Many Lessons From First International Travel During The Pandemic
We sure learned lessons from our first International travel during the pandemic. And hope some of these lessons will inform your questions if you are planning a new trip.
Since we were cruising around South America when Covid-19 first hit, we got an early close up view of some of the changes the pandemic brought to international travel. Over the 18 months since we left the cruise ship, we watched as the requirements for international travel and cruising evolved and changed.
All of our travel in 2021 was local or longer Canadian road trips. When we finally planned our first trip out of Canada, we thought that tough Covid travel requirements were still in place. But we found that high levels of vaccination may have eroded the processes we felt might still be quite necessary.
Our Personal Covid Risk Decisions
We thought we should address our own thoughts about the Covid risk that certainly impacted our view of this first international travel trip. We totally understood that so many people felt that vaccination brought life back to normal. And they were ready to give up masks, social distancing and capacity constraints.
Personally we continued to be far more conservative than that. We accepted that with vaccination, we were less likely to get seriously ill and die. And that was wonderful. But as older adults and somewhat compromised, we knew the risk of our becoming more sick was real.
We were also very leery about “long Covid” and all we do not know about the long term impact of Covid on the body. Especially those of us just a little older! We were already dealing with the slowdown that came with age. We definitely did not want to add any new ailment that impacted our quality of life more. And we never wanted to pass on an infection that could cause much great harm to others.
We got our two Covid shots as soon as they were available in Canada. But sadly, the decision to allow a third dose for those over 50 was not made quick enough. And even older people like us were still at the back of a long queue when we left for our Caribbean cruise. Even when we returned from our trip, we had several weeks to wait for our third shot. We know that many others on our cruise ship felt much more safe with a third shot recently administered.
So you might read this post and shake your head. Just remember that our risk tolerance may be far lower than yours. So we wore masks at all times and kept our distance during our trip. We booked outdoor excursions and avoided the packed buses. Even if the majority of others did not. We knew only we could protect ourselves.
We Navigated The Covid Requirements Of Many Parties
Our cruise around the Caribbean islands was booked on very short notice. We felt that with a departure less than 2 weeks away, we understood the Covid requirements we faced for travel. And we believed we could manage the risk. When we published our Caribbean cruise planning blog post, a lot of the comments wished us “Good Luck”.
Our cruise company Oceania Cruises, implemented all of the best practices for Covid. We needed to be fully vaccinated and passed that first hurdle. Prior to boarding the ship, everyone got a Covid test at the dock.
If we tested positive for Covid, we would be denied boarding. But if we showed a negative PCR Covid test done 72 hours prior to boarding, we would be refunded the cost of the cancelled cruise. Without a test result that met this requirement, we received nothing back. This requirement drove our Covid test choices before travel.
To leave Canada and travel on a Canadian airline, we needed to be fully vaccinated. So that was not an issue.
To fly into the U.S. when we travelled required a Covid test within 72 hours of flying. The U.S. accepted a broad range of Covid tests. But since Oceania wanted the more invasive PCR Covid test, that is the test we wanted.
Since we needed the Covid test for discretionary travel, we had to locate and pay for the Covid test. Luckily we found several options for Covid tests and the pricing was all comparable. We finally chose a private lab that promised results by 10pm the day of the test.
We chose to do our PCR test the day before we flew – which was two days (48 hours) before we boarded our cruise. This meant that our PCR test results could be used to get our refund in the unlikely event we tested positive at the cruise dock.
With a bit of research and proper decisions, we planned to navigate the known Covid requirements. But we sure learned many unexpected lessons from our first International travel during the pandemic.
But Travel Requirements Changed Really Quickly
A mere 5 days before we boarded our flight, the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 made the news. This new variant was showing to be more transmissible and there were concerns that the vaccine would not work as well. But the virility of this variant was unknown. It definitely brought a new risk that seemed to change quickly.
Governments around the world moved quickly to slow the spread of Omicron. Within days flights were banned from some areas.
