COVID Series: Flying Across Borders
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
While most international borders remain closed, finding a flight back to your home country can be a huge pain or simply impossible. Today, we'll look at a few tips for finding your way from A to B safely and legally.
It's worth reading this article in tandem with our piece on buying plane tickets during COVID.
Ever since lockdown started in March, I've spent a lot of my time helping clients and social-media users find their way home. Now, as things sort of start to stabilize, I'm getting a lot of requests from people trying to get across the globe to a sick or dying relative, reunite with a fiancé, get to their university or their new job, that kind of thing.
It's not a simple process, and in some cases it's actually impossible for now, but below are some of the most common solutions.
I offer no guarantees, I'm not a lawyer or an immigration consultant, and you'll never hear me say "do XYZ and it'll work." Plus, border rules have changed so unpredictably and so often this year, that I'm advising you that anything you book more than a few weeks or a month in advance is *likely* to run into problems with borders or schedule changes or both.
Also, as conditions and local regulations continue to change quickly, the advice given here must be used only as a starting point, and you should confirm the details of your specific connection before you book your tickets.
BOOK WITH POINTS, NOT CASH, IF YOU CAN
The only guarantee with air travel right now is that nothing is guaranteed. Flights get rescheduled or cancelled on a daily basis, governments change their minds from week to week about border restrictions.
Depending where you live - or, more accurately, which set of national laws govern the purchase of your tickets - a flight cancellation might net you a refund, or the airline might simply keep your money and offer "future credit" that's only useful if you plan to fly with the same airline again in the future.
Points bookings are much more likely to be refundable, requiring a small change fee at worst.
THE RULES FOR CONNECTING THROUGH A THIRD COUNTRY DURING COVID: "JUST PASSING THROUGH" IS USUALLY OK
The list of border restrictions seems to change every week: Citizens of Canada can enter the European Union, but only if they haven't been in the United States in the last two weeks, and Americans can't come in at all.
However, an American flying from the United States to Turkey *can* connect through Paris, London or Amsterdam, as long as their bags are checked all the way through and they never leave the International wing of the airport in Paris.
It's also important to check that the country you're flying THROUGH doesn't add complications once you arrive. For example, France is happy to welcome a Canadian flying Montreal to Paris, and the United States is happy to welcome that same Canadian flying Montreal to New York.
However, if that same Canadian flies from Montreal to Paris via New York, France will change its tune. They'll still allow the Canadian to enter France, but since she's been in the United States recently - even just in the airport, even just for an hour - France will now impose a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival.
Last, note that even if you CAN transit through a country, you still might need a visa just to cover the two hours you're in the international wing of the airport. For example, citizens of several countries require a Transit Visa just to connect through Heathrow.
RIGHT NOW, STICK TO ONE TICKET, ONE TRIP. TRUST ME.
Several countries allow flight connections right now *only if all the connecting flights are booked on a single ticket*.
For example, Taiwan allows foreign citizens to connect through Taipei on their way from, say, Japan to Hong Kong, but only if they never leave the International wing of the airport AND their whole trip is on the same airline, from a short list of approved carriers.
Lots of "cheap flight" websites will happily sell you a ticket arriving from the US to China, where you start by flying EVA Air from LAX to Taipei, connecting on to China on Juneyao Airlines, or Air Macau. Problem is, this connection simply isn't permitted right now, and you'll likely be denied boarding at LAX and lose the whole booking.
This leads us to the most important advice in this whole column...
MEASURE TWICE, BOOK ONCE
Where all of this can get ugly is that airline sales computers can't keep up with this constantly-shifting list of changes, and while an airline IS responsible for making sure you don't board an international flight without the correct documentation, they're absolutely able to sell a ticket to anyone, anytime, and if you buy a ticket you're not actually allowed to fly, you'll be fighting the airline hard to get a refund.
Point is, if you're trying to fly anywhere during "the year of COVID" with a connection through a third country, you need to check VERY carefully before you buy a ticket whether you're allowed to come through. I generally search for the name of the airport and the airline industry phrase "transit passengers".
AVOID LONG LAYOVERS
Again, you'll want to check your specific trip carefully before booking, but for the most part until things go back to normal, you'll want to stick to short connections in the third country to stay out of trouble. I suggest no less than two hours, no more than eight, between flights.
For example, Air Canada is happy to sell flights from the United States to South Korea via Vancouver, and some of these are easy connections where you leave California early in the morning and have an hour or two in the International wing at Vancouver before you board for Seoul. However, the return flight from Seoul to San Francisco currently lands at Vancouver after the day's last flight has left for the United States, so you'll be spending the night at Vancouver Airport.
I've been writing back and forth with the Canada Border Services Agency, who say that in this situation you CAN leave the airport to spend the night in a hotel, but Air Canada's published policies say you have to stay inside airport security.
I'm still working with Canadian Border Services Agency to clarify whether foreign citizens with long connections can clear Canadian Customs to spend the night in a hotel. The official word is that passengers can only do this if their overnight delay is the result of a delay, if your flight was always scheduled to leave you at Vancouver Airport overnight then you're out of luck.
Further, passengers in this situation must go to the "nearest" hotel, which at Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal is a fairly expensive, high-end hotel located right in the airport. I'm trying to clarify whether other more affordable hotels are permitted.
Canada's an exception, though; most airports currently allowing transit passengers, require that they stay within the international wing of the airport until their flight departs
YOU ALMOST CERTAINLY CAN'T TRANSIT THROUGH MULTIPLE AIRPORTS IN A THIRD COUNTRY DURING COVID
Remember how we talked about airline sales computers that don't know what you're NOT allowed to do? One big problem that keeps landing on my desk right now is American passengers who've bought tickets connecting through Canada that include a flight within Canada. For example, Boston-Toronto-Vancouver-Seoul. They'll happily sell this to anyone right now, but a non-Canadian won't be able to fly it, because you won't be allowed through Canadian Customs when you get to Toronto.
Again, the rule of thumb is that you can probably connect *through* a single foreign airport, but probably can't leave that airport except on your onward flight. Do not give anyone your money until you've made certain this true.
RIGHT NOW, SIMPLE IS BETTER THAN CHEAP
As you search through different flight options, you may find a complicated routing that's much cheaper than flying direct. Remember that right now, your plane tickets are only as good as the most restrictive border you need to cross along the way, so maybe it's not worth flying Montreal-Boston-Istanbul-Dubai-Delhi just to save $100.
Okay folks, that's been a LOT to cover. Thanks for sticking with me so far, I hope this helps.
I can't guarantee the advice above will be 100% correct, but I'm working hard to stay on top of these rules as they unfold. Remember: Measure Twice, Book Once!