Traveling in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic adds more layers to your travel planning before you go, while you’re on the trip and before you come back.
I just returned from Hawaii on Alaska Airlines. Prior to the outbound flight to the islands, all passengers have to fill out a “Safe Travels” profile, uploading vaccination cards and trip-related information in advance. Unvaccinated travelers must upload negative test results from a “trusted testing partner.” Once your information is uploaded, you’ll receive a notice from Hawaii that qualifies you for Alaska’s “Pre-Clear” program so you can bypass the 10-day quarantine in Hawaii.
No special COVID-related steps are necessary to fly back to Alaska.
That’s not the case if you’re traveling internationally. To fly from the U.S. to foreign countries, you have to abide by the country’s own COVID-related mitigation protocols. For Spain, France and Italy (and many other countries), you must be fully vaccinated. Some countries, including Portugal and Greece, require just a negative COVID test within 72 hours. Then there’s Mexico — where no test or vaccination paperwork is required.
Coming back to the U.S. from your foreign trip, you must present a negative COVID test. Unvaccinated travelers must be tested no earlier than one day before travel. Vaccinated travelers can be tested three days before departure.
Things can go smoothly … or not.
Mike LeNorman made four trips to Mexico last year.
“Mexico does it right,” he said. “Everywhere we stayed, there were mask requirements and hand sanitizer. It felt like they took things very seriously.”
On LeNorman’s last visit to Mazatlan, he stayed at the Torres Mazatlan. When he checked in, the hotel staff asked about his return flight time. Then they booked an appointment for a doctor to come to his room and administer the test. Results were available within four hours.
“When the doctor arrived, he checked my passport and did the swab,” LeNorman said. “It took two minutes.”
Marsha Rouggly of Homer is a frequent traveler to Ecuador. “My sister lives there, so this was my fifth trip,” she said.
During her recent trip, she visited the Galapagos Islands, which are 720 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
“I almost had a nightmare coming back to Alaska,” she said. “I got my COVID test in the Galapagos, but their internet went down, so I never got the results.”
Rouggly went to the airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to get a test there, only to find the station would not open until after departure time. So she got the name of a lab downtown and hailed a cab.
The lab “was in a sketchy section of town and my young driver wouldn’t leave me there (I’m a grandma). So he sat with me for 45 minutes and took me back to the airport with just enough time to catch my flight,” said Rouggly.
Jon Anderson wrote from Reykjavik’s airport, waiting for an Icelandair flight to Seattle.
“The first leg of my journey back to Anchorage from London was a KLM flight to Amsterdam. At check-in for the KLM flight I was informed that the COVID test I had is unacceptable because it was done by the National Health Service (NHS),” he wrote.
“They showed me an NHS webpage that notes ‘COVID testing for the purpose of international travel is not available at the NHS.’ KLM would not accept my test and I was denied boarding.
“So, I bought another ticket back to Anchorage on Icelandair — and booked another COVID test at a private clinic. This time it worked,” he wrote.
Anderson wrote that there’s also confusion about what type of test is required: a “PCR” test which is sent to a lab or a rapid “Antigen” test. Either test is accepted, unless you’re going to Canada, where a PCR test is required.
Donna Mears traveled to Costa Rica last month. She flew on American Airlines and found some packable test kits that you can take with you to use before returning to the U.S. The tests come bundled with a telehealth appointment. The test kit is a self-administered home test, but you have to have a solid internet connection so a technician can watch and verify the results.
“I had better internet in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica than I have in East Anchorage,” she said.
“The packable tests were cheaper than those available nearby. But the big thing was we knew what our results were before the six-hour drive to the airport,” she said. “Having these tests was cheap insurance for us.”
Dianne Horbochuck called me from the airport to tell me what a great time she’s been having in Portugal and Italy. This time, she was on her way back from Cabo San Lucas.
“They had a small room at the resort. It was very organized. They were moving lots of people in and out. We got the results back in four hours,” she said.
But Horbochuk typically relies on the pack-your-own rapid “Antigen” tests. “I buy six for $150, plus $15 postage,” she said.
Tracy Smith just returned from a 13-day Caribbean cruise with Seaborn. Destinations included Barbados, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Dominica and St. Maarten.
“For the first seven days, we couldn’t get off the ship unless you went on a shore excursion booked on the ship,” she said. “All of the tour vendors were tested and vaccinated.
On the second half of the cruise, passengers were permitted off the ship in three ports.
Smith loaded up her vaccination documents prior to arrival in Barbados for the cruise.Then there was another test at the ship prior to embarkation.
“Onboard the ship we were tested twice, including the day prior to disembarkation,” she said. “We did not have to share any documents leaving Barbados or on arrival at JFK Airport.”
International travelers are wise to prepare for contingencies prior to departure for the U.S. I’m going to grab some of those telehealth rapid tests! Still, the internet may go down. The lab may be closed. Your quest for an acceptable COVID test may end up being your own chapter of “Amazing Race.”