Flying was on the menu

Being stuck at home this past year has provided ample time to sort and declutter piles of travel files collected over fifty-plus years of flying.

Some stuff was just junk and got recycled. But not all was worthless; well, at least, not to me.

I came across a large cache of memorabilia of international flying starting in the 1980s when I could first afford First Class overseas.  For reasons that perplex my wife—who thinks I’m crazy, anyway—I brought home quite a number of wine and food menus from some of those wonderful flights.

Looking back over those testaments to flying in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, I realize international First Class service reached a zenith that has never since been equaled or eclipsed.  Even in the immediate post-9/11 era, while U.S. airlines drastically retrenched, most overseas carriers continued to provide superior sharp-end service.  The worldwide decline in front cabin service standards, in my opinion, occurred somewhat later as most First Class cabins were replaced by improved versions of Business Class.

Recently, I began cataloging and admiring the menus I’d brought home over that 20+ year period.  I have over 100, as seen in the picture below.  The ones on the table are just the International FIRST CLASS menus, including two British Airways Concorde flights. The lowly business class menus are on the chair seat.

Maybe, I thought, I should blog about some of those experiences.  After all, I remember a lot of those often spectacular meals.  I especially remember the caviars (called out in various menus as Beluga, Sevruga, Osetra, Iranian, and Caspian) which EVEN DELTA was serving in the 90s.

I distinctly remember the fine red wines and the Champagnes, vintages like the Dom Perignon 1980 on Concorde in 1989.

And on a bunch of menus, I made notes to myself about the food and drink.  For example, one famous label French white I described as “Horrible! Like drinking ditch water.”

But my wife’s reaction, and that of a professional journalist friend whose opinion I trust, to my saving the menus was the same:  “Why?”

This is where my expectations and levels of anticipation about flying differ from most folks.  To me, the nuanced experiences of getting there has always been as important as arriving. The menus deeply thrill me with multiple layers of happy remembrances.  And thus I will soon write about some of those flights and the memories they conjure.

Not in every case, but on some I remember:

  • The order of service,
  • Whether the cutlery was silver or cheap metal,
  • Whether the glassware was crystal or shoddy glass,
  • The FA attitudes (genuine or contrived),
  • Whether they kept my water glass full (and my Champagne),
  • Whether the silverware and crystal was laid out correctly,
  • Whether the napkin was linen or a cheap and disgusting cotton-polyester,
  • The nuanced flavors (or not),
  • Whether what was supposed to be hot was hot and whether cold was cold,
  • The presentations,
  • The quantities,
  • Whether I was asked if I wanted second servings,
  • Whether the cabin crew tried to rush me for their own convenience,
  • The olfactory excitation—especially the wines,
  • The artistry and quality of the dining and wine menus itself (many are indeed things of beauty in and of themselves),
  • The variety and selection of wines – for example, Asiana in the 1990s in First Class offered no less than four luxury cuvee Champagnes to choose from—and that was just the Champagnes on offer, and
  • Whether the FAs offered me an entire bottle of wine or Champagne to take with me on arrival (UA several times gave me an unopened bottle of Dom as I left one of their trans-Pacific 747s).

That’s just off the top of my head.  As I browse the menus, rich memories are stirred of sharp-end experiences, albeit ephemeral—just a few hours of flying that, to me, are as much fun as where I am going. 

Or a disappointment.  I noted the little things in cabin service up front, too: 

  • Whether I was greeted by name,
  • Shown to my seat,
  • Assisted with carryon,
  • Immediately offered a glass of Champagne,
  • My jacket whisked away and hung (and brought back just after touchdown, neatly folded, and sometimes brushed and pressed),
  • Whether the Champagne was a fine one and poured in front of me (a sure sign of pride and care, as opposed to filling a line of glasses in the galley),
  • Whether the Champagne was properly chilled and fizzy, and
  • Whether the purser or chief FA came by to speak (I never cared whether the Captain came by, as he wasn’t invested in cabin service).

All those recollections come pouring back as I look through the menus, some vivid when I read my notes scribbled onto menus about the flights. 

I could always tell if the service was truly spectacular or if the FAs were just acting out parts.  Singapore, for example, with grand marketing about superior service, certainly offered expensive wines and food, but their lovely and polite cabin crews somehow never came across as sincere and confident in what they were doing.  SQ service seemed stiff and rote as opposed to the unaffected charm and poise of senior British Airways flight attendants.

The pinnacle of BA professionalism shone aboard Concorde, which I flew JFK to LHR and back one lucky week in late 1989.  I took along a camcorder and have a lengthy DVD record of the entire trip, which I’ve often thought of posting to YouTube. Passengers were given this binder as a keepsake:

The short three and half hours across the Atlantic was hardly sufficient for a deep dive into Concorde’s wine treasures, though I gave it the old college try.  I remember being gleefully knee-walking drunk by the time I stumbled off at Heathrow and glad not to be working the next day.  Here are two photos of the menus and some of the memorabilia from those flights:

I have scaled back my international front cabin expectations these days to be appropriately low of Business Class, let alone when sitting in mid-cabin Premium Economy or sardine-class Coach.  Armed with such a realistic Zen attitude, I am always shocked and humbled when I find superb and sincere service in, say, lowly coach on Emirates.  No, not the hoity-toity luxuries presented to me in seat 1A of yesteryear, but, hey, no regrets.  I have great memories of the way things were.

Reliving some of those memories, I’ll use the menus to muse about frivolous but fun stuff like which ones were the most artful and which ones were just plain ugly, a discussion of caviars (never a bad one to my palate), thoughts on good and not-so-good wines way up in the sky, and perhaps the correlation of food quality served versus dishes described in print.  And so on.  After all, if I can’t really go anywhere exotic right now, why not enjoy happy reminiscences of past trips?

Grounded, the second year

February 23, 2021

If I’d been able to see into the future 12 months ago that I’d still be mostly grounded now, my spirit may not have survived the year undamaged.  While I’ve enjoyed a few excursions, they’ve been mostly terrestrial. Since arriving home from a South African journey last year (just a few days before the shutdown), I made just one round trip by air (four flights, with connections), and even though that was in First Class, I didn’t feel safe enough to try it again.

A year of no flying, but for that one itinerary.  That’s the least I’ve been in the air since the 1960s.  Hence my enthusiastic travel planning, often chronicled here in my blog (q.v.), so as to be ready to get back on the road when this dark period is over.  Also, my pondering—some might say brooding—over what flying might be when we do get back on the road.

Looking forward: air travel uncertainty

Does a sea change in flying await us when the post-pandemic new normal comes?  No precise analog exists to compare to in the history of commercial aviation which is, after all, only 107 years old and had not matured by 1918’s flu pandemic.    

