Flying During Covid
Greetings from Denali National Park. Deals on flights and lodging are abundant; and so are the headaches. My parents are here with me because their Hawaiian trip was canceled when Governor Ige extended the 14-day mandatory quarantine to 7/31. The UK has the same policy and three airlines are suing the UK government because they can´t turn a profit with such strict measures. Obviously we need to keep people safe, but very few will go on a vacation that requires 14-days of quarantine. I have already cancelled two flights this year. The uncertainty is keeping a lot of would-be flyers in their cars or at home.
Alaska has more onerous rules than most states do, but for a $400 direct flight and a chance to beat the Texas heat, I was willing to comply. In order to fly to Alaska you: 1. have to have negative results from a Covid PCR test taken less than 72 hours before your departing flight, 2. Self-quarantine at your own expense for 14 days, 3. Submit to a Covid PCR test at the airport and self-quarantine until the results come back. According to their website, the results from the airport could take anywhere from a few hours to a week! Your service person will arrive anywhere between 9AM and next Thursday.
Finding a place to get a Covid test within 72 hours of departure was a nightmare. I first used the link from the Alaska travel site to find a center in my zip code. Their site recommended www.anylabtestnow.com and one click later, I found out Any Lab Test Now only has antibody tests that say whether or not you have had Covid. I needed the PCR test that says whether or not you currently have it. I then tried a PrimaCare office that informed me that they have run out of tests. They recommended a drive-thru test facility and I booked a test and they cancelled it over email. I called and found out that they don’t take reservations and they were getting results back in about 7-8 days. What is wrong with our healthcare system? The majority of people, will have recovered before they find out whether or not they even had Covid. CVS minute clinic didn’t have an available appointment in DFW at all. The next clinic I tried had their first appointment in six days.
Trying to find a facility and getting answers about how long it would take to get the results, the cost, and how to schedule was frustrating. The United States is still totally unprepared for Covid. Korea and Japan have completely embarrassed us. They had less time to prepare than we did and were able to stop Corona before it became a pandemic.. The Princess Cruise ship, with 700 infected, docked off Japan on February, 3. The Covid Crisis is now over for Japan, without a strict lockdown, and they had less than 1,000 deaths out of a population of 126 million!
I finally found an emergency clinic in Lewisville and scheduled the only appointment they had available before my flight. Upon arrival, I was informed that the rapid test that I had scheduled was not a molecular PCR test that the Alaskan travel website says will qualify. The staff said that the rapid test was just as accurate and the PCR test was also a nasal swab and would take two to five days to get results. I frantically searched Google while moisture clouded my glasses from my mask. A young woman, who looked like she just got back from Spring Break in the Ozarks, loudly announced to the receptionist that both her roommates are Covid positive and she has a bad cough. I tried to hold my breath. Oh great, I thought to myself. I don’t know a single person who has Covid and now I am going to get it sitting in this cramped waiting room with ten people who all think they have Covid!
I decided to get the rapid result test so that I could land with proof I was negative. It was the same test my parents paid for and at least we would all be in the same boat. More stress, just to go on a vacation. Hopefully we wouldn´t have to take another test at the airport and self-quarantine for 2 days..
The Covid test involves a nurse shoving a Q-tip up each nostril to swab the bottom of your brain and it takes about 10 seconds. I was then sent to sit in my car and waited about 30 minutes for them to rub magic dust on my boogers to determine the fate of my trip. I spent 90 minutes at the clinic in total. It was chaotic, stressful, and they couldn´t answer all of my questions. I think my insurance company is going to pay for the test even though I will not hit my $5,000 deductible this year. If they don’t, I am out $175.
Meanwhile, American Airlines emailed me two warnings how the flight was 100% booked and we could exchange our tickets to another flight without a transfer fee. When my app alerted me to check in, I saw an offer to switch flights and get a $500 voucher for the $400 ticket I purchased. Some poor employee at American didn´t realize that virtually nobody would want to reschedule an over-booked flight because we all had a tight window to avoid a quarantine upon landing.
