My recent trip to the United States was probably personally the most important of my hundreds of flying adventures around the world. Flying used to be fun. Travel was enticing and exciting. A bit of spare time… a bit of excess cash… jump on a plan and head for destinations unknown.
For at least six months I had been anxious to attend our son’s wedding in Nashville. In the Corona climate and with most of our family in the United Kingdom and Los Angeles, the attendance response indicated a small but loving event. With my husband unable to travel due to age and health… I could not imagine our son marrying the love of his life without a parent by his side. It is hard to recall when I felt so compelled to be at a specific place and at a specific time.
From the time that the date of the wedding was set, it appeared that the odds of my arriving in the USA for the wedding were 50-50. It would depend on my husband’s health, the state of the Covid virus days before, and government decisions as to who could or could not travel. Reading the paper daily to look for signs of encouragement or concern became a ritual. Would the Israeli government allow flights to the U.S.? Would they allow citizens to return home? Would they require isolation upon return? If so, for how long? Would the United States allow entry? Would they require isolation upon arrival (which would have made attending the wedding impossible…). I opted for an insurance package in case of cancellation, as the odds were indeed not in my favor.
To have these questions looming would have been sufficient stress in and of itself. However, this was just the beginning. The need recieve a PCR test within 72 hours of departure had its own issues. The momentary delight upon discovering that I could go to a nearby mall to receive the test was shattered when I had complications filling in the online form on my telephone while standing in-line, balancing packages and trying to understand how the information was to be entered. The promised registration-confirmation message never arrived… the staff guaranteed that the computer had received my information and that all would be fine. There was no receipt to prove I had even taken the test. I photographed my name and bar-code from the nurse’s phone and also photographed the sign which offered twenty-four-hour service, a phone number and an email address for questions. Test done, I waited for the results to arrive. They did not. I thrice tried calling the 24/7 helpline. No one answered. I wrote an email. No response. Thirty-six hours before departure, I was in full panic mode and decided to take the train to Ben Gurion airport for an additional test. Their system was impeccable. Without results… my boarding the flights to and within the United States would be blocked…and no wedding for “moi.”
Pleased with myself, as I was sitting on the wonderful fast train to the airport, I noticed a message from my health care provider on my phone. They had been sent the results of my test and were informing me that I was indeed “negative.” This trip to the airport was unnecessary. When the train arrived at its destination, I crossed to the return tracks to wait for a train back to where I had begun this exercise in futility. Relief triumphed over aggravation.
The morning of departure, I was instructed to arrive at the airport four hours early. No problem… I can do that! With a flight at noon, arrival scheduled at eight, departure from my home at seven, waking up at five-thirty AM… ready, set ….go. Ah yes, one must remember to check-in online within 24 hours of departure. I was told …the last time that I forgot…that there would be a $100 fine if I neglected to do so. Dutifully, I went to the airline site, filled in all the blanks, only to receive a message that on-line check in is not currently possible because of the Covid documents required to be checked in person.
Ah yes, the departure form. Israel requires that a form be completed online within 24 hours of flight time. The government, based on one’s responses to questions posed, approves (or rejects) one’s right to board a plane for departure. No stress there. The response does come very quickly. This requirement went smoothly.
Arriving for check-in before 8 AM, I provided the information as required. My paperwork from Maccabi health-care read “This PCR not intended for international travel.” What the hell? Why would I go to a test site “only for travelers” and take a PCR test only to be told that it was not for traveling? I had to provide the name of the site I went to, and phone calls were made to the head office (of United Airlines or of security?) to override the “sentence.” “Maccabi made a mistake. We have seen this before,” they advised. That gave me little pleasure to hear.
“We have re-routed your trip to Nashville, due to weather” I was informed. Hurricane Ida had hit the East coast of America for two days, and apparently the air was not stable even afterwards. United Airlines took the liberty of re-routing me from Newark to Houston with a twelve-hour layover in Houston before continuing on to Nashville. My twenty-four hour journey had just been extended to thirty-six hours. Trying to remain calm and yet firm… I asked “Surely an airline like United with hundreds of flights per day could find me a location with a shorter layover!?” The attendant made another phone call, only to say he was very sorry, but he did have one offer: I could return home and come back to the airport at midnight for the next flight to Newark. That way, he suggested that my waiting time would be in my own home. Having begun this day in the wee hours of the morning, the idea of returning home to begin this entire process again, was not appealing. I declined the offer and thrust myself into the hands of destiny.
