Flying in the Covid-19 era: what a Singapore-South Korea trip under quarantine-free air travel corridor arrangement entails
- Singaporean tourists now have a range of countries to head to, as long as they are inoculated, via the vaccinated travel lane scheme. Among them is South Korea
- Proof of vaccination, insurance and a negative PCR test were some of the hurdles this writer required to take advantage of the arrangement and fly to Incheon
Camera shutters went off in rapid succession as we entered the Incheon International Airport arrivals hall.
None of us passengers on Korean Air flight KE646 from Singapore was a hallyu (or Korean wave) celebrity and none was ready for the media scrum, having taken an unusual six-hour flight and undergone stringent document and immigration checks.
Not that many of us were actual tourists. Of the 54 Singaporeans that arrived on that November 15 morning flight, more than half were press or travel agency representatives. And of the 120 passengers, the majority seemed to be Koreans.
Compared with Germany (one of the first countries Singapore launched a VTL with and a route I travelled in October), entry to South Korea was more tedious, because more paperwork was required. Having heard horror stories of VTL trips going awry because of a single missing document, I had been vigilant with my pre-departure checklist.
The crucial requirement for boarding a VTL flight is that the passenger must have had their second vaccination at least 14 days before departure. The vaccination must have been given in either of the VTL partner countries and the would-be tourist must not have left their home country during those 14 days.
It’s important to note, too, that if a passenger arrives on any flight other than a dedicated VTL flight, it’s likely they’ll have to quarantine upon arrival even if they fulfil all the other requirements.
At least one passenger has had to turn back after landing in Singapore from Germany because he had taken the wrong type of flight and would have had to serve a 14-day quarantine if he chose to remain.
Having scrambled to assemble the documentation, I then had to find a printer. Who has one of those these days? Not me, nor apparently any of my friends.
I arrived at Changi Airport much earlier than I would have done in pre-Covid times – gone are the days when you could check in online and simply do a bag drop at the airport. My documents were checked carefully and I boarded – all in good time.
Although being on one of the first VTL flights came with a certain amount of stress – even the relevant authorities were unsure of a process that was new to everyone – it also meant the aircraft wasn’t full. There was no restriction on the sale of tickets for social distancing reasons, according to an airline official, but our flight was at less than 60 per cent capacity, although all seats in business class were taken.
During the flight we had to fill in more forms, which included another health and travel history declaration and, upon arrival, travellers have to download a Korea Disease Control and Prevention (KCDA) app, for health declarations and daily self-monitoring.
Having landed, we queued for 80 minutes or more for our vaccination and PCR test documents to be checked. We then cleared immigration and customs quickly, picked up our luggage – and stepped into the fanfare.
Once welcome speeches and photo shoots were completed, we were given PCR tests (visitors staying in South Korea for eight days or more will have to do another of these on their sixth or seventh day), and could then leave the airport.
After checking into Incheon’s Paradise City Hotel and getting our vaccination status and PCR tests verified, we were told to wait in our rooms until the results were released. Once they had been delivered – between 4pm and 5pm, about seven or eight hours after touchdown – we were free to explore Incheon, Seoul and beyond.
I am now enjoying seeing a new country. The updating of my Singapore SafeTravel app, pre-booking of an on-arrival PCR test at Changi Airport and the PCR or antigen rapid test needed 48 hours before getting on my flight home are all for another day.