As an unvaccinated traveller
-- I thought I should share my experiences with others like myself who are not vaccinated for religious/ethical reasons. (10-20% of the Canadian population is not vaccinated depending on how you determine vaccination status. Figures change based on numerous variables: province/ vaccine series / doses/month…)
WestJet: Vancouver to Rome
-- WestJet, Lufthansa, and Air Canada are the airlines I have flown with to Italy in the summer months during Covid and the extensive restrictions on non-vaccinated individuals such as myself.
In June of 2020, I managed to fly to Rome on Air Canada via Toronto. And in June of 2021 to Rome via Frankfurt. Both summers had restrictions but not an outright ban on travel if you were unvaccinated. As most Canadians know, the Canadian Government introduced a travel ban in the autumn of 2021 for non-vaccinated travellers -- with few exceptions --flying out of Canadian airports whether domestic or international. I had my doubts whether I would be able to fly out of Canada this summer. A friend of mine, a Polish priest, wondered if he would ever be able to return to Poland. The fact is, we don’t know when the Laws will change or even if the Laws will change.
I wanted to book my June-August flights for this summer before the fares went up. WestJet appeared on my computer with an ad that they flew non-stop from Calgary to Rome, exactly where I wanted to go – Rome! And Vancouver was only a hop from Calgary. I went through the WestJet website and I noticed they had a section for non-vaccinated travellers, and a link, specifically for religious exemptions with an online form to complete. I thought of checking Air Canada, but their website sounded like they rarely give religious exemptions; I did not bother.
In April I immediately completed the necessary documents to request the religious exemption on WestJet. The airline that issues the religious exemption is the one you book and fly on. I prayed that my reasons justified the exemption. I also asked people to pray for me. I obtained the exemption, and I went ahead and booked my WestJet flights. Once I booked my flights from Vancouver to Rome via Calgary, following WestJet instructions, I discovered that my exemption would expire while I was still in Italy. Religious exemptions are only good for 3 months. I did not want to reapply; I asked if I could buy a one-way ticket since I also hold an Italian passport. Perhaps this didn’t make any difference, but WestJet did issue a one-way ticket based on my religious exemption.
The first major hurdle was over, I got the exemption. But the next hurdle, I was required to take a CPR test – not to enter Italy but to exit Canada. My PCR showed “negative.” On June 15th I was flying out of Canada! A few days later, June 20th, the travel ban on the unvaccinated travellers was lifted. But I was happy I booked as early as I had done; I did not want to wait to book a flight at the last minute with limited seats and higher airfares.
I’ve become somewhat of a neurotic traveller – even before Covid due to the “unexpected.” Probably because of my early travel experiences. When I was 16 years old I missed my Air Canada flight from Copenhagen to Toronto; managing with little cash I spent several days waiting for the next flight. And when I was 19 years old I slept on the floor at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv waiting for the next El Al flight to London. Mind you, given the number of flights between Vancouver and Harare (via Amsterdam), and Cape Town (via Singapore), and Bombay (via Munich), my travel experiences, thank God, have been excellent.
Travelling during Covid
-- has been a whole new experience, but I have succeeded going to Italy – following the rules -- travelling each Covid summer -- unvaccinated.
For my WestJet flight to Calgary, I arrived at Vancouver International Airport 4 hours before my departure. WestJet recommends 3 hours. I normally arrive 4 hours before departure even under normal circumstances – and even in for domestic flights! The truth of the matter: I enjoy being at the airport and with the free time, I can say my prayers, catch up on plenty of reading material for courses I teach, read on lives of the Saints, and also continue with my own writing. At airports – and train stations – I have even worked on research papers. I distinctly remember at Singapore International Airport working on my doctoral thesis; and at Santa Lucia train station in Venice doing readings for another graduate thesis
At the Vancouver International Airport the Special Assistance line up for WestJet -- this includes unvaccinated travellers because you cannot check in online -- the wait was one hour before I reached the check-in counter. I was told I might have arrived too early to check-in (not the first time I heard this). But it was good; the WestJet agent did check me in. All my documents in order: PCR-negative and Italian Passport – good to go!
Security at Vancouver International was not so bad, ½ hour to get through security. Arriving quite early meant there was no stress at all.
I was also quite happy to be flying through Calgary as it did not sound as chaotic as Toronto or Montreal. I dislike both Toronto’s Person International and Montreal’s Trudeau International. If possible, if I have to connect in eastern Canada to go to Europe, I prefer flying through Ottawa’s Macdonald-Cartier International Airport.
