World Trip Interrupted – Journey Home in Times of the Corona Pandemic

The last stop on our world tour took us to beautiful Taiwan. After the news situation on Corona became more and more gloomy in the course of February, we were actually very glad to have landed in Taiwan. Taiwan, we had learned, has shown a very good health care system and one of the fastest responses to the CoVid-19 outbreak. No wonder, because here, after the SARS epidemic in 2003, the complete health system was also prepared for another outbreak of infectious lung disease. Furthermore, in Taiwan it is absolutely normal to wear face masks in public spaces, fever is measured in front of every restaurant and shopping malls, and hand disinfectant is available at every cash register.

In short, we felt perfectly comfortable in Taiwan and actually planned to sit out the pandemic period in Taiwan. Just then we were still in Tainan, a historic city in southwestern Taiwan. Since Taiwan had no restrictions on public life, we had planned to return to Taipei for the next few days and grab a nice little AirBnb, get some work done, and occasionally drink a tasty bubbletea at the stall around the corner. 

But then everything turned out differently…

Cat in Tainan, we can well relate to her mood

The importance of the travel warning for world travelers

On March 17, 2020, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas first issued a global travel warning in a press conference and then as a tweet on Twitter. That had never happened before. 

Actually, travel warnings are specific to countries or regions where there is acute danger to life and limb at the moment, such as the Japanese region around Fukushima, or the war-torn country of Syria. 

The purpose of the travel warning is to allow travelers to be brought back to Germany and at the same time allow other travelers to cancel trips free of charge so that no more tourists are stuck abroad. 

Now that many countries are gradually closing their borders, international flights are being canceled and more and more regions are being quarantined, this move also makes perfect sense. The rat tail that it entails, but probably only a few had expected. 

The fact is that overseas health insurance policies generally contain a clause that they do not apply in countries and regions for which there is a travel warning. If you are in a region while a travel warning is in effect, you still have 14 days to leave. 

But suddenly the whole world is a crisis area. 

This means that all world travelers, students abroad, people working or even living abroad will by definition lose their insurance coverage within 14 days. More than 100,000 people from Germany alone now face an uncertain future. 

Insurers and airlines are overwhelmed

With Heiko Maas’ tweet, the stress begins for us. First, we check our insurance documents. We are insured through STA-Travel with Allianz. Our travel insurance also contains the exclusion paragraph for countries with travel warnings. About half an hour after the travel warning was issued, we are already hanging on the insurance hotline. After the regular hotline is unable to help us, we are put through to the team leader. He has not yet heard of the travel warning, but assures us that the exclusion paragraph only applies to specific countries or regions. 

We are a little reassured and post this information in a large German world travel community on Facebook. Quickly collect under the post comments from other travelers who have received partly in the hotline, partly in writing the same information, or the exact opposite

Other way with Hansemerkur. Within an hour, you can read on their website that the worldwide travel warning will have no effect on insurance coverage. 

Those insured through STA Travel or another provider, on the other hand, are out of luck. The bottom line is that there are several thousand people in this Facebook group alone who all of a sudden have no idea how long their insurance coverage will last now. 

Travel chaos in times of Corona

The first announce a little later that they are leaving for home The run on flights begins. It’s not a moment too soon, as now many countries are also starting to close their borders and airports. Airlines are now massively cutting their schedules because of the lower load factors. The main international flight routes are gradually collapsing. 

In a WhatsApp chat now reach us almost every minute new news, which airports and national borders close. Australia even announces that it will close its borders for six months. 

It is at this point that we know we have to make a decision. Because it is becoming increasingly foreseeable that our stay in Taiwan could possibly drag on much longer than anticipated. We had expected one to two months – a time that is quite realistic in many Asian countries, as you can see from the example of China. But the inability of Western countries to contain the virus is now becoming a problem. Because as German citizens, we are becoming persona non grata. We must reckon with the fact that many countries no longer let us enter in the longer term, even if we were not in Germany for a long time before. It is also no longer foreseeable when international air traffic will resume normally. Stuck in Taiwan for six months or longer without health insurance? No thanks! The country is gorgeous, but too expensive and we are still not familiar enough with it to want to risk that. Plus, there’s the risk that our visa won’t be renewed during a massive global outbreak, and then what?

