Connecting Flight in Europe from US (International Layover / Transiting Schengen as American 2021)
We flew from the United States to the Balkans this year (2021). On the way there we had a connecting flight in the Schengen zone. Here is how that turned out.
Today we are going to give you all of the first-hand details on our flight from Miami, Florida, in the United States to Tirana, Albania, in the Balkans of Europe. With a layover in Germany! We will cover checking in, getting on the airplane, and the layover. We are going to provide you with all of the information you need for your next international flight to Europe in 2021.
The first thing you have to do when you fly anywhere is check in. You can wait until you arrive at the airport, but airlines allow you to check in starting 23 to 24 hours in advance. We were able to check in 23 hours ahead of time. We needed our full legal names and our passport information. It asked what kind of passport, such as electronic. Other than that it was super simple. This triggered an email that sent us a confirmation for checking in for our trip to Europe and to Tirana. Usually this email contains a boarding pass, but we did not receive boarding passes this time. It told us that we need to check in at the counter.
We thought we could get to the airport, pick up our boarding passes and be on our way. We do not travel with suitcases, just our backpacks which classify as carry-ons, so we have not had to check our luggage or even visit the check in counter so far in our trips to New Orleans or Mexico. So worse case scenario we thought we could visit the electronic kiosks, enter our passport and flight information, and get our boarding passes printed that way.
We would rather be extremely early than 5 minutes late. I thought I had a great plan. Get to the airport 3 or 4 hours an advance (we got there 4 hours before our plane took off), pick up our boarding passes, and spend a few hours relaxing in American Express' Centurion Lounge eating and drinking until boarding time. Unfortunately life likes to constantly remind me that "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
Waiting for the Queue
We were dropped off at the departure area for Luftansa. We walked in to see that no one was at the counter. We did see a man walking around looking like an airport employee and we asked him when the line would open up. He told us that it would open at 1:40 pm. This was 3 hours before our flight was scheduled to leave. No big deal. We waited around until we say some people start to form a line and then we joined that line. There was a roped off area, but that was blocked off with a stanchion barrier. At the beginning of the line, only a few feet from the check-in counter were two ladies. They may have been flight attendants so they play by their own rules.
The rest of us were at the beginning of the roped off area in not such a socially distanced grouped. We would think it would have been safer to at least let everyone into the queue so that it would be easier to keep our 6 feet distance, but only the two flight-attendants were lined up in the proper queue. 10 to 15 minutes after the promised time to enter the line, a few Lufthansa workers showed up to their station on the counter and someone came to the stanchion at the end of the roped off section to allow us to enter into the proper queue.
Covid, PCR Tests and Schengen Zone
The Lufthansa employee who served as guardian of the queue's first request was for everyone's negative Covid test results. What had happened was... We went to get our Covid test Wednesday morning and the flight was on a Friday. A little over 48 hours since we took the test. We knew that the results COULD take up to 72 hours to be returned. But they didn't HAVE to take that long. Going to Albania we didn't need to take a PCR test. We took one to be on the safe side so we could have it incase last minute they decided that they wanted foreigners to have a negative test to enter.
We informed the guardian of the queue that we did not need one for Albania and she let us pass. We worked our way through the line and finally got to the front. A few feet away from the check-in counter we heard a gentleman say to the woman at the counter that he had not received his results from his PCR test year. Another Lufthansa employee came up alongside the woman at the counter and told the gentleman that he had to have his results to get a boarding pass. The second employee told the gentleman that there was a place he could get a test done and get the results emailed to him immediately. But that was 15 minutes away. Understandably upset, the gentleman stormed off from the counter and out of the airport.
Witnessing this interaction did not put our minds at ease. We had no PCR results (even though we took the test) and we also did not have another form that the airline emailed us the day prior saying we would need to fill out if staying in Germany. It told us that travelers must register online at www.einreiseanmeldung.de. According to our research there was a Schengen Area part of the Frankfurt airport in Germany and a non-Schengen Area part.
