Covid: The universal excuse for travel troubles

August 17, 2021

The elusive and existential nature of the itty-bitty microscopic coronavirus has become the catch-all excuse that covers all ills, inefficiencies, and incompetence of travel providers nowadays.  “Covid!” is sometimes exclaimed defensively in anger.  Or expressed in a low voice, plaintively, as in: “Hey, man, it’s Covid.”  Usually accompanied by a primal shrug.  Either way—and every way in-between—it has become the ultimate get-out-of-jail free card for airlines, rental car companies, hotels, and service providers in the travel supply chain.  No matter how dastardly the travel outrage or foolishly bumbling the circumstances, Covid is now the reason. 

Witness what United Airlines told me when I bitterly complained that they canceled my flight to Newark at 1:30 AM the morning of travel with no alternate booking to get me to Newark for my connecting flight to Johannesburg.  Their cover-up?  Essentially, the United Club agent’s message to me was “Covid made us do it” and how dare I question that.  Then looked over my shoulder, and announced: “Next in line, please.”

When I queried the flight attendants in business class (Polaris) on my United flight to Johannesburg that night why the IFE movies on the 15+ hour flight seemed so dated, “Covid” was the answer, and they pointed to cheap plastic cups used for wine and Champagne as if to reinforce the obvious and justifiable austerity.  Never mind that Emirates and Qatar are serving in crystal flutes on their flights up front.

Last weekend while traveling through the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport, I questioned a 27-cent “Hospitality” charge on the receipt for a single bagel and was told it was due to Covid, with a smile.  Then why isn’t it labeled “Due to the pandemic”? I asked.  The clerk’s eyes rolled and turned to the next customer.

On an Endeavor Airlines (Delta Connection) CRJ900 flight out of MSP just before noon, the air conditioning system was not turned on as we boarded, and the interior was sweltering. 

“The captain is aware of the situation,” came the flight attendant PA, “But due to Covid, the plane will not be cool until we reach 10,000 feet.  Please close your window shades to keep the heat out.” 

Too late!  It was boiling, and lowering the shades wasn’t going to help.  No explanation why the A/C was out.  Inoperable? No APU functionality?  No airport power? 

When we reached and exceeded 10,000’ altitude, the cabin remained an oven, and it never cooled off en route to Fargo—luckily, a short hop.  Nor was anyone in coach or in Comfort+ where I was seated offered even a small bottle of water to counter the heat.  The captain never made any announcement, but as we deplaned, I asked the lead FA to simply be honest if the A/C was broken.  She shrugged and murmured, “Covid.”  The universal vindication for anything wrong.

At Lilliputian Fargo Airport I picked up a Budget rental car for the weekend for $81/day.  When I asked why weekend rates were so high, naturally the reason given was Covid.  Of course rental car companies have been struggling to meet demand due to fleet depletions, which has pushed up rates, but no shortage of cars at Fargo was apparent.  The rental car lot was full at Hertz, Avis, Budget, and every other brand.

Checking into the Microtel by Wyndham hotel in Moorhead, Minnesota for two nights—a modest property I’d visited four years ago, leaving good memories—I spied a crumpled notice crookedly taped to the front entrance announcing no breakfasts—not even a small takeaway bag—would be served “due to Covid.”  Four years previous the hot breakfast had been a stand-out feature. 

I questioned the front desk clerk, clad in a tee shirt and watching Netflix on a laptop, why not even a takeaway brown bag.  Again the big shrug, and the single utterance, “Covid!”  

I retorted that we’ve all been vaccinated and not a soul was wearing masks, including the hotel staff.  This time came a sustained, tired shrug before his eyes returned to the screen. Why couldn’t I see that Covid covered all things wrong?

“Then how about a discount to cover the loss of breakfast?” I asked. 

“Already built into the rate,” came the quick, well-practiced reply, his focus never leaving the laptop screen.  I couldn’t tell one way or another whether the rate was discounted, of course.

Nor did housekeeping clean and make up the room or replace the towels for two nights.  (“Covid!”) 

En route home on Monday morning I called Delta between flights to find an alternate itinerary for Halloween to New York after a schedule change, one of many schedule changes this summer.  When I complained that the extra cost to modify my flight was exorbitant, especially considering it was over two months out, the agent blamed Covid.  When I asked her to be more specific, she just said, conspiratorially, “Well, you know. Covid has changed everything!”

And right she is.

Remote Covid test worked in the African wilderness

August 10, 2021

For months I’ve sweated and obsessed planning the Covid test requirements for another trip to South Africa.  That is, what types of tests would I need and how would I get them.  I just got home from that successful trip last weekend.  Naturally, before leaving the USA, I researched ways and means to get Covid-tested in both directions.

South Africa required a PCR test, which was fast and easy to get, thanks to Wake County Health Services here in central North Carolina offering free, on-demand tests. I uploaded my negative test results to the United Airlines website before flying over there, a requirement to be allowed to board, and had to show the printed results on arrival to South African health officials to be allowed to enter the country.

The U.S. CDC requires Americans returning from other countries to produce a negative Covid test, too, but it can be either a PCR or a quick antigen test.  Thanks to the website, I discovered that Abbott Labs offers a CDC-approved, at-home antigen test in partnership with emed labs that is monitored remotely by video to assure the test subject’s identity.  Sounded good, but it was dependent upon a good cell signal to work via smartphone, and who knew if I could get tested remotely using my phone from the African wilderness?

The United website made the process sound easy, but I wasn’t sure:

HOW IT WORKS (For roundtrip flights originating in the U.S.)

1. Book your roundtrip flight.

2. Order COVID-19 Antigen rapid tests on

3. Tests are shipped to your U.S. address (or local pick-up location).

4. Create a digital health pass account, download the app, and pack two (2) tests per person in your carry-on bag before leaving the U.S.

5. Three (3) days before returning to the U.S., start your test session.

6. Receive an eMed Labs Report with your test result. (optional test result available in the NAVICA™ app.)

7. If negative, share your eMed Labs Report test result to board the return flight.

8. Return to U.S.

I decided to give it a try. Looking deeper, I found two options for ordering the test kits.  The emed site offered six kits for $150, or just $25 each.  Since I only needed two tests, I chose instead to buy the same kits in a 2-pack from Optum Labs for $70, or $35 per test.  Ordering from Optum was quick and efficient, and the test kits were delivered in less than two days.

