What to Expect ~ Flying to Africa During Covid-19

Disclaimer: Our family is fortunate to call two places home, one on the banks of the Zambezi River and another in the USA. In May we decided that we needed to return to the Zambezi. The decision was not made quickly as there are many considerations to make before booking international flight tickets during COVID. Anyone who is considering traveling now should be obliged to consider those same risks to health, safety, wellness, and potential to be stranded.

Disclaimer 2: This is shared in the spirit of letting people know our experience and to inform those that have chosen to travel. Rules, standards of service, and regulations are constantly changing with regard to borders. This only seeks to inform people of what might happen during their experience of traveling during these times.

We flew from Houston, TX to Lusaka, Zambia and then drove from Lusaka to Livingstone, Zambia from June 6, 2020 to June 8, 2020. We’re a family of four with a 9 year old and 11 year old. Three of us are United States citizens and one of is an Irish citizen and Zambian resident. None of us have had symptoms of COVID at any time or were never knowingly exposed to anyone who have/has/had COVID. We arrived to Livingstone with no significant delays or incident that would have made us decide not to take the trip again.

Part 1: The Plan

Our original plan for 2020 was to travel the world with our boys. January in Zambia, February in Mexico, March in the USA, and on and on. The boys (9 and 11) started homeschool in January and our entire year was mapped out to the day to balance both sales calls for our business in Zambia, time back at the lodge, time with family and friends around the globe, and time educating and sharing this great world with our boys.

Of course, plans change, but rarely as significantly as the world’s have this year. When the world changed with COVID, we found ourselves in the USA indefinitely starting in March. What was usually a time filled with visits to friends and family, catching up at favorite restaurants, and exploring the beauty of America turned into a weeks long home stay featuring masks, Zoom calls, and delivery meals and grocery shops.

A few circumstances made us consider a return home. One of us is not an American citizen, so there were concerns about the potential to extend their stay. The other concern is that our primary business is a lodge in Zambia. Even though the travel business is at a complete standstill and during normal times the lodge is 100% managed by local Zambian stakeholders, the business is our passion and our family, so it was important to us to be there during these confusing times.

We had various concerns about traveling: getting COVID, spreading COVID, being stuck on our way back to Zambia, access to healthcare and safety while in Zambia, and when we might be able to return to the USA.

After weighing the risks and needs, we decided to return to our family and business on the Zambezi.

The next step was the logistics of return. Our tickets to the USA were originally on Emirates. Emirates is not flying into Zambia at the time of our return, so changing return dates was not an option.

(Our flight on Emirates to the USA on 27 Jan 2020)

Our preference was to return as directly as possible while avoiding Europe. We wanted to return directly to minimize the chance of being exposed to different airports. We wanted to avoid Europe so those of us that are not citizens didn’t risk being denied by entry to the USA in the future.

Ethiopian Airlines met these criteria the best. (Private international jet travel was not in our budget). Ethiopian had begun flying out the USA to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and from Addis Ababa to Lusaka, Zambia in the last week. Once landing in Lusaka we would do a six to nine hour road transfer from Lusaka to Livingstone (where our home is).

Our schedule was evening departure from Houston, TX (IAH) to Washington, DC (IAD). Overnight at the airport hotel in Washington, DC. Then an 11am flight Washington, DC to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In Addis we had a two hour layover, then boarded a flight to Lusaka via Harare, Zimbabwe. The Harare layover was scheduled for about one hour and we did not disembark the plane. On arrival to Lusaka at 5pm we would be met by friends who would drive with us directly to the lodge near Livingstone.

Part 2: The Trip Log

June 6, 2020

5:00 pm – Drop off at Houston Intercontinental Airport. Four cars in the drop off area. Unload luggage and head to check in counters. The check in counters at United were each alternatively closed, assuming this was for social distancing. A United employee kindly helped us at the check in kiosk with our five pieces of checked luggage and four carry-ons.

Our tickets were all the way through Lusaka, so we were able to check our luggage all the way there. Consequently the United employee paid a lot of attention to the visa rules for Zambia to be completely sure that we would be granted access.

Seat assignments were only given when we checked in to United. Just United seat assignments were given as well. We were told our Ethiopian seat assignments could not happen until we checked into that flight.

Another quirk of our tickets is that one of us was on their own record, and the other three were on a separate record. Those three were seated together on one row, and the fourth person was seated in a separate seat.

5:15pm – Making our way to security. Just two people in line in front of us and the line moved very quickly. Normally there is a United premier access line on the other side of the hall, but this was closed. TSA precheck and United premier were both on the same side of the hall.

