‘Have you got Esther?’ the lady at the Virgin check-in desk asked.
‘Who’s Esther?’ I asked
‘No…sorry… do you have an E-S-T-A?’ she tried again.
I guess the blank, confused look on my face answered the question.
It was 7.00am at Heathrow on a Good Friday morning. The airport was relatively quiet and my family was excited to be starting our trip to Costa Rica, meticulously planned more than six months before. We had a detailed itinerary, and I had made sure that every detail had been covered. Except I didn’t know about ESTAs. Our family travel usually takes us East and we hadn’t been to or through the US for a few years. The check-in desk is not the place to find out that a special licence is needed to travel to the US these days. The Virgin staff pointed me to the Internet Cafe upstairs and explained that it was possible to buy the ESTAs online and they were often quick to get approved, but that they can take up to 72 hours. My heart sank.
Fifteen minutes later we are the proud owners of four ESTAs. The only problem is that there are five of us in the family. Mine didn’t get approved.
After much running around and numerous telephone calls to US Customs in New York we decide that the rest of the family should get on the plane and I will join them when I can. We have five minutes to split the hand luggage and try and explain to our four-year old why Mummy was no longer coming on holiday. Worst of all, my poor husband had to go without the iPad – not easy to travel to Costa Rica with a four year old and no iPad.
I hung around for a few hours and finally I was approved to fly. However, now I had a new problem – my journey was on a split ticket, Virgin to New York and American from New York to San Jose and both airlines declared that they were not obliged to take me anywhere. The staff at American Airlines were particularly obnoxious (to me and a number of other passengers who were requesting help) and I ran from one desk to another, desperately trying to get someone to agree to help me. On my third visit to the American Airlines desk I finally found a member of staff with a heart and he put me on the next flight to Miami in the hope that I could still get to San Jose that night.
Easter…Miami…I should have worked it out. I was the only person at the gate without Mickey ears. My own family was now halfway across the Atlantic and I was about to fly with everyone else’s kids. There was an announcement that I could barely hear above the screeching of over-excited kids, but i was sure I heard my name. I pushed through the crowds to the front of the gate and one of the staff handed me a new boarding pass ‘the flight is very full today so we are moving you into Business Class’ he said, ‘seat 3A’.
So, four hours later than scheduled, I was in the air and having my first drink of the day…a glass of chilled champagne. I watched three movies with my feet up, ate fillet steak and during two hours at Miami airport I drank my own bodyweight in cold Heineken.
I arrived in San Jose just two hours later than my family and in a much better frame of mind than my poor frazzled husband. A very happy ending to a very stressful day.