Finally It’s 2019 Again: Looking Back at Travel in the COVID-19 Era

At long last, on April 29, 2023, Japan canceled all of its COVID-19-related travel restrictions, joining the vast majority of other countries. Perhaps realizing the limited benefit of those measures at this point, the date the restrictions expired was moved up from the originally scheduled May 8, 2023.

In either case, with my recent trip to South Korea being my last trip with the restrictions still in effect, I decided to look back at the last three years and reflect on what travel was like during the pandemic.

It was certainly interesting to see how measures that were quickly and arguably justifiably implemented to attempt to stop the spread of the disease turned, over the span of three years, into measures that became more of a bureaucratic obstacle and made very little logical sense in terms of reducing the spread of the virus.

Finally It's 2019 Again: Looking Back at Travel in the COVID-19 Era
Paris CDG airport during the pandemic.

The Pandemic Slowed Me Down But Didn’t Stop Me

Between 2020 and 2022, I didn’t travel nearly as much as I did in the years prior to the pandemic. That said, I was still able to fly over 20,000 miles in 2020 and over 40,000 miles in 2021 and 2022, visit my family in Europe a couple of times each year, and review a bunch of airline products I hadn’t tried before.

On the other hand, catching the virus in the summer of 2022 meant I had to cancel and essentially rebook from scratch a large trip I had scheduled. That meant losing the opportunity to fly a couple of products I was excited to review including Ethiopian Airlines’ business class. My wife and I also had to cancel our wedding anniversary trip to Tokyo Disney Resort including a stay at Hotel MiraCosta that we were very much looking forward to.

In spite of the setbacks, I am extremely grateful that we both recovered fairly quickly and, in spite of the challenging environment, I was able to continue to travel not only domestically but also internationally throughout the pandemic.

Tokyo COVID-19 Care Package
Part of a groceries package I received from Tokyo when I caught the virus – including Monster energy drinks!

Constant Rule Changes & Ground Agents Turned Lawyers

At the start of the pandemic, international travel shut down essentially overnight. Over the last few months, nearly all restrictions were lifted and things – at least when it comes to crossing international borders – returned close to what they were before the pandemic.

In between, though, it was a mumbo jumbo of changing regulations confusing not only travelers but also airport staff. Countries that were on “green lists” one day were put on “red lists” the next and vice versa. Having to understand all the rules and nuances turned ground agents into lawyers overnight.

While for simple itineraries and popular country pairs, it was relatively easy for the staff to stay up to date on the rules, that was not necessarily the case for travel between obscure countries and more complex itineraries.

Qatar Airways COVID-19 Rules
Folders with quarantine rules for various countries seen in Qatar’s check-in area at Narita.

My trips from Japan to Slovakia are a case in point.

With the main international gateway to the part of Slovakia that I am from being Vienna Airport in Austria, essentially all the ground agents I dealt with before taking my flights from Japan to Vienna during the pandemic thought I had to meet the entry requirements into Austria which were often stricter than those of Slovakia (i.e. there was a period of time when Austria required a PCR test result from those traveling from Japan but Slovakia did not).

Each time, it took a considerable effort to explain that while I would technically be entering Austria and traveling to Slovakia by car from Vienna, I did not need to meet the rules for entering Austria since I was just transiting through the country. The ground agents had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that it counted as transit even though I would be crossing the border between Austria and Slovakia in a car or a bus rather than by air.

Luckily, each time they ultimately understood the rules and issued my boarding passes. Sometimes it was fairly smooth; a couple of times, unfortunately, the ground staff went on power trips and I had to be firmer than I would have liked to be.

To be honest, I was not jealous of their situation – if they let me board and I wasn’t supposed to be allowed, they would be in trouble. That said, the way some of the ground agents handled the situation made me question their suitability for a role in customer service.

Transiting via Austria
While it might not have been obvious, this – waiting for a bus from Austria to Slovakia – counted as transit.

COVID-19 Tests and Nerve-Wrecking Waits

No doubt some of the most frequently used words related to COVID-19 in the context of travel were PCR (and antigen) tests and vaccination certificates. The latter was straightforward – you either had the required number of shots within the required time period or you did not. For better or worse, no one cared whether you actually had the virus or not. The former, though, could be a major hassle.

Not only could having to do COVID-19 tests add up to a considerable cost but it also resulted in a lot of time wasted looking for a place to take a test, getting there, and so on.

New York PCR Test
PCR testing spots popped up everywhere from New York to the middle of nowhere.

In the case of Japan, for a good portion of the pandemic, having the result confirmation on a “special” form was required too and there were reports of people that tested negative being denied boarding just because their PCR test result wasn’t on the right form. That, in my case, also meant having to print that form and take it to the test center to get it filled out – an extra trip that would not have been necessary had Japan accepted regular certificates right off the bat like other countries did.

What was even worse than the hassle, however, was waiting for results.

It was pretty clear that I had COVID-19 when I got sick last summer – waiting for the test result was just waiting for that to be confirmed. When taking tests before travel or after arriving in Japan, though, I always felt fine and would have hated for a positive test result to ruin my travel plans or have me sent to quarantine.