I carefully packed the small kits in my carryon and flew off to South Africa where I visited the Kruger National Park for about a week.  The Kruger, which I’ve written about often, is huge—about the size of Belgium—and of course a wilderness area.  However, improved cell service throughout South Africa means that I can usually get a halfway decent signal most, but not, all places in the Kruger.  I wasn’t sure I could at Satara Camp in the Kruger where I calculated I’d be three days prior to my flight, and the test results had to be dated not more than 72 hours before the date of departure.  Therefore, I planned to try to administer the remote antigen test the morning of the third day before my flight date.

My backup if that failed was to make a 6-hour round trip drive from Satara to the Skukuza Camp Doctors Office for a PCR test that’s sent to a lab outside the Kruger National Park. That process requires 24-72 hours to get results and costs about $120 altogether (compared to the Abbott antigen test kit price of $35 delivered). But I wouldn’t know if the long detour to Skukuza and back was necessary until I tried the Abbott/emed remote test, and so I was time-crunched to do it Tuesday for my Friday flight. Consequently, I was in a hurry that morning to get to Satara Camp to launch the remote Abbott/emed test. 

Thus, after two nights at the Kruger’s Olifants Camp, at 600am I departed to make my way south to Satara Camp for the next two nights. A ground mist and overcast sky dimmed the sunrise. The main road was rich with wildlife, which I often stopped to watch and photograph, but I was still able to reach Satara by 800am and start the remote Covid test procedure.

Because I couldn’t check into my Satara accommodations until 200pm, I didn’t have a private place to conduct the test. I wandered over to the electrified perimeter fence near the Satara Camp restaurant where no one would mind if I removed my mask (unlike in America, everybody in South Africa wears a mask when around others), and I used my phone, which had a middling signal of two to three bars, to sign into the emed website.

I was soon connected to a representative by video who was able to remotely manipulate my phone’s front and rear cameras to verify my identity (closeup of my passport) and to scan the unique code on my sealed test box. She and another rep took me through the entire test process in about 40 minutes.

My test result was negative (Whew!), and I was able to access the PDF of the official test result certificate within two minutes. I uploaded that negative test result to the United website as required for me to board my flight home on Friday evening. United Airlines approved it, as promised, within 24 hours, evidenced through a text message. I was therefore able to check in and board my flight Friday without any hassle. On arrival in Newark from Johannesburg, no U.S. official asked to see my test result (unlike my arrival in Johannesburg where I had to show a negative test results to South African officials before being allowed through to SA Immigration).

It was way cool that I was able to do all that standing within a few feet of the fence separating me from the African wilderness. The internet and smartphone technology are amazing tools. Thanks to the remote test kit, I was able to avoid the long trek to Skukuza and back for the PCR test.  Not to mention save money on both the test itself and gasoline for the long trip south and back.  I plan to buy and use more of these tests when I fly United again to South Africa in October.  I understand other airlines, including Delta, also recognize and accept the Abbott/emed test results, though I haven’t verified that. I hope the Abbott/emed test will soon be accepted by all airlines for all Americans returning from international travel.

United misery and madness

August 4, 2021

Months ago when I booked Raleigh-Newark-Johannesburg (South Africa) on United Airlines for me and a friend, I purchased first class tickets for the domestic connection RDU/Newark and in swanky international business class on the 16-hour Newark/Johannesburg leg on July 29. I checked in for both flights Wednesday night, July 28 and went to bed certain that Thusday, July 29 was going to run smoothly, my first overseas trip since Covid began.

Then United sent me a text at 130am canceling the Raleigh-Newark flight with no alternate flight booked. Reason given was bad weather approaching New York + Newark runway construction. 

I later confirmed bad storms were forecast in the NY area for late on July.29 and that Newark has just a single operating runway while rebuilding other(s). However, that doesn’t explain why United didn’t rebook our paid first class seats and sent only a middle-of-the-night notice. 

United also canceled my friend and colleague’s RDU/EWR (Newark) flight, Newark/Johannesburg (JNB), plus 3 intra-Africa flights, his Johannesburg/Newark leg, and his Newark/RDU flight. 

United eventually, after many long and confusing phone calls, rebooked my colleague on the EWR/JNB nonstop with me, but not on his intra-Africa flights–which they had no business canceling to begin with because they’d been booked and paid for directly with the South African carrier (SA Airlink). 

Originally, United had rebooked him on the following day’s Newark/Johannesburg flight without asking him and without considering whether his Covid PCR test results would be accepted by the South African government since they’d be a day late by then, nor whether his onward travel plans, including hotel, air and car rental, were impacted. Totally stupid and non-integrated. 

At 704am July 29 when I learned this, I booked a Hertz car one way Raleigh to Newark (an 8 hour drive) as insurance.  If we left by 9am, we could make it by 5pm for our 845p united flight to Johannesburg (Avis & Budget reported no cars). 

Meanwhile, I notified my long-suffering travel agent who had booked the rez. He was able to quickly book us on a Delta RDU/New York LaGuardia nonstop at 105p for $218 each one way. So I canceled the Hertz rez and dashed to RDU without breakfast. Good thing I was already packed and ready to go. Our agent said I can get United to refund for the outbound portion of the ticket when I get home. I kept hoping the return EWR/RDU wasn’t canceled. (I got an email from UA the next day saying it was indeed canceled.)

Arriving RDU, I was surprised to find the Skycaps are working the curb again, first time since Covid. I tipped one $5 to get our bags inside because I knew I might be able to get us on an earlier flight to LGA than 105p. The sooner we got to New York, the better, I thought. I didn’t want the Skycap to check our bags on the confirmed 105p flight if we stood a prayer of getting on the 1051am flight. 

Sure enough, the Delta Air Lines Priority counter agents were extremely helpful and sympathetic when I explained our plight. They put us on standby for the 1051am nonstop to LGA and checked our bags on that earlier flight. 

We rushed through TSA PRE-check and to the standby flight gate D5. The agent had already cleared us and handed us Comfort+ boarding passes. Mine was 6D, a window. My traveling companion was in 5A. Lucky us. No thanks to United. 

The 1051am Delta flight left the gate on time. Now we just had to figure out how to get from LaGuardia to Newark.  

Off the ground at 1059am.

