Author: William A. Allen III

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?

Delight in the Driftless

December 23, 2020

My wife often reminds me that we aim to lead our lives as Helen Keller proclaimed: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  That inspiration rang in my ears during the grueling two-day 1,100 mile drive from Raleigh to Decorah, Iowa to see our son perform his senior piano recital at Luther College, where he triple-majors in music, computer science, and data science. 

Our life certainly is sometimes a daring adventure, I thought, as we passed one of hundreds of tractor-trailer rigs plying the Interstates, that particular truck outfitted with a left mud flap that read PASSING SIDE and a right mud flap that read SUICIDE.  More adventure as night fell on I-74 in central Illinois south of the Quad Cities, agog at the many big rigs festooned with lights from front grill to trailer doors, like this one:

Not every mile was an easy journey.  The first night we ran into unrelenting spitting snow and icy-wet roads after dark on the serpentine, undulating Appalachian two-lane blacktops with faded markings between Abingdon at the far western tip of Virginia and Harlan, Kentucky.  Snow lasted for hours as I squinted to make out the dark road ahead, petering out just before reaching our Lexington area Hampton Inn.  Definitely an adventure, if sometimes stressful. 

Truth is, I realized, that I deeply miss road trips, and I had forgotten how much I love to drive. Flying is so removed and sterile from the real America I cherish, even with its many flaws.  Oh, I love to fly, too, and I can hardly wait to get back on a plane when this damnable plague abates.  But I know now that I’ll punctuate my future travels with road trips like this one.

When we’d washed off the road grime and settled into our comfortable Airbnb apartment in Decorah, we were able to fully focus on and relish our son’s spectacular piano recital the next day, which was recorded (starts about 15 minutes into the video).

The morning after his impressive piano performance, we took advantage of the day’s sunny, if frigid, weather to do some exploring in the pretty NE corner of Iowa.  It was the day before the winter solstice, the second shortest of the year, but we made the most of the fleeting light to roam through one of the most unusual geological regions of the country, called the driftless area, so named because it was untouched by the last North American glaciation

From Decorah we first made the short drive to Spillville, settled by Bohemians in 1860.  Unfortunately, the famous Bily Clocks house in Spillville was closed for the season. It was the residence of composer Antonin Dvorak when he visited there in the summer of 1893. The house is also full of elaborately carved wooden clocks.

Not far away we explored Calmar (founded 1850 and named for a place in Sweden), once a busy rail center and still with active freight train service.

The tiny town boasts a huge mural of the steam rail era adjacent to the tracks:

Leaving Calmar, we headed due east over the rolling hills of the driftless on some of Iowa’s many well-maintained gravel roads. Many of the inclines are remarkably steep, and I wondered how our AWD car would have handled in heavy snow, common in winter there.  More power to the hearty farming families whose places dot the area.

We stopped on the banks of the Mississippi to hike trails to the top of the bluff by impressive animal effigy mounds and Native American burial mounds in the National Monument, as these pictures demonstrate.

Note Native American burial mounds to the left of the path.
Looking south along the Mississippi from the effigy mounds bluff, Iowa on the near bank and Wisconsin on the east bank.

Views of the river from that vantage are gorgeous looking east to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin on the other side, as in this picture:

The day was altogether a serene joy, one that could only be experienced in a remote corner of what some people call “fly-over country.” Truth be told, despite several past visits to Decorah, I’d never heard of the driftless until this trip and was delighted in its unique beauty and history.  I’m always humbled to discover a fascinating phenomenon like the driftless hiding in plain sight, more proof of life’s adventure when I pay attention.

Thousand mile drive in the surge

December 16, 2020

Readying to embark on a road trip of 1,100 miles to Iowa to see our son perform his senior piano recital in normal times would entail thoughtful planning; during the present Covid surge, however, it is especially tedious.  I am being extremely careful, nearly to the point of paranoid obsession, to minimize and mitigate known risks of catching the virus en route. 

Thanksgiving reports of big crowds at airports alarmed me, leading to our decision to cancel our flights and drive instead.  The alternative is to drive.  While that prospect doesn’t thrill me, I know from recent experience that it’s not so bad. In May I drove our son to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa to retrieve his belongings which he, like all students, had been forced to leave behind when the first lockdown took place.

