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Travelling from the UK to the USA in May 2021, during travel restrictions / partial lockdown

How I traveled out of the UK and moved back to America while many travel restrictions are in place. I put the checklist at the top and then wrote about my experience.

Planning my journey from the UK to USA felt really stressful. The travel guidelines sounded firm and daunting and I didn’t want to become one of the people who are made an example of and who had to pay steep fines for travelling during these Covid travel restriction times. 

The checklist that I used, IN SHORT:

  1. Prepare Travel Permission documents (you need to have a permissible reason to travel from the UK) and print them out. (Job offer for me. Other people will have other permissible reasons. Check the UK government website here.)
  2. PCR test – called a centre near me and confirmed that they offer fit-to-fly certificate. Turnaround time is 4 hours.
  3. Confirm Flight
  4. Book Train ticket
  5. Book hotel
  6. Check everything over. Did you forget an essential step?
  7. Print ALL confirmations & put all confirmations onto your phone. Have everything double.
  8. Be prepared to throw a lot of money at climbing over the hurdles caused by the pandemic and travel restrictions.

I think this is pretty much all you need. It took me a while to work through these relatively straightforward steps. I think it’s the anxiety of making a mistake and the potential for it costing more time and money. This short list should be THE ONLY LIST that you really need to plan your trip. Let me know if you think I missed something essential.

There is a disconnect between the draconian language used by the UK government and the daily reality. For example if you board a local train in Merseyside, chances are that plenty of people won’t be wearing a mask, while stern authoritarian sounding messages are played on the loudspeakers telling people that they must wear their masks. These messages however seem to have the opposite effect and make people rebel, I am not surprised. They provoked the same urge in me, and that despite my being one of the few people who wore two masks to most indoor places to be extra safe. I have had Covid, I don’t want to get it again. It was pretty bad. That’s as much as I’ll say about that but it’s the reason I am so cautious and respectful to others, too. But back to travel: I had to get back to California and I felt genuinely intimidated by the UK government travel restrictions and how they are worded. 

The first issue of this trip was the high cost of even getting to the airport check-in. I didn’t dare pre-book anything until the last minute and only after each step of the process was successfully completed. In my case it went like this:

  1. Print out the mandatory UK government permission to travel declaration form. 

At first it seemed that one MUST fill it out online but I really don’t like adding more and more data to my files with anyone online and I found at the bottom of one of the website pages, in tiny small print the option of printing out the form from a pdf file. So I did that. 

Next determine permissible reason to travel. In my case it was to sign a tenancy agreement in California. I got an email confirming that I would sign a tenancy agreement and also received a barely legible tenancy agreement jpg scan copy in the same email. (I am just telling you what I got, your reasons might be different.) My additional reason was work for which I personally have to be in California, but I didn’t have any evidence for this. I do however have a Greencard, which gives my case some authority. 

Book a PCR test, AFTER finishing packing my suitcase. Once the Covid test comes back I want to be able to immediately book my train / travel ticket without further delay. You will have to check what specific test is required in your destination. A PCR test will unlock most places, some accept a very fresh Covid Antigen test, but to be honest the peace of mind knowing that a negative PCR test will allow me to travel to most places makes it worth it. I wouldn’t take chances on taking a cheaper Antigen test for the sake of saving £50. Get whichever test is the most widely accepted.

Check the government website for the country you are travelling to. Make sure the information is as recent as possible. This part was a stressful experience for me. I tried checking if an Antigen test would be enough (it wouldn’t have been) and realised I was stressing myself out in order to save money. And in the end it had to be a PCR test anyway.

Go to the test, be swabbed, endure, go home, finish getting ready and wait 24 hours for the PCR test result.

I was lucky and got my results the following day morning, 6 hours earlier than expected, which allowed me to immediately book a train ticket for late afternoon to travel from Liverpool, in the North of the UK (explaining this for readers from other countries) to London Euston. I used thetrainline.com to book my ticket and was so surprised that the search Liverpool to Heathrow airport showed up as ‘sold out’, a heart-stopping moment (“sold out !!??” Eek!)

