Travelling amid a pandemic from the US to Dubrovnik

TRIP REPORT | INDEX


Written by Jacob Wootten

I recently travelled to Croatia in the midst of the pandemic to enjoy the beauty of the Dalmatian Coast with friends across Europe. This is my first trip report of any significance, so please provide feedback appropriately.

Note: As an American travelling abroad, I am well aware of the risks of travelling abroad and prior to doing so I ensured that I self-isolated for three weeks prior to leaving the US, took a COVID-19 test with a negative result, wore a mask the entire time while in route, and frequently washed my hands.

My routing was quite complex as I was flying from my hometown (Lansing) in Mid-Michigan, but this report will only cover the transatlantic and intra-European portions of the trip. The outbound routing was LAN-DTW-JFK and EWR-AMS-ZAG-DBV and return routing even more complex, DBV-ZRH-IST-AMS-EWR-DTW-LAN – well worth it to enjoy some time from the madness going on here.

First Leg

United Airlines UA70
Newark (EWR) – Amsterdam (AMS)
Friday 3 July 2020
Class: United Premium Plus (Premium Economy)
Aircraft: Boeing 787-10 (N16008)

This was the most critical part of the trip for me. Although I had all of the documentation to enter Croatia and had no concerns that I would be turned away, I had to ensure that I would be able to check my baggage through to Dubrovnik, as my flight from Amsterdam to Zagreb and onto Dubrovnik were on a separate ticket, and that the airline would allow me to board to transit Amsterdam.

Newark Airport was essentially a ghost town, I have never seen the airport this empty. Upon arriving, several doors at the departures area were closed to entry as they tried to funnel passengers through a few limited entrances. I was not able to capture any photos as there was a security presence and they are sensitive to random photos being snapped at airports in the New York area.

At the check in desk, I was greeted by a friendly representative who after verifying my documentation was willing to check my bags through to Dubrovnik and then wanted to chat for a few minutes about where to stay, what to see, etc. when he himself visited. Generally, I’m quite the Delta and SkyTeam loyalist, but was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of United staff throughout this trip.

After checking in it was a quick trip through security. United’s international departing flights leave from Terminal C, which past security has all gates connected, compared to Terminal B where the gate hold areas are separated into small piers which make it difficult to use various amenities. Unfortunately, as a result of the pandemic, United’s lounges were closed but there was plenty of seating available throughout the airport with charging ports available. As part of their remodel of Terminal C, the airport is outfitted with iPads throughout that allow you to order food, drinks, play games, get the news, along with many other features. Most of the airport’s restaurants were closed as well with mostly “grab and go” options available. I grabbed a sandwich and a coffee and waited the few hours until my flight.

About 90 minutes prior to departure the gate agents made announcements that all passengers needed to obtain a health information form as it is required by the Dutch authorities for all passengers—both those arriving in the Netherlands and those transiting to other countries. I had already printed and completed my form, so I simply had them verify that it had been completed. The gate agent wanted to verify that I had permission to transit, so she re-reviewed all of my documentation and her supervisor confirmed that it was ok.

At the same time as my flight, a United flight to Tel Aviv was departing. I am unsure of the reasons, but the passengers destined for Tel Aviv were held in a separate gate hold area from all other departing passengers. I assume it was related to Israeli entry requirements during the pandemic and the pre-departure health check they were performing.

Rather than board by zone, US-based airlines are boarding by row beginning with the rear of the plane. The 787-10 is a rather large aircraft - seating 318, but it was hardly full for this flight. Across all three cabins, there were maybe 100 passengers, meaning boarding was completed quite quickly.

Even as a Delta loyalist, I am quite happy with United’s PremiumPlus product. The seats are quite comfortable, the inflight entertainment system is intuitive and extensive, and the service is differentiated from United’s Economy product. There was a Saks Fifth Avenue pillow and blanket set and an amenity kit at my seating waiting for me. Unfortunately, as part of a cost-cutting measure, United will be doing away with the elevated quality pillow and blanket set in this cabin later this year.


The captain came on a few minutes later to thank everyone for choosing United, explained the safety protocols in place, and announced that there would be a short delay as they resolved a minor maintenance issue. A few minutes later and we began our pushback, a quick taxi, and no wait to take off—which is unusual at Newark.