In Canada, we re-instituted mandatory testing on arrival by plane. And quarantine was required until the Covid test results were known. While arrivals from the U.S. were not included when we left Canada, we worried that U.S. would be added by the time we flew home from Miami.
The day we flew into Miami, the U.S. changed its Covid test requirements for all flights in – regardless of origin. Instead of the Covid test being done within 72 days of a flight, the new requirements meant testing needed to be done the day before the flight.
This new U.S. requirement was valid a few days after we flew. So we were not governed by it. Although we did our test just the day before the flight and met the Oceania rules.
Even with a very short travel planning window, what were well known requirements changed almost overnight. While there was little impact on our flight out, we knew that significantly higher requirements might hit us when we returned. And we knew that the lessons learned from our first International travel during the pandemic would not be the last the travelling world saw.
Checking In For Our Flight Was Stressful
We were excited when our Covid test results showed up by email and text by 7pm that same day. It meant we could do the online check in. Or so we thought!
Air Canada really could not have a pair of travellers that were more tech savvy than David and I. We knew the requirements to submit both a vaccination passport and a Covid test result with our check in. We had electronic versions of both documents.
So we were amazed when the online process could not “read” the electronic vaccination passports issued by our government. And we both ended up with a status of “Pending Review”.
When we tried to add our Covid test results, we got nowhere with the online process. They wanted an “Issued” time and there was no way to know what they wanted. When I called Air Canada they were so backlogged in calls they would not even put me on hold.
We finally tried to add the Covid test results using the iPhone App. Luckily the App remembered all the other data we entered so we didn’t start from scratch. When the App asked for the Covid test results, I was not able to use a bar code because our private lab was not supported. But I could take a picture. And that picture was accepted as was the data I entered. While it accepted the picture for both of us, very disappointingly, the status on this too went to “Pending Review”.
I was finally able to get to the last step for check-in. But the boarding pass did not print and the message said we needed to go to Customer Service at the airport. A chat session with Air Canada Twitter support assured me we would be emailed when the online submission was reviewed and approved.
In the morning, we checked our email and there was no Air Canada approval. We logged into our Air Canada account and there was still no boarding passes available. We could not believe the online process failed so badly. And we wondered how long the process would take at the airport. And if there was a real problem with our documents. Not a relaxing last night before our flight!
The Airport Check In Process Could Not Have Gone Better
We arrived at the airport the 3 hours before our flight as recommended – even for U.S. flights. A first stop at the automated kiosks was planned to see if our paperwork had finally been reviewed and we could print a boarding pass and luggage tag.
Luckily one of the attendants stepped up to help us. She checked our paperwork for both vaccine passports and Covid tests and claimed they were all perfect. She then helped us through the check-in process. Our luggage tags printed and my boarding pass printed. But somehow David’s would not print even on a second terminal.
Luckily our proactive attendant immediately went off and found a supervisor. And within minutes, we had David’s boarding pass. Nobody could explain why our online check-in failed.
Our excellent packing skills meant that our checked bags went through the automated process and were not flagged as over-weight.
Having Nexus passes was great when we travelled to the U.S. The expedited customs process to clear U.S. customs in Canada went quickly.
The biggest slowdown occurred when security pulled all of our bags out for a personal check. The challenge when we travelled with so much electronic gear in our carry on bags.
But in no time at all, we were seated in the Air Canada lounge. We started to understand some of the lessons from our first International travel during the pandemic.
Great Upgrades At The Air Canada U.S. Lounge
We were happy that our Air Canada status got us lounge access. There was a lot of space. Seating areas were spread out. And it looked like much of the lounge had a facelift. The bonus on the day we travelled was that the lounge was not very full.
We immediately saw the changes that Covid made in food service. Gone were open containers of buffet food. A good selection of lunch foods were packaged. The great chewy cookies were in individual bags. Drinks were still available as before.