From past long excursions by automobile I developed a personal set of best practices and followed those planning for this one:

  • I’ve learned to rent a car with unlimited mileage instead of driving our own.  It’s cheaper in the long run than putting the wear and tear on ours, and ensures replacement should a breakdown occur along the way.  I also can tailor the vehicle to meet our needs.  On a long trip to visit colleges several years ago up the east coast, I rented a minivan for our family of four.  On the upcoming trip to Iowa, given the possibility of inclement freezing weather in the Midwest this time of year, I’ve reserved an all-wheel-drive SUV.  Total rental cost is $339, including taxes and fees from Avis booked through the Costco Travel portal (Costco Travel usually had great rental car deals).
  • I take along plenty of caps to shade the sun.  Also layers of coats, sweaters, jackets, and such for cold weather.  I include rain jackets and several towels.  Amazing how often a towel comes in handy.
  • Electrical and electronic stuff: I always a good flashlight or two. Another necessity are recharging cables for phones that fit available slots in the rental car (these days usually a USB outlet, but sometimes I need a cigarette lighter adapter plug). Smartphones are always with us, naturally.
  • Even before the pandemic I made it a habit to carry plenty of snacks and liquids: water, soft drinks, juices, and so on.  Sometimes prepackaged energy bars, cheese, sometimes bags of nuts and such that I prepare at home.  For this trip we will bulk up the food options to include meal substitutes, including premade sandwiches, in order to bypass restaurants.
  • A cooler with ice for perishables is a no-brainer. 
  • Along the way I always search the dial for interesting local radio stations to give me local flavor, news, and weather.  I can listen to Spotify any time at home, but I can’t get the all-Christmas-music-all-the-time station except driving through Kentucky (I hope it’s still on the air).

That’s the pre-plague list.  For this trip I’ve paid attention to news reports with advice like this Washington Post story.  Most reinforce what I already learned from my May trip to Iowa and back, namely:

  • Avoid rest stops and rest rooms in gas stations and restaurants if possible, because of the increased risk of aerosolized virus particles in the enclosed spaces.  I definitely was wary of public bathrooms on the long May drive and will try again to keep away from them this time.
  • Use paper towels or similar disposables when opening doors. Also to handle gas station pump handles. I did before and will again.  I am taking extra paper towels for just that purpose. 
  • I’m taking wet wipes and hand sanitizer to supplement hand washing at all stops.
  • Except in rural developing countries, I’ve never taken along my own toilet paper to a public facility, but we will this trip.  And our own paper towels, as I mentioned, for both hand drying and door opening and for touching surfaces.
  • I have a face shield attached to a hard hat and will use it to cover my face and mask for extra protection at stops, including filling stations.  No doubt I’ll get some quizzical looks from folks.  I was thinking of putting a sticker on the side of the hard hat that read: “Mask it or casket!”  But my wife dissuaded me.
  • For two en route overnights in hotels—one going to Iowa, and one night returning—I’ve opted for Hilton properties that let me bypass the front desk entirely by checking in online and using my phone as the electronic key.  I wrote about the vanishing hotel front desk in December, 2019.  Since then I’ve used the option several times, and it works well.  I can choose the room I want when checking in, too.  Hotel free breakfast is just a pathetic snack bag these days, which we will grab when leaving the properties.  Thus, zero staff contact.

That may not be enough, but that’s all I can do short of sleeping in the car and using forested areas for a toilet to elude most human contact.  The risk of catching the coronavirus will still haunt us, but taking these measures should reduce our chances of getting sick. Perhaps akin to the folklore of garlic and a crucifix warding off vampires.  Except that Covid-19 is real, and has already killed over 300,000 fellow Americans.

Delta moves the expiration goalposts

December 10, 2020

Delta has repeatedly informed me that e-credits in my SkyMiles account, which I’ve accumulated this year due to the Covid crisis, are good for travel through December 31, 2022.  Those credits I haven’t yet used are still good that long, but new e-credits now expire one year from issuance, a fact I only just learned.  

