Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Traveling during Covid – UK to the USA

‘The question keeps coming to me – do I actually want to travel, or do I just want to arrive??’

After our 2 months exploring Cornwall, Carl was able to go back to his (very good) job in the US, and invited me to visit for 3 months, which is the longest that can be stayed by a British visitor at one time on an ESTA (visa waiver program). There is a limit of exactly 90 days, and my planned dates work out to 86 days, allowing for travel delays.

Although we are grateful to have been able to travel to the US at all, new regulations took a while to master, as they were changing often in the weeks before we were due to travel. Current (January 2022) paperwork needed to travel into America from the UK:

• Passport

• ESTA (visa waiver for UK citizens)

• Proof of double COVID vaccination

• Combined Passenger Disclosure and Attestation form

• Proof of negative PCR test within 24 hours of the flight

• Customs declaration (obtained on the plane)

The most difficult of this to orchestrate was the PCR test. 24 hours isn’t long to be tested and to assure results at a time when test slots are booking up quickly. We eventually were able to book something near Heathrow airport, and our journey began.

After a wonderful 2 months in Cornwall, we were sad to leave. Our host, Deborah, left a parting gift at our door, of chocolate and a thankyou card. If you are ever in the area, I can’t recommend Deborah’s studio enough:

https://abnb.me/GPdpFeQIRmb

The main revelation about Falmouth for me was the fact that it was so far south. We kind of booked without looking on a map, so getting around without a car takes a while. I had planned to come to the UK to be nearer to my child in Oxford, but it’s actually a very long trip back up to the London area.

The cheapest way to get to Heathrow or Gatwick is by National Express bus. The buses themselves are a bit hit and miss, comfort wise. After making this trip a few times the past couple of months, I was surprised by how many vehicles were still as cramped and uncomfortable as they were in the 90s. The bus wi-fi sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, and the same with the charger points. Some drivers were friendly and announced stops, others left you to guess. I thought that such an established company would be more consistent. As this is a 9-10 hour trip, just be hopeful for one of the newer, far more comfortable buses.

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to predict what you’ll get. At £27 each, however, it’s worth taking the chance.

Pre-journey brandy!!

We booked our Covid tests through Katalyst (www.katalysthealth.uk). They were £75 each when booking for same-day results, and after paying, they send you a booking number to show on arrival for your test. You can pay for multiple tests at once, but each person needs to register individually with them through the email link to get a booking number. The tests were at the Heathrow Marriott, and there is a airport shuttle that goes straight there for £7 each way. If you are staying at another airport hotel, as we were, they are all mainly on the one road, and so are walking distance to each other. There are cheaper public buses that stop on this road also. Also note that there are two Marriots – you want the one that isn’t Courtyard and that is next to the Novotel.

The test itself took mere minutes. We went in and gave our name and number, went straight through for a nasal swab, and right out. The appointment was at 11 in the morning, and my results were back by 3.30, with Carl’s a couple of hours later, in plenty of time for a 11am flight the next day. Although digital documents are apparently acceptable, we asked our hotel to print everything off for us, just in case, which they happily did.

After collecting all the mountains of paperwork we needed – understandable during a pandemic, but frustrating – we had still allowed a while for check-in, and luckily so. Airport staff seemed a little overwhelmed by the new rules. Check-in took a while, and even though we had already printed the Combined Passenger Disclosure and Attestation forms from the Lufthansa website we had to do them again at the desk after the lady wandered off to ask someone what we needed.

Our COVID paperwork wasn’t checked at all – the proof of vaccination or the negative test certificates – whether in Heathrow, Munich or Chicago, and so the £150 for tests, £55 for the extra night hotel, plus hotel food and what we lost from leaving our Airbnb in Cornwall early, all seemed a complete waste.

A note on Lufthansa, who we hadn’t flown with before. Flights were just £400 each return, as we booked 7 months early, long before UK to US travel restrictions were lifted. The plane was comfortable, and the flight crew wonderful. Plus, there was free bottled water, plus complimentary coffee, soft drinks and wine throughout the flight, and two nice meals – veggie lasagna and salad with chocolate brownie for lunch, then veggie wraps an hour or so before we landed in Chicago.

Also, if you are a nervous flyer like I am, they have flight cameras that show you the view from the front, underside or tail of the plane. I found it really comforting to watch the takeoff from the front of the plane!

View from the front of the plane!

The only downside to the flight was that wifi wasn’t available to purchase (apparently it usually is) and the charger points didn’t work, so my phone died. Obviously, this could have been an issue if I was traveling alone.

Even with this issue, it was a lovely flight, and we look forward to the return journey in a few months.