The flight to Newark took about eleven hours. Two screaming toddlers one row in front of me were part of a seven-child family. The mother had no interest in controlling the two youngest boys who screamed as a fun form of play with one another. The father disappeared to the rear of the plane with the four older children in tow. When the mother came into the aisle, I asked her firmly why she allowed her children to act like this, ruining the sleep of all the passengers. She answered “I am getting something from above.” My response: ”And what have you been doing for the past four hours?” She skulked back into her seat and managed to finally quiet the two wild beings. The other passengers peeked at me over their mandated face masks with appreciation. After eleven hours of flying, we landed in Newark and I found the next gate for the flight to Houston.
Once again, documents had to be checked before boarding for the second flight was permitted. On previous trips, I would rifle through masses of papers to provide the one required at any given moment. Of course, the one I needed was never in the right stack when requested. This time I “outsmarted” that stress by creating a notebook full of clear pages, each devoted to a separate document neatly displayed. You want to ask me for documents? I will hand you the entire book. Enjoy!
As I had been re-routed onto the Houston flight, my seat was the only one apparently left on the plane. I was in the last row, with seats that did not recline, slammed up against the window. I had paid extra money for acceptable seats on all my flights, but this one was not anticipated. Sitting next to the toilet area would have been reason enough to request a seat change, but I was so exhausted from the previous flight and connection, that I plopped down just glad to be on any plane at all. The Pilot warned that the flight would experience substantial turbulence as it was flying to avoid a bad weather pattern, but would begin a bit rough. After one near-death flying experience and being in the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake when it hit… I do quite poorly when we bounce around in the stratosphere. When the turbulence actually was at its worst, I talked to myself…rationalizing that if I was to die on this flight, at least our son would know that I did so trying to get to his wedding. Somehow, that gave me solace. When the turbulence calmed down, I pulled out my new IPad to watch some downloaded Netflix films…and fell into a very deep sleep. Awakened by more turbulence and the announcement that “We will be landing soon, “ I blessed whatever sleep I had captured and prepared for my twelve hour layover.
Once disembarked, I went to the customer service desk to ask if there was an airport hotel. It was overwhelmed with unhappy customers who were expecting to be on my very plane, for the return to Newark. Due to “Weather” the flights in and out of that airport had been cancelled. All these people were stranded. The “Customer service” desk was unable to give me any service vis a vis a possible hotel to go to, so I decided to go to a charging station with my new Ipad…and do some searching for myself.
My lovely pink metallic brand-new IPAD was nowhere to be found. It was still in the pocket in front of my horrid seat at the back of the last flight. Another line-up at customer service to be told that the airplane had left its gate and that my only recourse was to fill in an online form to ask for its return. No promises given, of course.
Did you ever see the film that Tom Hanks starred in … where he lived in the airport and roamed its corridors endlessly? That was me for twelve hours. I had the company of the cleaning crews in each terminal, but all shops and restaurants were closed. There were a few “self-serve” kiosks with no human in sight, but they intimidated me. I am much happier handing my cash or card to a real human being. I actually cannot remember how I spent that twelve hours, but I did find myself on the train between terminals searching for a comfortable place to deposit myself for many hours. The “customer service” desk did inform me that they could not tell me which terminal my flight would depart from, until the next morning. That was a bit unsettling as well. Which terminal should I select to wait in?
The last flight of 1+1/2 hours to Nashville was uneventful, but I was definitely in no condition to analyze anything by then.
The pre-wedding, and post wedding events came and went. It was lovely and romantic and very special to connect with many of the guests whom I had not seen for seven years. As this is intended as a travelogue, I will not focus on more wedding details. No doubt you have your own stories to share, and do not need mine.
