Due to the CoronaVirus and the sudden closure of borders, many people across the globe are stuck away from their jobs and their loved ones. We are publishing the experience of one such reader, who was stranded in Canada when flights were shut, and the Indian borders were closed down. The story has been reproduced with minor edits for style consistency. Karishma Gupta, wrote up her story for everyone to be well-prepared to fly through the pandemic. She also wrote about her Quarantine stay in Delhi.
After being stranded in Canada since March 14, 2020, I was able to get back to India on June 14. 3 months, innumerable emails, calls, messages and petitions later. Whew! Just typing all that made me feel exhausted, but living through this experience is sure going to make for an adventure I can tell my grandchildren about someday. I’m writing down my experience here in the hope that it will help future travellers and stranded people alike.
Starting with the circular from the Indian Government that all OCIs were hereby suspended and travel to India was going to be restricted within 48 hours of the circular, led to panic and a scramble to see what I could do about it. I rushed to the Indian Consulate at Bloor St. in Toronto to find it packed and full of chaos. The officials at the consulate advised me to get on a flight back home immediately or face the possibility of being stranded for 1 month. I tried to book a flight but was unable to do so. As a Canadian Citizen with an OCI, I was impacted more than others in that I didn’t have more than 48 hours to try to make it back, which made it impossible to get back in time. Anyway, for all practical purposes, it felt like I was going to be stranded until April 15, which didn’t seem as bad at first. However, it became increasingly clear that the pandemic was here to stay when the lockdowns and flight suspensions started getting postponed one after the other.
At the end of April, it was clear that I was stuck for the long haul. Then the Indian Government announced the Vande Bharat mission beginning in May. The first phase didn’t have any flights from Canada however, so I started writing into the Indian Consulate in Toronto, hoping that flights would be added. When limited flights were added, OCIs were not allowed on them and the flights were too few to meet the demand. This was the time I decided to rally people together and so I created a WhatsApp group with other stranded Canadian OCIs and we started petitioning the government to allow us to get back. Numerous tweets, emails, calls and petitions later, the Indian Government allowed OCIs to travel beginning the first week of June, and also added a number of flights with the facility to book directly from the Air India website.
Booking the tickets
I was probably one of the first people to log in and try to book tickets when the Air India flight booking opened up, and a frustrating 30 minutes and multiple devices later, I was finally able to book via the Air India Mobile App for a ticket on the Toronto – Delhi AI 188 for myself and my mother. The mobile app didn’t show the middle seats as bookable so we booked the window and aisle and were happy that there would be social distancing on the flight.
However, when we went to the website and checked the seating, we realised that middle seats were being booked, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that we would be lucky in not getting someone on the middle seat. In terms of the booking itself, I didn’t face any issues except that the only flights available were for June 12-13, 2020 and nothing for later, and nothing to Mumbai directly. We, therefore, resigned ourselves to quarantining in Delhi for 7 days and then flying domestic to Mumbai.
In terms of the process, we had to mandatorily web check-in and were allowed two bags each of 23 kg in addition to 1 cabin bag with 8 kgs. We arrived 3 hours before the flight and Toronto airport seemed extremely normal with not too many people around and everybody in masks. Our temperature was checked before check-in and the check-in itself went off without a hitch. We did check if the middle seat was occupied and were told the flight was full and therefore the middle seats were also going to used, which was a bummer which we couldn’t do anything about.
We then went to the waiting area and sat in suitably socially distanced chairs to wait for the flight (2-hour wait since check-in and security were cleared in under an hour). A few shops and restaurants and duty-free are open at the Toronto airport in case anyone wants to pick something up. I got a coffee and a muffin and settled down for the wait and people watching. Overall, the mood was sombre on account of the pandemic, which I guess ties-in to the ‘new normal’.
The flight boarding had people lining up much before necessary, as is typical with us Indians, so we waited until 70% of the boarding was complete before lining up. Social distancing was being followed (sort of), but everyone had masks on (some people even had shields), which was good. After another temperature check, we boarded the flight and I kept my cabin bag in the overhead compartment of the row opposite mine since all the compartments were already full.
