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COVID-19 travel: a passage to India

Despite open borders, international travel remains an ordeal due to changing rules and restrictions. A personal account of a recent trip to India by JAZIB FARID.

Reading Time: 13 minutes

 

With international borders open at last, my wife and I decided to bring in the new year with our loved ones back home, for the first time in three long years. Like many others, of course we’d heard the anecdotes of difficult international flights, miscommunication at airports, and even wrong paperwork, but we couldn’t shrug off the excitement from meeting our family after such a long wait. And so, this summer, we decided to travel to India. 

We took SriLankan Airlines for our trip from Sydney to Mumbai (via Colombo). 

For our return journey from Mumbai to Sydney we flew Thai Airways (via Bangkok). 

Now, I wish I could say it was smooth sailing. Unfortunately, like all those other anecdotes, I saw my fair share of difficulties too. There was lots of paperwork to be completed at each step – shockingly, with nothing more than a glance at them by the authorities. When international travel guidelines changed practically overnight, I had to rely on my own research as the airlines did little to help us.  

In sharing my story, here’s hoping I can help other travellers be better prepared for what lies ahead.  

(Let me also mention that aviation has always been a passionate hobby for me, though by profession I lead the environmental and sustainability division for a Sydney-based company. In my free time, you’ll find me at the airport watching planes take off and land, while learning more about the aviation industry every step of the way. I’m also an amateur aviation photographer.) 

Jazib farid
Jazib Farid. Source: supplied

Travelling to Mumbai

(SriLankan Airlines, 25 December 2021) 

I booked my tickets in October on the airline’s website and found it to be a fairly easy and straightforward process. Shortly thereafter I joined some WhatsApp groups for SriLankan Airlines travellers that were actively used by close to 700 people. The amount of information shared was great and it helped me plan my trip more efficiently. 

Flight Tracking 

Being an aviation geek, I track flights via the Flight Radar app that gives me live information of timings, delays, aircraft information, etc. Now, I plan my trip to the airport as per the inbound flight’s arrival timing. This helps me work with real-time flight information that is available online, rather than what is shared at the airport. 

Flight Delay 

Ahead of my travel, I noted down departure and arrival timings of SriLankan Airlines flights to and from Colombo, Sydney, and Melbourne and shared details with fellow passengers to be prepared for delays. I found they have been delayed consistently on weekend flights from these cities. 

On 23 Dec, a member of the SriLankan WhatsApp group who had her parents flying in from Colombo to Sydney posted that the flight was an hour delayed. Usually if the flight is delayed by an hour but has a strong tailwind in the direction of SYD, the flight can make up for lost time. When the headwind is blowing towards the West, flights towards SYD are unable to make up for the lost time and hence are delayed. 

While tracking this particular flight, I realised that due to a technical issue, it was diverting back to Colombo 1.5 hours after departure.  

I knew then that given night-time curfew from 11pm to 6am here at SYD, there was no way I would be boarding my flight at 10.30pm as scheduled.  

Shortly after figuring this out, I received a call from SriLankan Airlines customer care to not go to the airport as the flight was delayed. Over phone call and email, they informed me that they would get in touch with a new departure time and later that day, true to their word, I received these details.  

Jazib travelled by Sri Lankan Airlines to Columbo. Source: author supplied
Jazib travelled by Sri Lankan Airlines to Colombo. Source: author supplied

 

Departure at Sydney

Given the new boarding time at 6am on 25 Dec, I arrived at the airport around 3:15am. There was a huge line for verification of documents followed by the queue for check-in. It took me two hours to complete the entire check-in process. (It is highly recommended to take colour printouts of all required documents to make the verification process quicker.)  

The Documents checked were: 

  • Air Suvidha Form 
  • COVID-19 Vaccination Certificate 
  • RT-PCR Test Report (taken within 72 hrs of departure time) 
  • OCI or Indian Visa 

After the check-in process was complete, immigration and security check were a breeze as the airport was empty. Ours was the first international flight to depart SYD on Christmas Day. We completed the process by 5:43am and waited at the departure gate shortly after. Notably, there were no duty-free shops or restaurants open, leaving only vending machines for snacks and drinks.  

Settled into my seat on the plane at 6.10am, I noticed that over 90 per cent of the plane seats were vacant.  

In-flight Experience (Sydney to Colombo)  

Half an hour into the departure and drinks were served along with vegetarian and non-vegetarian food options. Everything came inside a large plastic box for each passenger.  The passionate environmentalist inside me wasn’t particularly impressed!  