Normal TSA security check (with the exception of having to pull down our masks for the officer to verify our identify). Security line for x-rays and inspection were the same as always. It appeared that pre check still had to take off shoes, coats, and take out laptops. Fortunately the normal line was just as speedy as the pre check line normally is.

5:25 pm – Have made it through security without major incident. One of us knits and knitting needles almost always have to be taken out for further consideration by the TSA. Fortunately they knew that needles are allowed and we went through without problem.

5:30 pm – A quick bathroom stop. Nothing abnormal about the bathrooms. Did not notice any additional cleaning staff or measures. Just fewer people in the bathroom than normal.

In the main corridors there were surprisingly more people than expected. Not teeming crowds, but did not look barren like we expected. Most of the food and travel shops were still open. The retail shops for clothes and electronics appeared to be all closed.

5:50 pm – Stop at the food court. Majority of them were open and all the employees were wearing masks and the majority were wearing gloves. Was easy to find a table to sit out, but would not say that the food court sitting area was empty. Also did not notice any cleaning staff specifically focused on cleaning tables and chairs as soon as people got up.

6:20 pm – Heading towards the gate, one of us gets an alert that they have been given an upgrade from economy to first!

6:30 pm – Arrive at gate and boarding has already started. Technically from back to front, but the one of us that received an upgrade boards with us prior to being called with no problem. Handiwipes distributed by cabin crew upon entering the aircraft.

6:35 pm – Settled in for the flight. People are still boarding, but seems to be about 75% full in economy and a little more than 50% full in first. The upgraded person was seated next to someone else in first. The rest of first class was all seated alone.

Attitude and mood of the cabin crew was spectacular. They wore masks the entire time with gloves while serving the United packs.

7:05 pm – Departure about 10 minutes early. In flight emergency briefing was normal except for “Due to COVID, no mask or life vest demonstrations.” Also, no in flight magazines, just the emergency instruction sheet.

7:30 pm – Prior to inflight service, cabin attendants advised over PA, “In light of COVID situation, we have sealed drinks and snacks for today’s flight.” Captain also advised to not congregate around galley or bathroom. To please keep masks on unless eating or drinking. And please stay in seat during our modified service.

First class received the United Classic, Select, or Savory food packs. Economy had a stroopwaffel and drink. Fully sized cans of soft drinks were served or bottled water.

10:50 pm – Arrival to Washington, DC (IAD). No incidents during the flight and arrive about 20 minutes early. No delays or special deplaning process.

11:00 pm – Off the plane and walking the very empty and very closed corridors of IAD.  The airport trams were mostly empty. No special cleaning staff apparent.

Our luggage was checked through so we proceeded to the normal hotel shuttle area for our prebooked room at Washington Dulles Airport Marriott. We received an email the day before with the shuttle schedule that was operating all day still. We waited about 15 minutes before the shuttle arrived.

11:20 pm – Shuttle driver was wearing masks and gloves. Normal process of loading our luggage in the back and getting on the bus. Just us on the bus.

11:30 pm – Check into the hotel. Normal check in procedure (except that the desk had clear plastic in front of the front desk person.) Restaurant was closed but the front desk staff did advise a pizza place down the road still delivered.

11:40 pm – In the room and no problems there. Nothing noticeably abnormal from the room if it had been 6 months ago.

June 7, 2020

7:30 am – Wake up and quick pack. Headed to front desk for checkout. The front desk kindly gave the boys two packs of gum for free.

7:40 am – Shuttle bus departs on time. Same procedure as last night for getting on the bus, luggage in the back, then we boarded.

7:50 am – At the terminal and headed to the check in counter for Ethiopian. We were unable to do seat assignments online or at check in at Houston. So we waited in line. It was not a fast line. There were two counter staff checking in luggage and staff. Very slow going as they were verifying ability of everyone to arrive into their destination country.

8:00 am – Still waiting. One of us goes for coffee. The airport is decidedly empty compared to Houston yesterday.

8:10 am – Back with coffee. Still waiting.

8:30 am – The folks in front of us were not able to convince the Ethiopian representative that they could actually arrive in their destination country.

8:32 am – Our turn in line. All we needed were seat assignments, but the representative still checked our ability to enter Zambia. He took pictures of our passports and resident cards and sent them to another representative via email. In the interim he made seat assignments for us on both legs of our flight to Lusaka. He said the flights were wide open and sat us in four empty rows that were next to or behind each other for both flights. The representative had not called him back regarding our ability to enter Zambia, so he asked us to step aside and wait for a call back to confirm our ability to enter.