I requested the middle seat passenger to move to the window seat which he did gladly so that I could sit next to my mom who was on the aisle.
The seats already had a huge plastic packet with two prepackaged meals and a bunch of snacks, in addition to water and a lemon drink. We had heard that the food wasn’t good from people who had flown earlier, so we had also got some good old Puri Aloo with us (which we needed later on). There was going to be no in-flight service on this flight, and the airline crew were dressed in complete PPE suits.
The middle seat passengers had to wear a PPE jacket in addition to the mask and shield, which was also compulsory throughout the flight. This was not comfortable at all, and the shield completely fogged up with our breaths just 10 minutes in. Most people were either wearing the mask or the shield, but wearing both was extremely difficult for a 15-hour journey. I settled into my seat and relied on downloaded content on my phone for entertainment since there was no in-flight entertainment (this perplexes me because not having in-flight entertainment has nothing to do with safety and should, therefore, be provided in a flight which is at 3X the normal flight ticket).
Midway my battery was drained and I couldn’t charge my phone either because the port wasn’t working. I spent the rest of the time reading on my Kindle and trying to sleep. I also avoided using the airplane loo and just went used it once through the entire journey, but there was adequate sanitizer present in the loo for extra precautions. In terms of the food, the prepacked meals were quite bad in terms of quality and taste, given that we were supposed to rely on them for the 15-hour journey. The snacks, on the other hand, were the Haldiram Nuts and Chips variety which I ate gratefully along with the lemon drink which was refreshing. We ate our own food halfway into the trip because the prepacked food wasn’t very good at all.
Deplaning and Delhi Airport Experience
We finally made it back to India! That in itself felt like a huge accomplishment, and we felt an overwhelming sense of relief. However, the relief soon turned into frustration because everyone tried to deplane at once and crowded the exits, not listening to the crew. Social distancing completely went out of the window.
After we deplaned, however, things seemed to be more organised, with us being split up into groups of 20 and a CRPF personnel assigned to us as our ‘Group Leader’. At this point, we had another round of temperature checks, and one copy of the Health Undertaking that we had filled in duplicate was collected. We then went through Passport Control, where I had to fill another form on account of being an OCI.
Post immigration, we passed through the duty-free area which was closed and looked like a ghost town. Our group then made our way to the baggage carousel where our Group Leader told us to collect our bags and then make it back to where Group B was assembling. As luck would have it, our 4 bags took the maximum time in coming on the belt, and when they did, all arrived separately. We were the last people from our group to collect our bags. By this time our Group Leader made a mysterious disappearance and everyone looked for him frantically.
Finally, a new Group Leader was assigned to us, and we made it to the next area and further checks. This had already taken us about 2.5 hours post landing and we were extremely tired, hungry and dehydrated. No food or drinks were provided at this stage and most of our phones were also out of battery. We were again asked to wait in a waiting area and told that the next stage was clearing customs (which was pretty smooth overall, but some people were asked to scan their cabin bags again).
Post customs, our new Group Leader told us that we would now be taken for a covid test (which confused all of us because we wondered why we would be quarantined if a test was being conducted at the airport itself). What was supposed to be a covid ‘test’ was actually just another huge line in a triage area to meet a set of doctors, who asked us to self-declare any comorbidities (which my mother did), asked us if we had any symptoms, and then took the second copy of our health undertaking, and that’s it.
At no point was this a test, and instead felt like an unnecessary and fruitless exercise. Once we finished this phase, we were asked to queue up in two lines, one for home quarantine and another for hotel quarantine. While we lined up for the hotel quarantine, we were curious about the home quarantine option because we were told that there was no such option, whereas things seemed different at the airport. On inquiring further we were told that if we had a domestic flight ticket booked already for the same day, and we had compelling reasons, we could be allowed to fly to Mumbai. We evaluated this option and tried booking a domestic flight for 5.15 pm on the same day (it was around 3.30 pm by now), but my phone was out of battery, and it showed as ‘Sold Out’ on a borrowed phone. We also weighed the risk to dad if we went to Mumbai directly and decided it was not worth the risk and therefore opted for Hotel Quarantine.