The Schengen Area is a zone comprised of 26 European countries. These countries are: countries are: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. As of this writing, Americans cannot enter the Schengen Zone. The problem is that we had to connect in one of the above countries in order to get to the Balkans. The Schengen Zone is great for traveling in normal times. If you can get into one of the 26 countries, you can get into all of them. Unfortunately it is now that if you are not allowed to go to one you cannot go to any of them. For more information check out this website: https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/schengen-visa-countries-list/.
The best option for us was to connect at the Frankfurt airport. This airport was large enough to have a Schengen Zone area and a non-Schengen zone area. Our layover was supposed to be in the non-Schengen zone which means that you are physically in Germany; but not technically. So we should not have needed the PCR results or the form. Lufthansa also sent us an email the morning of that starting February 1st (we flew out at the end of January) it would be mandatory to wear a FFP2, KN95 and N95 standard or surgical mask during boarding, the flight and when leaving the aircraft. We just had our cloth masks which we doubled up.
We did as much research as possible, and thought we were fine, but you never know. Before we had time to panic too much, we were called up to the counter. As we walked up we wondered if we would be turned away like the gentleman before us. We believe that his final stop was in Germany, so hopefully we would not meet the same fate. When we got up to the check-in counter, the lady asked us if we had our PCR results. We told her "no", but we didn't need that as our final destination was Albania. She didn't give us any grief about this or flag her co-worker over to us to send us out of the airport. She also did not ask us for a Germany registration form.
Luggage / Carry On Requirements
The part of the check-in process we were the most concerned about turned out to be painless. However the part we thought we had figured out turned out to be much more of a hassle than we expected. For New Orleans and Mexico, the only roadblock with our backpacks was whether or not they could fit in the overhead compartment of the airplane. For New Orleans, one of our bags was too wide, so we had to take some things out and put it into our day bag. That allowed that bag to fit. For Mexico we made sure to have our technology in our day bag before we even left the house. That way we could easily take out our technology for the x-ray machine and our bags were not too stuffed to fit in the overhead compartment.
This flight was different. In addition to the size restrictions, there was also a weight limit. We had never weighed our bags before. Never even thought about it. To bring our backpacks on as carry-ons they had to be under 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds). Uh oh! We put our first backpack on the scale. It was 13 kilos (about 28 pounds). Then the second backpack. It was 15 kilos (about 33 pounds). So they were both over which means we could not even take stuff out of one of the backpacks and move it into the other to make weight for both. Our day bag was filled with technology so we couldn't add anything to that bag either.
We had to take a time out. The whole point of loading up our backpacks was to not have to check in our bags. Our whole lives were essentially in our backpacks and we did not want the airline to lose them. We went through our backpacks and made sure we had every piece of filming equipment and all the essentials to start our lives over from scratch in case they lost our things. We would only be left with our toothbrushes (which we took out of our backpacks), tooth paste, the clothes we were wearing and what we needed to produce our YouTube show, podcasts and to make our content for social media.
Unfortunately we didn't have a choice. The silver lining is that checking in our backpacks did not incur any extra costs. Sometimes this could be $35 to $55 dollars a bag. The fee to have one checked bag per person was covered with our Lufthansa flight ticket. We didn't even have proper luggage tags - those our on our actual suitcases. So we had to fill out the free paper tags that they provide and attach those to our backpacks. After that, we shoved some miscellaneous personal items into a Walgreens plastic bag that we had on us and sent our backpacks out into the world as checked-in bags. Months of preparation and research and we wound up heading to security with just a day bag and a plastic bag like a bunch of rookies.
From the check-in counter we headed to Security. The security agents are in their own individual booths behind a window of glass or plastic. One of the procedures that has changed during the pandemic is that you take your own passport and scan it; instead of handing it off to an agent. One of our passports worked fine, but the other had a plastic sleeve on it. This one had to be taken out as it would not fit in the scanner inside of the plastic cover. After that the security agent asks you to briefly pull down your mask so that they can see your face. Besides having to take off the passport plastic cover this was pretty easy.
