I Went To Germany Through SG’s VTL – How It Was Like Travelling For The First Time In 2 Years

Visiting Germany via the Vaccinated Travel Lane

Absence really does make the heart fonder, and two years of not travelling have made that so very obvious. Covid-19’s really given life a good muss-up, what with all the moments we, and so many others around the world, have missed. The announcement of the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) to Germany was happy tidings because it became the neutral ground between Singapore and the UK, a non-VTL destination at that point, and where my partner is based for work

Call it blind faith in the institutions that declared Germany safe enough for the VTL, or a desperate urge to escape Singapore, but I barely hesitated before booking myself a ticket. So it was with much excitement that I arrived at Terminal 3 the evening I was due to fly – my first time since September 2019.

Update: Germany has declared Singapore as a high-risk country as of 24th October 2021. Though Singaporean tourists flying in are not required to quarantine, they will still be required to register online before entering Germany. For more updates, check out Germany’s Federal Foreign Office website.

Preparing for the trip

I still count myself one of the lucky ones, not least because I live here in Singapore amongst most of my family and friends. Before news of the VTL was first announced, planning for reunions involved HR negotiations including “can I WFH for the duration of my SHN?, and factoring in the $2,000 this costs. Mind you, this is exclusive of the numerous PCR and pre-departure tests necessary to travel elsewhere.

Inclusions under the Covid-19 Enhanced Travel Benefit add-on
Image credit: FWD Insurance

Another cost that you’ll incur ahead of your trip would be buying travel insurance. I picked the one with the best deal on the MoneySmart website, which for my trip was FWD Insurance. On top of the plan that you select, there’s an option to buy an additional Covid-19 Enhanced Travel Benefit at $42.99, which I paid for, just in case.

How out of touch I was with travelling first showed itself as I set my luggage out on my room floor to pack: other than gym wear, PJs thanks to all that WFH, and the occasional dress for a night out, my wardrobe had been sorely neglected. I couldn’t remember where my seasonal clothes were, and uh, how does one dress for sub-20⁰C weather?

Singapore isn’t on Germany’s list of high-risk countries, so we’re spared the extra step of having to fill in a digital registration form ahead of entering Germany. For my travel companion who was flying in from the UK, this was a necessary step. Neither of us was required to do a pre-departure test ahead of entering Germany as well.

It wasn’t our first visit to Germany, and we’d previously been to the major cities here, so we decided to take a road trip around South Germany, driving out of Munich along what’s known as the Romantic Road, heading into the Moselle Valley for some of Germany’s best Rieslings, and down to the Black Forest, which inspired many of Brothers’ Grimm tales. 

Get your notarised vaccination report ready before you fly

Before my trip, I’d downloaded a PDF copy of my vaccination report on my phone, complete with my full name, NRIC number, date of vaccination, and which vaccine I took. Keep this handy, because you’ll have to produce this document every time you’re checking into a hotel, or entering an indoor venue. You could keep a printout on hand, otherwise. 

Travelling for the first time in two years

Changi Airport is a ghost of its former self, with reduced opening hours for most of the stores there. Checking in was a breeze at the self-check-in kiosks. These are now equipped with touchless monitors, which take a bit of getting used to since they’re hypersensitive. But the joy of walking through the departure hall was overshadowed by the dearth of other happy holidayers, and a somewhat oppressive presence of staff, clad in protective gear.

There were tables of cosmetics and skincare going at massively reduced prices, with discounts of up to 70%. These came with remaining shelf lives of three to six months━for products with a good few years before the best-before, this spoke volumes of how slow sales has been.

Still, I wasn’t about to let that get me down. As I neared the first of the boarding gates, I encountered a checkpoint of no return. “Once you pass, you can’t U-turn to the DFS shops. Have you done all your shopping?” I was asked. Some moments of kiasu anxiety and have-I-got-everything-I-need thoughts later, my boarding pass was checked and I was waved through.

Cling wrapped, alternately blocked out seats throughout the airport.
Image credit: @michpeaa

The seats were all cling wrapped, with alternate ones blocked out to ensure social distancing is maintained. My thoughts ran to the amount of plastic and other waste this pandemic has generated. 

Singapore Airlines distributes a Care Kit to each passenger at boarding
Image credit: @michpeaa

Boarding was swift, even though the flight wasn’t all that empty. Bottled water, a sealed baggy containing the headset, and a Care Kit containing a small bottle of hand sanitiser, disinfecting wipes, and a surgical mask were dispensed at the plane door. We were also encouraged to reuse this bag to dispose of our rubbish on the flight.