In my mind, fragmentation, if not downright disintegration, of pre-COVID air travel norms and expectations looms as the world’s airlines pick up the pieces of the disaster that has befallen the industry. In no particular order, here are some of the questions about future air travel rattling around in my head:

  • Will there be fare hikes to make up for the huge Covid-19 losses?  Lately, I’ve been searching flights and fares on every airline in the markets from Raleigh to Minneapolis, to Billings (Montana), to Seattle, and to Johannesburg, among many others, and fares seem to be all over the place.  Not the usual tight bands of prices.
  • Direct or connecting flights?  I read that airlines will be more dependent upon hubs to return to profitability and skew away from the point-to-point trends of 2019.
  • Matching flight supply with demand when fliers return to the airports?  Too few seats to meet demand will of course drive up what I have to pay, especially in city-pair markets with little or no competition.
  • Which carriers will survive?  The conventional wisdom is that if United or American failed (the two weakest big U.S. airlines financially) that a stronger carrier will gobble up the remains and protect those exposed to future bookings bought and paid for.  But I was working in Australia when Ansett Australia imploded and was liquidated in 2002, leaving ticketholders with no recourse.  The collapse correlated to 9/11, a terrible moment for the airline business, and not without comparison to now.
  • To what places will I be able to fly?  Airlines may very well cut back on marginally profitable routes to recoup profits, coupled to travel hurdles to countries slow to vaccinate its people, and there are many places I’d like to go that may no longer be reasonably accessible.
  • Health passports, testing, vaccination, and mask requirements? Speculation fails me in this regard, as so many competing virtual health passports jostle for becoming the standard. For now, I’ll take my hard copy vaccination record when I travel along with plenty of KN95 masks.
  • Airport and security screen protocols?  This is a more existential than concrete worry on my part, but history after upheavals like COVID tells me that traversing airports and TSA barriers isn’t likely to get easier.  Although my status in the Trusted Traveler program may help.
  • Will airline alliances and partnerships still matter?  SkyTeam, oneworld, and Star are only functional when all the partners achieve a threshold of financial stability, reach, and consistent operational and service excellence.  Those calculations will need reaffirming as “normal” comes back.  Over the decades, I’ve benefited from all those inter-airline allegiances in fares, scheduling convenience, and service reliability.  My trust in those elements was earned from years of flying over the globe.  I wonder if I can still be sanguine about the smooth transitions I experienced stepping off one alliance airline’s flight and onto another’s airplane once the pandemic effects abate.
  • What kind of on-board service can I expect in the aftermath due to both cost cutbacks and health concerns? Not that service before the coronavirus was stellar (except up front).  But at least I could buy a snack and a mixed drink or beer to accompany my complimentary water or Pepsi.  These days even the usual First Class beverage service up front is suspended.  If I am sitting in 1A, I’d like to be offered a G&T and a basket of fruit and nuts to choose from even if I turn it down.  Even more true on overseas flights.
  • Will seat comfort become ever more Spartan?  Again, the airlines were already approaching torture in seat design before the virus.  Now that they’re broke (again), I don’t trust them not to “justify” the installation of chairs that reach new levels of torment.  If so, I will fly only when I can afford (or luck into) the front cabin.

Looking way out, I’m no fan of this idea

This recent article speculates that windowless airplanes could be in my future.  I read it in horror.  One of my fundamental joys of flying is looking out from on high. I always try to get a window seat to places that intrigue me: beautiful cities, or ones that are just plain fascinating. Over mountains and oceans and deserts.  The view from my perch way up in the sky is magic, MAGIC!

Okay, center seats on international flights aren’t adjacent to windows, but if I am stuck in one, at least I can SEE through the windows not far away on either side of the fuselage.  I’d like to poll the passengers on the recent United 777 flight out of Denver that experienced a calamitous engine failure whether they would have preferred not being able to observe the flaming, wobbly starboard engine.  It was a scary sight, but I’m betting no one would have wanted to be in the dark of a windowless airplane during those tense moments when the plane returned to land safely at Denver.

And even if you don’t care to look out a window, who wants to risk being bombarded with big-screen advertising for 16 hours on both interior walls of the plane?  Because I know that’s what every airline will do if we let them void our right to see the world from above.

Two trips are better than none

February 18, 2021

A week ago I lamented how travel planning to South Africa this year has become a Sisyphean task. After all, I’ve been relentlessly battling challenges to get back the Kruger National Park since arriving home in March, 2020 just a few days before the Covid shutdown.  By last Friday I was spiritually drained from the fight to book a trip for me and a friend to the Kruger National Park the last two weeks of July.  I finally had to give up on that one. 

I was disappointed for my friend because his work schedule is crazy through 2022, and this was his sole travel window for more than a year.  I sheepishly sought selfish solace in knowing that a November trip to the Kruger with my wife had already been planned, booked, and paid for. 

Not that the November trip had itself been easy to nail down.  It was extraordinarily difficult to make work after flights were canceled by Delta Air Lines twice before, as I documented in a number of earlier posts.

Heck, was it even reasonable, I wondered, to expect the moon and stars to align in putting together a second trip to the Kruger in the same year?  During the chaotic uncertainty of the pandemic?  If so, it certainly wasn’t going to be in July because I had belatedly discovered that scarce Kruger accommodation in that month was due in part to a lengthy South African school holiday period. As starved for outings as we are, South African families are flocking to the Kruger in July.

Then came an unexpected breakthrough: My friend announced that he could go in early August instead.  That news led me to spend large parts of last weekend back at the task of making the new dates work.  I figured we had a shot since kids in South Africa would then be back in class.  Meaning he might get to see African wildlife after all.

Usually, I send an email to a reliable (and free) booking service licensed by South African National Park (SANP) to test Kruger accommodation availability as I try to balance possible Kruger dates against reasonable airfares and schedules to get there. 

But his August date news came last Saturday, and the booking service is only open weekdays.  That meant I’d either have to wait until Monday or attempt booking Kruger bungalows myself on the confusing, slow, and unreliable SANP website.

Trouble was, I couldn’t wait for Monday for an answer because the United Airlines special low intro fares were due to expire on Monday, February 15, after which UA airfares would rise dramatically, putting the cost of the trip out of reach (I’d already confirmed other airline fares were unacceptable). 

For all those reasons, I launched, with trepidation, into booking Kruger camps on the balky, Dr. Seuss-like SANP system.  At least I remembered my client code and sign-in credentials, and soon I was busy relearning the twisted logic of SANP self-booking tricks and traps.

After lining up mostly just the right bungalows among four Kruger “rest camps” (the archaic South African term for the park’s marvelous self-contained villages in the wilderness), I hit the “continue” button to complete the reservation and pay.  Only to watch in consternation as the SANP site returned a fatal error message that I needed to start over from scratch.  SANP’s creaky software had dumped my complex, carefully-constructed itinerary. 

Some choice swear words came next, after which deep breaths, withdrawing from my laptop, and marching outside to rebalance before beginning anew.

In a half hour I was back at it, doggedly reconstructing the itinerary.  I had not been able to copy it out, but I’d scribbled something on paper which I used to build back the overnights in the Kruger Park.  This time the uncooperative system let me proceed to the payments page.  I entered my Amex card data, and pressed “pay now” on screen.  At once, my phone dinged with a reassuring text message letting me know that my Amex card had been charged in the South African Rand equivalent of $1446 and change. 

Looking up from my phone, I stared at the SANP website awaiting confirmation of my $1446 booking…and presently a notice appeared saying my booking had been “automatically canceled.”  My booking had sunk out of sight quicker than the Titanic.  No reason given, but at least a reference number was provided, a tiny bit of flotsam I could cling to in my misery. 

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy to untangle, so I carefully went through the tortured motions required by the ancient SANP programming to find that reference number and ask where my money was. 

Only a general inquiry email was thrown up to write to.  I composed an email detailing what had happened and sent it off into the ether, knowing I wouldn’t hear earlier than Monday because SANP, like the booking service, is closed on weekends. 