Our evening and the next morning are spent accordingly weighing up, constructing horror scenarios and talking through worst cases. Currently, we are still doing a city tour of Tainan in the egg pass. The movement helps us to keep a cool head. I drink way too much bubble tea – which again is not so helpful. We still don’t have a clear answer from our health insurance company. 

In the afternoon, finally, the decision is made. We will break off the world trip and travel back to Germany. Flights are getting more and less expensive by the hour anyway. 

So we cancel our next accommodations with AirBnb – our hosts are very understanding, but AirBnb support less so. 

We cancel our train tickets that we had booked to travel on in Taiwan – we pay a small cancellation fee, otherwise it’s hassle free. 

Then we book a train for the next day to Taipei and a return flight the following morning via Tokyo to Germany. 

It is a strange feeling after more than 500 days now to return to Germany. We had sometimes talked about how it would be when our world trip ends. We had not had this scenario in mind. The mood swings continuously between excitement, panic, anticipation and depression. 

The return trip to Germany after 528 days

The train ride from Tainan to Taipei is like every train ride in Taiwan very pleasant. We eat a late lunch at Taipei station and then head to the hotel. In between, news of a gate change for our flight reaches us. In our Whatsapp group, the reports of problems with the journey home – flight cancellations, airport closures and Co. now begin, the first travelers are stranded.

Our pulse is continuously at 180, the tension  is almost tangible. 

In the early evening, Max checks our flight again, scheduled to depart at 7:00 the next morning – and the flight is no longer in the system. Instead, we were rebooked on a flight the following day without notification. So we have a flight from Taiwan to Tokyo on 21.03 and a flight from Tokyo to Munich on 20.03. How exactly the airline imagines this is beyond us. 

Accordingly, we contact the hotline, Max hangs with the airline I with the travel portal. 

I’m still on hold when Max comes through. In the background I can hear him just explaining another rebooking as I am also put through. The gentleman on the other side is French according to the accent. The telephone connection is bad, we hardly understand each other. From the side Max signals me that he has found a solution with the airline. This is also good, because the employee tells me that there would have been no rebooking, according to the system everything is still with the old. Now that we have a solution, I save me rumzudiskutieren that there is no longer our flight tomorrow according to the airport and airline. I just hope that not too many fellow travelers had not received this information. 

Max informs me that we will be flying to Tokyo two hours later. Our flight to Munich has also been cancelled in the meantime. Instead, we fly to Frankfurt and then to Munich. I hate domestic flights, but who knows if the train will even run tomorrow, and somehow we have to get home. 

Flights during the Corona crisis

After a sleepless night, we leave for the airport much too early in the morning. It is completely referenced. Already at the entrance door our temperature is measured. 

Besides us, there are about a handful of passengers. The display boards show only flight cancellations except for two flights for the morning. Our flight is scheduled to take place. 

At the check in our fears then already seem to be confirmed. We can only be checked in for the first flight, although all flights run under the same booking number – No matter, the main thing is that we get to Japan for the time being. From there, more flies in the direction of Europe. The staff is very friendly. Everyone tries to be extra helpful.

Only one counter is open at immigration. Since there are two of us, I am allowed without further ado to the diplomat counter. It is also no different than at the other counters there, but you feel a little bit important. We see no other people at the immigration. It goes on to the gates. We have another tea in a small restaurant and stroll a little through the deserted airport. It feels like we are in an end time scenario

That we would actually get to Japan, we didn’t believe until the half-empty plane finally took off from Tainan Airport.When we land in Tokyo, we have a magnificent view of Mount Fuji, Japan’s most famous volcano with its beautiful white snow cap. It’s one of those moments when we really have to swallow hard. Actually, we had been looking forward to Japan for months.

Approaching Tokyo. The snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji
can be seen in the background.