All but three window shades were closed throughout the flight. What’s wrong with people? No one looks out at the world from above any more. Are we all really so jaded that the magic of flying doesn’t penetrate our sensibilities?

Routine but adequate service on the little E175 airplane. If it’s on time, I kept thinking, I’ll be thankful. It arrived early. 

Thick cumulus clouds mostly obscured the New York area on descent.  

Landed 1208pm.

Left LGA 1242p via Uber in a Suburban to EWR for $139. Our Nepalese driver has been in the USA for 5 years. Spoke understandable English despite having arrived from Kathmandu not speaking a word.  Impressive, I thought. 

Our driver navigated from LaGuardia (in Queens) via the Williamsburg Bridge to traverse lower Manhattan to the Holland Tunnel, creeping across town, as usual. A stifling 102° in Holland Tunnel.

Arrived New Jersey 125p. Arrived EWR Airport 143p.

Checked in, with great help from United agent Michael Lewana [sp?] (from Brazil), and were through security at 207p.

Found the single open Newark UA club at gate C75 to wait. Our flight was due to leave from gate C121 at 845p, a long wait. But we were there! And that morning we didn’t think we would be. No thanks to United. 

Nobody at United could confirm if my return flight EWR/RDU on Aug 7 is valid after United canceled today’s RDU/EWR flight. The agents in the UA club (only two people, and of course swamped) were poorly trained, with no authority, and had to phone for help. The people they phoned were utterly incompetent. So, NOTHING was straightened out. But by then I’d had two Hendricks gin and tonics, so I was more sanguine about my chances than earlier. 

It was a literal Dr. Seuss-in-the-third-world situation. I’m pretty sure we could have sold sold our dinky two-person table for $50/seat. The United Club was horrible, a canker on the entire American scene. 

Making things worse, I discovered that there are just just two sit-down toilets and two urinals for guys in the entire United Club with 500+ people there. Just added to the chaos with men standing in line. 

The Club was packed out: SRO. Covid must love that place. 

With boarding 90 minutes away, I hoped the flight in business class to Johannesburg would be the highlight of that hectic day. 
Our misery wasn’t over, though. The Johannesburg flight left an hour late and arrived an hour late in South Africa, but I’ll save that story for next week. 

For the record, there was no reason for United Airlines to cancel domesic flight ls in South Africa that were spaced out over two weeks and booked and paid for independently of the UA itinerary. 
And of course United had no reason to cancel anything that was not tied to the RDU/EWR separate reservation.

Thank goodness our travel agent responded to email from home before he even left for work that morning. 

And that our agent looked into the Newark/Johannesburg record and noticed United had canceled the SA  space, otherwise, we would have had a rude surprise when showing up for the flight once overseas.

Thank goodness our agent got two of the last three seats RDU to LGA, while other United passengers were on hold forerver to get protection or standing in a long line.
Thank goodness our agent was able to rebook SA Airlink and hold it without selling a new ticket so we could talk to their agents on arrival in South Africa and get the reservations fixed. All no thanks to United Airlines.

Altogether, a vivid picture of why I haven’t flown on United since 1994 or 95. If I didn’t already hold two more paid business class tickets on the same UA flights for Oct-Nov and Feb-Mar travel back to South Africa, I wouldn’t risk such misery and madness again.   

Test prep for first Covid-era international trip

July 27, 2021

I’m booked to fly to Johannesburg on Thursday, July 29, my first trip overseas since the pandemic shut down foreign travel in March, 2020.  Just two days before finally leaving the country again.  I’m stoked!  Candidly, though, I am also nervous and obsessed about meeting the testing requirements going over.  It’s the timing of the test and adequacy of the credentials that have me fidgeting. 

Like every country I’m aware of, South Africa obliges a negative PCR Covid test for entry 72 hours before the flight.  My question is, What does that mean exactly?  The language at the SA government website reads:

“All international travellers arriving at the airports listed in paragraph (a) [includes Johannesburg OR Tambo Airport] must provide a valid certificate of a negative COVID-19 test, recognised by the World Health Organisation, which was obtained not more than 72 hours before the date of travel.”

It says from the DATE of travel, not the hour of departure on that date of travel.  I believe that means the test can be at any time on the third day prior to the travel date. 

In my case I am on the nonstop United flight from Newark scheduled to depart at 8:45 PM Thursday, July 29.  If the test had to be no more than 3 days (72 hours) prior to the HOUR of departure, then I couldn’t get the test earlier than 8:45 PM on Monday, July 26 (yesterday). 

But no testing authority is open at 8:45 PM on any night, necessitating a wait until the following morning (today, Tuesday, July 27).  Since PCR test results can take 24-72 hours to be reported, taking the test on July 27 might not produce results until after my flight is due to leave on July 29. 

Which is a classic Catch-22 situation.  Hence the more reasonable “72 hours before the DATE of travel” rule—at least, I hope that is the correct interpretation.

The United website proclaims my specific personalized guidelines as:

  • Results must be issued no more than 72 hours before your departure from Newark (EWR)
  • Based on your itinerary, an acceptable test should be dated no earlier than Jul 26, 2021 8:45 PM

But does that mean a test RESULT should be dated no earlier than then?  Or the test itself?  Despite the ambiguous language, I am counting on it meaning the result. 

My county health department has several Raleigh-area sites where Covid-19 PCR tests are administered daily, and I was tested yesterday, July 26, three days prior to my travel date. The results came back today, July 27, which was a fast 24 hours (I tested negative, thank goodness). No cost to me at all.  

The document result is dated July 27 (today), which should satisfy both United’s dictum and the South African requirements as stated on the official government site (above).  But of course the test date is shown as July 26 (yesterday).

So, just to be sure, I returned for a second Covid PCR test today.  Can’t hurt, I figured, in case either the airline or the South African government has heartburn about the date on the first test.  In fact the nurses yesterday encouraged me to come back as often as I wanted, but especially today, as they were not themselves certain about whether the test date or the result date met the 3-day rule. 

Sure enough, when I arrived today and explained my rationale for coming a second day for a second test, the lead nurse nodded sagely and said, “Send TODAY’S test result to the airline, not yesterday’s!” 