In October, I bought RDU/MSP tickets on Delta on mid-December flights for my wife, daughter and me to see our son perform his college piano senior recital. Though navigating the rules wasn’t a straight line, I was able to use part of the value of our Delta e-credits to pay for the tickets.  As I said, the e-credits were then good through December 31, 2022. 

At the time I booked Delta assured me that I could cancel or change the reservations for any reason without penalty.  If canceled, the fares would revert to e-credits in my Delta account.  If that happened, I assumed the credits would be good through 2022, just as before.  But I was wrong.  Guess I should have asked.

The holiday coronavirus surge spooked us from straying into crowded airports, strolling through jetways, and perching for hours in long narrow tubes.  Consequently, we decided this week to drive to see our son’s piano performance instead—a long (1,100 mile) trip, but safer, we hope—and I contacted Delta to move the value for the three tickets back into e-credits.  Happy to, the agent told me, and he went on to mention that they’ll be good until October, 2021, one year from the purchase date.

Huh? But the credits had been good through the end of 2022 when I used them to purchase the tickets six weeks ago. 

I asked the Delta agent how I had suddenly lost 15 months of time to use the credits.  He was sympathetic and explained Delta had changed the expiration limits back to the pre-pandemic standard of 12 months from date of purchase, though the usual change penalty was still being waived. 

He didn’t say when this change occurred, and I didn’t ask or research it.  Why bother?  Knowing won’t change the fact that Delta has moved the expiration goalposts.  I now have until October of 2021 to use the three credits, and of course I have to follow Delta’s e-credit rules that I outlined in my October 22 post, namely:

  • I can use only one e-credit per ticket even if the fare exceeds the value of two or more e-credits.
  • I can use my e-credits to pay for my own and one other person on the same itinerary, but not more than two total.  So, if I want to use e-credits for three of us to travel (me, my wife, and our daughter), then I have to create a separate itinerary for the third traveler and pay that fare separately.
  • I cannot use my e-credits to pay for another person’s fare if they are traveling on a separate itinerary.
  • If I decide to cancel (rather than if it’s Delta’s decision), the value of each ticket is returned as an e-credit to the Delta SkyMiles account of the person flying, not to the person who paid for the ticket. 

I hope that we’ll be able to use the three credits before next October’s expiration ten months from now.  Naturally, I will use those first, since I still have credits good through 2022 in my SkyMiles account.  But who knows if we’ll be vaccinated and feel safe flying again by then?

All I want for Christmas is a universal digital health travel pass

December 2, 2020

Spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, IATA announced work on a universally-accepted digital health passport that will document proof of COVID-19 vaccination and, presumably, virus test results.  In addition, I expect the e-record will include all my medical history relevant to travel restrictions. 

About time!  I wonder why this hasn’t been developed before.  By now I should already possess a card with my personal health information, including inoculations, stored or an app on my phone that pulls it up. And it ought to be in a standard approved format that’s accepted worldwide, just as is my passport.  Info germane to my travel and destination itineraries should already be linked to airline rez systems, too.  That protects everyone, not just me, when crammed cheek-by-jowl into a narrow aluminum-fiber tube at 35,000 feet.

Meanwhile, I wait with the rest of the world for the vaccine.  Then I can stop being a hermit.  And travel again!

Until that happens, and pending my turn to be vaccinated, the CDC is advising I get tested three times if I take a flight to anywhere.  They recommend a test 1-3 days before I fly, another 1-3 days before my return flight, and a third test 3-5 days after getting home.  And to quarantine at home for 7 days even if I test negative.  It sounds easy, but the truth is: not so much.

Plenty of Internet sites, including CDC, will point me to testing facilities wherever I am, and some tests are free. Regardless, it’s a pain to go to the trouble (and expense when tests aren’t gratis) to locate a testing facility and spend time going there when traveling, often waiting in a queue, and completing forms I’ve done before several times already.

