One week ago, I flew home from Munich on the inaugural VTL flight, marking the start of quarantine-free travel between Singapore and Germany. Today, I finished my fourth and final COVID-19 PCR test, completing the post-arrival process for VTL travellers.
You can read the full trip report below, in all its multi-part glory (the first trip report I’ve finished since 48 Hours in New York, back in February 2020!).
To wrap up the series, I’d like to share a few thoughts about the overall VTL experience.
This isn’t the big reopening we were hoping for
While the VTL is a step in the right direction, it’s far from the big reopening of travel we were hoping for.
First, there’s the additional costs. The average VTL traveller can expect to pay at least S$460 for the four mandatory PCR tests he/she must do before and after arriving back in Singapore.
|⚕️ VTL Testing Regime
|🇩🇪 Germany||48h before departure
|🇸🇬 Singapore||On arrival||S$160|
|🇸🇬 Singapore||Day 3||S$94.16|
|🇸🇬 Singapore||Day 7||S$94.16|
|*1-2 hour “express” solutions are available, which account for the higher price.|
Multiply this by a family of four, and that’s nearly S$2,000 tacked on to the cost of a holiday! It doesn’t help that the pricing can feel inequitable at times- why should a PCR test at Changi Airport cost S$160, when the Day 3 & 7 swabs at Raffles Medical cost just S$94?
But fine, we can argue that testing is simply the price of quarantine-free travel. Give me a choice between swabs and SHN, and I’d pick swabs every day of the week (not like SHN allows you to avoid them anyway).
A much bigger problem (and likely deal breaker for most people) is the ICA’s insistence that anyone with a positive COVID-19 test in the past 21 days cannot travel to Singapore.
|⚠️ Update: From 7 October, this has been reduced to 14 days. Less bad, but still a dealbreaker for many|
This means that if you get a positive pre-departure test in Germany, you’re stuck there for at least 21 more days, notwithstanding the fact you could be out of German self-isolation in as little as five!
It’s a puzzlement why ICA continues to insist on this 21-day rule, even if previously-infected individuals can subsequently present a negative PCR result. Moreover, studies suggest that vaccinated individuals clear their viral loads faster than unvaccinated ones, and if so, that’s all the more reason not to apply a blanket 21-day rule. I mean, I get the whole “abundance of caution” thing, but taken too far, that argument would have us rolling ourselves in bubble wrap, drawing the curtains and hiding under the blankets at home.
So long as testing costs and the consequences of a positive overseas test (more administrative than anything else) remain onerous, the VTL won’t be a huge draw for leisure travellers. It’s no wonder the majority of passengers on my flights appeared to be businessmen.
|👨👩👦 VTL for families?|
|Another “problem” is that families with children under the age of 12 can’t take advantage of the VTL, but that’s just a natural consequence of the requirement that all travellers be vaccinated. In any case, children aged under 12 should be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine starting early next year, so this issue will resolve itself eventually.|
Even in the opposite direction, it’s doubtful the VTL will be much of a boon for the beleaguered Singapore tourism industry. Singapore, for all its charms, just isn’t as attractive a destination as Spain, Italy, or any of the other places a German holidaymaker could visit without quarantine. Why would they come here when it’s so much more expensive, when they can’t hop to other beach destinations in the region, can’t enjoy any nightlife, and have to wear a mask all the time?
Germany is doing endemic COVID right
As I wrote in this piece, it was so refreshing to see the way the Germans are tackling COVID. There are still restrictions, yes, but they mainly apply to indoor settings where the risk of transmission is elevated. In hotels, museums, shops and public transport, masks stay on.
Step outside, however, and you couldn’t tell what year it was. In the plazas and on the streets, everyone’s maskless. There’s live music, roving tour groups, al fresco dining and farmer’s markets, with nary a face covering in sight.
Of course it’s still up to the individual to take additional precautions- if you want to wear a mask in a crowded square, no one will look at you funny. But why should you have to wear it if you’re the only one walking down a quiet street, or in a park with plenty of personal space? And since we’re talking restrictions, why shouldn’t you be able to enjoy an adult beverage after 10.30 p.m? Is there really any harm in soft background music at restaurants? Why can’t we have self-serve buffets, with everyone wearing gloves and FFP2 masks?
That’s not to say Germany is doing it perfectly. As a foreigner, I kept thinking of all the holes in their processes, like how they just accepted my vaccination certificate at face value, or how the PCR test centre didn’t so much as check my identity. But on the whole, my take is that Germany’s kept the restrictions that make sense, and tossed the ones which amount to hygiene theatre.
At a federal level, Germany has also adopted clear and defined metrics for easing or tightening restrictions, based on hospitalisations instead of new cases. It’s as strong an indication as you’ll get that they see COVID as something to be managed, not eliminated. And interestingly enough, despite talk of a fourth wave Germany’s 7-day R-value has been falling since the start of September- it’s now at 0.87 (not that they’re out of the woods yet; things could get hairy if they don’t get enough people vaccinated by autumn).
Singapore Airlines is still a great way to fly
The VTL was my first opportunity to witness SIA’s cabin crew in action since March 2020. I’m happy to report that despite the truncated service routines and reduced opportunities for customer interaction, they still know how to make passengers feel welcome.