I had a row to myself – a pandemic blessing – but it’s not clear if there were social distancing measures in place since I was free to select my seats ahead of the flight. The kiasi Singaporean in me wiped the seats, screen, armrests, window, and walls of the plane down with disinfectant wipes that I’d brought with me. With that, I was soon airborne once again, in a happy place 36,000ft above ground.

All passengers and cabin crew are required to keep their masks on throughout the flight. On top of this, the cabin crew wear goggles and put on latex gloves to serve at mealtimes. Printed menus are no longer given out as they used to be – you’ll have to access them on your phone through the onboard WiFi network. If you prefer not to touch the handset, the inflight entertainment controls are available through the SingaporeAir mobile app on your phone too.

The Covid-19 situation in Germany

Image credit: @michpeaa

Landing at Munich International Airport was somewhat of an emotional experience, because as much as it was surreal to be flying, here I was, feet on foreign ground, for the first time in what felt like forever. 

Checking in to any venue can be done online, or via a pen-and-paper system.
Image credit: Darf Ich Rein

In the same way that we’ve got TraceTogether in Singapore, locals get to check in via the Luca app, which you can download off the Google PlayStore, or Apple’s App Store. Do note that you’ll need to change your iPhone region to access it.

Less common is the Darf Ich Rein QR code, which you can use to manually check in and out. If, like me, you’d rather not go through the hassle of figuring all that out, you’ll have to fill the contact tracing form the old school way: with pen and paper. This wasn’t necessary to enter malls, supermarkets, or if you’re dining outside; for indoor attractions and dining, it was.

More often than not, the form is in German, but the details required are the same:

  • first name (vorname)
  • last name (nachname)
  • date of visit (datum), time of visit (zeit)
  • home address (adresse)
  • phone number (telefonnummer)
  • email.

You’ll also be asked to tick if you’re vaccinated (geimpft), recovered (erholt), or have been tested (geprüft), presumably in the last 48 hours. Only one form is required per group, so rest assured you won’t all have to be suckered into form filling.

Visiting the Burg Eltz, where a digital crowd counter tells you how many people are inside at any given time.
Image credit: @michpeaa

It’s a whole new world travelling under such tight global travel cessations. We didn’t have to contend with tourists from elsewhere, and most of the time we were pretty much the only, or one of few, Asian visitors. Of these, some were German residents touring domestically. It really felt like we were doing as the locals did.

The Marienberg Fortress in Würzburg: lots of personal space without the usual bustle of tourists.
Image credit: @michpeaa

What I appreciated most about the frequent form filling was how in 90% of the instances I had to do it, there were two baskets of pens (or pencils) provided. One would be labelled “desinfiziert”, and the other, “gebraucht”. If you haven’t guessed, they stand for “disinfected” and “used”. 

There’s always a dispenser for sanitiser close by, too, and often at the entrance of every store, attraction, and restaurant we visited.

Masked up inside the cathedral at Kloster Eberbach, a monastery that’s one of Germany’s largest wineries.
Image credit: @michpeaa

Mask-wearing in Germany is mandatory indoors, and voluntary otherwise. I’ll admit that before my trip, I was fearful and anxious about the virus, embroiled in countless heated debates over the lax mask-wearing measures in countries such as the USA and the UK. 

Went on a gin distillery tour at Monkey 47 in the Black Forest, and had a couple too many gin & tonics for brunch.
Image credit: @michpeaa

This is not to say that I’m against mask-wearing now, but that I see merit in not wearing a mask when I’m outdoors – if the vicinity isn’t too crowded. In Germany, where the daily case count hovers around the 8,000s in a country of 84 million, I found myself relishing the mask-free life outdoors. 

I don’t discount the fact that the relatively cooler autumn weather made masking up less of a pain when I was outdoors, whenever it got crowded.

Indoors at the Weinessiggut Doktorenhof, where the region’s wines are aged for at least a decade into sweet vinegars.
Image credit: @michpeaa

The only permitted face masks in Germany are medical-grade ones, unlike here, where there isn’t really a regulation on what sorts of masks we should wear. 

While wearing a mask is compulsory in Singapore, paper and cloth masks abound, and the onus is on the wearer to include a filter in the latter. Unlike surgical-grade masks, these only protect others from you and offer little to no protection to the wearer from inhaling any airborne droplets. 

Returning to Singapore

I’d initially planned to head back into Munich a day ahead of my flight to get my pre-departure PCR test done, and I’d asked the front desk at my hotel in Munich, ahead of my trip, to find out if there was a testing facility nearby. This was preferable to paying anywhere from €139 (S$217) for results in 75 minutes to €239 (S$374) for PCR results in 35 minutes at Munich International Airport. 