Book more flexibly now and fly with no worries | Lufthansa

Incidentally, our flight had a quick stop in Munich, which was also our first experience of Germany (one of Carl’s motherlands). The airport was beautiful and so clean, and I was thrilled to find large bottles of my favourite beauty oil product, Huile Prodigieuse, by Nuxe, for just €10 each! The experience was only marred by the rude cashier, who barked at us that we needed to buy masks from her instead of our surgical masks, and that we couldn’t shop or fly with the ones we were wearing, even though we told her our masks had been fine for our first flight. When we refused, she ended with ‘have a nice life.’ Wow, you too, German Duty Free lady! Hopefully, we’ll miss her on the way back!

So, on to Chicago O’Hare. I have an unlucky gift of always being stopped at security and at customs. I am a nervous flyer, so I always act weird at airports. Knowing I would be stopped and searched used to make me even more nervous, but now I expect it.

Naturally, I was stopped at border control and held in a back room for questioning as to why I planned to stay for 3 months, which is the longest that can be stayed on an ESTA. It’s strange to me that the States implement a 90 day rule, then ask why people are taking it up. The officer was nice, though, and I wasn’t there long. After checking my story with Carl, he was happy to let me through. (My first visit in early 2020 took much longer, as my bags were searched also). For those of you with my talent of flagging up at airports, don’t be too nervous. The officers are polite and efficient, and get you through as quickly as they can.

We had booked to stay at The Rose Hotel in Rosemont, maybe a ten to fifteen minute drive away, that luckily offered a free shuttle to and from the airport. Outside the airport is absolute chaos, with cars, buses and hotel shuttles circling along three lanes. Luckily, the hotel stayed in touch by phone, and our driver located us, as finding him was taking forever. Plus, we were seriously flagging at this point.

The Rosemont Hotel, Illinois

The Rose Hotel Chicago O’Hare, Tapestry Collection by Hilton

After a refreshing night’s sleep and a fab breakfast in the cosy bar, we were finally on the last leg of the journey, 82 hours after leaving Falmouth!

The hotel were kind enough to arrange to drop us at the Blue Line train, maybe a 5-10 minute drive from the hotel.

As always, nothing is straightforward, as UK debit cards aren’t recognized as debit cards in the ticket machines. Of course not, and how would we know this?? Luckily, a helpful but mildly irritated local saw us struggling, and offered advice. For UK debit cards, actually select ‘credit card’, and for zip code just choose ‘0’, and your transaction will go through. Thankyou, angry train lady!

The Blue Line train is part overground, and part underground, and took around 40 minutes to our stop at Clinton. Stops are listed on the wall, and announced, and it is not unlike the London Underground. Very easy and a mostly scenic route. For those of you imagining a nightmare Covid travel experience, it is worth mentioning that so many places are mostly empty. The airports were quiet, and buses and trains no different. There were hardly any other passengers, and even at Chicago itself, we were joined by just one lowly traveler. Everyone we did see were wearing masks.

We got off at Clinton to connect with the Greyhound bus to Indiana. We had checked the direction to the bus station on Google maps, but it was actually very well signposted, both at the train station exit and along the street. It was around a ten minute walk, and very easy to find.

Downtime Chicago from the Greyhound bus

The bus station itself is decidedly underwhelming. We had a 2 hour wait there, with not much to do. There is a little cafe, some vending machines and a couple of big TVs. Again, it wasn’t very busy at all. There were some foreign travelers like myself, clearly just passing through, and a few locals. It seemed that the homeless tend to shelter there also, including a young family with a tiny baby that had set up camp on the floor. There were lots of staff around, though, and they all seemed happy to be there, so it felt safe enough, if just slightly sketchy.

Sitting there at the Greyhound station on a cold and snowy winter day, in the middle of a global pandemic, clutching my bags close to me, made me feel more like I was in a film than at any other point in my life. Is this glamour??

The bus itself was not the kind I had seen in films from the 1980s! The whole fleet has been refurbished, with leather seats, extra leg room, and phone charger points. It was, in fact, far more comfortable than the National Express buses in England. The three hour journey went quickly, and we were soon delivered to South Bend!

This last part was the quickest, but yet the coldest. Just a short wait at the completely unremarkable South Bend bus station, then a ten minute journey to the nearest street. Buses here seem pretty infrequent, and the city doesn’t seem to be too well covered. I’ve already noticed that everyone just drives, and the streets are empty of people walking. Maybe buses just don’t seem necessary here, or maybe it’s just too cold.

Finally, we were on foot, negotiating the last few streets, dragging our cases through the ice and snow! So many hours after watching Gone With the Wind on the plane, we were Scarlett, finally making the final journey back to Tara! So close!

Or we were indeed, like the final scene of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, arriving home, weary and travel-worn. The question keeps coming to me – do I actually want to travel, or do I just want to arrive??

We were greeted at the door by Carl’s cats, and in that moment at least, the arriving felt pretty wonderful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s