Arriving in Brussels was not an easy feat in the time of COVID, in the time of US Thanksgiving, and in the unfortunate time of Omicron travel. We left Denver Wednesday morning to check in for our Air Canada one-stop flight to Brussels via Montreal, only to find that our first leg was delayed so severely that we would miss our second flight. As a result, we rebooked a much less ideal itinerary leaving later in the afternoon with 2 stops via Toronto and London, getting us to Brussels around 1PM on Thursday, Thanksgiving. There were other Star Alliance options to Brussels, but we had booked Air Canada in March 2020, before the pandemic really took hold in the US, because we found a screaming deal on business class. So we stuck with Air Canada and weathered the multiple flight cancellations and changes, waiting on hold for 4-5 hours each go on 5 separate occasions to ensure this flight could be taken in Nov 2021.
At this point, 21 months deep into the pandemic, 2 Moderna vaccines and Pfizer booster later, we literally NEEDED this trip. We were growing fat, complacent, and bored at home, so taking travel away for that long, for us, was akin to a limb amputation. We were literally crawling out of our skin. There was no way in hell we were going to let the universe take this trip from us, COVID be damned. With a shit ton of one-day disposable KN-95 masks in tow, our vaccine passport, our actual passport, negative COVID test results from the Denver Auroria free testing center, and a second negative test from the at-home kits we had access to, we felt confident that we were taking a calculated risk and not risking the health of others either. We didn’t even know what Omicron travel yet had in store for us.
Besides the flight change snafu, the first of many Omicron travel glitches coming at us, airport check-in was easy since we were travelling business class, and security with TSA pre-check wasn’t bad either, even though it was the day before Thanksgiving. Since there was no Air Canada lounge in Terminal A, we were able to get lounge access at a United Club in Terminal B, after waiting in a line to get in for about 15 minutes due to COVID capacity restrictions. We chose the United Club in the latter Terminal B gates since it had coffee, which clearly everyone else did as well. Lounges became our home base during the next 30 hours and we made the most of our business class ticket perks.
Most everyone we interacted with at the airport followed mask protocol and took COVID (and eventually) Omicron travel regulations seriously. However, there were very few fucktards purposefully not following rules in order to make a scene. Truth be told that was my nightmare – some scene either at the airport or on the plane, which would cause the trip to be aborted due to the stupidity and selfishness of others. Luckily, it did not come to pass.
We boarded the flight to Toronto more or less on time after getting some last minute work stuff done at the airport for 4 hours in the lounge. The business class service by Air Canada was pleasant for the short 3 hour flight to YYZ. We were surprised that a country with so many vegetarians and so concerned with sustainability would not offer this meal type as a standard offering. We watched the Anthony Bourdain documentary, Roadrunner, en route in order to get in to the travel vibe. Unfortunately, the bittersweet film put us in a melancholy, nostalgic sort of mood given the outcome of Bourdain’s journey. We lamented his selfishness in his ultimate choice of suicide, as well as the world that caused that choice to be the only option. Maybe not the best choice after all and downright depressing. Generally speaking, we were disappointed with the meal options on Air Canada as vegetarian options were either unavailable or depleted. We chalked the lack of inventory up to supply chain issues, another fun artifact of rolling the dice during COVID and eventually Omicron travel.
Arriving in Toronto was smooth and we again waited in an Air Canada lounge for our flight to LHR, coming up 2 hours later. We boarded our flight to LHR and rejoiced in the lie-fat seat experience, even though the 1-2-1 configuration left a lot to be desired for couples (there was a hefty barrier in the cabin between the two seats), as obviously the cabin had been reconfigured for privacy and separation given COVID. It was much better suited for business and solo travelers than for family and couples. Still, a very comfortable experience. We both watched a few movies, were again disappointed by the meal selection options, but were pleased by the service and lie-flat sleeping experience.
We arrived to LHR around 830 in the morning despite a late take-off, and once clearing security once again made our way to the lounge located on the other side of the Terminal. Now we were dragging, although at least we were able to catch a few winks on the flight. We were also becoming anxious about our long-awaited arrival to Brussels, and what procedure would need to be followed with the COVID test upon arrival and the quarantine rules for passengers coming from “red list” countries. Despite all of our research, there was no clear answer around what to expect. While we knew we would have to take a COVID test upon arrival, we did not know how long we would have to wait to get the results back, nor did we know whether we would be able to continue traveling onwards to Bruges or whether we would have to shelter in place in Brussels. We had a non-refundable, expensive, hotel in Bruges (we didn’t think THAT choice through) and it was a crap shoot whether we would be able to get there at this point. Traveling in the time of COVID certainly left a much larger grey area, and little did we know Omicron travel trials and tribulations were coming for us next.
The flight to Brussels, operated by Brussels Air, boarded a little late around 1045AM, and departed at 1130 or so. The flight crew gave instructions in English, French, and Dutch, and served us a small in-flight meal of vegetable skewers and Belgian chocolate for the short hour onboard. While we were seated in business class, the seats were exactly the same as economy except the middle seat was blocked off. The difference was the service.
We landed in Brussels on time, and proceeded through security (which only required a passport check, and no COVID check) to baggage claim. Since our COVID vaccine card was checked in Denver to issue boarding passes by Air Canada, again by Air Canada to board to the flight to LHR, and once more by Brussels Air to board the flight to Brussels (and not to mention each time we entered a lounge), the Brussels immigration officials seemed to rely on the COVID checks conducted by the airlines. We cleared security after waiting in a 15 minute line and having a nice chat with a fellow American living in the UK about what to expect from a COVID testing perspective on the other side (he wasn’t certain either), we waited for our bags. And waited. And waited. Eventually, we started looking for our bag at other bag carousels and eventually found it on the Doha carousal. Who knows which flight it actually connected through, but we got it!
After grabbing our bag we exited the terminal with no additional documentation or customs check and headed outside straight to the Ecocare Covid testing center to conduct our test. There was a long line, but since we had filled out the testing request already and had a QR code, we figured there had to be another process. As Brendan waited in line, I headed back inside to an Ecocare informational kiosk to ask the attendant some questions about the process. There I learned that we had to join the line on the left (we, and everyone else, were waiting in the line on the right, and there was no signage explaining that there were two lines). Most importantly, I also found out that we didn’t have to quarantine in Brussels while we waited for our results, and could continue on to Bruges! Again, the quarantine requirement information was not clear around expectations and what could or not could not be done. We figured it would not be in “spirit” of quarantine to take public transportation, but we felt better about it after we asked.
Back outside, I pulled Brendan from the line on the right and started a new line on the left. One person was ahead of us in it and he said we were in the right place if we already had our QR code, which we did. We imagined a good portion of the folks in the line on the right should really have been in the other line, they just didn’t realize it. The signage around this left a lot to be desired.
Five minutes later, we were inside the tent getting swabbed, after identifying the correct Passenger Locator Form to use from entering Belgium. Since our flight changed multiple times, we kept updating the form using the code we had previously registered with, but it seems like the new entries were logged as separate entries as opposed to simply updating our original form. Once we worked through that, our test was logged and we were told it would take 24 to 48 hours for the results to come back. This was again different messaging that what we saw online – in one place it said 24 to 72 hours, and once we registered for the test in advance and were issued the QR code it said 24 hours. We crossed our fingers and headed to the train. Little did we know what Omicron travel hurdles would be thrown our way – but for now, it hadn’t hit yet and we made it through the first potential snag. Onward to Bruges!