Tiny Travelling Tales: A Note on the Summer of Covid

Holiday and conference season are done, so it’s time to take stock of how things went in a year when the press have been full of stories of travel nightmares.

In total I made three round trips by plane this summer, to Miami, Tunis and Chicago (for those new to this blog, between 3 and 5 trips a year is about normal for me, so, despite my saying I would cut back after covid, this clearly is not happening).

Of those, the most disrupted was the outbound trip to Tunis, with the outbound trip to Miami running it second. Both of them were going through Heathrow, which I suspect isn’t a coincidence (third place is the inbound trip from Tunis, but the disruption was entirely down to me lacking knowledge of local culture, of which more later).

The problem on the Miami trip was that the flight was delayed for four hours. Which initially didn’t bother me much, as I didn’t have any real tourism plans for Miami (it was a conference) so I might as well write papers in the airport lounge as anywhere. As the delay crept up to the four-hour mark, though, I realised that this would take me past the point where the hotel would hold my booking, so wound up making a series of panicked phone calls literally on the runway and terrified that any minute a flight attendant would come and tell me to put my phone away (they didn’t, and I’d like to shoutout to Yotel for holding my booking till midnight).

The outbound trip to Tunisia involved a two-hour-long queue for the security queue at Heathrow. This was at a point where defenders of the travel industry were blaming delays on large numbers of people going on post-pandemic holidays. However, when I got to the front of the line another narrative became obvious: they had too few staff to run the X-ray machine and search the bags, so they would run a few bags through the X-ray, search anything that needed searching, and so on. The second leg of the trip, through Rome, was trouble-free and fast, and clearly the Italians were not having as much trouble handling the numbers of people, large or otherwise.

The delay coming back from Tunisia? It was down to two things. First, that most of the people in the passport queue were doing it in large groups, stationing one member of each group in the queue, and then, when someone got to the front, the rest of the group would join them, meaning a very small queue would suddenly get very large very quickly. And second, that when I got to the front of the line the passport checker sent me to the back for not filling out my customs form. Available from a very small box on the other side of the room, with no signage to indicate what they were or that one had to fill them out. So as I said– lack of knowledge of local culture.