The officials at the airport give you a list of hotels to choose from and once you have chosen from the list (includes 2-star, 3-star, 4-star and 5-star options), you are asked to wait with your luggage once again. We chose Aloft Aerocity because it was a Marriott hotel and just 10 minutes away. However, by the time a bus was arranged, it was around 4.00 pm. The buses are the worst possible- extremely filthy and in broken-down conditions. Carrying 4 huge bags is no small feat and lifting them onto the bus myself was an ordeal in itself.
Fellow passengers stepped in to adjust and about 20 people including my mom and I boarded a bus that would drop passengers to various hotels. Also, our passports were seized once we made the choice for hotel quarantine, and handed over to the various hotels we were going to. Aloft was the first hotel thankfully so we got off the bus around 4.30 pm. The hotel took our bags and directed us to enter from a back entrance where we were offered the first bottle of water after landing at 11.30 am that morning.
7-Day Quarantine at Aloft Delhi Aerocity
A quick check-in later, we reached our room around 5 pm, where we were told we would need to order in-room dining since the package only included 3 meals and the next meal would be dinner around 8 pm.
We were too famished to argue, and therefore ordered a simple Veg Grill Sandwich which cost us INR 1,000 (crazy because the room service menu sent by them did not have a sandwich priced so high). The hotel deal overall is extremely cost-effective, with the Aloft option costing us approximately INR 4,500 per day for the two of us, including 3 meals. Or so we thought.
Once we settled in and had the sandwich, we just needed to have long, hot showers and lie down, but not sleep since we needed to acclimatise to the new time zone. The food service for quarantine works like clockwork and is pretty prompt. At Aloft, the dinner service is around 7.30 pm and pre-portioned meals in plastic containers are kept outside your room for each meal. The meal in itself, however, was pretty terrible, and definitely not something you would expect out of a 4-star hotel. For the first night, for example, we got Dal, a Mixed Veg, Rice (not basmati), and simple Chapatis. We wouldn’t have complained had the food been tasty, but this was extremely spicy and bad in terms of the quality.
I was reminded of my college mess days eating this food, but I daresay that my college mess was better. I also called for Diet Pepsi, which carried an MRP of Rs. 30 on the can, but was priced at Rs. 300, a 10x multiplier that seemed criminal given the Supreme Court ruling allowed for hotels to charge a premium on account of ‘service’, of which there was nothing but a can on a tray. Because I am active on social media, I tweeted and Instagrammed the food marking Aloft, and triggered a frantic attempt to make amends.
Day 2 of Hotel Quarantine and here is our dinner. The chef de cuisine @aloftdelhi called to personally understand what they could do better and the spice levels and quality of the food has been improved considerably. Thank you so much for listening! Appreciate it! pic.twitter.com/mvrsSsr4Se
— Karishma ✨ (@TheSoothsayer_) June 15, 2020
I got a call from the Head Chef at Aloft the next day asking for my dietary preferences and also offering to waive off the price of the Pepsi. After learning that I had already paid for the Pepsi (all in-room dining was charged separately and not added to the room bill which seems weird because it adds a point of contact with a machine being sent to the room). The food situation, however, didn’t really improve in the next 7 days although it looked like they were trying to give us special treatment in terms of adding paneer and different kind of bread to our room (we know this because our trays were marked with the room number and we got the food before the food announcements were made).
We gave up after a couple of days because we didn’t want to seem ungrateful and it’s not like the food was inedible and this was quarantine after all. After the 7 days were done, I requested an extension for Day 8 since I had some work to complete in Delhi. I requested a different room on a non-quarantine floor since I would now be paying full rate, and the hotel obliged. I went down to the reception on day 7 for the first time since landing in Delhi. I also realised that the elevators were disabled from our floors in case anyone came out of their room (not that I saw anyone do that in my entire stay). Being confined to a hotel room for 7 days is extremely tedious overall, but thankfully both mom and I didn’t develop any symptoms and that was the most important thing.