While I was lucky and always tested negative, I know of people that felt completely fine yet had their travel plans ruined by an asymptomatic infection.

Japan COVID-19 Travel PCR
Returning to Japan required taking a COVID-19 test at the border – the wait for results was always nerve-wrecking.

Hotels Turned Quarantine Facilities

At one point or another during the pandemic, many countries introduced mandatory quarantine after arriving from abroad. With my travel patterns, I was able to avoid that to a large extent other than when arriving back in Japan.

Slovakia was, for quite some time, on Japan’s list of countries where self-isolation after arrival was sufficient. That was the case even when all of the neighboring countries like Austria and Hungary were on the list of countries requiring quarantine. I wonder if the country was simply forgotten by the authorities as it is small.

In either case, eventually, Slovakia got on the list too and after two of my trips, I had to spend three days in quarantine.

While many countries required those who needed to quarantine to pay for a designated hotel, in Japan, the government booked and paid for entire hotels that it filled with people arriving in the country. Whether that’s a good use of tax money or not is not something I will discuss here – I will just say that I was glad that I didn’t have to pay for those stays.

The first time, I was taken from Narita Airport to an APA Hotel in Ryogoku in central Tokyo. While the room was small, the three daily “bentos” (meal boxes) were quite nice. I also had fun guessing how many different types of water I would get to drink since each meal seemed to come with a different brand of water. It almost felt like the quarantine staff was running to the supermarket and buying whatever water was available.

The second time, I was traveling with my wife and we were taken from Narita to a Prince Hotel in central Tokyo. With it being a considerably higher-end hotel than APA, the room was large and nice. That said, the meals were terrible. Each meal, and I mean each including breakfast, largely consisted of deep-fried items.

Japan Quarantine
One of the meals I received during my first stay at a quarantine hotel.
Prince Hotel Quarantine
My wife and I’s quarantine hotel room.

Schedules Like It Was 1970, Empty Planes, and Empty Airports

With travel coming to a halt, airlines had two options – cancel flights or fly empty planes. As it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t something that would end in a couple of weeks or even months, the former prevailed. Suddenly, we stepped back decades in terms of the scale of the global airline route network.

Where there were a dozen or more different options available daily before, suddenly there were a few non-daily options only. That made planning more difficult and it also meant that irregular operations like a delayed flight could derail your plans by days. I found myself in such a situation when I was meant to fly with Turkish Airlines from Vienna to Tokyo via Istanbul.

My flight from Vienna to Istanbul was delayed enough to result in me missing my flight from Istanbul to Tokyo had I gotten onboard the second time (we boarded and then deboarded due to the delay).

While normally missing the connection would have meant a day in Istanbul with a hotel paid for by Turkish Airlines – a nice “side trip,” in this case it would have meant a few nights in Istanbul and a need to do a PCR test after arrival to enter Turkey since the flight was operating just a couple of times a week.

As such, I ended up returning to my home in Slovakia and then taking Air France instead.

Turkish Airlines Departure
Luckily they offloaded us giving me the chance not to take the flight.

Sparse schedules also meant that on routes where there was still at least some demand, planes were full. On routes in and out of Japan which essentially cut off all non-Japanese from being able to enter the country, though, the demand was minimal and so I had a chance to fly on some of the emptiest flights in my life.

Perhaps the most memorable one was a flight from Helsinki to Tokyo departing Helsinki on December 31, 2021, and arriving in Tokyo on January 1, 2022. Not only was it the first time I spent a New Year’s Eve on an airplane, but it was also the first time that I was alone in business class (or any class for that matter) on a long-haul flight. Being asked by the cabin crew if they could turn off the cabin lights made it feel like I was flying on a private jet.

Related to this, images of empty Narita and Haneda airport terminals among others are stuck in my head too. With the country being closed off to foreign visitors, even at a point when airports were filling up in Europe and the United States, international terminals in Japan were deserted and had barely any stores operating.

Not only were the airport terminals empty but most of the stores were closed too.

Turkish Airlines COVID-19 Empty
Empty Turkish Airlines flight from Tokyo to Istanbul.
Vienna Airport Empty During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Empty Vienna Airport.

Quick to Take Money, Painfully Slow to Return It

It’s no secret that airlines tend to be quick to take one’s money – i.e. you pay for your ticket with your card right when booking – but can be very slow to return it. I felt like that turned even more extreme during the pandemic as airlines were struggling to keep afloat and at peak refund requests likely eclipsed new ticket sales.

While I read about some people waiting months and months for their refunds from various airlines, things weren’t as bad for me. Luckily, there were only a few tickets I needed to refund.

Two of those – half of my Tokyo to Vienna roundtrip ticket on Turkish Airlines I wrote about above and half of the Air France Vienna to Tokyo roundtrip ticket that I booked instead of the second half of the Turkish Airlines ticket (I was lucky Air France changed its schedule so I was able to refund free of charge the second half of the ticket that I wasn’t too keen on taking anyways) – went very smoothly.

Two were more painful, though. The first of those was a ticket to Dubai on Emirates that my then-girlfriend now-wife and I booked for April 2020. As you know, that’s when the world came to a halt and with our flights canceled, we decided to get a refund.

