So how close did we come to missing our transatlantic flight? We knew returning to Spain under pandemic conditions wouldn’t be easy. But of all the things I’d fretted about, I’d never anticipated a tardy Uber driver on the journey’s very first leg (which was so short it was more of a toe, really).
All Rich and I needed was a lift to the Airporter bus seven minutes away. We booked Uber in advance, confirmed, and re-confirmed. Standing on the sidewalk with our suitcases watching the minutes tick by — five … ten … fifteen … twenty … twenty-five — we began to wonder whether it would be faster to call a taxi, steal a car, or hitchhike.
Eventually the driver showed up, and when we explained the urgency of the mission, she put the pedal to the metal, achieving speeds of 80 miles an hour. Rich and I clung to one another, hoping we wouldn’t spend the rest of the trip dead. We made the Airporter with moments to spare, arrived at SFO’s international terminal on schedule (whew!), and rushed in toting sheaves of transit documents.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Covid-19 has complicated international travel paperwork enormously. And that went double for us, as the lack of direct flights between SFO and Spain meant a London stopover that added many hours, gallons of coffee, and handfuls of aspirin to the research and preparations.
We soon discovered the UK is very, very fussy about this stuff. Like many countries, it requires a Covid test within 72 hours of the flight. But not just any old Covid test. According to the official website, “The test must meet performance standards of ≥97% specificity, ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml. This could include tests such as a nucleic acid test, including a PCR test, a LAMP test, or an antigen test, such as an LFD (lateral flow device) test.” Pretending we knew what any of that meant, we contacted various clinics in an effort to secure the right tests at the right time and, if possible, for the right price. Fees went as high as $300 per person, but luckily our friend John tipped us off to a free pop-up test center in San Francisco, with results sent to your phone in just half an hour. Thanks for that one, John!
A comment on my blog gave us a heads-up about the UK’s other monster requirement. My friend Jackie (author of the lively blog TravelnWrite) said, “Good luck! We just returned to the States via London. In addition to that test, make sure you have filled out your PLF, passenger locator form. It is required even for the shortest of layovers — ours was two hours long and it took nearly that long to fill out the four-page form.”
I thought she was exaggerating — you know how we bloggers love a bit of drama — but if anything she was understating the case. Working online in the comfort of our dining room/transportation planning hub, Rich and I spent ages filling in our passport numbers, Covid history, travel details up to and including seat numbers on every flight, phone numbers, and more. What, no eye exam or letter from a priest?
For Spain, we needed a Documental Control QR code attesting to our vaccination status. This could only be completed 48 hours before our flight, at which time they would let us know about any additional entry requirements. I spent weeks fretting about what they might want — an essay in Spanish about why I wanted to go to Seville? An oath of loyalty? A whopping service fee? But in the end, they mostly wanted to know if we were vaxxed. ¡Sí, totalmente!
All the hours we put into the legwork and paperwork paid off. We breezed through check-in at SFO, producing document after document, including printouts of our Spanish QR codes, and in return we received boarding passes for both flights. We were on our way!
The late afternoon plane was about half full, and we expected to sleep much of the next ten and a half hours. Then a woman sat down nearby with an infant who had a set of lungs like Pavarotti and the staying power of an Olympic athlete. Hearing about it afterward, my friend Bob said, “Sorry you had to listen to the screaming baby. It conjures the old aphorism: ‘The plane to Spain can make one go insane!’" Amen to that, Bob.
Except for the baby, everyone was scrupulous about face masks — so scrupulous, in fact, that during the safety demonstration, the flight attended had to tell people, “Remove your face mask before you put on the oxygen mask.” Good advice, people!
Rich and I happen to loathe Heathrow’s insistent, jazzy marketing and endless crowds, so on arrival we splurged on a pay-to-use lounge called Club Aspire, which is open to anyone. Or at least, anyone who is willing to cough up $33 for the luxury of sitting on comfortable furniture in a quiet room, enjoying free coffee, scones, and clotted cream while plugging in a laptop and maybe dozing off now and then.
Five hours later, we boarded the plane to Málaga, Spain, the closest we could get to Seville from Heathrow. To make us feel at home, they’d seated us near another screaming baby, but by now, who cared? A few noisy hours later we stumbled off the flight, zipped through customs, checked into our hotel, and found a small backstreet tapas bar. As we sipped ice-cold Cruzcampo beer and nibbled thin slivers of jamon Iberico (the best Spanish ham), we kept exclaiming, “We’re back! We’re really here! We’re in Spain!” Much as I love my native California, and appreciated the safe haven it provided during the worst of the pandemic, I was thrilled to fall into the warm embrace of Andalucía’s vibrant street culture once again.
It was even more exciting the next day when we stepped off the train in Seville and walked back to our apartment. To my astonishment, surprisingly little seemed to have changed. Roaming the city over the next few days, I saw some stores, cafés, and restaurants had closed while others had opened — in fact, I noticed just about as many changes as I’d have expected after any absence of 16 months.
There’s more outside dining now, although many choose indoor seating. People are very matter-of-fact about wearing masks inside stores and other public places, donning them with no more fuss than pulling on a sweater when it turns cool or buckling a seatbelt getting into a car. With nearly 80% of the population fully vaxxed, herd immunity is a fact of life, and as my friend Charles put it, “People have moved on.”
And so have we. Rich and I are just about over our jet lag and are busy reconnecting with friends to find out what’s been happening while we were away. More on that in future posts. For now, we’re just rejoicing at being back in our beloved Seville.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and what keeps attracting visitors to this vibrant community.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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