Travel Note

5th August 2021

For the last twenty years I've been a regular international traveller, both for business and for pleasure. At peak I was averaging almost one and a half flights per week, and spending around a fifth of the year living out of a suitcase. Then the pandemic happened, and things came to a screeching halt.

There's no doubt that the above paragraph documents a first world problem, and it'd be dishonest of me not to openly admit as much. Nevertheless, when a significant portion of your life is switched off virtually overnight it leaves a hole that is not easily filled. I'd only recently regained full mental equilibrium after the failure of a long term relationship, and perhaps for that reason losing the ability to board a plane on the spur of the moment came like a punch to the gut.

2020 wasn't a total washout, in that I managed a weekend trip to Tunisia before things went completely to hell, and somewhat longer expeditions to Denmark and Germany during periods of relative stability. That said, the deteriorating epidemiological situation at home and ever-changing regulations made doing anything more adventurous effectively impossible. At the start of 2021 the Irish authorities decided to ban non-essential international travel outright, and while some people figured a workaround I decided that it'd be safer to stay home and put my time into my growing library of classic game remakes. I also spent time developing and publishing a highly polished version of Solitaire for macOS, iPad, and iPhone; if you're reading this and haven't tried it, then you really should.

I registered for vaccination within hours of the government portal opening to my age group, and was proudly pfully Pfizered two days before the travel restrictions were lifted on 19th July. The first shot left me with a sore arm for a few hours, and the second gave me brain fog for a day and a half, but it's fair to say that both sets of symptoms were preferable to an extended and possibly terminal stay in an intensive care unit. (Readers who haven't been vaccinated yet are encouraged to read this eloquent article for some important clarity on the subject; I agree with every word, though I feel that the author could have added some additional profanity for emphasis.)

With the local roadblocks out of the way I decided it was time to plan a coaster trip. Quite a few of the places I looked at remained off-limits, either due to border closures or mandatory quarantine rules applicable even to the fully vaccinated. Others were open, but some of their parks and restaurants were closed and/or restricted to those with recent negative test results. In the end the best and arguably only sensible option for me was an extended tour of the United States, which had a smorgasbord of quality coasters available, many of which would be new to me. (In ordinary circumstances my preference is to do shorter trips punctuated by time at home, but the additional paperwork that would have involved this year made it seem like a poor option.)

Regular readers may wonder at this point how I was able to plan a trip to the United States, given that country's ongoing prohibition on non-citizen visitors who have been Europe over the previous fourteen days. The short answer is that I have both Irish and American nationality. This brings both rights and obligations, not least the requirement to file and pay taxes in two jurisdictions, but it is part of who I am, and on this occasion it made it possible for me to go ride roller coasters. (As an aside, there has been considerable frustration in Ireland over the continuation of this ban even as the world starts to reopen; President Biden stated that his administration would follow the science on the issue, but I'm unaware of any peer-reviewed research that would support Americans holidaying in Europe while fully vaccinated Europeans are prevented from heading in the other direction.)

The itinerary that I came up with required that I start my trip in the greater Cincinnati area. This presented its own challenge: with the decimation of flight schedules the best connecting option I could find into CVG had a six-and-a-half hour layover, and even if I’d been prepared to tolerate that, the only available rental cars from the Northern Kentucky hub were eye-wateringly expensive. In the end I decided to take a non-stop service to Chicago and drive; while I'd have preferred not to have a three hundred mile road journey immediately after a long haul flight, it was the least bad option available.

As of this writing all those seeking admission to the United States are required to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test from a sample taken no more than three days prior to arrival, and this regulation applies regardless of vaccination status or nationality. With no guarantee of the right result I decided to only confirm bookings for the first few days of my route, ensuring insofar as possible that everything was refundable. Even after the paperwork came through I decided that it'd be sensible to hold off reserving anything else until I knew that I'd successfully made it into the country. In practice this was a good approach as it allowed me to replan on the fly based on weather and practical experience; I expect I'll do the same again in the future.

On the morning of my departure Dublin Airport was eerily quiet, with just two lanes open at security and only a few dozen people on the far side of pre-clearance. At one time Ireland's largest airport had fifteen direct destinations in the United States, several served by multiple daily rotations, but just four were showing today: Boston, Chicago, New York JFK, and Philadelphia. The lounge was closed, so I found a seat away from the multitudes and spent a pleasant hour and change checking over my plans until my flight was called.

The experience in the plane was more or less the same as in times past, aside from the fact that two thirds of the seats in the cabin were empty. The only obvious change was in the pre-flight safety announcement: the usual statement about a loss of cabin pressure was supplemented by a line about removing face masks, and passengers were asked not to queue for the toilets in the interests of maintaining social distancing.

On landing an announcement was made about a health inspection, but it was nowhere to be seen, and in fact there were no COVID precautions visible anywhere at O'Hare International. Baggage reclaim was a ten minute walk from the airside exit, and having arrived there I found five flights worth of baggage being disgorged onto a carousel that was barely big enough to handle a single regional jet. The resulting scrum was as predictable as it was inevitable, serving as a gentle reminder of the inadequacies of the largest airport in the mid-west. (I've since learned that the ORD shuttle train has been out of service for almost three years for an upgrade that has gone well over time and budget; some things never change.)

On a happier note, I was able to complete paperwork for my rental car almost twenty minutes ahead of what had been my best-case estimate, compensating somewhat for the heavy traffic that delayed my egress from the Windy City. Once I crossed into Indiana there were no issues for the remainder of the journey, which I made with a short break for food and a stretch at a Wendy's near the half-way point. The outlet I stopped in had a Coke Freestyle machine that could only be controlled by scanning a QR code with my mobile phone, which could trip up visitors without suitable devices and affordable data service. Fortunately or otherwise this was the only such unit I saw over my four-and-a-half week trip.

Readers retracing my steps should be aware that despite what the signage says it isn't currently possible to pay for the Illinois Tollway using cash; if you keep right for the cash lanes you get to a single gate that is marked “pay online”. I’d decided against letting the rental company charge me a daily rate for sorting out tolls, which in hindsight was a tactical error; instead of a convenient single bill I had to register for an online account and jump through multiple hoops to sort out the mess, which was exactly what I wanted to deal with when I arrived at my hotel just after 11:00pm local time.