A Girl and Two Dogs Go to Austria
Wow, the first couple of weeks since I left American soil have been a whirlwind, to say the least!
To go back a little bit, I should explain this two-week Rumspringa I decided to take before the Fulbright. When I was making my travel plans, I originally planned to leave on or around September 15th, and head straight into orientation on the 17th. However, a few members of my family mentioned they might be interested in escorting me on my maiden voyage to Austria. Because I knew I’d be traveling with two dogs and two huge bags, I was excited to take them up on the offer.
Due to work, my family needed to try to plan the trip over Labor Day. The thing is, that would have left me with another week before the lease on my apartment started, and renting an AirBnB by myself would have been too cost-prohibitive for me to do. Then, fortuitously, I received a text from Erin, a close friend of mine since high school, expressing her eagerness to visit me in Vienna and asking when I arrived. I proposed that she visit me in the week between when my family left and my lease started, and she generously agreed to my plan!
Two American Dogs and a (Stressed) American Girl
First: the trip itself. It was probably one of the most stressful flying experiences I have ever had!
The day before, as I was packing and doing some last-minute errands, I noticed I was not allowed to check in online. It kept asking me for visa information. I thought this was odd, as I’ve traveled one-way with no return date and never been asked for a visa. I did have a round trip this time, but technically Americans are allowed visa-free entry for 90 days into the Schengen area, so it hadn’t been on my mind. Fulbrighters are given the opportunity to apply for their visa once they arrive in Austria, so I did not have a visa yet, just my paperwork.
I tried not to worry about it, but it was really weighing on my mind. So I called Austrian Airlines, and the customer service representative informed me I wouldn’t be allowed on the flight without a visa, and that’s why I couldn’t check in online. I tried explaining the Schengen visa thing, etc. but she insisted there was no way I’d be able to check in or take this flight tomorrow without a visa. She said I needed a letter from the embassy proving what I said was indeed true.
Off I went in an anxiety cloud, shooting off emails, calling the New York consulate, and generally trying to decipher this new wrench in the plan. Even the consulate wasn’t sure what to do, but in the end, wrote me an email to serve as “proof” I was allowed to board, and also told me to print off the page from the Embassy citing that Fulbrighters were allowed to enter Austria for more than 90 days without a visa.
There was little to do but wait— I still could not check in online, despite emails and calls to Austrian Airlines— and wait I did, albeit a bit nervously. After speaking to some international colleagues, this apparently happens a lot! The airline doesn’t want to have to pay for a return flight, should someone be rejected by customs once they arrive in their destination country. However, airlines shouldn’t really be acting as immigration agents themselves, so if you know you’re within your rights to be traveling visa-free, then it’s worth pressing the issue.
Our trip to the airport was uneventful. I was really worried about the dogs having to hold “their business” for over 12 hours, so we stopped at a park in Queens to let them relieve themselves. After that, I settled on line with my two enormous bags and my two little dogs. I was directed to the “special cases” window where people with babies or other needs were being taken care of. Yes! That meant skipping the huge check-in line. Except it ended up not being the blessing it seemed.
I found myself quickly explaining the visa situation, worried I’d be hindered, but the representative from Austrian Airlines checking me in didn’t seem to care at all about that issue. What he did care about were my two dogs. He said there was no way I’d be allowed on the plane with two dogs. I handed him a printout of a long email chain with Austrian Airlines that verified they had approved my special request for traveling with two dogs in the cabin.
He insisted there was no way I’d be allowed my two dogs in the cabin. We were at an impasse. Finally he told me to get off the line and go ask his supervisor. The thing is, none of this sounds that bad on the surface. However, when weighed down by two anxious, hyperstimulated terriers, plus two huge bags and a backpack, even traveling across the room to seek out the Austrian Airlines supervisor was a Herculean task.
Again, as seems to be the theme with these things, the supervisor seemed to have no idea what I was talking about, glanced at my email exchange with Austrian Airlines, shrugged and said it was fine. He didn’t mark my ticket or anything, so when I went back to the desk, it was basically just my word that the supervisor had approved my two dogs. If I were more inclined to deception, I may have had a smoother time of it.
The check-in agent I had next (a different person than my original guy) said, "I knew you were fine to have two dogs the whole time." She then helped me avoid a huge fee for my overweight bag by charging me instead for two 50 kg bags instead of by the kilogram.
My family had arrived during the course of this whole saga, so once I was finally finished checking in, we headed to security together. The TSA agent separated me from my family and sent me to a separate line for additional screening due to the dogs.
My family protested— much of the point of traveling together was so that they could help me by either holding one dog for me or watching them as I had to deal with my bags or my own screening— but the TSA agent sassily said, “She’s going her own special way. You move along!” We had no choice but to separate.
I had to go through the metal detector no less than five times, shedding more items of clothing both from myself and from the dogs as we went. Off went the collars, leashes, watches, rings, but still it was beeping. It was decided it must be my hiking boots.
As I was trying to get my shoes back on, struggling to hold my collarless dogs still between my legs, an Austrian Airlines pilot came through— I’d assume it was the pilot of the plane I was about to take.
“Can I help you with anything?” He asked, watching me struggle as my dogs wriggled beneath me.
“No, thank you,” I replied, embarrassed. A line of impeccably dressed Austrian Air flight attendants came through after him.
Fortunately, my family found me soon after, and they were able to help me get the collars and leashes back on the dogs.
The flight went without much incident, and the flight attendant even said, “I saw you back there with the two dogs, and was hoping you’d be on my flight!” Hera did escape once, which I didn’t even notice because I was snoozing a bit. She had wriggled out of her now-loose collar to try to make her bid for freedom.
The dogs were, overall, well-behaved, but they’re generally high-strung and difficult at times. Mostly, they really wanted to be held the entire time. Zeus, my little chihuahua, is very needy and loves to be held constantly, so I wasn’t surprised by that. However, Hera, my bigger girl, can usually be a little more independent. However, from being afraid on the plane, she insisted on being in my lap the entire flight. It was starting to kill my back from trying to hold both of them, but fortunately, we figured out a way to let Hera snuggle between us so that she felt safe and cared for.
Without my family, this is a trip that would have been near impossible to manage. Their help and mere presence made this trip go from nightmarish to something I could handle. Fortunately, I’ll have the chance to bring my dogs back to the U.S. unencumbered by my huge bag, so I’ll plan to only bring a small bag with me so I can focus on their travel. It will still be tricky with just me on my own, but I’ll make it work.
I was dreading going through Austrian customs— everything had been such a trial up until that point— but when I arrived, he basically checked Hera out, declined my offer to show him Zeus, and when I asked if everything was okay, he said (in German):
“Everything’s okay— you’re in Austria now!”