Traveling in COVID Times
Expect the unexpected!
Let me preface this blog by saying I consider myself very privileged and lucky to be able to travel. The purpose of this post is not to complain, but to inform people that even if you are one of the lucky ones that can afford to travel and who has the patience and capacity to navigate these ever-changing times, it still is not easy. Expect the unexpected.
Our decision to head to Hawaii for Christmas 2021 was very much made from necessity. Because of what is currently going on with my family, I could not imagine staying home for Christmas. The only way I could see surviving the pomp and circumstance of the season was to ‘get out of Dodge.’ We booked our flights in the summer of 2021 when travel restrictions were first being lifted, but before we had been introduced to the Delta and Omicron variants. And so began our journey of stress and uncertainty.
Between booking our flights in mid-July and boarding the plane on December 24 there were more than a few ups and downs. The first concern arose when governments in different countries were not aligned on what vaccines they would accept. I was one of the those people that got a mixed dose, and when borders first opened, the US was not allowing people with mixed doses to enter the country. I engaged in a letter-writing campaign to every and any politician I could think of. It took months, but eventually the powers that be got their sh*t together and came up with a common list of approved vaccines.
Every day we woke up wondering if it would be the day
we would have to cancel our trip.
As quickly as this problem resolved itself, another presented. From October to right up to when we left, new lockdowns were being introduced, and travel requirements changed weekly. It was difficult to keep up with the changes, and even more difficult to find current accurate information. Every day we woke up wondering if it would be the day we would have to cancel our trip. And although we had booked our flights and reserved our hotel, it was proving difficult to find any place accepting reservations for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve. Most places did not want to commit to anything until they were 100% sure they were going to be able to accept tourists and host events. So, we were scheduled to go, but were unsure if anything was going to be open when we arrived.
That’s $500+ in testing fees. For a family of five, that would be almost $1,300.
By the end of November, it became clear that regardless of what else changed, we would be required to have a negative COVID test to both fly and enter Hawaii. Because we had been diligent in following the changes, we became aware of this before the panic for Omicron testing began. We were able to reserve tests for 24 hours before our departure with Bon Voyage Medical - $115 each – before panic for testing set in. We also determined that we would need to be tested before being allowed to fly home, so through a link on the WestJet website, we ordered self-testing kits to take with us to Hawaii - $139 each. That’s $500+ in testing fees. For a family of five, that would be almost $1,300. Something to consider because that is a big additional cost for a typical family.
I cannot express how stressful it was having to adhere to this testing. The tests themselves are not a big deal. What is a big deal is that if you receive a positive result, all your plans instantly change, and you must quarantine immediately. If this happens before you leave, then it means a canceled trip and perhaps the loss of money. If it happens when returning home, it means a very expensive extended stay in the place you are visiting.
The not knowing and waiting was pretty anxiety-inducing. The closer it came to testing before our departure, the more convinced I was I had COVID. It proved very difficult not to talk myself into being sick. Fortunately, the only thing we were at risk of losing was one night’s charge at the hotel. Not that I would have been thrilled with that, as when you factor in US exchange and add the cost of the tests, it still would have been a loss of over $1,000.
As it turned out, Bon Voyage was incredibly efficient, and our results came in within the 3-to-5-hour time frame promised. But just to get our hearts racing, my result came in early after only 2 hours, but we waited 2 more hours for my husband’s result. By the time his phone pinged he was convinced that he was going to be positive – why else the time delay? Needless to say, his too was negative. But this information did not come through until 14 hours before our flight was due to leave. Last-minute enough to really pump up the anxiety. But we were thrilled to finally know we were okay to travel.
The line was full of people panicked about potentially missing their flights, begging others to skip the queue. It is easy to understand how and why rage builds up.
Of course, travel is all about hurrying up and waiting. Rush to the airport to spend 15 minutes searching for parking. Rush to Skytrain to stand and wait for the train. Rush to the check-in kiosk to stand in line to drop your bag. Rush to the security line, to stand in line for… 60 minutes! Rush to US Customs and wait in line for 90 minutes. Every stop and start included producing various proofs of vaccination, ID, travel documents. We were crammed shoulder to shoulder in these lineups, with no regard or concern for social distancing, but there was militant policing of mask-wearing. It was hot and uncomfortable. The line was full of people panicked about potentially missing their flights, begging others to skip the queue. It is easy to understand how and why rage builds up.