If I was flying from LAX, I wouldn’t have this time conundrum. I could opt for a new service there offering immediate PCR test results:

LAX Now Offering 1-Hour COVID-19 Tests – LA Weekly – Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) announced it is offering COVID-19 tests that deliver results within 1 hour. The polymarese chain reaction (PCR) tests will be available at the Tom Bradley International Terminal from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., daily and may require an appointment depending on demand.

However, I’d have to pony up $199 for the privilege.  Whereas both yesterday’s and today’s county PCR tests were free, the cost bundled into the annual health services budget.

Now the second issue:  Sure, I have a negative test document, but I question whether it meets the credentials requirements.  Its heading only says “Optum Serve” and “LHI” without an address or contact data.  No phone number or email. 

Is that sufficient? When I returned today for my second test, that same nurse in charge of the site strongly assured me that it is.  I want to believe her, but I don’t know for sure.  Nonetheless, I uploaded the PDF to the United Airlines website as requested, and I emailed an e-copy to the South African health authorities as requested. 

Just the same, I have no certainty that the document is “recognized by the World Health Organization” or that it meets the United criteria of “lab or office where the test was administered.”  If not, well, then I will deal with it.  Americans are flying to South Africa every day, and I have yet to read horror stories of well travelers being ordered into quarantine or, worse, sent home.

In addition to which, if today’s test results come back tomorrow as quickly as yesterday’s results did today, then I will upload the second test result to and dispatch another email to the South African health services folks with the PDF attached.  Naturally, I will also take several hard copies with me.

No more obsessing.  I’ve done all I can to prep for the trip, test-wise and every other way, including downloading the South African COVID Alert SA app, prefilling the South African travel health questionnaire which I found at the very helpful SA Airlink website.  I even completed the Kruger gate entry forms, compulsory due to Covid.

Now all I have to worry about is the CDC test requirements for returning home: much less stringent (can be a quick antigen test or PCR) and much clearer about timing (any time three days in advance of flight date, regardless of when the flight actually departs on that date).  My plans are to get a PCR test done at the Skukuza Doctors Office in the Kruger three days before my flight back. 

As a backup, I also purchased two of the new Abbott Labs at-home Covid antigen test kits that United and several other airlines have been touting. The tests are CDC-approved because they are administered in conjunction with, where a live person will monitor me taking the test by using the video camera on my phone.  Results are later posted on the Navica app which has been downloaded to my phone.  It should be fascinating to see how this works from an African wilderness area surrounded by African wildlife.

Hellishly “normal” flying again

July 20, 2021

At some point during World War Two the U.S. military was credited with originating the acronym “SNAFU” which stands for “situation normal: all f*cked up.”  SNAFU sprang to mind last week when I flew with my wife and daughter on Delta from Billings (BIL) home to Raleigh (RDU).  Whatever was “normal” pre-pandemic flying is baaaaack!  And it ain’t pretty.

I’d originally booked an easy connection from Billings to RDU via MSP—just two flights.  But Delta has constantly changed its schedules this year, in the process eliminating my Twin Cities connection.  Instead, I was rerouted to Salt Lake City (SLC), then to Atlanta (ATL), and finally to RDU.  Three flights. 

Still, I wasn’t too worried because I had snagged a reasonable first class fare when I made the rez months ago before the current summer travel boom.  Sitting up front usually takes the sting out of inconveniences like multiple connections. 

Trouble was, my wife and daughter had decided later to join me, and though on the same three flights going home, they were in economy.  First class seats were gone by the time they shopped for fares. 

My wife and daughter are veteran air travel troopers and don’t mind sitting way in the back of coach—a nightmare to me.  Being a good dad and hubby despite my loathing of sardine class, I offered my wife and daughter my front cabin seat on one flight each.  That way the three of us would get a turn up front on one of the three legs. Arriving at the airport, I chose the first (and short) flight from BIL to SLC to enjoy pointy end comfort and to stretch out in seat 1A of a Delta E175.

The Billings airport is very modest.  It’s a homey, small-town facility in a fast-growing city (now reported to be 138,000 population).  The gate area was packed out, as was every seat on the plane to Salt Lake.  It was mid-summer, so I wasn’t too surprised.

However, the reality that “normal” air travel volumes had returned hit me hard when deplaning in SLC.  It was literally wall-to-wall travelers, a sea of people that hearkened to 2019.   We were swept along the concourses in the tide of flesh to our connecting gate, arriving after boarding had commenced.  I entered the jetway and found my seat 2J on a Delta international A330, a sleeper seat, from SLC to Atlanta.  Pretty soon even the capacious front cabin was a din of noise and activity as every seat became occupied.  I had put my bag up just in time.

My plan was to give my super-premium seat 2J to our daughter so she could get something to eat en route to Atlanta.  She is a vegetarian, and the tight connection had prevented us from stopping in the over-crowded Salt Lake City airport for food.  I knew there would be at least a snack box in first class on the three hour-plus flight.

Trading seats with my daughter, I made my way back amongst the hordes to sit with my wife in 14H.  Thinking as I went how much I dread claustrophobic coach.  Repeated announcements spoke the obvious that every seat was full and please to “take your seat” as soon as possible to aid in an on-time departure.  Soon we cattle were buckled into our cramped stalls in the back of the big plane.

I was reminded that the A330 is configured with just two seats on the outside aisles, making the experience less painful than I feared.  Once airborne, my wife and I soon dozed off.  I woke up in time to be offered a beverage.  “Great,” I said.  “I’ll have a Coke Zero—the entire can, please.”

Whereupon the flight attendant laid down a 7.5 oz. can.  She was surprised that I was surprised that Delta has replaced 12 oz. cans with the cheaper tiny cans in coach.

And I had my choice of a 0.5 oz. bag of almonds or cookies. But not both.

My wife asked for orange juice and received an even smaller container than mine: a bit over 4 ounces.  7.5 ounces was looking pretty good, after all.

14H is low economy, not even Comfort+.  I kept hoping our daughter was enjoying the first class service in 2J.

Napping after the beverage service made the distance to Atlanta seem shorter, and soon we were pulling up to a distant F concourse gate.  Our connecting flight to Raleigh was leaving from the A concourse, nearly as far as one could go on the underground train (only T is farther).  Again the airport was awash with travelers after we finally got off the full flight.  We joined the human torrent to the escalators down to the train.

