Our Journey Home: Airline Travel during the COVID-19 Pandemic

For the latest status on our fight against the Coronavirus, check out my COVID-19 Diary.

Hello from a secluded cabin where Daniel and I are in self-isolation. I’ve been receiving requests for more details on what our journey home from Spain was like and airline travel generally during the COVID-19 pandemic. This post provides more information on the logistics for our trip and what it was like to travel during the last couple of days.

This is a follow-up to my previous post, Escape from Europe: The Coronavirus Edition, which explains why we decided to cut our long-term travels short.

If you or someone you know happens to be considering airline travel during the COVID-19 pandemic , I urge you to reconsider unless the travel is absolutely necessary. Trust me, you DON’T want to be traveling right now.

img_20200315_1247158003476345484888590.jpg
Downtown Seattle is eerily quiet these days. The streets are empty and events are postponed.

Airline travel during the COVID-19 Pandemic Part 1: Granada to London – Friday, March 13, 2020

Daniel and I began our travels on Friday the 13th with a flight from Granada in Southern Spain to London. We had booked the tickets the previous day when the U.S. travel ban to Europe was announced and we decided to leave the continent ASAP. The travel ban prevented foreign nationals from entering the United States from any European country in the Schengen visa zone. United States Citizens were exempt from this prohibition but would go through some sort of extra screening upon arrival in the country.

Daniel and I considered various travel options, but since flights from the United Kingdom were not included in the travel ban (at least not yet) we decided to make our way home through London. The idea was to break our travel into three different segments: from Granada to London, from London to New York, and from New York to Seattle. This was not only the most cost effective option, but we hoped it would lessen the chances of encountering any hassles from government officials.

Daniel and I could not find any non-stop flights from Granada or nearby airports to London on such short notice, so we had to connect through Madrid. This was not our first choice given the high number of COVID-19 cases in Madrid at the time, but we didn’t have much of a choice. The plane ticket from Granda to London cost $377 USD (for both of us).

Despite flying on Friday the 13th, everything went really smoothly (unlike when we fled the Coronavirus Outbreak in Italy). The Granada and Madrid airports weren’t especially busy and our flights were on time. When we arrived in London, our flight did not receive any extra screening or security procedures. No one seemed to care that our plane was full of passengers from Madrid which was being swamped in COVID-19 cases.

We stayed at a reasonably priced hotel near the London Heathrow airport and spent the evening figuring out what to do upon arrival in Seattle. Things were happening so rapidly that we could only plan about 24 hours in advance at that point. Daniel and I also did not want to cram too much travel in one day for fear of getting run down and falling ill. This was a really bad time to get sick.

Airline travel during the COVID-19 Pandemic: View of the Sierra Nevada mountains from the airplane leaving Granada. Someday I will return and do some hiking here!
View of the Sierra Nevada mountains from the airplane leaving Granada. Someday I will return and do some hiking here!

Airline travel during the COVID-19 Pandemic Part 2: London to New York – Saturday, March 14, 2020

Daniel and I began the day with a flight from London to New York. Despite booking only 48 hours in advance, we scored airline tickets for only $419 USD apiece. The only catch was that the tickets were *technically* roundtrip and we had no intention of returning to Europe any time soon. We bought them anyway since they were so much cheaper than any other option.

After breakfast at 6:30 am in the hotel restaurant, we headed back to the airport. Once again, things went smoothly as we made our way through the airport. We noted with some amusement that the flight was going to depart from Gate 42. Daniel has been obsessed with the number 42 for some time and so it seemed like a good omen.

The good luck continued as we boarded the aircraft. Daniel and I hadn’t managed to book seats together on such short notice, but another passenger agreed to switch so we could sit next to eachother. Since it was an 8-hour flight this was greatly appreciated. Oddly enough, we were seated in row 42.

Airline travel during the COVID-Pandemic: Lucky Gate #42!
Lucky Gate #42!

As our aircraft landed at the John F. Kennedy aircraft, the flight crew announced that we would be boarded by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). We would be required to undergo some sort of Coronavirus screening before we could disembark. The details were a little unclear but apparently we would have to fill out a questionnaire about our recent travels.

Daniel and I looked at eachother nervously – we had hoped to avoid extra scrutiny by traveling through London. On the other hand, it was reassuring to know that the United States was finally taking the Coronavirus seriously and implementing screening procedures that should have been in place a month ago.

