I’ve just landed in Greece, after a nine-hour nonstop flight from New York. Here are five things I learned about taking an international flight to a recently reopened country.
Check the situation at the gate at least an hour before boarding—it is likely to be hectic.
When I arrived at JFK two hours before my flight to Athens, I passed through security in less than a minute (really!), but at the gate I found a scene that was a mess. For one thing, the flight was packed—it was a big plane (2-4-2 configuration in economy) and nearly every single seat was taken, which meant that there were a ton of people huddled around the gate. But what made it worse was that everyone was queued up in a very, very long line for a reason that few people seemed to understand. Some thought it was the usual pre-boarding lineup. Others thought we had to get verified for something before we’d be allowed to board. Still others weren’t sure if this was a verification line only for people who had to show their Covid test and if there was a separate line for vaccinated people.
Delta representatives were at the gate, but they were not using a PA system to make announcements, just shouting occasionally—so you couldn’t hear anything. We all waited, wondering what we were supposed to be doing. I got the feeling that the airline staff was feeling the same way. As rules change and solidify for the countries we’re traveling to, the airlines are tasked with a lot of the prep work—and they don’t yet have good systems in place. This is why boarding was scheduled to start an hour before departure, but it was still a confusing hour. So if you’re the kind of traveler who usually saunters to the gate right around boarding time, do yourself a favor and (a) get to the airport at minimum two hours ahead of your flight and (b) head to the gate as soon as you get through security so that you can evaluate the situation and find out whether you need to start queuing up early for any verification process that has suddenly popped up.
In my case, it turned out that the airline staff wanted to look at everyone’s passport, boarding pass, and official Passenger Locator Form—a contact-tracing form from the Greek government that had to be submitted online prior to departure. (To make things more complicated, when some passengers had filled out the form, me included, they got confirmation emails that the QR-coded, approved document wouldn’t arrive in their email inbox until midnight on the day of their arrival in Greece—and since our flight was an overnight flight that started the day before, we only had proof of submission but not the actual approved form. In the end, the frazzled single Delta staff member tasked with checking the documentation allowed this, but there was a lot of stress among my fellow passengers as to whether they’d be allowed to board.)
Print everything out.
If you keep all your documents on your phone (boarding pass, vaccine/test proof, and any government-required health forms), you’re going to have to shuffle through a bunch of apps when an official asks to see each one. If it’s allowed, you might want to go old-school and print everything out on paper so you can hand over the stack in one fell swoop rather than wrestling with your phone. In fact, the Delta attendant asked me for a paper boarding pass—maybe it makes their lives a little easier too.
Carry a scarf—it’s even more important now.
This is a classic tip, but there’s a new reason why a scarf is part of my essential plane gear. Delta put a blanket and pillow on every seat (yes, even in economy) for the overnight flight, but I couldn’t help but wonder: How clean are they? How are airplane pillows sanitized? The blanket came wrapped in plastic, which I guess indicates that it came from the cleaners. However, the pillows were not wrapped in anything—it was just a pillow in a pillowcase, and I couldn’t tell if the pillowcases were disposable or had been cleaned, as they were just sitting there on the seat on top of the blanket. So throwing a scarf or an extra shirt over the top can act as a personal pillowcase.
Eat at a different time than everyone else.
We took off at 5:15 pm NYC time, and dinner was served shortly after we boarded. Of course everyone took off their masks to eat (quick shout-out to all the passengers, because almost everyone wore their masks correctly; and kudos to the Delta flight crew, who politely nudged noncompliant passengers throughout the flight). Even though I’m vaccinated, and I know that airplanes are pretty safe environments, I still didn’t feel entirely comfortable dining with a few hundred strangers with their masks off. So I decided to wait to have my meal until everyone around me had finished eating and put their masks back on. This had two additional perks: First, I was able to use the bathrooms before the inevitable post-meal rush left them nasty. Second, delaying my meal meant that I could go right to sleep after we took off and therefore get on Greece time more effectively (it was midnight in Greece when our flight took off, we landed at 10am, and I am writing this feeling well rested and ready to get on with my day). When I woke a few hours later, I could eat while everyone else was masked. (I had brought my own food, but if you prefer to eat what they’re handing out, ask a flight attendant to hold your meal.)
Look for open seats at the last minute.
On my way to the airport, I checked the seat plan on the Delta app to see if there were any open rows left on my flight. I already knew the plane was going to be packed, but I also knew there’d been a few of the paid “preferred” rows still available when I checked that morning, and I was considering using my miles to upgrade. But I wanted to wait until closer to the flight time because I also knew I’d be frustrated if I spent the miles expecting to have a two-seat row to myself only to have someone snatch up the other seat at the last second. It was a bit of a gamble, but it paid off: I got the aisle spot in a two-seat row, and no one took the window. I don’t know why that row was considered “preferred”—it wasn’t an exit row, and the seats were the same size as the others—but my 9,500 SkyMiles points purchase ended up being worth it. I had more space for my own Covid-related comfort, and I could stretch out to sleep. If you don’t want to upgrade to a premium class or even a comfort-plus category seat (which was sold out on this flight), you could try this hack and see if you can get a little more space at the last minute.
Get the VIP fast-track pick-up for when you land at your destination.
Ironically, the entry process once I landed in Greece ran a lot smoother, and took a lot less time, than the boarding process in New York. That’s partly because the ground staff in the country you’re traveling to probably knows exactly what they need and how the process works. But it’s also because Mina Agnos, one of Wendy’s recommended travel fixers for Greece, booked a VIP fast-track pick-up service for me: A guide met me with a sign before I entered the passport control area and whisked me past the line of other passengers. First I flashed my CDC vaccine card and my Passenger Locator Form (as promised, the official version with the QR code was in my inbox when I landed, although no one ended up actually scanning the code). Then my fast-track fixer brought me to a special, no-line window to get my passport stamp. Several dozen people were on the regular line, and I expect there would be even more of a crowd as our plane continued to unload all its passengers. Not only did this whole process take just a few minutes, but it also alleviated the stress of dealing with the unfamiliar logistics of our Covid-travel era. With my fast-track fixer at my side, I knew that if I ran into a problem, she could communicate with whatever authorities might have questions, aid me in solving them, and help me get any additional support I needed.
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