The new reality of getting home from overseas

November 18, 2021

On November 16 my wife and I arrived home in Raleigh after a spectacular two week trip through the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  The tedious process of getting home began four days earlier on November 12 and required a lot of my time and attention to be sure it was done right. 

Covid has added a lot of complexity to international travel for returning Americans, requirements that add cost and steal time from a trip.  I fear the non-value-adding activities may be here to stay, counterbalanced somewhat by airline software improvements and Internet-based remote testing solutions.  I wrote about successful remote testing on my previous Kruger visit in August.

I’ve been making trips to South Africa for nearly 31 years. Before Covid, getting home was so perfunctory that I can’t remember any significant hurdles on the return journeys, regardless of my international air carrier.  Now, though, I have to focus and plan carefully.

Starting with the remote testing.  In August it was just me, but this time two of us needed to go through the remote Emed/Navica testing process.  I took four of the Abbott/Binax test kits with me (two for backups “just in case”).  First, I consulted carefully with the United Airlines “Travel Ready Center” portal to be dead certain of requirements. 

Going over the pond, a PCR test was mandatory per South Africa, and it had be within exactly 72 hours of flight time, not just of the departure date, in our case 9:00 PM on October 31. Thus, our negative test results had to be dated not sooner than 9:00 PM on October 28. Since it’s not possible to be tested at that late hour of any day, we had to wait until the morning of October 29 to go for our PCR tests.

Coming home, United follows the looser CDC guideline that Covid test results, which can be antigen or PCR, must be dated within three days of the flight date.  Our flight departure was scheduled for 10:00 PM on November 15, and per the CDC rule, our negative test results could be any time on November 12 or later.  Checking United’s Travel Ready Center confirmed this, so we targeted the morning of November 12 to go through the remote testing routine. 

Coincidentally, we were at the same Kruger Park camp, Satara, that I reported from before.  Since it worked well there, I expected similar smooth sailing.

I went first, signed into the Navica app, which took me to Emed.com, and went through the test process.  Just as I wrote about in July, a bit slow with a weak Internet signal through my smartphone, and within 45 minutes, done.  Tested negative, and soon had my official report, ready to be uploaded to United.

My wife then began the same process and was repeatedly kicked off the Emed Labs site due to video freezes and connection problems.  But it finally worked after 3+ hours of frustrating repeated tries. By then our morning of planned game drives was shot. Good news was both tests negative.

It then took three tries for United Airlines to acknowledge and approve uploads of our negative Covid tests and vax cards (the latter a new U.S. government requirement, effective November 8), which paved the way for our flight home the night of November 15. The anxiety of being rejected twice before final approval may be common these days as Covid-related requirements for international travel are both fluid and unique country by country. United, not my favorite airline, has admittedly done a good job of adapting to those complexities. For those of us who seek to travel between countries, however, meeting the requirements is no fun in addition to being a costly time sink.

Our actual flights home began with the short hop from Skukuza to Johannesburg on the private, perennially profitable, well-run carrier, SA AIRLINK, not to be confused with government-run and chronic money-loser, SAA (South African Airways).  Airlink is a plucky airline with a well-known sunbird logo on the tail of their planes.

SA Airlink fares are reasonable, too. What I didn’t expect was for Airlink to field a world-class, easy-to-use online check-in process.  I was pleasantly surprised the previous night (November 14) to get an email for checking in on November 15. Done in less than a minute. The tiny Airlink desk at tiny Skukuza Airport quickly handed over our boarding passes when I produced the confirmation. Super easy.

United Airlines also sent an electronic check-in message to my email the night of November 14 which I completed that morning at 400am as we prepared for our game drive. It was a more mind-numbing, even tortured, process than Airlink’s, and took me all of 12 minutes to complete. Reason being, UA is now asking for all kinds of new information related to Covid.

That said, it was hard to find fault with the necessary complexity, and at the end, United produced e-boarding passes for both my wife and me. The United website didn’t do quite that well for me in August, and I wondered if those e-docs would be enough for me to bypass the check-in counter at Johannesburg.

The Airlink flight was a fast and on-time 50 minutes Skukuza to Johannesburg on an ERJ.  Despite the short duration, the flight attendant offered beverages (including beer and wine) and sandwiches, a nice touch.

Arriving Johannesburg on November 15, we decided to try to go straight through, bypassing the check-in counter. We had zero checked luggage, so we found the security screen for Terminal A where United departs, completed the requisite Covid-19 tracing form, and used the boarding passes on my phone to run the security and immigration gauntlet.

