Travel Roulette

We had a great vacation in St. Lucia over the holidays, but boy–traveling these days isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m not talking about spending long hours in a mask, either. There is so much uncertainty about pretty much everything, plans can change on a dime, and you’ve got to be willing to endure some stress and be quick about making alternative arrangements if necessary.

Here are some of the things that make travel so difficult:

  • Departure COVID tests — Many overseas destinations, like St. Lucia, require them. Some people have experienced long lines to get tested; that was not a problem for us (we took one of the self-administered tests at the CVS drive-through pharmacy). Other than the basic unpleasantness of the test itself–I always think of the Vinnie Barbarino comment from the ’70s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, “Up your nose with a rubber hose!”–the main issue for us was trying to time the test to provide the results in time to meet the reporting requirements while also falling within the three days of departure time period. If you’re getting ready to travel, you’ll probably spend a fair amount of time checking your phone for results.
  • Flight cancellations — There were a lot of flight cancellations over the holidays, and you wonder how long the cancellation problems will continue. The cancellations seem totally random and unpredictable, and the airlines tend to rebook you as if there is no problem (or schedule disruption, or cost) iinvolved in your staying longer somewhere. We lucked out and didn’t experience a cancellation, but our travel partners did and had to stay an extra day. Fortunately, it didn’t mess up their plans too much. If you’re traveling, I’d recommend building a potential “cancellation day” into your travel plans.
  • Return COVID tests — In my view, the return COVID test is a lot more troubling than the departure test, especially if you are overseas. There are lots of reports of fully vaccinated people who faithfully followed mask rules and maintained prudent social distancing and still tested positive. Once that happens, even if you are asymptomatic, you’re looking at multiple days of quarantine, and in some places you apparently have to go to a special quarantine facility. When your departure test comes back negative, it is an enormous relief.
  • The condition of airports — Admittedly, our return flights yesterday probably were on one of the peak days of the holiday travel season. Still, the conditions were pretty grim. There not only were long lines, documentation issues, and lots of trying to understand what masked people were saying, but when we reached the U.S. the conditions at the Miami airport were pretty pathetic. Trash cans were full to the point of overflowing, lots of eating places seemed to be closed, and the restrooms didn’t exactly pass the white glove treatment. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that one of the levels of hell is eternity spent in a men’s restroom in a busy American airport during a hectic holiday travel day. I found myself wondering if the conditions were due to staffing shortages, which seems to be a problem with a lot of places right now.

We don’t have any travel on the horizon in the immediate future, and that’s probably a good thing. Perhaps, in a few months, the craziness will subside a bit

One Country’s Approach To COVID

Our trip to St. Lucia was the first time we’ve been out of the United States since the COVID pandemic turned the world topsy-turvy. It was interesting to see how a different country was dealing with the issues presented by a pandemic that still lingers after two years.

St. Lucia is one of those countries that requires a lot of documentation before you can enter. That’s totally understandable: it’s an island nation, and its health care facilities could be overwhelmed if there was a bad outbreak. The necessary paperwork includes vaccination cards and booster cards, on-line submission of travel authorization forms that have to be approved by the St. Lucia travel office, and proof of a negative COVID test that was taken within three days of your departure date. The three-day test and travel authorization approval can create some friction. You hope to get the test results quickly enough to transmit them to the travel office in plenty of time to get the approval.

In our case, we didn’t get the test results until the day before our departure and then hit a snag when the travel office asked us to retransmit data only a few hours before our early morning flight was scheduled to leave. That required us to do some scrambling at the airport, by calling the travel office to ask them to look at the resubmitted data and send a new authorization approval so that the airline could print it out on paper and we could take it as part of our packet of documentation. That started off our trip with a jolt of stress, but fortunately, thanks to the help of a friendly woman at the St. Lucia travel office, the very nice people behind the counter at American Airlines, and the fact that my uptight traveler ways caused us to get to the airport very early, we got the paperwork done and were on our way.

When we arrived in St. Lucia, we had to present all of our materials–vaccination and booster cards, printed travel authorization approval form, and negative test results–in the new first step of the arrival process. We waited in long lines as nurses wearing full COVID-proof garb, including face shields, went through the paperwork for each traveler and carefully examined the various materials. If you passed muster and were fully vaccinated, as we were, you were given a plastic wrist bracelet just like the kind you would get at an amusement park and told to wear it during your entire time in St. Lucia. (I’m not sure what was done with the unvaccinated.) Then, with bracelets on, we were directed to a different line for different officials to review our passports and other entrance forms.

On our drive from the airport to Ti Kaye we didn’t see any locals wearing masks or bracelets. At our resort, however, the staff always was masked, and the rule was for guests to wear masks in common areas, such as when you were entering the restaurants for lunch or dinner. At the upper restaurant, our wrist temperatures were taken and logged in a book whenever we showed up for breakfast and dinner, so somewhere there is a fulsome record of my temperature on each day of our stay. No one wore masks on the beach or poolside, and temperatures weren’t taken at the seaside grille where we had lunch.

The morning of the day before our departure we had another COVID test taken, by a nurse on site at Ti Kaye, and then got a document attesting that we had tested negative. We took that to the airport when we left. At the airport, we had our temperatures taken again and had to fill out an additional form attesting that we had tested negative, and then presented the airline desk with all of the paperwork (including our vaccination cards) in order to get our boarding passes. Whether it was the time involved in paperwork review or just the holiday travel crush, the airport featured long lines, and even though we got to the airport more than two hours before the flight we just barely caught our plane. When we finally got back to Columbus, early this morning, we breathed a sigh of relief and finally cut off our bracelets.

In short, if you’re traveling internationally, be prepared to jump through a few extra hoops, endure some stress, and pay careful attention to the paperwork requirements. And give yourself some extra time at the airport!