This ultimately allowed me to be on the plane before even 48 hours had passed from test to plane departure. It feels so tricky to time things just right, given that with the PCR test and results you have 72 hours total from the hour you take the test, not from when you receive the results!

Looking for a train ticket from the North of England to London Heathrow

But return tickets to London Euston showed as available and priced at £100, gosh! However a single ticket, which is all I needed, was only £38, a no-brainer, I got a single ticket. Downloaded the ticket to my phone & grabbed my external phone battery / charging pack to make sure that I won’t end up with a drained battery in a critical moment!
Final dash around the house to get ready. How is there always so much left to do in the final moments!? 

Print the negative PCR result! I received mine as an email with an attachment. I printed the attachment. And downloaded the PCR result to my phone (I realised later I downloaded the wrong file but printed the correct one. Thank goodness!)

With minutes to spare before I had to take an Uber to make it in time to the train station I finally booked my hotel at Heathrow airport. I used booking.com because I have booked through them in the past and had a good experience and their website is intuitive and easy to use. I chose the Ibis hotel near Heathrow terminal 5 because it looked spacious and I don’t want to take any risks during Covid with crammed spaces. I left it so late to book the hotel in part because I kept expecting something to go wrong along the way and just didn’t want to lose any money. (With Booking.com that actually wouldn’t be a problem, I noticed that they offer the option of pay nothing until you check in. I should have done that. But my nerves got the better of me, so I left it until the absolutely last minute.) I got my room for under £40, which is really amazing. I was so surprised. Downloaded the booking confirmation to my phone. 

Backtrack! Why am I staying in an airport hotel instead of going straight to the airport? Because due to Covid the number of flights out of the country are restricted and I found it really difficult to find a route that I could travel that would take me from the north of the UK to flight check-in on the same day. In fact it seemed impossible. And an overnight stay at the hotel made for a less frantic experience than the potential of ‘slumming it’ staying awake at the airport overnight. Is that even allowed during the pandemic? I just didn’t have the energy for taking risks.

Took an Uber to Liverpool Lime Street and the Avanti train to London Euston. I used the 2.5 hours journey to scan paper notes with my iPhone Notes app, to reduce the weight of what I am carrying around with me. If you don’t know me very well yet: I am a, pen and paper, note taking nerd, with an attachment issue to her notes.

I felt very productive and my nerdy note scanning activity made the 2.5 hour journey in the quiet coach fly by pretty fast. I swiftly and unspectacularly arrived in a much quieter Euston Train Station than I am used to from when I used to live in London. 

Euston Train Station, May 15th, 2021

Time for decisions: should I take the London Underground to Heathrow Airport and a taxi from there to the Ibis Hotel? Or should I just take an Uber all the way from central London to my destination? I would NEVER throw so much money at taxis or Uber under normal circumstances but this didn’t feel like the time to mess around, with all my valuables on me, travelling alongside any number of people for the purpose of saving probably £20 overall. In normal times, if I so much as look at a person who has the flu I can almost guarantee I will catch it, too. I think flying on a full plane across the cross country from my port of entry into the USA to San Francisco was already a risk I knew I wouldn’t get around, I didn’t feel like potentially adding London variants of Covid to the mix.. I know I may sound too cautious to some and outright tempting fate to others. But trust me that I have my reasons for being much more or much less cautious than you would be. 

I took an Uber from London Euston to my Ibis Hotel near Heathrow Airport. What a good decision. It meant not needing to be concerned about my luggage the entire way and being able to sit back and relax. I had a great chat with my Uber driver and felt like parting with a friend by the time it was time to say goodbye. Life finally felt like it was coming back into synch with itself. 

I anticipated a lot of questions at the hotel as they are legally only allowed to host guests for a short list of reasons. I knew I may have to explain my reasons for travel and was all ready and prepared. Bearing my green card seemed to be the magic ticket and when I explained that I fly standby the checkin receptionist gave me my room keys and didn’t insist on seeing more evidence from me. That was more relaxed than I thought it would be. But it’s always the way: when you are thoroughly prepared, all goes smoother than expected. I am glad I was prepared, I had nothing to fear. Technically, if you can not show evidence of your valid reason for travel and your valid reason for needing to stay at the hotel they aren’t allowed to host you and may cancel your booking if they suspect you are travelling for vacation instead of a permitted reason. (Don’t even get me started on how draconian this all feels. I am a little scared about the future and how much of this could stay sticking to our future freedom of movement. But that’s a conversation we can have another time.)

