Why long-haul travel to Europe sucks right now

I have a confession to make, I am not a great traveller.

Yes, Alanis Morissette could squeeze in another line about how ironic it is for the travel reporter who doesn't actually enjoy the process of travelling, but here we are.

Don't get me wrong, I love the actual destination and the joy of exploring a town, region or country, learning about new places and cultures, experiencing local foods and drinks, but the nuts and bolts of getting there rather underwhelm and stress me.

I'm one of those 'we must get to the airport four hours before our flight' type travellers, constantly checking that my passport is in my bag, while continually worrying about flight connections and whether I have a pen handy in case we have to fill out an arrival card. You'll never see me on The Amazing Race, that's for sure.

So embarking on a delayed COVID-affected journey back to Ireland last month filled me both with true excitement at seeing my family after four long years, but also unease at having to deal with travelling in a world brimming with endless airport queues, AWOL luggage and general flight chaos.

It turns out my fears would be completely realised.

Long haul travel still sucks

First the bad news. All the usual aspects of long-haul travel which were a pain in the arse (literally) in the past are still there, only with a shiny veneer of pandemic added to it. Lots of waiting around, outrageous food prices, boredom and butt-numbing seats, now coupled with face coverings, empty airport shops and extremely stressed staff.

Unless you are at the pointy end of a plane, travelling long-haul in economy is still an endurance test, one that relies heavily on a) having a good airline and b) having well-behaved fellow travellers.

Thankfully, for the most part, the airlines my husband and I used to get to Ireland and back were actually decent. Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Aer Lingus and Qantas all featured somewhere along the way, and I can't fault any of the crews or the service. Where available, there were no bad meals, and drinks and hydration breaks were frequent. So that's a big tick in the positive box.

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But no matter how good the airline is, I don't think any economy seat is particularly comfortable on any flight that lasts longer than an hour, even on the ultra-modern Singapore Airlines A350 that we had on one of our legs. It was a case of constant fidgeting and exasperation. I envy, and at times despise, those who can sleep on planes.

The flights were all packed, so there was little or no moving to take over an empty row. After four years of no long-haul I'd also forgotten how difficult it can be to eat a meal in a rather confined space. I resorted to basically lobbing bits of rice towards my mouth. It mostly went in. Mostly.

Which brings me to my fellow passengers. For the most part they were pretty good, but it only takes one horrible experience to ruin a trip. Ours were very, very, VERY active young children who screamed and kicked for 13 hours on the longest leg of the journey from Singapore to Amsterdam as their mild-mannered parents looked meekly on. It was tykes on a plane.

Masks suck (but are necessary)

Look I'm not getting into the often-heated debate about masks, but wearing them for hours on end on flights is irritating. I don't think anyone actually enjoys wearing them, but such are the times we are in that it is a part of life. For the record, I am pro-mask as I am immunocompromised.

There was one very adamant passenger on a Singapore Airlines flight who made it very clear that he doesn't like wearing masks, and that crew couldn't make him wear it. It wasn't for any exempt health reasons, he just didn't like them. He protested before he got on the plane, he protested on the plane, and no doubt he protested after.

Here's the thing, you bought a ticket on an airline where mask use is compulsory. You were even in an airport (Singapore) where it is also compulsory. There is no escaping these two facts. If you are too precious to follow the rules, book tickets on a mask-free airline. Making the ground crew and flight attendants' already difficult job even harder doesn't make you the bigger person. As I said, no-one likes wearing them, but it's something that we have to do on certain services. Suck it up buttercup.

Queues suck

I'm not too sure what has happened since COVID emerged, but I think researchers need to look at the effect of 'Rona on the ability of people to form a queue.

This has been exacerbated by the shortfall in staff throughout the industry as the roaring return of travel, coupled with a desperate need to reemploy those who were axed during the particularly bad times of the pandemic, has seen general disarray.

On three separate check-in experiences, queues formed, merged, split and then merged again as travellers grew increasingly frustrated over a lack of direction from employees, as well as a lack of open check-in counters.

It was more than an hour to move a few steps at the Lufthansa counter at Dublin Airport as the 'bag check only' queue was formed, only to be shut down by a flick of a queue barrier by a bewildered looking staff member, who then folded them back into the 'check-in only' line. Voices were raised, nerves frayed, and trolleys pushed against each other, as more than 100 people tried to get the attention of the limited check-in staff.

Losing your bags sucks

I couldn't describe how happy I was when I saw our bags drop onto the carousel at Dublin Airport. Horror stories abound but we had escaped unscathed on the flight over. That changed on the way back.

I knew we were going to be in trouble because of a short connection time. Our tickets allowed one hour to change flights in Frankfurt. However, our incoming Lufthansa flight was running 45 minutes late. Thankfully, Lady Luck was smiling on us as we pulled up to our gate, right next to our next Singapore Airlines plane. We were a total of five minutes in Germany as we raced up the gangway, turned left, and raced down the next gangway. We had made it ... but our luggage wouldn't.

If there is one crucial tip I can give would-be world travellers right now - buy a baggage tracking device like an AirTag or Tile. We had popped one into each of our two bags, and as we made our way to Australia to catch up with my husband's family, we could see the bags 'ping' into life. The nice lady at the baggage services desk at Brisbane Airport assured us our luggage would be forwarded onto us at our next stop in Hervey Bay.

The bags did indeed arrive in Brisbane, but then resolutely refused to move. For days we could see the luggage was there, our Tiles pinging the locations. But it proved impossible to contact Singapore Airlines or baggage handlers Swissport. An automated daily email said they were working hard to try and find the bags. But we knew where they were - Brisbane. More than 30 calls to a phone mailbox or answer machine compounded the frustration. Round and round the (non) conversation went.

Eventually a begging message on social media helped unblock the impasse and a very apologetic Singapore Airlines reunited us with our bags on the day we flew out from Brisbane back to Wellington.

COVID sucks

Oh yeah, my husband and I also got COVID in Dublin, whereby I gave it to my mother, and we then missed a delayed celebration of our wedding with my family and saw the cancellation of my Aunty's 90th birthday party. But that's a story for later.

I know travel has always been a privilege, even more so after the last couple of years, and it's something I won't be taking for granted again. It's great to see the world reopen again, families and friends being reunited, new and old destinations being explored and rediscovered. I just hope when it's your turn to go long-haul, that the experience won't suck as much.

Stuff.co.nz

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See also: Ten key tips for surviving the current travel chaos