The Unique Obstacles of Traveling in the Time of Coronavirus

Summary: if you are traveling internationally, get ready for obstacles and challenges. Covid amplified all of these. Understanding them can help prepare you for whatever international travel may throw at you.

Going to Scotland Egypt in the Time of Coronavirus
In January 2021, my daughter Anna and I were four months away from going to Scotland, and one thing was becoming very clear. We were not going to go to Scotland. Scotland was not going to welcome Americans in May 2021. That’s not quite correct. Scotland would welcome Americans, BUT they had to quarantine for 14 days before entering the country. Once they got out of quarantine, everything would be closed. No bagpipes. No castles. No tours. No restaurants. No shops. Scotland was in strict lockdown, and the government was going to consider getting out of lockdown in late April 2022. Scotland was out.

But I did not give up on taking my daughter on an amazing senior trip. What we had to do was find a place that would let Americans in without quarantining. Turns out that there were a lot of places. Just not the first ones on our list. England? Out. Italy? Out. France? Out. Germany? Out. Latin America? Wide open. You didn’t even need Covid tests to enter Mexico and several other countries. However, none of these places in Latin America captured my imagination like Scotland. They didn’t have the mystery, the wonder, and the history that Scotland had. Later, I learned that I was wrong about Latin America, but that’s another story for another time.

At that time, only one country on the list did have the wonder, the mystery, the glory, and the history of Scotland and maybe more: Egypt. I started looking into it. I contacted Memphis Tours and started talking to Maged Al-Gohari about it. A close second on the list was Turkey. Memphis Tours could combine a tour of both. Unfortunately, I just could not make it work with the flights and the dates I had for the trip. I remember having a conversation with my wife about this. “I just think it would be so epic, if we could go to Egypt and Turkey.”

She responded, “Egypt sounds pretty epic to me.” So, we “settled” on Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs and the pyramids. Covid opened the door to a place that we might not have considered but is now at the top of the list of my recommendations. I will talk more about why in later posts.

Covid Just Kept Going
Covid had a way of altering plans and making travel more challenging. On my last trip to Mexico, we breezed through customs without any delays. It was a stark comparison to the complications of the pandemic world.

After the Egypt trip, my wife and I planned a trip to Cancun. Because of all the complications of government shutdowns, passports were delayed considerably.

We were scheduled to leave on September 29, 2021. My wife had applied for her passport in May with what seemed like a lot of time to get it. By 10 days before the trip, the passport had not arrived. At that point in the process, one is permitted to call and ask for an emergency appointment leading to a printing of the passport. The only appointment available before the departure was in New Orleans, 10 hours away. The closest city with an appointment was Atlanta. Unfortunately, the only appointment available was a day after our departure. We made the appointment. We bought an additional ticket for her to come a day later to Cancun. It was the best we could do. We just hoped it would work.

Well, it did work. The passport arrived five days later. She didn’t have to go to New Orleans or wait in Atlanta.

But something else happened, or more accurately, Covid happened. Most of our kids got Covid the week of our departure, though Melinda and I did not. We did not have to have a Covid test to get into Mexico. However, we still could not enter the plane because we had been in contact with those who had tested positive for Covid. Even if we did go to Mexico, it seemed that we could get Covid while we were there, and we did need a Covid test to get back into the United States. We could end up in quarantine there. Finally, we could not leave our sick kids with my parents who were going to watch the kids. So, we canceled postponed our trip to November. It all turned out fine, but it was a challenging time of waiting and wondering.

Something similar happened on our second trip to Egypt. The omicron variant of Covid arrived, and people started dropping out of the trip. We were down from what had been 14 to 6. Then, I got Covid a few days before our departure. Thanks be to God, we were able to reschedule our trip from February to September. But working with an Egyptian company where we had already paid, we just weren’t sure how it would all work out. Memphis Tours did a great job and accommodated us well.

By August 2022, we thought we were putting Covid behind us. When we went to the counter to check in to our flight from Bogota, Colombia, they asked for our vaccination cards. We had not brought them. Fortunately, they accepted digital copies. We were able to secure them and get on the plane. Covid was still with us.