We were lucky that the F concourse is the first place to board the ATL plane train.  An insistent loud message played over and over between terminals: “KEEP SIX FEET DISTANCE!”  Yet every car on every train was packed as tight as Tokyo commuter trains.  There was not even six inches distance between riders, let alone six feet.

By the time the train stopped at the C concourse, there was no more room for people to get on.  Again, “SNAFU” popped into my brain.  The Atlanta Airport was a nightmare, just like it always was. Everything was back to normal and all effed up.  Just a non-holiday Monday normal.

The ATL/RDU flight was the icing on the cake, a 757 scheduled to leave at 929p that suffered one delay after another.  First, late inbound cabin crew, then slow boarders—obviously leisure travelers with little sense of urgency, and finally the aircraft had to be refueled at the gate. Once again every seat was filled, but on this one I had paid for both my wife and daughter to upgrade to Comfort+ seats, the two stand-alone seats at the second-left door.  At least they would be somewhat isolated.

My wife insisted I take the first class seat, which was 1C.  I get thinking, yeah, wow, first class, where the cans are 12 ounces and the nuts come in one ounce bags. A regular paradise. 

I was real glad to touch down finally at RDU, even if late and weary.  All flights full to the last seat with people pushed and shoved up against one another in the boarding and deplaning scrum.  “Keep six feet apart!” came the announcements.  SLC and ATL airports as crowded as Grand Central Terminal on any day at rush hour. Welcome back to “normal” flying.

Montana Americana

Having just spent 15 days in the great and beautiful state of Montana, I came away with my usual reverence for the astonishing grandeur of natural places.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness where I visited deserves the over-used term “awesome” with 41 of the top 300 peaks in Montana’s Beartooth range there.  An amazing 244 of the 300 highest Montana mountains are over 10,000 feet elevation.  Every turn of my head brought a new breathtaking vista.

This summer I also took more notice of the pride Montanans feel for their country.  As my friend Joe Brancatelli reminded me, “Sometimes we forget that Americana happens because Americans are living it.”  Patriotism is quintessential Montana.  Such as these examples:

Haystack painted “God bless America” for Independence Day last Sunday. Note stars on side. Seen on highway 78 just outside Nye.

A friend ponders the Montanan ethos of one Red Lodge shopkeeper. 

I came across the sign outside one of many art shops while wandering down the touristy-tacky main drag of Red Lodge following a mediocre lunch served by the super-friendly wait staff at the Red Lodge Cafe.

The restaurant features a politically incorrect, but iconic, neon sign. So far no complaints seem to have been lodged regarding the sign with Red Lodge town fathers, but neither did I observe indigenous clientele chowing down inside. However, their absence might be because Native American palates are tuned to cuisine superior to what we experienced. 

Browsing a local real estate listing as we waited for our food, I noticed the Cafe is for sale either as a stand-alone for $650,000 or together with the adjacent bar and casino for $1.3 million. Anyone hankering for a business in Red Lodge?

The Rocking J gas station on the edge of the little burg of Absarokee announces they believe in “God bless the USA” and “America first” and doesn’t forget to praise the local Absarokee high school team, the Huskies.

An eccentric antique and flower shop in Absarokee wishes the police well (as do I).

The Five Spot Cafe & Casino in downtown Absarokee sports a “Proud American” sign (without elaboration), and it offers free mints in U.S. flag packaging with a stars-and-stripes “USA” printed on the back side to seal the deal of being a proud American.

From Red Lodge up, up, up on U.S. Highway 212 to the 10,947′ summit of Beartooth Pass just across the state line briefly into Wyoming for breathtaking views of the Beartooth range.  

Lots of hearty bikers cross the pass between Wyoming and Montana, including the owner of this gorgeous rebuild of a vintage BMW Motorsport.  A herd of mountain goats was spotted on a nearby peak below one of the lookouts near the sign.

Returning, I passed the landmark Grizzly Bar in tiny Rosco, Montana and our favorite old-time general store in Fishtail, Montana.  Americana everywhere.

A sign in Absarokee for “Bed and No Breakfast” with the explanation that such a deal is “Western Style Lodging.”  Sounds like an invented term to justify the meal-free lodging, which appears to be located directly over the town’s sole coin laundromat.  Not sure how they can be certain of offering the “most comfortable beds in town” but it did make me curious to try one.  Note the phone number lacks an area code because Montana has just one (406), so not necessary as a prefix when dialing

Wildfires in the American far west often lead to smoke in the Stillwater Valley from hundreds of miles away. But it was clear and sunny at the top of the Woodbine Falls Trail in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, a long hike. Note my politically incorrect hat in the selfie: “Gypsy” is now a no-no word.

Interior of the Rosebud Cafe in Absarokee at lunch one day was another archetypal small town American experience. They served a good French dip roast beef sandwich. Note the old codger wearing a cowboy hat at the table. Lots of Stetson-type hats seen thereabouts. Also note the bearded young man near the front window. He was seated with a gang of buddies I took to be from the platinum-palladium mine in the Stillwater Valley, the only one in the USA.

This is all normal and routine Montana. It’s easy to lose touch with rural America living in Raleigh.

Montana marmot miseries

July 7, 2021

Two weeks in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area is usually among the highlights of my summer, as my smiling visage confirms in the below picture. 

Thanks to my wife’s gracious parents, I enjoy a tranquil view in every direction, including this one from their rustic cabin set on a mountainside.

The Stillwater River flows from the wilderness into the Yellowstone River.  It’s a favorite of kayakers and is popular for fly fishing.  I prefer to simply drop a hook baited with a green cricket off a bridge to tempt brown and rainbow trout and have often been rewarded with such a simple lure.

But not all is sweet and lovely in the wilderness.  Witness my tired Chevy Malibu (78,000 miles and with several windshield dings) rented from a Billings used car company as discussed in my previous post:

Notice the bonnet is up. Why? Because of the nasty fat marmots that keep trying to eat everything under the hood. They gnaw on and destroy soft parts in the engine compartment. Marmots shredded the inside of my wife’s brother’s car a week ago.  They like wiring and hoses and certainly have the choppers for the job (with thanks to Mia McPherson for this vivid toothy illustration).

The National Park Service recommends a drastic “Christmas present” approach requiring a large tarp.  You drive over the tarp, then tie it over your car as shown in the article’s picture.

