All set for our trip to Las Vegas via London. We left early Tuesday for London where we were going to spend one night before connecting onto our Wednesday morning flight to Las Vegas. After landing in Gatwick's north terminal, we headed over to the south terminal to the Virgin Atlantic counters for twilight check-in which allows us to check our baggage in 24 hours before our flight.
First surprise was that the monorail/train connecting both terminals was closed for repairs and will re-open only in August 2010. With two children (seven and one) in tow, along with ten assorted pieces of luggage and hand-carry bags, we dragged ourselves on to the bus. We head straight for the Virgin check-in counters and wait while Security asks us the standard questions about packing our bags ourselves while he scrutinizes our passports. He starts asking us questions about our passports and whether they were electronic or not. He seemed skeptical but allowed us to check-in anyway. Right before we get our boarding passes, the same security person comes over and asks for our passports one more time. This time he seemed more sure of himself. After several more minutes of hemming and hawing, we were told to step aside to be told that three (mine and the kids) out of our five passports were not valid for travel to the united States as they weren't biometric. That was the second surprise of the day. What's a biometric passport? A passport issued post-2006 that includes an electronic chip embedded on the cover which has a persons' personal information - fingerprints, photo etc. On the other hand, my husband's pre-2006 issued non-biometric passport was valid for travel and so was our nanny's passport which had a valid U.S. visa. When we insisted that we had used the same exact passports to travel to the U.S. in February of this year, we were told that we had somehow gotten through that one time and that we weren't going to be allowed in this time around. We were given two options so we could travel to the U.S. - get a U.S. visa (impossible as anyone who has ever been issued a US visa can tell you as it takes at least a week after calling a toll-free number for an appointment) or get a new biometric Swiss passport which takes 60 days and a personal appearance.
At this point, we had been up since 8 a.m. and had not had anything to eat since then and it was already 5 p.m. So, once again, we dragged ourselves and the ten assorted pieces of luggage to the airport hotel where we checked-in and spent another three hours calling the Swiss embassies in Madrid and London, the American embassy in Madrid trying to sort the problem out. We also had to make a fast decision regarding the tickets and change the flights for a later date or risk losing all of them. Next, we changed our easyJet flights to Malaga to fly back home the next day. We went to the restaurant for a quick dinner then started to email and call all the family and friends who were waiting for us to arrive in Las Vegas. My sisters thought I was joking but realized that even I couldn't make up a story like that. After a sleepless night, we went to London for a few hours to have lunch and go to Selfridges but I just couldn't get into the Christmas spirit and so we went back to Gatwick to get ready for the flight home.
That overnight stay in London was the shortest "holiday" I ever took with the most luggage and the most stressful travel experience I have ever had. It's been four days now and we're still mired in administrative work - getting the paperwork for the US visas ready and trying to mail over most of the items we bought online that we were planning to take back with us, just to name a few. It's been a very tiring, frustrating and disappointing week. Being (forcibly) kept away from family and friends makes this Christmas sad and depressing. I just don't have the energy for Christmas cheer this year.
P.S. For Swiss passport holders: Remember that if you have a passport issued pre-2006, you will be allowed to enter the U.S. without a visa. For all other Swiss passports issued post-2006, you will need to have either a valid U.S. visa or a biometric passport (not to be confused with an electronically readable passport). If you intend to change your current non-biometric Swiss passport now, better to wait it out until March 2010 when all Swiss consulates will be able to issue biometric passports making the application process easier.