Now I had two problems.  Where was my $1446 and the booking I had paid for?  And what was I going to do to get a replacement Kruger booking before the special United fares expired Monday night?  I sure as heck wasn’t going to risk a third try using SANP’s pathetic portal.

Maybe, I thought, my Kruger booking service in South Africa could secure space in time on Monday to purchase the UA airfare before the midnight deadline.  I detailed my SANP self-booking travail in an email and sent that off late Saturday, hoping to get a fast reply by Monday.

Sure enough, before noon on Monday the booking service confirmed Kruger reservations for me and my traveling companion mostly duplicating the dates and accommodation of my failed Saturday itinerary.  The service has access to the SANP system and confirmed that my reservation had inexplicably canceled, but my Amex card had nonetheless been charged.  They recommended waiting to see how SANP would respond to my inquiry.

Meanwhile, I lost no time in accessing the SANP website again, referencing the new Kruger reservation and paying in full—AGAIN—using my Amex card, which totaled a bit over $1500.  This time the system confirmed payment in full with the new reservation intact.

Confident, finally, of secure Kruger bungalows for the two of us, I gave the green light to my friend to buy his United Business Class ticket for our revised dates (early August).  I also purchased mine, except I opted for the cheaper UA Premium Economy fare: $1900 round trip from Raleigh to Johannesburg versus $2900 in Business Class from Newark to Johannesburg. 

Both tickets were issued before the Monday, February 15 midnight expiration.  Whew!  We had made the deadline!

And then United announced it was extending the special fares through March 2.  All that stress and work over the weekend, including the double charging for the Kruger accommodations and the back-and-forth emails to South Africa, could have been avoided had UA let the world know sooner that the Feb 15 drop-dead date was loosey-goosey.

Another airline anomaly: Who knows why United posted a special Business Class fare ($2900) only if originating from Newark, while the special Premium Economy fare ($1900) applies not just from Newark, but also if originating from RDU?  The RDU to Johannesburg Business Class fare connecting to the same Newark flight was thousands higher.

The Business Class bargain EWR/JNB was sufficiently low, though, to attract my friend to it (and me and my wife, too, for our trip in November). Attractive even with the need to buy a separate ticket Raleigh to Newark and back to self-connect to the Jo’burg flights. 

Thus my traveling companion booked a second United ticket for the RDU/EWR/RDU legs, albeit on a coach fare.  Buying that separate ticket, however, put a spotlight on another United Airlines issue, namely that their elite level is an empty suit.

As mentioned in previous posts, the two trips in August and November to Johannesburg will be my first UA flying in a long time.  Formerly a top-tier United loyalist, I turned away after a long series of bad experiences flying United in the 90s. Now I am the lowest of the low, a mere UA “General Member” with no status whatsoever. 

Which means that on my flights Raleigh to Newark and back, I had no elite means to juice an upgrade.  So I simply paid for an upgrade to First Class on those two legs. 

By contrast, my friend traveling with me is a decades-long United super-elite member.  Though I’m a MileagePlus peon by comparison to his millions of miles, UA was more interested in pocketing $69 for my seat in First Class than in bumping my friend up.  So far refusing to fork over more money to the airline, he remains way back in row 17.  Proving that United’s revenue management yield algorithms rule, not elite status.

So, wow!  After mostly living in a cave since March of 2020, I went through travel planning hell to confirm two 2021 trips back to South Africa’s Kruger National Park.  Of course, a previous confirmed trips in February (I would be there now) was canceled by the airlines and moved to May, which was later again canceled and moved to November, so anything might happen.  But I am optimistic and happy today to have these two trip to look forward to. 

Now if only South African National Parks will refund the $1446 for the booking their crummy online rez system canceled.

How to hit a moving travel target

February 10, 2021

I wish I knew the answer to my headline. The Covid crisis continues to generate a blur of perplexing news related to travel.  It’s hard to keep up.  If I was just a spectator, then I might enjoy the roller-coaster ride.  But since I actually presume to go places, it’s exasperating.

I’m often adjusting my travel plans using facts I thought were reliable from yesterday to find that a critical assumption has changed today. Often not in my favor to make travel easier—like Delta not loading its usual range of fares for flights to Johannesburg seven months out.  Sometimes with murky implications—like what kind of test documentation is acceptable for me to return to the USA from South Africa.

Hello United, farewell Delta

Flying Delta Air Lines has been my first choice for decades.  Over five million miles and lifetime Platinum status give me a slight, but distinct, comfort advantage (upgrade opportunities, etc.), even if no help in fare picks compared to anyone else shopping for air. 

Since I often travel to South Africa, Delta works, too, being until recently the sole U.S. carrier offering nonstop service to Johannesburg (ATL/JNB).  Now that South African Airways—the chronically mismanaged “Alitalia of Africa”—has collapsed, Delta faced no competition in the nonstop Johannesburg market. 

That is, until United Airlines decided to launch its own nonstop flights from its Newark fortress hub (EWR/JNB). As a former UA 1K flyer, I abruptly moved my business away from United in the mid-90s after one too many horrible experiences with their mercurial, customer-despising airport gate and cabin staffs.  I vowed not to fly UA again if other alternatives were available, and I pretty much hewed to my prejudice ever since.  All my flying went to Delta and American, and I’ve never looked back.

Until now.  When recent Delta flight cancellations to JNB forced me to move back plans to visit the Kruger National Park from May to November, I assumed Delta would honor the business class Z fare that the airline had twice already changed for similar reasons.  But nope.  Only Delta’s Revenue Management folks understand why the airline has loaded only a narrow range of the highest fares for fall travel to Johannesburg. 

Calling the elite line went nowhere, either.  The closest business class fare to Johannesburg on Delta in November was thousands more, almost twice what I had paid.

That’s when I turned my interest to United, which is offering (through mid-Feb) an introductory business class fare of just $2900 round trip from Newark to Jo’burg.  That’s a lot lower than even Delta’s Z fare—their rock-bottom sharp-end fare.  The icing on the cake is that United is flying a brand new 787-9 fitted with the carrier’s newest (and highly rated for comfort and customer satisfaction) Polaris business cabin to Johannesburg. 

Enticing, but it is still United, and the 1990s bad taste in my mouth lingers.  So I Googled a number of reviews of the new Polaris seats and poured over seatguru.com before making a decision.  Few complaints and lots of raves led me to book the United deal.  Later, I called Delta and got a full refund.  Habit and familiarity made me reluctant to switch, but the dollar factor was a no-brainer.

Electronic “vaccination passport” mirage

Airlines and the industry keep yapping about how wonderful life will be when we have an electronic Covid-19 “vaccination passport” to get us through security and boarding gates. However, confusion reigns, as Joe Brancatelli brilliantly detailed in his (subscriber-only) February 4 column.  The New York Times reported on the promise that it is “coming soon.”  I hope they are right, but I’m skeptical.  Not only, as Joe pointed out, is there no accepted standard, we don’t even have electronic ACTUAL passports yet.  Can we really soon expect an electronic health passport accepted by airlines and at immigration borders worldwide?

Meanwhile, I have my old-fashioned hard-copy Covid vaccine documentation that I keep with my hard-copy passport.

What’s going on in South Africa?

