Pandemic travel time

Sometimes when you live in weird immigration status limbo you have to travel in a pandemic. I thought the state of international travel might be of possible interest to people, so I’m reporting back after an essential trip to the USA—though I don’t know how many people actually can travel there right now. I’m a British citizen with a green card and a reentry permit. If I was solely British, the travel ban to the USA would have kept me out. Without further ado: my experiences.

I left on the 21st of October from Edinburgh Airport. The airport had a one-way system set up with little plane-shaped arrows telling us where to walk, though as usual not everyone was following it. You were meant to wear your mask in all public areas, but you were allowed to take it off in restaurants or briefly while eating. Since there were less people than usual, it was easy to space out.

A mannequin in an airport shop wears smart clothes and a mask.
A mannequin in an airport shop demonstrates fashionable mask-usage to complete an outfit.

Our flight was delayed for several hours because of bird(s?) getting sucked into one of the engines, forcing a safety check, but I doubt this had anything to do with the pandemic. It did give me some insight into my fellow travelers while I dovered on a bench by the gate. A group of student-aged Americans could just as well have been from a badly written film, with the guys posturing and the girls listening and looking pretty. In the long delay of our London flight they briefly discussed going to Tenerife after an announcement about a Tenerife flight. (“Tenerife is awesome. Should we just go there?” “We’d have to quarantine for 14 days.” “It’s totally worth it man!”)

An English woman complained that all her travel had been delayed like this, and she suspected airline companies were purposefully cancelling or delaying flights to funnel the too-small pool of travelers into less airplanes. She’d had to cancel a trip to some more exciting place and come to Scotland instead, but she now had regrets given all the inconveniences. The woman she was complaining to sounded Scottish as she announced “I just want to get home.” My stomach dropped as she went on to say she’d come up to Scotland too late to see her mum one last time, and her brothers didn’t need her help with the funeral arrangements. She wasn’t crying, but her voice was thick as she finished with “I just want to get home and get a cuddle.” It was a reminder of what too many people are going through, and I’m pretty sure the initial complainer felt terrible; I would. This is why complaining to random strangers about minor inconvenience is usually stupid but especially stupid now. Oof.

Eventually our flight boarded, and we all got a row to ourselves. Three whole seats just for me! Sleeps ahoy! The man sitting in the same numbered row on the other side of the aisle had three seats too, as did everyone else on the plane except those traveling with family. We were all required to wear our masks except while actively eating, as usual.

Aerial photo of Edinburgh from the south.
Not quite sunshine on Leith, but it’s close enough.

In London I found out I’d missed my connection, and British Airways put me up in a Heathrow-adjacent hotel called Sofitel to wait for my flight the next morning. Mask policy was the same as all other places: mask on in all public areas, except while seated at a restaurant. The hotel bed could have fit about four of me. You’d think I’d wake up refreshed the next day, but in actuality I was early morning-stupid and almost managed to miss my rescheduled flight because I zoned out so hard. Oops. Sorry, everyone.

Again: three seats to myself, and this giant transatlantic plane had three seats in the middle that weren’t being used. Seems like they could have positioned us in a grid to maximise space between passengers, but instead we were all lined up next to the windows, with someone in front of and behind us. Other than the extreme emptiness of the plane and the need to keep a mask on, the flight was normal. Plenty of food and entertainment provided, with no seeming disruption in service.

Chicago customs & immigration was emptier than I’ve ever seen it. We were processed quickly, even though I kept waiting for someone to stop me and say: “What are you doing? Why are you traveling right now? Go home.” The only time someone asked me where I’d be staying was back in Edinburgh, and there was no follow-up. After months and months of staying in one place, it felt like I was breaking the law. But no: green card holders are allowed to travel to the USA right now, so no one stopped me. My certainty that I’d be stopped and turned away at some point was just paranoia.

I passed thirteen wonderful days with my co-author Ash & family, staying mostly in although it wasn’t lawfully required. If I’d been staying in Chicago, I believe I would have had to quarantine. (Sidenote: the mayor of Chicago & governor of Illinois seem great & like they’re doing whatever they can to help their people.) Despite my conviction that every tickle in my throat was covid, no actual symptoms emerged. I charged up on the presence of loved ones and kitty snuggles, but my journey wasn’t over. My parents drove up from Florida to pick me up and whisked me away to Wisconsin to stay with my brother’s family. More loved ones! More long-delayed hugs! It felt SO GOOD. Between the extremely welcome presence of close family and Trump’s defeat—a thing I hadn’t taken for granted; I know white America’s capacity for willful ignorance—I was a happy and totally overemotional camper. When it came time for my parents to take me to the airport, I was a mess… but I was a grateful mess.

Board showing the few international flights leaving O'Hare.
A whopping eight flights leaving Chicago O’Hare’s international terminal after seven o’clock. Three of them are to Guadalajara.

It was quiet in the international terminal, though I don’t know how many of the places were closed due to the time (after 6pm) and how many were closed due to the lack of international passengers. The Chicago-London flight was even emptier than the flight I’d taken to the USA, probably due to the fact that England had gone into lockdown. I also had to fill in a passenger locator form. You can do this 48 hours in advance, but you can also do this after landing in the UK as long as you have your smartphone on you. They have QR codes and space for filling the form out before Immigration. That was all well done, but I was surprised when my flight to Edinburgh was as full as any pre-pandemic flight. It’s the closest I’ve sat to a stranger in ages, and even with masks on both sides it makes you antsy. Hopefully none of us were vectors for a deadly disease, but I suppose we’ll find out in time.

I’ll be quarantining with Shady for the next two weeks. That was always our plan, but now it’s actually required. I was pleased when I returned and received an email from the Public Health Scotland Test & Protect team. It told me:

The Home Office has shared your contact details with Public Health Scotland, in accordance with an agreement between both organisations. This information will be used by the National Contact Tracing Centre to contact a random sample of all those required to stay in their specified premises upon arrival.

So I may get contacted—who knows—and I’m happy this is happening, especially after that full last flight. Hopefully all will be well, and I won’t contribute in any way to an already too-high number. Let’s hope. I double-masked during all my travel, with a disposable mask under my cloth one. I replaced the disposable one roughly every four hours according to guidelines. Will it have made the difference? No idea.

Oh, and for the record: it’s easy to sleep in a mask, and not as hard as you’d think to wear one for hours on end provided you’re not exerting yourself. Something about the coverage actually made me feel better about sleeping in public spaces. The only trouble I had was when I sweated in one while running for that flight I nearly missed. Exercise in a double-mask setup is that little bit more difficult, not to mention kind of disgusting. Essential workers who actually have to do things while masked-up have my admiration and gratitude—and they definitely deserve a raise and better protection. Let’s help make that happen next time we get to vote on our leaders in the UK, please. And yes, I now realise I’m rambling… so I should probably end this post.

I’m happy to answer any questions if you have them. Hope this has been helpful, or at least curiosity-satisfying, to someone out there!


  1. I enjoyed hearing about your travel. Glad you will have many happy memories of family and friends during this difficult time.

    • It’s really helped my mental space to have those memories! Much easier to be productive since I’ve been back. Hope you’re keeping well.


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