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8 things I learnt from my first long-haul trip back to Europe - Matt Leedham

The new era of travel is now well and truly in full swing. After an action-packed five-country trip in Europe, including stopping off in Abu Dhabi, Karryon founder Matt Leedham has just returned home to Australia and can assure you that the trip was a breeze. Here's what he experienced.

The new era of travel is now well and truly in full swing. After an action-packed five-country trip in Europe, including stopping off in Abu Dhabi, Karryon founder Matt Leedham has just returned home to Australia and can assure you that the trip was a breeze. Here’s what he experienced.

Fifteen days, seven flights (including Etihad’s 15th year of flying from Australia celebration), five countries including The UAE, UK, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary …

… Three rail journeys, multiple hotels, a four-day cruise down the Danube with Avalon Waterways to celebrate the christening of their sparkling new ship ‘The View’

Still going … Precious hugs with my mum and brother, countless excited conversations, and multiple car and coach transfers made up a rousing welcome back to long-haul travelling after two-plus very long years.

Phew. What a trip.

So what did I learn about travelling in the new normal? Here’s my 8 tips to share that will hopefully help you on your next long-haul trip.

1. Travel restrictions are mostly a relic of the past

Despite feeling a little nervous before departing about such a big trip, I need not have worried one bit.

Leaving Sydney was completely hassle-free. I had a stopover booked in Abu Dhabi, which meant I was required to complete a simple UAE government online form before I left, including uploading my vaccination certificate.

I flew Etihad, which also has a streamlined ‘Verified to fly’ initiative which enables you to upload your trip details and vaccination certificate while checking in online and results in a fast-track process at the airport. All I had to do was show my passport as usual at the check-in desk, and 5-minutes later, I was on my way. British Airways has a similar set up.

Arriving in the UK required no pre-departure or arrival details whatsoever, and the same applied to Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.

In Abu Dhabi, I undertook a RAT test when I arrived at the airport (for free). While taking a RAT test is ‘optional’, The UAE currently requires a ‘green tick’ to access hotels, shopping malls and attractions and uses an app called ‘Alhosn’, similar to our state-based check-in versions in Australia.

Post negative RAT test on the Avalon View

The only other RAT test I did was onboard the Avalon View in Vienna. This was conducted (for free) in my cabin by a staff member immediately after I’d boarded and took ten minutes.

The other excellent thing about river cruising is that because all of your passport and vaccination details have been pre-loaded before you depart, there are no border crossings to worry about and you’ll literally sail through them without noticing. So easy and worry-free.

When it came to returning to Australia, Easter Sunday, April 17, finally saw Australia ditch its negative RAT or PCR test requirement for vaccinated arrivals to enter Australia from overseas.

This was a defining moment for travel and one that I fell short of by three hours. Arriving in Sydney on Saturday, April 16, in the evening meant I still had to do a supervised (and paid) RAT test in Budapest 24-hours before I departed.

Regardless, the process was easy, done in my hotel room and took about 10 minutes, with the results given instantly.

But good riddance to that rule which will undoubtedly save time, money and stress for anyone returning to Australia.

You will still have to complete the Australian Government ‘Digital Passenger Declaration’ to prove your vaccination status, which was probably the most time-consuming piece I had to complete. But at least there’s no negative test certification required anymore.

2. Flying long-haul is not scary

Etihad Airways
Etihad Airways takes off from Abu Dhabi International Airport

Unless you are a nervous flyer, there is nothing to fear when flying long-haul in the new era of travel.

The PPE crew gear is long gone, but wearing a mask in many airports (Not Heathrow) and on flights is still mandatory and will likely remain for a while yet.

Wearing a mask for up to 24 plus hours on flights to and from Europe is uncomfortable, but I still think this rule is a good thing – and not just from a Covid catching perspective.

Pre-Covid, the number of people coughing and spluttering on long-haul flights was something we all had to literally ‘take in’, often at the expense of getting the flu ourselves, which I did countless times.

The tip here is to take plenty of spares with you and invest in comfortable masks. Austria still required people to wear the N95 mask indoors when I was there which is really uncomfortable, but proven to be the best barrier against infection.

3. It’s true. Some people are not ‘match fit’ for travel

Manchester Airport arrivals. Let the suitcase Hunger Games begin

While travellers not being, ahem, ‘match fit’ is no excuse for lengthy delays and poor customer service, it’s still a reality and can be frustrating for the more seasoned frequent flyer.

Pesky old habits are back, and many are in a Hunger Games inspired rush to get to wherever they are going, yet have forgotten how it all works as now infrequent flyers.

Misplaced documents (how many pockets can someone have?), overweight luggage, multiple liquids and banned items in carry-on and the usual baggage carousel scrum with trolleys being used as dodgem cars.

For some, maybe it’s their first rodeo, and they never travelled at all pre-Covid, or perhaps some were never match fit for travel anyway. Whatever the reason, we’re all finding our feet again. So the best thing we can do is take a deep breath or two and be thankful we’re finally travelling.

Ps. Guess who left a bottle of champagne and a full water bottle in his carry-on departing from Vienna Airport? “Shall we make a party?” Said the kind lady at the X-ray, laughing. If only we could have popped it there and then.

