What It’s Like to Travel in the Time of Coronavirus

Greetings from quarantine!

We are on Day 7 of our mandatory 14-day quarantine; a rule put in place for those traveling to Austria from infected countries. We arrived in Vienna on April 4th, a week later than anticipated, but thankful for nonetheless. Leading up to our flight, I agonized about whether or not Will and I were making the right decision to take our family through multiple airports and flights. Staying in the comfort and safety of my in-laws was a tempting offer. Still, as the US has not yet hit its peak within the pandemic, and the only health insurance we have is in Austria, we ultimately felt it would be safer and wiser for us to deal with the pandemic from home.

Traveling in the time of coronavirus is not something I would recommend, especially with kids in tow. But it was an experience, to be sure, so much so that I was asked to do an Instagram Live Takeover for my favorite Vienna-based magazine, Metropole Vienna. In the live videos, I detailed everything from the atmosphere in the airports to the mental exhaustion felt by my family.

Airport Atmosphere – Oklahoma City

Virus or no virus, the Will Rogers Oklahoma City Airport is already small. But I’ve stood in line there many, many times. I’ve waited impatiently for security to move. I’ve seen passengers lose their cool at the flight desks and kids meltdown in the middle of the airport gift shop. But this time? Nothing. And I mean nothing. There was not a person in sight who wasn’t an airport employee. The guy at security looked bored out of his mind. Others grouped with nothing to do.

The scene left me with a knot in my throat. The atmosphere was unsettling and wearing masks and gloves added to the weirdness. It was a bizarre mix of calm and unrest. I hated it.

Oklahoma City > Chicago

The flight to Chicago was uneventful. I think there were around seven passengers in total. My family’s seats were located in the back, and not wanting to make assumptions based on the plane’s emptiness, we settled ourselves down in our assignments. Seconds later, we moved to the middle of the plane, a strong suggestion made by the flight attendant who did not want us by the bathrooms. Understandably, there was not a beverage service, opting instead for packaged snacks and bottled water.

Airport Atmosphere – Chicago

As O’Hare is considerably larger than Will Rogers, there was more foot traffic and activity, though the vibe remained uncomfortable. Most wore masks and gloves and sat two to three seats away from fellow waiting passengers. The majority of restaurants and shops were closed save for one Starbucks and one McDonald’s. Our last American meal was McDonald’s takeaway, a severely disappointing ‘last’ to finish out what was the McDonald’s of all furloughs, to put it bluntly.

Keeping the kids safe was the most exhausting part of the entire experience.

They hated the masks and messed with them constantly. And of course, the moment we told the kids not to touch anything, they couldn’t help but touch everything. We wiped down every surface everywhere we went. Then we’d see their little hands head toward their masks, which had already slipped down to expose their noses and mouths. Will and I were as tight as rubber bands, mentally and physically exhausted from preventing them from doing their normal kid behaviors, like rolling their faces on the back of their chairs to get up. It’s like— why, though? Do you really need your entire face to better stand from a sitting position?

We only almost had a mild heart attack once when an airport employee thought our kids were cute and patted Lucy on the head. We were so shocked by the head pat that neither of us reacted at first, but Will snapped out of it in time to request that the employee kindly move far away from our children. An older gentleman, he was incredibly apologetic. But despite his age, the man did not win enough sympathy points from Lucy to avoid her glare. If looks could freeze, he’d be an ice sculpture by the O’Hare gift shop.

Chicago > Frankfurt

Full. Absolutely full.

It’s challenging, to say the least, to social distance on a packed plane. Will and I reserved a row of four seats so we could shield the kids in between us. A group of teenagers sat by me, which was worrisome, but they wore masks and slept most of the way.

No one moved, now that I think about it. Our flight was 8.5 hours, and given that our trip was mostly made up of folks around 40+ years old, it would be perfectly reasonable to see men and women walking up and down the aisle, stretching and resting to avoid possible blood clots.

But that was when life was boring. This time, it appeared we all remained seated and risked the blood clots rather than risk getting near someone carrying the virus. No one waited in line for the bathrooms. No one got up to annoy the flight attendant with personal requests. Any time someone sneezed or coughed, I could feel the entirety of the plane’s passengers freeze and stop breathing. The paranoia was out of this world.

Food was served as it usually is – hot and well-packaged, although I didn’t get to eat it because it was covered in bell peppers and I, to my regular dismay, have a bell pepper allergy.

Deboarding was the lengthiest process on the whole trip, and even then, it was comparatively nothing to pre-pandemic times. Since the plane was full, the attendants asked us to deboard ten rows at a time. We happened to be the exception because of our connecting flight to Vienna. The attendants quickly hurried us off, informing us we couldn’t afford to miss our connecting flight because if we did, we’d have nowhere to go since the hotels were not in use, and there was only one flight headed to Vienna that day.

Airport Atmosphere – Frankfurt

Despite a large number of people with whom we flew to Frankfurt, it felt like we were the only arrival the Frankfurt airport was expecting. Similar to the Oklahoma City airport, there were hardly any people milling about. No kids. No open stories. Just quiet groupings of exhausted passengers.

Frankfurt > Vienna

Our last flight was mostly empty, and we deboarded ten people at a time. At passport control, the police were concerned with our passports and residency permits, they were explicitly concerned with the paperwork we’d been given to sign. The documents we turned in were to let the government know that, upon reaching home, we’d put ourselves into 14-days of quarantine.

Our flight was the only baggage carousel moving. Never before have we located our luggage so quickly.

The eeriest part was exiting the baggage claim. Just— usually whenever we leave that area, the doors slide open to display hundreds of people either arriving at the airport, eating in cafes, or waiting along a wooden railing for their loved ones. It’s busy. Loud. Alive.

But this time, the doors slid open to reveal a single man on the other side of the railing, shrouded in the airport’s shadows. The lights were turned off to save energy, I imagine, seeing as there was no one around to need them. This scene again hit me in the gut. It felt like something I’d surely seen in a movie, not real life.

Our friends drove two cars to pick us up, theirs and ours, so we wouldn’t expose them to everything we’d brought with us from the airports and planes. In a sort of sad yet hilarious greeting, they parked a couple of spaces down from our car and left our keys on the hood. We reunited from a safe distance, thanked them for the groceries they’d piled up for us, and drove home, welcomed by an empty courtyard and silent neighborhood.

“So, should I travel with kids during this time?”

No.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.