Intermediate landing in Tokyo

Also in Tokyo there is not much going on at the airport. As soon as we get wifi again we read that Lufthansa will now not let most of its fleet take off l. Our connecting flight leaves in two hours – at least according to the schedule. 

We are the only passengers from our plane with a connecting flight. There is so little going on at security that we are even advised on the best way to get to our gate. An employee even accompanies us to an information board to make sure that our flight will take place. It’s all so nice and cordial that we almost forget the stress a little bit. 

The transit area in Tokyo is not as empty as we feared, but not much is going on. The employees in the stores are all wearing mouth masks, just as in Taiwan. Some of the stores are apparently doing inventory in addition to the sparse business. We still buy gin for home, Max is a big fan and also blogger on the subject. We get our boarding passes about an hour before the flight and everything looks like we will get home without further problems. Even a vegetarian meal for the flight for  me can the lady at the counter still muster – since we could not check in before, we had not been able to choose the menu. As we Borden, see behind the counters several employees with meter-long printed lists, which tick things on call. The IT seems to capitulate probably also already before Corona

Flight to Frankfurt

The flight to Germany takes 12h. Shortly after boarding, we get an announcement that the service will be limited. One does not notice too much of it. The on-board entertainment system crashes with me and my seat neighbor. But that can also be fixed. My vegetarian meal unfortunately got lost in the system. I get side dishes, salad from business class and fruit. Also, neither Max nor my other seatmate like the cheesecake that comes with their meal. So, despite the circumstances, my food situation on board is not that bad. The staff is a little more stressed than usual, but friendly and wearing face masks. Of the passengers, only about half are wearing them. The plane is almost full. Some passengers without face masks cough unabashedly.We quickly have the urge to shower. 

At mid-flight, a self-disclosure is handed out. We have to state whether we were in Wuhan or Hubai and have symptoms of Corona. For classification: the week after we got the questionnaire handed out, the quarantine in Wuhan is lifted, while the case numbers in Italy, the USA,  Spain and Iran have already exploded in advance. In Asia, the hotspots had already shifted to South Korea and Japan. But no one is asking about those countries. Defacto, the questionnaire is meaningless. Even clear symptoms we would not have to cite as long as we had no confirmed contact with a patient.

We fly for a long time over Russia along the Arctic Circle. Sunset on this day lasts over five hours.

Self-disclosure we received on 2020-03-20. Note the status as of 02/13/2020
Self-disclosure part 2, to be filled out only if “yes” is checked overleaf

Arrival at a German airport in the days of Corona

Extremely tired but in good spirits, we finally reach Frankfurt. It is a startling contrast. The staff is terribly unfriendly, although there is not much going on here either. Max Gin is confiscated because the bags are the wrong color. Only half the staff wear face masks, there is no disinfectant anywhere, and fevers are not taken anywhere. It is an absolute culture shock. We both feel close to tears. When we have internet again it does not get better. Bavaria has just imposed a 14-day curfew, which will take effect half an hour after we arrive home. 

The last flight to Munich then also goes quite smoothly. However, almost no one is wearing a face mask here either, everyone is coughing, no one is keeping their distance. In Munich nowhere temperature is measured and no one is interested in the fact, that we just traveled half the world. No one ist interested in whether we might bring Corona to Germany. 

We get our bags and meet our friend who picks us up from the airport. We greet her without the obligatory hug. It feels strange. Then we get home and the exit restrictions begin – first for two weeks, then they are further extended. Therefore, I cannot visit my family in the foreseeable future, although I have not seen them for 7 months. Official procedures for registrations and other bureaucracy are done by phone. We order ingredients for bubble tea and Vietnamese coffee, I cook Indian dal. We stay in, like everyone. Corona is an ass. 

Tired, worn out but safely arrived in Germany. The welcome sign is made of the valuable material toilet paper.

PS: Our insurance has then after a few days decided to remain valid. For us, this comes clearly too late. Nevertheless, we are glad we started the return journey in time. Many of our traveling acquaintances are now stranded and try to get a flight through the German missions abroad. Conditions in the host countries are sometimes difficult. 

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