At the conveyer belt we started to get some confidence back. This worked just like our previous trips. We took all of our technology out and put them in the bins. We also made sure to take out our microphone separately as well. When flying to Mexico we forgot to do this an got a little bit of an hassle from security. We didn't have our quart-sized bag with our liquids as that was in our checked backpacks. We had a travel-sized toothpaste on us and a collection of 4 different travel hand-sanitizers attached to our day bag. None of these were an issue.
By the time we got done situating our backpacks and checking them in we lost a lot of time. Also the lounge that was open in Miami was in a completely different terminal than the one that we were in. It would of been nice to relax there before our 8 hour flight, but it is what it is. We filled our water bottles, grabbed some sandwiches and hung out by our departure gate until it was time to board.
The First Flight
The flight from Miami to Frankfurt was on an Airbus A330-330 which was a big plane. The layout was: 2 seats, an aisle, 4 seats, an aisle, and then 2 more seats. There was overhead compartments above the end aisles and 2 back to back for the middle passengers. We were assigned to the middle part of the row. Originally there was someone else in our group of 4, but due to it being an afternoon flight that was not too busy, that person was moved to the row behind us giving us 4 seats to ourselves.
As we were boarding they handed us individually wrapped wipes. I am sure they wipe down the plane in between flights but if we wanted to wipe it down again or just use it for our hands we could do that. Before take off there was announcements in both German and English. The ride was pretty smooth. There was 20 minutes of turbulence but as soon as it started the pilot told us what was going on.
For dinner and breakfast we had warm meals. Everyone complains about airline food but we really enjoyed our meals. Maybe with the perspective of not having more than water and chips for over a year, the airline food will get some more appreciation. You don't know what you have until it's gone. Dinner was: a dinner roll and butter, cheese and crackers, pasta, salad, and a berry cobbler for dessert. You could get the normal water or juice or tea or coffee. But we took them up on the free wine! For no additional cost they offered red wine, white wine, and beer.
This felt like a fast 8 hour flight. Next thing we knew it was breakfast time. For breakfast we had an egg salad sandwich and a granola bar. We also were able to get a beverage.
We arrived safely at Frankfurt airport for our layover. This airport seemed huge. It was at least big enough to have a airport rail to get you from terminal to terminal. We knew that there was a part of the airport that was only for non-Schengen zone passengers but we weren't sure where we had to stay contained. We never crossed into the Schengen zone so it worked out. Even though we had a 5-hour layover, we couldn't go to a lounge here because the only lounge open was for passengers with business class tickets.
They did have some chaise lounges to relax in which were pretty comfortable. After relaxing for a few hours we got on the airport rail to go to our terminal. Once we got to our actual terminal we had to go through security again. We didn't need to even show our passports again and there was no hassle.
The second flight was on a plane that was a lot smaller because we were not going as far. It was also more packed. Every seat was filled. We didn't have the space and social distance that we had on our first plane. This flight was smooth with sun shining the whole way there.
The paper work to get into Albania was a lot less intimidating than when we flew into Mexico. This was just a sheet of paper where we had to fill out some basic information such as our name, departure city and destination information.
We didn't even have to turn it into Immigration ourselves; the flight attendants came along and collected the forms for us. They even provided us with pens which the flight attendants on our trip to Mexico did not do.
The landing was smooth and after we got off of the plane we walked through a metal detector looking device to be sprayed down with sanitizer as we were entering the terminal. From there we say lines leading to immigration officers. We handed our passports to the officer and after typing something into their computer they let us through to the baggage check.
Now was the moment of truth. Did our bags make it from Miami to Germany to Albania? OR did we have to take minimalism to the next level?
Thankfully both of our bags made it!
Hear more about our connecting flight through Europe in our Podcast video on YouTube:
We flew from the United States to the Balkans this year (2021). On the way there we had a connecting flight in the Schengen zone. Hear more about this experience.
Thanks for reading our blog on our connecting flight through Europe!
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