The flight was comfortable but cold – recommend carrying a jacket or sweater.  

At 5:23pm (Sydney time) or 11:53am (Sri Lankan time), we landed in Colombo. 

Transit at Colombo Airport 

The Transfer Desk was packed with passengers from our SYD flight who soon were notified that their onward connections to Cochin, Bangalore, or Hyderabad had been cancelled or delayed and they hadn’t been informed beforehand. Understandably, it caused an uproar as SriLankan Airlines wasn’t providing hotels for the long layovers until the transit flight. I counted myself lucky to have already received the boarding passes for the Colombo-Mumbai flight in Sydney.  

The standard food options available at the airport are Pizza Hut, Burger King, and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf Café. It’s worth noting that the only currency used across the terminal is USD and Sri Lankan Rupees. Some outlets accept foreign currency, but the change would be given in USD.  

Transit at Colombo airport. Source: supplied
Transit at Colombo airport. Source: supplied

Departure from Colombo

The aircraft was quite worn down from the inside. The seats were old and brushed off and there were no in-flight entertainment screens. Unlike the flight from Sydney, this flight (two and a half hours long), was fully packed. In fact, there wasn’t enough room for the overhead luggage and some extra luggage had to be taken by the ground staff and stored in the luggage compartment of the aircraft.  

Arrival in Mumbai

At Mumbai, it was a straight-forward process as long as you have all documents colour printed and organised in a file/folder. The advice given by passengers from the WhatsApp groups proved very useful. 

1st Stop 

Location: Random counter on the way to Immigration after deboarding aircraft 

Documents Check: Air Suvidha Form. They barely brushed through the details and told us to proceed to Immigration.  

2nd Stop 

Location: Immigration 

Documents Check: 

For Indian Passport Holders – Submit Indian Passport 

For Foreign Passport Holders – Submit Foreign Passport, OCI or Indian Visa, Department of Immigration Form (given at Colombo Airport during boarding) 

3rd Stop 

Location: Baggage Claim 

Documents Check: No documents asked/checked. 

4th Stop 

Location: Customs 

Documents Check: No documents asked/checked. Only baggage screening. 

5th Stop 

Location:  In the arrivals hall just before exit of airport building 

Documents Check: Air Suvidha Form, International Vaccine Certificate, RT-PCR Test Results 

The counter person briefly sees them, doesn’t even go through in detail, and tells us to move on.

Notably, no authorities asked for the additional forms provided to us at Colombo airport or the in-flight health declaration. 

Overall, it was a great airline experience with efficient communication to passengers even when the flight was delayed from Sydney. The service was good, and the crew was friendly and humble. I would fly with them again on a long-haul sector. 

 

Returning to Sydney

(Thai Airways, 3 Jan 2022) 

When booking my travel in October, I noticed that Thai Airways was selling tickets for close to $800-900 per person for the Mumbai to Sydney sector via Bangkok in the first week of the new year. It was unreal for a premium airline to sell such comparatively inexpensive tickets during COVID and the upcoming peak holiday period. Little did I know, it would be by far a frustrating experience. 

Buying the Ticket 

Even purchasing my ticket on the Thai Airways website was not a comfortable experience. It only allowed purchase through American Express (AMEX) credit cards, although the ticketing policy on the website states that all Visa and Mastercard types of payment are allowed. Since I didn’t have an AMEX credit card, I had to ask my family in India to purchase the ticket for me and bank transfer the amount later. It was highly inconvenient, but I bought the ticket for its competitive price. 

Regulatory Approval 

It turned out that Thai Airways sold tickets in October even though they had not received regulatory approval yet to fly between India and Thailand. Hence, there were no flights to rely on to understand if my travel in January 2022 would go ahead. A lot of the decisions were based on the hope that the Indian government would approve Thai Airways flights to India. Less than a week after booking my tickets, there was an official circular announcing the resumption of scheduled flights to and from India. I rested a little easier. 

As with my previous travel, I joined the Thai Airways WhatsApp group created by passengers travelling with the same airlines between India and Australia via Bangkok. A lot of critical announcements and discussions here led me to successfully travel to India and back. Perhaps our biggest challenge, though, was the lack of travel updates by Thai Airways. They kept changing the rules and restrictions but did not communicate them to us passengers via phone call, email, or text message. As you can imagine, it created a lot of stress and anxiety. 