It’s hard to tell.  Conflicting reports emanate from friends in South Africa about life during the pandemic there, and not much in the media, excepting the drumbeat of bad news about the insidious, highly infectious CV-19 variant first identified there. 

According to one source, things are dire:

“Right now, SA is completely shut down. A friend is in Pretoria, and even after a month remains locked up in his house, along with everyone else. Her daughter-in-law is trapped in their vacation home near Cape Town, and people there are not allowed to even go to the beach.

“The SA COVID variant is more rampant than the media reports.

“My friend is going crazy, especially since it is quite difficult to go to stores, and delivery service operations are very limited.”

By contrast, another trusted contact maintains that everyday life is about like here in North Carolina:

“I have been in Cape Town for the last week there is no restriction of movement, beaches are open.  There was a period over December where beaches were closed, but since we moved to level 3 lockdown around mid-Jan, they are open.

“You can go anywhere. Only requirement is to wear a mask in public.

“On the COVID variant it does seem to be more contagious, but we have passed the peak of the second wave recording around 3,000 cases a day, down from 20,000 a day. In terms of getting the vaccine, it will roll out but slowly.

“On freedom, COMPLETE. {Everyone] should be enjoying the beaches, walks, parks, shopping centres etc., just wear a mask.”

I phoned the Kruger National Park to find out about testing (see below for details on that), and the park is indeed open to tourists, making that part of the first report wrong. Yet the rumors persist.

Kruger National Park booked up in July

Trying to book Kruger accommodation in late July for a friend was nearly impossible.  It’s mostly full then—and that’s mid-winter in the Southern Hemisphere.  Plenty of pent-up pandemic-related demand, it seems, despite the testing and travel hurdles.  Makes me wonder who is going then.  Likely not Europeans, given how chaotic and closed down Europe is at the moment.  Neither would it be travelers from Australia or New Zealand.  South Africans must certainly be going stir-crazy and want a getaway, so perhaps the park is seeing mostly domestic visitors.

Testing at the Kruger National Park

For some time, I’ve been concerned about how and where to get tested while in the African wilderness of South Africa’s Kruger National Park (for my trip rescheduled—again—in November from May).  

Recently, I got a tip that the Kruger’s doctor office in the largest camp and park headquarters, called Skukuza, was providing test services for travelers.  Using this reference, I called the Kruger doctors’ office at Skukuza earlier this week for details on Covid-19 test capabilities, costs, etc.  Here’s what I learned:

  • Covid-19 PCR testing is done only Monday-Friday at Skukuza during normal office hours (about 8-5).  I did not ask about antigen tests and other types, but the CDC does allow those for return to the USA.
  • For PCR tests, nasal swabs are collected once daily by a lab agent who drives to Skukuza from the town of Nelspruit, which is outside the Kruger National Park.
  • Results are available in 24 hours.
  • Results are emailed to the person tested in the form of a special standard document that complies with airline and country requirements (or that’s what I was assured).
  • Therefore, a test made on a Friday would produce results on Saturday and be good for flying through Monday night per CDC requirements (see below details).
  • The doctors’ office at Skukuza requires an appointment.  The office recommends calling a day or two in advance to set up the appointment.
  • Cost at Skukuza is R650 for the office consultation + R850 for the PCR test (lab fee) = R1500 per person, which at today’s exchange rate of about $1 = R15 is a bit over $100 per person.  This must be paid in cash.  Again, I didn’t ask about other tests, like the antigen type, which are cheaper and faster.
  • It was at first unclear to me when the 72 hour clock starts ticking and when it expires for tests required by the CDC, so I checked their website for clarity. For example, if the clock begins when a nasal swab is taken at noon on a Friday, then would it expire three days later at noon on Monday?
  • The CDC website says I need not worry: “The 3-day period is the 3 days before the flight’s departure. The [CDC] Order uses a 3-day timeframe instead of 72 hours to provide more flexibility to the traveler. By using a 3-day window, test validity does not depend on the time of the flight or the time of day that the test was administered.  For example, if a passenger’s flight is at 1pm on a Friday, the passenger could board with a negative test that was taken any time on the prior Tuesday or after.”
  • Therefore, if tested at any time on a Friday and then boarding a flight through Monday up to midnight, then a negative test result would be accepted.
  • The lab in Nelspruit performs tests 7 days a week, and so it is possible to drive from Skukuza to Nelspruit on the weekend to get tested.  However, it’s two hours to Nelspruit one way, which would pretty much kill the entire day.
  • I didn’t ask, but I believe Kruger is using the Ampeth Lab in Nelspruit.  If so, there is an Ampeth lab in Hazyview, only a one hour drive from Skukuza, but they are not open on weekends.  Only the Nelspruit lab is open 24/7.
  • Two numbers are listed at the “krugerdoctors” URL.  The first is the office number, which only answers during office hours (013.735.5638 local, or 011.27.13.735.5638 when dialing from the USA).  The second is a mobile number to the on-call physician 24/7 for after-hour inquires (060.757.0396 local, or 011.27.60.757.0396 when dialing from the USA).

Mask effectiveness research progresses; supply does not

The CDC now reinforces in this New York Times article published today what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  Namely, that tight-fitting surgical masks, and doubling up on masks, is more effective in stopping viral spread.

Since then, I managed to scrounge about 40 KN95 masks and about 10 N95 masks for international air travel.  Such surgical-quality, tight-fitting masks remain hard to find, so I probably won’t use the ones I have stockpiled as the Feb 10 NYT article suggests.  Otherwise, I may not be able to replace them. 

Given the chronic shortage, I have to prioritize travel mask requirements over current best practice.  It’s been over a year since the pandemic hit us, and we still can’t get the masks the CDC recommends.  What happened to American competence?

Man plans, and God laughs

February 3, 2021

An old Yiddish proverb maintains that “Der mentsh trakht un got lakht.”  Which famously translates to “Man plans, and God laughs.”  If true, the Lord must be guffawing in Heaven these days over my ongoing battle to get back to what until March, 2020 was normal travel planning challenges.  

Normalcy implies predictability, order, regularity—all elements of my life that don’t pertain any more to travel during the pandemic, whether for business or leisure.  My innate hard-wired strength and natural state is to be in control, to think and see ahead, to be ready for any contingency, to know how to manage reality, and to move with alacrity to navigate travel changes beneficially.  I’m well-practiced and good at travel planning. To a large degree, though, that’s all out the window now.  With a few exceptions, I haven’t been real successful achieving selected travel outcomes since the coronavirus upended normality.

Flight cancelations & e-credits

Like a good and responsible citizen (and because the airlines dumped my flights), I canceled trip after trip last year during the shutdown: First to Tampa, New Orleans, Madison, and two separate trips to the Twin Cities. Then, most distressingly, I scuttled a two week trip to Morocco with my wife to celebrate 25 years of marriage.  Our booby prize was time on the sands of the North Carolina coast last summer, wonderful in its own way, just not comparable to an exotic adventure on the sands of the Sahara.  In the aftermath of those ghost flights, I now manage a fat file of e-credits with American and Delta for four different travelers (me, my wife, our son, and our daughter) with disparate expiration dates and a muddle of rules for use.  Is that the wind I detect howling, or is it the Immortal chortling with amusement?

