In September 2019, I was hit by a travel fly (surprise surprise) and, this time I wanted to go hiking in a new country. I read blogs and googled various hiking destinations when Nepal caught my eye. That's where we are going to go in March or April! Since my partner and I usually combine different destinations during one trip, we decided to fly to Nepal via India to see the Taj Mahal during sunrise. Unfortunately, we never got to Nepal because the coronavirus revolutionized the world and in fact, we were really close to getting stuck in India. This post tells how we managed the corona storm when the whole world began to close its borders.
It was March 10th, when our flight departed from Helsinki via Copenhagen to New Delhi. We had been following the progress of the corona around the world before we left, but there were only a few cases in India and Nepal at the time, so we felt safe to leave. At Copenhagen Airport, our visas were checked and it was made sure that we were not Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Japanese or, German citizens. That was because of a few hours earlier, India had denied access to any national of those countries in order to control the corona. Because we had Finnish and Mexican passports, we were able to continue our journey without any problems.
We arrived in India the next day and continued our journey from New Delhi airport towards the beaches of Goa. There were many extra checkpoints at the airport that checked both the passport and tickets and a health check where we were checked for fever and asked to sign a form that we are healthy. Fortunately, we had made sure to have enough time during the layover and made it to our connecting flight despite all the security measures. At Goa we enjoyed ourselves the first few days exploring beaches and eating delicious Indian food.
Thursday the 12th of March -When the world stopped
Thursday the 12th of March was the day when the whole itinerary went sideways because WHO declared the coronavirus as a pandemic. The first setback for us was that India was closing its borders the upcoming night. We were supposed to enjoy Goa, fly to Nepal and return to India, but we found this impossible.
Therefore, we spent almost the whole day rescheduling our trips and flights so that we could see everything in India first and then fly to Nepal. We managed to arrange everything surprisingly easily until the next day Nepal announced that it would deny all tourist visas issued at the airport. We could no longer continue our trip to Nepal.
Thursday the 12th of March was the day when the whole itinerary went sideways because WHO declared the coronavirus as a pandemic.
Once again, we set out to think about what we should do next. We decided to continue our trip to New Delhi, visit its attractions and then in the evening, drive to Agra where the Taj Mahal is located. Monday the 16th we left the Goan palm trees behind us and landed in New Delhi, where we were met by a driver as well as a guide. The guide showed us around New Delhi, after which we drove three hours to the city of Agra. We were so excited to see the Taj Mahal at dawn!
That evening at 10 pm, our tour operator sent us a message that the Government of India has closed all tourist attractions. However, we decided to wake up in the morning just to make sure the news was real so our clock woke us up on Tuesday morning at 5am.
When we got to the gates, we found out that this was indeed the case and our disappointment was enormous. We ended up staring at Taj Mahal from the hostel’s rooftop terrace with other sad tourists. The guide told us that this is the third time in the history of the Taj Mahal that the gates have been closed and the last two times have been associated with war. Since all the sights were closed, we drove back to New Delhi the same evening and decided to return to Finland as soon as possible.
When the flights got canceled and lockdown started closing in...
However, returning to Finland was easier said than done. We first decided to contact Air India, which was the airline for our return flight. The whole evening we tried to reach their customer service and when we finally got through, the customer service representative announced that she wasn't able to do anything with our tickets, because they were booked through a third party. I immediately sent a message to Flightfinder customer service and tried to reach them by phone, but without any luck.
On that day, we also received information that Finland was closing its borders, so many flights were being canceled. We realized that the situation was starting to be at a completely different level than a few days earlier, so we decided to buy new tickets to Finland as soon as possible.
Luckily, we found REALLY cheap Qatar Airways flights for the coming Saturday and we were relieved that now we would have a return flight home. In the morning, however, I woke up to an email stating that our flight purchased just 12 hours earlier had been canceled and that they had tentatively transferred us to Sunday’s flight. '' This is not possible '' we repeated to each other over and over again.
After recovering from the initial shock, we decided to go to the airport and visit the airline counters to talk to both Air India and Qatar customer service if we could move our flight earlier. We both knew that the chances of a Sunday flight actually taking off were quite slim and we didn’t want to get stuck in India, which was approaching a lockdown. In addition to this, the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs sent us daily messages that we should return to Finland as soon as possible, since the situation was only getting worse around the world.