When we sat down, we saw a bar code on the table that offered an expanded selection of foods that were delivered to our seat. We chose a hot entree and it arrived in minutes. It was not gourmet food but a nice break from cold sandwiches.
It appeared that eating and drinking was the most prevalent reason why people sat in the lounge with no mask. We ate quickly and put ours back on.
The lounge was a travel experience I was prepared to abandon on our travels. But this first trip caused me no concern.
Air Travel Without Capacity Constraints On First International Travel During The Pandemic
The day we flew was not a super busy travel day. We suspected that the recent news about Omicron and the changing Covid requirements may have caused some cancellations. Certainly we were upgraded 3 classes for our cruise cabin so we knew cancellations had rolled in.
The airport had signs saying masks and social distancing were both requirements. Generally as we walked around the airport we found this true. Although when we hit Miami, this was no longer true. In the baggage claim area in Miami people crowded the belt as they always had and many abandoned their masks.
When we got to our gate at the Toronto Pearson Airport, we saw that the old traditional rows of seating was replaced with tables and stations to order food. There was no spacing at all and few masks since there was a pretence of eating and drinking.
At the gate, the only way we got social distance while we waited was when we found an empty spot along a wall to stand. We were sure our level of discomfort would increase on a very busy flight day. We learned these lessons from our first International travel during the pandemic and knew we would not travel when the volumes got really high.
Canadian Airplane Rules Were Strict But Not When Unenforced
We pre-selected our airplane seats when we booked. The seat map seemed to suggest there was a lot of empty space on the plane. We thought we would find areas of empty seats if we felt we needed to move. So were were surprised when we found a very full plane. Not filled to capacity. But no empty rows at all.
Canadian law required masks onboard and the vast majority of people kept their mask on and their heads down. Most that wanted to eat or drink did it quickly and re-masked. But we were amazed at how many people still had no idea how to put the mask over their nose. Or pretended to eat and drink long as they could.
Everyone completed a Covid questionnaire before boarding that clearly asked about coughs. But the very tall guy behind me coughed loudly and wetly through most of the flight. Both he and his travel companion often took their masks off or left them below their noses.
My air vent was aimed back to direct air that way. My new personal air purifier sat beside me. And I stayed masked and hooded for the full 3 hour flight. I was not happy that this potential Covid vector was so close. At least I knew I would get a Covid test soon.
We were disappointed when we saw so little attention paid by Air Canada staff to the large number of people who openly challenged the masking requirement. Especially when our flight was delayed a long time and we were kept in such close contact for longer than we planned. But at least there was no violent confrontation on our flight about the rules.
Flying was now a very uncomfortable experience for us. One of the sad lessons from our first International travel during the pandemic.
Surviving Maskless Miami On First International Travel During The Pandemic
We would never fly into a departure port on the day our cruise departed. So we had to accept a night in Miami. Our cab ride was the first indication that we were in maskless Miami. The cab driver kept his mask on his chin. When we opened the windows to ensure we had some air flow, he closed them.
We found no mandatory masking required in indoor spaces. The hotel we stayed at “recommended” masks but there were not even limits on the elevators. We had an amazing stay in our upgraded room by the pool. And wished we maybe had booked a longer stay with such easy access to outdoors. But we might have wanted to hide at the hotel.
We finally got our travelling SIM working by the time we checked out so we could call an Uber. We were not getting back in a cab in Miami. And I had no problem sharing the pic of me fully masked when I booked the Uber ride to the cruise terminal. We would definitely be using Uber for our trip to the airport on our return to Miami.
Miami provided a shocking view at how different the Covid requirements were outside of Canada. We were not really surprised. But some of the lessons from our first International travel during the pandemic reinforced our concerns.
Covid-19 Testing Required To Board Our Cruise Ship
As noted above, the first step we faced at the cruise terminal was a Covid-19 test. The line up was long and it took us about an hour to progress for our test. Many people worked no mask in line and had to be given a paper mask as they entered the testing area.
