I have recorded an audio version of the article to make it more accessible and for those who enjoy to listen rather than to read.
It has been six months since we started our world travel and I want to share some of the stories from this time. Let me tell you the story of how we travelled to Sri Lanka, the most prolonged eight hours of stress so far. In hindsight, we handled it pretty well and weren't as stressed out at the time as I would have thought we would be in reflection.
After spending almost seven weeks in the UAE, at the end of October 2021 we were booked on to Emirates flight EK648 to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Due to the pandemic, there were fewer flights out of Dubai Airport than normal and as a result, fewer check-in desks were open. We joined a long queue to get our tickets and check-in our luggage, though, after ten minutes of not moving, I noticed a row of not used self-check-in machines. Leaving my wife and children in the non-moving line, I headed over to the empty self-check-in machines to ask if we can use them. We could; I signaled to my family to leave their line and join me at the open yet empty check-in machines.
We scanned our passports and check-in as you do via the touch screen, then I made a mistake/what I would call one of the worst UX decisions I have seen ever. The system asked me if I wanted to check-in our luggage "together" or "separate". I selected "together", my son's name came on the screen first I put his bag on the scales, attached the label and off it went into the ether of the airport conveyor belt system. I then selected "next" on the screen, not "add".
This is where I messed up. I messed up good 🤦♂️
Seconds later, our boarding passes were printed out, and the machine was thanking me for checking-in our one piece of luggage as I stood there with three more bags to check-in. All those people from the queue we had left had noticed we were progressing quicker at self-check-in, so the self-check-in area was now as bustling and as busy as the regular check-in desk. With limited staff around, we left our position at the self-check-in machine to find some help.
This also was a big mistake 🤦♂️🤦♂️
We go back to the long standard line to find a member of staff, and after twenty minutes of back and forth, we get our luggage checked-in. FYI, if this happens to you on the Emirates self-check-in machines, scan your passport again, and you can add more bags easily.
If you have got to this point in the article, you may be thinking why the last 500 words were all about self-check-in. The reason for the level of details is that what felt at the time as the most stressful situation turned out to be the least stressful part of our next eight-hour saga. Let's continue...
We went through security fine and headed to the only open restaurant, Hard Rock Cafe for some late, not the best quality dinning (it was around 5pm at this point). Fed and watered, we ended up wanting to do some last-minute airport shopping, though our daughter luckily checked the flight departure times and saw our flight was showing as boarding. It was now around 6:45pm, and our flight would leave at 7:45pm.
We headed over to find they were boarding early to allow time to check everybody's documents. We handed over our passports and were asked for our PCR tests. We provided mine and my wife's, they checked them, and then we hear the words "and the PCR tests for the children."
I believed that if you were under 12 years old you didn't need a PCR test to enter Sri Lanka, and I was confident that this was the case. I discussed in a semi-heated conversation this with the Emirates staff, and after we all checked the Sri Lanka official page for entry, I saw the line "All people over one year old should have a negative PCR test".
We were told there is a lat-flow testing area in the airport, but they had to check if the result would be acceptable to board the plane. They got the ok we could get on the plane with a negative lat-flow for the children (not that we can 100% get into Sri Lanka, but we can get on the plane).
An airport golf buggy arrived at our gate because, of course, the lat-flow testing was on the other side of the airport. A cruise through the airport, and we arrived at the testing area with two distraught children (they are convinced we aren't getting on the flight at this point). Though we are thankful there is a testing centre in the airport, we seem to have got the slowest technician on staff. We completed the forms, made the payment and the samples were taken mixed with children's tears.
The result would take twenty minutes, but the golf buggy is waiting to take us back to the gate. We zipped through the airport and arrived at the gate five minutes before departure. As we ran to the gate, we were told not to worry as another family had to do the same lat-flow test, so there was time. Our children's results come back negative, so we can board (though we still don't know if Sri Lanka will let us in).
So now, ready to board five minutes before the flight, we take a breath of relief that the hassle is over.
Or so we thought 🤨
We then get asked for our visas, I showed our visa confirmation for myself and my wife, and again they say, "what about the children's visas".
My wife, at this point, gave me a loving stare you can only imagine as I insisted to her that I 100% applied for the children's visas. I foolishly assumed that the children were included on our visa confirmation as we never got any other emails about the children; this was not the case. The Emirates staff checked their systems, and they could at least see that I had applied for the children's visas, though they had the status of pending.
It was decided we could board the flight; at 8pm we board the plane as those last people. For the next four hour flight, we relax (ish), I purchase plane WiFi and try to Google if you can get into Sri Lanka with children's lat-flow test, but after an hour, I give up, close my eyes and rest.
Arriving in Sri Lanka
We arrived at Colombo airport at 2am local time, we had our documents ready. First is the health declaration section; we walked over through the "two meters" spaced chaos, handed over our four documents, and waited with baited breathe for what was seconds but felt like twenty minutes.
Stamp, stamp, stamp, stamp 💪
We are ushered to the next section, where we approached immigration. Trying not to look suspicious, we hand over our passports.
We are handed back all four passports with the phrase everyone at immigration wants to hear.
"You need to go to the immigration office, the children don't have visas"
We found an immigration officer who happened to be the chief immigration officer, and we explained the situation. It was 2:30am at this point; we sat and waited, the chief then spent hours calling people. We sat in his office for two hours; every ten minutes, we got to witness someone entering his office and pleading how they entered their date of birth wrong on their visa or mis-spelt their own surname 🤷♂️ and visa after visa was getting resolved.
Having visited Sri Lanka before, I was aware of the manual process of things but also the kindest of the people there and was sure things would be resolved but it was late/early in the morning and we were getting more and more tired. We were overhearing many phone calls from our new friend, the chief immigration officer, a man of few words. Over and over, we heard, "sorry mam, Sinhalese, Sinhalese, Sinhalese, family, British passport holders, Sinhalese, Sinhalese, Sinhalese". He was calling people in the visa office to resolve our issue but had to wake them up at 3am to ask for help.
At 4am, I got an email as we sat in his office, two children's visas; success 😁.
I asked him what had happened; it turned out that when we applied for our visas and completed the children's forms, we were asked if the children had been vaccinated, which they hadn't as they were under twelve, but the system saw non-vaccinated and rejected the visa. Bloody technology 😂🤦♂️.
Why didn't we get emailed about the rejection? Well, there was a bug in the system, and that was why they were shown as pending for the Emirates staff in Dubai. If we hadn't been travelling with children and had this visa issue, they would have just asked us to sleep in the airport and wait until the office opened at 9am.
We leave the airport at 4:15am with four passports stamped; we get to our hotel, where the manager waited up for us to arrive. It is 4:45am and time for some sleep.
Thanks again to the Emirates staff in Dubai, Dubai airport for their PCR setup and chief immigration officer of Colombo Airport.
I am thinking of writing more of these stories from our world travels, if you would be interested in reading more please tweet or DM me on twitter @leemallon so I know people actually want to read them 😀.