Three different flights to get home, when you’re supposed to stay home: My experience traveling during COVID-19

After schools closed in Washington due to COVID-19, my whole world changed. I had spent the past seven months in Gig Harbor as an exchange student, but with the uncertainty of when life would go back to normal, I was faced with the very real possibility of being sent back to Finland before my year abroad would officially end. On March 20th my fears came true when my exchange organization sent me away from my second home, with less than 48 hours to pack up my life.


The one thing that people can agree on about the Coronavirus is that the safest place to be is your own home, isolated from others. That wasn’t possible for me, as I was forced to go through four different airports, and travel with strangers for almost 24 hours straight. I didn’t have a choice to stay in the US, as the situation was changing constantly and there was no guarantee that I’d be able to leave in the future if I didn’t leave right then.


I first flew to Vancouver from Seattle. The airport looked abandoned and there were only seven passengers in my first plane. My second plane to Paris was full, which made it impossible to social distance. The last plane to Helsinki was half full. In the airplane it hit me just how serious the Coronavirus is. I was essentially risking my life flying, but it was the only option, as I had to go home. Everyone else on the flights was also flying home, to be safe. I wore a facemask and washed my hands whenever I had the chance, but it felt a bit useless. Airports and airplanes are filthy, and no amount of hand washing was going to stop the virus in that environment.


Catching the virus wasn’t my only fear. Countries were going under lockdown, and the changes happened quickly. I didn’t have a direct flight, which meant that if France, for example, had decided to close its border and cancel all travel into the country, I could have been stranded in Vancouver. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it home until I was on the plane to Helsinki, because then I knew that I’d be allowed into the country as a Finnish citizen.


I’ve traveled plenty in my life. Usually I get stressed about making it to the gate on time or buying souvenirs. I never thought that I’d have to travel alone during a pandemic, without anyone helping me on my journey. I remember landing in Helsinki, feeling relieved to be home after a stressful and honestly scary 24 hours. I’m safe, but I left a second home in the US, without the possibility of saying goodbye. Hopefully one day I’ll make the same trip again, but without fear.