Added to the time and trouble is the stress.  Up to now, I haven’t obsessed about the need to keep my distance from folks to avoid getting the coronavirus; I’ve just done it by mostly staying at home and seeing very few people.  But as my first flight since early summer approaches this month, a sense of dread is creeping in.  The feeling nags at me to be even more careful than usual.  Ever the steadfast quarantine disciple, and with a vaccine near at hand, I naturally aim to keep my risk low and to stay healthy. 

Yet I will make this mid-December trip to Minnesota and Iowa see our son, a concert pianist, in his final college performance.  His recital won’t happen but once, and I mean to be there.  To keep myself and others safe, I plan to follow the CDC guidelines for the three tests.  I’ve already researched where and when to get tested at my destination and back here at home.

Those test results as well as my Covid-19 vaccination could be recorded on my universal digital health pass if one was available.

Since no such e-document yet exists, I wondered what airport, airline, state, and country requirement are right now.  I need to know for my December domestic trip (just 2 flights), but also for my planned trip in May to South Africa (total of 6 flights).  Checking the airports, TSA, and Delta Air Lines for online guidance was not very helpful.  Just the usual temperature-taking, social distancing, hand-washing, and mask requirements.

Directly querying the Raleigh/Durham Airport Authority didn’t yield any more definitive information, either, but putting my questions to a South African career professional expert on African travel brought these useful responses (answers in italics):

  • I read that to enter South Africa a negative test result is required that is not older than 72 hours from the date of departure. That is correct.
  • I read that for South Africa I might need “travel insurance which covers medical expenses and unexpected hotel stays in case of falling ill while travelling.”  See one source of insurance here. Traveling in Africa in normal times without proper comprehensive travel insurance is just not smart. It has been a requirement for the last 40 years (as long as I’ve been involved in travel in Africa).
  • Which kind of Covid tests are acceptable (some are much more reliable than others)? Travelers arriving to South Africa must present a negative COVID-19 PCR test certificate in English. PCR stands for Polymerase Chain Reaction. As far as I’m aware, you need one of these before boarding any international flight nowadays.
  • Where will passengers will able to get tested? Your doctor will be able to assist you with this prior to your departure for your Journey for your arrival certificate. If a test is needed while travelling, for example, going from one country to another or returning to your country of origin, there are numerous testing facilities available in each country. It will depend on each country and is subject to change, so best to check prior to the travels.
  • How much will tests cost (I read $70-250 or more; if required each way, those costs would be doubled, and then quadrupled for a family of four, for instance)? Approx. $70-120 per test in South Africa.
  • Who will bear the burden of those test costs?  The cost and trouble to get testing will deter me, and I suspect many, from traveling again regularly if the cost and trouble is burdensome. You will, unfortunately, be responsible.
  • What kind of official or unofficial documentation will suffice as proof of testing? A negative COVID-19 PCR test certificate in English in South Africa. And you need the actual test result printout. Electronic copies do not work.
  • What about the return journey?  That is, same questions as above if test are required for returning home. A negative COVID-19 PCR test certificate in English at most destinations, but it is best to check per destination prior to travels. Tests can be done at airports and nearby clinics in some countries while some offer testing to be done at hotels and lodges.
  • What about sudden trips when I have to drop everything and run to the airport for a client?  That is, how will I be able to comply on short notice?  If I can’t, then the time value of being able to fly is considerably diminished. COVID-19 has made it more challenging for last minute journeys, but once you have your details in place, then we will be able to assist with the latest information.
  • If someone has had Covid-19 and is testing negative, will they be allowed on a flight? Yes, as long as they are negative when boarding the flight.
  • If someone has had Covid-19 and can prove they are negative and have antibodies, why should they be tested within 72 hours?  Again, what proof will they be required to show? You would have to check this with your doctor; however, some countries and associations feel that there is not sufficient evidence that you cannot contract COVID-19 more than once as there were a few cases recorded where people had COVID-19 twice.
  • When vaccines are available, will that negate testing requirements? We will have to wait for an update on this and cannot advise at this stage.
  • If so, then what documentation will suffice as proof of vaccination? We simply have no idea.
  • Of course I realize rules and requirements are in flux, but we need a universal digital health pass.  We really wish it was this easy, but right now, unfortunately, each country has its own sets of rules and regulations.  

