Last Updated on May 27, 2023 by Ellen
The trip. Our first international travel in well over two years. It’s hard to believe it was more than ten days ago already. But a few people have asked what our first COVID-era trip was like.
Here’s a clue; that’s me in the photo above — complaining at an airline counter.
A more accurate and fair description of the experience: uneven.
More descriptive words: confusing, capricious, easy, empty, ridiculous, reasonable, surprising, expensive, bewildering, fun.
Yes, all of those at once. But overall, pretty much what we expected.
Of course, the pre-travel requirements to fly from Boracay, Philippines (MPH) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) were an adventure in themselves.
In the weeks leading up to our departure we had numerous hoops to jump through. Kudos to my wife, Ellen, for doing the research and legwork to make it all possible.
COVID-era trip breakdown
In general chronological order we:
– Converted our Philippine COVID vaccination and booster cards to World Health Organization certificates. $22
– Bought two one-way airline tickets from MPH to BKK. $445
– Using the online Thai SHA+ program, paid in advance for required COVID PCR tests upon arrival in Thailand – plus special transportation from the BKK airport to the testing facility AND one night stay in a government approved quarantine hotel (while awaiting the test results). $230
– Purchased mandatory COVID health insurance coverage for our first 30 days in Thailand. $115
– Applied online (using the above documents) and received Thailand Pass & QR code (entrance authorization) online from Thai immigration. No fee
– Secured valid exit visas from the Philippines. $25
– Purchased proof of onward travel (rented air tickets – never was checked): $24
Thankfully, our pre-travel efforts were complete and acceptable, as evidenced by the issuance of the ‘Thailand Pass’ (a program slated to be discontinued on May 1, 2022).
Now the ‘uneven’ physical trip itself.
Boracay to Manila on Cebu Pacific
We got to the Boracay airport (actually located in Caticlan on ‘mainland Panay’ near our COVID home of more than two years) two hours before our Monday morning departure and found the small airport jammed with Filipinos returning to Manila after weekend getaways. It kinda felt like ‘normal times’.
The chaos got worse at boarding. Sorry, Cebu Pacific (our carrier to Manila), but this was the stupidest boarding procedure we’ve ever experienced — especially considering your constant COVID face mask, distancing, and sanitizing reminders.
The Boracay airport still uses shuttle buses to take passengers out onto the tarmac where you walk up the stairs onto the plane – no problem. But to deliver a complete mixture of all passengers to both front and rear doors of the aircraft simultaneously, and create a situation where one must push past dozens of other travelers and their carry-on bags coming at you in the aisle, just to get to one’s assigned seat — asinine!
The 45-minute flight to Manila itself, half-empty and uneventful. Save for the obligatory infant screaming uncontrollably in the row of seats directly behind us. Ellen actually moved to another vacant row before the baby calmed.
More Cebu Pacific blunders
Once in Manila, another Cebu Pacific surprise. Upon collection of our one checked bag (necessary because we were changing carriers to Thai Airways), we discovered one side of the suitcase soaking wet. Not the whole bag, but about four inches of one of the sides. Thanks, Cebu Pacific.
Since the baggage handling customer service desk was just a few feet from the carousel, I decided to mention the water-logged luggage. The attendant disappeared into the back momentarily, then came out and said “maybe it was the weather”? He also handed me a scrap of paper with the Cebu Pacific “feedback” web address on it and urged me to ‘contribute’ to the process.
Maybe the weather??? Well, it was drizzling lightly as we waited on the shuttle bus before the boarding scrum. But to soak the bag like that, it would have to be in such rain for hours. Obviously, a steady stream of water was somehow poured over it, or more likely, the bag was set in a puddle of some kind. Here’s my feedback: thanks, Cebu Pacific – lousy!
Incidentally, have you ever used the Cebu Pacific website? My advice – DON’T. We tried for seven hours over two days to purchase tickets for the entire Boracay to Bangkok trip and were unsuccessful. The website must have crashed a dozen times after we were occasionally able to get all our info entered. Most times we never got that far.