And even that was not the end. A big disappointment for me was that my good friend who was going to accompany me to Mexico in November 2022 was not able to go on the trip. He got Covid a few days before we were to leave. Though he perhaps could have travelled legally, he had not really recovered and was not sure how sick he would be. He cancelled the trip.

Covid Tests
It was not just Covid that made it difficult to travel in the time of the coronavirus. It was the hoops you had to jump through in order to do it.

For example, all we needed to do to enter Egypt was take a Covid test before going. Simple, right? Except for two problems. One, you had to have it 96 hours before your last flight. This was a problem because you never knew for sure when you would get the results back. I could find no place that would guarantee the return of the results within that time period. All the places that did the tests sent them off to labs, and they had no control over when the results would come back. In spite of all this, I was relatively confident that the results would come back in time. Relatively confident but by no means 100% confident.

The other problem was harder to figure out. The Egyptian government required a test that was a stamped and signed original paper document from the laboratory conducting the test. Apparently, this was relatively common in Egypt but extremely uncommon in America. Most places sent their tests off to various labs. I researched the various labs. I tried to figure out if I could go directly to them. There was nothing like that. It seemed that perhaps in New York City (many, many hours from my home), there might be something like that, but even that wasn’t clear.

What became clear was this: I would not be able to get a signed and stamped test on an original paper document. So, I started to research whether or not this was really that important. I did find some anecdotal evidence that this might be OK. People had gone to Egypt. No one said anything about being turned back because of a lack of a stamped and signed test. My tour company didn’t even know that much about it. It did not seem like a big deal, but I wanted certainty. I did not get it. So, I worried about it, but, in the end, I was pretty confident the simple test from CVS would work.

The week of our departure, I had to carry out the Covid test. As soon as I could schedule the test, I did so. I set it for two o’ clock on Thursday afternoon, which would work well for our Sunday departure, timed perfectly with a little bit of margin and maximum opportunity for the test to return before we left.

Then, two things happened. First, I checked United’s Travel Ready Center for the 10th time. It turned out that we would need another Covid test. Earlier in my research, nations were allowing people to pass through their airports to other destinations without any conditions. So, I didn’t think much about it. However, Germany had changed their policy. They were now going to require a negative test within 48 hours of departure to Germany.

The problem with Germany’s requirement was that our Egypt test would not work. It was too early. We also could not wait and do our Egypt Covid test later because we needed to make sure we had the results from the lab in time. So, there was no way around it. We would have to do two tests. Fortunately, Germany allowed the rapid test. Egypt demanded a lab test. We paid approximately $600 for four tests.

The second thing that happened was that a dear friend and member of our church passed away the week before we were to depart for Egypt. As their pastor, I wanted to care for this family and do what I needed to do to accommodate them in any way I could. So, I talked to the wife and asked her when she was thinking about having the funeral. She replied, “Thursday at 2:00.” I thought, Uh oh. That is the time of the Covid test. Fortunately, we worked it all out. I ended up going to the viewing, then going to get the test, and then going back to do the funeral. On Saturday, we got the test to go to Germany. I also had received the results of our lab tests on Friday. All negative! So, I had four Covid test results in my hand (including two for my daughter), and I was confident, but not certain, that this would get us into Egypt.

On my next trip, the era of Covid testing was far from over. In November, my wife and I went to Mexico. One great thing about Mexico was that you did not need a Covid test to enter the country. However, to get back into the U.S., you needed a Covid test. Fortunately, the U.S. government never demanded the use of the lab test. The rapid test was always sufficient. So, you could get it the same day you left. The all inclusive hotel we stayed at in Cancun made them available right there. That’s where my wife got hers before she left. I went on to Guadalajara. In Bugambilias, where I was staying a week later, it was a little more complicated. I had to go to a pharmacy that had a doctor. The doctor I found only spoke Spanish. I could have conversations in Spanish without any problem, but I still committed many errors, especially mixing masculine and feminine. The doctor asked me, “What is your name?”

