Flying to and from a destination is almost always my least favorite part of trip. There are crowds, long waits, seats with little legroom, the person in front reclining their chair back into your knees, jostling for position at the gate, flight delays, flight cancellations, airlines regularly changing flight departure and arrival times, fellow passengers refusing to wear masks and misbehaving in other ways, arguments and fighting, and other unpleasantries associated with most commercial flying. It's difficult for me to believe that anyone would ever choose to subject themselves to this other than as a "necessary evil" to get to a desired location. As is usual for most trips to exciting places, my least favorite part of our trip to Puerto Rico was getting there and returning home.
Denver to San Juan: The Debacle in Orlando
We flew Frontier Airlines from Denver to San Juan with a long (6-hour) layover in the Orlando International Airport (MCO). I dreaded the thought of a 6-hour layover, but it would turn out to be far worse as the flight from Orlando to San Juan was delayed 5 fours (11 hour total layover).
Had we known the overall layover was going to be 11 hours, we would have left the airport and done something in Orlando during some of that time. We even considered that for the scheduled 6 hour layover, but the period of time that layover covered (6 am to noon) meant that a lot of things were not open yet in Orlando.
As the above image shows, many Frontier flights out of Orlando were delayed that day. Most of the delays appeared to be attributed to a storm in the area that prevented flights from arriving in Orlando, so the airplanes used to fly out of Orlando were not present. We have flown Frontier Airlines to Orlando as our ultimate destination and that direct flight has worked well enough for us. As with many destinations, it seems best if one can fly directly to San Juan rather than connecting.
The terminal at Orlando International Airport with the Frontier gates (Terminal A) got really crowded at times. As the area heated up and became more humid if the afternoon, people stopped trying as hard to keep their masks on and more and more masks starting falling below noses and even mouths. I was happy that we had been vaccinated for COVID-19 before this trip because this definitely felt like a potential superspreader event. There are multiple gates in a small area in that terminal and with most flights being significantly delayed, there was no avoiding the mass of humanity sequeezed into a small space. Fortunately, the majority of people did continue wearing masks despite the increasing discomfort.
When we finally boarded the airplane to fly to San Juan, we were delayed again because two families on the airplane had small children older than two years old who refused to wear masks. I felt for everyone involved (the flight attendants, the families with children that refused to wear masks, and the rest of us who just wanted to take off after such a long wait). In the end, both families had to leave the airplane and we headed to San Juan. We made good time and got to San Juan about the same time as expected before the wait for the families to get off the airplane.
Unfortunately, we arrived in San Juan very late due to the 5 hour delay and that dashed our plans to eat dinner that first night at La Estación in Fajardo (we had made reservations in anticipation of this). That was disappointing enough, but even worse the Puerto Rico curfew due to COVID-19 meant that the airport eating establishments and restaurants in San Juan were all closed to new customers as well. We ended up purchasing food at gas stations in Fajardo and were happy to have even that.
San Juan to Denver: Some Improvement
Our flight back from San Juan to Denver had another layover in Orlando International Airport. We ate dinner at On the Border in that same terminal to kill some of the layover time. The flight out of Orlando was again delayed, but this time only for an hour and that seemed small compared to our troubles getting out of that airport to go to San Juan.
For the flight home, it was the San Juan Airport (Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, SJU) that was most stressful. We left Old San Juan with more than 2 1/2 hours until our flight was scheduled to depart and that worked out well because there was worse traffic than expected and we got to the airport with about 2 hours and ten minutes still until our scheduled departure time. We needed the vast majority of that time to wait in three lines (the agriculture check line, the Frontier check-in line, and the TSA security line). The third line (TSA security) was by far the longest wait. The next photograph shows a small portion of this line that went back-and-forth.
When we first got into the TSA security line, I thought there was no way we'd make our flight in time, but it did move faster than I expected. Behind us, I heard some young women pleading with the TSA agent to let them through the line in front of others "because our flight is scheduled to depart in ten minutes," but the TSA agent pointed out to them that this was the situation for many people in that same line. I think that many of us have become accustomed to not really needing to be to the airport 2 hours in advance for domestic flights, but that 2 hours was needed on this day in a very busy San Juan Airport. We would have made our airplane's scheduled departure time and would have beaten the scheduled time for closing the gate, but our flight ended up getting delayed for about 30 minutes, allowing us time to purchase lunch at the nearby Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen.
The agriculture inspection line was very fast, but you needed to know to get into it or could wait for the airlines check-in line before being told you needed to take your luggage through the agriculture inspection line before checking it. Fortunately, a sign near the beginning of the line for Frontier Airlines checkin stated this.
I took my laptop bag through the agriculture inspection line, but the woman working that line and applying the green adhesive strips to the checked luggage told me laptop bags did not need the check or the marking and that turned out to be the case. Bags must go through this agriculture inspection line for passengers traveling from Puerto Rico to other parts of the United States. The San Juan Airport's information page explains:
All the baggage of passengers traveling from Puerto Rico to the United States must go through the inspection process. This inspection will be performed by officials of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), located at the entrance of all the terminals thru the airport.
That same page also lists permitted and non-permitted items.
Lessons Learned and Other Observations Regarding Flying to San Juan
- If possible, book a direct flight to San Juan, especially during COVID-19 when curfew limits the hours restaurants can be open in San Juan. This doesn't guarantee anything, but one fewer connecting flight means one less opportunity for something to go wrong.
- If it appears that a connecting (or even direct) flight to San Juan is going to get you there anywhere close to the curfew, purchase some food items in the departure airport to carry with you because you may have very limited dining options in San Juan as curfew approaches.
- Avoid planning things to do in Puerto Rico on arrival day unless you have back-up plans for those activities.
- If traveling from Puerto Rico to other parts of the United States, do these things in this order:
- Run bags through agriculture inspection line near front doors to terminal.
- Check-in at airline's counter (if checking bags or checking in there instead of at the gate).
- Go through the TSA security line.
Many of these lessons learned and observations really apply when flying anywhere, especially during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
My posts on traveling to the Puerto Rico "Spanish Virgin Islands" of Culebra and Vieques will cover our flights there in a more detailed fashion, but suffice it to say that those short flights with tiny and nearly empty airports were far more pleasurable than flying to and from San Juan. Instead of being a "necessary evil" to get to those fantastic islands, those flights were part of the adventure!