My takeaway is that all frequent travelers will greatly benefit from a universal digital health pass with the features and functions described first above.  That is, I think, precisely what IATA is touting as under development. 

I sure hope commercial aviation and travel industry professionals are focused on achieving the critical elements of standardized proof of medical requirements, ease of compliance, and reasonable cost in such an e-document.  If not, then I fear the difficulty of leaping all the present testing proof hurdles will constrain my flying even after I am vaccinated. That’s why all I want for Christmas is a universal digital health pass.

What I miss about First Class

November 16, 2020

AA and UA reneged on 50,000 lbs of fancy nuts the carriers had requisitioned for first class service, which by itself isn’t surprising during this austere Covid travel period.  What upset me was their subsequent decision never to serve those nuts in first class again—or at least that’s what they told their suppliers. 

What the heck?  Why trouble myself to get in United’s or American’s first class if they’ve eliminated every vestige of being special?  The trappings of first class service have dwindled: no nuts, no alcohol except in prepackaged cans or plastic bottles (wine that comes in cartons is not for me), and no meals—just snacks previously sold in coach. 

Call me naïve, but in my youth and middle years of air travel I imagined that what’s now called premium cabins (domestic first and international business) would have improved as in-flight service matured over the decades.  Instead, it seems the airlines are using the pandemic as cover for chopping what little is left of “premium” and leaving us with nothing more than a bigger seat near the front of the airplane on domestic routes when the plague abates.  If that’s the new normal, maybe the carriers should drop the pretense, throw in the first class towel completely, and go back to the all-coach cabin configuration that Piedmont made famous and that Southwest emulated.

But if the domestic front cabin persists—and I hope it does—then here’s what I miss about it that I consider essential (I’ll leave expectations for service in international business class cabins for another post):

  • Acknowledge me a little.  If I pay for first, then I’m contributing a greater share of profits to the airline’s bottom line than the good souls in the last row.  Just a smile and a simple, courteous thank-you for flying up front; no butt-kissing required.
  • Give my checked luggage real preference.  Not just a gaudy tag, but retrieve my bags ahead of other suitcases when I get there.
  • Let me board ahead of the mad rush.  Okay, board me behind folks in wheelchairs, but BEFORE all others, including BEFORE those who need “a little extra time in boarding” and BEFORE babies and military personnel and such.  And also BEFORE super-grandee-deluxe-imperial-royal snoot-face status flyers (well, maybe that includes me on some airlines).  If those gals and guys are so special, they’ll hold seat assignments in first class anyway and can board with the rest of us.  If they are in the back, one wonders why. But if so, they can board right after first class. I want to get on the plane, get my luggage stowed, settle in, and tune out, avoiding the conga-line boarding stress rearward.
  • Hang my jacket.  Used to be that as a business flyer I habitually wore suits on planes so I could go directly to work on arrival.  Sartorial mores have relaxed even for business, but most men wear a business jacket even if they fly tieless, and in colder months I always don outerwear.  For decades flight attendants always took and hung up my jacket and returned it on final approach.  It’s a small but important gesture if I pay for the privilege to be in first class.
  • Keep first class overhead compartments only for first class customers.  This includes flight attendants and pilots.  I have often found FA and cockpit crew luggage in first class overheads.  This is especially important in the bulkhead row which lacks underseat space—and I often choose the bulkhead row.  Delta does a good job here, which I greatly appreciate when flying their planes.
  • Serve mixed drinks and palatable wine from real bottles, along with good beer in cans.  When the pandemic passes, go back to G&Ts and Bloody Marys and other cocktails served with lemon or lime wedges, as the discriminating passenger (like me) requires.  I maintain it’s not really a gin and tonic or Bloody Mary without a slice of lime.  Keep a variety of decent bourbon, single malt scotch, and VSOP Cognac on hand, too, along with the usual popular liqueurs like Bailey’s and Kahlua.  After all, it’s “first class” and should feel like it, not like some cheap saloon in rural Alabama.
  • Always offer a beverage of my choice, whether coffee or cocktail, during boarding.  More than one if time permits.  On longer flights, like transcons, make it Champagne (a good Cava or American sparkling will do and isn’t expensive).  ‘Nuff said!
  • Restore hot meal service on flights of 90 or more minutes, cold snacks on shorter flights.  Especially at breakfast times.  It’s hard to screw up morning meals, and the food must be heated.  Getting off an early flight with even just a warm biscuit or bagel in my stomach gives me energy enough to hit the ground running at destination, and I always remember the airline that launched me thus.
  • Come around multiple times to offer drink refills and to chat during the flight.  Of course not possible during turbulence, but otherwise, why not?  It builds relationships, a warm human touch, and makes me happy.
  • Let first class “deplane” ahead of coach passengers.  This may seem obvious from typical narrow-body planes with the premium cabin up front, but for 757s and some wide-bodies that board and deplane from the second-left door (in airline parlance), coach and first customers often merge at the door, slowing everyone getting off the plane.  Northwest routinely enforced the practice to hold coach until all first class flyers had left, as do some foreign carriers.  This should be every airline’s discipline.