Bewildering South African travel planning

God’s sides must hurt from laughing at my ongoing battle to make another trip back to the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  Originally planned for late January and February (I’d be there now had that worked out), South African shutdowns and related flight cancellations forced me to cancel and remake the complex arrangements for May dates instead.  Which included figuring out where to get PCR Covid testing in the USA before leaving, acquiring scarce N95 or KN95 masks for the trip, booking new international flight reservations to and from Johannesburg, reserving an overnight hotel at the Jo’burg airport, securing new domestic flight tickets to and from Skukuza in the Kruger, changing car rental dates at Skukuza, modifying hard-to-get accommodations for 12 nights in the Kruger Park, and finding a place near the Kruger to get a PCR Covid test within 72 hours of my return home to satisfy new CDC requirements.

I did all that, too, even finally confirming day before yesterday two clinics in Nelspruit in the South African province of Mpumalanga near the Kruger Park where I could get tested.

But yesterday Delta canceled my flights in May to Johannesburg, crumbling all my carefully made plans.  Now I must begin again from scratch, this time aiming for early November—nearly a year after my initial itinerary. This cascading turmoil of trip planning futility would make Sisyphus weep, but I’m betting the Supreme Being is grinning.

N95 masks, where art thou?

As I wrote last week, airlines and some countries are now requiring higher grade N95/KN95 masks.  They ain’t cheap or easy to find.  I guess it’s my job to keep the Deity in good humor.

Vaccinations, where art thou?

I wrote about getting my first dose (of two) of the Moderna vaccine two weeks back.  Getting an appointment was a chaotic whack-a-mole process unworthy of the American reputation for efficiency.  It hasn’t gotten any better since.  But two weeks in, I am recovering from survivor’s guilt and full of buoyant happiness that my body is now resistant to the disease.

Vaccination?  We don’t care about your stinking vaccination

But the sailing existential balloon of relief after being vaccinated fell to earth when I learned airlines, airport, and countries don’t give a flip about my CDC proof of Covid-19 inoculation.  I am nonetheless required to be tested twice: once within 72 hours of outbound travel, and again within 72 hours of travel coming home.  And none of those cheap, quick, and easy-to-find antigen tests, either.  No, sir.  Only the expensive PCR tests that can take up to two days for results will be accepted.  Once again providing merriment for the Divine Spirit.

Airport testing, where art thou?

Covid PCR testing is rapidly becoming the standard hurdle to fly through the world’s airports, and yet on-site clinics are still rare.  Making my job harder if I want to comply and fly. 

Antibodies?  We don’t care about your stinking antibodies, either

Like vaccinations, neither do airlines, airports, or countries care if I’ve had a Covid antibody test to prove if I recovered from a bout of the novel coronavirus and that my body was resistant to it.  Because of reports of rampant community spread, I spent $130 at LabCorp before my first vaccination to be tested for Covid antibodies.  It came back negative, so I probably didn’t have it.  But if I was showing CV-19 antibodies, it wouldn’t help me travel, and it might even work against me if the presence of healthy antibodies triggered a false-positive Covid test.  Did I just hear God chuckling?

Beach demand escalation

Maybe, I considered, another oceanfront rental house would be the ticket this summer if foreign travel is virtually impossible.  Until I checked the usual realtors along the N.C. coast south of Cape Lookout.  Beach property rental rates have skyrocketed and desirable places on the surf are as hard to find as truth in a state legislature.  I was told pent-up travel demand from Covid containment is the culprit. I sense the Lord smirking.

Echoes of post 9/11 flying?

Now that airline crews have been granted authority to enforce passenger in-flight mask-wearing and “play nice” rules, and TSA with the same mandate at airports, I can’t help wondering when that policing discretion will go over the line.  I recall a number of incidents I witnessed, and one where I played the victim, right after 9/11.  Some airport and airline personnel had short fuses about real or imagined disruptions, and some flight attendants took their newfound power too far.  I saw passengers ejected from planes for using a tone of voice perceived as “negative” or “threatening” for what I believed were legitimate complaints and questions.  I sure want wrongdoers to stay off my flights, but I don’t want to be treated like a criminal or assumed to be guilty if I furrow a brow in flight.

Angst exhaustion, but…

Yeah, I worry and suffer endless frustration over dashed plans.  It’s exhausting.  But I am determined to go places, and I will keep trying until I get there.  If it keeps the Creator smiling while I try, then God bless him(self).

My kingdom for an N95 mask!

January 28, 2021

First tests, now masks.  The deadly novel coronavirus and its rapidly mutating and virulent variants have prompted a reasonable, but frustrating new travel impediment: better mask protection.

Cloth and one-time use paper masks, even those with double layers and filters, are now deemed some places in Europe to be insufficient to keep my breath from escaping into the surrounding space:

“A number of European countries have announced new mask recommendations and requirements, pushing aside fabric masks in favor of surgical masks or medical-grade respirators.”

The Washington Post also reported this week on the growing Euro requirements, saying in part:

“There is a growing body of scientific evidence that has indicated that mask use in general can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. One study published in the Lancet medical journal in June compared transmission rates across 16 countries and found that both N95 and surgical masks have a stronger association with protection compared with single-layer masks.

“Another, by Duke University in August, compared the efficacy of different face coverings and found that fitted N95 masks were the most effective. Normal surgical masks are about three times more effective than cloth masks in preventing the spread of virus droplets, according to a 2013 study.”

The Post story goes on to report N95 masks are now required in Bavaria and other parts of Germany, with Austria instituting a similar policy on Monday of this week.

Airlines are following suit, it seems, starting with Lufthansa, which says in its FAQs:

“From 1 February 2021, only facemasks of the following standards will be permitted on flights to and from Germany: FFP2, KN95 and N95 standard or surgical masks. The latter are medical face masks known from everyday medical practice, colloquially also called surgical masks. They are medical products and were developed for the protection of others. FFP2, KN95 and N95 are filtering face pieces which protect the wearer of the mask from droplets and aerosols and serve to protect others and oneself.”

Here in the United States, we are moving in that direction.  This WaPo article muses over the growing habit of wearing double masks like President Biden and Veep Harris have been seen doing:

”The change can be as simple as slapping a second mask over the one you already wear, or better yet, donning a fabric mask on top of a surgical mask. Some experts say it is time to buy the highest-quality KN95 or N95 masks that officials hoping to reserve supplies for health-care workers have long discouraged Americans from purchasing.”

Maybe the moving mask requirement wouldn’t be so bad if the new standard of N95 surgical mask, and its nearly-as-good-but-not-approved-by-the-CDC equivalent KN95, was readily available.  Trouble is, they are hard to find and expensive.

N95 masks are $5 each and up, are not readily available everywhere, if at all, and only last a day of constant wearing (though in such short supply at hospitals that some medical workers have been reusing them for several days). Thus for travelers, that’s another $5 per day—if you can find them for sale. Or take a supply with you, displacing something else in your suitcase that you presumably needed.  This expense on top of the PCR testing requirements now in effect both going and returning home, a burden to coordinate and with a hefty price tag ($50 and up per test).

What’s the difference between the N95 and KN95 masks, anyway?  As a well-heeled business traveler told me yesterday: “To be honest, it confuses the hell out of me. I THINK they are essentially the same.”

