4 May 2012

New York City Review: Part 2 Visas, Flights & Airports

Ok, so let’s start at the beginning.

It was early 2011 when I decided that I wanted to visit the US. North America is a very large country and I struggled to decide where I should go and when. The one thing I did do at that time was to get an ESTA.  An ESTA provides visitors to the US, from Visa Waiver Countries, with authorisation to enter the US. I think it cost $14, and is instantaneous once you have filled in the online questionnaire. 

As you will soon discover my life as an indecisive person has led me to continuously gather as much information about something before I undertake it as I can. My preferred research method is to ask people who have experienced it first hand. I had heard stories of people who had had their application rejected.  So, once again my imagination ran off without me (as it is wont to do) and I was nervous about what questions would be asked. I had no valid reason to be nervous but that has never stopped me before.  After I completed the usual personal information there followed a few questions, mainly Have you got a criminal record?  That’s actually the only one I can remember! And no, I don’t have a criminal record and yes it means I was worried about nothing basically.  After entering the payment information the application is processed whilst you wait. It takes about 90 seconds. I am given the news that my application has been successful. 

The ESTA lasts for 2 years from issue and a record of this is stored in the US immigration system so you don’t need a copy of it with your travel documents. I would advise you to make sure that you are on the government site (no need for a third party) and that the site is secure (with the little padlock in the address bar). Someone I was working with at the time, whose mother was going, had paid $60 and had been swindled by the wrong website. 

I never went in 2011 after all :( Fast forward to 2012 :)

In February of this year, (maybe it is a New Year thing) I was getting itchy feet to go away and I was still keen to go to America. I had decided on New York or somewhere else, maybe France or China. I met a friend for lunch and we discussed holidays and trips we had been on and it inspired me to book my flight that night.

I know, I said I am indecisive, but something you should know about us indecisive types - once we make up our mind there is no turning back, come hell or high water! And what seemed like a snappy decision took me 18 months to decide.

Which airline?

In the past, I have tended to travel independently. I just prefer this to organised tours - I like to be able to change my mind (yeah, little miss indecisive is worried about changing her mind!) but still, its the principle of the thing...

Anyway, I have a pattern when it comes to booking flights – I will scour the internet, search every website and um and ah for an age. I like to think that I just want the cheapest flight, but I prefer to go direct, so it’s not always the cheapest. So I end up looking for the cheapest direct flight. Once I have found out that, I might go to the company’s website and compare costs. I know this is what I will end up doing each time, but I still always go through the motions.

I stuck to this process and was searching on a company website for direct flights. The company was Virgin Atlantic. You see, I have always wanted to fly to the US with Virgin Atlantic. The more I recall situations the more I realise that I must be a sucker for a good story, because my view of how this flight would be, was completely driven by other people’s experience. When I compared the price of Virgin with the other airlines the difference was not too much more, and as I didn’t know (still don’t) when I am likely to go back I thought I should make the most of it. So I booked with Virgin Atlantic.

What I expected.

For those of you who have visited this blog before, you may have a knowing smirk on your face and for any new visitors, well, quite simply, I am prone to having romantic, over the top notions and add in my over active imagination and pretty soon  if there aren’t flying unicorns then it’s nowhere near my expectations!

So I had expected the Virgin flight to smell of roses, to have a lot of space and a personal entertainment system to rival all entertainment systems with an array of films that would keep me grinning for the entire flight.

I don’t think its wrong that my expectations were this high, their website is great! Really great. After all, I had booked in, chosen my seats and filled in the APIS form with relevant ease. The APIS form is the Advanced Passenger Information System and is required by UK border control. I had also been on line and perused the film listings. The films were recent DVD releases and a fair few that I hadn't seen before but I hoped that there would be much better films once on board.

I also had some expectations on what the airport would be like. I was flying from Heathrow to JFK. Now, Heathrow is not my favourite UK airport, I am a fan of Gatwick. But JFK – this is the place that celebrities are always flying in and out of right? This is where Kate Moss was approached to be a model! Plus, its New York, the City that never sleeps.

What I experienced.

I had some time in the airport before my departure from the UK  but most of that was trying to work out what went wrong with my ‘K’ post for the A to Z Blogging Challenge 2012. But I did have a chance to pop into WHSmiths newsagents where on a whim I picked up a popup travel map of NYC. It was the best thing I did. That map was indispensible. It has a handy map of the Metro and the map itself opens out and is readable but not a ridiculous size, it is clearly marked and has points of interest on it. It was only £3.99! I have to recommend it because it really helped me to get un-lost so many times, and was perfect to take a quick look at on the Metro. I used the Footprint one but I think Berlitz also have one.