My parents and I arrived at the airport with our Covid results and our Mandatory Declaration form for Out of State Travelers filled out. DFW airport was dead. It looks like many restaurants and stores can´t afford to be open with such a meager supply of travelers. Most people wore masks in the airport, with the exception of people eating and talking on their cell phones.
Besides everyone wearing masks, flying hasn´t changed much since my last, pre-Covid flight. Every seat on our flight was full and there was a mixture of all ages flying to Anchorage. While most people were wearing a proper mask (one guy had a huge face shield on, too), I estimate that about 20% of the people at both airports and on the flight weren´t in compliance. There are a lot of people that think the masks doesn´t go over your nose and there were a lot being worn as chin straps.
The Anchorage airport experience was really disappointing. We were greeted to a sea of people in line ahead of us upon exiting the plane. Many of us had filled out the paper forms to try and expedite the process only to find out they were not accepting those forms and we had to use an e-form that barely functioned on Android. Somehow there were two lines and nobody could figure out how and why some people were able to cut to the shorter line. It took an hour to get through the line, but fortunately our rapid test was accepted.
Advice for Traveling this Summer
With gas under $2 in Texas, this is really a great time to for a road-trip. We had a really nice time visiting state parks in May and visiting some vineyards in Fredericksburg. State Parks are really fantastic and can make a nice trip where you can stay away from crowded places. If you want to get far away, there are some really good deals on flights. The best place to find them is still flights.google.com. To limit your frustrations, I would try to find a place in the U.S. that is already open and doesn’t have testing restrictions. The Covid test requirements to enter Alaska and Hawaii (after 7/31) add a lot of stress to a trip and you will waste a lot of time trying to find a testing center.
If you can’t find a place you want to visit in the United States, I would consider Mexico and some of the Caribbean Islands. I personally would not consider trying to go to Europe or Asia this year. Octoberfest in Munich has already been cancelled. With rules changing capriciously, you can use Can I Travel.net to help you plan where you can go.
Traveling in 2020 is a lot more work than before. We decided to exchange our Prague trip for Hawaii this year and were able to book lodging for about 2/3rds of the regular prices. Alaska tourism is dead right now and it is nice to not be surrounded by crowds. Is there somewhere that you have wanted to go to that is normally really expensive? This could be the year to go there without breaking your budget. When booking recent travel, I have been careful to read the fine print and have been paying a little more for lodging with good cancellation policies. I am avoiding anything that doesn’t offer a full refund if something outside of my control prevents me to go on the trip.
It broke my heart to cancel my August trip to Argentina. I had a perfect flight for less than $600, but things are too uncertain there to make any plans. Despite hearing rumors that the commercial flight ban would be lifted before September 1st, I decided on June 29th that it wasn’t a good decision to hold out hope that the trip was going to happen. Despite only having 1,200 Covid deaths over 45 million people, Argentina has had one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Even if my mid-August flight was going to make, there is a good chance that I would be under a curfew or be required to quarantine. Since I wanted to go on a different trip in August, I cancelled my United flight to Argentina. Below were the two options for cancelling. I usually fly basic economy and it has been nice to be able to get vouchers for cancelling flights that normally offer no refunds.
If you would like to get your cash back instead of a voucher, you need the airline to change your flight substantially (generally more than 2 hours or add a connection). You can also get your cash refunded to you if the airline cancels your flight. As Scott’s Cheap Flights states, ¨it is a game of chicken.¨ Airlines are cancelling flights very close to departure dates to avoid giving customers their cash back as they bleed millions of dollars each month. If YOU cancel the ticket, they give you a voucher. If THEY cancel the flight, they legally have to give you your money back. I travel enough where a two-year voucher is as good as cash to me. If you decide to cancel a trip, you need to wait until they change or cancel the flight if you want your cash back.
If you haven’t booked your flight yet, look at the fine print and make sure that there are no change fees. If it costs you a little more to have flexibility, pay it, and consider the extra money an insurance policy against the unexpected. As you can see, travel in 2020 is complicated and more stressful than it should be. I look forward to getting past this dystopia we are all living in soon and wish you a safe and happy Summer.