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Travel ain't what it was...yet

Having a travel blog, in Asia, during a period when there is little to no opportunity to travel is a bit like being an ice cube salesman in the dead of winter in Longyearbyen. [Insert sigh here.] Thankfully, summer does come to those who endure the winter, and, with a few exceptions, summer is literally, and for the purposes of this introduction, metaphorically, upon us.

Recently, an old friend invited me to his housewarming for his newly constructed home. This coincided with the lifting of travel bans to the Philippines. It didn’t take much arm-twisting for me to agree to make the trip, but I was blissfully ignorant of what was in store to get from here to there, and back.

Most of us who travel frequently forget how extraordinary it is to plan, book, and travel. The intricacies of travel - from the international treaties and organizations that facilitate security, travel routes, and flying safety, to computer networks that connect travelers to common carriers and carriers with each other, and the millions of people that help us get to our destination safely, with our bags – normally go unnoticed. That is until there is a problem.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic these problems usually were inconveniences like lost baggage, having two people booked in the same seat, and an occasional rerouting. But the spring of 2020 changed this. Suddenly every cog in the travel industry machine stopped. Things didn’t slow down as they did during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus outbreak, or the avian influenza outbreak. The Covid-19 coronavirus disease shut it all down. And, as I learned on my recent trip, it’s not as simple as flipping a switch to get all the moving parts to work together as smoothly and seamlessly as we have become accustomed.

If you like to do your own travel planning and booking, as I do, the first time you encounter a sign that your trip is going to be a harder undertaking than you’re used to is with every website's warning that explains there is an always-changing set of rules imposed by foreign governments and airlines for your trips away, and by the US government for your return home. These rules change so frequently that I was caught in one going to the Philippines and another returning home to Guam. In both instances, they were changes to accommodate a loosening of restrictions, but they were changes that impacted substantive obligations that I had undertaken and for which I spent money.

Because of the dynamic nature of these rules, I ended up putting many more hours into trip planning, applying for and collecting, health clearances, and nearly everything else along the way. And all this extra effort was for a long weekend trip.

Here’s a quick recap of the extra time the current condition of travel added to my experience, sans rummaging around Orbitz and to find a seat on one of the few available flights:

  • Vaccination QR code – Guam never got around to instituting a QR code system to verify that someone has been vaccinated for Covid-19, to facilitate international travel. And, as I have been told, many countries won’t accept your vaccine book as official evidence that you’ve received the vaccine. Residents of Guam, instead, call the Department of Public Health and Social Services to make an appointment to get a paper certifying that they have been administered the vaccine. Finding the phone number and making the phone call to set an appointment only took around ten minutes and filling out the application and collecting the certification were equally quick. But the drive to and from the DPHSS office took forty minutes. So I spent an hour doing something I never needed to do before, and which couldn’t be accomplished online. To round out this conversation I will compliment the very pleasant DPHSS staff, who at every contact were fantastic. In the end, however, the health screeners at Ninoy Aquino International Airport had no idea what the Guam certification document was, so I had to resort to my vaccine record after all. (1 hour)

  • Covid-19 insurance – the Philippine government, like a few others in Asia, required all foreign travelers to purchase Covid-19 medical insurance in case of illness during the trip. It makes perfect sense, since caring for their own citizens was enough of a burden not to have to assume the same for foreign travelers. This proved to be very quick and simple on the internet. For the three-day trip, this cost me $25, and the process was done in 15 minutes. World Nomad was clear about their coverage limitations, such as “travel bans, border closures or broadly imposed quarantine requirements”, so I did opt for the trip insurance offered by Orbitz to ensure I didn’t get stuck with a trip bill but no trip. The extra insurance cost me around $25. (15 minutes)

  • Rapid Antigen test – the availability of rapid Covid-19 tests on Guam is limited, and the price for the test varies significantly. I was able to get an appointment at my clinic for the morning of my flight. The drive to the clinic, filling out forms, and taking the test, took around 45 minutes. I returned a couple of hours later to get my test results, which added another 30 minutes to the effort. The test cost $55. (1 hour, 15 minutes)

  • Philippines One Health Pass – all travelers to the Philippines are required to complete a health form on the official portal before they are given a bar code to board the flight to the country. This involves declarations regarding testing, information about your stay, and uploading various health records. The website is very easy to navigate, but I spent a bit of time trying to figure out what district within the National Capital Region Makati (the location of my hotel) was in – it’s the Fourth District in case you encounter the same issue. Additionally, the site of my antigen test administration wasn’t on the list, since the list only included Philippine test sites – for people trying to get into the country – so I selected the airport terminal because if I needed another, I expected that’s where I’d get it. Ultimately, I was approved and sent the bar code to board my flight. I was supposed to also receive a QR code prior to landing to expedite my health screening, but this never happened, so I did spend an extra amount of time in the health document screening process. (45 minutes)

  • – the morning of my flight I received an email from my airline explaining that I needed to register my health information prior to my flight. I logged into my United account and completed the form. This was quick, since I had just uploaded my health information to the Philippines One Health Pass portal, and the required information was becoming familiar. (5 minutes)

  • Rapid Antigen test to return to the US – I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going to get a rapid Covid-19 test to return home, how much it was going to cost, or how long it would take to get the result. I found several places that Philippine Airlines suggested (my carrier didn't offer any help on this) but finding one reasonably nearby was my champagne problem. Fortunately, there is a new hospital a couple of blocks from my hotel that permitted walk-in customers. The trip to it, paperwork, testing, and walk back took 45 minutes. And the test results were emailed to me within the hour. The test cost me around $20. (45 minutes)

  • United – on my return trip it was strongly recommended that I arrive at the airport four hours prior to my flight. This is two hours more than usual and three and a half hours more than I would prefer. But, I followed the suggestion and two things struck me when I arrived at the airport. First, given my position in line, other passengers on my flight had arrived an hour or two before I had. And second, United didn’t open its check-in counters until two and a half hours prior to the flight. So we all fiddled with our phones and periodically stared at each other for a very long time. Despite this, there were no passenger meltdowns at all. Still, it was extra two hours. (2 hours)

In the end, all the things that I normally take for granted gave way to an additional six hours of errands. This doesn’t account for the annoyance caused by closed lounges, minimal airport experiences, or the countless lines I found myself in. But it was a good lesson in all the things that must get done to provide travelers the convenient, seamless, and enjoyable experience we have become accustomed to, and that I hope will return soon.

Until then, I’m going to hold off on my bucket list trip to Longyearbyen. Stay safe friends.

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