The One Where I Braved A Personal Travel in 2020

Text: This post is mostly in English with some Filipino and Taglish.

When the Philippine government allowed outbound travels again back in October, despite overall paranoia, I decided to travel outside the country for personal reasons (I don’t want to use the term “nonessential” because what if it’s essential to me? NAKS).

My plan had always been there but evolving community quarantines and national restrictions pushed it back. Government guidelines also change every so often, both outbound and inbound, and add workplace-specific guidance, they really made it harder to navigate the plan. But as they say, if there’s a will, there’s a way, so in under a month, yours truly was on her way.

The requirements changed in a span of two weeks. Initially they required travelers to present round-trip tickets, medical insurance, personal declaration of risks, and a negative COVID test result. The last item was changed to oh, an negative antigen test would suffice, then immediately to ah, don’t bother, we do not need to see test results at all. I think it’s because the airlines have their own requirements anyway, so maybe the government unofficially turned over the burden of asking for proof to the carriers?

Anyway, so, I went to the US for two weeks. Contrary to the misconception, the US has not restricted tourist visa-possessing travelers from the Philippines when they announced their travel restrictions; it only seemed that way because the US Embassy here has been closed for routine visa operations since April and more importantly, the Philippine government did not allow nonessential travels for a good seven months anyway. 

Documents I Prepared

Outbound: Checking in, Leaving, and Arriving in the US

Inbound: Returning Resident Requirements

Inbound: Arrival Steps and Requirements

To prepare for the trip, I did the following:

1.Purchased a round-trip ticket.

I threw my “Price – Low to High” principle out the window and chose Korean Airlines because they offer the shortest flight duration, ergo, less layovers and exposure. I also ditched my DIY planning and decided to seek the help of an agency; with the ever-changing circumstances I didn’t want to be dealing with the adjustments should it occur. I recommend Interlink Travel Corporation who is managed by a friend. They are in Manila although in the middle of relocating to a new office. For price quotes and assistance, you can contact them at +632 5240016 to 18 and +639173294737.

2. Got myself tested for COVID-19 using the RT-PCR test.

I did mine in St. Luke’s. See here for a quick rundown.

3. Purchased a travel and medical insurance.

I battled with a few choices until I settled with USI Travel Insurance Services. If you browse their site, the terms and inclusions are straightforward with a premium calculator so you can tailor it based on your travel duration and age versus needs. I needed both travel and medical insurance, and one that specifically states COVID-19 is included in the coverage. With their Standard Plan A, I got what I wanted. If you check the inclusions in the standard plan, political unrest was also covered, and since I went when the nail-biting US elections just ended, that was also part of my apprehensions. What if magka-civil unrest, paano ako uuwi? Char. I ended up not using the insurance at all which is always the better option.

4. Executed an immigration declaration acknowledging the risks involved in traveling overseas.

This document was provided at the airline check-in counter. It’s a one-pager asking your bio-details and travel details. One field in the form asked the purpose of the trip, if it is essential, and if it is not, why do I need to travel? Feel na feel mo na gusto ka pa ring pigilan, lol. I totally understand the precautions but a slightly nervous me was ready to provide an essay as to why, but I was limited to three lines! In the end, brief and direct to the point will cut it.

The Outbound Process

Even with the lifting of the restrictions, the airport was still very much unoccupied when I arrived. Since online checkin was not an option I was still there three hours before the flight. Korean Air was very thorough, and presenting paper copies of the documents required definitely helped. For the negative test result they required a signed certificate, and there were a few who were not allowed to proceed for not having one. Hindi ko na nausyoso nasaan ang disconnect doon kung bakit hindi nila alam, kasi I am sure had they known, magcocomply naman sila.

This was taken while in line at the check-in counter. The people in white are mostly airport personnel. I should have taken a shot of the other side, also practically empty, but nadistract ako sa ceiling. LOL

I had to complete by hand the immigration declaration before getting my boarding pass. Once finished, the airline staff told me to look for her again when immigration does not allow me to proceed so they can offload and release my luggage. I knew that it’s a very standard spiel even without the pandemic but hearing it at that point wasn’t very comforting. Sa dami ng dinaaanan ko, sabay hindi pa rin ako makakaalis?! My gahd.

Luckily, and I cannot speak for all the travelers, my immigration interview was a breeze. Grabe lang yung build up ni Ate check-in counter sa emotions ko. So I concluded that it’s the airline who needed to see all the documents; I wasn’t asked about my ticket, my insurance, my test result. The officer just asked how long I’ll be away and what I do for a living, and I was off.

The flight itself was uneventful. All of us passengers were around 50 people plus the crew. As in umaalog-alog sa aircraft talaga. Both flights we got to enjoy having no one beside us, even getting a row to ourselves. My layover was in Incheon and arriving there at 4 a.m. meant practically nothing was open, passengers were all at the transfer lounges, and if it’s not your lucky day you’d end up at the workspaces to catch some sleep. This time, the sleeping pods were barely occupied at all. The water fountains were also deliberately kept non-functioning to prevent the spread of viruses.

Everyone was already on board when I snapped this. Nakakalungkot talaga for the travel industry pero safety is a priority.

