• Joelle Otterstedt

Traveling From England to the U.S. During COVID-19

We waited outside for our taxi for about 20 minutes. It pulled up a few minutes late, and we started loading our luggage in. It barely fit in the back of the minivan. It was surreal to drive through York and see everything one last time. We swerved through the narrow streets, somehow avoiding the other cars, and arrived at the train station.

The three of us had more luggage than you are technically allowed to bring onto a train, so we nervously waited for our train to arrive. When it got there, we pulled all of our luggage on, and stowed it in the luggage rack by the door. We got extremely lucky that nobody else in our car had already put luggage there, because ours took up the entire rack.

It was supposed to be a two-hour train ride to Manchester airport. With about 45 minutes left, we were told that something happened to the line in front of us, and we would not be able to go all the way. I’m not sure what happened, but we had to get off the train 3 stops early. We found ourselves in a random train station, so we went to find a taxi that could take us the rest of the way to our hotel.

We paid a bit extra to be at a hotel that was right next to the Manchester airport. I’m glad we did, because we woke up at 4:45 the next morning. We had been warned by a couple friends that had already left England to be at the airport 4 hours early. Our flight didn’t leave until 9:55, but when we got there at 6:00 there was already a line waiting to check in and get their boarding passes.

Checking our bags and going through TSA wasn’t too bad. People seemed a bit more particular about things than normal and most people had gloves and masks, but nothing too extreme. We got to our gate and hung out with a few other YSJ students. I didn’t even know them, but we were all on a flight together back to the states. A bunch of people were in masks and had gloves, and a lot of people were wiping everything down with Clorox wipes. I saw one person traveling with an entire large container of wipes, like the ones you’d see in classrooms.

We boarded our first flight of the day without any problems. Some of the other YSJ students weren’t as lucky and had to deal with canceled flights. Our flight was from Manchester to Philadelphia and was about 8 hours long. It was long and boring, but otherwise fine. When we were about 10 minutes from Philadelphia, the pilot told us that we had been randomly selected for a medical screening. He didn’t know exactly what that meant but knew that medics would be coming onto our plane. We only had an hour and 45-minute layover, so we started to get really nervous about making our connecting flight.

After a bit of a bumpy landing, we waited on the plane for a few minutes, then one medic from the fire department walked onto our plane. It was really quiet. I think everyone was nervous, so we all just sat there in silence as the medic walked past. He walked straight past us all the way to the back of the plane. The medic had a mask and gloves, but none of the other protective equipment I keep seeing on the news. After a few minutes he walked back to the front and off the plane. We still didn’t know what was happening. After a couple minutes, we were told the medic left to go run a test, and we would be able to leave soon. About 10 minutes later we were told we could start getting off. Everyone did a quick cheer and started to get their bags. They said it was random screening, but it didn’t seem random at all. They went straight to a particular person in the back and ran one test.

As soon as we were off the plane, the three of us started running. We were one of the first people to get to customs. It only took us a couple minutes to get through. The next step was baggage claim. For some reason we had to wait for our bags at baggage claim, and then recheck them for the next flight. This is the part that took the longest. It felt like forever. Realistically it was maybe 20 minutes, but on a short connection that’s a long wait. Our bags were some of the last ones to come out. At this point we had about 40 minutes until our flight left.

We started running again with all of our bags to the next line where we had to check them. On the way to the line, a drug dog starts chasing after me. The cop asked me what I had in my bag. I was confused. I couldn’t think of any reason why the cute little beagle drug dog would be freaking out at me. Then the cop asked if I had any fruit. I had forgotten to take the banana out of my backpack. She gave me a slip of paper, and I was required to separate from Braden and Hannah (the other two people I was travelling with) and go through an additional screening.

All they had me do was get each bag scanned. It was a quick thing to do, but they seemed to move in slow motion with each step. They may have all day, but I sure didn’t. I got out of that screening and ran with all my luggage to the bag check. I frantically asked to go in front of people, and they kindly let me go. I dropped off my bag and kept running to TSA. I again asked people if I could go ahead of them because I had a very short connection and was able to catch up to Braden and Hannah.

A few more people let us go in front of them, but everything was still moving really slowly. We had about 10 minutes until our plane left. Finally, it was our turn to go through. I told Braden to leave his stuff and run to the gate to stop the plane. He grabbed his backpack and left. I packed up everything that was left in the TSA bins, and went to check what gate we had to get to while Hannah grabbed her bag. I told Hannah where we had to go, and we both started running.

I had two suitcases, a backpack, a purse, and a camera bag, and we weren’t just jogging we were sprinting through the Philadelphia airport. After a few minutes of running we heard an announcement saying that our flight was leaving in 4 minutes, and the doors would not reopen. We looked at each other and just kept running. People moved out of our way. Hannah had less luggage and got a little ahead of me. I turned a corner once and saw her ahead of me on the ground. She had fallen and hurt her knee pretty bad but got up and continued running. We got to the gate a couple minutes later. I think we literally made it with 1 minute left.

We boarded the plane sweating, breathing heavy, and exhausted. We took out seats, and the nice flight attendant asked if we were alright. We were very out of breath, and just asked for some water. The flight from Philadelphia to Charlotte, North Carolina was only about an hour and a half. We got off the plane and had an hour and a half layover before we boarded our last flight to Portland. It was a shorter layover than the last, but far more relaxing. We finally had a chance to get something to eat and get Hannah some ice for her knee.

We boarded our last flight of the day, and each tried to get some sleep. There was less stress now that we made it onto the last flight of the day, and I was able to rest for a couple hours. We landed in Portland, Oregon at 9:30 local time. We got off and found our parents waiting for us at baggage claim. Our long journey was almost over. After grabbing our bags, it was time for the last leg of the journey. A two-hour ride in our family minivan. I stayed awake to tell stories for the first 30 minutes, and then I was completely asleep. Evidentially when I woke up, I wasn’t even able to form coherent sentences. I have no memory of this whatsoever. When we got home, we unloaded the luggage, told a couple more stories, and went to bed.

It was a total of 25 crazy hours of travel that day, plus the couple hours the day before. There were many things that went wrong (broken down train, drug dog, short layovers, etc.), but I still feel incredibly lucky. Somehow, we made each of our layovers, and avoided the 9-hour long lines in some of the other airports. We left the UK the day before it was put on the ban list. If we had been one day later, we would have been stuck in those insanely long lines. Most importantly, I feel lucky to have made it home to be with my family right now. My heart goes out to anyone that is still trying to get home.

(My flight was on March 15, 2020, and airports are probably handling the situation very differently now. I have been self-quarantining since I got home.)

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