I’m writing with apologies to Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote the original, famous Canterbury Tales, whose title I’ve appropriated for this category of my posts.
For a variety of reasons, I decided to leave hot, humid Northern Virginia, U.S.A. last week and travel to Canterbury, U.K. Some of these were personal, some practical, and some plain paranoid. The U.S., currently riven with toxic politics, violence, and horrendous COVID-19 numbers, was just not a healthy place for me. I took a risk in traveling but I believe it was worth it.
There is some confusion about whether or not Americans can travel anywhere and, though restrictions are constantly changing, I’m sharing this account of my trip to the U.K. as an example of travel in the age of coronavirus.
This is the view of my Airbnb balcony, the river’s edge, and the nature reserve beyond it. Combine that with very pleasant cool, dry English weather and it’s absolutely idyllic. And, if you have to quarantine for a few weeks, there’s a lot to watch (birds, ducks, fish, etc.) out there. Ahhh!
My trip started with an uneventful Uber ride to National Airport outside Washington, D.C. The airport was fairly empty and everyone was wearing a mask, of course. I checked my bags in and was surprised that, instead of tossing them onto the belt behind her, the agent handed them back to me and asked me to take them down the hall and hand them over to TSA for scanning!? Well, that was new.
No problems going through personal TSA screening – with TSA Pre-Check, I didn’t have to take off my shoes or belt, and my phone and even liquids just stayed in my carry-on bag. I didn’t even use a bin – I just put my bag right into the scanner.
At the gate, seats were marked with stickers to create distancing and there were plenty of signs reminding everyone to be smart. However, I noticed a lot of people wearing masks incorrectly (under the nose, under the chin), even airline pilots. Hoping to keep the cooties at bay, I was wearing an N-95 mask, which I changed every four hours, and safety glasses. I also had a plan of glove-swapping, hand-sanitizing, and sanitizing-wiping going.
My Delta flights were half-full and generally pleasant. Delta is blocking Main Cabin middle seats and reducing Delta One (where I sat) seating to 60%. It was smooth flying into Atlanta, then a 2-1/2 hour layover until my flight to Heathrow.
All U.K.-bound passengers had to present a completed a “U.K. Passenger Locator Form” (PLF), which specifies health status and U.K. self-quarantine location, along with a boarding pass before being allowed onto the plane in Atlanta.
On the international flight, I requested a seating change after the nearest passenger to me kept coughing during boarding. Delta One amenities and food service on my 9:50 PM flight were only scaled back a little bit and I elected to go straight to sleep. A healthy tailwind produced a mere 7 1/2-hour flight, which is usually what I expect on a flight from Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C. to London.
On arrival into an empty Heathrow Airport, I was more concerned about being turned away at the UK border because “tourism” is not an essential reason for coming in. I needn’t have worried: non-essential visits are now allowed (as my online research had indicated); the Immigration agent scanned my passport and my PLF and waved me right on through without another word.
I was, in fact, the first person off the plane and so (thank you, Mr. Murphy) I was the last to get my baggage. Or not get it. My small bag appeared on the baggage belt but my big bag did not! Oh-oh. Delta is very good about tracking bags and I was getting regular texts telling me where my bags were at every step, so I knew they had both been loaded onto my London-bound flight in Atlanta. But where was the big bag now? Sheesh.
It took an hour to file my missing baggage report, and then I met up with the car and driver I’d hired to drive me to Canterbury. I’m usually more of a public transport guy but I used a car service this time because, otherwise, I’d have had to take two trains and a taxi, and so a single car ride seemed safer, virus-exposure-wise. Masks on, windows down, blessed cool, dry weather.
During the drive, I was mentally inventorying all the important, irreplaceable stuff in my (possibly) lost bag, including every scrap of clothing I own other than what I was wearing.
My Airbnb flat in Canterbury is very nice, brand new, and well-appointed. After a good night’s sleep, I felt great. My groceries order was delivered the next morning and, hallelujah, my big bag was found and delivered to me in the afternoon. All is right with the world.
The current U.K. policy is that all passengers entering via train, plane, and ferry must self-isolate for 14 days. This is not “quarantining” – you’re not supposed to leave your premises for any reason; not for shopping, not for exercise. Random checks are conducted and the fine is a substantial £1000 ($1330) for a first offense. Some of my English friends scoff at the chances of actually being caught out, but I think I’ll follow the rules to the letter.
Only 12 more days to go.
Disconnecting from the U.S. news and social media flow, even temporarily, has already produced a dramatic reduction in stress for me. I’m very glad to be out of the U.S. and feel much safer here.