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?

2 thoughts on “How to hit a moving travel target

  1. I follow your SA travel updates the way some people follow sportsball news. While we won’t attempt to travel there this year, I’m very glad to hear about the new United direct flight option from Newark!

  2. So two things:

    – There was a recent article (Washington Post or NYTimes) that talked about small to medium manufacturers making N95 certificated masks. Not KN95. They are struggling despite FDA approval since delivering 200K – 1M can be hard. One link is https://protectivehealthgear.com/products/n95respirator They are on the FDA list. That’s all I know.

    – United Polaris. When it was first introduced, the hard product (seat) barely existed and the soft product was great. It didn’t, unfortunately, take long for the wine flights to disappear. But the rollout of the hard product is a really good seat. I especially like the first row of each cabin there the foot box is larger since there is no one in front of you. I found the Polaris hard product provided more space than Delta One. There wasn’t a door, but I would turn over.

    The Polaris lounges, if open, are great. Newark was (pre-Covid) very busy, so get on the list for the sit down meal early. The food is good. Although service can be slow. I forget the fish entry but order two — its small! The bar does have a number of higher end, unique brands. It took me several visits to try most of them.

    If you can book business, go for it. The likely crappy flight to EWR from RDU will be forgiven.

    good luck booking!

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