It took reading the “Conditions of Carriage” contract top to bottom to ensure we were entitled to a cash refund and then tens of minutes on the phone talking to the agent asking where in the contract it said the airline has a right to force us to take a “credit for future use” refund instead of a cash refund to finally have the airline agree to a straight up cash refund.

The second time was when I caught COVID-19 and couldn’t take Turkish Airlines flights from Dubai to Vienna that I booked. While I wasn’t expecting to get a refund, I tried calling the airline to explain the situation and surprisingly they offered a refund. The subsequent process of proving I had COVID-19 turned out to be a nightmare, though.

I wrote more about that experience here.

Emirates Refund
It took some effort but Emirates refunded our tickets in cash.

Promotions to Get People Traveling

As early as mid-2020, it looked like things were getting better in Japan and to promote domestic travel, the government launched Go to Travel Campaign in July of the year. Through the campaign, the government subsidized as much as half of travel costs including accommodation and transportation through a combination of discounts and coupons that could be used in the area visited.

With infection rates increasing, the campaign was paused. It returned later on, though, and to an extent remains available to this day. That said, its current iteration is nowhere near as attractive as the original campaign that my wife and I used to stay in Yokohama and Tokyo Disney Resort at essentially a 50% discount.

Go to Travel Vouchers
Go to Travel vouchers.

Airlines in Japan – and around the world – did their best to score some business too. Most notably, both ANA and JAL offered double status points during selected periods of time. Many people took advantage of that to earn statuses with the two airlines and then apply for credit cards that essentially provide lifetime Star Alliance and OneWorld statuses.

While I did not do a JAL mileage run, I took advantage of ANA’s offer at the end of last year and did a mileage run to be able to apply for the airline’s SuperFlyers card.

“Cleanliness Propaganda” and Service Cuts

At some point during the pandemic, airlines started to produce videos about how well they are cleaning their aircraft and the high-tech air filters the aircraft are equipped with. Similarly, hotels started putting labels and seals on everything from remote controls to room doors to show that they have been cleaned.

While I can understand why they did so, I would also have hoped that things were cleaned even before the pandemic. In either case, I will remember seeing a video with ANA’s CEO talking about all the measures the airline is doing to keep the aircraft clean and prevent the spread of the virus for a long time to come.

ANA Cleanliness Video
ANA cleanliness video.
Hilton CleanStay
I hope my stays at Hilton before the pandemic were clean too.

On a more practical note, airlines cut service in the name of cleanliness and preventing the spread of the virus too. In many cases, in-flight magazines were removed from seat pockets, pillows and blankets were no longer provided, and meal services were scaled down considerably or even fully cut for a period of time.

One such situation I remember is only getting two cold meals – one in a box and one in a paper bag – on a flight from Tokyo to Istanbul with a 13 hours 20 minutes scheduled block time. Another one is the Sky Lounge at Vienna Airport providing snack bags to go since the regulations in Austria at the time prevented it from serving food the regular way.

Turkish Airlines COVID-19 Meal
This was the main meal on a 13-hour flight.
Sky Lounge COVID-19 Snack Pack
Contents of the snack pack from Vienna’s Sky Lounge.

Originally Justified Measures Turned Ridiculous

Lastly, over time, some of the COVID-19 travel restrictions stopped making any logical sense. Two examples – Japan’s “test before you depart” rule and the “two doses count as fully vaccinated even in 2023” rule in the United States and some other countries.

If you wash your hands before leaving your house does that mean they will be clean after you come back home? Japan’s COVID-19 rules certainly thought so.

Until canceling the restrictions last month, the country required a negative PCR test result not older than 72 hours from the time of departure from the country of origin. Sounds good. At some point, though, the rules were updated to allow people to take their test even before leaving Japan.

That was the case with my trip to Korea too. I took the PCR test 72 hours before leaving Korea which was also more than 48 hours before I even left Japan. I got the “blue QR code” proving that I was “safe” to return to Japan before I even left the country too. And, ultimately no one even ended up checking whether I met the requirements or not.

In the case of the United States, foreigners were until recently required to have gotten two doses of vaccine to enter the country. While that made logical sense when the second dose was the latest one, it barely made any sense in 2023 when most people with two doses – including me – got their last one more than a year ago.

Fortunately, both countries came to their senses and canceled those measures effectively bringing the entry requirements back to what they were pre-pandemic.


The pandemic brought travel to a near halt. While originally everyone hoped the situation would be resolved in a few weeks or a couple of months at most, it ended up lasting for three years. With some of the last countries with COVID-19-related restrictions still in place lifting them, I hope there won’t be a need to put such restrictions back in place for a long time to come.

And, even if they do come back at some point, I hope we will remember the learnings from this pandemic – the things that worked, the things that didn’t, and the things that ultimately turned out to be outright ridiculous.

In either case, I personally am very grateful that I was able to continue traveling to an extent even during the pandemic and that in spite of me and some of my family members catching the virus at one point or another, they were all mild cases. The pandemic was also a great reminder of the fact that the ability to travel conveniently and quickly to the other side of the world should not be taken for granted.

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