Flying Internationally in the Age of Corona: Los Angeles to Paris to Barcelona to Copenhagen

Part 1: Booking Flights and Pre-Flight Preparations

After wrapping up my summer internship, I decided to fly back to Europe in early August for my second year on business school on August 5th. School won’t start for another month. But I decided to come back for 3 main reasons.

First and most importantly, my health insurance (Spanish travel insurance) was no longer valid in the US- it expired on August 1st, 60 days after leaving Spain. It will reactivate once I reenter the country.

Second, my Spanish residency card, the NIE (technically TIE) expires on August 19th. Due to COVID, I would not be able to board a flight to Europe without it, as Americans are currently banned from entering Europe as tourists. Without a valid NIE, I would have to obtain a new student visa from the local Spanish consulate in Los Angeles which is an absolute nightmare to deal with. Flying earlier would give me a buffer in case I caught COVID and had to reschedule.

Third, I wanted time to travel and enjoy Europe. By leaving on the 5th, I would get nearly a month to explore.

Picking flights to Europe was not easy. The direct flight from LA to Barcelona on Norwegian was cancelled so I would have to transit through a third country. Each country had its own COVID restrictions, which were not easy to locate and were constantly changing. Flights were constantly being cancelled. Additionally, the prices of trans-Atlantic flights were sky-high. Google Flights was asking for $1800 one-way to fly on a European airline and $1,000 via Doha or Moscow. I ended up using an IESE-founded site for business travel called TravelPerk. They had a deal with Air France (booked via Virgin Atlantic) for under $600.

About 1 week before my flight, I noticed that France changed their COVID restrictions for passengers flying in from the United States and 4 other countries (the worst COVID offenders). In order to enter France, I would have to produce a negative COVID PCR test taken within 72 hours of my flight. PCR tests usually take between 2-6 days for the results so this seemed like a nearly impossible task. After much research, I found a place in Beverly Hills offering a test with a 24 hour turnaround…for $225 (remember how my insurance expired?). The results came in in 15 hours. Negative. Also, while not a new requirement, France required a contact tracing form filled out. Spain had an online contact tracing form, but they asked for my seat number so I couldn’t fill it out until I was at the airport and checked in.

Part 2: Los Angeles to Paris

When I arrived at LAX on the 5th, the normally bustling Tom Bradley International Terminal was a ghost town. The flight board listed just 10 flights for the entire day: Paris, London, Taipei, Manila, Doha, and a few to Mexico. I normally am inspired every time I walk into this terminal, but this time, the mood was somber (having to say goodbye to my girlfriend for an indefinite period of time was certainly not helping).

Everybody was wearing masks. Not only did the airport require them, but Air France said that if they see you at any point inside without a mask, they have the right to deny you boarding. Since everyone on my flight apparently got tested within 3 days, I felt safe, but still decided to also wear a face shield over my N95. With this setup, I felt fairly confident I would not catch the virus.

The Air France check-in line was short, but due to the restrictions, it moved slowly. I waited 25 minutes even though there were only 2 people ahead of me in line. Once I got to the desk, the agent asked for my passport and EU residency card. After handing him my NIE, he took it to his supervisor to ensure that it was indeed legitimate. That process took 5 nerve-wracking minutes. I thought I did everything right, but you never know. The agent was so focused on my credentials that he failed to notice my bag was 10 pounds overweight.

Once past security, all the shops, restaurants and lounges were closed. The only exception was Panda Express- the cheapest and most popular spot in the terminal. This is where the staff all eats so I wonder if restaurants closed because the airport forced them to or because they knew they would lose money.

Air France typically flies the double-decker A380 for the LA-Paris route, but swapped it for the smaller and less-cool Boeing 777. The swap made sense because the flight was less than half-full. I originally was seated in a row with a man flying to Yemen (via Paris and Cairo), but he moved and we both had rows to ourselves. My face shield was somewhat uncomfortable, but the flight was otherwise uneventful.

Once in Paris, they split us between transit passengers and those entering France. I noticed that there was a special section in the airport for passengers coming from the US (presumably for extra COVID screening measures).

Charles De Galle airport is quite confusing and there are many terminals. To get to my next flight, I had to walk about 30 minutes. On the way, I passed by a crazy long line for what looked to be another passport check. People were not distanced and the space was crowded. Luckily, that wasn’t my line and I continued through the airport. Everyone had masks, but I was the only one with a face shield.

I eventually reached the line for people transferring to Schengen-area flights. I passed through security normally and at the passport check, I simply showed my US passport. I wasn’t asked for my Spanish residency card or any COVID tests. Maybe they knew the airline would check. And just like that I was in Europe!

Part 3: Paris to Barcelona

Unfortunately due to the timing of the flights, I had a 6.5 hour layover. That was probably enough time to leave the airport, but I noticed that the government was staffing all the exits with presumably a COVID checkpoint. Since I had come directly from the US, I figured it was better not to leave the airport even though I had the correct documents.

The Paris airport was crowded and it was difficult to find a seat-especially because half were blocked off. Unlike the 6 ft distancing requirement in the US, Paris only recommended 1 meter (3 ft) between passengers. All the shops were closed and only 1 food option was open. The line for that one restaurant was therefore very long which caused people to not distance. They really should open more dining options.

While not the best, I made it through the layover and boarded the flight to Barcelona. This flight was also about half-full. I didn’t have a full row to myself, but the middle seat was open.

The trip to Barcelona took 90 minutes and I arrived in the Schengen terminal. At first glance, everything looked normal. However, just before reaching the baggage claim I had to go through the Spanish COVID station. I pulled up the QR code link to my completed form on my phone. A lady scanned it and then took my picture. This system worked pretty well.

In the baggage claim, the government laid out places for people to stand while waiting for bags.

Once retrieving my bag, I reached the arrivals hall which looked like a ghost town. Some of the lights were off and everything was closed with the exception of a few rental car booths. Even some of the exits were closed including the one for the airport bus. To catch the bus, I had to walk down towards the metro and then outside where I had to cross a few lanes of traffic to reach the bus- very silly. The airport bus, which normally runs every 5 minutes, was now running every 15 minutes plus it stopped at Terminal 2 as well.

Despite the delays and annoyances, I had made it home to Barcelona.

Part 4: Barcelona to Copenhagen

After just 13 hours at home, it was time to head back to the airport to catch my flight to Copenhagen. My original plan was to spend a day recovering in Barcelona but Denmark changed their COVID entry requirements and this was the last day Spanish residents were allowed to enter.

The check-in and boarding process felt completely normal. Unlike my last two flights, this one was completely full- mostly of sunburnt Danes.

Things got interesting once I reached the ground in Copenhagen. Instead of deboarding from the jetbridge, we were forced to deboard down the stairs from the back of the plane and go into buses. The buses took us to the passport control where we met with an immigration officer. The gorgeous smiling blonde officer asked me for my passport, Spanish residency card and asked me about my itinerary. When I told her I was going to Greenland, she taught me a couple phrases of Greenlandic. This was easily the most pleasant customs/immigration experience I had ever experienced.

Past immigration, a greeter walked me to the baggage claim so I could find a socially distant place to stand. On the way, I noticed a booth advertising free COVID tests to all arrivals. Denmark clearly had the best system of any country. I was quite excited to be here in my 66th country.

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