I have flown a lot in the past with British Airways and I have always been happy. Clean, functional and slightly better than cheapest of the cheap.

I can only say that Virgin was pretty much the same as British Airways. This was disappointing because I had mistakenly believed the hype. But it wasn’t the end of the world seeing as it wasn’t worse than what I was used to. The little overnight bags were nice –BA only gives you the eye mask, toothbrush etc and socks in plastic – there were two varieties (a different one for each way) and the bags are always handy to have. One is even going to hold a stitchy project. The highlight of them though was they smelt of new plastic – its one of those smells I love, like new books and freshly cut grass.

The flight to JFK was nice, I sat next to a friendly guy and we chatted on and off throughout the flight. I did watch some films but they had all been out at the cinema or were available on DVD – do you remember when you used to get to see movies that weren't released yet? I watched 4 films in total there and back (in order of preference – I am a comedy girl)
On arrival, I was expecting the worst. Hey!! Are you rolling your eyes at me? PEOPLE had told me that immigration was a nightmare, that their 2 year old daughter had practically been interrogated! I had thought that we would have to go through the body scanner too. So when we got to passport control, I was slightly wary of what was going to happen next, it was relatively straight forward and no different to arriving home to the UK. Except for the fingerprinting and the photograph - which I have been told is actually a retina scan, is it? After going through that was it. There was a sign up about the body scanner but I think it said that it was not working due to maintenance. So I went and collected my bag and followed the crowd towards the arrivals lounge.

I came out into arrivals and was met by a wall of glass and an area where people were milling around and there were a couple of desks - for making travel arrangements.

There was no big fancy arrivals lounge – there were no sparkly lights – and there was no Welcome to the US sign, which threw me because most airports have a welcome sign. To be honest though I may just not have noticed it. As anti-climatic as the airport was when compared to my imagination, the immigration was fine and baggage collection was quick and painless. Nothing like what I had expected and nothing like other people had experienced. Phew!


  1. What a lovely post to read, it reminds me of my travels.


    1. Glad to hear it! I love remembering my trips but then I want to go away again.

  2. It sounds like you had a glorious journey. You might like to read my experiences of travelling when me and my 2 kids moved from England to California.
    1. http://www.scribd.com/doc/30651634/Suitcase-Crazy
    2. http://www.scribd.com/doc/30726312/Moving-Across-the-Pond
    It will make your trip sound even better - mine was a nightmare!!
    Hope you enjoy New York - I love it. What a great city.

    1. Wow! That sounds like a real adventure. Oh dear! I will definitely check them out, thanks for the links.

  3. Wonderfully written, witty post, Kate! And I love unicorns *sigh* being romantic is good, you see the world a variety of shades of colours. :) Your trip sounds like it was a cool, compared to what I've heard.

    1. Haha! It wasn't too bad on all accounts. I don't know if I love NY or just like it a lot.

  4. Most of the people I have available to ask in person are idiots or are the type to get to the airport late for their flight (i.e. smelly...you know who I mean!). I rely more on online friends and/or forums...online friends because I don't know if they are idiots or because you can hide that online (sometimes) and forums because if someone posts wrong information, fifty people will call them on it!

    I always completely panic when it comes to TSA security, but, knock on wood, haven't had a problem yet! Security for me is a 3 xanax event!

    I don't think I've ever been on a flight where they showed movies...I either read, sleep, or ipod it. The entire time I'm on eggshells because the engine noise muffles my dog-level hearing ears and I can't pick up on things I normally do like others conversations or movement or general whatnot...it's very disconcerting! Even when I use my ipod, I only keep it in one ear to try to hear what else is going on.

    I haven't flown too many places other than Orlando, FL, but I can't say as I've ever seen a welcome sign anywhere! Guess we just assume you know where you are!

    Can't wait for part 3!!

    1. Haha! I confess, I am an idiot! :D Its true about the forums. I find that sometimes the long term users of forums can be quite uppity about repeat questions - but sometimes the last time the question was asked was several years ago, and as a planner you need your information to be up to date. So I feel quite intimidated on those things and very rarely ask. Sometimes my questions are a little nonsense to be fair.

      I did know where I was because there were US flags everywhere!

      Part 3 is on its way!

  5. Hoping you have a wonderful visit to the U.S. Oh and -
    Welcome to the United States! (imagine that this is a big sign)

    1. Hi Elizabth, thank you, I have been and this is post-trip review time :D I do think I will go again, only not sure where!

      WOW!! That is the biggest and most beautiful welcome sign I have seen, thank you again. ;)


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