I said, “John.”

“Como se escribe (how do you write it?)?” She asked.

I began, “Joto. No! Jota!” Jota means “j.” Let’s just say that joto does not.

Nevertheless, I got my Covid test and reentered the U.S. without any problem.

By the time of our next trip, which was to Spain, I had things figured out. You could enter Spain with the proof of vaccination, which I had. However, the United States, never allowed proof of vaccination in place of a Covid test for entering the U.S. during the entire pandemic. Nevertheless, availability of Covid tests had certainly increased. You could get an at home test where it was verified by someone watching online. They would send the results to your phone, and that was sufficient. So, the evening before we left, we were able to do the tests in our hotel room.

I bought those same tests for the return from Egypt. However, by September 2022, Egypt and the United States had both removed their Covid requirements. We traveled internationally for the first time without any Covid restrictions whatsoever.

There are almost always uncertainties in international travel, but learning to travel in the time of coronavirus was a baptism by fire when it came to the variables and uncertainties of international travel. I consider it a real accomplishment that I did not let this hinder me from traveling. I made it to Egypt and Mexico and Spain and Colombia and back in the time of coronavirus! I had become a world traveler in the unlikeliest of times. However, we still had one big problem that existed completely outside of Covid . . . plane trouble. That’s what I’ll talk about in my next article.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope it encourages you to move forward in the face of the challenges of international travel so that you can experience it’s amazing benefits. I hope to see you here again.

The Joy of Taking People with You on Trips

Summary: It is a great joy to travel, and is also a great joy to take other people with you when you travel.

When I went to Egypt, I took a cruise on the Nile from Aswan to Luxor on the M.S.S. Salacia. On that cruise, I met a man from Austria named Elmar. He traveled by himself. He had a German speaking guide who led him around the sites. He seemed to enjoy just traveling by himself. But most people don’t. They want to go with someone. But who do you take? For me, that is a particularly difficult question. I have seven children, a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law, and a wife. Who should I take? My second trip to Egypt with my two daughters and wife cost around $14,000. Only with the special Covid money and their money from work were we able to afford it (see my explanation of this *here). There was no way I could take all 11. Continue reading “The Joy of Taking People with You on Trips”

How to Pay for International Trips

Summary: Really make your goal to travel, and you will find the money. I offer some specific tips as well.

Two Principles for Paying for International Trips
After we got home from our first trip, my daughter said to me, “When I get more money, I want to travel.”

I told her, “No. That’s the wrong way to think about it. Decide to travel, and you will find the money.” You either tell money where to go, or it will tell you where to go, as the old saying goes. Continue reading “How to Pay for International Trips”

How to Plan a Trip Outside the United States

If someone asked me to plan a trip to Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, I could give them a large list of things to do and places to visit without thinking. It’s where I live and work. But what about a country that you’ve never visited? What do you do? Where do you start? What if you don’t speak the language? Fortunately, there are innumerable tools available to help you plan an amazing trip outside the United States.

For me, a big part of the joy of the trip is planning the trip. You discover each place and what it has to offer. There are so many options that you can choose from. There is so much research that can be done online. I loved spending weeks studying the various places in Scotland that we could visit and then finding hotels, discovering the sites, and seeing the places, all online.

I planned an entire two week trip to Scotland. We were going to go around the island, visiting the Isle of Skye, various ancestral castles, Edinburgh, and the rest. Every time I think about planning that trip, it makes me happy. I felt like I understood the island much better for doing so. For example, during the planning process, I met a guy from Scotland. He told me that he was from Dundee. I knew where that was because of my research. I understood the world a little bit better, even without going.

Planning the trip to Egypt was totally different. We found a company called Memphis Tours (for Memphis, Egypt not Memphis, Tennessee). They had several itineraries, but they could change them to fit your priorities. A representative would work with a prospective traveler to adjust their trip. I highly recommend them. They do things a little bit differently than an American company might, but they get the job done and really care for their travelers. The first itinerary I considered was a trip to Turkey and Egypt. Both were open to American travelers in the winter of 2021. I thought it would be truly epic to visit both those countries. The problem was lining up all the flights for the right days. We could not make it work in the time frame that we had. So, we decided to do a grand tour of Egypt, which was actually quite epic anyway.