He’s right that the two are mostly identical, as this excellent Rolling Stones article simplifies quite clearly:

“ ‘N95 masks offer protection against particles as small as 0.3 microns in size, and while the coronavirus itself is around 0.1 microns in size, it’s usually attached to something larger, such as droplets that are generated by everyday activities like breathing and talking,’ explains Shaz Amin, founder of WellBefore, which sells masks, face shields, wipes and sanitizers on its website. ‘Due to the multiple layers of non-woven fabric and melt blown fabric in the N95 masks, the strong material makeup of these masks are great at preventing airborne particles from entering through your mouth and nose.’

“But how are N95 masks different from KN95 masks? The main difference lies in how the masks are certified [by the CDC’s respected NIOSH arm]. ‘In general,’ says Sean Kelly, founder of New Jersey-based PPE of America, ‘N95 is the U.S. standard, and the KN95 is the China standard.’ Because of this, only N95 masks are approved for health-care use in the United States, even though KN95 masks have many of the same protective properties.”

Checking around Raleigh, I found that Ace Hardware has KN95, but not N95, masks.  In fact I couldn’t find any N95 masks, certainly not the models approved by NIOSH, in any grocery store I checked, nor at Costco, Walgreens, Home Depot, or Lowe’s. 

The gold standard for N95 surgical mask respirators seems to be the 3M models 1860, 1870, 1804, and 1805.  After looking at many online suppliers (all out of stock), I found a San Diego company with the 1870+ in stock, but at $163 for a package of 20 (that’s an eye-popping $8.15 each).  I bought them to be sure to have a few in my bag when I start traveling again (upcoming South African trip in May) in case I am confronted by airline personnel like Lufthansa’s who require an N95 or KN95.

3M’s N95 Model 8210 are much cheaper (under $2 each) and locally available through the Sherwin Williams Commercial Store (not always in stock and only one 20-pack per customer).  They are listed as “NIOSH approved” on the CDC website, but they are not technically surgical masks.  Still, if they have the get-out-of-jail-free N95 code stamped on them, then they will probably pass muster with airlines like Lufthansa, as they are not likely to be drilling down on model numbers.

For reference, CDC-approved N95 mask models are listed here.

So will we suddenly see lots of N95 masks available to travelers as airlines and governments worldwide make them mandatory?  This NPR article on why N95 masks are still in short supply in the U.S. isn’t very encouraging.  It lists a lot of reasons why production is unlikely to increase fast, such as this:

“To make more N95s, [manufacturers] would need new mask machines, each of which takes four months to custom build and costs as much as $1 million. To justify building extra machines, [makers] needed assurance that U.S. hospitals and government agencies wouldn’t just go back to buying cheaper Chinese-made masks once the pandemic was over.”

All this leaves me wondering what’s next to come to inhibit travel outside our borders.  I’ve had one dose of the vaccine and am scheduled for the second dose soon, but to travel overseas, I must nonetheless arrange and pay for PCR Covid tests in both directions and now must invest in and wear expensive, rare-as-hens’-teeth surgical masks on planes and in public.  Just buying those masks makes feel a bit guilty—like getting vaccinated—because I may be depriving doctors and nurses battling to save lives of people sick with the novel coronavirus.  I’m complying, though, and I will continue to if additional requirements come up, because travel is the ultimate freedom to me.

Vaccinated!

January 20, 2021

Last Friday I was jabbed with the first dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine.  My appointment for the second dose is in four weeks, after which I will be as fully protected as anyone can be.  Thus armed, literally and figuratively, for travel.  And, boy, am I ready for travel! Only trouble is, I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Vaccinations come with a CDC card as my documented proof.  Bring inoculated, however, doesn’t dismiss my responsibility to be tested for the novel coronavirus both going and returning from my upcoming (and still uncertain) May trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Not in an “essential worker” category and at 72 with no major pre-existing conditions, I didn’t originally fall into a group likely to get the shot until much later in the year.  The moment I read last week’s new CDC recommendation that the age limit be lowered to 65, though, I began to look for appointments. 

GETTING AN APPOINTMENT

Here in North Carolina the state’s major healthcare providers are among the authorized agencies in the vaccine supply chain.  That includes biggies like UNC Healthcare and Duke Healthcare, both with statewide medical offices, clinics, and hospitals.  While I was fortunate in my dogged persistence to get an appointment through the UNC Healthcare channel, splitting the distribution is not inherently efficient.  Yet America’s lack of a central medical database for all citizens like France has works against us in this instance.

Persistence was the absolute key to getting an appointment, as the online scheduling is maddening.  It was like whack-a-mole.  Every time I grabbed a place, time, and date shown (many a lot more distant than Chapel Hill), it would be gone before I could confirm it.  I had to keep trying again and again and again.  It reminded me of travel portals that promise ridiculously cheap fares to the place and on the date you want, but then aren’t there when you click on them.

It was hard at first not to be discouraged when I frequently got the message “no more appointments available” but in repetition I learned that changed within seconds.  So, like angling for super-low airfares, I just kept trying.  New appointments were posted constantly, and eventually the system confirmed one I clicked on.  Although not until I’d been trying for nearly ninety minutes.

GETTING THE SHOT

My appointment was at one of the big Covid vaccination clinics set up by UNC Healthcare: the UNC Friday Center in Chapel Hill, 25 miles and a half hour drive from my house. On arrival, I was impressed that the process was very efficient, friendly, and highly professional.  I was in and out in 55 minutes.

First, a health check to get in the door, including answering the usual screening questions.  Then the first of two check-ins in a short queue.

My identity and insurance details were verified, and a copy was made of my driver’s license.  Then I was handed printouts of the official order to get the vaccine as well as a follow-up appointment confirmation and several pages of information to study.  I was directed to one of two lines to wait my turn, one for the Pfizer vaccine, and the other for the Moderna version.  Apparently, the assignments were random. 

I received the Moderna vaccine (first dose) and will get the second dose in exactly four weeks at the same place.  Had I gotten the Pfizer injection, the second dose would have been scheduled for three weeks later.

Had a fine chat with the second year UNC Physician’s Assistant student spearing my arm, and she was happy to let me take a selfie as she plunged in the needle.  It felt thick and viscous going into the muscle.  Not enough to make me wince, though.

That’s when I was given the CDC card, which will be updated with another sticker when I go back for the second dose.  I was then led to a large room to sit for 15 minutes of “observation” to be sure I didn’t have an immediate adverse reaction.  When the time was up, I was called up to verify my second appointment in four weeks.  As I said, very fast and efficient.  I was out of there 55 minutes after entering.

The young PA student had advised of the possibility of whole body soreness and fever lasting for several hours up to two days.  She said it was a normal possible reaction.  However, I suffered no side effects except for soreness in my arm.  That night I did experience what my grandmother used to call a “sinking spell” during which I suddenly had no energy for about an hour. But that passed quickly, and the next morning I felt great.

GUILT

Now that I’ve had it I should be exulting, but instead, the experience brought on unexpected sad feelings.  Especially “survivor guilt” as one of just 4.4% of North Carolinians so far vaccinated.  And because I can’t get appointments for my wife (who is under 65) or teenage daughter.  I feel bad, too, for friends my age and older who haven’t been able to get the shot, some of whom have been searching since before I began my quest.  Suddenly I understand a little of what those in lifeboats must have felt watching the Titanic go under:  Guilt eclipses relief.

