On Tuesday, the day after the borders to the US opened to many people from countries in Europe, the UK, and China, I hopped a flight to the US from Europe. While many other foreign nationals have been allowed to freely enter the US, this was the first time in 20 months for Europeans to fly to the US and I wanted to see what it was like. So, here is my experience and some notes about this.
Flying to the US, Post Travel Ban
As an American, I have been able to freely travel to the US from any country over the past 20 months. But, I know and recognize that there are so many that have been unable to do so and November 8 was the open door that so many had been waiting for.
The first thing that was evident after the announcement came about the travel ban being lifted was that flights began to book up. People were not waiting, they wanted to get to the US right away and the flight prices and availability reflected this shift in bookings.
No matter which airport you start your journey from, the paper check starts all over again at the airport where you will board the flight to the US. This means you need to make sure you get to your gate, when transiting, as soon as you can. There will be delays due to the amount of people but you do not want to miss the flight.
I actually had flown from Brussels to the US a few months ago, in summertime, and did so with United. So, I had something to compare the two experiences with. For the summer trip, there were only like 30 people on the flight so the line to get docs checked was not too bad, even though United uses the same service area to serve both the flights to Washington, DC and Chicago.
This time, the line was incredibly long! By the time I got there from my first flight, I was about 130 in line. This was just 5 minutes before boarding was supposed to commence so right away I knew that there would be a delay. The one thing that helped me was a Priority Access line which, as a Star Alliance Gold elite member, I was able to pop over into. Once there, it was only a 3 minute wait and I was getting my documents checked.
What Documents Do You Need to Travel to the US Now?
So, if you are traveling to the US now, what are those documents that need to be checked? Here is what was required and this will depend on if you are a US citizen or not:
- Traveling on an American passport? You need a rapid antigen test or PCR test taken 3 days before the flight if you are fully vaccinated. If you are not fully vaccinated, you need that test to be taken the day before the flight.
- Not an American? You need a rapid antigen test or PCR test taken 3 days before the flight and you need to be fully vaccinated.
So, they will check your test result, paying close attention to the result and the date it was taken, and your passport as well as vaccination certificate. Since there are a variety of certificates in the world, this did slow things down a bit as these agents were learning all the new rules.
One paper that was not required was the attestation form that used to be required. This was a signed statement from the traveler that they had the proper document to travel. This was not being required anymore.
One thing that I was surprised about was that there was no contact tracing that was done. The initial announcement had said that there would be contact tracing information collected by the airline before the flight but this was never done.
The Flight to the US
The plane was packed full! Business class was completely full and the economy cabin only had three empty seats. The flight attendants I spoke with were surprised at how fast it did fill up. They also remarked that they hope the airline improves the staffing since they had cut back on airplane staff during the slowdown in passenger travel to the US from Europe.
I was in economy and sitting next to a lovely older couple who were headed to the US to do some touring and shopping. They had tried to travel on November 8 but there was some issue that made them have to wait one day. They were so excited to be able to return to the US again!
There was a certain level of excitement that could almost be felt onboard. The majority of travelers were those that had been unable to travel to the US for so long and they were excited about the opportunity to do it again.
The flight attendants did a fantastic job of serving everyone onboard, in spite of the fact that they had not had an even partially filled plane on this route in a very long time. But, the food was back to even smaller portions. I had a chicken dish that looked like someone took a kabob and pulled off half the meat and threw it in. It was in a curry sauce and it definitely had some flavor but the small amount of food did seem less than the old economy service.
Overall, it was certainly festive but no clapping on landing (thankfully!).
Entering the US
This was something I was curious to spot also – would the US actually check people’s paperwork at the border now? I was assuming no since they had not been checking virus paperwork before and my guess was correct.
There were a couple of flights arriving at the same time as ours so the immigration area was slowly filling but CBP actually appeared to have had a decent amount of officers and the line kept moving.
I went through Global Entry (I love that I only need to take a photo now and don’t need to use my passport!) and there was nothing asked of me by the officer on the way out.
So, the burden of examination continues to be on the airline as the US is not checking documents.
The Biggest Takeaway
The bottleneck with this new era of travel is going to be at the gate of the flight bound for the US. Until airlines assign more agents to run this area at various airports, expect long delays in getting paperwork checked.
In the meantime, build in extra time on your connection enroute to the US as well as any connections when you arrive and have a domestic flight. The airlines are not going to leave you there if you are waiting to get your papers approved but there will be delays so better to get in the line earlier than later. On the domestic side, we landed in the US more than 30 minutes late and I checked random other international arrivals and it was the same as they waited for passengers to clear the check points.
Earlier Access Onboard
Having elite status is a huge help (as is flying business class!) to get you to the front of lines but you are still not going anywhere on that plane until everyone is done! However, even if you don’t have elite status, get to the gate as quickly as possible because even if you are in a boarding group down the list, you still have a great chance to board before others ahead of you in the group hierarchy since they may be in line. With full planes again, this means a better chance of getting overhead bin space!
It is great that the US finally dropped their somewhat nonsensical travel ban but there are still things that need to be worked out. If you are traveling to the US anytime this year, be prepared for full flights and long lines – even before you get to the holiday travel timeline.