But I don’t have a 20′ × 24′ tarp to wrap up my car, standard practice now in places like Yosemite to discourage marmots, so I am trying other reportedly effective deterrents: (1) lots of super-hot cayenne pepper liberally dusted in the engine compartment and on the ground around the car (the red stuff in the photo); (2) a bar of Irish Spring laid on the air filter, Q.V.; and (3) leaving the hood open when parked.  Marmots apparently like to chew up things in private—meaning in the dark—and they don’t like the smell of Irish Spring or cayenne pepper. I’m praying it works. There are many damnable marmot varmints about.

Earlier today a friend in Wyoming recommended mothballs for the whistle pigs (as he called them) strewn under the car to drive them away, so now I’ve added mothballs tossed beneath the car.

Another friend advised using dryer sheets placed under the car and in the engine compartment. Maybe I’ll pick some up.

But who knows if any of these deterrents is any more realistic than garlic to ward off vampires? 

Wait…garlic!  I haven’t yet tried garlic to daunt marmots.

Could be worse, I guess: Grizzly bears are native to these parts, and grizzlies like to eat people rather than car parts—or at least habitually kill them for reasons known only to bears, and I am grateful for the absence of feral hogs, also known as indiscriminate consumers of protein and capable of digesting every part of the human body.

Thankfully, too, no Namibian spitting zebra cobras have been sighted nearby, as one was on someone’s front porch in my hometown of Raleigh last week after escaping from its puerile owner.

Suddenly marmots are looking pretty cute and cuddly.

Covid travel aftershocks

June 30, 2021

RDU begs for customers who are already there!

RDU Airport produced a cool video to get people back to the airport…but people are ALREADY back to Raleigh/Durham, with long queues everywhere—so many flyers that the airlines can’t handle the numbers and are canceling flights (AA by 1%).  So maybe RDU should be airing a PSA that says: Don’t come! 

Rental car craziness

Even if you get where you’re going but need a rental car, you’re in for a shock: no cars or stratospheric rates, as I rediscovered trying to book a car in Billings, Montana

For early July, Budget, Avis, & Hertz were all $900-1500/week in Billings for a “full size” car, or about $130/day (all-in) and Costco Travel has zero cars.  Checked Turo, and even a Kia Sportage is $130/day, plus-plus.  So I’m renting from a local Billings used car company, which is price-gouging me in their own way. 

After verbally quoting me $45/day for a mid-size, they told me when I called to reconfirm a week before traveling that they didn’t promise any size for that price and in fact I’d get a Ford Fiesta (about right if you want one for each foot), but that a mid-size car is $70/day plus taxes, which gets the price to $540/week.  When I asked why they were jerking me around, the manager basically said because he can.  “With rental cars so high, we had to go up,” a tacit admission that he lied to me and arbitrarily changed my rate.

“Where are you going, anyway?” he asked.

“To Absarokee,” I replied, which is a small town about 80 miles southwest of Billings.

“NO OFF-ROAD!” the man screamed. “You can’t take our cars off-road!”

I had no intention of going off-road and told him so. Absarokee, Montana isn’t Zion National Park in Utah, I patiently explained.  I had already re-checked Avis, Hertz, Budget, Alamo, Costco Travel Rental Cars, and Turo, and I knew nothing was available, so didn’t want to jeopardize this deal, even though the fellow had no skill at customer service.  I decided to grin and bear it.  Now I am in a white 2016 Chevy Malibu with 78,000 miles on the odometer, pictured just below.

And do you think that when car fleets are finally back to pre-pandemic normal that the rates will come down as well?  Think again, pilgrim!  Meantime, I’m spending nearly $1100 for two weeks in a beater in Montana (“NO OFF-ROAD!), which is twice the airfare RDU/BIL.

Flying Raleigh to Billings (my real-time report from last Sunday)

RDU airport was jammed at 415am Sunday.

TSA no longer takes my temp or wants my boarding pass, just scanned my driver’s license, which I inserted with unwashed fingers into a machine used by hundreds of other passengers with unwashed fingers. The agent asked that I remove my mask for a second before allowing me to proceed.

I was again glad to be in the short PRE line, but, even so, I was randomly selected to go through the sci-fi hands-over-your-head x-ray machine. It rejected me, resulting in a cursory pat-down by a burly TSA guy. I don’t think he found an overweight, short 73 year old to be much of a threat.

My luggage was also rejected on the x-ray belt. I figured my stash of 4 minibottles of Finlandia vodka had raised suspicion, but it turned out that a small bottle of metamucil triggered the closer look. The digestive aid powder was tested for explosives.  It passed, just as it was designed to do.

I’m always irked that RDU has no flight board at the bottom of the post-TSA screen escalators to direct me left or right in the terminal. I wandered to the right and found a screen that said my flight was departing from the opposite end, naturally.

The RDU Delta SkyClub had opened at 400am (as it does daily), a welcome respite from the growing hordes spreading the CV-19 Delta variant. I enjoyed the relative quiet for 45 minutes munching on a bagel and sipping juice before sauntering back to gate D5 for boarding.

Even in first class I had to wait for wheelchairs, “those needing extra time boarding,” active military in uniform, and families with small children before my turn came.

Seated in 1B. Plane full and asking for volunteers. Leaving on time. Then 3+ hr layover until Billings flight.

RDU/MSP was oversold with no empty seats but left early (well-managed boarding).

Connecting in Minneapolis it looks as busy as pre-Covid everywhere. SkyClubs are crowded.

But this flight to Billings is announced as not full. (But it was full when we departed.)

And not on time because one of the cleaners, a young woman from Somalia with no English, passed out while working the airplane. A little disconcerting. Hope she doesn’t have Covid and hope she wasn’t overcome by the cleaning chemicals.

I was offered beverages (I ordered a Bloody Mary) and a snack box out of Raleigh.  Just got a Coke Zero to Billings.

I wore a mask every second from entering RDU in Raleigh to exiting the Billings airport except when sipping on something wet.  With the deadly Delta variant on the rise, I was happy that everyone did the same.  I was also relieved that no mask-hater incidents occurred on my flights.

The gorgeous Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

It’s great to be in Montana again, but like the rest of the American West, it’s dry as a bone and hot as blue blazes. Though the heat and drought aren’t apparent in pictures, perhaps because nothing has yet caught fire here.

