COVID-19, Omicron and international travel: What it's like travelling from Australia to the US right now

Sydney Airport feels vaguely familiar this afternoon; like a town you used to visit before a bushfire came through and burnt it black and stripped it bare. There's no-one here, and there's hardly a shop or café open. I guess I can forget about changing any left-over Australian dollars to Greenbacks. This may well be Australia's largest airport, but tonight there's only four planes flying out of it.

Airlines advise international travellers arrive four hours early for their flights. I toe the line, mostly because I need to produce a negative PCR COVID-19 test, or I can't fly. It costs me $150 when I pre-pay, a higher rate because I want the results within an hour. Histopath have their testing facility about 25 metres from Departure Gate E. On arrival, I discover tests are now going for $120, and you can opt for a test with a 90 minute wait for the result for just $70.

Passengers undergo pre-departure COVID-19 tests at Sydney Airport.

Passengers undergo pre-departure COVID-19 tests at Sydney Airport. Photo: James D. Morgan/Getty

Oh well, at least the service is impressively efficient. A staff member rushes across to me and takes a receipt I've printed out. Within 60 seconds I'm sitting at a desk with a lab technician donned in a face shield scraping my nose and throat.

Waiting is the hardest part. I'm sitting a few metres beyond the check-in line for my flight to Los Angeles and I see there's only one passenger in line. Then there's two, then three, then seven. I get a text message and an email simultaneously 33 minutes after my test is done with my result displayed: NEGATIVE. Phew. Now I just have to walk over and get a print-out of it (you'll require a printed copy of your result).

There's 15 passengers waiting now. Which doesn't sound like many, right? Well, times they are a-changing, folks. Airline staff must examine all your paperwork with a fine tooth comb: your international vaccination certificate and PCR COVID-19 test, and the US Government's contact tracing form and a statutory declaration assuring them you've been vaccinated (just in case a Government-sanctioned international vaccination certificate isn't enough). I'm in line for 30 minutes.

Then, and only then, can I check-in (another 35 minutes). At least it only takes me four minutes to clear both Immigration and security. Four minutes. Boarding starts 45 minutes before take-off, we've just had all our paperwork painstakingly examined, now we have to show most of it again.

Los Angeles International Airport is unearthly quiet when I land, God knows why (I'm here the day before Thanksgiving). But while the line-up might be short, it's painfully slow. Who knows how long this will take on a busy day.

An angry woman in a blue uniform yells at me to keep moving when I slow the queue to take my jumper off (there's still no a/c, or if there is, it's barely functioning, yep you're back in LAX). Ah yes, it's all coming back to me now, but it feels kind of different at the same time. For one, there's an old bloke with grey hair and a crinkly smile in the photo frame on the wall where the orange-skinned bloke with the puffy cheeks used to be.

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LAX is much quieter these days.

LAX: Unearthly quiet. Photo: iStock

Advised I'll be asked to show my international vaccination certificate and my return airline ticket, I have all my documents in hand when I walk to the border official's booth. To hell with COVID-19, I'm ordered to press the fingers of my right hand down (then my left) on a sweaty, smudgy glass panel that hundreds of travellers have used before me (I carry antiseptic sanitiser). I remove my mask to stare blankly at a camera, and then, just like that - with no paper work summonsed - I'm in. "Welcome to the US, sir," the statement is delivered without emotion.

I can't fathom it, I'm in America! I'm from Queensland, my home state had seven COVID deaths, their country had 788,000 (with 1000 more every day). There's a mask-less man wheezing heavily beside me when I collect my bags from the carousel. I steer my cart away at a pace intended to save me from COVID, without being completely heartless. One down, 329 million Americans to go, I know I can't treat everyone like lepers, but just give me today, okay?

I have five hours till my next flight (I don't trust tight connections on my first international trip in 21 months) so I fork out for a first class lounge class pass with American Airlines ($US59). It buys me space, more precious to me than anything at the buffet (and yes, it is a buffet).

The bar at American Airlines' business class lounge at LAX.

The bar at American Airlines' business class lounge at LAX. Photo: Craig Tansley

Aussie basketball hero Patty Mills is making his debut for the New Jersey Nets in the NBA on an American-sized TV screen behind an American-sized bar I can sit at (oh, how I've missed American bars). I order a free Bud Lite, grab a free pretzel the size of my face and a free bowl of M&Ms from a dispenser and toast the Stars and Stripes.

"Where you from?" I'm asked by a cheery American in an LA Dodgers baseball cap (Americans initiate more bar conversation than any country on Earth, even Ireland.).

"Australia," I tell him.

"I heard you guys were locked up down there," he says.

"Not any more," I tell him. "We're getting out."

Next day the whole world hears about something called O-m-i-c-r-o-n - precisely the same time I touch down in Chicago, my final destination.

For the latest on US entry requirements, see https://www.visittheusa.com.au/us-covid-19-travel-guidelines 

See also: Europe is becoming a mess for travellers

See also: Twenty things that will surprise first-time visitors to Los Angeles

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