Throughout our stay, we had two temperature checks and no test at all. All in all, I think that while the hotel could have done better on the quality of the food, we had no complaints apart from that. Sure, no housekeeping is hard since we had to clean the rooms ourselves, but it’s far less risky than having someone in our room so we were fine with that.
Flight to Mumbai
We booked tickets on an Air India flight from Delhi to Mumbai on Day 8 after we got a discharge certificate from the hotel and our passports. I had called up the Air India customer helpline asking if we would get expanded baggage allowance given that we were international travellers, but the agent was extremely rude and told us we should have booked multi-city tickets on one PNR to be given an international allowance.
No amount of explanation that we were part of the Vande Bharat Mission and therefore had to undergo 7 days of quarantine helped and we resigned ourselves to pay extra baggage. Now Air India’s excess baggage policy is Rs. 600 per kg and we had one extra bag of about 15 kgs (Since we had used one of our cabin bags as check-in from Toronto to Delhi), so the extra baggage would cost us INR 9000 or thereabouts. The flight ticket itself was for INR 4200, so we asked if we could purchase an extra seat (preferably the middle seat in our row), instead. That would give us more baggage allowance and also get us an extra seat to maintain social distancing. However the agent on the phone did not allow me to do that, so we went to the airport expecting to pay baggage.
However, while in the check-in line (post a web check-in and filling the health undertaking online), we noticed that the people in front of us also seemed to have extra bags. When we asked them, they said they were from Vande Bharat too having come from the USA and that they would try and request for more baggage allowance. When they reached the counter they requested the same and the check-in agent spoke to a senior who gave them international baggage allowance. We requested the same and were also granted International Allowance after we furnished our Air India international leg boarding passes. Even though we had filled the health form online, we were supposed to have a hard copy too so we had to fill it again at the airport (which is a waste of time so please carry a print). Post-check-in we had about an hour and a half to kill before our flight so visited the food court and had a snack (the Delhi airport seems to be far more operational in terms of the shops and restaurants). The airline officials insisted we wear the mask and shield right at the airport and while boarding and again social distancing in the line for boarding was only loosely followed. The flight in itself was uneventful but the middle seat was occupied again and I requested the person take the aisle instead.
Landing in Mumbai and the ride home
Post landing in Mumbai we went directly to baggage control where our bags came quickly this time. Mumbai airport is a ghost town with no shops or restaurants open so it was an eerie experience to walk around what was once such a bustling place. Once we collected our bags, we were again asked to line up in front of a CRPF jawan who was stamping everyone with a ’14 day home quarantine’ stamp. I protested that we had already completed 7 days of hotel quarantine and showed him my discharge papers but we were stamped anyway and told that the ink would wear off in 2 days so how does it matter?!
We called for an Uber since we didn’t want dad to pick us up, and after a longish wait managed to get an Uber. Each Uber is being sprayed from the outside (pretty useless exercise in my opinion), and the driver is wearing masks and gloves mandatorily. We reached home at around 10 pm which is decent since the flight landed at 7.30 pm. After reaching home, we isolated ourselves for the 7-day home quarantine by ensuring we were in different rooms from Dad and monitoring our symptoms closely.
Now, the 7-day home quarantine is over and we can technically go out, but with the lockdown being extended and the number of cases rising exponentially in Mumbai, going out seems to be a distant dream. I hope my experience helps other travellers as well since it seems like a herculean task to have come back to India in the middle of the pandemic and make it back home.
A few last tips on travelling during these times
- Carry a power bank for your mobile phones since you will not get opportunities to charge your phones.
- Carry water and a snack after you deplane from your international journey because nothing is being offered and the process at Delhi Airport takes a good 5-6 hours.
- Pocket sanitisers and wearing the mask should be followed religiously especially in closed spaces.
- Carry some snacks for the hotel quarantine since the food quality varies and might not be in line with your palate.
- Invest in a Pulse Oximeter in case you are travelling with anyone in the vulnerable age group.
- Try and get direct flights wherever possible to avoid double quarantine or confusion on the part of the authorities.
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