A Trip to Europe with Stephen Smith

The Airport Experience in Europe

When we planned our family vacation to Europe, our biggest concern was whether there would be entry and exit restrictions on our way overseas and on our return.  While I had been supportive of the cautious approach to opening up our lives and countries, I was very hopeful that the days of being stuck overseas or denied entry were over.

Little did I know that the main issue we would face as we eagerly anticipated our 2 weeks abroad was the airport experience.  Flight delays, baggage delays, and understaffed airports were dominating the news.

While we still needed a negative antigen test to board our cruise, the only other travel requirement was being vaccinated and (sometimes) wearing a mask.

Our trip had many stops, so we were certainly vulnerable to potential airport and flight delays.

Our itinerary: 

  • Toronto to Heathrow with 2 days in London
  • High speed train to Liverpool to visit family for a few days
  • Transfer to Manchester and fly to Athens via Paris
  • 2 days in Athens and then board Regal Princess for a 7 day cruise visiting Santorini, Kotor, Naples, Sicily and ending in Barcelona
  • A night in Barcelona followed by a return flight to Toronto.

My wife and I both work in travel and our boys (12 and 14) are well-travelled so we know the ropes generally speaking. We knew there would likely be delays, so we made sure to have realistic expectations and would give ourselves plenty of time in all scenarios so we didn’t risk missing a flight.

We also had a few conveniences on our side: we all have Nexus, were flying Air Canada to and from Toronto, and I have 50k status with Air Canada. While this did help, we did not need it to get out of any trip-delaying situations.

Toronto to Heathrow

We arrived at Pearson 3.5 hours ahead of our flight and were already checked in!  It seemed like ample time, but we stuck with the plan and gave ourselves extra time.

It turned out that the lines were long, and while we made it through in 1 hour, it was only because we had Nexus and so the line was much shorter.  Without Nexus or any priority status, between check-in, baggage drop, and security I would estimate at least 2.5 hours was required.

Our flight ended up being delayed 3 hours – which meant lots of sitting around – but we had our streaming shows downloaded and remained patient.

We landed in Heathrow and had to wait for our baggage for about 1 hour – definitely frustrating after a long overnight flight–but we kept patient, keeping our expectations in check and frustration levels low.

London to Liverpool

We took a high-speed train on day 3 to Liverpool to visit family and the city.  Leading up to our trip, we heard about rail strikes happening the day we were scheduled to take the train, so we cut a day off in London and added a day to Liverpool.  Certainly a bit frustrating but the railway company was very accommodating to make changes.

We arrived at the train station 30 minutes before our train and had a very enjoyable trip through the English countryside – a good experience overall.

Manchester to Athens (via Paris)

I almost forgot my own advice for our flight with Air France from Manchester to Athens.  I figured if we got there 2-2.5 hours ahead of time, we would have plenty of time.  Thankfully, my wife knew better and arranged for the transfer from Liverpool to Manchester to get us to the airport 3.5 hours ahead of our flight.

We were already checked in and baggage drop did not take too long – but when we got to security, I realized how thankful I was that I didn’t book the transfers.  The line was very long and not moving very fast at all.  There were only 2 security scanners operating due to a shortage of workers.  It took us 2.5 hours to get through security and if our flight had not been delayed, we would have been tight to board our flight on time.

Connection in Paris

This was an interesting one.  It was around dinner time, so we wanted to grab a bite to eat.

I have lounge access with SkyTeam – but only for me plus one guest.  So, I took one of my sons with me and my wife took our other son to get something at one of the restaurants. Probably a bad idea but I was determined to take advantage of the lounge access!

We had 30 minutes until boarding – so after 20 minutes we left the lounge and walked to the gate.  When we arrived, there was someone waving us frantically to board.  They had to board the plane early because another plane needed the gate.  We were the last ones onboard and if we had been a minute later, we would have missed our flight.

What I learned here is that with all the delays and disruptions, don’t plan to be “just in time” for anything.  Give yourself plenty of time and you’ll avoid self-created problems.  I could only imagine the challenge of trying to arrange a flight from Paris to Athens at 9pm at night!

Barcelona to Toronto (home!)

Once again, we arrived 3.5 hours before our flight departed and all lines were very long.  We were already checked in, but the line to drop baggage was extremely long.  The Air Canada priority line took over 30 minutes – the other line was twice as long.  The security line was also extremely long.  We were very lucky to be able to use the priority line because without that, I estimate it would have taken 2 hours for security.

We got on our flight (without delays!) and got home safely.  Remarkably (based on what I have read lately) our bags came out shortly after we arrived at the baggage carousel.

It’s All About Planning and Expectations

Overall, because we had the right expectations and gave ourselves plenty of time, we avoided any high-risk scenarios and therefore avoided any real problems. There were lots of delays but we were ready for that and did not let it bother us.

My advice is to take a similar approach if you are travelling. Double whatever time you gave yourself at the airport prior to the challenges happening right now; be polite with the staff – a smile instead of a scowl goes a long way to them proactively helping you; set the right expectations because there will almost certainly be delays.

We had a great time in Europe – and it gave us an opportunity to bond as a family that we have been missing for a long time.