Preparing for my return flights was another marathon. First, one must find a facility in an unfamiliar city, which offers the correct test (the PCR) and a short turn-around time. Just like in Israel, a well-known pharmacy was offering the service… this time as a drive-thru experience. Our son made the appointment for me weeks ahead of time. The test itself seemed to go smoothly. I was informed that I would NOT receive the results directly. It was required that I go to their website and create an account with my information, secret password etc. The minute I returned to my newly purchased light blue IPAd which replaced the lst pink one), I began to create the account. My US credit card has a billing address in California. When I entered the information (which had to match of course, the bank’s records ), I received a message that “This program does not recognize a city with the name of Beverly Hills.” After trying the process three times, I contacted the honeymooners in Jamaica to ask if I could use their credit card and billing address. Armed with new information, the site sent me another message; “This program does not recognize a city with the name of Nashville.” A later message said “Program error, please try later.” Feeling that I had a curse placed upon me by some cruel witch. I knew that I could not get my results from the Covid test from this site. What does one do …give in? Not me! Hours more on the internet, and I had found another testing site in Nashville which would not only give me a PCR test, but for a mere $195 would hand me the results in one hour. That would solve my problem indeed! I paid the fee online and arranged for my very kind, female Uber driver (from yesterday’s outing) to take me for test number two. In the meantime, my son contacted me and said that he had received my results on his phone from my test #1. Hallelujah, except that I had just paid for test #2. Another lengthy on-line search to try to cancel the appointment that I had made fifteen minutes earlier, resulted in a banner which read “This appointment cannot be cancelled online.” How frustrating to be told that I had just lost $195. My friendly Uber lady had come into the house to help me with my frazzled state. It caught my attention, that the message did not say that the appointment could not be cancelled…but that it could not be cancelled online. Mitzi, my driver…with whom I now have a relationship… helped me search the internet for a phone number to speak to a female human being about the cancellation. She was not at all happy, but after agreeing to refund all but a $25 “handling” fee, I was beyond delighted with the exhausting outcome.
My trusty pink document notebook in-hand, I then bolstered my courage to begin the first of my three connecting return flights to Tel-Aviv. The first document check was for my flight to Dulles, where upon the security person pointed out to me that the printed result once again said “Not intended for international travel.” Still, I had taken the test and they “went with the flow”. Documents were checked again when I boarded the flight at Dulles to go to Frankfurt where I would be connecting on to Tel Aviv. My boarding pass was stamped that I had provided proof of vaccine and non-infection.
Within 24 hours of departure all persons flying to Israel must fill in a government arrival form online, and based on the answers given, will/ will not receive a return email with permission to board the flight to enter Israel. For this flight we were examined by Israeli security staff as only they know how to do…so well. I found the form extremely confusing because I had three flights to take, and my departing flight from the USA had nothing to do with my arriving flight from Frankfurt. Still, I was received approval and printed out the permission letter. I proudly handed my pink document holder to the security lady who advised me that my permission to board had expired at 1:30 AM that same morning. How could that be? I had filled in the form just hours before.
It was now 7 AM in Frankfurt. She required that I use my cellphone to fill in the form once again, and we both waited for the new approval to arrive before I was allowed to go to the gate with my boarding pass. I suspect that the system had not taken into account the time change between the USA and Frankfurt. Why there is such a tight time period of approved boarding times is puzzling, but I no longer had the energy “reason why”. The boarding pass was finally stamped to prove the procedures required had been implemented. Whew!
All persons flying to Israel are required to take another Covid test at the airport upon arrival. This is not optional. No test… no leave the airport …ever. They asked that we prepay the test to make the process go smoothly. I always do as told when flying. Once the arrival test has been completed, one is adorned with a paper bracelet to prove to security that you are indeed allowed to leave the airport premises. I was told that I must go into isolation until I receive the results of this test or for 24 hours, whichever was earlier. Those who entered who were not Israeli citizens, or whom did not have the three vaccines, went into an extended period of “bidud.” These rules change daily. Presume nothing.
Mission accomplished. As I type this report I see that it has filled up more than seven pages of information. My normal articles are a maximum of three. Clearly my frustration “over-floweth!”
If you are still intent on travelling internationally, I have a few suggestions. Select a location which has only one flight each way. You will still need to deal with much of what I experienced, but it will be a bit easier. Do not allow older family members to venture forth unless they are savvy with online forms, searching, printing etc. unless someone is accompanying them to help. Presumably, younger travelers will be more than capable to handle the technology and demands placed upon them. No one can travel without a cellphone to provide proof that documents were received or to re-process those in error.
In reflection, most of the stress incurred, came from a lack of competence and clarity on the part of those imparting critical information. Their incorrect information as to how to access to the results of the various tests taken, caused a constant disruption to my plans and hours of on-line investigation and corrections. It is my hope that if you had the “koach” (fortitude) to actually read this account, that you will be “forewarned” and thus “forearmed.”
When asked about my experience travelling on this trip to the USA, my response is quite simply that “The only one thing did NOT go wrong was that the plane did NOT crash.” I am certainly thankful for this “not-so-small” blessing.
We can all look back on the halcyon days when travel was fun, spontaneous and fulfilling. I met my husband standing in line at JFK… I doubt that will happen to others now that masked faces are required … a definite impediment, dampening the potential for romance! This pandemic has influenced every possible facet of our lives.