At the airport, we headed to the airline desk's corridor because only people whose flight was departing within five hours could get inside the airport itself (even to check-in). Unfortunately, Qatar had no representation, so we walked towards the Air Indian counter. After half an hour of queuing, the clerk informed us that all return flights are canceled and the next flight available flight from India to Helsinki would be at the beginning of April.
So now we were in a situation where we did not have a return flight back to Finland. We told the clerk that we didn’t want to wait until early April and he canceled our ticket.
So now we were in a situation where we did not have a return flight back to Finland.
There were many Westerners at the airport in the same situation as us and many ended up buying airline tickets worth thousands of euros to get home. While talking to a few Swedes, we learned that a flight from Qatar would be leaving for Stockholm the next morning. At the time, we thought that if we could just get to Stockholm, that would be better than staying in New Delhi.
However, we wanted to confirm what was the status of the flights to Helsinki and asked one of the tour operators to check when the next flight to Helsinki would be. Tomorrow morning, he announced. Great!!! How much do two seats cost for that flight? The clerk tapped the amount on the calculator and there was barely enough space in the calculator for all the zeros. The total price of the tickets was 330,000 rupees, or about 4,000 euros. We thanked the clerk for the information and decided to require directly from Qatar the possibility of getting seats on the same flight a little cheaper.
Luckily in Goa, we were able to enjoy the beaches and beautiful scenery at least for a few days.
Gotta love the paperwork
When we got to the hotel from the airport, we went looking for a store where we could buy a SIM card to make it easier for us to call different customer service numbers, especially if we had to stay in India for a longer period of time. In Finland, we are used to marching to the kiosk and buy prepaid in a matter of few minutes. In India, the process is a little more complicated.
First, we had to find a store that sells SIM cards which we found in the narrow hallways of a small mall. There, the shop owner announced that we needed a passport photo, a passport and a copy of the passport for the SIM card. Fortunately, a little boy rushed to help us and he led us from place to place until we had all the necessary paperwork. About three hours later we had all the paperwork in order and the SIM card activated. Gotta love the paperwork.
This was where the frantic phone calls to Qatar Airways customer service began. The lines were so congested that many times the call was disconnected unexpectedly and when I tried to call the number back, the response was: '' the number you have dialed, is currently unavailable ''. Several hours later we finally got through and oh that moment of joy when we heard a male voice saying '' Qatar Airways, how may I help you? '' We explained to the man that our flight on Saturday had been canceled and we would like to move our flight to the next day. The man was checking the computer for a moment until he announced that he had booked us seats for the next morning flight at 940. WE WERE SO RELIEVED! Tomorrow night we would be home.
We made it? Not yet.
This is the moment when you will surely think, awesome they survived! Unfortunately, we still had a few obstacles along the way. We arrived at the airport well in advance the next morning to make sure we had time for any extra security checks before arriving at the departure gate. We headed towards check-in and handed the clerk our passport. Sir, please step aside. What else could happen?!
We kindly waited aside for about 10 minutes as three different officers made phone calls and looked at our passports. After a while, I asked, what exactly is the problem? They replied that they have the knowledge that only a Finnish passport holder can return to Finland now that Finland had closed its borders the night before. We tried to explain to them that my partner has a permanent residence permit in Finland and in the EU and he has the right to return home.
However, our words were not enough and they asked to wait calmly on aside. However, I decided to take matters into my own hands and called the Finnish Embassy in India. From there I managed to get a hold of a representative to whom I explained our situation and the fact that our flight was departing in 1.5 hours. I gave the phone to the clerk, who after the call, agreed to print our boarding cards, but asked us to send confirmation in writing that the holder of the residence permit may return to Finland.
Sir, please step aside. What else could happen?!
After getting through the security check, I called the embassy again to ask for the official document requested by the airline, but unfortunately that consul was no longer receiving calls. However, I received an email from the assistant to which I urgently typed the message. I decided to send the same message to the Foreign Ministry's emergency e-mail, because at that moment there was only about an hour to until the takeoff.
When boarding for the flight started, I hadn’t received a reply to either of my emails yet. Then when we moved along the queue to the gate and handed out our passports and boarding cards, we heard the already familiar phrase '' sir, please step aside ''. We sighed deeply. Would we stay at the airport just because the airline had no official information that the holder of a Finnish residence permit could return home?
At the same moment, my cell phone beeped, the Foreign Ministry responded!! I showed the message to the airline staff, forwarded the message to the airline representatives and after five minutes we sat inside the plane and said goodbye to India.
We were on our way home. And we will stay home until it is safe to travel again. However, my desire to travel never left. Read more about it here.