Why long-haul travel to Europe sucks right now

I have a confession to make, I’m not a great traveler.

Yes, Alanis Morissette could say how ironic that is for the travel journalist who doesn’t really like to travel, but here we are.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the actual destination and the joy of exploring a city, region or country, experiencing new places and cultures, experiencing local food and drink, but the inner workings getting there overwhelms me and stresses me out rather.

I am one of those travelers of the type “we have to arrive at the airport four hours before our flight”, constantly checking that my passport is in my bag, while constantly worrying about flight connections and if I have a pen to handy in case we need to fill out an arrival card. You’ll never see me on The Amazing Race, that’s for sure.

So embarking on a delayed COVID-affected trip to Ireland last month filled me with both genuine excitement to see my family again after four long years, but also unease at having to deal with traveling in a overflowing world of endless airport queues, AWOL baggage and general flight chaos.

It turns out that my fears would be completely realized.

Long-haul travel still sucks

First the bad news. All the usual aspects of long-haul travel that were a pain in the ass (literally) in the past are still here, only with a glossy pandemic veneer added. Lots of waiting, exorbitant food prices, boring and numbing seats, now associated with face coverings, empty airport stores and extremely stressed staff.

Unless you’re on the pointed end of an airplane, traveling long-haul in economy class is always a test of endurance, heavily dependent on a) having a good airline and b) having well-behaved travel companions.

Luckily, for the most part the airlines my husband and I used to get to and from Ireland were actually fine. Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Aer Lingus and Qantas have all featured somewhere along the way, and I can’t fault the crews or the service. When available, there were no bad meals, and drinks and hydration breaks were frequent. So that’s a big tick in the positive box.

But no matter how good the airline, I don’t think an economy class seat is particularly comfortable on a flight over an hour, even on the state-of-the-art Singapore Airlines A350 we had on the one of our legs. It was a case of constant agitation and exasperation. I envy, and sometimes despise, those who can sleep on airplanes.

The flights were all packed so there was little to no movement to accommodate an empty row. After four years without a long haul, I had also forgotten how difficult it can be to eat a meal in a rather confined space. I resorted to chunks of rice towards my mouth. It’s mostly entered.

Which brings me to my fellow travelers. For the most part they were pretty good, but it only takes one horrible experience to ruin a trip. Ours were very, very, VERY active young children who screamed and kicked for 13 hours on the longest leg of the trip from Singapore to Amsterdam under the docile gaze of their mild-mannered parents. It was tykes on a plane.

Masks suck (but necessary)

Look, I’m not getting into the often heated debate over masks, but wearing them for hours on end on flights is irritating. I don’t think anyone really enjoys wearing them, but we live in a time where it’s part of life. FYI, I’m pro-mask because I’m immunocompromised.

There was a very adamant passenger on a Singapore Airlines flight who made it clear that he didn’t like wearing masks and the crew couldn’t make him wear them. It wasn’t for exempt health reasons, he just didn’t like them. He protested before getting on the plane, he protested on the plane and no doubt he protested afterwards.

Here’s the thing, you bought a ticket on an airline where wearing a mask is mandatory. You were even in an airport (Singapore) where it is also mandatory. There is no escape from these two facts. If you’re too precious to follow the rules, book tickets on an airline without a mask. Making the already difficult job of ground staff and flight attendants even more difficult does not make you a greater person. Like I said, nobody likes to wear them, but it’s something we have to do on some services. Suck it up buttercup.

Queues suck

I’m not sure what’s happened since COVID emerged, but I think researchers need to look at the effect of ‘Rona on people’s ability to form a queue.

This has been exacerbated by industry-wide understaffing as the meteoric return to travel, coupled with a desperate need to re-employ those laid off during particularly difficult times of the pandemic, has led to disarray general.

In three separate check-in experiences, queues formed, merged, split and then merged again as travelers grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of employee direction, as well as the lack of counters open registrations.

It took over an hour to take a few steps to the Lufthansa counter at Dublin Airport as the ‘baggage check only’ queue formed, only to be closed with a simple swipe of the barrier. queuing by a puzzled looking member of staff, who then retreated into the ‘check-in only’ queue. Voices were raised, nerves frayed and carts pushed against each other, as more than 100 people tried to get the attention of the limited check-in staff.

Losing your luggage sucks

I couldn’t describe how happy I was when I saw our luggage drop onto the carousel at Dublin Airport. Horror stories abound but we got away with the flyover unscathed. That changed on the way back.

I knew we were going to have problems due to a short connection time. Our tickets allowed an hour to change flights in Frankfurt. However, our inbound Lufthansa flight was 45 minutes late. Luckily, Lady Luck was smiling at us as we pulled up to our doorstep, right next to our next Singapore Airlines plane. We were a total of five minutes in Germany as we walked up the footbridge, turned left and down the next footbridge. We had made it… but our luggage wouldn’t make it.

If there’s one crucial piece of advice I can give future world travelers right now – buy a baggage tracking device like an AirTag or a Tile. We had put one in each of our two bags, and as we headed to Australia to reunite with my husband’s family, we could see the bags come to life. The kind lady at the baggage services counter at Brisbane airport assured us that our bags would be transferred to us on our next stop in Hervey Bay.

The bags arrived safely in Brisbane, but then steadfastly refused to budge. For days we could see that the baggage was there, our tiles lashing out at the locations. But it proved impossible to contact Singapore Airlines or Swissport baggage handlers. An automated daily email said they were working hard trying to find the bags. But we knew where they were – Brisbane. More than 30 calls to voicemail or answering machine compounded the frustration. The (un)conversation swirled and swirled.

Eventually a pleading post on social media helped break the deadlock and a very apologetic Singapore Airlines met us with our bags on the day we flew from Brisbane back to Wellington.

COVID sucks

Oh yes my husband and I also had COVID in Dublin where I gave it to my mum and then we missed a delayed celebration of our wedding with my family and saw the cancellation of the 90th birthday my aunt’s birthday. But that’s a story for later.

I know traveling has always been a privilege, even more so in recent years, and it’s something I will no longer take for granted. It’s great to see the world reopening, families and friends reunited, new and old destinations explored and rediscovered. I just hope that when it’s your turn to go long distances, the experience won’t be as bad.

Stuff.co.nz

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