Coming Home: International Travel During a Pandemic

International Travel is Interesting During a Pandemic

My wife has trained my daughters and I well in the use of the word “interesting.” She tells us that it is what to say when you don’t know what else to say, or when you don’t necessarily want to call something out as good or bad. Maybe it’s an Aussie thing. This use of the term works well for us, perhaps because both my wife and I are academic researchers so it’s hard for us to commit to making a solid claim about anything 🙂

The Lead Up

We’re just finishing up a six and a half month sabbatical in Australia. Of course we hadn’t planned on there being a pandemic, and we arrived in Oz pre-pandemic back in January 2020. Now in late July after a slightly longer than expected stay, we’re on the way home back to Colorado. To make a long story somewhat shorter, Qantas cancelled and rescheduled our original return flight a couple of times, then cancelled it altogether. We booked a new return journey on United, as they are one of the only airlines currently flying from Australia to the US. We’re in the process of getting a refund from Qantas for the cancelled flight. Needless to say, we’ve spent hours on the phone and online with airlines over the past couple of months. But now we’re on the way.

The Journey Home

Our journey home on United takes us from Melbourne to Sydney (overnight in Sydney), then on to San Francisco, and finally on to Denver. Some observations and experiences from this trip are “interesting” enough to share, I think.

COVID in Victoria and Entering New South Wales

Victoria and metropolitan Melbourne in particular has seen a great resurgence in COVID-19 cases during the month of July. This second wave has gotten the country on edge, and has led to state border closings, the reinstating of lockdown restrictions, and lots of worry and angst. We had been traveling around Victoria (VIC) and New South Wales (NSW) during July, having crossed the border into NSW just before the border lockdown was instated. As one of my friends said, “they’re burning the bridges behind you!” By the time we had to go back to Melbourne to tie up loose ends, say goodbye to family, and catch our flight home, these restrictions were still in place. We were able to drive back into VIC from NSW, but we couldn’t have gone the other way. The backups at Albury-Wodonga on the border were 2-3 km long headed into NSW.

What this meant for us is that we had to apply for permits to transit through Sydney (in NSW) on the way home since we were flying from Melbourne (in VIC). Add to this the fact that the border restrictions seemed to be constantly changing- at one point NSW cancelled all previously granted permits and everyone had to re-apply. We filled out the web form and obtained the permits three days ahead of our planned transit as specified, only to discover upon arrival in Sydney that the permit expired on the day we arrived. So we had to re-apply at the gate in Sydney before they would let us in.

In metro Melbourne now, facemasks are required. The airport was D E A D, everyone was wearing a facemask, and our aircraft was nearly empty. (Side note: we even had temperature checks when checking into a hotel in Victoria!)

Upon arrival in Sydney from Melbourne, we had to have a “health screening” with the typical questions, temperature checks, etc. This whole process, along with the permits required for entry, seemed rather ad hoc. All of the health officials and police were very nice and caring, but it was a bit disorganized. I’m sure it’s all a moving target and it’s difficult for them to establish consistent protocols and procedures. Luckily there were only about 40 people on our arriving flight. The process took over 45 minutes- I’m not sure what they would’ve done if our A330 had been full.

Once we were cleared to enter NSW we were instructed to go straight to our hotel for the night and isolate, only coming out in the morning to check out and go on to our next flight (which we had to show proof of booking). Facemasks were required for us at all times since we came from VIC (aka “sicktoria”). We were were instructed to order room service if we needed food, which we did for breakfast.


The next morning we checked out of the hotel and schlepped all eight of our 23 kg bags over to the international terminal. (The baggage thing is another story altogether but I’m trying to stay focused here). I’ve never seen an international terminal that quiet before. In addition to our flight to San Francisco, there was one flight to Auckland and one to Singapore later in the day. But there were no lines and very, very few people.

We were intercepted right away by Australian Border Force officers who needed to make sure that we had permission to leave the country. My wife and children are Australian citizens, and therefore not currently permitted to travel to the US without permission. Except that they are exempt from that rule since they are all permanent residents of the US. But they couldn’t apply for that exemption online, but now they had to get it. Or something. I dunno. Another moving target. But again, the officers were very kind and helpful. It took another 30+ minutes while four officers mulled over our passports, entered a bunch of stuff into the computer, and gave my wife permission to leave.

Once at the United checkin desk, the agent had to then call the officers over at the desk where we just were to confirm the permission, and then checked us in. Kind of strange since it was so empty, really.

Security was easy due to the absence of any other passengers, though our family of four is kind of a trip going through security. Six laptops, three tablets, four phones, one trumpet, one clarinet, a ton of stuffies, a bunch of radios and raspberry pis (my geekery), etc. Luckily it was quiet. But of course I got swabbed for explosives (really?) and my wife had her carry-on emptied as they searched for what they thought were scissors.