Flights were perhaps the most important part of the planning process. Once you get there, you can do things. But you have to get there. They are also the most expensive single item. You can save money on flights, or you can spend a lot of money on them. This will determine what you can do and how many trips you can take, unless, of course, you are very rich.

I am not very rich, so I looked for cheap flights. There were several factors that enabled me to find cheaper flights. First, I was generally somewhat flexible in the time I would travel and the place to which I would travel. Second, I used a service called Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) that would alert me to when cheap flights were available. That way, I did not have to keep checking all the time. Third, I looked not only at my local regional airport but all the international airports within four hours of me: Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, and Nashville. Sometimes, a 3 or 4 hour drive would be worth it. Often, you did not even lose time. You would have to fly to one of those airports and wait around anyway, so why not drive? The economics of this were important. If I was traveling by myself, and there was only $100 difference in the tickets between Knoxville and Charlotte, it made sense to fly out of Knoxville. If it was a $300 or $400 difference, that was worth considering. In the case of my second trip to Egypt, four of us were going. The difference in the tickets was greater than $400. That was a nearly $1500 difference when you factor in parking and gas.

After that, you have to determine where you want to go when you arrive. Do you travel around? Do you stay primarily in one city? Or at the beach? Once you decide this, then you need to book your hotel. You could also stay in an Airbnb. One interesting thing about international travel is that the Airbnb and hotel costs are quite different than those of the United States. In the U.S., I have found that Airbnbs generally cost more than hotels. In other countries, this is not the case. I stayed in Madrid for a week for less than $50 a night in a small Airbnb apartment with its own bathroom. The hotels were generally $100 or more. I prefer to stay in hotels when I can because I like being able to talk to the staff and the people that are staying there. For example, I stayed in a hotel near the Bogota airport by myself. I felt a little lonely. I went down to get a snack and a drink. I met an American couple who was living in Mexico but had come to Bogota to do a tour during the hotter months of Baja California. It was a great conversation, and I was happy to have some company. But not everybody likes to do this sort of thing.

One phenomenon that you find in other countries that is available in the U.S. but very expensive here is the all inclusive hotel. I knew one couple that was looking at paying $9,000 for one week at an all-inclusive in Florida. You can pay a fraction of that in other Caribbean countries. At the all-inclusive, you pay one price and you get all your meals, all your drinks, all your entertainment, and all your snacks. I am not sure that you actually save money by doing it this way, unless you drink a lot, which many guests at these hotels do. But the all inclusive is fun and easy. I have enjoyed my stay at each one of them. One key thing is to make sure that you get your agreement that all is included in writing before you go. Otherwise, they may try to charge you when you get there.

One thing you also have to do is to plan how you will get around. The American idea would be to take the obvious approach: rent a car. This was my plan for Scotland. I would rent a manual car and drive on the wrong side of the road throughout Scotland. There are generally cheaper ways to get from place to place that are comfortable and easier. One thing to note is that in many countries you can fly from city to city much more cheaply than you can in America. I bought 17 plane tickets for traveling around Colombia that cost me about $500 total. This is exceptionally cheap, but the same thing was true in Spain and other parts of Europe. There were often cheap flights. In Europe, you can take the train. It is often actually cheaper to fly, but it is a bigger hassle, the price difference is not great, and you can enjoy seeing the countryside. I have had few better traveling experiences than traveling in the Ave train in Spain. You can get from Madrid to Seville, at least a 5 hour trip driving, in about 2 hours! In Latin America, you can take buses. We had a very nice trip in a bus from Puerto Plata to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. They often have different options for buses than we have in the United States. There are many more stations than you might find for the Greyhound in the U.S. where they often simply drop you off on the side of the road.

