Since we arrived in Portugal in early September, we had been working on our Europe exit plans as we predicted that the COVID situation in Europe would get worse when the temperature dropped and people got tired of new restrictive social rules. Unfortunately our plan A fell down on the most stupid roadblock ever and we are still in the process of resolving it. We'll write about it later. Our plan B which was to go to Thailand didn't work out either as Thailand has imposed very high entry thresholds for foreigners (such as 14 day hotel quarantine and COVID insurance) that it would be too costly to try to entry the country at the moment.
As a result, we found ourselves scrambling for plan C - a country open to foreigners with little restrictions. Of course there are very few options left in today's world. After some research, Albania came up as our plan C destination! We had planned to visit Albania towards early summer next year, but things never worked out as planned these days, we were happy to bring this visit forward.
After the decision was made, we quickly booked our flights: Faro Portugal to London Gatwick on Easyjet, then London Heathrow to Tirana Albania on British Airways. Since there were no direct flights between Portugal and Albania, these flights were the best option.
However, as how things go since COVID began, UK announced the second lockdown the day after our flight reservation and two days later Easyjet cancelled our first leg flight. We immediately jumped on Google Flights search and found TAP Air fly Faro - Lisbon - London Heathrow. We made the booking and luckily the airfare was the same as that of the cancelled Easyjet. The bonus was that we would fly straight to Heathrow where our second leg flight would depart. Happy days!
Nope! Two days after that British Airways cancelled our London - Albania flight! Here we go again! We jumped on Google Flights again and found the only choice for our connecting flight date was Pegasus that flies London Stansted - Istanbul - Tirana. A long way, but better than no way!
We anxiously spent the next 10 days expecting more flight cancellation, but didn't receive any further notification. We were good to go!
The two full days travel through four countries provided us some first-hand experience of how each country is dealing with COVID, reflected from people's attitude and behaviours. In addition, what we experienced on different transport in air and on land were both expected and surprising.
After spending 10 weeks in Portugal, we were used to wearing a mask in all indoor public places and outdoors when social distancing is not possible. Portuguese people were very good at following that rule and we never saw anyone indoors without a mask on.
This is why we were shocked when we arrived in London. We had to travel on London underground to get to Stansted airport. During the over an hour long tube journey, we witnessed nearly half of the passengers either wearing no mask or having the mask down around their chin. I saw a 5 year old little girl came on board with her parents, all mask-less. The little girl touched seat handles, then picked her nose and grabbed her mother's hands. They behaved like nothing had happened and the world was still the old world! I was appalled!
When we got to Stansted airport, we saw three airport staff walking into the terminal building, again mask-less.
Lucky for us, there were hardly any people on the tube or train on our way to Stansted so that we could keep a good distance from those mask-less people.
When we arrived into Istanbul airport, it was surprisingly packed with people and all shops and cafes were open. We hadn't seen that many people in one place since March this year! Again we noticed 40% of the people at the airport either had no mask on or pulled the mask down their chin. We even saw at two occasions a guy pulled his mask to sneeze and then put the mask back on! WTF!!
There was no social distancing at the Istanbul airport. Pushy people were everywhere. When we stood in the boarding queue, three women in their 20's kept getting closer to us with one of them coughing frequently. We kept moving sideways as we didn't want to get too close to the person in front us, but those women kept on pushing. Eventually I had to speak out asking if they had noticed two people were actually in front of them and they looked rather shocked!
On the flight from Istanbul to Tirana we also noticed a lot of people not wearing their masks properly and the flight attendants didn't say a word. A few women sat in front of and behind us kept taking their masks down chatting and taking selfies.
All four legs of our flights were rather full to our surprise. There was absolutely no social distancing effort made by any airlines. Pegasus did make up some rules but we found them rather ridiculous - passengers could only take a personal item on as carry on, all cases with wheels had to be checked-in. The reason they provided was because they don't want people getting up and down all the time from they seats and everything you carry on had to go under the seat in front of you. But on the plane the over head lockers were all open and
we used them.
Airport lounges were closed in UK due to the lockdown. We used one in Lisbon which was very quiet with only a few people. In Istanbul, the only one lounge was open but had a queue out of the door and we were told that we might have to wait 2 - 3 hours to get in as they only allow one person in once someone was out. Brad had to argue with the guy behind the counter to get a WiFi code as the airport itself doesn't provide any free Wifi.
Throughout our journey, we only got our temperature checked once - when boarding the flight in London to Istanbul. But we had to fill in "Passenger Locator Form" for all four countries.
If it weren't so scary and serious we would be laughing pretty hard about about the absurdity of how it was all managed in Istanbul airport and on Pegasus airways - it was almost like they had a new intern start working who once did a course of health & safety and them had them create the rules.
Like at the airport where announcements blared constantly about wearing a mask and keeping socially distant while we were all crammed into a small waiting space to queue up and then get jammed into buses. That's right - still packing half an A300 into a single bus.
Then on Pegasus Air to Tirana they kept saying that you must dispose of your used face masks with separate rubbish for hazardous materials. Ok if I was in a hospital wearing a gown - but you know, all the clothes we were wearing were getting covered in the same air and had a much greater surface area!
And the funniest one on the flight to Tirana they said not to queue for toilet to social distance, even though we were packed in with 200 of our closest strangers. But the best bit, that to stop the spread of the virus you should close the lid of toilet when you flush it!
So after 40 hours travel, we finally arrived in Tirana at 10pm. When we walked into our five star rated Airbnb accommodation, no hand sanitiser or disinfection spray were found. Those items were common place in our Portugal Airbnb accommodations.
On our first day in Tirana we visited a few indoor places including a couple of supermarkets, a Vodafone shop and a bakery. Most people were wearing masks, but at the bakery where we bought some burek for lunch all three staff were mask-less including the very friendly guy who served us and the two ladies busily making fresh burek in the open kitchen. We realised this fact after we've bought our burek - jetlag! It was nice to see people's smile, but at the same time it felt so wrong!