Inside Singapore's Vaccinated Travel Lane Flights
Updated: Oct 10, 2021
Look, I don’t want to rub it in, but I spent last week in the Bavarian Alps. I walked every day in fresh mountain air. Cow bells rang and the beer was dark and fine. And, best of all, I was able to see my mum and dad for the first time in two years.
I’m telling you all this because I took one of the first flights under a new experimental scheme between Singapore and Germany called the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL). It’s being closely watched, by Australia among others, as a potential first step for the re-opening of travel for countries that largely closed their borders during the pandemic.
The verdict: travel is possible. And it can be beautiful, life-affirming and connecting. But it comes at a cost, both financial and logistical. You really, really need to want to travel for it to make sense.
In August Singapore Airlines announced that it would begin a series of flights from Frankfurt and Munich each week under a new scheme which would not require quarantine at either end.
This is a big deal: for the last 18 months, anyone leaving Singapore has typically had to serve at least two weeks of expensive hotel quarantine at one end of the trip and sometimes both. For people who are not long-term pass holders or citizens, if you leave you can’t come back in at all. Consequently most of us here have spent a year and a half on an island where you can’t drive more than half an hour in any direction without falling into the sea.
Under the scheme, provided you meet a host of requirements around vaccination and testing, and on the condition you don’t go anywhere else outside Germany during your stay, you can come back and resume life as normal without quarantine. The centrepiece of the scheme is that on these inbound flights to Singapore, absolutely everybody on board must be double-vaccinated – a VTL flight.
The scheme began in September and I booked within a day of its announcement, for a return trip to Munich later in the month. This was not just because I wanted to see some mountains and a nice beer hall or two. As a Brit, the easiest way for me to see my parents for the first time since 2019 was to get them to fly to Munich too and meet them in Bavaria.
The flights themselves are no more expensive than in pre-Covid circumstances – in fact, I booked premium economy both ways on air miles - but you quickly learn that the flight is only part of the cost in this new reality. First of all, it is a condition of travel that you have a travel insurance policy with S$30,000 of cover specifically for Covid.
I have a pretty bulletproof travel insurance policy that has covered every claim I’ve ever made including being helicoptered out of a landslide in Nepal, but it turns out even this policy doesn’t cover Covid. Part of the process of the illness becoming endemic, it seems, is that you ought to see it coming, and that therefore it’s not an insurer’s problem if it disrupts your travel.
Never fear: Singapore Airlines has a bespoke policy available just for you at the click of a link. And, with an AIG policy just for the eight-day trip, we are S$254 poorer between the two of us. That’s just the start.
It’s only about three weeks between me booking and me flying, but pretty much every single day of those three weeks I receive an email from Singapore Airlines titled “Changes To Your Travel Advisory.” In an environment where rules about Covid seem to change with startling frequency, it’s enough to make your heart skip a beat. In each of these messages are several hundred words of technical nuance and it is never entirely clear to me what the change is – it might be handy if they highlighted it – but nevertheless nothing seems to happen to derail our trip.
The day comes. Unlike Australia, Singapore really doesn’t care where you go when you leave; the issues are entirely about getting back in. So as I set foot in Changi Airport for the first time in 18 months, a place I used to pass through every week on average for the previous five years, I am struck by how straightforward catching a plane is, from this end. All we need to show is proof of full vaccination and the rest is easy.
Outbound to Munich, I estimate the flight is between one quarter and one third full. There are subtle differences: no menus or in-flight magazines, for example. More imposing, you must wear a mask throughout, which doesn’t make sleeping easy on a 13-hour flight. But otherwise you quickly find yourself slipping into the familiar routines (and annoyances – how swiftly they return!) of long-haul travel.
And so to Munich.
This, too, proves very easy: again, all they want at immigration is proof of vaccination, which will be a theme throughout every restaurant or café we set foot in for the next week. There is a preferred local app for this in Germany but it’s not essential; a printout, or Singapore’s own HealthHub app, will suffice.
We have resolved to be far from the crowds, and have rented an apartment in the Alpine village of Oberstaufen by the Austrian border. Plus, the usual appeal of Munich in northern autumn is absent: even the good people of Munich have realized that five thousand people getting hammered in a tent and soaking one another in beer might be a cluster waiting to happen, and so Oktoberfest is cancelled for the second year in a row.