8:40 am – We were still waiting for confirmation from the representative that we could proceed to security. He was on the phone, talking to another group that was insisting they had the right papers, and checking in another family all at the same time. He appeared to wave us on that we were ok to travel, so we made our way to security since we had our boarding passes.

8:45 am – At TSA security. Again with the documents and pull the mask down dance. No problem at all.

8:47 am – No one in the security line and we have gone through the x-ray line quickly. While packing up laptops and putting shoes on, the Ethiopian representative calls at us from beyond the x-ray machine. His supervisor has called back and wants him to double check our documents given our unique destination and compliment of nationalities. We present the documents and he is reassured that we will make it into Zambia.

This honestly gave us a bit of relief as well. We had gone as far as having one of our friends in Zambia have coffee with the minister of tourism for reassurances that we would actually be able to enter Zambia. So that both the minister said yes to us entering and the airline allowed us to board were two big check marks that one of our great concerns of being denied entry to Zambia was assuaged.

9:10 am – Given that we had more than a day of sitting and traveling ahead of us, we opted to walk the empty corridors to our gate. It was quiet. Long moving walkways with no one else on them.

The youngest spots a sign that 10 and under do not have to wear masks. We have to disappointingly deny him that option.

About 25% of the restaurants and retail outlets are open in the terminal. Not at all like Houston where there were plenty of open restaurants and open travel outlets. Drinking fountains were covered in Houston, but not at Dulles. When we tried to fill our bottles, the water was extremely calcified, so we opted not to use them and instead got bottled water from a shop.

We opted for some sandwiches and typical fast food. Masks and gloves for all. Limited menus. Service was relatively quick.

9:20 am – Sit by the gate, eat, and wait. Bathroom break showed that the bathrooms were super clean.

9:35 am – Very interesting levels of concern for COVID by passengers. Some are maskless, some are masked, some are mask plus a clear visor covering their face, and some are in tyvex suits with hoodies, gloves, mask, goggles, and clear visors.

10:00 am – Boarding was quick with everyone lining up and boarding regardless of seat assignments. The short lines and ample overhead space is nice, but does not come close to making up for the in your face reminders of traveling during COVID.

11:10 am – Departing gate right on time. Flight is probably 50% full in economy. We were assured that we each had our own row, but one of us ended up with someone seated one seat away. It was no problem with the cabin crew that we moved seats to be on a row with the family.

11:15 am – Emergency briefing same as normal. No mention of COVID or special procedures. Same as United with no in flight magazines, just the emergency sheet.

11:40 am – Cruising altitude and have realized that the seat back entertainment is not on. The screen usb plugs and under seat plugs are also not functioning. The seat screen and light controls also appear to not work. Cabin crew says they are all disabled and do not know why. They can however, turn on the seat overhead light on request.

11:50 am – Ethiopian while we were flying did not feel or look like they had partnered or implemented any special cleaning procedures. The seat tray was dirty and we used our own cleaning wipes to clean it. The blankets were wrapped like normal and the pillows were unwrapped. The last three seats of the plane were piled with plastic bags filled with what we assume were the previous flights blankets.

Dinner, snack, and breakfast service all seemed totally normal. No special drink or food procedures. The bathrooms also did not appear to have any special cleaning procedures followed during the flight.

The cleaning and procedures seemed to be totally normal service, which may or may not be a good thing during COVID. In spite of that, some of the cabin crew were exceptional incredibly kind and nice. Perhaps having a 9 and 11 year old without in flight entertainment for 13 hours inspired them to get on their good side. They presented the boys with great, sealed, kids packs.

June 8, 2020

5:00 am – Cabin crew passes out document for each individual (including kids) to complete regarding their health status. We are to hold onto these until entering the terminal.

7:15 am – Landing at Addis about on time. It took quite a long time to deplane, about 20 to 30 minutes. After exiting the aircraft, it is likely that we were waiting for the tarmac buses. The buses were crowded with people. There were no social distancing measures, no limits on number of people on buses. We were packed tightly in the bus.

8:05 am – Terminal building was not busy at all. We go through security, but no document checking. Our next flight is at 9:25am from Addis to Lusaka via Harare.

8:10 am – No problem finding the gate and we sit and wait. The screen updates with delays of our flight for unknown reasons. Our plane was sitting at the gate since we had arrived. We walk the corridor, two restaurants are open, but empty. One coffee shop is open with one person at it. Fortunately the Wifi at the airport is free and acceptable.

