Miami. A city regarded as both glamorous and seedy. But the glitzy side of its image does not extend to its airport.
Travelling to Latin America, especially Central America – to which you cannot fly direct from the UK - you may well discover that it is most convenient to route through the USA. Another attraction of this routing is the option to fly with British Airways as far as the States, especially if you are seeking to use the excellent and good value World Traveller Plus cabin. In this case you should choose a hub with a connecting time of at least 3 hrs and, in the case of Miami, 4 hrs is advisable. Why?
The USA does not accept the concept of “In Transit”. This being the case you have to go through Immigration Control along with US-bound passengers, and acquire a visa waiver (ESTA). If you have not been able to issue a boarding pass for your connecting flight before departure on the first flight (eg if you are on a through ticket using the 2 airlines rather than 2 separate tickets), you will have to go to the airline check-in area and queue again. This can be extremely time-consuming, especially on the return journey.
On my recent visit US Immigration officers admitted that their computer system is frequently offline – as it was on this occasion - which means that the average 5 minutes necessary to process each passenger at Immigration Control extends to 20. Airline check-in desks are equally slow and under-manned – as few as 3 staff checking in a full load for a jumbo jet, all passengers seemingly travelling with the entire contents of their house.
The following is a guide to surviving Miami based on my recent experience flying BA/AA in the high season when flights are all full.
- Before departure, print off the receipt and reference number of your ESTA. If you don’t and the US Immigration computer system is down, you may be seriously delayed.
- Fill in the Advanced Passenger Information fields on your BA booking in “Manage My Booking” on the BA website. For destination in the USA insert the address of Miami airport (available on the internet); without it you cannot complete the API and print off your BA boarding pass.
- 24hrs before departure, print off your BA boarding pass. If you have a separate booking for AA you can print the connecting flight boarding pass too. If you have a combined ticket you may not be able to do so (the advantage of the combined ticket is that the airlines are responsible for the connections).
- Upon arrival at Miami airport, deplane briskly and proceed as quickly as your dignity allows you to Immigration. It’s a long way - 10 minutes’ walk - via escalators and a sky train. Do not pause to go to the loo (the toilets are, to put it kindly, significantly retro.) Do not say politely to your fellow passenger “After you”. When you get to Immigration (there are 79 desks) you will join the uni-queue. Towards the front the concept of uni-queue is abandoned and it is a free for all (though on busy days a charming lady may be barking orders – ignore her at your peril). The shortest queues are at the furthest desks, 65-79 – push your way through. Have your ESTA receipt handy. Make sure you have filled in a Customs declaration form.
- If you are travelling BA/AA you should have been able to check your bags through to your final destination with an orange tag put on in the UK. If so, you will not need to collect your bag in Miami, in spite of advice to the contrary from local officials. Double check with the BA rep in Baggage Reclaim if you like.
- If you have long layovers, you can buy a day pass for the Admirals Club which is for 24 hours and is 50 USD. In that, you get wifi, a decent breakfast (bagels, muffins, cream cheese, jam and honey, yogurt, juice, coffees and teas), snacks, access to good showers and a quiet place where you can put the chairs together and nap.
- Proceed to Connecting Flights for AA. You will arrive at a single desk AA where you can check in for the connecting flight if necessary and go straight through Security and on to the departure gate.
- When departing Latin America for your flight back to Miami, try to obtain both boarding passes (see above).
- Follow the same procedure on arrival in Miami through Immigration as per arrival, but then…
- …because your first flight is on AA, you WILL have to reclaim your baggage in the Miami reclaim hall, carry it with you to Connecting Flights (follow the Queue to the left marked “AA, BA and Iberia”. You will have to be proactive and ask an official where to dump your bag: the area is unsigned.
- If you have your BA boarding pass you can proceed through security to the gate.
- If not, go back to the Departure lounge and head to the BA area in Concourse F (an official may tell you confidently that it is in concourse J. Ignore this misplaced confidence).
- There are no BA automatic check-in machines so you have to queue for “check-in” (not “Bag-drop” as you have already given up your bags) along with all the other passengers and their houses. If you are running short of time, approach a BA agent directly with your plea. The kind agent I spoke to was sympathetic and hinted at “flexibility”, although this did not go down well with the queuing lady passenger in front of whom I had inserted myself.
- Proceed to Departures and go through the security queuing rigmarole. Make sure that your passport has been checked.
- By now you have lost the will to live or at the least acquired a headache. Be warned there are no Boots-like shops at Miami just one small booth in Arrivals at Concourse D selling aspirin and cold cures.
Good luck. I am still waiting for my bags… but that’s another story.