I began to look into what’s slowing down vaccinations. Like everyone who follows the news, I was aware of the chaotic way in which vaccines have been made available nationwide.  With no standardized federal vaccine guidelines promulgated by the outgoing administration, combined with the lack of a centralized medical database for all Americans such as Israel’s, distribution was dumped on the fifty state governors to figure out.  Now each state struggles to do things the way they think right, resulting in confusion and inefficiency getting vaccines into arms.  After all, governors know how to govern, but are not skilled at organizing and executing the tasks required of large, complex projects, like inoculating 33 million Americans.

So it’s a mess, made worse by not enough vaccine to meet demand.  Friends in other states send stories of vaccination dissemination methods different from each other and from North Carolina.  Minnesota seems to have far fewer doses of the two vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) than planned.  Factual or not, I know not, but even Republican friends in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Washington complain that chronic shortages of original shipments correlate to being blue states.  In Arizona, colleagues report having to accept 4:30 AM appointments for the initial dose after days of repeatedly trying to grab an appointment—only to be told after receiving the shot that they have to go through the same hectic fight to get an appointment for the second dose.  In Texas and Florida, octogenarians are forced to line up for 12 hours or more in their cars with no guarantee that doses won’t run out before it’s their turn. Louisiana friends brag of their state’s solid plan of action and good delivery system, with appointments met and second dose appointments made as well.  Hawaiian friends say their system is similar to the endless loop I went through trolling for an appointment. 

My post-inoculation spirits are blended, equal parts happiness and guilt.  I certainly am glad to be vaccinated, but in fairness, all Americans deserve to be.

Now if I just had some place to go so I could assuage my guilt.

Surfing travel uncertainty

January 13, 2021

Travel planning excites me; I’ve had a knack for it since I was little.  Early on I realized that the tingle of eager anticipation when making travel preparations extended and enriched the joy of travel itself when the time came. Some days, though, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry as I make “plans” that might come to nothing in this pandemic pandemonium.

Determined to return again to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, for instance, I stubbornly persist against the odds to rebook and refine my trip scheduled for early May, meeting the challenges that continue to pop up in the chaos of today’s travel environment.  Last week I cut the 12 days I’d confirmed in the Kruger back to just a week in order to get home in time to attend our son’s college graduation. His school had suddenly moved commencement up seven days to account for canceling Spring Break, that action in order to keep students on campus and thus reduce the spread of Covid. 

That entailed changing my international flights returning from Johannesburg to leave five days earlier (thanks to Delta and Air France, I was able to do it without a fee); canceling the last five nights in the Kruger Park (I now have a credit for future use with South African National Parks); notifying Avis that I’ll be returning the car five days sooner than I expected; and rebooking my puddle jumper RJ flight on SA Airlink between Skukuza Airport and Johannesburg to connect to my international flights home.  I was lucky in that it only cost me $55 in additional airfare on SA Airlink.  In fact, I was lucky to get those changes made at all and still have the trip nailed down, albeit shortened.

In an associated action this week, I made reservations on Delta from Raleigh to Minneapolis and back for me, my wife, and our daughter in May to attend our son’s graduation.  Also bought a one way ticket for our son to fly home with us after commencement.  That was more complicated that it sounds because I wanted to use e-credits we all four have accumulated from canceled 2020 flights.  Applying e-credits on Delta necessitates booking individual records from each person’s SkyMiles account, which meant four separate and tedious online transactions. 

Of course that means the records are not associated, which negates Delta’s visibility to us as a unified family itinerary should delays or disruptions occur en route.  No seats together, either.  Screw that, I decided, and booked us all in the lowest first class fares I could find.  I had e-credit money, which by now feels like “free” money, even though it sure isn’t.  At least we’d be in the same cabin, I figured.  Not to mention the bonus of being able to check 2 bags up to 70 lbs each per person flying in first class, and our son will be carting a lot of stuff home now that his college days are ending. That gives him 6 checked bags totaling 420 pounds, plus whatever we take in carryon luggage. If that’s not enough, then it’ll get shipped or ditched.

Next, I reserved a car through Costco Travel, which has the lowest rental car rates. Booking an Alamo minivan ensures getting all our son’s college stuff to MSP airport to check using our first class ticket privileges.  Lastly, thanks to kind friends who are retired professors, we are privileged to have a beautiful and spacious Airbnb accommodation reserved directly across from the Luther College campus in Decorah, Iowa for graduation weekend.

What other coronavirus chaos do I have yet to surf?  Let’s see, hmm, OH YES, a real big one: Covid testing requirements for international travel, both going to South Africa and returning.  Now that the United States government has announced testing requirements for overseas travelers coming to America, I’ll have to figure out how to get tested twice. 

Where will I be able to get tested? I wonder. Going to South Africa, I think I can figure that one out here in Raleigh to satisfy Delta, the Atlanta Airport (where I embark overseas), and South African authorities upon arrival to Johannesburg. 

But what about returning from the African wilderness that is the Kruger National Park?  Where and how will I be able to get tested before my short flight (50 minutes) from Skukuza to Jo’burg to connect to Air France to Paris (JNB/CDG)?  I will have a few hours in the Johannesburg airport connecting, but can I get tested there and get results back in time to satisfy South African immigration and Air France to board the flight?

And in Paris I connect to a Delta flight to RDU the following morning.  Will French authorities and Delta accept my South African test results to allow me on the flight home?

And what kind of test will each airline, airport, and country authority require, a PCR (take 1-3 days for results) or a quick test (a 60-90 minute wait)? 

And what kind of test result documentation is acceptable? 

And will every airline employee I encounter hither and yon accept it?  Because it doesn’t feel standardized at all. No universal acceptance like passports.

And how much will it cost?  Research so far shows a wide range of costs, with PCR tests the cheapest at $50 or so per person and “quick tests” (assuming they are acceptable) up to $250 per person.  That’s a lot of money, especially twice (once paid going, a second time returning).  $250 is as much as the roundtrip airfare between Johannesburg and Skukuza.  And $250 is for ONE test. I’ll need at at least two tests.

I don’t have reliable answers to any of those questions yet, though I’m doggedly looking into it.  Definitely all a moving target.  But I am still planning on going to the Kruger in May. 

Sir Winston Churchill suffered bouts of what he called the “black dog” of depression. I’ve known that melancholy, but I strive to keep my head above the waves of travel uncertainty that Covid has wrought.  Keeping my spirits high whether I get tossed or successfully ride the surf to realize a trip in these bizarre times.  Thus I take deep breaths and paddle forward.

Planning on a banner travel year…in 2022

January 7, 2021

Even though I managed to eke out more than a modicum of fun going places in the year of the plague, I was home more in 2020 than any twelve months since 1960.  I have been counting on this year to be different and not just because vaccinations are in sight.  Our youngest goes off to university in the fall, and our oldest graduates from college this spring and begins a great job in tech in June.  The lifting of parental responsibilities that have been tied to the tyranny of school calendars for 25 years converges (we hope) with the tail end of the Covid-19 misery.  Which frees us to travel.  We’ve intended to take advantage of that newfound flexibility with a vengeance. But what year?  Of course we hope it’ll be 2021.  But more and more it looks like 2022.

My wife has an embarrassing number of weeks of vacation carried over from year to year that she will begin to lose if not used, and, pre-pandemic, I’d mastered the art of travel planning around the rhythms of my own intense schedule of civic duties.  So we are excited and well-prepared to go.