4. Europe is already back to 90% of pre-covid travel levels

If you want to gaze into the crystal ball for a future glance at travel, take a look at Europe right now, which is already back to 90% of pre-Covid travel levels.

Just last week, home-based UK advisor network Travel Counsellors announced that average spending in March was up 20% on 2019 levels, with more travellers choosing to upgrade their trips.

However, everywhere I visited was still relatively quiet and vastly lacking in the kind of overtourism some European destinations had sadly become infamous for pre-pandemic.

So my advice is don’t wait! This European summer is shaping up to be a huge one, so plan early to avoid disappointment, and if you are thinking of going between now and June to avoid the rush – don’t hesitate.

5. But the supply chain is still fractured

Manchester Airport this Easter

It’s estimated that 200,000 travel industry jobs were lost in the UK alone at the start of the pandemic, and the impact is visible and a daily media story.

It’s a familiar tale of course for Australia too. Still, European Airports and airlines have struggled to source and skill up staff to meet overwhelming demand, with customs and immigration floundering to recruit security validated individuals who can take 12-months to train.

Add in significant amounts of staff members being continually absent from Covid, and the result can be ongoing and inconsistent delays and cancellations and inexperienced staff and experiences. In the UK, you’ll see job signs everywhere in shops and café windows.

Overall though, my trip was generally smooth sailing, with getting my baggage at airport carousels the only actual delays to note.

Operational bottom line costs are also rising significantly due to a global supply chain that was broken in the pandemic, with Russia’s invading Ukraine, adding more instability, shortages and evolving challenges.

Whether it’s fuel, electricity or the price for a beer or a baguette, businesses and individuals across Europe are doing it tough, which will undoubtedly impact the traveller’s hip pocket through 2023, at least as prices rise for pretty much everything.

6. Don’t be tone deaf on your travels

The Covid Memorial Wall, London

The pandemic has taken approximately 1.8 million lives in the last two years in Europe alone. And still counting. Think about that for a second. It’s horrific. While it was still a dreadful time for us too, our experience in Australia has been vastly and thankfully very different.

It’s important to remind yourself of this on your travels, be sensitive to the fact and be patient. While there is so much relief and joy at the resumption of travel and reconnection it brings, not everyone in the places you’ll go will be happy to see tourists back. Bear in mind that many have suffered immense personal loss and may still be grieving.

The same goes for handshakes or hugging people. All of us have had a different pandemic experience so feel it out first and be respectful to others needs and boundaries.

7. Plan for contingency

Whether it’s padding out extra time to meet a connection or just arriving at airports much earlier, “Uncertainty is the new certainty”, as the new maxim says.

Reread point 5 and understand why there will be a lot of travel elements that could change on your trip, sometimes at the last minute.

Those who love turning up as late as possible for everything may want to change their habits or be left behind.

One tip is to monitor your flights through your airline app to check on any up to date delays or cancellations that may arise and tweak your plans accordingly before you go to the airport.

Oh, and get insurance!

8. You may get Covid on your trip

Rapid Antigen test
Rapid Antigen test (RAT)

While infection numbers and deaths have thankfully dropped, it’s not going away and will be everywhere you will go. There’s no hiding from it if you want to enjoy yourself.

The good news is we are all living with Covid now, and in Europe and especially the UK, you’ll generally find that no one really bats an eyelid or talks about it anymore.

The fear and anxiety around potentially dying for most people have decreased, and these days, catching Covid is seen as more of an inconvenience. The trend is to RAT test yourself often (They are mostly free or cheap in Europe) before you go to a social event, work or visit family.

When it comes to travelling from Australia, the main risk of catching Covid is not being able to undertake a cruise or tour or just getting sick. Getting stranded and not being able to get home until you have tested negative is not a thing anymore in light of arrival testing in Australia being removed.

That said, the knock-on effect now is that some of the people on your flight home with you could likely have Covid.

Ah, yes.

The workaround? Wear a mask where you can indoors and on flights (even if no one else is – and it does feel weird), use hand sanitiser and get insured! I can’t stress how important that is. Most insurers (and even some airlines and tour companies) offer Covid cover to offset incurred expenses, so there’s no excuse.

Bonus Tip. Be grateful to be travelling again

The Avalon View Christening in Bratislava! With Captain Ambrose Manolache, Meredith Viera (Godmother) and Managing Director of Avalon Waterways Pam Hoffee

I can’t express how wonderful it felt to be immersed in other cultures again, hearing different languages, eating and drinking locally and sharing precious moments with strangers.

Travel is a privilege and always was. But being able to travel again made me notice every step of the way with immense gratitude and fresh eyes to remind myself how extraordinary and valuable it is.

Not to mention how lucky we are to get to travel for work and have such memorable experiences with colleagues old and new.

The strangest feeling on my trip? Just how normal it all felt. I couldn’t wrap my head around it and kept pinching myself to see if it was real. Was this really happening?

Travel is back, and it feels incredible.

Happy travels.

Matt travelled to Europe and Abu Dhabi as a guest of Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi Tourism and Avalon Waterways.