Travel in the Times of COVID: The Good, the Bad, and the Germy. Part 1

12 key steps to get you ready for your next flight.

Image credit: South Gap Hotel

After having confined myself to my home for almost 9 continuous months, I decided to travel home for the holidays and spend Christmas with my family. It had simply been too long since I had seen or bonded with my loved ones. Of course, as it’s done with everything else, COVID has also upended the travel industry, and the travel experience, so flying is no longer the relatively simple exercise that it used to be. Far, far from it.

In this first part of a two-part series, I describe what it’s like to live that #UpInTheAir life in these coronavirus times. Home for me is Barbados (I’m lucky, I know!), so for the purposes of this post, that’s the destination I’m focused on. Some of the protocols are specific to the island; some are generalizable. For those of you who have been asking, I will go into detail about what you need to do before you can even get to Barbados. Part 2 of the series will describe the process once you’re on the ground.

So here goes: For posterity, and for your information, this is the process for traveling to Barbados during the pandemic:

THE TEST

7-14 days in advance of test day:

  1. Book your 1st COVID-19 test. The protocol for flying to Barbados is that you must have a negative PCR test within 3 days of your scheduled flight. You will not be allowed to board a plane bound for Barbados unless you have tested negative for the novel coronavirus within the specified window, and have the documentation to prove it. The Barbados Ministry of Health has partnered with Stage Zero Life Sciences to provide rapid PCR testing for customers in the US and the Canada, with results delivered in 24-48 hours. There is a simple online booking system. As of this writing, the cost of the test is USD$265.00.

5-7 days in advance of travel:

2. Book your quarantine accommodation. You can, of course, book it even further in advance, but this is probably the closest cutoff window that you should risk. With the Barbados Welcome Stamp Visa becoming more and more popular, hotels and beach houses are filling up fast. Here’s a list of designated holding hotels and villas in Barbados.

5-7 days in advance of travel:

3. Purchase a thermometer if you don’t already have one. This is not as random as it seems: you’ll need it to record your temperature while you’re in quarantine. If you’re ordering it online, give yourself additional lead time, as most retailers’ delivery times are longer than usual, and Amazon Prime delivery times are, at the moment, a myth.

4-5 days in advance of test day:

4. Receive your PCR test kit. A few days prior to your test, your test kit will arrive in the mail. Store it safely. Your test will be administered by a phlebotomist or nurse in the privacy of your home.

2-4 days in advance of test day:

5. Confirm your PCR test appointment. As I discovered almost to my detriment, “booking your appointment” is not actually booking your appointment. It’s more of a suggestion/wish. What happened in my case is unlikely to happen to you, but I’ll share it just in case. In the days leading up to my test – around the Thanksgiving long weekend – my phone was stolen. I of course reported it stolen, had it disabled, and my service provider suspended my cell service until my replacement phone arrived. Life being what it is, it was during this time that the phlebotomist tried to contact me to actually book/confirm my appointment. More on this later, but I’m sure you can figure out where this is going. 

3 days in advance of travel:

6. Take your 1st COVID-19 test. For me, the actual test was a non-event. A slightly uncomfortable tickle in the left nostril; a tiny, spontaneous tear, and it was over. However, the lead up to it was extremely stressful: I had booked my test for 8:00 a.m. on Monday 12/07, since I was due to travel at 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday 12/09. (Sundays are not available, and Saturday would have been too far in advance.) 8 o’ clock came and went with no sign of the phlebotomist. I called the Stage Zero office, but their autoresponder informed me that they would not be open until 9:00. On the dot of 9:00, I called back. Still nada. At 9:15 I got to speak to a human being—a very nice one, as it turned out. (Hi Courtney!!) She asked me a few questions about my phone and whether or not I have voicemail set up, because they had been trying to reach me on December 2nd. I was entirely confused. “But isn’t my appointment scheduled for today (Dec. 7) at 8:00?” I asked. She confirmed that while that is what I had entered into the system, the phlebotomist calls to confirm the appointment a few days in advance. If they receive no response, they cancel your appointment. It took a few minutes, but I eventually remembered (and told her) that my phone had actually been stolen, and so they must have been trying to contact me during the period when I was phoneless. My explanation helped. She was very sympathetic, and said that she would do her best to contact the phlebotomist. 

I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that by 2:00 p.m., after basically haranguing poor Courtney all day, the phlebotomist was still AWOL. She advised me to start considering rescheduling my appointment—and my flight. When I checked online, there were no appointments available until December 14 at the earliest. I also could not simply reschedule my appointment. The system was set up so that one would actually have to purchase another test for another $265.00. I may or may not have shed a tear. I called back my new bestie Courtney, and explained that she would have to help me circumvent that bug in the system, because I had already paid for a test that I hadn’t received. And then, the heavens parted. While still on the phone with Courtney, I saw a call from an unknown number come through. I picked it up, and lo and behold it was the phlebotomist. Praises be!! Courtney and I both did a happy dance over the phone. About an hour later the phlebotomist arrived at my house and gave me the test. Phew.