Bed in my Ibis Hotel room, May 15th to May 16th 2021

My room was lovely! But Ibis, if you were to read this I would say: why isn’t there a usb plug to charge mobile phones? And why isn’t there at least one small bottle of complimentary drinking water? These were the two things I quibbled about. But the bedding was white and the bed perfectly comfortable and cozy. The window opened to allow in fresh air and the shower was great, the bathroom super nice and clean. Slippers would be great, I would bring slippers if I was to stay at the Ibis hotel again because it’s not nice walking around the room with shoes but it equally isn’t nice walking on the carpet with socks or bare feet when probably most people walk around with shoes. Hygiene, it seems we all differ.

My British & American friends: How can you keep your street shoes on indoors?

Then I re-packed my bags. I had one too many and didn’t have time in Liverpool to repack everything but knew it would fit if I took my time in the hotel room.

5am, time to leave to get another Uber to the airport. I spent SO much on Uber rides this week! More than I usually spend on taxis in any entire year! 

Check-in. Passport, Greencard, printed Permission to leave the UK government mandated form (filled in), evidence ready to show if asked, and Printed negative Covid PCR test results. Count my bags. Stand straight, look presentable and safe to fly. 

You notice I didn’t mention a whole lot about my flight ticket. I fly standby and during Covid times the international planes are so empty that I knew I wouldn’t have an issue getting a seat, but the nicer I present myself, the greater my chance of getting a VERY nice seat on the plane. Spoiler alert: I got the best seat in the house! More on that later if you fancy.

Fantastic. I was asked for my Covid test and my green card twice and once for my reason for travel: I just said that I am signing a tenancy agreement. The lady asking me questions was as tired as I and after accidentally asking me one question three times (I know this wasn’t intentional, I also know sometimes it is, but this was purely extreme exhaustion at play, I felt for her) she just sent me on my way to the check-in counter. Oh and my government form: they didn’t ask, three people glanced at it when I showed it but neither wanted anything more to do with it. I suspected as much. But again, don’t dream of not being prepared, it could cost you your entire trip if you take chances at this time. 

Security in Heathrow Airport during Covid, and extremely low traffic was surprisingly bottlenecked and inefficient, but much friendlier and significantly more human than most of my security experiences at Manchester Airport.

As in all places where I have to take my shoes off: I always wonder “How often does the floor get washed?” I may notice a theme here: How about the hygiene? And the same question but even louder for those security conveyor belt trays! They look SO dirty. I shudder at the best of times but if we truly are taking the pandemic serious, why are these trays not disinfected? Yuk. 

And just like that I was on my way. A little hike around the terminal, finding my gate once it was finally announced… Oh, you may be interested in this: Many shops and places for food are open in Heathrow terminal 5. You’ll be able to buy Duty Free, some clothes, luxury bags and jewellery as well as electronics, books, magazines, snacks and coffee. Some stores were closed but it looked a far cry from the scenes even back in December. Life seems t be seeping back into the airports. 

Waiting at the gate to be assigned a seat it turned out I got upgraded to FIRST CLASS. Honestly, when does that happen? Incredible. First Class all the way from London Heathrow to Dallas Texas.  

I was served Cannelloni stuffed with mozzarella and a side of greens, a sponge cake willed with something creamy and fruity delightful and a couple of additional things, with real cutlery and my choice of beverage; it probably disappoints you that all I wanted was sparkling water with orange juice.

Food in first class on American Airlines, May 2021

I went to sleep as soon as I could, on my fully reclining seat over which the stewardess draped a sort of mattress cover, and under 2 layers of blanket and duvet, I also got a pillow and a small decorative cushion to nuzzle into for extra comfort.

My first class plane seat.

