What is it like traveling back to the Philippines in the time of COVID-19

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Karen Jimeno, lawyer and former undersecretary for disaster resiliency, recounts her recent experience traveling back to the Philippines from the U.S. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — After two years of studying in California, I was excited to go home to the Philippines as soon as possible after graduating in May. By June, most commercial airlines that normally had flights from the U.S. to Manila were still not operating. I soon realized that the “new normal” posted several challenges to get back to the Philippines. Here are several insights from my personal journey.

Finding a flight

Most carriers that used to fly to the Philippines from the U.S. or other countries have suspended their flights due to COVID-19. In the U.S., there are direct Philippine Airlines (PAL) flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Honolulu. In other states, PAL operates with other carriers and may entail layovers in other cities. When I sought to go home from Florida in May, the only flight I found from Orlando to Manila was operated by PAL with American Airlines but this required several hours of layovers in other cities.

To minimize time spent in airports and exposure to COVID-19 risks, I took a domestic flight to San Francisco, stayed there for a few days, until I secured a direct flight from San Francisco to the Philippines. Since I left a lot of stuff in Florida, I found a cargo service that ships from Florida to Manila. When booking flights, check the route of your itinerary, the number of stops, and length of layovers. You may end up spending less time in layovers and find better-priced tickets if you relocate to a city with direct flights to the Philippines.

Because of COVID-19, most airlines change their flight schedules after they issue tickets to passengers. PAL’s website currently contains a notice stating that they “may have to cancel, add or adjust our planned flights, based on international and provincial entry restrictions as well as COVID testing/quarantine limitations at specific airports.” In my experience, my flight from San Francisco to Manila was cancelled three times.

COVID-19 testing booths at the Mactan-Cebu International Airport. Photo by KAREN JIMENO

Note that once your flight is cancelled, you don’t get automatically booked on the next available flight. You have to proactively rebook your ticket to a new schedule. Generally, you have a right to rebook without penalties and only have to pay the fare difference (if any), if the cancellation was made by the airline. Read the fine print when purchasing a ticket. Sometimes the cheapest tickets have more restrictions or applicable fees for rebooking so it may end up costing you more when you buy these tickets given the uncertainties of traveling with COVID-19.

My original ticket was for a direct PAL flight from San Francisco to Manila, but I was later notified that we would be diverted to Cebu. Upon inquiry with PAL, I was advised that there was no guarantee that future flights would not be diverted to Cebu so I decided to accept this new travel itinerary. If you’re a passenger who does not want a diverted flight, you can opt to rebook or cancel without a fee if there was no notice from your airline upon purchase of your ticket that rerouting was a possibility.

Currently, PAL’s official website has a notice stating that effective July 1 “certain flights may be re-routed to land in Cebu instead of Manila, due to limited COVID-19 testing slots in Manila. If so, passengers will undergo testing and hotel quarantine in Cebu. PAL will arrange for transfer to Manila for those who receive negative test results, usually within 24 to 48 hours of testing.” If you are booking a flight with this warning already in place, carefully read the terms and conditions of the fare you select to ensure that you can rebook or cancel without penalties, in case you don’t want to accept any rerouting.

What to do before your flight

Prior to your flight, you must ensure that you have an accredited facility or hotel for your quarantine upon arrival at your destination city. For returning Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs), quarantine accommodations are covered by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) for land-based OFWs, and by the local manning agency and/or Maritime Industry Authority for sea-based OFWs. Other returning Filipinos (non-OFWs, returning students, etc.) and foreigners allowed to travel to the Philippines (exceptional cases such as expatriates, foreign spouses of Filipinos) can choose among the list of approved quarantine facilities or accredited hotels at their own cost.

It is better to book your accommodation as early as possible as accredited hotels can get fully booked. Be aware of what’s included in the hotel rates. I saw some options that appeared to be cheaper but they had less inclusions (no meals, no airport-hotel transfers). I chose an option that seemed more expensive but included all meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and airport transfers upon arrival and check-out. Passengers are required to show their hotel booking confirmation as a condition to check-in for their flight.

Passengers are also required to complete an online registration form at e-cif Philippine Red Cross and present the QR code to the airline’s check-in counter. I was informed about this at the check-in counter so this took extra time. Another passenger had issues accessing the form since her phone battery was empty and could only be filled-out online. You can lessen your check-in time by filling out this form at least a day ahead of your flight here. Save the QR code in your phone so you can show this at the airport.

Lead time and things to bring

Travelers are usually advised to arrive 3 hours ahead of the scheduled departure time for international flights. You may want to add an additional hour due to more airport processes because of COVID-19. PAL recommends an allowance of 4 hours prior to departure for international travel.

