Will they serve beans on my international flights?
February 14, 2017 4:37 AM   Subscribe

I am attempting to book a series of flights, essentially a return trip from London to the Galapagos islands with stops in NYC and Quito on the way out. I have really only travelled in Europe before and never had to deal with connecting flights. I'm also a bit nervous about the changing situation in US airports. Questions about US entry, South American connecting flights and general anxious beanplating below the fold.

I'm a bit of a mass of anxiety about all of this so I'm trying to set out my worries in a logical order. Travel in March (soon!). The plan is to spend several days on the outward bound portion of the trip to reduce jetlag by the time I get to the Galapagos.

When I planned the trip the stopover in NYC seemed like a relatively "safe" stop off and I'm still keen to include it as I'm visiting a friend there. In theory I think I'm a safe as it gets - I'm white British with a British passport, British sounding name, no other nationality or passport. I already plan to delete my confidential work email account from my phone prior to arrival. I've read about disabling fingerprint access but am inclined not to do this as (rightly or wrongly) if I was stopped I think I would rather co-operate and GTFO than risk protest. Are there any other steps I should consider?

I will definitely have inward and outward tickets from the US but does it matter if they aren't a straightforward set of matched return tickets? (e.g. Lon->NYC, NYC->Quito, Quito->Galapagos, Galapagos->London (either via US or not)).

Flying from NYC to Quito looks like I have the options of changing flights in Panama City, Mexico City or possibly Bogota. Are any of them obviously safer or more comfortable options (to be quite honest they all sound scary to me)? Apart from general precautions like keeping valuables close and not on display are there any other precautions I should take to stay safe for this bit?

I realise I'm likely overthinking some of this - I am pretty nervous but I think I'll be fine once I get going. I have travelled a fair bit in Europe and am fine and confident there but this is all more unknown to me.
posted by *becca* to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total)
Do you want to actually visit Panama City or Mexico City? If so, Mexico City is much much more awesome; loads to do, great food and museums. Panama City is eh. If not, they are both airports. They are big and crowded but perfectly safe. Dunno about Bogota's airport though.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:41 AM on February 14, 2017

Also! We did a similar trip a few years ago. If you're spending a few days in Quito, we really liked it there, but the altitude was killer for me (an asthmatic). I spent our first day lying around the hotel practicing breathing.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:43 AM on February 14, 2017

I think your itinerary shouldn't be a problem for U.S. customs, since you will have tickets for entering and then leaving the U.S. again, and that's what they seem to care about. If you have a layover in New York on your way back (where you don't leave the airport), I think you won't have to deal with U.S. customs at all, because you'll just stay in the international terminal.

Since you do want to stay in New York for a couple of days the first time you come through, I would fill out an ESTA application if you haven't already. You can do it all online and when my husband did last summer, it only took them a day to process it. It's a "pre-vetting" thing and it's basically a way to assure the U.S. that you have a life and a job back home so you're not a risk for illegal immigration. Make sure you have the address and phone number for where you will be staying while you're in New York, since customs agents seem to care about that sort of thing.

Also, here's a random tip for your arrival in the U.S.: make sure you use the bathroom on the airplane before you start to descend, because at least in JFK (which is the New York airport I'm most familiar with), there are no bathrooms between disembarking from an international flight and going through the customs line. There are only bathrooms once you've cleared customs. And even before Trump came into office, the line for non-U.S. citizens can be ridiculously long. My poor husband had to stand in line for 2 hours both times we've travelled to the U.S. this past year. So pee before you get off the plane!
posted by colfax at 5:43 AM on February 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't think this is going to be that different to travelling in Europe.

For your NYC stopover, just make sure you have your ESTA in place like Colfax says (you can do that now - it lasts for two years), and it's very unlikely you'll have any issues. Deleting your work email is unduly paranoid in my view; the odds of anything happening outside of the standard process are very low. Just allow plenty of time to get your flight out - lines can be long. Answer immigration questions politely and as clearly as you can, and don't worry if you get a bit flustered - they're used to it.

For the stopover on the way to the Galapagos, it's unlikely to make much difference where you do it if you're not venturing outside the airport. Large international airports are much the same the world over. I transferred in Quito when I was going to the Galapagos, and it was unremarkable. Signs were in English. If you're venturing out into the city itself, that's a different story - it can be rather sketchy.

You will definitely be fine once you get going and the fear of the unknown part is removed. And the Galapagos are a wonderful, life-changing place. If I had my choice of where to watch the end of the world, it would be there. Have fun!
posted by StephenF at 6:53 AM on February 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

for the stopover in Panama, etc. if you don't have the time or inclination to leave the airport then it won't really matter which, just find the most convenient flight. Arriving in Quito is going to be an adventure because of the altitude (2.800m) so spend the first day relaxing and trying not to walk up too many steps :) Other than that Quito is really nice (I travel there every year). Enjoy your trip!
posted by alchemist at 7:01 AM on February 14, 2017

I had a long layover in Bogotá last year and it was fine. It seemed to me like a totally standard international airport, just as safe and well-equipped as any other airport I've ever been through -- like a mall floating in international waters. I found this Guide to Sleeping in Airports very helpful and accurate (I slept on the floor overnight in one of the spots they recommended and no one bothered me, and then once the Avianca VIP lounge opened, I paid $25 and spent the rest of my layover sleeping and snacking in comfort).
posted by ourobouros at 11:15 AM on February 14, 2017

If you have a layover in New York on your way back (where you don't leave the airport), I think you won't have to deal with U.S. customs at all, because you'll just stay in the international terminal.

This statement is wrong. For the OP in this case, this is not a big deal as you obviously will already have the proper entry documents (i.e. an ESTA) for the US on the first time through.

However, for future/other readers -- every time you land in the US, regardless of where your ultimate destination is, if you are just transiting the US, how long/short you are staying, etc., you must clear US immigration and customs, even if you are literally just about to get on another flight right out of the US. (The Wikitravel article "Avoiding a transit of the US" exists more or less for this reason!)

A corollary of this is that unless you are arriving from an airport with US preclearance, you also always have to clear US immigration and customs at the very first US airport you land at, if you are making a further connection into the US.

There is no such thing as an "international terminal" (well, there are, but not in the sense of "a terminal where you don't have to clear US immigration if you are just in transit"). The US does not have "sterile transit" in the way that many European and Asian airports do, which allows you to bypass immigration and customs while in transit.
posted by andrewesque at 7:52 AM on February 16, 2017

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