I was perfectly content flying within western Canada and very grateful for WestJet’s flights from Calgary to Rome. Calgary went very very smooth. WestJet agents were friendly and they had the WestJet humour that made interactions pleasant. They even thanked me for checking in to make sure my documents were in order (and all my docs were in order). I was thrilled to fly out of Calgary to Rome -- and freedom!
Arriving at Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport in Rome, and with an Italian Passport, I exited through the electronic gates in 2 seconds!!!
But before booking my return
-- My original plan seemed straightforward: return to Vancouver on WestJet, Rome-Calgary non-stop with a connection to Vancouver. I checked the Government of Canada website to find out what the requirements were for unvaccinated Canadian travellers entering Canada from international destinations. As of today, July 17, 2022, It’s almost the same requirement as last summer, August 30, 2021, as I had already gone through this: Covid pre-testing before leaving Rome; testing on arrival in city of entry; self-test after eight days, and self-isolation plan. And of course, no Covid symptoms. Only one thing that changed simplifying the journey: an Antigen Test leaving Rome instead of the CPR Test. Antigen Test results take about 10 minutes while the CPR test can take up to 48 hours (if not longer). The CPR Test is good for 72 hours, while the Antigen Test is good for only 48 hours. We know how quickly requirements can change; by my departure at the end of August I may have to do a CPR test like last year. Yes, checking on requirements at least 72 hours before departure is a must. This gives you enough time to book CPR testing if needed.
Lufthansa: Rome to Vancouver
-- So, where does this leave me with my options? I realised flying to Canada via Calgary was not a good idea after all because a self-isolation plan means that the first city I land in from an international destination, I need a self-isolation plan – in this case, Calgary. A plan also means it needs to be specific: Where are you staying? Can you self-isolate? Do you have someone to take care of your meals? For me, landing in Calgary essentially means booking a hotel. There are specific government approved hotels for self-isolation; to be sure you have a place to self-isolate you will need to reserve a room; so, a deposit/credit card is needed unless the hotel does not require any advance payment. Since unvaccinated Canadians need to take the Covid test upon arrival, and are required to self-isolate, you could be asked to wait in the booked hotel until you have the Covid test results. And what if you are positive? For how many nights will you have to stay in a hotel? The Government of Canada website for unvaccinated international travellers landing in Canada who are Canadian citizens have to pay hefty fines for violating Canadian law. So, this is the disadvantage of arriving in a city where a hotel is your self-isolation plan.
I realised then that I am better off to fly from Europe directly to Vancouver where I can self-isolate for the fourteen days (or more) as required whether my tests results are negative or positive – as I had done last year. In my residence we have self-isolation facilities that meet all the Government of Canada requirements.
So, I booked my return to Vancouver on Lufthansa. I travelled on Lufthansa last summer through Munich Airport on a connecting flight to Vancouver. Munich is a great airport and easy to navigate. One good thing about Munich for unvaccinated travellers is they have two clinics where you can get tested for both the Rapid Test and the PCR test should it become necessary.
This raises another crucial point: give yourself plenty of time to check in for your flight/connection – at least a couple of hours -- ideally, as WestJet states, 3 hours. Use your airport time to catch up on spiritual reading; or corresponding with people you have been out of touch with. If you are travelling with children most decent airports have a play area for children; both Calgary and Munich have play areas for kids. Many airports also have chapels where you can have silent prayer. The only Catholic airport chapel I know with the Blessed Sacrament is in Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport. Many airports have downsized their Catholic chapels to interreligious/ecumenical space. Usually they look and feel like carpeted boxes – also known as “spiritual minimalism.”
At this time (July 17, 2022), if you’re travelling from Italy to Germany -- within Europe -- you won’t need an Antigen Test even if you’re unvaccinated. But you should know by now, you need to check the travel requirements before departure based on the latest “science.”
-- flying July/August 2022 apparently is chaos in Heathrow, Schiphol, Munich and Frankfurt. These countries have had to reduce flights due to shortage of workers, whether it’s baggage handling, security, or airline agents. This means even after having thought out the best solution to fly back to Canada, I am left with the possible cancellation of my flight from Rome to Munich with Lufthansa. Apparently, Lufthansa’s long-haul international flights are not affected but the shorter domestic and regional flights are the ones being cancelled. Having checked the Lufthansa departures on the same day and day before my flights, there are plenty of flights between Rome and Munich. I only hope if there are changes/cancellation Lufthansa will rebook me on one of these earlier flights. As a back up plan, in the worst-case scenario, I will take the train from Rome to Munich.
Travelling during the Covid era we especially need to pray for perseverance and patience, to relax and to breathe, and know that our Guardian Angel with the Saints in heaven are with us.
Fr. David Bellusci, O.P.
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