Nonetheless, it’s a tinderbox, and with the steady wind, a spark could set off a major conflagration. Extreme fire hazard may not thwart Montanan free spirit, though. Fireworks haven’t yet been canceled anywhere. I overheard several employees at a gas station at rural Park City excitedly discussing the best place to see local Independence Day fireworks and couldn’t help opening my mouth to ask if that wasn’t a bad idea. I got universal scowls in reply before one woman commented, “Nothing will stop our Fourth of July celebration of America’s freedom here in Montana!”

Yeah, “freedom” to burn up the environment which belongs to all of us, I thought. It was a sad moment.

Thanks to Covid, travel insurance increasingly a requirement

June 22, 2021

In a May post I referred to a helpful civil servant—a career diplomat, in fact—with the South African embassy in Washington, DC who volunteered to make inquiries with his own country’s tourism department back home to determine whether Covid quarantine insurance is still required for entry to South Africa. I asked because the information online is vague and indeterminate.  The SA government website says these are the requirements for travelers traveling to South Africa by air: 

“All travellers landing at these airports must present a PCR test which is not older than 72 hours from the time of departure from the country of origin to South Africa. 

“Furthermore, the international travellers should possess a mandatory travel insurance which is supposed to cover the COVID-19 test and quarantine costs.  All these travellers will be subjected to COVID-19 screening on arrival. Those who present COVID-19 symptoms which include elevated body temperatures and flu-like symptoms, will be required to take a COVID-19 test which should be covered by the travel insurance. Should the test results come back positive, the traveller will be subjected to mandatory quarantine, which will also be paid for by the traveller or the travel insurance.” 

However, other sites make no mention of the need for quarantine insurance any longer.  One source told me the requirement was added at the height of the pandemic, but has been dropped or ignored for Americans since widespread vaccinations have become available.  Yet the requirement still looms on the official website. 

While waiting for the South African diplomats to bring back a definitive answer, I spent a good deal of time researching travel insurance, just in case.  I know next to nothing about such insurance.  I always considered it a racket.  Taking a look, I found travel insurance that specifically covers quarantine cost to be elusive. 

After two weeks of silence from the SA embassy fellow, I reached out to ask what he had found.  Nada, as it turned out.  Neither he nor three of his more senior (First Secretary) colleagues were able to elicit a reply about this requirement from their government.  Basically, the embassy guys told me (though not exactly in these words):  “Don’t take a chance; buy insurance.  We are not sure you need it, but better not to risk it.  Sorry, we have no idea what the facts are!”

Which is just one indication of the utter confusion and chaos that seems to increasingly characterize foreign entry requirements for visitors to other countries.  I began looking wider to see if such “quarantine cost” insurance was required by other countries.

Some articles, like this Forbes piece, say insurance is a good idea, but not which countries require it (May 13, 2021).

This Reuters story is a little more specific (March 7, 2021), but again not certain.

It only reports that “More than a dozen countries from Aruba to Thailand require COVID-19 coverage for visitors, with Jordan the latest to consider such protections, organizers of an emergency services plan told Reuters.” 

I wish Reuters had been more specific.

It said this about the coverage I ultimately chose from Seven Corners Insurance Company:

“Jeremy Murchland, president of Indiana-based travel insurance company Seven Corners, said travelers are now ‘more likely to insure their trips,’ as more countries require COVID-19 coverage.

“A travel insurance plan that includes trip protection, medical expense coverage for COVID-19 and protection for baggage and personal effects typically costs 4% to 8% of the dollar value of the trip, Murchland said.

“In June, 2020, Seven Corners introduced an optional medical travel plan with coverage for coronavirus expenses, Murchland said. By year’s end, the product with coronavirus coverage generated about 80% of total medical travel plan sales.”

Even more discouraging is this from the same Reuters article:

“Rifai, former secretary general of the UN’s World Tourism Organization, said he expects countries will continue requiring coverage as the vaccines ‘will take years’ to roll out globally.”

Back in November, 2020, the NYT also wrote this piece on the uptick in travel insurance requirements.

This site supposedly updates regularly and claims to be definitive of where travel insurance is required. 

This one claims to offer insurance that includes quarantine expenses (and includes Safe Travels Voyager that Costa Rica recommends with its super-strict requirements). 

This June 11, 2021 NPR piece is very helpful about broad travel planning issues.

NPR says this about travel insurance:

“Bring proof of health insurance. Even if you’re a veteran traveler who knows that your insurance carrier covers you overseas, be sure to check on COVID-19 coverage before you leave. Some countries, such as Argentina, require that you have a notice from your health insurer that specifically mentions COVID-19 coverage as proof that you are covered for the virus. Cambodia requires all foreigners to purchase insurance from the government on arrival: $90 for 20 days of coverage. Also check to see if your policy covers medical evacuation insurance, or consider buying a separate policy if not. Travel specialists say it’s a wise investment during a pandemic.

“The CDC offers great background information on health insurance and foreign travel on its site. If you buy a supplemental plan, the State Department site recommends looking for one that will pay for care directly rather than reimburse you so out-of-pocket expenses are limited.”

The bottom line is that more and more countries are requiring proof of travel (and quarantine) insurance in the wake of the global health crisis, but what exactly is required remains in flux.  No standards or stasis yet.  After reading these and other articles, I came away even more confused about travel and quarantine insurance requirements foisted upon foreign travelers by Covid.  Even career diplomats like the South African guys are baffled. 

Given the lack of clarity, I opted to pinpoint insurance that included specific quarantine costs for my upcoming trips to South Africa.  But still I found only murky and vague language in travel insurance policy offerings that claimed to cover every cost, including quarantine.

Finally, I made contact with the managers of South Africa’s famous Londolozi luxury private game lodge near the Kruger National Park.  Londolozi hosts many well-heeled American guests, as one might expect.  One of the regulars has visited Londolozi twice in 2021. She graciously sent me a scan of her Seven Corners policy which has repeatedly been accepted by South African authorities at Johannesburg upon her arrival. 

Here is the policy I ultimately purchased for a year to cover not only my three trips to SA, but also planned trips to Morocco and to Italy within the next 12 months:

Wander Frequent Traveler Plus: (Annual)

Per trip insurance with the same policy is also available:

Liaison Travel Medical Plus: (Per trip)

Specifically related to quarantine costs, South African authorities are said to be satisfied with these words in my policy:

“COVID-19 Treatment includes hospital & hotel expenses

The American tourist at Londolozi arriving with this coverage language has been waved through twice already this year on the basis of this exact wording, which she sent me from her Seven Corners policy.  Fingers crossed that will be good enough for me as well!

