I Visited Singapore As It Reopened to American Travelers — Here's What It Was Like

·7-min read
A Singapore Airlines airplane inflight used on the VTL flights from the U.S.
A Singapore Airlines airplane inflight used on the VTL flights from the U.S.

Courtesy of Singapore Airlines

When countries around the world began charting their course of reopening, I knew I wanted to report on the ground as global cities welcomed back travelers. The opportunity to visit places right as (a shred of) normalcy returns was a rare privilege — seeing storefronts unshutter, communities re-emerge from lockdown, and businesses re-acclimate to tourism. This summer, I showed up in Greece days after their quarantine mandate lifted, and moved over to France on the morning of their reopening. But as home to some of the longest, strictest lockdowns amid the pandemic, Asia felt completely out of bounds to me.

Aerial view of Marina Bay Sands
Aerial view of Marina Bay Sands

Courtesy of Marina Bay Sands

So, when the opportunity to take Singapore Airlines' new, vaccine-mandatory flights from the U.S. to Changi International arose, I jumped at it. Singapore is the second Asian hub to reopen — on the heels of Phuket's tourism reintroduction initiative. Americans can visit Singapore through the country's Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL), a program currently open to 13 countries allowing vaccinated travelers entry without a two-week quarantine. Travel through the VTL involves jumping (or, in my case, blindly tripping and somersaulting) through a number of bureaucratic hoops, but the locals-only Singapore that greets you upon arrival is worth the slight entry headache.

Marina Bay Sands at nighttime
Marina Bay Sands at nighttime

Stephen Chin Siong Liung/Courtesy of Marina Bay Sands

Here, everything you need to know about returning to Singapore, so you can resume your Southeast Asia travel plans immediately.

How to Get to Singapore Right Now

Right now, Singapore Airlines is the only carrier flying direct VTL flights from the U.S. to Changi International. The first step toward boarding this flight is applying for your Vaccinated Travel Pass. The application needs to be approved seven days before your arrival to Singapore, but you can apply up to 13 days in advance.

The application portal requires a specific digital vaccination record with a Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS)-approved QR code. The simplest vaccination record to use is a SMART Health Card, issued by Hawaii, California, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Utah, Virginia, Colorado, and Washington. CAAS will also accept a scanned vaccine card, though it must be accompanied by a letter from your vaccine provider or your "local health authority." If you are unable to obtain a SMART Health Card, go directly to the Department of Public Health of the state in which you were vaccinated. They can either issue a state-specific digital vaccine record (often the states that don't issue a SMART Health Card have their own iteration of a "vaccine passport"), or they can write the signed letter to accompany your CDC vaccine card. Singapore Immigration and Checkpoints Authority also requires that you briefly self-isolate in Singapore (while awaiting the results of an on-arrival COVID-19 test), so you'll need to provide the address where you plan to shelter. You can self-isolate in either a rental home or a hotel.

When your Vaccinated Travel Pass is approved, you'll receive a letter from the government that grants you entry to Singapore over specified dates. From there, book your seat on a Singapore Airlines VTL flight (the airline operates both VTL and non-VTL flights along the same routes from the U.S. to Singapore, so be aware when booking).

Next, you'll need to book an on-arrival test at Changi Airport and buy travel insurance. Singapore Airlines will send you the resources needed to complete both steps; I booked my travel insurance through SIA, which cost $160, and the on-arrival test through Changi's Safe Travel Concierge website. This website, run by Changi International, also directed me to the mandatory, pre-arrival health declarations and prompted me to download Singapore's mandatory contact tracing app, TraceTogether.

When I checked in for my flight at the airport, I had to show my Vaccinated Travel Pass, SMART Health Card, and a negative PCR test for COVID-19 taken within 72 hours of my flight's departure. Pro tip: go old school and print it all out. I also printed my travel insurance and hotel booking confirmation for good measure, but neither were necessary.