Worked like a charm. We had arrived at the domestic terminal from our SA Airlink flight at 230pm, and we were inside security at the international terminal by 330pm.

Sure, that’s common in America for domestic flights, but for a Johannesburg-Newark flight in the fluidly complicated Covid era, I was amazed. Chalk up one for United in enabling our breeze through security and immigration. That’s the easiest experience I’ve had here in 30 years of flying out of Jo’burg.

Once in, Ruth and I made a beeline for the SLOW Lounge that United used in August for business class. But United has moved, I discovered, to the old SAA (South African Airways) Lounge. SAA, now defunct but supposedly being reconstituted by the government, was/is a Star Alliance partner, so I guess moving made sense.

We therefore traipsed down the corridor to the SAA Lounge and were welcomed in. It’s still divided the way it always was between First Class and Business Class sides, but there aren’t any international First Class passengers these days because almost no airline still fields a real international First Class cabin. Business Class has mostly replaced First Class, and that side was empty.

The larger Business Class side of the lounge slowly filled up as the afternoon turned to evening, and I noticed it seemed far more spacious than the SLOW Lounge it replaced. We took showers in the lounge and put on clean clothes for the long flight home tonight. Afterwards, enjoyed pretty good fare from the food offerings and sampled the local gin (very good). Staff was plentiful and attentive, and they were all gracious, eager to serve.  Lots of private nooks and crannies, free wifi, and electric outlets to charge our phones, too.

While enjoying the absence of stress, my phone beeped with a check-in email from Delta Airlines for our flight the following morning (November 16) Newark to Raleigh. After the terrible experiences Jeff Murison and I had on United in July and August, I booked away from United going home just as I did flying JetBlue to Newark two weeks ago. Checking in on the Delta flight took less than a minute, so we were ready to go as long as United got us to Newark on time.

United Airlines UA187 nonstop from Johannesburg to Newark left the gate at November 15, early by 10 minutes, and landed about 10 minutes early (just before 700am on November 16) at Newark after 14.5 hours in the air. I was delighted that the flight was on time, our first OT experience with United.

Service on board the United long-haul flight was perfunctory and minimalist, just as it was going over. A tasteless fish dish with a blue plastic glass of lukewarm champagne was dropped on my business class table all at once on a plastic tray. I didn’t eat or drink much of it. I had to ask for the dessert, which the flight attendants admitted to me they forgot: a tiny container of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream partially melted by the time it reached me.The cabin crew mostly disappeared for 12 hours after clearing the trays until serving another tray of breakfast about an hour before landing. I was asked if I preferred “French toast or eggs” without explanation of how the eggs were prepared. At least I had a choice sitting in row 1. By the time my wife was served in row 3, only eggs were available.

This was my fourth flight in business class on the United nonstops to and from Johannesburg since late July, and service has been about the same on all four: forgettable. The seats lie flat for sleeping, and that’s the only meaningful service difference.  Thankfully, I was able to get a rock bottom business class fare.

It was a bargain, I guess. But I think United should be offering its premium Polaris cabin passengers more.  On the plus side—a big plus these days—UA has excellent software for complying with the labyrinthine regulations of getting home from overseas.

We were off the UA plane by 700am and whisked through Immigration and Customs, thanks to our Global Entry membership. Just takes a photo of our faces and done. No passport presented or stamped.

By 722am on November 16 we had passed through Terminal B security to reach the Delta gates for our flight to RDU and were ensconced in the Delta SkyClub to wait. Pretty good for an international arrival to a domestic connection at any airport, but especially at Newark, which has a bad rep for service, regardless of airline. Arriving early morning, of course, accounts for some of the ease.

The Delta flight to Raleigh/Durham left at 10:00 AM on time and arrived 30 minutes early after 60 minutes.  I’d booked us in first class using award tickets (way in advance, so the mileage requirement was low), and it was a comfortable flight with food and drink offered, just as on SA Airlink the day before.  Kudos to both SA Airlink and Delta for providing great domestic short-haul service, quite a contrast to the unexceptional United Polaris cabin service on one of the longest flights on earth.

Altogether, the user software employed by all three airlines, plus the Emed Labs’ CDC-approved remote testing software and the lightning-fast Global Entry kiosks, smoothed the complexity that has grown up around international travel for returning American citizens.  Some bumps still, but it all works routinely.  Knowing I can get home makes me confident that I can and will keep traveling abroad.

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