Prior to check-in, passengers are required to fill-out paper forms related to medical declarations. Depending on how fast you write, this can add an additional 15-20 minutes in your check-in process. There is also a temperature check, so make sure you are in good health prior to flying. Personally, I took a COVID-19 test a few days before my departure date to ensure that I was safe to fly.

Since you will be filling out a lot of forms at the airport (and also on the plane upon arrival), be sure to bring your own pen. You should also consider bringing more cash. The day I was flying out, there was an issue with PAL’s system so any upgrades required cash payments. Cash may also be necessary to pay for the COVID test, etc. as will be explained later.

PAL flight attendants are wearing PPEs during the flight. Photo by KAREN JIMENO

What to do while flying

Most airlines, including PAL, now require passengers to wear a mask during the whole flight. While not required, I saw some passengers also wearing visors, plastic face covers, and full protective suits.

There are several hand sanitizer dispensers at San Francisco airport, but I would still advise that you bring your own hand sanitizers or sanitizing wipes since they may not be available when you need them (such as after going through airport security) or upon settling down inside the plane.

PAL flight attendants wear full personal protective equipment (gloves, full protective body suits, masks and visors). Food and drinks were served during the flight.

Most airlines try to observe social distancing inside the plane. For the PAL flight I took from San Francisco to Cebu, people were arranged one seat apart in Business Class (except for those traveling together). In Economy Class, passengers were mostly arranged with two people per three-seat lanes (with one empty seat in the middle), while three people occupied four-seat lanes (so some people had to sit together). My Cebu to Manila flight was packed, so all seats were occupied in Business Class and Economy Class.

What to expect upon landing

Apart from the typical arrival and customs forms, there are additional forms related to COVID-19 (Patient Profile Sheet, Laboratory Test Request Form, COVID-19 Case Investigation Form, and Undertaking) that passengers must submit. We were required to stay in our seats to fill-out these forms before deboarding the plane.

Our temperatures were checked before reaching the immigration counters. After going through immigration, you must proceed to the payment counter for the RT-PCR Test. The RT-PCR test in Cebu costs ₱4,900 payable in cash or only through Visa if by credit card.

The RT-PCR test is conducted in booths located near the payment counter and also near the luggage claim areas. The test only takes around 5-10 minutes and involves a swab sample taken from the throat and from the nostrils (it is a bit painful when the swab is pushed into the nostrils, but this is the same experience I had when I took the PCR test in California).

The testing booth at the Cebu-Mar

I noticed that the Cebu International Airport was not crowded when we arrived at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday. Based on the volume of arrivals that time, it took me about 1 hour to go through immigration and finish the required RT-PCR test (this is the test required for passengers coming from the U.S.). From what I know, this processing time is much shorter compared to what other travelers go through when landing in Manila.

Luggages can be claimed after the COVID test. If your hotel accommodation includes airport transfer arrangements, there are hotel staff near the baggage claim area holding signs to the different hotels. Hotel transfers are usually shuttles that carry 10-20 passengers (depending on whether they use a van, coaster, or bus) so may have to wait for other passengers staying in the same hotel before you can depart the airport. I had to wait for an additional 20 minutes before my transportation service to the hotel left the airport. Some hotels allow private car services for guests who don’t want to share a ride to their quarantine hotel.

Quarantine: what is it like, how long, and what could go wrong

I chose Crimson Hotel in Lapu-Lapu City for my quarantine so I am not certain if other hotels have peculiar requirements. Checking-in at the Crimson Hotel requires filling-out another health declaration form and there was a bit of a line when I arrived. Since Crimson Hotel rooms are spread out into different buildings, I had to ride a golf cart to be taken to my room.

We were not allowed to leave our room during our stay. Our food for breakfast, lunch and dinner was delivered to our room. The food that was part of the quarantine package consists of pre-set meals which we didn’t select. If you have dietary restrictions, you may want to opt for accredited hotels that charge for the room only. Crimson Hotel also allows you to order room service from their regular food menu and drinks menu (which includes juices and alcoholic drinks). The room also provides toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, lotion, soap), cable TV, free internet service, a water pot heater (to make teas, etc) and a Nespresso coffee machine.

My ticket from Cebu-Manila was supposed to depart within 48 hours of arriving from San Francisco. Thus, I only booked two nights at my quarantine hotel. I soon learned that this is merely an estimate subject to the release of COVID test results. At the airport, I was told that our COVID test results would be emailed to us. By the third day (the day I was supposed to depart Cebu), I didn’t receive anything in my email and I was informed by the hotel concierge that they didn’t receive any test results for all passengers from San Francisco.

