What’s it like travelling during a pandemic?

I’ve been lucky to travel around Germany over the past few weeks, testing out what it’s like to travel during a pandemic.

My journey started with a train from Leeds to London, on an eerily quiet 1815 service on a Tuesday evening. Under normal circumstances, I would expect the train to be packed but because of Covid-19, there were very few passengers onboard. One coach was even completely empty.

For this journey, I took the opportunity to upgrade to 1st class using the Seatfrog app. The app was really easy to use, showing me the current bid in the upgrade auction as well as giving me the opportunity to skip the auction and pay a fixed price for a seat in 1st class. The usual benefits to travelling 1st class, such as the at-seat service is currently suspended but is due for reintroduction from September. I was able to get a cup of tea, bag of crisps and a biscuit by walking to the next coach. I only paid £9 for the upgrade, which, for me, was worth it to test out Seatfrog and for the comfort of the plush leather seats on the Azuma.

The following day was a Eurostar journey from London to Paris. I had to fill out a French “sworn statement” form testifying that I wasn’t showing any symptoms of Covid, although nobody asked to see the form.

Eurostar are blocking every other seat to allow for social img_5607distancing. Although we were travelling standard premier class, there was no at-seat service and the buffet car in standard class was also closed. Catering services are due to resume on Eurostar from the 7 September. I stopped by the M&S in St Pancras station before boarding to buy something to eat during the journey. Just like the LNER service from Leeds the previous day, masks are mandatory when travelling on Eurostar, unless you have a medical exemption.

The journey was uneventful and we arrived into a boiling hot Paris right on time. We walked from Gare du Nord to Gare de L’est, which only takes about 10 minutes but in 35° heat, felt like a lot longer. Paris was packed with people and it was hard to maintain social distancing. Masks were mandatory inside the station which was quite uncomfortable considering the heat. I’d recommend the thinner blue masks for very hot days. 

We boarded the Deutsche Bahn ICE service from Paris to Frankfurt and whilst the train was not full, no seats were visibly blocked to allow for distancing. There were no catering facilities on the train, so I bought a salad in the station before departure.

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We arrived in to Frankfurt at around 2130 and a coach transfer took us to our overnight hotel. Masks were mandatory on the coach and we were asked to sanitise our hands on boarding as well as not sit in the first few rows so as to give the driver space. 

And that tended to be the theme throughout the trip. Only in the UK was distancing enforced and only LNER and Eurostar blocked seats to allow for distancing. None of the DB trains enforced distancing but we should remember that Germany has managed the virus much better than the UK and so they could loosen the rules much further than we can.

My trip not only included main line rail journeys but some fantastic, heritage steam journeys too. Our trip to the summit of Mount Broken, the highest point in Northern Germany, was fantastic; winding through pine forests and little towns along the way. Masks were mandatory, but you could stick your head out of the window or stand on the plates between carriages so ample opportunity for fresh air!

The journey takes a little over an hour and is so much fun. We spent a few hours at the top and enjoyed the view over the surrounding landscape, moody with low cloud. There’s a museum about the history of the Brocken including the part it played in WW2 and the reunification of Germany as well as walks through alpine grasslands. I stopped at one of the food carts for a lunch of bratwurst with mustard and ketchup although there is a sit down restaurant at the top too.

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The journey from Alexisbad to Gernrode on the Selketal Railway the next day was similar, although at a lower altitude and through desirous forest. After the train, a coach took us to the chocolate box town of Quedlinburg, a UNESCO world heritage site famous for is half timbered buildings. The little squares with pavement cafes are a pleasant place to spend a few hours. The streets were peaceful once you moved away from the bustling squares. The walk up the steep hill to the castle, built in 936, gave some stunning views and had a lovely garden to sit and enjoy the glorious weather. 

Our base for the first few day’s of the tour was the town of Wernigerode. After exploring the area by train, I spent the day in Wernigerode and took the road train up to the fairytale castle, so good it’d make Walt Disney jealous!