On the outbound leg, the crew were still confined to single-tray service, but made up for it in their usual over-the-top way, keeping drinks filled, offering regular snacks, and even preparing a special care pack for me to bring around in Munich. On the return, course-by-course service was back, which helped give the Business Class experience some of its pre-COVID grandeur.
Yes, it’s a pain to have to wear your mask to sleep, and the absence of physical menus, pre-flight magazines, and the inflight duty-free cart may cause some to pine for the good old days. But the crew do as well as they can under the circumstances, and that helps an awful lot.
The next major piece of the puzzle will be the reopening of the renovated SilverKris Lounges at Changi Airport. While the temporary facility gets the job done, it’s a far cry from the opulence that one expects from Singapore Airlines.
ICA needs to step up their game
While I can appreciate that ICA has been facing an unprecedented workload over the past 18 months, they still need to do a much better job with their communication and turnaround times.
A good example is the post-arrival testing process on Days 3 & 7. VTL travellers are supposed to receive emails from ICA with unique booking links according to the following timetable:
|Time of Arrival Immigration Clearance (Day 1)||Email notifications from Safe Travel Office (STO)|
|On dates of D3 & D7 tests and booking link for D3 test||On date & booking link for D7 test|
|0000 – 0559 hrs||~1230 hrs on D1||~0700 hrs on D6|
|0600 – 1159 hrs||~1830 hrs on D1|
|1200 – 1759 hrs||~0030 hrs on D2|
|1800 – 2359 hrs||~0630 hrs on D2|
I cleared immigration around 8 a.m, so I should have received my booking link for the Day 3 test around 6.30 p.m on the evening of arrival. Nothing came, so I sent ICA a message asking what I should do.
Four days later, I received the following mail:
|Dear Mr. Aaron Wong,
We refer to your email on the 09 September 2021.
2 We note that the event has probably been taken over by now. May we know if you still require any assistance with regards to the booking link.
But the more confusing thing was that later that day I received another email:
2 Welcome to Singapore! We are happy to receive you through the Vaccinated Travel Lane.
3 We understand that some travellers have experienced difficulties accessing their COVID-19 PCR test appointment booking links, and we are doing all that to resolve this.
4 During this time, please book your appointments for your post-arrival Day 3 and Day 7 COVID-19 PCR Tests by calling the Raffles Medical Group hotline for Vaccinated Lane Travellers at (+65) 6311 1160 instead. The list of designated clinics can be found at https://www.rafflesmedicalgroup.com/vtl-traveller/.
5 We seek your understanding and wish you a pleasant stay in Singapore. Thank you!
6 Thank you.
This despite the fact I had already received a valid Day 3 booking link at 0700 on Day 2, and a valid Day 7 booking link at 0700 on Day 6.
This is far from an isolated incident. While researching the VTL, I sent several queries to ICA regarding specific scenarios (e.g. the return process for someone who tests positive in Germany, the treatment of individuals who were vaccinated outside Singapore but subsequently got their vaccination recognised here). Every time, I received boilerplate responses that copied and pasted random chunks from the ICA website, without addressing the specific question at all.
For a country where efficient bureaucracy is taken for granted, dealing with ICA has been a headache and a half. And this coming from someone who’s done his research and is more or less familiar with the rules- imagine how it’d be for someone else.
Day 3 & 7 tests are fairly uneventful
Issues with booking links aside, my Day 3 and 7 tests were fairly uneventful.
I did the Day 3 test at the Holland V Raffles Medical branch. They’ve set up a swab centre on the roof under a tent. The whole process took about 10 minutes, with registration taking longer than the swab. I was asked repeatedly for a “VTL letter”, which to my knowledge does not exist. Eventually they figured out it wasn’t necessary.
The swab was done at 10.40 a.m, and the results came back at 4.26 p.m.
It was similar story for the Day 7 test, which I did at Shaw Centre. The staff again asked for a “VTL letter”, I again told them no such thing existed, and they eventually accepted I was right.
The swab was done at 12.15 p.m, and the result came back at 2.02 a.m- slightly longer than the previous test.
I didn’t encounter any racism
Given the relative mildness of a COVID-19 infection for vaccinated individuals, the main concern I was hearing from people (apart from getting stranded in Germany for 21 days) was how Chinese-looking people would be treated.
I can’t speak to all situations, but what I can say is that during my time in Germany I felt no different from any other tourist. Hospitality staff and storekeepers were polite, a group of German pensioners asked me to help them take a photo, two backpackers helped me out when they saw I was struggling with the ticket validation machine, and the rudest treatment I received came from an ill-advised visit to a luxury watch store (which was more on account of how slim my wallet looked, as opposed to the color of my skin).
It doesn’t mean racist incidents don’t happen, but it does mean you’d be better off worrying about missing your train or whether everyone else is going to be naked in the sauna (they are).
Despite all the hoops to jump through and potential pitfalls, VTL travel remains your most realistic shot at a holiday this year. I’m not saying it’s for everyone- in fact, it’s probably not. Many firms still have no-travel policies in place, getting stranded in Germany will be an expensive exercise (both financially and career-wise), and S$460 in tests per person is not to be sniffed at.
But if you have the flexibility and means to go, award space to Germany is plentiful, commercial tickets remain reasonably priced, and some time out of Singapore could do wonders for your state of mind.