I was in the USA for family reasons on a long arranged trip and was in the Northern suburbs of Philadelphia, USA. My Home base is in the northern suburbs of Bangkok, Thailand.
Having worked in public health, I monitored the virus carefully. As the infections accelerated flight cancellations, lockdowns and compulsory quarantined accelerated. I decided to cut short my US business and get back to Bangkok.
This was a rather nerve wracking trip as I tried to dodge the virus, country closures and airline shutdowns.
Finding a way home from Philadelphia proved to be problematic.
My original flight involved a leg with Virgin Atlantic from New York City JFK to London Heathrow. The Virgin Australia website would not let me change the booking date online. I had a few options to contact them with the airline strongly suggesting that instead of calling the overwhelmed operators, I message them on WhatsApp. This I did.
After nine hours, I decided to call. Getting through to an agent took four hours. The very calm helpful agent told me that it would cost $1500 extra to change bring the flight date forward because Virgin Atlantic was still flying that route. The flight had originally cost me $1400! Seriously. The agent agreed it was a very high change fee and said he would see if he could get a reduction from higher ups in the airline but that would take a couple of hours. After patiently giving him two phone numbers, I never heard from him again. I am still trying to get the original flight changed. Very disappointed with Virgin in this space.
Whilst on hold for many hours, I researched alternatives. Europe was being sealed off by the USA and Thailand was restricting access to more and more countries. This meant that I had to find a flight that allowed me out of the USA but didn’t involve going through a hotspot that would result in Thailand refusing me access. I also had to think if I wanted to stay in that country if I was stuck!
The cheapest options were via Japan but Thailand announced that passengers are required to obtain a medical certificate if you are visiting or transiting Japan. Plus I would be placed in Thai Quarantine Centre on return
Qatar airlines (my favourite carrier) had a flight from Philadelphia to Doha and then on to Bangkok. Pricing was insane though. I tried to pick up a points flight but that didn’t work. Later, I found out that Qatar has a massive number of COVID 19 cases so maybe it was good thing I didn’t go through Doha.
One World member American Airlines had a direct route from Philadelphia to Dublin with a fair price. Points would be credited toward my Qantas account but this was a minor consideration by now. I could then connect to Dubai and onto Bangkok with Emirates. Both Ireland and the UAE were okay with Thailand health authorities. This turned my journey into a three leg hop connecting four countries but gave me a high chance of getting home
This was booked and locked into place.
Then the USA announced that Ireland was now included in its Europe wide travel ban. This was followed by American Airlines grounding most of it’s fleet and closing 75pc of its international routes. By a stroke of bizarre luck it turned that my flight to Dublin was going to be American’s very last European flight out of Philadelphia. That aircraft would turn around in Dublin and form the last plane back to the USA from Ireland.
Emirates allowed me to check in for the first leg but not my flight into Bangkok. Both those factors increased my anxiety about this trip. As a result, I decided to turn up earlier than I normally would for check in.
My parents fearing that trains to the airport would be delayed and seeing the horrific crowds at Chicago airports insisted I go even earlier!
I rode from the house to Philadelphia airport on empty regional trains.
I kept watching the monitor and my flight was still not listed as boarding. Finally, I decided to take matters into my own hands and go down anyway. As I walked past the same person on the desk, I explained what I was doing and she looked shocked: “its on final call. You should have been there“, she exclaimed angrily. I did not argue. I ran. It would have been too bad to miss the last flight to Europe!
The service and meal quality on Emirates Business was a world away.
This was one of the weirdest travel experiences I have ever had. It really felt like I was flying through and around the shutting down of civilization. I actually gave all of the flights a 5/5 rating.