Within the city, there are usually several options for traveling around. You can take a bus, metro, taxi, or Uber. Figuring this out should be part of your planning. For example, in Madrid, there is an extensive metro and bus system that you can ride very cheaply. Tourists can get a tourist ticket. They cost $40 or so per week, and you can ride the metro and the buses an unlimited number of times for a week. You can also purchase the tourist ticket for 1-6 days with a lower cost. This is true in many cities.

Some of my local friends did not recommend that I take some of the public transportation or taxis in various places outside of Europe. They may have been overly cautious. However, what they did recommend was Uber. They said it was much safer. It is also cheap by American standards. I saw $1 and $2 charges on my credit card for my rides in Bogota. A side benefit of Uber, if you speak the language of the driver, is that you often find an interesting person who likes to talk and knows quite a bit about the local situation.

What do you do when you get there? One great resource that I have found is Viator. Viator.com is a web site that will give you an idea of what is available in the area. Even if you don’t use that specific service, it is a great guide that will give you a sample of what is available. This includes traditional things like trips to an island, tours of the pyramids, or tours of a city as well as other experiences such as a tapas tour, salsa lessons, or cooking classes. From this vantage point, you can either reserve your activities or check into other options for the things that you are interested in.

I have had experiences of planning nothing, planning everything, and having everything planned for me. All of these were wonderful experiences. They all have their advantages. In this day and age, don’t think that you need to have someone else do your planning. You can do a lot of it on your own. You may even find that this type of research is fun. . . or you may not. My oldest daughter hates to plan. I love to. This makes for a very good traveling relationship. I put together a plan, have her check it, and then execute it on our trips. Maybe you can find someone like that and bring them along on your next trip.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like it, please consider sharing it on social media or subscribing to the blog in the box below. Do you have anything you would add to this post? Share it in the comments below. I hope to see you here again or traveling around the world.

How Covid Made Me a World Traveler

In the fall of 2019, I said, “I don’t think I need to travel any more. I enjoy finding adventure right where I am. I think I will just live my life here and not worry about traveling.” I was referring here to travel in the U.S. International travel was completely out of the question. This statement proved to one of the dumbest statements I have ever made.

I had traveled internationally when I was younger. I took three international trips from the time I was 14-19. I went to Israel, Albania, and France. I went to Ontario a couple of times while I studied to be a Pastor, but does that really count as an international trip? Then, for the next 20 years, I took zero international trips. I focused on other things. I got married. I lived in South Dakota. I had seven kids. I pursued higher degrees. It wasn’t the time.

four years after making that statement, I had visited Egypt twice, Mexico three times, Colombia twice, Spain twice, Quebec (that counts), and the Dominican Republic. I had a period of nine months where I went to Colombia, Egypt, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Spain, and Colombia again.

What changed? Ironically, it was Covid, the thing that stopped international travel for most people. In March 2020, my eldest daughter, Anna (pictured above), was in her junior year. Covid shut down the school, and she did not go back to school the rest of the semester.

In the fall of 2020, schools opened up again here in TN. Anna had a decision to make. Would she do the online option and stay home, or would she attend classes with a mask on? My daughter has a light case of asthma and had struggled at times with breathing well at the old school building in the past. The idea of wearing a mask all day did not appeal to her. So, she tried the online option . . . and hated it. She is a real extrovert who loves to talk to people. Sitting in front of a screen all day did not work for her.

So, what to do? She decided to pursue homeschooling. She had done it in the past, and she thought it would work well in this situation. It was sad for her because she had really enjoyed her three years of high school. Nevertheless, she made that choice and went forward with it. Her senior year was working at an indoor waterpark . . . while wearing a mask. So, it turned out not to be too bad.

When she decided to homeschool, I was sad. I wanted her to experience the exciting events of her senior year: the friends, the celebrations, the special events, the graduation, and the trips. All that was now gone.

Then, I came up with an idea. What if we took a trip together somewhere in the world? In my mind, that would make up for a lot what she lost. So, one day, I said to her, “I think we should do a trip somewhere in the world. Where would you like to go, if you were going to go anywhere in the world?”

She immediately replied, “Scotland.”

I said, “Let’s do it.” Continue reading “How Covid Made Me a World Traveler”