The queue at the Mactan-Cebu International Airport for printed test results. Photo by KAREN JIMENO

According to Crimson’s concierge, accredited hotels receive a list of passengers that test negative for COVID-19 and hotels inform their guests if they are on the list. I’m not sure if passengers truly receive emails about their COVID-19 test results (I didn’t get any and wasted many times checking my email). It might be more efficient to seek updates from your hotel since accredited hotels are able to coordinate with the Bureau of Quarantine (this is what Crimson’s concierge told me).

I had to extend an additional day at Crimson Hotel at my own expense. I didn’t have to do anything to rebook my ticket even if I was not able to leave on my scheduled departure date out of Cebu. PAL said I could take the next available flight out of Cebu as soon as I receive a negative COVID test result.

On my fourth day in Cebu, I received a call from the hotel’s front desk that my COVID test result was negative. It was already late in the afternoon, and I was asked to be ready for check-out by 6 p.m. Even if I spent the whole day in the hotel while waiting for my test result, I wasn’t charged for late check-out. The hotel’s transportation service drove us to the airport.

We had to claim our printed test result certificates in booths set-up outside the airport. We weren’t allowed to enter the airport or check-in for our flight without a printed certificate. I was supposed to take the 8:30 p.m. PAL flight from Cebu to Manila. Because I (and other passengers) were unable to get our certificates, we were informed that the 9:30 p.m. flight to Manila would be delayed to 11:30 p.m. to accommodate people waiting for their printed certificates. We were 83 passengers that waited for five or more hours outside the airport for our certificates, until we were informed close to midnight that the PAL flight already left us due to a curfew in Manila airport’s runway. Thus, all 83 of us had to spend another night in Cebu.

Based on this experience, I have the following key takeaways. First, when you find out that your test results are negative, inquire if your “printed certificate” is already available or would be available by the time you reach the airport. This could save you the hassle of checking out of your hotel, waiting at the airport, and possibly missing your flight if your certificate doesn’t get released (as what I and 82 passengers experienced).

Second, if you get stranded in the airport due to no fault of your own, you may request to be provided food and accommodation. In our case, the manager of the testing provider explained that there was a delay in the printing of our test certificates and offered to provide free accommodation at a hotel to all stranded passengers. I spent my fourth night in Cebu at the provided hotel without any additional expense. Other stranded passengers opted to sleep at the Cebu Airport and were provided with free breakfast the next day. I finally got to depart Cebu the next day (this was the fifth day since I arrived in Cebu) in one of the PAL flights bound for Manila.

We weren’t required to take another COVID-19 test or check-in at another quarantine facility upon arrival in Manila. However, all passengers are expected to undergo another self-quarantine of 14 days in their own homes. One of my friends who took the same flight from San Francisco opted to stay in a hotel in Manila for another 14 days upon arrival from Cebu since he didn’t want to expose his parents to any risks.

Since the testing provider had a delay in printing certificates, they offered to provide free accommodation at a hotel to all stranded passengers. Others opted to sleep at the airport. Photo by KAREN JIMENO

Estimated Costs

The RT-PCR Test at the Cebu Airport costs ₱4,900. PAL recommends that passengers book at least two nights in an accredited hotel while waiting for the test results. As of July 3, the most expensive listed rate is Movenpick Hotel in Mactan, Lapu Lapu City (₱6,380 for single occupancy with full board meals and airport transfers) while the least expensive listed rate is White Knight Hotel in Cebu City (₱1,585 for single occupancy with full board meals and airport transfers).

Be conscious of what the rates include as the listed rate may be more expensive than it seems based on what you need. For instance, one of the hotels has a room rate of ₱2,500 with meals but charges an additional ₱1,600 for roundtrip airport transportation. Another hotel charges ₱2,650 for the rooms but charges an additional ₱700 each way for airport transfers.

When budgeting your costs, keep in mind that the recommended two nights stay is only an estimate. The release of the COVID test results may take longer and that will add to your hotel expenses. When booking for your quarantine hotel, make sure to do it through the listed phone number and/or email and contact person indicated in the “DOT/DOH Authorized Hotels for Returning Overseas Filipinos Province of Cebu.” This list can also be accessed through the PAL website.

It appears that the packaged rates provided in the list are cheaper for quarantine purposes than the regular rates of these hotels. Since I ended up spending four nights and five days in Cebu, my total personal costs for COVID testing and quarantine was around ₱25,000. Make sure to check all your options so that you can make arrangements that suit your budget.