Arrival procedures in the US were relatively faster. Since travelers are not that many in recent months, I expected immigration and customs would take advantage of the time to interview people longer, lalo pa kami since the airport POE has no kiosks in use (not sure if they do and they only temporarily ceased using it to prevent virus spreading on surfaces?). Anyway, my entry was quick. A stark difference was getting asked for the specific address of my final destination, presumably to provide me information about quarantine concerns which are specific per state. And even when I had it handy, they didn’t ask at all for my negative COVID result or any medical insurance should I contract the virus during my short stay. Hindi ko na ininsist, hindi na nga tinanong eh. Smile na lang!

The Return of the Judie: The Inbound Process

As a returning resident (wow, parang ang tagal nawala), it greatly helped that I arranged the following in advance:

1.RT-PCR Swab Test thru Philippine Red Cross (PRC)

Returning residents can pay for the test ahead of their arrival date through PRC’s electronic case information form (eCIF) website. I registered my information and paid electronically. The email address will be the primary means of communication and getting updates from them, including the swab test result.

Testing is not exclusive to PRC. When I arrived, I saw another provider which travelers can use and where arrangements can be made at the airport upon arrival.

2. Hotel accomodation while waiting for the swab test result

Swab test results are released within 24 to 72 hours per information materials. There are plenty of IATF-accredited hotels in Metro Manila one can choose from (see the list here – that it is from our flag carrier, a private company, and not a government website, ay sige na, immaterial na at this time). I chose Hotel 101 in Macapagal because of its price (bumalik na si Tita Price – Low to High, tapos na ang bakasyon) and basic amenities which more importantly included a microwave. I’ll tell you more about the stay in a separate post.

Arrival Steps

Upon disembarking from the plane, we were met by a line manned by the Coast Guard to submit the yellow Health Declaration Card. There’s a recording on loop requesting passengers to indicate the letter corresponding to their traveler category; in the case of tourist travelers, we had to write “N” on top.

Forms, forms, forms. At this point in the year, we are so used to forms. The biggest and longest of all ( the one on top) remains useless because customs officials do not take them anyway. Kahit ba Nothing to Declare, kunin nyo, please! Sobrang sayang yung papel and the cost in reproducing them.

All travelers in the same category are then ushered to a room to arrange the swab test. This is where prior booking helped us instead of filling out forms, paying the swab fee, and undergoing the test itself doon pa lang. I’ll let photos tell you the rest of the steps.

This provider is the other option to have your swab test done. This is mostly for non-OFWs, based on the profile of travelers waiting. OFWs were ushered to the Red Cross area to pay there, if they have not done so before arriving. The area can get congested (loosely used bilang ang definition ng ‘congested’ ay iba na ang meaning since this pandemic where physical distancing matters a whole lot more).

After verifying the payment and the QR code sent by Red Cross to my email, the staff put a sticker with a unique number at the back of my passport. Then it’s testing time once again! Compared to the St. Luke’s experience, this one was not as shocking and the Q-tip was not left for 10 seconds sa nostrils. Just swab-swab-swab and go. I had to make sure the number on my passport was the same code placed on the tube where my swab was. Mahirap na.

After the swab, I was asked to proceed to the Department of Tourism booth where, you guessed it, another form had to be accomplished. That’s a lot of forms which will make you wonder hindi ba pwedeng one central registration na lang? This one was in form of an affidavit pa. And with my gripe about wasting paper on forms not collected, ito naman was printed on a used paper, where the entire opposite page was crossed out. Based on the supposed authority you’re giving the government through this paper, ito sana ang ginastusan ng maayos ayos na papel, pero hindi eh. Which begs the question — ginagamit kaya talaga nila ang form na ito? While I was completing the affidavit, they asked for the confirmation of my hotel booking. The DOT counter can help you arrange your stay in case you have not booked an accredited hotel.

Before letting me go, I was given this sheet which, again my friends, necessitated that I provide my contact information. May column pa for Satisfaction Rate. I asked, satisfaction saan? Sa service daw nila. With the lack of interconnectedness with their functions, ang labo namang this part lang ang kailangan kong i-rate. To be fair to them, and actually to everyone I encountered both going out and coming back, they were polite and helpful naman. So sige na, satisfied na. Insert shrugging emoji here! Hay, Pilipinas.

And then we leave. The airport, I mean. Arriving passengers cannot be picked up in a private vehicle and cannot use ride-sharing services. You would think after the info-gathering at the DOT booth, upon endorsement to you at this counter, alam na nila saan ka dadalhin/ihahatid. Siyempre hindi, hihihi! Still had to let them know where to bring me. The blue board behind the counter has the corresponding fixed rates of the accredited hotels, and up to you na lang if you will give extra to the driver.

So there, after two weeks, an entire gamut of various emotions, and expenses, I finally made the trip I had planned when the year began…and came back (shoutout sa mga nagdalawang isip kung babalik ako, hellew hellew). On a serious note, it takes more effort to travel at this time and that is a gross understatement. I understand the travel anxieties still plaguing most people who would have otherwise jumped on a plane when the restriction was lifted. I also appreciate very much the people who tirelessly work to serve and assist people like us who decided to brave it and go anyway. With the way things are going, it will take time before things shift back to what they once were, lalo na dito sa atin. What this trip affirmed to me was what I value at this point in my life. This is why I call this trip personal and refuse to call it non-essential. It was quick, risky, and to some degree financally irresponsible, but it’s essential. And a global pandemic notwithstanding, I had a really great time. 

Categories: Traveling Judie

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. OMG but congrats you managed to get back easily. PROTOCOLS changes from time to time. As of last month it is very hard to get in to Cebu City but Manila is a lot easier. Looking forward for the old normal to come back. This new normal is confusing at times.

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