Earlier in the year I decided to move back to Australia as the pandemic handling in the USA was rather insane (I wanted to move earlier, family reasons kept me from doing so). So, on the 6th I headed to SFO with my ticket, a PCR/NAA COVID-19 test, my Queensland Health QR code and my 3 pieces of checked luggage: one climbing bag, one dive bag and one bag of sundries (including weight limited overflow from the others).
I had placed a bid to upgrade my seat from economy to economy plus, figuring that a minimum bid had a decent chance of getting me a seat (and the corresponding luggage upgrade). Indeed, this was the case and I was able to get the upgraded seat for $310 (instead of the $1,800 they wanted for the normal upgrade). If you ever fly Air New Zealand, take a look at the One Up program as it can make flying in a better class a financially reasonable thing to do.
Unfortunately, as I was to find out when I arrived at SFO, there are a few glitches right now and the luggage allowance wasn’t updated with the ticket. I’ve had to file for a refund as United (the carrier for the SFO to LAX leg) was unable to fix it on the spot. They were also unable to issue me with boarding passes as Air New Zealand needs to double check paperwork at this time. Trying to avoid having to go through a refund process, I called Air New Zealand and stood around joking with the United checkin staff for 15 minutes while on hold. Due to the recent green zone change for flights to Australia, they were inundated though and eventually I had to make good on my promise to pay upfront and use a refund if there was a queue for checkin. On the plus side, United handling that leg did mean I got to use the pre-check lane for security, which is always a much nicer experience. Update: my reimbursement from Air New Zealand for the baggage arrived on 2021-04-15.
As I’ve come to expect, the scanner at security didn’t like my SCUBA regulators, although the guard was careful in pulling things out, so I didn’t have to re-pack my carry on after he was done. The flight to LAX was uneventful, although completely full (while the airports are definitely quieter than usual, the flights I have taken recently inside the USA have been at capacity). Only Delta (who I recently took to the Caribbean) seems to be keeping the middle row free at this time.
Once at Los Angeles (LAX), I navigated the maze of twisty passages to Terminal B (helpfully not marked as the international terminal until you actually arrive there). Most of the shops were closed, with the only meal option for the desperate being Panda Express.
I jumped in the line to get my barding pass and started chatting with some folks who were headed to Fiji. Apparently going through New Zealand is the best path as Fiji Airlines is grounded right now. Or, it was. I was also informed that New Zealand is limiting transit through Auckland (AKL) and we were on the last flight permitted to do so. Although the NZ Immigration page does not yet say so, several passengers had their tickets moved back from the 13th due to this change. Future passengers will apparently need to quarantine in Auckland and then catch a green zone flight.
Eventually, I made my way to the front, curious to see if boarding would be held up by the line or whether we’d all get through before the final call. The process at counter was pretty straight forward, show my paperwork and wait for them to call New Zealand immigration to let them know that I was a transit passenger. We did beat the final call, but it was close, with only a few people in front of me for boarding.
Hanging around the ramp was a group of US border patrol agents, who pulled aside most people for questioning. Why was I in the USA? Where was I going? Why was I going? Did I have more than USD 10,000 on me? A list of mostly annoying questions delivered by someone who was rude, brusque and clearly looking for a reason to give someone a bad day. Everything I’ve come to expect of crossing a US border really.
Despite there being 10 people and 5 rows, i.e enough for everyone to have a window seat, the computer had decided to seat me physically next to someone else. A problem we quickly sorted out with the staff on the plane. After filling in a card to track the seat, and potential virus, movement we were seated separately. The rest of the flight was everything lovely I have come to expect in flying Air New Zealand: friendly staff, comfortable seats, decent food and electricity to plug my laptop into. The only sad thing was that they no longer carry L&P on board (an iconic New Zealand soft drink). Apparently distribution so that they’d have it on return flights was a problem, it’d still be nice to carry it on the outbound and any remainders for the return…
Well, maybe the flight from SFO to LAX wasn’t to be my last Californian sunset. Despite taking off in the dark at 22:30, we were greeted with this beautiful sight once we reached cruise altitude.
13 hours later, only 5 of which was sleep as my knee decided to antagonise me, we arrived in Auckland. Landing on Thursday and completely skipping Wednesday, one of the fun parts of cross date line travel. Those of us on connecting flights were shuffled through security; who managed to ask the useful questions from the set the US border patrol asked, without leaving a feeling of being degraded or verbally assaulted. Quite the opposite, in fact, everyone was relatively jovial and it was nice to interact with people who gave the impression that they actually cared about our well being.
The red zone international departures area is a fairly large space, with plenty of room for keeping away from others. As you can see from the flight information board, it was pretty quiet.
They had one shop open and I was able to stock up on New Zealand goodies, including enjoying a bottle of L&P and grabbing some chocolate to enjoy during quarantine.
The rest of my wait was spent stretching, in the vain hope that maybe I could make my knee happy. While we waited, the Fijian travelers had to line up for yet more paperwork. I’m not sure why it was done there rather than in LAX, but they seemed to get through it pretty quickly. After a couple of hours of stretching our legs, it was time to board the flight to Brisbane (BNE). All 23 of us. Imagine my surprise when the door closed and this was my view.
That’s right, economy plus was to be a personal experience, with 2 staff members dedicated to my comfort! No one was seated in business. The staff were, as expected, incredibly friendly and chatty. We had several great conversations, between their duties, about the state of the world and the coming green travel zone changes. It seems they’ll soon be considerably busier, which they’re looking forward to, although they have been enjoying being able to see the natural beauty of New Zealand without the hoards of tourists.
Just over 3 hours later: Land Ho!
Landing in Brisbane was an interesting experience. I had had very mixed emotions leaving the USA. Not quite sure how I felt, for a while I wasn’t sure it was the right choice. Having said that, landing brought tears to my eyes and I spent the entire time going through the airport with I Still Call Australia Home running through my head. Clearly, I’m not uncertain any more.
Customs was a pretty normal experience. Nothing new or out of the ordinary, then we proceeded to a holding area where we presented our Queensland Health QR codes and were assigned a hotel. A bit more waiting, some discussion among us about what we had done to prepare for quarantine and then onto a bus. A short trip, and one stop later, we arrive at what is to be my home until 2021-04-22: The Hotel Grand Chancellor. We are then directed off the bus by the police, in groups of 4. The bus driver, being the only person unloading, is primarily interested in getting things off in a way that seems quick for him rather than getting off the luggage of those already off the bus; so while I am first off the bus, my luggage is last off the bus and the whole line is held up. Check in is straight forward, verify paperwork, be reminded that we won’t have a key to our rooms and that leaving our rooms (or poking heads out without a mask) is a $1,300 fine. Then, we’re lead to our rooms and quarantine begins.
The room itself is small, but comfortable.
The shower is excellent. I only wish I had a bath to enjoy soaking in the very hot water.
I expect this balcony to keep me sane over the next few weeks.