We finally made it through all the lineups, checks, and crowds with 25 minutes to spare before our flight was scheduled to leave. While stopping to buy some bottled water I checked our flight status on the airport monitors. Right before my eyes, 20 minutes before take-off, our flight switched to CANCELED! Was this a result of COVID? Hard to say. We never got a straight answer as to why it was canceled, but many speculated WestJet canceled the flight because it was not full. We were bumped to a flight departing 8 hours later, which had plenty of room to accommodate everyone who had been canceled on our flight. Seems to be WestJet simply merged two flights because neither were full. Nice move on Christmas Eve!
This cancellation led to a little absurdity. We had to exit through Customs again, declare how long we had been in the US, collect our baggage from the carousel, return to WestJet, and recheck in for our later flight. We then went through security again, US customs again, and then waited in the airport for 6.5 hours for the next flight to board. Again, social distancing was not enforced through any of this. And by the time we boarded our flight, more than 24 hours had passed since our COVID test, but apparently, this was not a problem.
WestJet did give us food vouchers for the airport, but it was not my lucky day. I got food poisoning from the meal I ordered for lunch. I spent the next five hours going back and forth to the bathroom with diarrhea. But I was also very worried about not eating. Once we boarded the plane it would be 8 hours before I could again eat. Due to COVID, WestJet was not offering meal service. Thankfully I did not eat much of my lunch because I sensed it was off, therefore I was not violently ill and managed to make it through the day and the flight.
Again highlighting the contradictions of traveling in COVID times, it was one of the most cramped flights I have ever been on. The seat in front of me was so close that I could not open my laptop on the fold-down table. Every time the flight attendants walked down the aisle, they bumped my arm which was on the seat rest; encroaching on the aisle was unavoidable because the seats were so tight. When I went to the bathroom, the sink was full of wet paper towels, meaning no one was ensuring its cleanliness while inflight. But we were not given a meal on a 6.5-hour flight and could only remove our masks to take sips of our drinks because of COVID protocols. Again, I am not complaining, but I understand why people get frustrated. Especially when they are tired, and this might be on their only vacation of the year.
For us, the canceled flight meant missing our Christmas Eve dinner and arriving so late that nothing was open. If not for DoorDash and MacDonald’s we might have perished in our hotel room from low blood sugar and hunger! Not really the Christmas Eve we envisioned… but we made it, so again, not complaining!
Waikiki itself was busy, but I sense not as busy as it typically would be over the holidays. We were there in March 2019. We flew out the day lockdowns were beginning in Canada and the US. We noticed that things became progressively less busy from the beginning of our stay until the end. When we arrived this time, it was busier than last time, but just like last time, it was noticeably quieter by the time we left. We heard on the news that Waikiki did not get its usual influx of people for New Year’s Eve.
We attended Bill Maher’s comedy show on New Year’s Eve, and despite being a sold-out show, approximately a third of the seats were empty. Maher remarked on this at the outset, opining that people didn’t show up because they were “chickens” who were afraid of COVID. I think the reasons for people not being there were more complicated than them being chickens. A big one could be that a lot of tourists attend the show, and many canceled their trips because of the challenges and complexities of traveling. Some could have tested positive since buying their tickets. But either way, there is no doubt COVID impacted audience attendance.
We also noticed that a lot of shops had permanently closed in the Honolulu airport. The duty-free shops were not even open in the middle of the day. And once in Waikiki, we found several restaurants we had planned to return to were either temporarily or permanently closed. Restaurants also had more distance between tables. These two things meant the restaurants that were open, were busy. But again, crowds started to thin out after New Year’s.
Although COVID has clearly reduced tourist traffic, it has not created a negative, angst-ridden atmosphere for those who do visit. Too bad I can’t say the same about returning home to Canada.
Hawaii has had very strict COVID protocols since the beginning of the pandemic, and people do not seem to have a problem with them. Everyone wore masks when and where required, and everyone complied with showing proof of vaccination. One of the reasons we felt comfortable traveling to Hawaii was because they have not sent mixed messages to their residents and have demanded tourists adhere to all measures they put in place. Although COVID has clearly reduced tourist traffic, it has not created a negative, angst-ridden atmosphere for those who do visit. Too bad I can’t say the same about returning home to Canada.