We were surprised that so many people had either not done the pre-registration for their test bar code. Or had no idea where they saved it. Of course, we had both electronic and paper copies which ensured we moved quickly through the process.
We were delighted when the testing was done quickly and we soon had a negative Covid test that moved us to the normal cruise ship boarding process.
Cruising With Waning Covid-19 Requirements
Our first surprise came when we boarded the ship and virtually every passenger removed their masks. All staff kept theirs on at all times. And a small handful of passengers like us never gave up masks onboard unless seated in well-spaced places to eat.
When we saw pictures of our ship cruising before it crossed the ocean to Miami, masking and social distancing were evident. But apparently as their season from Miami started, much more lax U.S. rules governed. And for anyone vaccinated, there was no mask or social distancing requirement. Even in the face of a new highly infectious Covid variant.
In all ports we found masking requirements. Yet too many of the passengers ignored the rules designed to keep the island residents safe. We were delighted that ports were open to us and we wanted to do our part to protect the locals
Only the port of St Lucia limited those who could leave the ship to people with pre-booked formal tour excursions. And those people going on tour required a Covid test pre-tour.
The day prior to final departure from the ship, Covid testing was available. Testing was totally optional for everyone except passengers staying on the ship for the next trip. If your onward travel required a Covid test, the ship did the test for free. This meant we got the PCR test we needed to re-enter Canada.
But most of the ~95% of U.S. passengers needed no test to head home. For those, no Covid test was done unless the passengers chose to pay for it. Or they made some claim about needing it. Nobody would ever know how many people truly left the ship with Covid!
We really wish we found more stringent Covid requirements on the cruise ship. Maybe we just needed to be more choosy on where we cruised. Or picked a cruise line that tested everyone on every day. A disappointing lesson from our first International travel during the pandemic.
The Difference That 10 Days Made
During the 10 days we cruised in the Caribbean, the Omicron variant thrived. By the time we left the ship, the numbers were doubling every few days. But our trip home was much smoother than our incoming trip.
Even with really slow internet, our electronic processes to return to Canada worked much better this time. We actually submitted our documents to Air Canada and were issued boarding passes. And we completed the ArriveCan app and got our successful code.
We grabbed an Uber from the cruise terminal and were delighted with the fully masked driver. When we arrived at the airport we had a few hours to wait. But we easily found a large empty area to wait before we checked in. We stayed masked up for our final wait in the airport lounge. Although the couple with their two dogs on their phones felt no such need!
We were very happy when our return flight provided less worries. The plane was not full. There were multiple broadcasts about masking and adherence. And we saw more people being responsible with their masks. It appeared that the escalating Omicron variant shook some of the indifference of many people onboard.
Lucky for us, Canada imposed no new travel restrictions while we were away. We were not selected for random Covid testing at the airport. Although we did voluntarily limit our contacts once we got back. But just days after we returned, new restrictions were announced daily. It sure made us glad we were safely at home.
The increasing Omicron rates even brought changes to the cruise industry. Many of the cruise lines including Oceania Cruises re-implemented masking mandates. We knew that cruising with a mask did not really diminish the experience. And were happy that crew and passengers would have more protection.
Timing is everything! One of the lessons from our first International travel during the pandemic that was reinforced for us.
Sharing Lessons From First International Travel During The Pandemic
We were glad we booked our Caribbean cruise in the near term window that opened for us. Even if requirements changed very quickly before we departed.
We thought we knew what to expect for various legs of our travels. But the lessons from our first International travel during the pandemic showed us that things were definitely not as stringent as we believed before we left home. And even with some rules in place, there seemed to be little enforcement.
We totally understood the hope that vaccination would let travel return to normal. But we just were not sure that the timing was right. Or right for our own level of risk tolerance.
We hope that some of our observations may help you to ask for more details as you get closer to your travels. And that things don’t change too radically in a short period of time to make you wish you had made other travel decisions.
Have you learned lessons from your first International travel during the pandemic? Will those lessons keep you at home?
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