The gate area was so quiet. We did find a place to get coffee (thank goodness) but almost all restaurants and shops were closed. Only 35 people waited to board our Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It was the fastest boarding procedure ever. People were very good about social distancing which was easy to maintain because of the low density.

The was plenty of space on the plane. It looked like everyone was booked in their own row. We were in “Premium Economy” which was a nice upgrade and much cheaper than normal I’d guess. The 787 is 3-3-3 seating in Economy, and we had window + aisle for each pair of us in two rows. To our pleasant surprise, we were served a hot meal and hot beverages. Previously we had heard that there would be no hot items. They had no liquor on board (so no nightcap G&T) but (the flight attendant found me some gin!) they had beer and wine. And again, the flight attendants were very friendly and kind. It actually may have been my best customer service experience during a flight ever. Maybe it’s just easier for everyone to be this way with so many fewer people?

Facemasks were required at all times, except when eating or drinking.

Side note: it’s very hard to talk with a flight attendant who is wearing a facemask, while you are wearing a facemask, with the constant white noise of the aircraft

The Dreamliner is a pretty nice aircraft. It was my first time flying on one. I really like the Airbus A380, but they are all grounded now for obvious reasons. So now we fly on this more economical platform which doesn’t cut through the turbulence quite as nicely. Still not bad, though. But it is really, really strange to be on a trans-pacific flight with only 35 other people. In fact it’s kind of haunting…

Arriving in the USA

It was easy to deplane a 787 with only 35 passengers. Everything was stress free. The US Border Patrol agent was very friendly and nice when admitting us. He even joked. I don’t recall that happening ever. We got our bags, cleared customs (a breeze, and not even a glance at the declaration form) and then re-checked our bags.

The shock came when we left the international arrival area and made our way through the main terminal at SFO and on to security to get to the F gates. To be sure, security was nice and quiet but more crowded than before. There were no health checks or screenings and no temperature taking. And very little social distancing. People were just going about travel as normal. Yes, people were wearing facemasks (for the most part) but not everyone was giving space. Folks would stand right by you, sit next to you at the gate, etc. That was surprising.

It was interesting to observe compliance with the face mask mandate, both in the terminal and on aircraft. Everyone had a fascemask, but many were pretty liberal with the “eating and drinking” exception for removing it. I observed a few people in the gate area that never wore there mask properly and always had it on their chin or dangling from one ear.

The plane from SFO to DEN (a well used 737-800) was about 70%(?) full. Boarding was the typical mess that it usually is, though they did board from the rear forward. The attendant handed out one little wipe in a packet to each traveler upon entering the aircraft. We were carrying big packs of Dettol wipes, so we didn’t need the little ones. We wiped down our seats, armrests, tables, etc before sitting. I noticed that many people didn’t do this- maybe we are just paranoid. A fair few people on the flight were not wearing facemasks properly and the attendants didn’t seem to call it out. Or maybe they did and I didn’t notice. We were all pretty shattered at this point having been up for over 24 hours with limited sleep.

The flight was uncomfortable and turbulent upon approaching Denver, as it often is in the summer. Deplaning was the usual chaos. The attendants asked everyone to remain seated until their row is called for de-board, but many people got up anyway. The terminal was much quieter than normal but still very busy. The train the the main terminal was full. Again, no social distancing whatsoever. I was very surprised at both SFO and DEN to see people who appeared to be traveling for pleasure- a group of young girls looking like they were just back from Mexico, etc. I guess there are few restrictions so people are operating as normal?

Baggage claim was a breeze and we had arranged a ride home which was nice. We survived. Hopefully we stayed healthy, but only time will tell. There is no mandatory quarantine for us which is strange.


I would not choose to fly right now if I did not have to fly. We had to get home from overseas after being away since pre-pandemic. But it was a strange trip and nerve-wracking. People aren’t really acting much differently in at least a couple of US airports, aside from wearing facemasks. Social distancing was not observed, nor were there health screenings or temperature checks. I hope we stayed healthy.

By Bud Talbot

I’m a science educator, teacher, and researcher. More specifically, I am an Associate Professor of science education at the University of Colorado Denver in the School of Education and Human Development. I currently teach pre-service and in-service science teachers, undergraduate peer Learning Assistants (LAs), and doctoral students. My research focuses on peer learning support in undergraduate science courses across the disciplines, and my particular interest is in physics education research (PER). Prior to entering academia, I taught science in grades 7-12 for seven years in US public schools, primarily physics in 11th and 12th grade.

Runner | tele skier | Father of twin girls | amateur radio operator W0RMT | science geek |