On the road again - or maybe that should read "In the air again" - after 20 months. Well, sort of...
Despite being able to get back to Ireland two times since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of which was for 6 days of which 5 were spent in isolation, it has been great to experience air travel again, specifically long-haul flights. The pandemic has resulted in a lot of changes across different aspects of our lives, including working lives, two major issues still waiting to catch up: the balancing of supply and demand, and the challenge of recruiting staff across many sectors. And all this while we are all trying to work out if we want to go back to the "old normal" or if we are creating a "new normal" for ourselves.
With a trip to the US to see family postponed no less than three times over the past 20 months, from April 2020 to April 2021, to October 2021 and, finally, to November 2021, we didn't believe it was happening until we were actually up in the air. But that was not before a spanner almost got into the works.
When the news was announced that the US was opening up its borders again from 8 November (sorry, November 8 - I must try to get used to the way that, in America, things are sometimes done differently), we decided to give it a week before the systems got back up-and-running again, so we booked to depart on Monday morning. In doing so, it allowed us to be able to watch the rugby on Saturday - Ireland beat the All Blacks, in case anyone did not hear - and also attend the Luxembourg-Ireland football match on Sunday evening at the Stade de Luxembourg.
Once home on the Sunday evening after the football, I decided to check my email once more, just to be sure that the flights were still on. I'm glad I did as our 8.5 hour long-haul flight from Frankfurt to Newark had been cancelled. Thankfully we had been automatically booked onto another flight instead, to Chicago, which was almost another hour's duration.
Over the week-end, I had methodically prepared for the flight (not packing, that took about 20 minutes), ensuring that I had printed copies of all the documentation that were required for the journey which was over three (no, four) legs - three flights and a shuttle bus to Luxembourg airport. These documents were sorted into five separate folders, so I could easily locate them, as follows:
- Travel itinerary (original routing, also for final routing for LUX-FRA, FRA-ORD (Chicago O'Hare airport) and ORD to our final destination in the US); original boarding cards; plus Door2Gate booking confirmation
- COVID-19 vaccine certificates; PCR test result certificates
- Travel itinerary for internal flights within US (separate from long-haul trips)
- US Immigration documents: ESTA authorisations (approved); passenger attestations re COVID-19; Certificats de Résidence (for Luxembourg)
- Fishing charter confirmation
A quick aside: the COVID-19 test result certificate for my wife (received on Saturday lunchtime) showed her maiden name, yet her passport and COVID-19 vaccine certificate show her married name. Just to be on the safe side (one never knows what bureaucratic barriers could be thrown in our way), we telephoned Ketterthill who obliged and changed her name on the test results, she sent us another link via sms and I downloaded the new (and correct) test certificate.
In addition to this, I had prepared and stored together electronic copies of various documents, for when/if they would be needed for uploading digitally. This list included: boarding cards; passenger attestations; COVID-19 digital vaccination certificates; COVID-19 digital PCR test certificates; ESTAs; passports; residence certificates; driving licences (including an international driving licence).
We had also been advised to download the United Airlines app (which I did) which has a comprehensive section on checking document requirements and which scanned copies of our passports and asked us to confirm the details after OCR.
Our first flight (LUX-FRA) was at 06:45. As there was a long-haul flight in our itinerary, we were advised to arrive there two hours in advance, i.e. by 04:45. As we didn't fancy leaving our car in the airport carpark for almost 3 weeks, and we didn't want to ask a family member to get up at that time what with work later on, we ordered the new Gate2Door service which was to collect us from our house at 04:00. That meant setting the alarm for 03:00 / 03:30. We haven't done this for quite a while.... let's hope the alarms worked...
At 04:00 we were ready with coats on, ready for the shuttle. We then received an sms from the driver to say (good news) that he had arrived and was waiting outside, and he also gave the registration number of the vehicle. However, there was no such vehicle outside. thinking that maybe he had gone to the same road name in a neighbouring village (it has happened before£), I rang the telephone number provided. Thankfully it was answered promptly and the operator patched me through to the driver. He was waiting AT THE AIRPORT for us.... To me, there was a clue in the name (Gate2Door); anyway, he was with us within 30 minutes and another 30 minutes later we were at the airport.
Where is the Lufthansa check-in desk? Asked someone, found it. Queued for maybe 5 minutes. Checked our bags in and then accessed my library of printed documents: Passports, COVID-19 vaccination certificates, COVID-19 test certificates, ESTAs, etc. and, finally, we got our boarding cards for the first leg; for the 2nd and 3rd legs we would have to get those in Frankfurt.
Upon arrival in Frankfurt we found the United Airlines desk was not yet staffed (07:30 in the morning) so we were advised to go to the gate. And the flight to Chicago was almost finished boarding... After our hearts skipped a beat, it was clear that this was the 8am flight to Chicago, not the 1pm flight, the one on which we were booked. We waited until the last passengers had boarded and then enquired on our seats: the very obliging and helpful United staff member allocated us a row of three, with the middle seat empty. Not that we don't like sitting beside strangers or talking with them; it's just there is more space and less feeling of "sardine syndrome".
after an uneventful flight, with 1.5 meals, a couple of drinks breaks, some sleep, some reading and some time on the entertainment console, we landed in Chicago O'Hare airport. There was some light snow on the ground, but thankfully we didn't have to go outside. We still had our masks on and then joined the US immigration queue (or line, as the are called in the US). Everyone was in the same line (US nationals, ESTA carriers, etc.); it was 9 rows deep and nothing was moving. We overhead someone ahead of us stating that he has to wait 90 minutes in this queue the previous week... That wouldn't be too bad, I thought, as we had 2.5 hours in transit. However...
A number of additional US border control stations were opened up and the line started to move. We were done in less than 45 minutes. Great. We then had to collect our bags (they had been checked through to our final destination, but we still had to collect them in Chicago and bring them to the bag drop, which we did, change terminals using the monorail, which was super efficient, then go through passport control again, and through security again (more snake-like queues), then a 200m walk to the boarding gate which, by that time, was allowing the last passengers on board. We made it.
A 2-hour trip (we thought it was 3 hours, initially, but then remembered that we were changing time zones (again), with just a drink on board, and we arrived at our final destination. We had made it! And so had our bags.
All-in-all, we had prepared for an administrative burden and bureaucratic officials, but there had been none of it, at least very little indeed. Maybe it was my scouting when I was young, but I have (normally) tried to be prepared for unforeseen, yet potential, events. After going through Luxembourg airport, we were not asked once for any COVID-19 certificated (vaccination nor PCR test results), and US Immigration was a doddle. Yes, the hiccup with the airport shuttle could have derailed our whole long-haul travel experience even before it had begun, but it didn't as we had built in some leeway in our timings.
And so the adventure begins...