India’s announcement for travel restrictions (9 Dec 2021) 

Practically overnight, the Indian government announced that all international scheduled flights will be suspended until 31 Jan 2022. Only countries sharing a travel bubble with India would be able to fly easily. For passengers travelling through countries that do not have a travel bubble with India, they would have to quarantine as per the transiting country’s travel restrictions. For us Thai Airways passengers, it meant quarantining for a day in Bangkok at a hotel, completing an RT-PCR Test and then based on the negative test report, checking back into Bangkok Airport to board their onward connection flight. 

Quarantine Requirements of Thailand (Thai Pass) 

Since all travellers to and from India now had to quarantine in Bangkok, passengers had to apply for a Thai Pass, the entry permit into Thailand to quarantine. Of the three types of quarantine programs Thailand offered, the least was of the 1-day Test & Go Package. However, the requirements were quite strict and remarkably, the need for a Thai Pass was not communicated to us in any travel updates from Thai Airways. We were meant to discover on our own that without an approved Thai Pass, we would not be allowed to travel. 

Following India’s travel ban, I was increasingly anxious about my travel. I contacted Thai Airways in Sydney about travel updates and quarantine requirements, but they remained unreachable. 

Changing my ticket for the first time (14 Dec) 

Eventually I went to the Thai Airways office in Sydney CBD on 14 Dec to change my flight ticket to have a 24-hour quarantine in Bangkok. The office was closed to the public but Thai Airways staff were working inside. I knocked on the door repeatedly until someone finally came out and agreed to help me out.  

In under 10 minutes, my ticket was updated and now had the 1-day quarantine stopover in Bangkok. I also booked a hotel stay that is a SHA+ hotel as required for the Thai Pass.  

That same evening, the airlines put out a post on their official Facebook page about the need to quarantine. Passengers were not contacted by the airline nor was this travel update available on their website. For a premium global airline to communicate in this fashion was, I thought, rather unprofessional. 

Second ticket change (16 Dec) 

Two days later, Thai Airways deleted the Facebook post and posted a new update, stating “If you are booked to travel between India and Australia or vice-versa, you ARE now permitted to TRANSIT in Bangkok in both directions, you do not have to stay overnight in a hotel.” There was no official notice from either the Indian or Thai government to support this travel update but because we were flying with Thai Airways, we had no choice but to follow them. 

I contacted Thai Airways via Facebook Messenger and they changed my ticket to my original ticket. It felt very unprofessional to do this via social media and after my ticket was changed, I noticed they had not put in the 30kgs of standard luggage in my updated ticket. It took a long time chasing them to get this updated.  

Third ticket change (20 Dec) 

And yet, my ordeal with Thai Airways did not end there. Mysteriously, their Facebook post announcing the travel update was deleted, causing an uproar among us passengers. We were back to square one – requiring at least 24 hours quarantine in Bangkok. 

Despite numerous attempts, I was unable to reach That Airways Customer Care via phone. I was also told by friends who visited the Sydney CBD office that the staff had behaved very rudely. After consecutive phone calls getting disconnected, I was finally able to get through to a staff member at the Sydney CBD office who helped change my ticket (again). She was very patient and helpful. 

Jazib contacted the airline multiple times. Source: author provided
Jazib contacted the airline multiple times. Source: author provided

Fourth ticket change (24 Dec) 

A day before my flight from Sydney to Colombo, I received a travel update for my Thai Airways ticket that my flight has been postponed by a day. Instead of travelling on 2 Jan 2022 from Mumbai and arriving on 3 Jan in Bangkok that met the 24 hours quarantine requirement + additional 11 hrs until my next available flight, Thai Airways has changed my departure date to 3 Jan. It reduced my stopover time in Bangkok to 10 hours 45 mins and mentioned it as a transit in my ticket (which wasn’t allowed as per the latest travel guidelines). By this point, I was fed up with chasing Thai Airways for updates. I decided to take a chance at Mumbai Airport to let them permit me to travel. 

26 Dec 2021 

Thai Airways announced on Facebook that any new applicants for Test & Go (1-day quarantine) in Bangkok have been suspended from 22 Dec 2021. It meant that any new applicant for the Thai Pass would have to quarantine for a minimum of 7-days in Thailand. This vital information was not clearly communicated to us passengers via any form of communication by Thai Airways. However, I had received my 1-day Thai Pass and was able to quarantine in Bangkok on my trip back to SYD.    

RT-PCR Testing in India 

As per India’s travel guidelines, it is mandatory to only do the RT-PCR Testing within 72 hrs of your flight departure from an approved ICMR Laboratory. My advice would be to refer to the latest updated list of ICMR labs. I completed my test in Mumbai and got the results on the day of departure. Please ensure the report has a QR code, correct name, passport number and nationality as per Passport. 

