I have never seen the airport this empty. I have also never needed to wait for the check-in line to open. A lot of things have changed since the start of the pandemic. Some people might think we are crazy for leaving to travel for a year, during the pandemic. Some people might think we are crazy for quitting our full-time jobs to travel for a year. But for us, there was no better time.
We are Will and Katy and we got married in November of 2020. We managed to have a small ceremony in the midst of a global pandemic. We knew we couldn’t reschedule it like we had seen others do. Just a few months before getting married we had decided to take our first year of married life to travel.
It honestly felt like no better time. People say they will travel when they retire. But if there was one thing we had learned that year, it was that we are not guaranteed tomorrow. So as we approached our wedding day, we were also planning how we would make this year of travel possible, leaving in January 2021.
We decided to take a longer honeymoon and went to one of the only countries that was fully open with no covid test required, Mexico. The first few days we had a proper relaxing honeymoon at an all-inclusive in Playa del Carmen. We fully enjoyed it, but after a few days, we were itching to explore. For the rest of the trip, we had planned to do a little practice run of what it would be like to travel; to see if this is something we really think we could do. We also practiced our vlogging too! We went inland to Valladolid to see Chichen Itza and then ended our trip in Tulum for a couple of days. The plane ride back was filled with joy and a desire to keep on doing this.
This brings us to January 29, 2021. The day we flew to Tirana, Albania. Our first stop in our travels. We chose to start our travels in Albania because when we looked at the alphabetical list of countries that were open for travel, Albania was the first one. No kidding, that is the real reason.
Checking Into Our Flight
Will’s mom dropped us off at the Miami International Airport, in the departure area for Luftansa. We would rather be extremely early than 5 minutes late. Will thought he had a great plan. Get to the airport 3 or 4 hours in 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 him that "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
We walked in to see that no one was at the check-in counter. We did see a man walking around who looked 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 saw some people start to form a line and then we joined that line, which was behind the roped-off area for the proper Lufthansa check-in queue. 10 to 15 minutes after the promised time to enter the line, a few Lufthansa workers showed up at their station on the counter and someone came to un-rope the area and motioned for everyone to enter into the proper queue.
The Lufthansa employee who served as guardian of the queue requested for everyone's negative COVID test results. We anxiously waited as she worked through the line checking for COVID results. What had happened was... we went to get our COVID test the Wednesday morning prior to our Friday flight. A little over 48 hours since we took the test. We knew that the results COULD take up to 72 hours to be returned. There we were sitting in line without our results. 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 in case last minute they decided that they wanted foreigners to have a negative test to enter the country.
We informed the guardian of the queue that our final destination was Albania and they did not require a PCR test, so 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 yet. 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. 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. The problem is that we had to connect in one of those countries in order to get to the Balkans. The Schengen Zone is great for traveling during normal times; if you can get into one of the 26 countries, you can get into all of them. Unfortunately, they were all closed to Americans at the time.
The best option for us to get to Albania was to choose a flight that had a connecting flight in 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.
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. A sigh of relief came over us.
Unfortunately, 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 our most recent trips to New Orleans and Mexico, the only roadblock was with the backpacks we use as suitcases -- 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 them into our carry-on bag. For Mexico, we made sure to have our technology in our carry-on 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 for carry-on bags, 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 meant we could not even take stuff out of one of the backpacks and move it into the other to make weight for both. Our third carry-on bag, which is our smaller 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. Unfortunately, we didn't have a choice but to check in our backpacks. The silver lining is that checking in our backpacks did not incur any extra costs. Sometimes this could be $35 to $55 a bag. The fee to have one checked bag per person was covered with our Lufthansa flight ticket.
We went through our backpacks and made sure our carry-on bag had every piece of filming equipment and all the essentials to start our lives over from scratch in case they lost our things. After that, we shoved some miscellaneous personal items, like toothbrushes and toothpaste, into a Walgreens plastic bag that we had on us and sent our backpacks out into the world as checked-in bags. After months of preparation and research we wound up heading to security with just a carry-on backpack and a plastic bag like a bunch of rookies.
By the time we got done situating our backpacks, checking in, and going through security we had lost a lot of time. In addition, the only lounge that was open in Miami was in a completely different terminal than the one that we were in. It would have been nice to relax there before our 8-hour flight, but we had no time. 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 were overhead compartments above the end aisles and 2 back-to-back for the middle passengers. We were assigned to the middle part of the plane. Originally there was someone else in our row 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. As we sat there waiting for take-off, announcements began in both German and English. This was going to be the longest flight I had ever been on, I wasn't too sure what to expect. Will had done some international travel prior to meeting me, and although he knew what to expect, he was still very nervous to fly.
Overall the flight was pretty smooth. We watched movies, listened to podcasts, and I even edited some footage from our trip to Mexico. At one point I woke up feeling heavy turbulence and quickly grabbed Will's hands, but the pilot quickly came on and told us what was going on. It lasted about 20 minutes, and even though the pilot informed us, we still felt uneasy during those 20 minutes.
Everyone complains about airline food but we really enjoyed our meals. For dinner and breakfast, they served us warm meals. Maybe with the perspective of not having more than water and chips for over a year on airplanes, the airline food got some extra appreciation. You don't know what you have until it's gone. Dinner consisted of 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!
Next thing we realized this 8-hour flight was over.
We arrived safely at Frankfurt airport for our layover. This airport seemed huge. It was at least big enough to have an 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. Once again no lounge!
We found some chaise lounges to relax in and looked out to the cold, wet, and snowy runway. We wanted to sleep, we were so tired, but with only less than 5 hours until our next flight, we didn’t want to risk it. 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.
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 a short 3.5 hours, smooth with the sun shining the whole way there.
As we got closer to Albania, flight attendants came by with some entry paperwork. I was giddy filling out the paperwork realizing we were so close to landing in Albania. The paperwork to get into Albania was a lot less intimidating than the entry forms into Mexico. We didn't even have to turn it into immigration ourselves; the flight attendants came along and collected the forms from us.
As the descent began, we looked out the window, and there was Albania. The landing was smooth and we began to disembark the plane. Now I am used to walking through a jet bridge, the tunnel that connects an airplane to the airport, but not here. We walked off the plane directly onto stairs that took us down to the airfield. As we walked over to some shuttle buses, I noticed we were surrounded by beautiful mountains. This process is way more common than I realized at the time, but a very unique experience for me nonetheless.
As soon as everyone from the plane was on one of the two shuttles we took off. When we unloaded from the shuttle we saw what appeared to be metal detectors before the entrance to the terminal of this very small international airport. As we walked through we were blasted with sanitizer. After being disinfected in a human-style car wash we stepped inside the terminal and saw lines leading to immigration officers. After a brief wait, we handed our passports to the officer who typed a few things into her computer and then 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! With our bags on our backs, we headed out to explore our first country.
What could possibly be next?
If you are interested in knowing the process it took for us to prepare for this full-time travel life, Will details the experience in a blog (read the blog), and we made a documentary sharing our preparation:
We hope it motivates you to chase after your dreams, one step at a time!
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