Flying internationally in a pandemic is a unique experience. First off, there aren’t as many flights available. Some airlines have shut down entirely, while others have cancelled routes. They are also limiting the number of passengers, both for social distancing and because some countries have a cap on the number of international arrivals. And when you get a flight, you can’t just rock up to the airport. As I mentioned yesterday, Australia have a ban on citizens travelling overseas, so you have to have secured the travel exemption permission first. So there are a LOT of variables to contend with.
Because we are relocating for work, my company covers economy air fare via the most direct route. That meant we had exactly two options for getting to Munich: Qatar Airways connecting through Doha, or Etihad Airways connecting through Abu Dhabi. We’d never flown on or through either, so I asked Twitter.
There were quite a lot of replies, and it seemed like either one would be fine. The layover in both cases was only around two hours, so it wasn’t like we were going to get out of the airport anyway. We ended up picking Qatar as it was a slightly later flight, and because Etihad required you to take a Covid test within 72 hours of boarding. (While I’m not averse to the idea, it was extra hassle we just didn’t need in the last few days.) The first flight would be 14.5hrs overnight, then the second to Munich was another 5ish the next morning.
We had also heard that Qatar’s Business Class was amazing, and Rodd had read in a few places that the upgrade price wasn’t ridiculous. I’d never flown Business on a long-haul flight, and I figured the flight was likely to be fairly empty so chances were good we’d have an entire row in Economy anyway. What swayed me though was the luggage allowance. We only had 30kg each, and the price for extra baggage was really high. Once you factored that in to the Business Class price (because they get up to 40kg), I thought I might be able to justify it to myself. So we started checking the website in the weeks up to the flight, hoping to see that upgrade option. And then finally last weekend it appeared! It was around $1800 AUD each to upgrade for the whole trip, and we jumped on it. I knew we were unlikely to have lounge access (they’re all closed due to Covid), but I figured being able to lie down flat to sleep during 20 hours of flying was well worth it.
Since folks are probably wondering at this point, I should also clarify that my new job came with a relocation package – that is, money to spend on shipping your stuff, getting your house ready to rent/sell, temporary accommodation in the new place, work visa costs, etc. We saved a fair bit by not shipping a lot of stuff and by doing a lot of the work ourselves, so we felt justified in splurging for the upgrade. So it was out-of-pocket, but out of a pool of money earmarked for the move anyway. (That’s why I’ve never upgraded for a vacation – I’m too much of a tight arse!)
Time for the actual flight! We’d been told to leave a lot of time in case there were issues with the travel exemption, so we arrived at the airport three hours before departure. We saw very little traffic around Sydney Airport, and from the departure board we could see only three flights heading out that night: the Etihad one, our one, and another one going to China. We’d read advice from other travellers that we’d first have to go to some special desk to show our exemption letter, but when we got to the Qatar desks they said to just check-in as normal. There were more folks there checking in than I expected, and happily it looked like 90% of people were wearing masks. Once we got to the desk we learned we were both pretty much right at the 40kg allowable baggage, so that was a good call! Rather than give us our boarding passes directly, the agent told us to step over to the service desk area, where they’d call in our passports to confirm we had the exemption. A few minutes later our names were called and we were able to collect our passports and passes. Whole process took less than 20 minutes!
The check-in agent had given us a tip – since the lounges were closed, if we wanted to eat we were better off going to the food courts on the public side of Security since there were more options open. Turns out that amounted to a grand total of five “restaurants,” which included Subway and Hungry Jacks. We ended up a Thai place, which appeared to be the only one cooking fresh food. There were a few other folks in the food court, but not many. I’ve never seen Sydney Airport so empty. We sat there for a while, just killing time…
Next we headed to Security. Because everyone was masked, the automated passport control was closed and we had to queue up for the manned desks. People were social distancing as well as they could, and the line moved pretty quickly. We had to pull our masks down so they could confirm we matched the passport photo. Then it was through the X-ray machines as normal. On the other side, Duty Free and pretty much every other shop was closed. I think we saw maybe one cafe that was open? We headed towards our gate area. There were actually hundreds of people queuing up to board the China flight, and some of them were wearing full hazmat-style paper suits with goggles and everything! Once they left, our gate area was much emptier and quieter. Before our flight, attendants came around to give everyone a plastic face shield. We were told to wear both our mask and the shield throughout the flight. Glamorous, eh? (I was jealous because the ones for little kids were orange and decorated.)
Then it was time to board. And here’s the thing – we knew Business seats on Qatar’s newer planes were supposed to be amazing, but all of our research ahead of time pointed to the Sydney flight being an older plane. So we expected it to be nice, but not mind-blowing. And then we stepped inside and saw the Q Suites… We turned to each other in giddy shock. We were not expecting this!