10:05 am – Boarding for Lusaka from the jetway (no bus thankfully). The counter kindly signals us to board as a family first. (No one has taken the health declaration that we completed on the previous flight).

10:15 am – Mostly empty on the flight. All the cabin crew is wearing masks and gloves. 100% of the passengers are in masks (as opposed to the last flight with plenty of maskless passengers.) We each easily have our own seats. The entire middle row of seats are empty.

10:20 am – Cabin crew sprays the overhead luggage compartments down with something. Seems like normal procedure.

10:45 am – At cruising altitude and appears that the in flight entertainment and seat controls being off is a systemwide issue because this six hour flight is also dark and screenless. Fortunately the traveling appears to exhaust the boys and they sleep most of the way.

1:26 pm – Arrived at gate of Harare, Zimbabwe airport. No issues during the last three hours on the flight. We are exhausted. About 20 passengers deplane.

Cabin crew vacuums the aircraft, but that is the only apparent cleaning.

1:45 pm – About 30 passengers board the plane.

2:56 pm – Plane backs up from the gate and we are headed to Lusaka.

3:48 pm – Land at Lusaka, Zambia. Walk straight off the plane to the terminal. We are met by a airport representative in a white lab coat and presented with a health declaration to complete.

4:10 pm – Everyone has lined up for a temperature check. There is a single line with a large screen at the end attached to a heat sensitive camera. Individuals are identified by the camera and their temperature appears next to their head on the screen. An airport representative (again in a white lab coat) looks at the screen and notes your temperature on your health declaration. It was a very quick process.

4:25 pm – At immigration. We present our documents and are allowed entry. (Contact us directly for more details on our specific visas.)

4:45 pm – Immediately after immigration more white lab coats greet us. We are lead to desks to complete two more forms regarding our health details. The forms are attached to vials that hold our free COVID tests.

4:50 pm – We walk with our tests and documents to the side of the hall for a fully covered (mask, clear visor, goggles, hoodie, full suit) health representative to administer a nasal COVID test. We all take the test with no incident. The staff was very well trained to keep repeating that the test would produce “just some mild irritation in your nose.”

4:55 pm – After the test, they took our documents and we were on our way to baggage claim with a “we’ll call you with results in 3 days, please self quarantine until then.”

4:58 pm – Our luggage was already off the carousel and waiting for us. Our friends are waiting just beyond luggage claim and we make our way to the car. The airport was very empty. Staff said that only Ethiopian is flying in internationally.

5:02 pm – We leave the Lusaka airport. On the road Lusaka does not appear to be observing social distancing or masks. Everyone on the sidewalks and shops look like business as usual.

6:00 pm – We will spare the details of the drive from Lusaka to the lodge near Livingstone, but will provide some notes.

We would never recommend leisure travelers take this road transfer. And even more strongly discourage it being done in one day.

There were numerous checkpoints on the road from Lusaka. Some were a quick wave through. Others wanted to verify the trailer’s registration (we were in a mini bus with small trailer). The most interesting one required us to exit the vehicle, submit a temperature reading while the checkpoint representative sprayed the tires and door handles with some sort of cleaner.

June 9, 2020

2:30 am – We arrive at the lodge. Thankful to be back safely and sound.

Part 3: The End

After more than three days since we arrive in Zambia there were no calls from the Ministry of Health regarding our COVID tests. Everyone feels healthy and we are self isolating at our home on the Zambezi River and will continue to do so until two weeks is up.

We do not regret making the decision to travel back to Zambia. It is good to see friendly faces, friendly birds, and the historically high water levels on the river.

Zambia and Ethiopia are currently the two African countries opened for reentry (with the caveat of a 2 week quarantine requirement). That will not work well for the guests that would typically visit the lodge, but we are hopeful that the crisis will be under control and regulations will allow for international visitors to return to the lodge under somewhat normal terms.

Our boys are happy and managed the trip beyond our expectations. The lack of screens was a concern on the flights as well as the lack of charging ability for our devices. We are still not sure why both flights had the seats turned off, perhaps to limit people touching the screen and surfaces?

Ethiopian Airlines was our only choice to get back to Zambia, and we would still make the trip in hindsight. However if we have a choice between our normal carrier, Emirates and Ethiopian, it is a very easy decision that we would do Emirates. Even if there were additional connections and flight times, the service on Emirates and how they are communicating their health and cleaning standards for the future make us much more confident to travel with them.

Our current flight plans call for us to return to the USA later this year. We are hopeful that the COVID crisis is on a downward trajectory by then and there are clear and consistent health standards followed worldwide to prevent the spread.