Fifteen minutes later, the flight crew announced that we were free to leave. We would not be undergoing the extra screening after all. Apparently, two other flights from Europe arrived only minutes before ours and CBP officials were swamped. We made our way through customs and that was that.

I was only later to learn how lucky we were. Apparently, travelers from Europe to other airports had a much different experience. In Chicago, travelers were greeted with hours-long airport lines as Coronavirus screenings began.

Airline travel during the COVID-Pandemic: At the John F Kennedy Airport changing planes between flights
At the John F Kennedy Airport changing planes between flights

Airline travel during the COVID-19 Pandemic Part 3: New York to Seattle – Saturday, March 14, 2020

Now that we were back in the United States, Daniel and I had more options for booking cheap travel. I’ve been a member of the Alaska Airlines Mileage plan for a long time and we have accumulated lots of airline miles over the years. Time to put them to good use!

Sure enough, I found a non-stop flight from New York to Seattle via Alaska Airlines later that day. After using our airline miles we only had to pay about $20 in fees. The only catch was that we had to wait in the airport for about six hours as the flight didn’t leave until 6:45 pm. It was not an ideal situation but you can’t argue with flights that cheap.

By this point, jetlag was really starting to catch up with us. My body was still on Spanish time and I wanted to go crawl into bed. We found a secluded corner in the terminal and watched the news while we waited. It was the first time in ages that we’ve seen a news program in English and could actually follow along with what was going on. The novelty was fun for a few minutes but wore off pretty fast.

The flight from New York to Seattle took about 6 hours and went off without a hitch. The seat next to us was empty so Daniel and I took turns stretching out. I probably should have made myself stay awake so it would be easier to adjust to the timezone but I was exhausted. So I slept.

When our plane landed at 10:17 pm (PDT), Daniel and I had been traveling for over 24 hours. It felt like 6:17 am to our groggy brains. Once again, we were not met with any scrutiny upon arrival. Since our flight was arriving from New York to Seattle, it was technically a domestic flight.

We made our way to a hotel near the airport. Our stomachs were ready for another meal so we walked to the SeaTac Denny’s and ordered dinner. As it turns out, Denny’s is a rather strange place to be late on a Saturday night – the restaurant was filled with interesting characters. Our waitress was hilarious and kept us entertained while we ate our food and tried to keep from falling asleep.

00100sportrait_00100_burst20200314233721867_cover-12586124383846706.jpg
Daniel and I at the SeaTac Denny’s after staying awake for over 24 hours

Part 4: Self-Isolation – Sunday, March 15, 2020

Now that we’d made it back to the Seattle area, it was time to self-isolate. Airplanes are notorious petri dishes for spreading illness and we’d just spent over 18 hours traveling on four of them. Not to mention the fact that we had been in Spain only two days ago – a country with a skyrocketing number of COVID-19 cases that was now on lockdown.

The CDC recommends that people undergoing self-isolation stay home for 14 days and avoid public transportation, taxis, restaurants, stores, and other public places where people gather. The only problem was that we had no permanent home and no stockpile of supplies to sustain us. We planned to rent a car but had to way to get to the rental agency other than to take an Uber or taxi.  Some amount of interaction with other people was required so that we could be in a position to self-isolate for 14 days.

I worried about unknowingly spreading the virus but there didn’t seem to be much we could do, except staying put in our SeaTac hotel (which sounded miserable). Neither of us were exhibiting any of the classic Coronavirus symptoms. We had a thermometer with us and checked daily for a fever just to make sure.  So far so good.

So we spent the day running around Seattle doing errands and preparing to self-isolate. Not a single store that we visited had toilet paper or any cleaning supplies. I had heard all sorts of stories about the shortages, but it was hard to believe until I saw it for myself.

img_20200315_1256243200171814723384847.jpg
Nary a roll of toilet paper in sight. There was one last roll of paper towels but I grabbed it.

Now we are settled in at our cabin and I’m glad to be staying put for a while. I’m not sure what we will be doing after this yet, but we have some time to figure it out. Until then we will relax, monitor the news, and explore the area (but only while staying a respectful distance from other people, of course).

img_20200315_2040276925663068656692789.jpg
Our tiny fridge is packed. I think we have more than enough food…

Vagabonding Journey Status

Date: March 16, 2020
Vagabonding Journey Status: Day 166

For more details on our vagabonding journey, see my previous posts:

2 thoughts

  1. Wow…welcome back to the Pacific Northwest. Catch up and rest up. Thanks for all the news and travelogue.

Leave a Reply