3 days in advance of travel:

7. Complete your Barbados Immigration Form online. 

1-2 days in advance of travel:

8. Receive your test results. As part of the appointment-booking process, you have to enter your flight details, at least partly to assist the lab with prioritization of testing. I received my results via encrypted email at around 5:00 p.m. on the day before I was due to travel. Based on when I was tested, and when FedEx would have sent the sample out, Stage Zero delivered the results in almost exactly 24 hours.

THE AIRPORT

9. Wear your mask. Let’s start with the Uber to the airport. For most rides, you now have to confirm that you are wearing a mask before you can book your trip. For the actual flight, it’s worth remembering that even if you have all your documentation in order, you can’t board the plane unless you’re wearing a mask. I was actually stopped by a flight attendant because my mask appeared to be ventilated. (I was in fact wearing two masks. The top one with the perforations was layered over one of the standard blue and white disposable ones. Once she realized that I was adequately and safely masked, I was allowed to board.) 

If you’re an idiot anti-masker, beware. Flight staff is now empowered to report travelers who refuse to comply with the mask-wearing mandate while on board. If you don’t wear your mask, or they have to remind you too often, they report you, and upon landing you are prohibited from going any further until you comply. In other words, if you have a connecting flight, you’re probably not going to make it. You may also be fined.

10. Use hand sanitizer. If you happen to have forgotten your own, no need to worry. There are hand sanitizer stations at frequent intervals in the terminal, with signage encouraging their use. There are also (of course) super-expensive travel-sized bottles of hand sanitizer and packs of wipes available for sale.

11. Social distance. At the airport, everyone was thankfully wearing masks, but people made only half-hearted attempts at social distancing. Basically, nobody seems to know what 6 feet apart means. The decals on the floor are not helping. The signs are not helping. Nothing seems to be helping. I held my suitcase at arm’s length behind me to help the person in line after me measure. Cause he was genuinely having difficulty with that. -_-

Not sure about other airlines, but American is back to completely filling their planes. The whole “let’s leave the middle seats empty.” idea seems to have gone the way of all flesh. Sigh. So…no social distancing is possible while on board. My return flight is via JetBlue, so if their protocol is any different, I’ll update this post and let you know.

12. Present all your documentation. They might have to re-name Covid “Covisa”, because that’s how test results are functioning now. Passports and other travel documents are important, but the truly vital info is the proof of your negative PCR test. No test = No flight. I had both a printed and a digital version of mine with me. 

In addition to your test results, you should also have completed your Barbados Immigration and Customs form. Have the PDF or a screenshot of it at the ready, because the person checking you in will need to see it. Depending on the agent that you get, you might not be allowed to board your flight without it. I’m not sure that this is a hard and fast rule, but why take the risk of missing your flight if you don’t have to?

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Travel later in the week if your funds and schedule allow. Later in the day too. My situation felt particularly tight because my flight was scheduled for 6:00 a.m. a mere two days from my test day.
  • Follow up, and then follow up on the follow up. I’m normally overly prepared for situations such as this, but I was lulled into a false sense of security about my supposed test appointment because I had received a confirmation email upon booking, as well as a reminder email two days prior. The emails meant nothing. If you don’t hear from a phlebotomist by phone, call the company a few days prior and make sure that you actually have the appointment that you thought you booked.

That’s all for now, folks. As you can see, IT’S. A. PROCESS. For international travel the days of last-minute flights are, for the moment, over. 

I’ll post the second part of the series soon, and focus on the quarantine protocol once you’re on island. In the meantime, ask me any questions you have, stay healthy, and #WearADamnMask.

Comments

  1. Kathleen Hurley says:

    Another excellent piece, Lis. Both interesting and informative. Looking forward to Part 2.

    1. Thanks so much, Mama.

  2. Carol says:

    Hi Lisa
    I came into Barbados the day before you did via Jet Blue. By the time I saw the option for the lab in the IS (since they don’t test on sundays) I was outside the time period to book the test online. I spoke to Courtney also but she couldn’t help me.
    So I took the test offered by New York State. The results weren’t back before I boarded the plane but I was able to complete the immigration form and jet blue allowed me to board the flight.
    I was retested at the airport about 2 hours before my NY results came in. But since the results came in before I left the e airport I was able to have them “certified” by the doctor there and I then retested privately 2 days later.

    1. Hi Carol, thhanks for reading! I’m surprised that JetBlue allowed you to board the flight without your results! It’s great that you were able to get home and enjoy some sunshine. Are you still here, or are you back already? What was your quarantine experience like?

  3. Hi Lisa!
    Thanks for sharing your experience. I wonder how long these protocols will remain in place, once the vaccine(s) are more widely distributed.

    Cheers,

    Mitch

    1. Hi Mitch! I think they’ll be in place for quite a while, especially since so many people are planning to not take the vaccine.

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