Some colleagues and friends who sit often in first class grumble about coach passengers wandering up front to use the lav during flight, but that doesn’t bother me.  Modern aircraft often skimp on toilets, and so why not share?

Now that I think about it, that’s not a long, complex list, nor are the services expensive.  It’s all the little things that made first class “first class” for as long as I’ve been flying (since 1960).  These elements are not new, but they are indispensable and make flying up front feel exceptional.  I sure hope they survive this period of cost-cutting asceticism. 

“I am strong to work”

November 4, 2020

In the fog and uncertainty of this day after Election Day, I am reflective.  As we Americans decide by this election what values the 2020 majority share, I wonder how many of us take our phenomenal personal prosperity for granted.  Even during this terrible pandemic, only 7.9% of us are officially out of work, says the BLS. The numbers demonstrate that most Americans can blithely assume we will always have gainful employment.  And with lots of leisure couch potato time to watch Netflix and pig out on nachos.

Whereas in South Africa official unemployment hit 30.1% at the end of March—and that was before Covid’s impact. (Unemployment worsened to 42% in the second quarter of 2020.)

This picture of a South African job-seeker was heart-breaking to me, despite having often traveled to developing nations, including many trips to work or visit South Africa, where sights like this man and his sign are all too common. 

While I’ve seen a great deal of deep poverty outside the USA, I’ve never become inured to it. In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which I’ve often visited since 1991, young men and women working there have several times asked me to adopt them so they could come to the United States to get jobs.  They love their country, they say, but can’t find work. Often they have told me of dreaming to send money back to South Africa to their moms and dads and brothers and sisters because their family members have been unable to find work for years.  They have little money for food or to better their meager living conditions.

I always find a way to give them some pocket cash, usually through generous gratuities.  After all, as a typical American, I have a comfortable surfeit of currency and never want for food. I can afford to share.

This election has made me wonder how many Americans are aware, except abstractly, of the routine challenges for daily food and shelter faced by a great many citizens of other countries like South Africa.  In my experience, most folks in other places are eager to toil, like the young man above who is “strong to work.”

Could it be that Americans are heedless and incurious because extreme poverty beyond our borders is out of sight and out of mind, literally and figuratively foreign to them? I don’t believe that we can close our minds, hearts, and pocketbooks to the rest of humanity. We’re all in this together.

It always shocks me that many Americans do not travel.  According to this 2019 Forbes article, 11% have never even left the state of their birth, and 13% have never flown on an airline. 40% have never traveled outside the USA, not even to Canada or Mexico, and 10% don’t want to go anywhere.

That’s not me. Travel is broadening, the best education one can experience. My life of travel has made me a witness to the struggles of cultures and people around our fragile, small planet. I admire their courage and character to seek work and to work hard.  The vast majority of Americans used to share that view, a universal empathy inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty that defines what it means to be an American.

Through travel, I’ve confirmed firsthand that the world does not begin and end in the United States.  Yet half of my fellow countrymen now believe it does.  Or at least the results of yesterday’s election make me think that.

We used to do better, and we can again.