morning relaxed and ready to chill out until our 7:30 pm flight to Munich. But shortly after waking Christina got a check-in notice for the second leg of our re-booked March 20 flight to Toronto. It seemed that, even though our original Cairo-London flight had been canceled due to the shutdown, we were still booked for the second leg of the flight. Knowing that catching this flight would save us two days of further transmitting, we frantically packed up our bags and raced across the parking garage to check-in for what could now be the final leg of our journey home.
From the moment of check-in to getting through to our gate took no more than 20 minutes. 10-minutes of that was just the epic mile-long walk through the terminal. Once at the gate, we chatted with an Air Canada agent in order to ensure that we could cancel our later flights from London to Munich and Toronto. The gate attendants weren’t able to cancel the flight as the first leg was with Lufthansa (even though the entire itinerary was booked on the AirCanada website). But after calling Air Canada we were able to cancel them and get credit for a future flight. So full-credit to Air Canada for making this process as easy as possible for those caught with tickets during this unique time in the travel industry.
During the flight, I had the chance to chat briefly with one of the flight attendants who continue to work in the crowded planes while the pandemic is in full effect. She displayed outward confidence that was only belied by the obvious stress and tiredness in her eyes. She confided to me that it was very difficult to come to work and risk her health while her children remained at home. I took the moment to thank her for everything that she and all of her co-workers were doing to help ensure that families like mine could get home safely.
How To Be Prepared For Emergencies While Traveling
Events like the Covid-19 epidemic are unprecedented. There is very little that can be done for situations like this that may occur once-in-a-lifetime (if that). But, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing that can be done to prepare for unforeseen emergencies while traveling. Here are a few tips that will hopefully help you get home safely, even in the worst travel emergencies.
Our visit to Egypt alone was a lesson in unusual circumstances. We had to rush out of Siwa when the worst sand/rain storm in 30 years shut down the northern part of the country. We were delayed on our drive from Cairo to Alexandria when a huge wave of fog descended on the highways. And then on the drive from Luxor to Hurghada, our van blew a tire in a place with no cellular service (Not to worry, our driver was a rock star when it comes to car maintenance). And then, of course, the Egyptian travel ban knocked us down for the count.
Consult Travel Advisories Before You Travel
Most countries have a list of travel advisories available. These lists include everything from political, climate, weather, and health information about nearly every major travel destination in the world. For Canadians, you can find that information here. For Americans, you can find that information here.
It is also important to take every travel advisory with a grain of salt. Some travel advisories will apply the worst situation in the smallest part of a country and apply it to the entire country. Those who follow me on social media will know that there are very few countries that I would not travel to, even with my children. Before I travel I consult the advisories and I cross-research that with what is happening in the areas that I plan to visit. I also consult travel blogs and social posts of those who have recently visited a country. Education is your friend, and the more you know, the better prepared you will be.
Register With Your Government
Whenever you travel to a new country it’s advised that you register with your Government or your country’s local embassy. This will ensure that your embassy is aware that you are local. This means that, on the off-chance that things go sideways while you are in-country, you will be less likely to slip under the radar. Registering doesn’t guarantee that you will be evacuated should an issue occur, but it does increase your chances. The benefits of this increase the longer the situation on the ground develops. You can find the list of Canadian embassies here. And the list of American embassies is here.
Have Cash On Hand
Whenever you travel abroad it is always advantageous to have cash on hand. Not only does local cash help you avoid the hefty exchange fees that credit cards charge on international purchases, but cash also comes in handy in the event of an emergency. If the emergency is technical in nature, digital payment systems could be affected. If you have no cash on hand you could be unable to make purchases of essentials such as food, water, and medicine.
Although having local currency on hand, it’s not a bad habit to have both local and US currency available. US currency is still the international standard. And if you get stuck while transmitting through other countries, having a universal currency on hand will offer you at least a little leverage. It’s not as good as local currency, but it tends to be widely accepted in many countries throughout the world.
And as easy as it is to overspend while we’re traveling, it’s also important to make sure that you leave room on your credit card for emergencies. There are times when cash just won’t work. And so long as the digital systems are functioning, you may be forced to cover costs on a credit card. Credit cards are often mandatory for things like hotels, flights, and car rentals.
Always Have Travel Insurance
Whenever you travel, being covered for unforeseen eventualities may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But having proper travel insurance is crucial. There are many situations that can occur that are not covered by things like credit card insurance plans, auto insurance plans, or even your company’s healthcare coverage. I recommend using a reputable travel insurance company that has a history of taking care of its customers under even the most difficult circumstances. Personally, I’m a big fan of World Nomads. They aren’t the cheapest option, but they have an excellent track record of standing with their clients.
With that in mind, be aware that during things like natural disasters and pandemics, the rules around travel insurance can change. And like travel bans, these things can happen in the blink of an eye. It’s important to know what you’re covered for. And it’s equally important to know what you won’t be covered for.
Partner With Reputable Companies
On our final day in Hurghada, we were able to relax (as much as possible given the circumstances). While there were many travelers around us racing around desperately working to find flights out of the country. Many of the people that I spoke to complained that their travel agencies were completely unable to deal with the situation as it was unfolding- if they could even get a hold of them. Many had maintained little communication with their customers or had completely left them in the dark as to what was unfolding.
Our situation was very different. We were on the phone almost hourly with Traveline. Both our Hurghada rep, Mohie, and our Traveline rep Ramy were in constant communication with updates and plans for the next steps. Both my wife and I and Traveline worked as a team to navigate the situation and make plans for what to do.
Given the rapidly evolving situation in Egypt, there was very little chance that we would have found a flight out of the country ourselves without attempting standby. All the existing flights were already fully booked. The EgyptAir flight that Traveline secured for us never even appeared on EgyptAir’s website when we were checking. There’s no doubt in my mind that we managed to get on this flight because Traveline was a local company whose aviation department was constantly in touch with the airlines and their booking departments. It’s this type of service that you will only get by working with companies that are established in the countries that they work with, and have a team that understands the intricacies of the local industry.
What’s Next In Travel?
My family is home safe and secure. And although things are weird right now, I know that they will eventually get better. We are all in self-quarantine for at least two weeks. Groceries were ordered online with no contact delivery. I’m even figuring out how to homeschool my kids, and it’s going pretty well. The greatest obstacle since returning was on day two when our hot water heater stopped working. We can’t get a company in to repair it until we’re out of quarantine. But no hot water is a small price to pay to be safe and secure.
I’ll continue to post about adventure travel because I believe that the world needs hope and inspiration and goals for once the pandemic has passed. There is a big world out there to experience. And I plan to be among the first out the door when it’s safe.
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