International Travel, During An International Pandemic!
Beckymeep on the plane waiting to take off from LAX.
2020 was like no year anyone had ever known! With lockdowns, restrictions and Covid-19 just ruining everything for all of us. After a long year of this, most of us are now dreaming of a Holiday, Vacation or Getaway. But with travel bans, restrictions and new rules being implemented all the time, many of us are uncertain and scared to make any plans.
I travelled from LAX, Los Angeles USA to Heathrow, London UK and I am here to tell you about the experience.
I had an important reason to travel internationally last year; I had to say goodbye to my best friend of over 20 years, as she lost her battle with cancer. Claire was given till the end of 2020, so I just had to rebook all year until I was able to fly. 4 tickets with 2 different airlines later, I was finally able to travel back to England for Christmas and New Year.
What is it like to travel Internationally during the Pandemic? STRANGE! Having moved to the USA 10 years ago, I am used to travelling home alone and don’t get scared or worried about it at. But this trip was different as everything was uncertain, you just didn’t know what to expect.
Masks must be worn on leaving your home and getting in a taxi, at LAX, on the plane (except when eating or drinking) and in Heathrow. Anxiety kicks in as you don’t know if your flight will be cancelled, so the whole trip is uncertain until you’re sat on the plane moving towards the runway. Even when driving to the airport in the taxi, I wasn’t certain my plane would leave that day as it had been delayed already by 5hrs. I wasn’t staying in London, but Heathrow was the only airport any planes where still landing at, and only British Airways and Virgin.
When you arrive at LAX only the traveler(s) are allowed within the airport, the person who drove you there just drop you off and then leave. My taxi was the only vehicle, except police SUV’s there. I’d never seen LAX, or any airport, be so empty! No longer do you check in at Tom Bradley at LAX for International flights, instead you check in at the airlines desk (same as for a domestic flight). There were no other travelers waiting to check in, and only one Virgin desk open. Check in goes as usually, except now you’re asked health questions such as “Have you had any contact with anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19?” “Do you have any symptoms of Covid-19?” “Have you tested positive for Covid-19 within the last 14 days?”. After completing check-in, you are told what Shuttle number to get on for your gate, and then sent off to security. There was no one else at security waiting, so they emptied out everything from my carryon bag. The security agent regretted that decision pretty quickly though as I had it stuffed full with Christmas presents. On completing her search, she asked if Id be willing to put it all back in myself, as she didn’t think she get it all back in there and closed. She then let me know where to go to get my shuttle, and wished me a safe flight.
My plane getting ready for departure
Its very strange to be walking round an empty LAX, and now have to go down staircases to the back of the airport and runways to get on these shuttles. Then to do the same, but up the stairs to find your boarding gate, also felt bizarre. The gates are deserted and everything is closed.
On arriving at my gate, I realized I was the only person there:
It started to feel like I was in an episode of the Walking Dead, as nothing was open in the airport except the one small gift shop, where I was able to buy an overpriced smoothie.
Finally saw another person:
I had read online that some things would still be open at LAX for you to buy food and drink…. NOPE!
No shops are open.
Wish I’d eat at home before leaving for the airport now as I’m feeling hungry and have no options to buy a meal. I just had to wait for my meal on the plane to eat something.
Eventually we got to board our plane, having only 19 passengers onboard this didn’t take long. Your seat is allocated when you buy the ticket. As the middle seat is kept free for social distancing purposes. I read an article that stated the safest area to sit is at the back of the plane, so that’s where I booked my seat.
View from my seat.
On my flight 2 passengers had taken the pandemic very seriously indeed:
Masks, goggles, face shield and a full body suit!
Flying with Virgin for the first time I was impressed, they have very friendly staff and the plane was clean and tidy. Personally, I do love the colored lighting onboard, as well as the darkening windows, no old skool screen to pull down.
They gave each passenger a goodie bag with 3 surgical masks, sanitizer gel and wipes inside when boarding the plane:
A lovely little gesture to help you all feel safe, I thought.
I can’t say the 10 and a half hours goes quickly, but it’s okay. I prefer night flights as they are usually quieter as everyone wants to sleep, and the view isn’t bad either:
View from my window.
The only negative I have about this journey was the food selection: Curry or Chili. As I do not like either, I got nothing to eat on this flight until the warm ham and cheese croissant about an hour before landing. I was starving by then and although it was soggy and very greasy…. I would have eaten 2-3 of them, I think I’d eat it all within 2 bites!
Departing the plane now is a lot easier and quicker, plus there are no lines at immigration, baggage claim or customs. Mainly as only Citizens were allowed in to England at the time. I am still a UK Citizen, but a Permanent Resident of America. So, within 20-30 mins after touching down on the runway, I was on my way out of Heathrow to meet my friend, who’d been kind enough to offer me a lift home. England had just issued a new ‘Test to Release’ program: where you isolate for the first 5 days, then get tested. As long as you are negative you are free to break quarantine at this point. My test was in person at Screen4 in Sutton Coldfield, UK and cost me approx. $120. My result came back that night and I was negative and now free to leave the house.
