What it is like to spend 10 days in New Zealand's government-managed quarantine hotel
Just over two years ago I moved from California to Hamilton, New Zealand. Little did I know, a few months later the entire world would be facing a global pandemic. While living in beautiful Aotearoa (the Maori name for the country), I was grateful to be in a place with such a low number of COVID-19 cases. I was constantly missing my family and friends though, so I decided to visit them for Thanksgiving.
That's how I ended up spending Christmas and New Year's Eve in an isolation hotel managed by the government.
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At the start of the pandemic in 2020, New Zealand required anyone who was entering the country to stay in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ). The MIQ facilities are hotels that the government has rented for citizens, residents and visa holders trying to get back into NZ. As you can imagine, there are a lot of people trying to get into the country because of its low COVID-19 rates, its natural beauty and those who have family, friends or lovers in the country.
I am American, but have a visa to stay and work in New Zealand.
There is not enough rooms to accommodate the demand. On top of that, the government has had to use some of these hotels for New Zealanders who tested positive for COVID-19 to keep them out of the community. All of this meant that acquiring an MIQ room was very difficult, and at times it felt nearly impossible.
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I was one of the lucky few to receive an “MIQ Voucher.” To get one of these vouchers, one must log onto the government MIQ portal and wait in an online lobby. From there, you will be assigned a randomized number for the online queue. When I logged in, I would be anywhere between number 3,000 and 25,000 in this imaginary line. The government would release around 3,000 rooms every few weeks. Whenever they announced a new room release, I was online desperately trying to get a room. It was my fifth time logging on when I finally got mine.
Once I got my voucher, I was so shocked I couldn’t believe it. I was one step closer to seeing my family for the first time in two years. When you login, you must choose the exact day you will be entering NZ, and you need to make sure your flight will get there on that day or you will not be allowed to enter the country. The only day that worked for my travel plans was to return on Dec. 24. I booked my flights, packed my bags and flew to California on Nov. 22, just in time for Thanksgiving.
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The trip to the airport was very strange. The only airport in New Zealand with flights to America is in Auckland, which had been in lockdown for months due to a delta outbreak. In order to get in and out of the city, my friend and I had to drive through a police barricade where we would show proof of our travel exemption and a negative COVID-19 test. The line to get into the city wasn’t too long that day. The only car in front of us was a trailer full of sheep — exactly what you would expect to see on your last day in New Zealand.
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I made it to the airport very early, about four hours before my flight, which was not necessary considering no one was there. There were barely any flights and everything was completely shut down. No restaurants, no gift shops, no coffee, and just two vending machines at each empty gate. After hours of waiting around, my flight took off and I waved goodbye to Aotearoa, hoping I would be back very soon.
I flew on Air New Zealand in their premium economy cabin. Air New Zealand is actually the only airline flying direct to the United States at the moment. My flight was only half-full.
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What a difference a country makes!
When I landed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), it was completely overwhelming because had just gotten out of lockdown and it was the first time in a while I had been around that many people.
I had such a blast reuniting with friends and family I hadn’t seen for so long! Being back with my loved ones made me feel some normalcy and nostalgia from a time before COVID-19. However, about a week into my vacation, news came out that there was a new COVID-19 variant called omicron. This reminded me that life was not really back to normal.
Soon after that, the New Zealand government announced new rules regarding MIQ and entry to NZ. They shortened the testing requirements from 72 to 48 hours and extended the stay in a managed isolation hotel from seven to ten days. For me, this meant scrambling at the last minute to find a test in L.A. two days before my flight and staying in quarantine for the Christmas and New Year holidays.
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While traveling, I constantly had questions in the back of my mind: “What if I get COVID-19?”; “What if my flight is canceled?”; “What if the U.S. gets on the banned countries list?”; “What if my test doesn’t meet the requirement?” and “What if I got an MIQ voucher for the wrong day?”
Again my flight home on Air New Zealand was only about half full.
When I finally landed in New Zealand on my return, all the anxiety melted away. Before we got off the plane, an official MIQ employee told us we were going to a quarantine hotel in Christchurch. Somehow, I ended up in an MIQ facility on a completely different island.
Upon arrival to Auckland, we disembarked the plane in a section of the airport completely shut off from the public. From there, we went through three separate checkpoints. First, a health screening to see if we had any COVID-19 symptoms. Second, an immigration officer checked our coronavirus test and MIQ voucher. And third, another immigration officer asked about what we brought into the country and our reason for travel. Lastly, we had to go through security to get onto the second plane that took us to the South Island where the hotel was located. After hours of waiting, our plane took off and landed in Christchurch. We then took a bus across the street to our hotel to ensure we would not have any exposure to the public.
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Then our stay in MIQ began. Each day was quite monotonous and boring.
We received three meals a day which you can see more of in the photos below.
We were also given specific “outdoor times” that occurred twice a day. We were assigned a time from 5am - 9pm for only 50 minutes. The area where we could walk around outside was not very spacious, but it had some seating and a designated walking path. It wasn’t very fun walking the same loop for ten days surrounded by a chain-linked fence, but it was nice to get outside to help pass the time.
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These were the only times we were allowed to leave our room for ten days.
You could only open your door if one of the hotel staff knocked for deliveries or COVID-19 testing. We were tested four times while we were in MIQ. Hotel staff and nurses called every day for health screenings and to see how we were holding up.
Related: What do the CDC’s new isolation and quarantine recommendations mean for travel?
And no, the government doesn't pay for your "vacation" in quarantine.
I had to pay myself. The rates are based on how many people there are in your room and what visa you have. So how much did this 10-day stay cost?
Because it was just me and I am a New Zealand resident, I had to pay $1,610 - about $161 a night.
On Monday, Jan. 3, I was finally released from MIQ. For those of us returning to the North Island, we were provided a plane ticket back to the Auckland airport. From there, we were on our own to find transportation home. I was allowed to leave my room at 7:55 am, the exact time I landed in New Zealand. Once I left the room, I was greeted by the New Zealand defense force, and once we checked out of the hotel, we were allowed to leave. I then walked to the Christchurch airport, where I boarded my flight home at 10 a.m.
I was immensely happy to be out of MIQ and back home in Hamilton with my boyfriend and all my friends!
Many of us have come to the realization that the only thing constant is change. Regarding traveling and the pandemic, things change abruptly. At times on my trip, it was tough not to let these changes affect me and I tried my hardest to stay present. While making your travel plans, you should be prepared and acknowledge the issues you might face, but try not to let them consume you. The journey may be a bit longer than anticipated, but you will get there.