Departure from BOM (3 January, 2022)

I arrived 5 hours prior to departure time to Bangkok and was one of the first few passengers for Thai Check-in. Once the queue began, I was asked strictly for a set of documents that I had prepared beforehand. The Thai Airways team went through all of my documents in detail: 

  • Thai Pass 
  • Travel Insurance 
  • Covid-19 Vaccine Certificate 
  • RT-PCR Test Report (Negative) 
  • Hotel Accommodation Booking in Bangkok (that includes confirmation of RT-PCR Testing) 

The check-in counter was very slow and unsure during the whole process. The staff was unsure of the travel rules themselves and weren’t sure what was required except for Thai Pass. I saw many people in the check-in line who did not have any Thai Pass and didn’t even know about such a requirement as the airlines did not communicate to them about it. I do not think they were allowed to board the flight. 

The Transit area of Mumbai Airport was pretty empty, as was the flight to Bangkok. We departed at 11:20pm. 

Departure lines at BOM. Source: author provided
Bangkok Airport. Source: author provided

Arrival in Bangkok

We landed at 4:26am on 4 Jan 2022 and were instructed to check our documents. At the verification of documents counter, it was all checked thoroughly again, before we proceeded to immigration. Everything at the airport, including duty free shops and restaurants, were closed. Only the money exchange counter and health services were still open, where we got some Thai Baht as it is the only currency accepted at this airport. 

At arrivals, there are many counters for hotels with hotel representatives sitting there to receive you and then communicate with the driver to drop you to the hotel. Our hotel representative attended to us quickly and we had a driver in 15 minutes at the terminal exit. It was an SUV and all our luggage fit in. Soon we arrived at the hotel.  

Bangkok Hotel Stay & RT-PCR Testing

We arrived at the hotel by 6am and opted for express PCR testing as we needed the report as soon as possible. With my changed ticket, my stopover in Bangkok was reduced from 35 hours to 11 hours. I had to complete an express PCR test as the results would come in 4-6 hours while a standard PCR test result would come in 12-15 hours. It cost me AU$200 per person additional over the hotel stay. The testing centre was at the parking of the hotel and had no waiting time.  

It was stressful waiting in the hotel room for the test result without which I could not board my flight to Sydney. We eventually received our test results at 12:30pm after constant checking with the hotel reception. Once they came, we quickly grabbed a taxi from the hotel parking lot and left for the airport.  

Departure from Bangkok

The check-in counters were deserted at Bangkok airport. My wife and I were the only passengers checking in at that time. We completed our check-in process in 10 minutes, security check and immigration in 15-20 minutes.  

Feeling lucky… but concerned. Source: Supplied

We had a lot of time to spend in the airport transit area. Soon we realised that 70 per cent of the airport terminal is under renovation and there were only three food outlets to eat from, one being on the extreme end of the terminal while the other two (Bread Cafe and Subway) were at the other end of the terminal. As we waited, I continued to be astonished by the number of flight cancellations on the departure board. 

We arrived in Sydney on 5 Jan at 7:15am. Although the immigration process was hassle-free, I was surprised that no authorities checked for an RT-PCR Certificate or Australian Travel Declaration.   

Looking back at it all

I’ve now shared my travel experience on Facebook and WhatsApp groups. I did not want anyone to go through what I did, especially those who continue to face difficulties around the Thai Pass. Thai Airways would not be my preferred airline based on my experience, although I’m thankful to have been able to travel to India and back during this time. It has been a long time since many of us have seen our loved ones, but international travel remains a challenging experience during the pandemic. If you must travel, please do check information constantly. But most of all, be prepared for plenty of uncertainty.

READ ALSO: Travelling to India? Airport PCR tests will give you results in 90 mins

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks a lot for sharing your ordeal Jazib. I’m sure this will help many unfortunate passengers who have booked with Thai airways recently, while my heart goes out for the ones who were denied boarding at the gates for no fault of theirs. Appreciate you being so patient with all these queries over the past month, and kudos to you and others for helping hundreds like me planning alternate arrangements. Wish you and us all better travel experiences in future!

  2. I booked a return flight to India with Thaiairways in may 2019. Still waiting for my refund for their cancelled flight august 2020. Very difficult to contact them but finally managed and was told I could rebook my flight at same cost for between Jan 2021 and Jan 2022. Travel agent unable to contact them to do this. I have been unable to contact them. Now Feb 2021. Appalling Service!

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