As mentioned, we bought self-testing kits that we brought with us to Hawaii. We were required to log into the provider’s platform 72 hours before our flight to book our video testing. These appointments were booked online and the system was glitchy. My husband bought both the tests under his name. When I went to set up my appointment, as soon as I entered the test ID code, it linked it to my husband’s account and booked my appointment under his name. Additionally, there was no way to test the video and audio links in advance. When our appointment time came, it took 40 minutes to get both audio and video to work. There was no specific problem we could determine because we didn’t do anything to make it work. After several attempts logging on and off, it finally worked. But then it was discovered that I didn’t have an appointment, my husband had two. They had to cancel one of his and schedule me. But they had the same problem with their system that I had. It kept linking my account to my husband’s. This took another 30 minutes to fix. More than an hour after our scheduled appointment we could finally take our test.
Now the waiting began again. The agent told us that it would take 30 minutes for results to show if the test was negative, and up to two hours if it was positive. So, we gnawed our fingernails and stared at the testing units like two expectant parents staring at a pregnancy test all the while discussing how much it would cost us to be quarantined in Hawaii. (Calculation: A LOT!!!) Within in 20-minutes the light for negative lit up on my test, but again my husband’s took longer. It is amazing how long five minutes can seem when waiting for news like that, but five minutes on the beach is gone in flash! Eventually, his light also flashed negative, and we knew we were good to fly home. The agency called back and we showed proof of results to them via video. Once they received that proof a certificate was uploaded to our travel account. One more document to show at the airport!
Once this step was complete, we had to register our return to Canada with ArriveCan. This is an online platform the federal government has set up ostensibly to simplify return to the country. You are required to provide all your travel information, your passport number, your quarantine plan should you test positive including how you will get from the airport to your place of quarantine when you arrive, your proof of vaccination, and your proof negative test taken within 72 hours of travel. Once this is all complete, you get a QR code on your ArrivCan app. that the airline and Customs scan. As with most government-designed interfaces, it was frustrating to use. And, having this QR code does not mean you no longer have to show all the other documents that you registered through ArriveCan throughout the check-in and security clearances, it just registers the info with the Feds.
Now, because we were traveling in COVID times, our flight home was also delayed. First, we were informed before we left the hotel that it was delayed by an hour. Then when we arrived at our gate, it was delayed another hour. Once again, although masks are required and wearing them is enforced social distancing is not required or enforced. I also did not see anything being wiped down or cleaned in either airport at any time during our trip. The public washrooms in the Honolulu airport were in particularly bad shape.
Our flight home was somewhat better than our flight to Hawaii. We upgraded to exit row seats, so we had enough legroom. But once again we were in the airport longer than anticipated, there were not many food options, and we had a six+ hour flight with no food service.
I was one of the lucky passengers to be randomly selected for a COVID test upon arrival.
We were hoping that we had been through the worst of things and were looking forward to seeing our dogs and sleeping in our own bed. But we weren’t quite that fortunate. I was one of the lucky passengers to be randomly selected for a COVID test upon arrival. And this is another scenario that could drive someone to go “postal.” My husband and I both had negative COVID tests within the past 72 hours, and we were both double vaccinated. We had just spent 24/7 together for 11 days. We share drinks, forks, and goodness knows what else all the time. We just sat side by side on the same plane for over six hours. And he had spent more time carrying my bag than I had. But when we arrived at Customs, I was told to go to line A, my husband line B. How could it be possible that one of us test positive and not the other? I suppose it is possible, but highly unlikely considering our intimate contact. Although stressed at first about being randomly selected, it was not a big deal at the airport. I was registered as someone who was required to test, given a kit to take home and told I must take the test within 24 hours and quarantine until I had results.
Because our flight was delayed, we arrived at YVR after the last Skytrain ran, so that meant we had to take a taxi to the long-term parking where we left our car. Again putting into question the whole random testing thing. But to add insult to injury, the taxi driver ripped us off. He did not turn on his meter and then charged us $20 to drive us from US arrivals to Templeton Skytrain Station. We were both too tired to say anything and just paid him. But if people wonder why Uber is so popular, there’s the answer!