Who is Will Allen, anyway?

GoTriangle, the regional transit authority for the Research Triangle area of central North Carolina, recently did a short profile on me because I serve on the GoTriangle Board of Trustees. It occurred to me that readers might be interested in knowing a little bit of my background, so here it is:

Planes, trains, buses: all in this board member’s wheelhouse

GoTriangle Board Member William A. Allen III knows firsthand what it’s like to steer a city bus full of passengers safely to their destinations. As a law student at the University of North Carolina in the early 1970s, he worked as a bus operator for Chapel Hill Transit.

“It was my part-time job,” Allen recalls. “I got up really early in the morning before class, and I drove buses for a few hours. Then I went to class, and I would come back and drive again. I usually ended up putting in 30 or 40 hours a week.”

Attending law school and working a physically and mentally taxing job might drain the energy of many people, but Allen says he has always thrived on work, whether paid or not. His first job at age 12 was working for The News & Observer, he recalls.

“I would get up every morning at 4:30 and deliver the papers in my neighborhood by bike, which I had to do 364 days a year, every day except the day after Christmas,” he says. “I did that for a couple of years. I have had a job ever since doing something.”

Born in Kinston, North Carolina, to a teacher and a lawyer, Allen graduated from NC State University with a bachelor’s degree in politics while working three jobs to pay his bills. As a college student, he was interested in sustainable issues, taking the first environmental course offered and attending the first Earth Day in 1970.

Driven by a strong interest in railroads, he began work for the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, now known as CSX, as a telegraph operator and a dispatcher trainee. Seaboard offered him entry into management training, but he declined, knowing he planned to attend law school. However, a couple of years into law school, he realized the profession was not a good fit for him.

“I didn’t like it, and so I became a businessman, and I had a number of businesses that were very interesting,” he says, noting that his first venture was founding his own charter flight business in Ohio.  

Selling charter flights to Europe to students, faculty and staff at all of the major universities in Ohio eventually landed Allen a lucrative job managing European student flights returning to the U.S. So he sold his business and moved to Munich, Germany, to begin a two-year stint, and that’s when the transit bug bit him hard.

“I really enjoyed my job and got to know a lot about commercial aviation,” he recalls. “I didn’t own a car the entire time I was there – I just used public transit in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, France, and other places where I was organizing flights from. I used the trains all the time, and that sold me even more on public transit in trains. So when I got back here I was pretty much convinced that that was what we should do in this country.”

When he returned from Europe in 1977, he started a business that exported live baby eels (called elvers) to Japan which are grown out in aquaculture ponds there. The business flourished until China and Japan signed a trade agreement that cut demand for U.S.-sourced elvers.

“My business collapsed overnight,” Allen says. “I ended up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal as a victim of that trade pact, and I decided in 1979 to go into management consulting. At the time, I thought of management consulting as a temporary job, and 35 years later I was still doing it.”

Over the next three decades as a consultant, Allen found joy in process reengineering work, which he describes as aligning Fortune 500 business processes with their business strategies.

“I did it for many, many industries, everything from mining to food processing to insurance, but I was especially interested in – and lucky to be able to work in – two industries I already knew a lot about,” he says. “One was commercial aviation – I did a lot of work for airlines – and then, a lot of work for the rail industry. My clients included the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the Norfolk Southern and others, and I did a lot of work for rail shippers as well.”

Flying out of his home base in Raleigh every Sunday night to travel to Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia and South America and returning every Friday night eventually took a toll on his personal life, he says. “I was married early, and I’m afraid my marriage only lasted about four or five years,” he says. “My first wife got tired of me not being here all the time. We had no kids. We divorced.”

About eight years later, he met Ruth Heuer, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, sociologist and demographer, who like him enjoyed traveling. They married in 1995, had their first child when he was 50 years old and then adopted their second child from China. Becoming a father prompted him to quit consulting work so he would not be gone from home five days a week.

“I decided in late 2008 to take a big risk and get off the road – even though it would curtail my earning capacity – and see what it was like to be a stay-at-home dad,” he says. “I wanted not to repeat what I had seen a lot of my colleagues in consulting do, which was to be an absent father and to be, if not estranged, at least kind of a stranger to their children.”

Being at home, he says, he reconnected with his community and soon began volunteer work that eventually led to elected office. He worked for former President Obama’s election campaign and then began co-chairing the Passenger Rail Task Force for the Raleigh City Council, advising on major rail issues. He was involved in recommending the location of Raleigh Union Station and the optimal route for Southeast High Speed Rail to enter Raleigh from the north.

“I got involved in my neighborhood because I just couldn’t stay not busy; I like to work,” he says. “I organized my neighborhood into a neighborhood association, and that led to me attending the Hillsborough Citizen Advisory Council meetings, and then pretty soon I was elected vice-chair and then chair for eight years.”

In 2011 and 2013, he was elected to chair the Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council, and as the Raleigh City Council appointed him to more and more committees, he got even more involved in local communities. Eight years ago, when he saw the GoTriangle board had an opening for a City of Raleigh representative, he asked then-Mayor Nancy McFarland to appoint him.

“I thought it would be the perfect fit, and it has because of my life-long commitment to public transit,” he says, noting that he is not anti-automobile. “I believe people should have choices. I like to drive, frankly. But I think that people ought to have choices about what they do. And we have to start providing choices to get away from our utter dependency upon the private automobile.”

As a board member, he says his strength is his expertise in rail, and he is excited about integrating all modes of transit into a regional network with commuter rail as its spine.

While he is enthusiastic about the arrival of commuter rail and a connected transit network, he says obstacles in its path remain to be overcome.

“We talk a lot about regional transit, but we need to actually be regional,” he says. “We need to think regionally. We have to act regionally, not just talk about it. We need to be fully committed to it, and that means that all three counties and the larger area, too.”

On a personal note, he says as a board member and former essential worker, our operators and mechanics are always on his mind and he appreciates the work they do. He wants them to know that he values their opinions and is open to answering any questions they may have about the board’s goals. “The drivers, the mechanics, they make up the majority of our workforce, and frankly I want them to be happy,” he says.