By Ben Olson
It’s official: traveling is back. Though the number of people passing through TSA checkpoints hasn’t quite reached pre-pandemic levels, the seven-day average is the highest it has been since March 2020.
For avid travelers who have sidelined their international excursions for more than two years, this is good news. Nothing quite satisfies the soul like strapping a pack on your back and exploring the world at large.
Having just returned from a sailing voyage in the Caribbean, there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out before traveling becomes the joy it once was.
With different countries requiring different levels of testing, and each with their own bureaucratic forms to follow, traveling has become an exercise in patience and frustration in the age of COVID.
Some countries require only a rapid antigen test (that’s the one where they shove a long Q-tip up your nose until you feel it ram into your frontal lobe), which is cheaper and produces quicker results. Others demand the PCR test, which is free in some places and exorbitantly expensive in others.
Flying into St. Lucia from the U.S. requires the traveler to submit a negative PCR test taken no more than five days before arrival. Taking into account that results often take one or two days to arrive, this window can be tricky, as Cadie and I found after we missed our first flight.
We chose to get free tests at Walgreens in Coeur d’Alene, but since the lab technician typed my name as “Ben” instead of my legal name “Benjamin,” the St. Lucia travel authorities denied our travel until they matched. Sounds simple, right? Just call Walgreens and have them send a new form, right? Wrong. With the clock ticking louder and louder, I called and called, getting the same corporate response that any changes would take 24 hours to process. After a day, with our departure the next day, they said the email would arrive “any time now.”
The test results also had to be printed out and handed to the ticketing agent at the airport, so I nervously checked my emails all day during my final workday, finally driving to the airport without the important form in hand. A final call with the lab reassured me that the new results should appear at “any moment.”
At the airport, the ticketing agent took one look at our papers — which we had painstakingly filled out — and pursed her lips, ready to deliver the bad news. There was no way to board the plane without the printed negative COVID test results.
With only an hour left to go before boarding closed, I opened my laptop and took matters into my own hands. I opened the original results letter in Photoshop and doctored my first name to match my legal traveling name, then resubmitted the phony form to the St. Lucia travel authorities, but they had all gone home for the day, so we missed the flight.
Walgreens never sent the new results letter. St. Lucia accepted my doctored file and granted authority to enter the country. If I hadn’t been an able graphic designer and bent the rules, we’d have missed the next day’s flight and our vacation would be delayed at least another three or four days to wait for another PCR test result. Luckily, Delta was able to find seats for us and re-book at no extra charge (big tip: always join a mileage club with the airlines. Who knows if they would’ve been so kind if I wasn’t a SkyMiles member).
After the rest of the boat crew arrived, we all shared our travel woes. Each one of us had trouble with the bureaucratic hoops one must jump through, but we all made it.
When it came time to sail to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, we all had to get another round of PCR tests, which were free in the U.S. but cost $185 each in the islands. On top of that, we had to have printed test results with us when arriving at the new islands. It’s not an easy feat to find a printer in the islands, but we made it happen.
These examples are all what fully-vaccinated travelers must endure for international travel. I didn’t look into — nor do I care about — what the non-vaccinated travelers have to do. Voyaging about the world for most of my adult life, I always considered myself a savvy traveler, but these new requirements made even veterans feel like total newbies.
For those thinking of their own international adventures, be forewarned that it can be a nightmare if even one of the many steps goes wrong somewhere along the way. Research and triple check everything before you leave for the airport, because the stress you might feel getting stuck or hung up can cancel out the rest and relaxation you are seeking in the first place.
After we flew into Spokane and drove home to Sandpoint last week, the only thing I could think of when crossing the threshold of my place was, “I’m so glad that’s over.”
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