The castle wasn’t particularly busy but there were 2 routes to explore the building from the central courtyard, each following a one way system. The only disappointment was not being able to use the audio guide, for hygiene reasons, and not all of the exhibits had explanations in English. Google translate did a great job though.

We were based in Assmannhausen for the second part of the tour, another picture postcard village located in the Rhine Valley, right on the banks of the River Rhine.

Just down the river from it’s more famous neighbour, Rüdesheim, we caught the chair lift up to the forest of Niederwald and walked our way around to the Germania monument, built in the 1870s to commemorate the unification of Germany, before catching a cable car down to Rüdesheim itself. This first part of a circle tour took about 90 minutes and gave some stunning views of the River Rhine. After spending a few hours in Rüdesheim, you can either get a boat down river back to Assmannhausen or walk the 5k through the vineyards. I chose to walk and did it in a little over an hour, despite the heat.

Rüdesheim is a very popular stop for river cruises and it’s narrow streets would usually be packed with tourists in the middle of August, but this year is quieter for obvious reasons. The place was still busy, particularly with German tourists, and there was a nice buzz from the restaurants and shops. Rüdesheim has a well known Christmas market so it’ll be interesting to see how the town fares over winter.

This trip involved 3 hotels which gave a good insight in to the different arrangements, not just in different properties but in different  regions of the same country. 

When we entered into each hotel, we were asked to sanitise our hands and masks needed to be worn in all public areas. Dinner was served at the table by waiters in face masks at 2 hotels and one of them did have a buffet.

Breakfast varied at each hotel. For our overnight in Frankfurt, the maitre d’ welcomed us into the restaurant from behind a Plexiglas screen, wearing a face mask. Everyone was given a disposable gloves to handle the utensils on the buffet. There was also a one-way system around the buffet, which most people followed.

One of the hotels had a buffet and the last hotel had a mix or pre-made cold cuts and hot items served to us from the buffet. 

Despite the differences, all were consistent in asking that masks be worn when walking around the restaurant and always near the buffet, which makes sense and didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the meal. 

In order to avoid quarantine, I had to change my plans to fly home rather than getting the train back through France. The bonus, of course, was getting to experience an airport and flight during Covid.

Frankfurt airport was busy, although every other seat was blocked to allow distancing in the departure lounge. The restaurants and cafes were busy and the only thing that reminded you about the pandemic was the plexiglass screens and everyone wearing masks. Not quite sure what the hazmat dressing gown was all about, but some people were wearing them. 

Although seats in the lounge were blocked for distancing, it was the usual scramble to board and everyone lined and crowded the gate despite an announcement saying to only queue once the boarding group printed on your boarding pass was called.

The flight itself was packed, oversold in fact, so no distancing once onboard. Masks were mandatory and there was no catering service other than a bottle of water. The crew wore disposable gloves and face masks. I flew with Lufthansa and they do offer a tiered meal service depending on the length of the flight and class of travel. 

There’s not much to comment on an hours flight in economy and the less that’s said about the windy landing the better – by far the worst I’ve ever experienced! Disembarkation was very civilised, with passengers asked to stay seated until they were asked to leave, with rows called 3 at a time. And everyone did it! I’ve never seen that happen before!

l had completed the mandatory passenger locator form a few days before flying home, not that anyone asked to see it. I walked through the e-passport gates within minutes. I did see 1 passenger approach border control, form in hand, asking where he needed to show it and the border agent just waved him through without looking at the form. Make what you want of that. 

So what is travelling during a pandemic like? Pretty normal, really,

If it wasn’t for the masks and constant sanitising, you’d barely remember that there’s a pandemic at all. Importantly though, it’s the masks and improved personal hygiene which is keeping us safe and allowing us resume some kind of normal life.

I’m not sure when I’ll get to travel again, the on/off quarantine is more of a deterrent to travelling than the virus is. But travel feels safe, is safe and I can’t wait to get out on the road again.

 

Date of trip: August 2020

Price paid: this trip was provided by Great Rail Journeys

Points earned: None

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