With 2021 drawing to a close, it’s clear that Covid isn’t ready to loosen its spiky grip on the world.
The pandemic is grinding on after almost two long years, and now the highly contagious Omicron variant is spreading like wildfire. There are still so many unknowns: Just how dangerous is Omicron? Who is at greatest risk? How effective are the vaccines? Real data is just starting to filter in, but early indications are that the disease caused by Omicron might not be as severe and that boosted vaccines offer strong protection. But what about the next variant, and the one after that?
Speaking for just about everyone on the planet, we’re exhausted and discouraged. But for us travel addicts, Covid offers plenty of extra pitfalls. How do we indulge our jones to wander while keeping ourselves, and others, safe? And – with apologies to Rudyard Kipling – how do we keep our cool when everyone around us is losing theirs? That, in a nutshell, is travel in the age of Covid.
Here are some lessons we’ve learned as we dip our toes into the daunting new world of travel.
1. Be prepared for testing, testing, testing.
Don’t like having a stick up your nose? Well, if you’re committed to multi-country, international travel, get used to it. And be aware that Covid testing can take a serious bite out of your travel budget, depending on the countries you’re visiting.
On our recent trip to the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Bonaire, we had to get three costly PCR tests over the course of a week: one to enter Aruba, another to enter Bonaire, and then another to re-enter Aruba for our flight home to Colombia. The PCRs on Bonaire were especially pricey at $170 apiece (someone out there’s making some serious money on Covid testing, I tell ya!). Not only did we spend a chunk of money on testing alone, we had to use some of our valuable island time looking for testing places and setting up appointments and had to arrange our activities around the 48-hour time time window for valid tests. And there’s no exemption for fully vaccinated folks like us.
We get it. All of the ABC islands have been slammed by Covid, so we completely understand their need to protect their citizens as much as possible. But the hard truth is that we now have to factor the expense of covid testing in to every trip budget, especially if we’ll be hopping between multiple countries. No problem – if it’s the price we have to pay to help these countries keep their populations safe, while still enjoying some travel freedom, we’re willing to do it.
2. Get vaccinated and boosted (when you’re eligible).
Unvaccinated travelers face growing obstacles as country after country tightens its restrictions for visitors. As we speak, our home country of Colombia has just implemented a new rule for tourists – no vaccination, no entry. And in many countries, you will be limited in terms of where you can go in public. Just last week, we were “carded” for the
first time to get into a restaurant in Medellín (part of a recently enacted rule preventing unvaccinated from entering many types of public venues).
This just in: According to BBC news, UK researchers are saying that vaccine boosters likely provide up to 85% protection against serious illness caused by Omicron. Good news!
3. Stay informed.
Covid entry requirements for various countries are a moving target, especially as more information unfolds about Omicron. In fact, everything in this post will probably be obsolete by this afternoon, so getting up-to-the-minute info is critical. Also, be aware that many countries require that travelers complete an online application with uploaded test results and vaccine info BEFORE they arrive (we encountered that in both Aruba and Bonaire, and Colombia has its own version now). Be sure to check the health ministry website of the country you’ll be visiting for the most accurate information.
Here’s a great feature on the CNN website that breaks down current Covid entry requirements for some of the world’s most popular destinations, together with Covid news updates from many countries. (Note: This is best viewed on a computer or using the CNN app, if you’re on a mobile device.) You can also subscribe to CNN’s Unlocking the World newsletter for up-to-the-minute info.
4. Patience is everything.
Our blogger friend Debbie writes the excellent travel blog “My Teeth Fell Off the Charles Bridge” (yes, there’s a cool story behind that!), about her and her husband Ron’s experiences as travelers and former expats in Nicaragua. In a perfect example of Murphy’s Law, Debbie recently posted about their aborted trip to Iceland. In parts funny, sad, and infuriating, it encapsulates perfectly everything that’s challenging about international travel right now.
As Debbie pointed out so astutely, air travel had already become nightmarish long before Covid. Putting a lot of tired and frustrated people together in a situation they can’t control, one that’s bound to create lots of hardship or disappointment for them, is a recipe for a lot of anger. The media is no doubt contributing by over-hyping every outrageous thing passengers have done lately. (Have you seen this one, just out today??) But I swear I don’t remember any stories about passengers punching flight attendants and knocking out their teeth before Covid. Or people screaming obscenities at other people they’ve never met, just because they can’t get to their overhead bag. It seems that Covid has dialed up the travel rage-o-meter, a lot.
Another by-product of the pandemic is the intense labor shortage in the service industry. We waited an hour and a half after landing in Aruba for our rental car, simply because the poor overwhelmed staff was backed up and unable to process cars in time. And at restaurant after restaurant, servers were stretched thin with too many tables.
The upshot? When you’re packing your bags, make sure and include a ton of patience and empathy for airline crews and other service folks who are doing their best – and fellow travelers who are as stressed as you are.
5. Choose hope.
Since we’re “glass half full” folks, we truly believe that this too shall pass. One reason for hope: how far the world has come in such a short time in understanding, tracking, and treating this virus. About this time last year, the very first doses of Covid-19 vaccines were being rolled out to frontline healthcare workers in the U.S., and as of today almost 60% of the world population has received one dose. Of course there are still huge challenges (don’t get me up on my global vaccine inequity soapbox), but that’s still pretty remarkable.
What will the world look like a year from now? Who knows? But by choosing hope, we can foresee a world in which Covid, while endemic, can be easily prevented with a yearly vaccine, and things are more or less back to “normal.” At least, until the next pandemic (and there WILL be one).
Here’s to lots of fun and carefree travel adventures in 2022 and beyond!