It’s worth noting that there are clear reasons Singapore chose Germany as its partner for this experiment. They are two advanced economies with populations that don’t generally have a problem with rules. They are perhaps the two most efficient nations on earth, so efficient it’s become a stereotype. You couldn’t really hope to have a vaccinated-only flight in all countries without a significant amount of moaning, but you can with these two. Both have world-class airlines, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa, which are bonded through the Star Alliance, and which you can trust to stay on top of the considerable amounts of data and approvals necessary for all this to work.
A beautiful week follows, the details of which I will save you. And then, two days before our return to Singapore, things start to get a bit complicated.
Among the many things you have to do before returning to Singapore is get a Covid test within 48 hours of the flight home. Moreover, it must be a result written in English, with your passport number or your date of birth written on it. For most people this is going to be the most challenging part of the trip. Germany has a highly advanced system of testing underway, but nevertheless, being in our remote village, it’s only with the help of a German doctor friend that we discover how to register for a test in Oberstaufen.
Since our flight home is on a Monday, we book our test for the Sunday morning, but after having the customary pipecleaner wedged so far up your nostril it feels like it’s going to reappear out your arse, we learn that what we have had is a rapid antigen test, and what Singapore Airlines requires is a PCR test. That’s a lab test, and the problem with that is that Bavarians don’t generally open anything on a Sunday, including their labs. The people in the test centre in Oberstaufen are exceptionally helpful and check everywhere they can think of, but the only place they can find in the whole of Bavaria that will do a PCR test on a Sunday is in Munich Airport, a two and a quarter hour drive away from us. It seems that we have a problem. We don’t want to do that drive, and back, only to repeat it tomorrow to fly out.
However, then we learn something else about the pandemic. Free enterprise will always flourish and work out a way to make a buck out of bringing convenience to the bureaucratically vexed.
Normally a PCR test has a 24-hour turnaround for a result, or perhaps same-day if you’re early enough. But if you pay enough for the privilege, you can actually get it turned around in Munich Airport in as little as 35 minutes.
We opt to pay Eu139 per person to a group called Centogene for a 75 minute turnaround (the 35-minute service is Eu 279 each) which means that if we get there early enough we can do it before our flight. So on the Monday, our day of departure, we hit the road in the dark Bavarian mist at 6.15 am and make it in time for a quick and easy test at 9am. We are emailed our results in just under an hour, and are holding our English-language printouts about 20 minutes after that. Expensive but highly efficient.
Armed with this, we head to check in, which as you might imagine is considerably slower than usual. We have to provide our passports, our Singapore ID cards (which everyone in Singapore carries anyway), our Singapore re-entry permits (which absolutely nobody in Singapore carries anyway), our proof of double vaccination, our PCR test results – rapid antigen would not have been enough to get us on to the plane – and proof that we have signed up for Singapore’s TraceTogether app.
We see several people being turned away, presumably having had the wrong sort of test, whereupon they have a quick choice between paying for the extortionate express service or missing the flight. They all pay.
Then there’s a long and detailed pre-arrival Singapore digital declaration to fill in, and finally, four and a half hours after arriving at the airport, we’re able to board our VTL flight. It’s much more full than the outbound, with a mixture of Singaporeans, Singapore-based expats, and visiting Germans.
Oddly business and premium economy are almost full, economy about two-thirds empty. I can’t be sure, but I put this down to people burning frequent flyer miles that are soon to expire, or possibly wanting to book a class with flexibility and the opportunity to cancel if it all goes wrong.
Next morning we arrive in Singapore, where one is greatly rewarded for preparation. Those who can show they have filled in the pre-arrival declaration are ushered through to immigration; those who haven’t are taken to an orderly rank of tables to sort it out.
Immigration itself is swift for those armed with proof of both vaccination and PCR test, and then we are taken to a line for another test. This, too, is best pre-booked well in advance – at S$160 a head, a further cost – in which case you end up in a relatively short line. If you haven’t, then… well, you get the picture by now. A scanned QR code, some verification of details, a swab in the throat and another up the nose, and we are on our way, through the airport in an hour: slow by Changi’s usual staggeringly efficient standards, but fast in the circumstances.
The usual Singapore measures apply – one wears a mask absolutely everywhere, inside and out, and must sign in and out not just of restaurants but supermarkets using the local app – but beyond that life is then largely normal. We can take a normal taxi home, and, though we have to wait indoors until the result from the morning’s test comes through, this happens at around 4pm. Next are two further mandatory PCR tests, on days three and seven, at S$94 a pop from approved clinics, but in the meantime no quarantine is required.
And that’s that. Suffice to say that you really, really need to want to travel in order to go through all the checks and costs. Between us we rack up S$1,400 of additional expense on top of the flights. But it can be done. And for me, it was absolutely worth it.