We kept trying because even though the layover was longer, the price was the lowest. During our days-long efforts, however, the price crept higher and higher – and soon another carrier combination was cheaper.
Still unable to use the Cebu Pacific website, we gave up — and for the first time EVER, booked the lower-price Cebu Pacific/Thailand Airways combination using eDreams, an online booking specialist like Agoda or Expedia.
Wasting seven hours of our lives; thanks, yet again, Cebu Pacific. This is the same airline who touts a completely new and upgraded website! And indeed, I remember using Cebu Pacific to travel from Bali, Indonesia to the Philippines in 2019. At that time you actually got a message on their website which put you on ‘hold’ until enough bandwidth became available to service you. Great progress, Cebu Pacific! But plenty more to go. You created the worst parts of our whole COVID-era travel experience.
Manila to Bangkok on Thai Airways
By contrast, our interaction with Thai Airways was mostly pleasant. First, the international terminal at Manila airport was basically deserted. The handful of flights to various destinations sprinkled throughout the day. Movement, security screening, distancing, snacking, etc. was a breeze.
Strangely, however, there was a slowdown at Thai Airways check-in when our required and legitimate ‘Thailand Pass’ / QR code, previously issued via internet by the Thai government, had to be ‘re-checked’ — meaning all the Thailand Pass application documents.
It led my wife to ask what was the point of the whole online Thailand Pass exercise, if it meant nothing at the airport? The answer, best we could determine, was that it was just a ‘double-check’ procedure. Thankfully, we were way early and had all the requested documents handy.
After that, smooth sailing again. Short security lines, empty airport concourses. The Thai Air flight even loaded and departed early. Onboard, plenty of room/distancing on the half-full flight – masks required. We were even served the best airline meal we’ve ever had. No advance request. No charge. (Thai Airways is currently operating in bankruptcy.)
COVID-era trip: Bangkok arrival
At the Bangkok airport, quick customs/immigration processing. But confusion with the requirements that we report to terminal exit C3 and look for the driver from our one-night quarantine hotel. In that area, a chaotic jumble of dozens of hotel booths and logos and drivers and waiting annoyed arriving passengers with luggage.
After a 20-minute airport wait, we ended up loaded into a van with four other Caucasian travelers also destined for the same one-night quarantine hotel. Hardly the exclusive COVID safe transport we envisioned and paid $70 for. En route we were taken to a hospital garage where each traveler gave their PCR nasal test sample.
Then on to our mandated one-night quarantine hotel — aptly named the ‘BS Grande’. Seriously! The BS was nice enough; small, brand new room with huge comfy bed and great AC and Netflix. We crashed out quickly – without even ordering room service supper – under orders not to leave the room. The next morning, our PCR results were received by 9:00 a.m. Negative. We were free to travel throughout the country.
I walked to the busy main road to find an ATM and withdrew some Thai Baht. We had breakfast in the hotel room. Then around 11:00 a.m. took the free BS Grande shuttle back to the nearby airport where we rode the airport rail to a short cab connection in Bangkok to get to our month-long AirBnb rental.
Free at last… almost
The travel portion of our first COVID-era vagabonding adventure was over. By my estimation, all the pandemic-related regulations cost us at least $400 and considerable headache and effort.
The final headache: on day five, as required by the Thai Pass program, we had to self-test for COVID and upload results to a website that didn’t work, so we ended up mailing our results to the ‘BS’ hotel.
Ironically, as I write this, we are again deciphering and deciding how to negotiate our next destination – Malaysia – where we plan to be six weeks from now, and which still has some cumbersome and costly (PCR test) requirements to enter.
We’re actually hoping, that by that time, like Thailand, Malaysia might decide to drop much of what is now required for fully vaccinated travelers. Time will tell. Stay tuned for those likely ‘uneven’ details.
As always, be thankful and generous, happy trails & more beer.
Life is NOW!