There is no way to describe this without sounding like a total jerk, but this was without a doubt the best airline flight I’ve ever been on. Our two seats were in the center but facing backwards, and we had little doors on either side that we could close off for privacy. (Not that we really needed it – the section appeared to be less than half full.) See that row of buttons near Rodd’s left hand? Those are all the electronic seat functions, including lying down completely flat for sleeping. The table pulls forward and then flips out for meals. We had big media screens with lots of things to watch, noise-cancelling headphones, comfy pillow and blanket, and amenities bags including bottles of hand sanitiser. I was already in heaven, and then the attendant came by to ask if I wanted to start the trip with some bubbly…
Let’s be honest – I am absolutely ruined for all other air travel now. Food service was entirely on-demand, and everything we ate was excellent. We wore our masks and face shields except for when eating. After take-off, I enjoyed a few more glasses of champagne while watching Birds of Prey, and that’s when I realised the only downside of flying Qatar – the movie was censored! They left in all the violence (as far as I could tell), but all of the curse words were dubbed over. 🤷♀️ Anyway, at that point the attendant came by to offer me a pair of pyjamas. Um, okay! I went to the toilet to get changed. This was another shocker – the Business class bathroom was about twice as big as the Economy ones, and it was clear they were cleaning them after just about every use. (Every single time I went in there, the toilet paper was folded down into a little triangle!) I got ready for bed, hit the button to fold down my chair flat, and stretched out to sleep. I’m happy to report that I could stretch out completely (I’m 5’10” / 178cm), but the footwell area is narrow so you can’t spread your legs out too much. I wore my mask but not the face shield while sleeping. (Realisation: wearing a face mask means your nose and mouth don’t dry out as much!) My only complaint was that the chair was firmer than I would’ve liked… but I learned afterwards that if I’d asked, the attendants can bring out a little “mattress” that they put over the top! Damn, that would’ve been nice. Still, I got in a good 8 hours or sleep, which is like 5 hours more than I’ve gotten on any other flight ever.
After breakfast, we had time to watch another movie or two before landing. We also discovered that the plane had wifi, and we got a complimentary hour to check our messages. (We didn’t bother to pay to unlock for the whole flight, but I was impressed that the cost was only $10 for it.) Honestly, any doubt I had about the upgrade expense was completely obliterated by this flight. If you have the chance to fly Qatar Business, you absolutely should. It was amazing.
We landed in Doha at Hamad International Airport, and we were told to remove our face shields (but not masks) when disembarking as they’d be checking our temperature. I was expecting a guy with an obvious camera or temperature gun, but instead there was a dude standing in a crazy high-tech helmet straight out of Star Wars, which must have had some sort of thermal imaging capability. At any rate, we walked through into the airport, which was gleaming. Folks had told us it was very nice, and they weren’t lying. It was also much busier than Sydney had been, and we could see that the shops were open for business. Pretty much everyone was wearing masks though. We had an hour to kill so we headed towards the lounge. It turns out our Internet upgrades didn’t include Business Lounge access, but I actually had it through my Qantas Frequent Flyer. Bonus! Again, not to sound like a jerk, but it was so nice. We chilled and had some drinks and made use of the wifi. Then it was time to board, and we were in Q Suites again in the exact same seats (though on a different plane). One thing we had fun with was the 3-D maps built into the entertainment system, coupled with the cameras on the front and back of the plane. Neither of us had ever flown over the Persian Gulf before, so we watched fascinated as we basically flew directly over the Fertile Crescent. Five hours later we landed in Munich.
The most common question we got in the lead up to the trip was whether we’d have to quarantine when we landed. Germany uses the Robert Koch Institute list of high-risk countries, and while Australia isn’t on the list, Qatar is. (Note: it’s under K since that’s how it’s spelled here.) We weren’t clear on whether transiting counted, so we did some research ahead of time and had a German friend do some calling of various government bodies too. It’s just very confusing, as each German state can set their own rules separately from the federal government. Everything pointed to us not needing to quarantine, yet once we collected our bags, we were herded straight to a mandatory (free) Covid test. I explained to the attendant that we were from Australia and hadn’t set foot in Qatar beyond the airport, but she said that everyone had to do it. Oh well. So we registered ourselves and got Q-tips shoved way, way down our throats. We were told to self-isolate until we got the results emailed in 24-48 hours. We then caught a taxi to our AirBnB, where we’ve been hanging out ever since. It’s not too bad. We managed to get groceries delivered that first night (yay for Amazon Prime Now!) and we’ve got a nice balcony overlooking the city for fresh air. Hopefully the results will come soon, and then we’ll be able to start exploring and looking for a place to live!