Flying With Singapore Airlines and Arriving at Changi Airport

Singapore Airlines Business Class seat that is currently flying from Los Angeles
Singapore Airlines Business Class seat that is currently flying from Los Angeles

Courtesy of Singapore Airlines

Though VTL flights are vaccine-mandatory, Singapore Airlines still takes every health and safety precaution, from mask requirements to reduced contact where possible. And, unsurprisingly, the new COVID-19 measures have been put in place without detracting from the five-star service that's landed the airline at the top of Travel + Leisure's World's Best Awards for 26 years running. Singapore Airlines also continues to launch programming meant to encourage guests to find their own personal airborne retreat. I found exactly that — truthfully, I slept more on my flights to and from Singapore than I slept while on the ground — and I'm still unsure whether my in-flight bliss spurred more from the wine selection or the warm garlic bread at 36,000 feet.

While I may well have achieved nirvana on my Champagne-filled, blanket-swathed flight from LA to Singapore, my Zen was short-lived once I arrived at Changi International. VTL passengers are funneled through an overwhelming series of lines for customs, immigration, and finally, an on-arrival COVID-19 test. To expedite the airport experience, services like JetQuay arrange for representatives to meet passengers right off the plane and sherpa them through the VTL arrival protocol.

After leaving the airport, travelers must isolate at the address given on their VTL application For me, that meant six hours self-isolating in style at Marina Bay Sands hotel, complete with a soak in my 43rd-floor bathtub overlooking Singapore's iconic Gardens by the Bay. Isolation protocols are taken quite seriously in Singapore — I received a call about three hours into my quarantine from the front desk verifying that I hadn't left my room to paint the town.

What It's Like in Singapore Right Now

SkyPark Pool at Marina Bay Sands
SkyPark Pool at Marina Bay Sands

Scott Frances/Courtesy of Marina Bay Sands

Once I received my test results via email — five hours and 51 minutes into my self-isolation — I left my hotel room and went straight to Marina Bay Sands' iconic 57th-floor observation deck. While, admittedly, it was a touristy move, you wouldn't know it by the scene that greeted me when I stepped off the elevator. I had the overlook entirely to myself. There really wasn't another soul in sight — save for the woman who swiped my keycard for entry and the specks of people 57 stories below.

This is a fairly typical sightseeing experience in Singapore right now. Hot spots you would find packed with tourists pre-pandemic have quieted. Scoping out Chinatown, Gardens by the Bay, and a downright impressive number of hawker centers over a four-day period, I encountered Singaporeans who had ventured into the heart of the city to enjoy the nearly empty sights, but very few foreign travelers.

Those planning to visit Singapore should know that mask wearing is required both indoors and outdoors and that you can currently only dine (whether at Marina Bay Sands' record number of Michelin-starred restaurants or at Old Airport Road Food Center's laksa and prawn noodle stalls) with one person from outside your household. Diners who can prove they live in the same household can sit in groups of up to five.

Rasapura Masters at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands
Rasapura Masters at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands

Courtesy of Marina Bay Sands

Finally, travelers need to download TraceTogether, Singapore's preferred contact tracing app, as soon as they arrive (if not before). Every business, down to the open-air coffee shop I visited daily while in Singapore, requires visitors swipe their TraceTogether app when entering and leaving. Think of it as your all-access pass to Singapore, and don't leave your hotel room without it.

I found the VTL entry process trying at times, but in the grand scheme of COVID-era travel, it really wasn't. The world reopening isn't as smooth as we want it to be sometimes. But as travelers like me struggle through the additional paperwork that now seems as common in long-haul travel as roller bags, there are still people around the world who can't get home to their families because of the bureaucratic maze obstructing their path. The additional hassles of travel right now shouldn't be a deterrent. As the world opens up, if you have the opportunity to jet to a new place or revisit a favorite destination, take it. Even though flights get canceled and immigration processes falter and masks are uncomfortable in intense humidity, there is no other time (I hope) that you will ever see the world's most sought-after destinations in this state. And that will always be worth the extra effort.

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