Flying to the United States from Europe with the ban lifted – What it looked like and what you need to know
On Tuesday, the day after the borders with the United States were opened to many people from countries in Europe, the United Kingdom and China, I took a flight to the United States from Europe. . While many other foreign nationals were allowed free entry into the United States, this was the first time in 20 months that Europeans had visited the United States and I wanted to see what it looked like. So here is my experience and some notes on it.
Traveling to the United States, after the travel ban
Read: Travel ban to the United States has been banned
As an American, I have been able to travel freely to the United States from any country for the past 20 months. But, I know and I recognize that there are so many who couldn’t and November 8th was the open door that so many people have been waiting for.
The first thing that was evident after the announcement of the lifting of the travel ban was that flights began to be booked. People weren’t waiting, they wanted to get to the United States right away and the prices and availability of flights reflected this change in bookings.
Regardless of which airport you start your journey from, paper screening begins again at the airport where you board the flight to the United States. This means you need to make sure you get to your door, in transit, as soon as you can. There will be delays due to the number of people but you don’t want to miss the flight.
In fact, I had flown from Brussels to the United States a few months ago, in the summer, and I did so with United. So I had something to compare with the two experiments. For the summer trip, there were only about 30 people on the flight, so the queue to get documents checked was not too bad, although United uses the same service area to serve flights to Washington, DC and Chicago.
This time the queue was incredibly long! By the time I got there from my first flight I was about 130 in line. It was just 5 minutes before boarding started, so I immediately knew there would be a delay. The only thing that helped me was a priority access line that, as an elite Star Alliance Gold member, I was able to access. Once there it was only a 3 minute wait and I had my documents checked.
What documents do you need to travel to the United States now?
So if you are traveling to the United States now, what are these documents that need to be checked? Here is what was required and it will depend on whether you are a US citizen or not:
- Traveling with an American passport? You need a rapid antigen test or PCR test done 3 days before the flight if you are fully vaccinated. If you are not fully vaccinated, you must take this test the day before the flight.
- Are you not an American? You need a rapid antigen test or PCR test done 3 days before the flight and you must be fully vaccinated.
Thus, they will verify your test result, paying particular attention to the result and the date it was performed, as well as your passport and your vaccination certificate. Since there are a variety of certificates in the world, it slowed things down a bit as these agents were learning all the new rules.
One document that was not required was the attestation form that was previously required. This was a signed statement from the traveler that they had the correct document to travel. It was no longer necessary.
One thing that surprised me was that there had been no contact tracing. The initial announcement had indicated that there would be contact tracing information collected by the airline before the flight, but this was never done.
The flight to the United States
The plane was packed! The business class was full and the economy cabin only had three empty seats. The flight attendants I spoke with were amazed at how quickly it filled up. They also noted that they hoped the airline would improve staffing as it had cut staffing on planes during the slowdown in passenger travel to the United States from Europe.
I was in economics and sitting next to a lovely senior couple heading to the United States for tours and shopping. They had tried to travel on November 8, but there was a problem that made them wait a day. They were so excited to be able to return to the United States again!
There was a certain level of excitement that could almost be felt on board. The majority of travelers were those who hadn’t been able to travel to the United States for so long and were excited about the opportunity to do it again.
The flight attendants did a fantastic job of serving everyone on board, despite the fact that they hadn’t had an even partially filled plane on this route for a very long time. But, the food had returned to even smaller portions. I had a chicken dish that looked like someone taking a skewer, removing half the meat and throwing it in. It was in a curry sauce and it certainly had some flavor, but the small amount of food seemed inferior to the old economy service.
Overall it was certainly festive but no applause on the landing (Fortunately!).
Entering the United States
It was something I was curious to see too – would the United States actually check people’s papers at the border now? i assumed no because they had not checked the virus related documents before and my guess was correct.
There were a few flights arriving at the same time as ours, so the immigration area was slowly filling up, but the CBP actually seemed to have had a decent number of officers and the line kept moving.
I went through Global Entry (I love that I only have to take a picture now and don’t need to use my passport!) and nothing was asked of me by the officer on leaving.
Thus, the burden of the review continues to fall on the airline, as the United States does not verify the documents.
Biggest to take away
The bottleneck with this new era of travel is going to be at the doorstep of the flight to the United States. Until airlines assign more agents to manage this area at various airports, expect long lead times to have the papers checked.
In the meantime, allow extra time for your connection en route to the United States as well as for all connections when you arrive and have a domestic flight. Airlines won’t leave you there if you wait for your papers to be approved, but there will be delays, so better to queue sooner rather than later. On the domestic side, we landed in the US over 30 minutes late and I randomly checked other international arrivals and it was the same as they waited for passengers to go through checkpoints.
Early access on board
Having elite status is a big help (just like flying in business class!) to get you to the front row, but you’re still not going anywhere on this plane until everyone is done! However, even if you don’t have elite status, get to the gate ASAP because even if you’re in a boarding party at the bottom of the list, you still have a high chance of get ahead of others before you in the group hierarchy because they may be online. With full planes again, that means a better chance of getting space in the upper chests!
It’s great that the United States has finally dropped its somewhat absurd travel ban, but there are still things to be worked out. If you’re traveling to the United States at any time this year, be prepared for full flights and long lines, before you even hit the vacation schedule.
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