Why long-haul travel to Europe sucks right now

I have to admit I’m not a big traveller.

Yes, Alanis Morissette could add another line about how ironic it is for the travel reporter who doesn’t really enjoy travel, but here we are.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the ultimate destination and joy of exploring a city, region or country, learning about new places and cultures, trying local food and drink, but the nuts and bolts of getting there are overwhelming and rather stresses me out.

I’m one of those “we have to be at the airport four hours before our flight” type of traveler, constantly checking to make sure my passport is in my pocket while constantly worrying about flight connections and if I should be must have a pen ready to fill out an arrival card. You’ll never see me on The Amazing Race, that’s for sure.

As I embarked on a delayed, Covid affected trip back to Ireland last month, I felt both true excitement at seeing my family again after four long years and uneasiness at confronting travel in a world of endless airport queues, AWOL Baggage and General Flight Chaos.

It turned out that my fears would come true completely.

Long-distance travel still sucks

First the bad news. All of the usual aspects of long-haul travel that were (literally) a nuisance in the past are still there, just with a glossy coating of pandemic. Lots of waiting, outrageous food prices, boredom and stunning seats now coupled with face coverings, empty airport shops and extremely hassled staff.

Unless you’re sitting at the pointy end of an airplane, long-haul economy class travel is still an acid test that relies heavily on a) having a good airline and b) having well-behaved fellow passengers.

Luckily the airlines my husband and I used to fly to Ireland and back were mostly decent. Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Aer Lingus and Qantas were all seen somewhere along the way and I cannot fault the crew or the service. Where available, there were no bad meals, and drink and drink 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 seat is particularly comfortable on a flight longer than an hour, even on the state-of-the-art Singapore Airlines A350 we had on one of our legs. It was a case of constant fidgeting and desperation. I envy and sometimes despise those who can sleep on airplanes.

The flights were all full, so there was little or no movement to take over an empty row. After four years of non-long haul, I had also forgotten how difficult it can be to grab a meal in a confined space. I just resorted to throwing bits of rice towards my mouth. It mostly went in. Usually.

Which brings me to my fellow travelers. For the most part they were pretty good, but it only takes one terrible experience to ruin a trip. Ours were very, very, VERY active little kids who spent 13 hours screaming and kicking the longest leg of the journey from Singapore to Amsterdam while their gentle parents looked on humbly. It was on an airplane.

Masks suck (but are necessary)

Look, I’m not getting into the often heated debate about masks, but wearing them for hours on end on flights is irritating. I don’t think anyone really likes wearing them, but these are the times we are in that it’s a part of life. For the record, I’m pro-mask because I’m immunocompromised.

There was a very adamant passenger on a Singapore Airlines flight who made it very clear that he dislikes wearing masks and that the crew could not force him to wear them. It wasn’t for health reasons, he just didn’t like her. He protested before he got on the plane, he protested on the plane, and no doubt he protested afterwards.

Here’s the thing, you bought a ticket from an airline that makes mask use mandatory. You have even been to an airport (Singapore) where it is mandatory. You cannot ignore these two facts. If you’re too valuable to follow the rules, book tickets with a mask-free airline. Making the already difficult job of ground crew and flight attendants even more difficult doesn’t make you a bigger person. As I said, nobody likes to wear them, but it’s something we need to do on certain services. Suck it on Buttercup.

Queues suck

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

This has been exacerbated by staff shortages across the industry as the rapid return of travel combined with the desperate need to rehire those who have been axed during the particularly dire times of the pandemic has caused general confusion.

Three separate check-in experiences resulted in queues that merged, split, and then merged again as travelers grew frustrated with a lack of direction from staff, as well as a lack of open check-in counters.

It took more than an hour to walk a few steps at the Lufthansa counter at Dublin Airport when the ‘bags check only’ queue formed, only to be closed by a puzzled-looking staff member through a queuing barrier flap fold them back into the “Check-in only” line. As more than 100 people tried to get the attention of the limited check-in staff, voices were raised, nerves racked and trolleys pushed against each other.

Losing your pockets sucks

I cannot describe how happy I was when I saw our bags fall onto the carousel at Dublin Airport. Horror stories dot our section on travel troubles, but we had escaped unscathed on the outbound flight. That changed on the way back.

I knew we would be in trouble because of a short connection time. Our tickets allowed an hour to change trains in Frankfurt. However, our arriving Lufthansa flight was delayed by 45 minutes. Luckily Lady Luck smiled at us as we pulled up to our gate, right next to our next Singapore Airlines plane. We were in Germany a total of five minutes when we raced up the gangway, turned left and raced down the next gangway. We made it…but our luggage didn’t.

If there’s one crucial tip I can give budding world travelers right now — buy a baggage tracking device like an AirTag or Tile. We had put one in each of our two bags and as we made our way to Australia to catch up with my husband’s family we were able to see the bags come to life. The lovely lady at the baggage handling desk at Brisbane airport assured us that our luggage would be forwarded to us at our next stop in Hervey Bay.

The bags did arrive in Brisbane but then firmly refused to move. For days we could see the luggage was there and our tiles were pinging the locations. However, it proved impossible to contact Singapore Airlines or the baggage handler Swissport. An automated daily email said they were working hard to locate the bags. But we knew where they were – Brisbane. More than 30 calls to a voicemail or answering machine added to the frustration. The (non-)conversation went back and forth.

Eventually a begging message on social media helped clear the blockade and a very apologetic Singapore Airlines got us back together with our bags the day we flew back to Wellington from Brisbane.

Covid sucks

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

I know traveling has always been a privilege, especially over the past few years, and it’s something I will no longer take for granted. It’s great to see the world opening up again, families and friends being reunited, new and old destinations being explored and rediscovered. I just hope when it’s your turn to ride long distances the experience won’t be that crappy.


See also: 25 of the best places for a getaway

See also: Ten essential tips for surviving the current travel chaos

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