About 45 minutes after taking off the inflight service began. As the captain and purser had announced the service is modified to reduce the cabin crew’s interaction with passengers. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the service compared to many of United’s peers.

There were two options for dinner, I selected chicken, and it was served all at one sitting with real cutlery. The chicken had good flavour and there were options for refills on beverages. Rather than serving wine from bottles, it was served in individual small bottles.


Service was completed quickly as there were only five passengers in PremiumPlus (the cabin seats 21 normally). After dinner I settled in and tried to get some sleep. I consider myself lucky as I can generally fall asleep anywhere and was able to get about four hours of sleep prior to breakfast.

Breakfast service was quite similar to dinner, there were two options available and served quickly. I selected the flat bread sandwich option. This was served with some yoghurt in a little tray. The sandwich was quite flavourful, but a little messy to eat. Definitely needed a fork and knife to keep it from falling all over the tray table.



After breakfast service the captain announced that we would be beginning our descent and even with our delay of roughly 50 minutes, we would be arriving only 20 minutes late at Amsterdam. We landed on the Polderbaan which is a runway that is several km from the main terminal, so after 15 minutes of taxiing, we arrived at the G gates.

Upon arriving the purser asked all passengers to remain seated while the plane received clearance and local authorities boarded to make an announcement. Local health authorities requested that all passengers have their health information form available for review, but no one seemed to be inspecting them.

I had several hours in between arriving and departing, so I took the time to peruse through the shops at Amsterdam. Like many airports, there are numerous shopping options and a €5 coupon can be found very easily in their app. This can be great for those departing or transiting and wishing to stock up on some essentials prior to leaving. I opted to purchase some good sunscreen crème for my face.

After some shopping, I decided to check out the lounge. Amsterdam Schiphol has a Star Alliance lounge, but it only available for Schengen flights. As I was flying to Croatia, I remained in the Non-Schengen transit area. The lounge that Croatia uses is Aspire Lounge (No. 41), but as I was not travelling in business class, I had to use my Priority Pass card to gain entry. The selection in the lounge was quite limited and all was wrapped in plastic. I had just an hour prior to boarding, so I enjoyed a meat and cheese plate and some coffee. The breakfast on the plane was quite filling, so a small snack was all that was needed.

What I found quite interesting while at Schiphol was the compliance with masks. Many signs and announcements throughout the airport indicated that masks were required, and most passengers were wearing them, while many staff and security walking through the airport did not.

Second Leg

Croatia Airlines OU451
Amsterdam (AMS) – Zagreb (ZAG)
Saturday 4 July 2020
Class: Economy
Aircraft: Airbus A320-214 (9A-CTK)


I enjoyed my snack and coffee and headed to the gate, just a short walk to the non-Schengen “D” gates. The gate area was quite full, indicating the flight was too, so a small sign of hope that travel patterns were slowly returning to normal. The weather was typically Dutch, dreary and rainy, creating an interesting view of the aircraft outside.

While I’m fully aware of many of our shortcomings in the US, one area that I think we do well is aircraft boarding. It just felt like the process here had no order and people boarded when they choose with no regard for zone, row, etc. I also feel like this causes boarding to take longer than it really should.

This was my first-time flying Croatia, so I don’t feel that It’s fair to judge their service on this (and the next flight) as I don’t have anything to which it can be properly compared. Upon boarding, the crew was friendly, and you could tell they were smiling under their masks. All passengers received a disinfectant wipe and a bottle of water at boarding.

This A320 is almost 20 years old and while it showed some signs of wear, it was in overall good condition and the seats were comfortable. I was lucky enough to score a seat in the exit row and had a lot of leg room. An interesting quirk was that as I was seated in the exit row, I was not permitted to have any baggage under the seat in front of me - including my small backpack - so the flight attendant helped put it into the overhead for me.

After boarding was completed and the crew did their safety checks, the video safety demonstration was played, an additional announcement on the use of the oxygen mask and face mask, and we were on our way—another short taxi and quick take off!

The crew made an announcement that due to the current situation that there would be no service in the Economy cabin, but that additional bottles of water were available in the rear galley of the aircraft if desired. While the lack of service can be disappointing, I hope that is temporary and that airlines don’t use this as an excuse to continue their cost-cutting measures.

Less than 90 minutes after departing we landed in Zagreb, my first visit to the airport. From the outside it is amazingly modern and so compact looking. We disembarked via boarding bridge and I headed to immigration as I was making a domestic connection to Dubrovnik.