And that’s another kicker! I was driving home in a small car with my husband. So again, if I was positive, was I not exposing him? Technically, I suppose I should have quarantined myself from him at home until I got my test results, but what possible difference could it have made at that point? It was 3 a.m. by the time we walked through our doors. We were exhausted. We fell into bed and slept until after 10:00 a.m. It wasn’t until after I had my coffee and a shower that I logged on to book my online appointment for my test. But guess what? No appointments were available until 6 a.m. the next morning. So, that is what I reserved.
Up bright and early on the 6th for my COVID test, it took no time to be informed that my test was damaged and therefore I could not use it. Apparently, the tests need to be stored at a specific temperature. They are packed with a thermometer. If the thermometer has a red dot, as mine did, then the test is no good. (Weird that we had self-testing kits mailed to us, that we then kept in our home for 10 days, before flying them to Hawaii, and then keeping them in our hotel room for another 9 days, and they were fine.)
He advised me that LifeLabs and Shoppers do in-person tests.
It turns out neither do.
The LifeLabs doctor on my video call told me that I would have to get an in-person test (confusing, since I was supposed to be quarantining) or wait for a replacement to be mailed to me. He advised me that LifeLabs and Shoppers do in-person tests. It turns out neither do. LifeLabs mails self-tests for specific reasons (and they already had a replacement on order for me) and Shoppers does not do tests in BC. At least none that I could find. So, I quarantined myself and began my wait for the replacement test.
It did not arrive until the 10th, five days after my arrival. As soon as I got it, I logged onto LifeLabs to book my appointment. The first thing you must do is register your test kit. Once you do this, LifeLabs emails you a code. You cannot access the appointment calendar without this code. So, I registered my kit, but no access code email arrived. I have tried everything, but I cannot get an appointment without that code, and there is no way to reenter the kit number. Once it’s been entered it is recognized as registered. Granted, I have not phoned anyone because I do not have the patience to sit on hold only to have to listen to someone talk to me like I don’t understand technology because their system isn’t working. It now also seems pointless. The earliest appointment time slot available was the 12th. After taking my test, I had to courier my results back to the lab, wait for them to be processed, and then wait for my results to be uploaded to my account. At the rate things are going I could not see all that happening before the 15th. And I will have been in quarantine for 10 days by the 15th!
I have now read in the news that 11 LifeLabs locations are closed right now due to staffing shortages because of COVID. Others are operating at reduced capacity. Perhaps this is the reason why I have not received my access code. Perhaps the system is overloaded. Perhaps I confused the system because I first accidentally entered an incorrect code. I have no idea why I have not received the access code, but the entire process has seemed futile all along. If random testing is going to occur, then all those traveling together should be tested. It is illogical to require a test from me and not my husband but then send us home in the same vehicle together.
And now low and behold, while I posting this blog, a courier arrived at my door with four, yes four! new tests. I have no idea why I received these, nor why I recieved four. So now in total I have been given six test kits, and I am unlikely to use any. When I logged on to the portal after the new tests arrived the earliest appoinment I could get is on the 14th and my 10 day quarantine ends on the 15th. What a waste of tests and resources. It all feels like one big clusterf*ck!
Now my fear is that some government agency is going to come knocking on my door accusing me of defying COVID laws. Or, that a $5,000 fine will appear in my mailbox. But if that happens, I will fight it. I have quarantined, but not from my husband. Neither of us has any symptoms. We have bought our groceries online and he picks them up, so no contact. Other than that, he has stayed put too. But on the 15th I am setting myself free, random COVID test untaken.
...don’t let minor setbacks and trivial frustrations define my experiences or cast shadows on my life.
When we first planned our trip, we made a commitment to each other that no matter what happened we would not let it bring us down. We understood that we were traveling in unpredictable times and that going with the flow would be the only way to navigate the changing tides. There were times we were frustrated, bored, hungry, and tired, but we still had the trip of our lives. 2022 started off great. Our experience is a lesson I want to carry forward into the new year. That is, don’t let minor setbacks and trivial frustrations define my experiences or cast shadows on my life.
Happy New Year and wishing you safe travels!