I just flew United Airlines from Melbourne to San Francisco. Here’s what you need to know

If you’ve recovered from COVID-19 in the past 90 days, visit a doctor before departure to get a certificate verifying that you’ve recovered and are cleared to travel. This will exempt you from requiring a negative test before departure.

While Australians can enter the US visa-free via the Visa Waiver Program if travelling for less than 90 days, you’re still going to need an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, or ESTA, to enter. Get this out of the way as soon as you can given approvals can take time. You want to avoid having your approval still pending while you’re waiting to board.

One day before

I opted for the supervised RAT one day before the flight. It cost $64 to ensure my test results were returned in just one hour. The doctor took a sample and sent me on my way; 20 minutes later, I had a negative test result and was clear to fly.

For those happy to leave the test until the airport, Histopath is located in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane international airports; the pathology service offers 90-minute turnaround PCR tests for $79, and $59 for a supervised RAT with results in 30 minutes.

Proof of vaccination (or an official exemption) is key to getting into the US and makes the travelling experience smoother. Download an International COVID-19 Vaccination Certificate. It will be your golden ticket, and you’ll be asked for it at check-in for your flight.

United Airlines will be flying from Melbourne to San Francisco three times a week. 

I also started my Digital Passenger Declaration to get back into Australia before leaving. You can start a DPD up to seven days before your flight – and you must submit it before you board the plane to depart your foreign destination for Australia. Luckily, Australia no longer requires a negative COVID-19 test to return, so that’s one less thing to worry about on the return journey.

As you go through the forms process, check your airline’s website. Some airlines now have apps to allow you to upload and verify your negative test results and vaccination status to help streamline everything.

Grab insurance

I had comprehensive travel insurance through work, but it’s important to make sure you’re covered should anything happen overseas, including for COVID-19 related expenses.

Some countries make specific COVID-related medical coverage a requirement for entry. The US does not – but that doesn’t mean comprehensive insurance is a step to skip.

Finally, ensure you are frequently checking the COVID-19 requirements for your destination at least 24 hours from departure, just in case anything changes. And then, when you’re done, check them again.

Heading off

The reopening of the route was celebrated with a large image of the Golden Gate Bridge at Melbourne Airport. 

At check-in in Melbourne on June 5, I was asked for: my negative COVID-19 test, proof of vaccination and my passport. The whole process was quick and easy.

To celebrate the return of United Airline’s Melbourne-San Francisco route Melbourne Airport was decked out with a huge picture of the Golden Gate Bridge.

After an early morning Polaroid, I headed through security to the United Airlines lounge, which is shared with Air New Zealand at Melbourne Airport.

Flight UA 61 took off on the late side of its scheduled 9.30am departure time, but we ended up landing 30 minutes earlier than our 7.05am scheduled time. The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner’s 257 seats were full, with travellers eager to make the 14-hour trip direct to San Francisco on one of the three weekly flights that restarted on June 5.

United is the only American airline to offer non-stop flights from Melbourne to the United States at this point.

Boarding was quick and simple. Throughout the flight, the easing in COVID-19 restrictions meant that business class customers could enjoy the return of staggered meal service (during COVID-19 the entrée, main and dessert were brought at once to minimise contact).

Each meal and snack came with a side of hand sanitiser, with flight attendants distributing sanitising wipes.

All 48 business class seats on the United Airline’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner were booked for the return of direct flights. 

The flight crew were quick to assure customers of the COVID-19 precautions taken on board, including state-of-the-art, hospital-grade HEPA filters that remove 99.97 per cent of airborne particles.

The US no longer requires masks be worn on airplanes or in airports and some flyers enjoyed kicking back maskless; many others, myself included, wore a mask for the duration of the flight.

So far, so good. Anticipating an easier time at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) than Los Angeles (LAX), I exited the plane to make my way to customs – where I was confronted by a very long queue. Turns out, an airport employee tells me, the early arrival time ultimately worked against us.

Passport control isn’t open yet, meaning we’re now queuing with hundreds of other people from earlier flights, including a flight from Sydney.

An hour-and-45-minute wait at customs isn’t the ideal welcome to San Francisco after a 14-hour hour flight, but it’s smooth sailing once I reach a customs official.

A couple of questions about the purpose of my travel and when I’m leaving, and I’ve got my stamp, and am on my way to collect my bags, then to enjoy the city.

The writer flew as a guest of United Airlines.

Top tips:

  • Before booking your flights or finalising your itinerary, check what is required for Australian travellers.
  • Head to the Smart Traveller website for the latest advice and check out the Centres for Disease Control for the latest entry requirements to the United States.
  • Take a pack of surgical masks, and change them every few hours. Masks aren’t required in US airspace or airports, but are still recommended by the CDC.
  • Take some RAT tests to self-test while away and Panadol in case you contract COVID-19 while on your trip.
  • Organise comprehensive travel insurance, including coverage for COVID-19 related illness. It will be invaluable should you need it, and is good sense these days.

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