Third Leg

Croatia Airlines OU662
Zagreb (ZAG) – Dubrovnik (DBV)
Saturday 4 July 2020
Class: Economy
Aircraft: Airbus A319-112 (9A-CTL)

The interior, like the exterior, of Zagreb Airport is clean, modern, and compact. It only took a few minutes to walk from the gate to passport control. I had pre-registered as a visitor to Croatia and had all of my documentation ready for inspection, but the border guard did not request to view it. He simply reviewed my passport and gave me an arrival stamp.

After a short security check, I headed to the connection gate. When I made the original booking, the aircraft was confirmed as a Dash 8 but sometime prior to departure was upgraded to an A319—a nice surprise!

The seats in the gate area had stickers encouraging social distancing, but still plenty of seating available. The first seemed quite full and many of the passengers on my flight from Amsterdam were on this flight as well. The boarding gate was a level gate on the ground floor and the staff had some difficulty opening the door, so maintenance had to come and assist.

Boarding began and progressed quickly and with more order than in Amsterdam. Passengers walked out to the apron and then up the stairs of the gate and boarded through the boarding bridge. The greeting was very similar to the first flight, a friendly crew at the door with disinfectant wipes and bottles of water. I was in the same seat (exit row) on this flight, so I made sure to place my backpack into the overhead before I sat down.

The captain announced that we would be travelling mostly over Bosnian airspace on our way and that the flight time was short  - around 45 minutes.

The A319 doesn’t have the video displays for the safety demonstration so the crew did a manual demonstration and made a similar announcement about the use of the oxygen mask and face masks. The theme continued with an early pushback, quick taxi, and easy take off.

After a short flight, the Dubrovnik came into view. I sat on the wrong side of the plane to get the best view of the city, but the coast and landscape was beautiful as well. The landing was quick and easy and after a very short taxi we were at the terminal.

All passengers quickly disembarked and headed towards the exit - I don’t think anybody was making a connection this time. The wait for my baggage was incredibly short, maybe 10 minutes and then I was ready to enjoy my vacation.

Overall, it was depressing to see the airport terminals so devoid of life. As someone who travels extensively, some of the excitement of course comes from the energy of the airport and those travelling, which this trip didn’t have. I am a firm believer that the journey is half the fun, but that isn’t the case these days. I was happy to see the crew engaged and upbeat throughout the entire trip and I look forward to giving Croatia another try when we return to normal.

On a positive note, I had the trip of a lifetime with great friends while in Dubrovnik and recommend visiting to anyone who has not had the opportunity to do so. The weather was absolutely perfect, the views amazing, and the people beyond friendly.



Share your travel experience by submitting a trip report to exyu@exyuaviation.com


Comments

  1. Anonymous10:21

    Nice trip report. Glad you enjoyed your time in Dubrovnik.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous10:51


    Do you know maybe a registration of the last aircraft because I think you flew with the newest aircraft in Croatias fleet (all other aircraft have video displays I think)?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jacob Wootten00:20

      I believe the registration was 9A-CTL

      Delete
  3. Anonymous15:24

    Great TR. Thanks

    ReplyDelete
  4. Very well written. I really enjoyed reading this detailed travel report. Thanks

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anonymous20:57

    Appreciated your article. It was detailed and informative --especially for me as I was planning a trip there this year. I was wondering how things were being handled on the different legs of the journey and at the various airports. Look forward to the next article!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Ross22:06

    Hi. Planning on visiting Croatia 8/30. How did you manage to comply with the 48 hour negative PCR requirement? Can you give me a timeline, as this is what worries me. Thanks

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jacob Wootten00:22

      Thanks for reading! I arrived prior to the test being required, so I just had to pre-register, but took the test as an additional precaution.

      It's my understanding that you can also take a test upon arrival but must self-isolate (even from others in your party) until your results are shown as negative.

      Delete
  7. Anonymous01:05

    I wanted to go but I see on embassy sights that US travelers transiting in Amsterdam were going to be denied "even if that EU country did not ban Americans"

    ReplyDelete

Post a comment

EX-YU Aviation News does not tolerate insults, excessive swearing, racist, homophobic or any other chauvinist remarks or provocative posts with the intention of creating further arguments. A full list of comment guidelines can be found here. Thank you for your cooperation.