If only I wasn’t woken by my brain playing a catchy tune over and over. Really! A tune I heard on an instagram story kept playing in my ear over and over until it woke me up. This is the kind of stupid thing that happens when you are over tired. An unnecessary type of purgatory experience. 

But it was still delightful to spend the vast majority of the flight in the horizontal, enjoying my 3 windows that I had all to myself. 

Arrived in Dallas. Now that’s a whole other scene! The airport was teaming with life and people. Some stores were still closed or had entirely disappeared but I was surprised how many people traveled!

Poor weather had caused a lot of departure backlog, delaying many flights by 2 or more hours. The place had a nervous energy but it seemed for the most part more people were concerned about their flight connection status than their health. I knew ahead of time that this would be the time of being exposed to the most people that I have seen since February 2020. I can’t complain, I knew it was coming. But I was taken aback when the airline had fully booked every last seat on the plane I boarded. All you can do in this case is to hope for the best, or don’t fly. I am now crossing my fingers that I haven’t caught anything on this cross-country flight.

San Francisco Airport, runway

Arrived in San Francisco, more frantic energy, but this time because everyone was waiting for their suitcases at the luggage carousel on which the suitcases appeared as if placed there by a very weak, small unmotivated slow person, who took tea breaks between batches of suitcases. A whole packed plane received their suitcases 4-5-6 at a time, then a long wait for a few more.

San Francisco Airport – Domestic Arrivals

My suitcases didn’t arrive until the next flight but they got here and that’s really all that counts. I am not cross. The workers at Dallas Airport had a lot on their hands dealing with a lot of flight conundrums caused by bad weather delays. And here I am. Back in California. Where I belong, for now.

TRAVEL SAFELY – be considerate of others whose immune systems you can’t know about. Don’t impose your perception of your own invincibility on people in communities with restricted or lack of healthcare access. If we all take care of the weakest link then we can all be safe.

It would be beneficial to be fully vaccinated before leaving home. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to access the vaccine that I needed, of which I could get the second shot in the USA. So I was left unvaccinated and crossed my fingers that my journey would be safe.

Airport review tidbits:

Dallas Airport: why are the toilet cubicles so tiny that to enter I run risk of having to tub up against a not very sanitary toilet seat, sprinkled with someone else’s pee? Why would in Texas, the place known for supersizing things, the toilets cubicles be the tiniest that I have ever seen on land? What a wildly impractical design choice. And the sinks: how did they manage to create such a badly planned sink area? Social distancing was impossible in this set-up. Blocking off sinks to stop people from being close to one another actually had the opposite effect: people stayed inside the small area longer to wait for their turn, creating a crowded situation, some instead just left without washing their hands. Dallas…!

San Francisco Airport: The toilets cubicles had better sizes but were incredibly gross. The design element as lovely but I could not bring myself to pee on top of layers of other people’s toilet paper and pee inside potentially already blocked toilets. What’s going on? I decided to hold my pee rather than deal with these sanitary conditions. It’s quite shocking to see the area that should be one of the cleanest be so neglected. Please pay your staff more or hire more staff or both. This isn’t ok.

Both airports: Why aren’t there more hand sanitiser dispensers clearly displayed for people to use to be safe? IF you take the pandemic serious that’s what I think you should do. Airlines: The upgraded seats should come with top quality free face masks (that stay on when one speaks). The economy class could receive a quality banded but stylish surgical / paper mask. Missed opportunity to really keep people safe.

On a long distance journey it’s easy to forget that one’s spare masks are in the bag in the overhead compartment and getting up digging around in there isn’t always practical. If there was a sincere interest in everyone’s safety: provide some quality masks and why wouldn’t there be a hand sanitiser dispenser by the toilets (in the airport AND in the plane)? Handing out snacks in plastic bags is probably a lot less efficient at providing security than cleaner bathroom facilities and the provision of sanitisers.

The economy class airplane toilet cubicle that took the prize for the single smallest I have seen in my life, even smaller than Dallas’s miniature toilets. How does an overweight person fit in there? As an accepted norm size person I barely was able to go to toilet without grazing the toilet with my clothes. Sanitary? Not at all.

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