As always, so many places to choose from.  I’ve written a great deal about returning to the Kruger National Park in South Africa this May, and that trip is still confirmed, though it could change again—or be canceled—depending on where things stand with the novel coronavirus then.  With SA seeing the biggest rise in cases in Africa as of now, and with the new highly infectious CV-19 strain there that may be resistant to the present set of vaccines, who knows?  Whether May works out or not, we are shooting for another trip to the Kruger in January, 2022 with friends who have long wanted to go.

But…that’s 2022, a year from now.

Then there’s Morocco, which we intended to explore last July to celebrate our 25th anniversary.  That may have to wait until 2022 as well because Morocco is currently suffering from the second worst Covid surge in Africa after South Africa.  When we go, we want to be free to experience everything rather than being under a cloud.

For years we have batted around the idea of discovering the many beautiful places in Japan outside Tokyo.  I’ve always wanted to take the train to Hokkaido in the deep snows of winter.  Our daughter is interested in going back to Hiroshima, where she studied and lived with a local family as a young teen for a few weeks.

We would like to return to China, too, and continue exploring its many and varied regions.  Not to mention our longtime love of Thailand and surrounding Southeast Asian countries.  We’ve never been south of Hanoi in Vietnam, for instance.  It would be good to see Hong Kong again before its magnificent energy and spirit is totally snuffed out.  Korea is a place we have only a passing knowledge of, and our daughter still wants to go to Australia and New Zealand.  I miss the Aussies myself; I grew quite fond of the place and its people after working there seven or eight times.

My wife and I hope to get to exotic Bhutan one day, as I’ve mentioned in past posts.  And I yearn to visit central Asian nations with expert David Rowell, in the good company of adventurous friend Joe Brancatelli.  That’s a trip I’ve anticipated for years, and we were planning to go in 2020 until, well, you know.

Not to mention returning to Italy and the rest of Europe.  I never tire of Tuscany, and I keep learning about heavenly places to eat in Rome!  The French wax lyrically about joie de vivre, but the Italians live it every day.

Don’t want to forget the world’s tropical islands, either.  My wife and I are enamored with white sand, palm trees, and azure blue lagoons covering coral reefs teeming with sea life.  We long to return to St. John, the Maldives, and many other island paradises.

But, again, when?  2021, we hope.  Many virus and vaccination uncertainties remain, too, of course. 

The other fly in the ointment, however, could very well be the coincidence of vectors restricting our post-Covid travel patterns.  Because when pent-up demand for flying meets now-atrophied airline networks, I expect airfares to explode. The airlines will adjust fares to maximize cash flow resulting from huge demand and low supply.

Combine that factor with the certainty that the world won’t all get vaccinated at once, which will limit—or at least discourage—travel to places still seeing coronavirus cases rise.  That will concentrate travel demand to places mostly recovered from the virus, further making it expensive to get there and to be there, not to mention making those places congested.

I’d like to think 2021 travel is going to redeem lackluster 2020, but, realistically, it’s feeling like 2022 is more likely to be our big year for going places again.

Travel in a dreadful year

December 30, 2020

As I look back on the year about to end, I’m happy and a little surprised that my 2020 wanderings were mostly fun and enjoyable, the pandemic notwithstanding.  Here’s what sticks in my mind.

KRUGER 2020.  My February-March trip back to the Kruger National Park in South Africa was one of the best ever in 29 years of visits, as I wrote about in detail.  And I got home just in the nick of time on March 12.  The country and most of the world shut down a few days later.

KRUGER 2021.  I like trip planning and had plenty of that to keep me out of trouble, even if things kept changing.  Organizing a 2021 trip to the Kruger had to be moved due to the plague from February to May, and it still may not happen at all.  Time will tell if the right elements come together: vaccinations; acceptable negative Covid test “passport” documentation; tourist travel allowed to SA in May (at time of writing, South Africa is seeing a surge of the more easily catchable virus strain); and whether South Africa National Parks, three airlines, a Johannesburg airport hotel, and Avis at tiny Skukuza Airport will be offering services in May where and when needed to make the trip work.

DELTA SWEET & SOUR.  Sweet because the airline has twice granted me changes to the complicated business class itinerary RDU/ATL/JNB/CDG/RDU at no charge and in the same sharp end cabins.  Sour because the carrier has moved the goal posts on e-credit validity dates and has devised hurdles to use them.

TRIP CANCELLATIONS. The pandemic forced me to cancel trips to New Orleans, Tampa, Morocco, and twice to the Twin Cities.  Necessary but frustrating, none personally sadder than the meticulously planned two weeks to see Morocco in celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary.

TWO AIRLINE BAILOUTS.  Outrageous!

ON THE BEACH.  Renting oceanfront houses on North Carolina’s Topsail Island during the summer assuaged the disappointment of not going to Morocco. Still, the sands of the Sahara will be there next year after we’re all vaccinated.  My Shemagh is ready to be packed for desert wear.

ROAD TRIP!  Driving twice 1,100 miles to Iowa and 1,100 miles back (which I wrote about here and here) renewed my passion and appreciation for the great American road trip!

MODEST BUT GOOD HOTELS.  Speaking of which road trips, I had good experiences in a scruffy Best Western adjacent to the Interstate in Galesburg, IL and in three Hampton Inns (two in Indy and one in Lexington, KY).  Minimal interactions with hotel staff everywhere to mitigate Covid risks, but especially at two of the Hamptons where I opted for online room selection, digital check-in, digital check-out, and digital keys (using my phone as the door key).  Certainly not a Four Seasons among them; none pretended to be more than a simple, safe, and secure place to sleep, but all did their duty in those respects, and the Hamptons boasted sanitary cleaning stickers on every door.

Even better, the Hamptons in South Indy and in Lexington had upgraded their breakfast bags to boxes that contained boiled eggs, orange juice, and yogurt to supplement the usual bottle of water plus bagel and cream cheese (or similar bready things).  Apples, bananas, and pears were also available in the lobby.

Only discordant note was that the cheap and ugly wall hanger system hidden behind a curtain at the Hampton Inn Lexington that, to me, smacked of seedy, dilapidated hotel rooms seen in postwar film noir movies.  Joe Brancatelli has been writing about cheapening and shrinking hotel rooms for years; however, reading about it is abstract. This was my first real-life experience; it was hideous. I was glad not to be staying more than one night.

PLAGUE FLYING.  Flying once during Covid (to Billings and back) was enough for me until it’s over.  Lots of empty seats and sitting in First Class on all four legs were not enough to make me feel comfortable.

AVIS SWEET & SOUR.  Avis provided a complimentary upgrade (thanks to my Avis Presidents Club membership) to a GMC Terrain AWD SUV on the second road trip to Iowa. I racked up nearly 2500 miles altogether on that vehicle at an unlimited mileage weekly rate of $339, total with taxes and fees. But Avis metaphorically poked me in the eye by charging for a gallon of gas on the return (calculated based on now-possible electronic inquiry to the gas tank level).  I was dumbfounded because I had just filled up the car and brimmed it and still suffered the charge.  Made more aggravating because Avis charged $9.99 for a gallon of gas when local stations were charging $2.39.

Good riddance to god-awful 2020, absolutely, yet travel adventures were still possible and enjoyed.  Even with the occasional irritant.  After all, if Avis and Delta didn’t annoy me once in a while, gosh, then what would I have to complain of?