Updated: May 14, 2021
The annoyance from the memories mentioned in Part 1 is now under control. Kinda. 🤪😅 😂 This one is more to share the costs and timeline for what had to be arranged to escape London and come back home. It wasn't easy and it definitely hasn't been cheap, trying to survive in a pandemic in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Our Chevening study period ended in September 2020, and most of our Pasifika Chevening friends were able to go home to their respective islands via transit in NZ or Fiji by November 2020. However, for some reason unbeknownst to me (and as mentioned in other blogs), we Tongan scholars were the only ones still left stranded in the UK up until March 2021. There was a new strain of Covid-virus in the UK and NZ travel entry rules had changed from late 2020. All travellers had to complete MIQ in NZ instead of the transiting option that the other Pasifika Cheveners went through. So, step 1 of the long-ass process was to get an NZ visa in London.
1. Get an NZ visa
We needed to be nominated by the Tongan Government as essential travellers into NZ. After a long back-and-forth of emails over some months, we got this nomination confirmed on 17/12/2020.
The next step was to apply for an NZ Expression of Interest (EOI) travel, which was sent on 18/12/2020 and cost £24.62 (~$45 NZD or $77.41 TOP)
Once EOI was approved, we had to apply for NZ Critical Purpose Visa online. We submitted our online application on 23/12/2020 and it cost £ 93.81 (~$171 NZD or $294.95 TOP).
Once our online application was sent, we also had to send a hardcopy of our application, along with our passport to the NZ Visa Application Center in London. This cost £25.01 (~$48.42 NZD or $78.63 TOP)**.
**This is the time when my anxiety and panic attacks went on crack as my passport went unaccounted for during the visa application process. I got my NZ visa via email two weeks after I sent my application online, but I got my passport back after almost 2 months in late February 2021.
2. Secure NZ Managed Isolation Quarantine (MIQ) slot
Other than the passport incident, securing the NZ visa was done fairly quickly. Once you have your visa, you can try to book a spot at a MIQ in NZ via the website: https://allocation.miq.govt.nz/portal/
I hated this part the most. My anxiety was on whack trying to secure a spot. Although we got our NZ visa in January 2021, the MIQ was fully booked until March 2021, and it's notoriously difficult to secure an opening in the MIQ system.
We had to wait and stayed glued to our computers for hours and refresh the website every 30 seconds in case of an opening. It became a routine over the course of a week. Wake up, log into MIQ and refresh, refresh, refresh, wishing for a lucky break.
It was a miracle that we managed to get a last-minute spot in March 2021. But that's not the end of the story yet!
Once you get a MIQ opening, you have 48 hours to confirm flight details to fully secure your spot. If you can't get your flight sorted within that time frame, it's game over and you lose your MIQ spot. That means you have to restart the whole MIQ process from the start, and that's a nightmare**.
** My nightmare and the cause of so many panic attacks when trying to book the MIQ was because I got my NZ visa, but still hadn't gotten my passport back yet, whilst still trying to secure a MIQ spot. I kept thinking, what if I get a MIQ spot, but I can't get secure a flight coz I don't have my passport by then? I'll have to keep redoing this shit again and again and I already hate it so much. 😭😰 It all worked out though.
3. Arrange flight
Once we miraculously got a MIQ opening, we had to arrange our flight details quickly. It was a Friday afternoon, around 3:00 pm when we got our MIQ, so it was a rush against time to email and liaise with our Chevening Programme Officers (P.O) and travel agents to get a flight booked. The P.O doesn't work over the weekends but they need to approve our travel details before the travel agent does the booking, so everything had to be done urgently in that Friday afternoon.
The tricky thing about the flight is that it had to match the date booking on the MIQ. Chevening has specific conditions, budget and approved routes/airlines for arranging flights for scholars. It was a headache trying to explain why we needed a flight on date X from Heathrow to arrive on day Y in Auckland etc. instead of them arranging a cheap flight on a random date as long as we get to NZ.
Again, a lot of back-and-forth emails were exchanged, as the P.O and travel agent didn't really understand how fucking hard it was to get a MIQ. As I said before, we had to push and argue for our case to be heard, and luckily, it came together in the end.
We were lucky that part of our flight costs was covered under the scholarship conditions. Our flights from the UK to NZ was paid for by Chevening, and our route was Heathrow-Singapore-Auckland via Singapore Airlines.
A quick search online on the Singapore Airline website is that a one-way economy seat flight from Heathrow to Auckland starts from £760.41 (~NZD 1,468.05 or 2394.65 TOP)
4. Covid test cost
Once MIQ and flights are sorted, you need a COVID test 72 hours before your flight time.
There is a list of UK Government approved Covid-test providers on this website
There were reports and complaints of dodgy Covid test providers, so it was best to cross-check the list and get tested with an approved clinic closest to your area.
The one closest to me was London Concepto Clinic in West Drayton (West London area). The test cost £149 (~$288.45 NZD or $469.16 TOP).
For the Covid test, a very long cotton-bud looking swab item is slowly shoved down your throat by the technician. The same bud is then slowly shoved up and swirled in both nostrils, and you are supposed to breathe out 5-8 deep breaths through your nose as the technician moves the cotton bud in your nose. The testing process takes less than 5 mins. I had a small nose bleed at the end but everything else was ok and my Covid test came out negative on the same evening.
5. Get on Flight
At Heathrow airport, they check the following documents:
UK international travel permit form
Negative Covid test result form
NZ MIQ voucher
NZ entry visa
and obviously your passport
I lived in an area close to Heathrow, but I still went to the airport about 5 hours early because...crippling anxiety. 🥴🥴 I was the very first person to check in the minute the Singapore Airline counter opened, and that made me breathe easy for a second.
The flight from Heathrow was a "same-plane through services" which meant you will be sitting on that same plane seat 13 hours from Heathrow to Singapore, and 10 hours from Singapore to Auckland.
You must wear a mask that whole time unless it's mealtimes.
My flight was pretty full under Covid circumstances I suppose. Most of the middle seats in the rows were kept empty unless you were travelling as a family. There were several families on the flight I was on with very young children and babies, and they were screaming and crying 90% of the flight. I can only imagine how tiring it must be for the parents to travel long distances with tiny temperamental humans. I didn't really mind the crying kids, as I just drank a lot of alcohol on the flight and fell asleep 🥱 #unbothered.
6. Arrival in Aotearoa
Our flight arrived in NZ on an early Friday morning. I felt like bursting into tears as soon as the plane landed in Tamaki Makaurau. I am now in the Pacific region, one step closer to home. Aotearoa was my home for 3 years when I did my undergrad degree here, so I do feel a sense of ease and connection to this country. I love this place.
At the Auckland airport:
Still required to keep on masks and maintain social distance.
Duty-free shops are not open.
After going through security and customs checks, you will be assigned to a bus that will take you to MIQ.
You can't choose which MIQ to go to. It's all randomly assigned.
Look up at the blue skies! So different from the cloudy greys of London!
You know, it took a lot of tears and sweat to be able to come back to this side of the world, and just a little bit more before I can get back to Tonga. Before December 2020, there were other failed attempts for travelling back to Tonga. I won't go into details about it because it was a collation of disappointment and miscommunication, but each was a learning point. I'm just so glad I'm in New Zealand now. Bright side up, I'm almost home.
As always, thanks for reading this one. The next one will be about my MIQ experience in NZ. Malo and tu'a 'ofa atu!