I thought that was it, I was back in England now and could enjoy my time. The day after I landed London was then put back on full lockdown, called Tier 4. And within a week the whole of the UK was also now on Lockdown, which has only started to lift in March 2021. So, my trip wasn’t exactly going as planned so far. But I was home with my family for Christmas for the first time in 10 years. I got to celebrate the New Year with some friends, but most important, I got to spend some time with my friend Claire, before she passed on Jan 9th 2021 in her sleep. As I was invited to attend the funeral, I moved my ticket back to accommodate this. Luckily Virgin’s Covid-19 policy allows you have 3 free changes to your booking, so it didn’t cost me anything to move the ticket back 3 weeks.
The main issue with moving my returning flight back, was now a new travel rule had come in stating Id now need to take a PCR Test up to 72hrs before departure, to prove I’m negative and don’t have Covid-19. Luckily Virgin had links on its website to different testing companies that they accepted, thanks Virgin that was very helpful, and meant I didn’t have any concerns about the test not being valid for my flight. The problem was finding a test site that had available appointments that worked for my flight date and time. The Screen4 company I’d done my PCR ‘Test to Release’ at was no longer open. Boots Birmingham in person testing had no available appointments on the days I needed. None of the companies that said they’d mail a test to your home to self-administer, and mail back to the lab, had any tests available. I ended up booking for a drive thru test at Birmingham NEC for approx. $100, as they gave me a discount on the cost of the test as it was for travel. But this company wouldn’t have the results back till after 10pm the following day or day after that. Meaning I had to go get my test on the Thursday as I was due to fly on Sunday, I just had to time it right so it was within the 72hr requirement.
By now I think most of us have had a test, but if you haven’t, it’s not bad at all, just unpleasant. You will gag a little as well. On my first test it was when she swapped my tonsils, with my second test it was when she put it up my nostril. I was again negative so able to fly back as planned. Its still slightly worrying though, as again, you’re just not sure what to expect on arriving at the airport.
Flying back was just as interesting; firstly, it’s the same deal with getting dropped off at the airport and the driver having to leave right after. This did make me nervous as if there was a problem with my Test Certificate or if when I got to check-in, I found the flight had been cancelled (Id checked it was on-time before leaving Birmingham for London, and found out it was the only flight for LAX that day) I’d have to try and call my friend, who’d dropped me off, to come back to get me from Heathrow and drive me back to Birmingham with them. We agreed that I’d only call them if there was an issue and I needed them to turn around. Otherwise, I’d just text to say I was fine. The Virgin staff check your Test Certificate for all details, before they even check your passport. All was good and I was checked in and off to security. Heathrow was different to LAX, instead of taking a shuttle to your boarding gate, they don’t tell you the gate number until an hour before departure. This time when arriving at the gate, I was asked by a Virgin staff member why Id travelled, as only essential travel for residents and citizens was now allowed in to the USA. On this flight the meal selection was much better, and I ended up with 2 meals of chicken and mash in a white sauce. As the flight attendant started talking to me while I was eating, she said they find working during the pandemic very odd, as usually they have a whole plane full of people to take care of, now there’s not even 20 passengers on a plane. She realized my meal had started to go cold as we chatted, so she handed me a fresh hot one which I also eat, I was making up for last time! Hahaha!
I also noticed Virgin had now created a ‘quarantine zone’ at the back of the plane for anyone who starts to feel unwell during the flight:
Passengers are told that once the seatbelt sign is turned off, we could move to another seat, which I wanted to as I had the 'Quarantine Zone' behind me. Even allowing us to move up to Economy Plus if we wanted, as there were so few of us on the plane:
View from my seat on my returning flight.
On landing at LAX we were reminded to swap our masks out for a fresh one, as we’d been on the plane for 11 hours wearing them. You also have to complete a form stating you will self-isolate for 10 days on arrival in CA from out of State. It was another quick departure from the plane and off through the empty airport to Immigration, Baggage Claim and Customs.
The only area that was slightly busy was the ‘Pick Up’ points, where I had to get a shuttle bus to for my taxi. I had expected it to take longer to get off the plane and to the taxi pick up area, so I had just under an hour to wait. After being sat on the plane for so many hours I can’t say I minded standing in the open-air waiting. My taxi arrived on time and I was on the finally part of the journey home.
So, would I fly again during this or any other pandemic? Absolutely! There is no fear of catching Covid-19 from flying. I actually felt more safe flying than I do going to the grocery store weekly. And it’s actually quicker and easier now at the airports. I love the empty airports; no waiting in line for security checks, and having the whole row of seats to yourself means you can stretch out during the flight, or even lay down for a sleep to pass the hours. The airports and airlines are going above and beyond to keep travelers healthy and reassure you of your safety during your journey with them.
I hope this may have helped to settle some nerves about travelling, or maybe you were just interested to read what International Travel is like currently.
Stay safe and healthy everyone!
All photographs are the property of @beckymeep.