What we noticed over the span of two weeks in Germany was that test centres abound wherever we went. There would be testing tents in a town centre, or vacant shops taken over and converted into walk-in test centres. Plenty of banners, flyers, and signs were available to direct people there. 

It’s a good idea to double-check with your place of accommodation if there’s a clinic or test centre that does PCR tests near where you’re booked to stay. Do note that your PCR test has to be conducted, and the results collected, within the 48-hour window before you’re due to depart.

It was sufficient to show my PCR test results off my phone screen when I checked in for my flight in Munich and at Customs in Singapore
Image credit: @michpeaa

Strolling through Baden-Baden in the Black Forest two days before my departure, I saw flyers in a pharmacy window for PCR tests and walked in to ask if these were good for international travel. They were, and with some form-filling and passport-photocopying, I’d gotten swabbed for €95 (S$148), with my results to be emailed to me the following day.

Filling Changi Airport’s Safe Travel Concierge also helped get my affairs in order for my return leg. You can book and prepay for your arrival PCR test ($165) here, and complete the necessary Health Declaration Form for a seamless return. 

The route through Customs and Arrival in Singapore is clearly demarcated, flanked by gear-wearing staff. I felt disturbingly like sheep being herded to the slaughter, with the curtain of oppression falling back in place, although I knew it was done with good intent. 

Getting swabbed – four times

There’s only one path to the test centre, which is under an air-conditioned tent outside Terminal 3. Unlike my first swab in Germany, where the kindly old lady doctor did a quick sweep of the back of my throat, I got the swab up both nostrils and my throat. On the plus side, the staff are really nice about it.

While there’s no SHN required if you fly back to Singapore on a VTL flight, you have to self-isolate while waiting for your PCR test results. This has to be done in an enclosed room with a connecting bathroom unless everyone in the house is serving the same SHN; otherwise, you’re encouraged to book a room in a hotel or serviced apartment while awaiting the results.

I have an en-suite in my bedroom at home, so I was able to hole up in my room whilst waiting for my test results. The results – negative, of course –  were received via email 3.5 hours later, followed by a WhatsApp call from ICA informing me that I was free to go about my business. 

Text messages and emails are sent so I don’t forget to book and go for my PCR tests on Days 3 and 7
Image credit: @michpeaa

I also received emails and text messages reminding me to book my Day 3 and 7 swab tests at my choice of Raffles Medical clinic, which I had to take before 3PM on the respective days. A booking link was also provided to make things easier.

Swab Three ($94) saw a 10-second assault up each nostril, me waving my hand desperately at the doctor since he told me to wave if I felt pain, stomping my foot since he did nothing but continue, and semi-squealing, to which he repeated, “It’ll be over soon.” These results I didn’t receive till the next day, which didn’t really bug me since I was already out and about. 

My last swab on Day 7 saw me in and out of Raffles Medical Holland Village in less than 10 minutes. I felt nary a tickle as he slid the swab up just the one nostril. He counted to 10 without twirling it about and retrieved the swab in a single smooth motion. I ought to get his name for the next time I need to be swabbed. And that was that – my battery of tests was completed without a hitch.

The VTL experience – Would I do it again?

#nofilter on this iPhone photo of the River Rhine from Cochem Castle
Image credit: @michpeaa

In a heartbeat, yes, yes, and yes again. News fatigue is ever so real in this pandemic, as we are confronted with countless global crises day and night. Coupled in some cases with frayed tempers from being forced to spend extended periods of time at home, rising levels of anxiety, stress from not knowing when to log off work, and simply not many places of escape on our little island, it’s safe to say many of us aren’t in our best states of mind.

That one photo every visitor to Rothenberg ob de Tauber must take
Image credit: @michpeaa

It’s a privilege I have to be thankful for, that I had the opportunity to leave our bubble when I could, and I honestly feel that given the chance, everyone should, too. It’s a great time to shake off the tunnel vision and weariness that’s befallen us, see the world again, and embrace the true meaning of Covid-19 being endemic. 

I must emphasise that to me, this means maintaining a sensible set of precautions, including keeping clean, frequently sanitising your hands, and masking up as necessary. Personally, this was when the area is densely packed, with less than a metre or two between groups.

With that being said and done, I’ve just taken my booster shot, and trust me when I say my sights are already set on my next VTL destination.

Cover images adapted from: @michpeaa

Michelle P

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