The Problem with Traveling by Airplane

The problem with traveling by airplane is not that they crash but that they sometimes don’t work. This means you may get stuck.

That’s the reality of traveling, but it’s especially disappointing when traveling internationally. It can wreak havoc with your trip or end it.

This is one of the risks that you have to take when traveling internationally. If you can, it’s best to allow margins in your trips in case things go wrong. The worst case scenario is that you get there early and can do more things in the country you are visiting.

Plane trouble was magnified in the time of Covid, but I have had some crazy experiences with plane trouble that had nothing to do with it. In this post, I want to share a few examples to help you know what you are up against.

We flew from Knoxville to Houston. From Houston, we would fly to Germany and then on to Egypt. We got onto the plane in Houston, and it all looked good. Then, over the speaker, we heard the bad news, the flight would be delayed. There was a maintenance issue with the electronics, and it had to be checked out.

The problem with this delay is that we only had a one and a half hour layover in Germany. No problem, I thought. We can just get a later flight into Cairo. That’ll be fine. However, being the person that I am, I wanted to check what flights were available from Germany to Cairo. Ok. There was a problem. There were no other flights from Germany to Cairo that night. What that meant was that our Covid test for Egypt would no longer valid (see my explanation of Covid tests and international travel here). We also could not enter Germany because Americans weren’t allowed to enter at that time. We could be stuck perpetually in the German airport like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

I got up and went to speak with one of the flight attendants to explain the issue. He said, “This is going to take a while. We will have you talk to one of our representatives, and they will arrange new flights for you.”

A few moments after that, I went outside to talk to one of United’s representatives. I explained to him my situation. He clicked away at his keyboard for a few seconds and then said to me. “OK. Here’s what you can do. You can fly into Istanbul, Turkey. Your Covid test will still be good to enter Turkey. Then, you can get a ride to the hospital downtown and get a new Covid test. You can stay at a hotel in Istanbul and then get a flight to Cairo the next day.”

I looked at him with disbelief. “Uhhh . . . that is way, way outside my comfort zone.”

He didn’t miss a beat. “Alright. We can put you up in a hotel for tonight and give you meal vouchers. Then, you can go to the Kingswood Emergency Hospital and get a test. You can expedite it, and they will get it back to you within an hour or so. It will cost you $500 a piece. Then, you can get the same flight tomorrow, and that test will be good for Germany and Egypt.”

At this point, there was no turning back. We were going to go to Egypt. So, if two $500 tests was what we needed to get there, then that’s what we were going to do. One more benefit. He moved us to first class for our trouble. My father looked it up on Priceline the next day. A first class ticket to Germany would have cost about $9,000 that day. So, in terms of assets, we were way ahead, even if we had less money in our bank account.

We went to Kingswood, and we had a wonderful experience. This was a really great hospital. If you are in Houston and need an emergency hospital, I highly recommend it. They also have great coffee, and it’s free!

We went back for our tests. In less than an hour, they gave us a folder with our results. I opened them. There was a paper copy, and at the bottom there was a stamp! And it was signed! This is what I had been wanting for months! And now, I had it! Exactly what the Egyptian government wanted.

Colombia and Spain
A surprising number of my plane trips went well after that. No problem going to Cancun or getting home. No problem going to Spain.

It’s not always the plane itself. Sometimes, it’s what you need to get on the plane. My daughter ended up moving to Bogota, Colombia to study. So, we bought her a plane ticket to get there. We did not buy a return ticket. Why? Because she did not know when her semester would end or if she would want to stay after the semester. Well, that turned out to be a problem. You can only stay six months in Colombia without getting permission. So, getting a one way ticket made it look like my daughter was trying to illegally immigrate to Colombia from the United States. So, they would not let us get on the plane. With the clock ticking, I looked online for a return ticket. Fortunately, she was able to purchase one but for a lot more than her ticket for going there. It was also changeable. All she needed was proof that she had a return ticket. So, we were able to board the plane.

When I went to Spain the second time, I had a long wait in Knoxville and a long layover in Atlanta. I was going on a mission trip, but I was going a week early to hang out in Madrid. The plane was delayed quite a bit, but I thought, “I have a lot of time, so I can just relax here and do my work.” I felt bad for the many people who were struggling. I experienced a delay of several hours in Atlanta, too, but it did not bother me. I had no schedule for my week in Madrid. It was all just fine, but people all around me were in a panic.

When the mission team left to go to Spain a week later and meet me in Madrid, it didn’t work out quite as well. They got on the plane, but the plane kept getting delayed. Eventually, the flight got cancelled all together because of maintenance issues. They had no backup planes available. They had to wait until the next day. Delta then gave everybody Uber trips to a Motel 6 in a sketchy neighborhood. They waited five hours with a large number of their fellow passengers into the wee hours of the morning to get their rooms. There was only one employee. The bathroom was closed. They waited on the floor. Finally, around 5:00 a.m., they got to their rooms. They got some good sleep and got on the flight the next day, which arrived in Madrid without any problems. We missed our day of touring Madrid, though, because of the plane trouble.

Sometimes the plane problem is not the plane but the lack of it. On our second trip to Colombia, we were going to go from Bogota to Ibague to Medellin to Cartagena and then home. I purchased 17 plane tickets for $500 total and was very proud of myself.

On Monday morning, we went to the Ibague airport. There was nobody there in that small airport. I brought the tickets to the counter. “These are from Bogota, not from Ibague.” Bogota is a minimum of four hours away. So, this was a problem. It was also a problem because we had to get to Cartagena to get home. Our flight to Cartagena was from Medellin.

I asked them, “How much is it to fly from Ibague to Cartagena tomorrow?”

I waited with a bit of anxiety to see how much it would cost for six tickets. “It will be about $100 a piece.” To purchase six tickets was more than I paid for the 17 tickets to fly around Colombia. But compared with buying a ticket the day before the flight in the U.S., it really wasn’t that bad. Plus, we would be able to take our return flight in Cartagena. So, I bought the tickets for the next day.

When you travel, you have to prepare for the unexpected. It is just part of the game. I experienced some difficulties, but others experienced worse. One family got to the airport to go to the Dominican Republic. The airline literally had no backup flights, so the entire trip got canceled. Another family, was taking a cruise around the British Isles, and their flight got canceled. They missed the cruise, and I am not sure if they ever even got a refund. Traveling is a bit of a risk. Recognizing that beforehand and accepting that God’s will is better than ours, as my Colombian friends said to me when I found out I had the wrong flight in Ibague, is a way to ensure that you will be mentally prepared for what might happen.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. This may be a bit of a downer, but knowing reality is always our friend in the end. Better to go into it with your eyes open, IMHO. I hope to see you here again. Each Tuesday, I’m exploring the ins and outs of international travel. Subscribe below or click on to read the article.

When Struggling, Start at Zero

Keeping Sane and Productive in an Insane World, Principle # 7: “When Struggling, Start at Zero.”

Last year, our family went through some very difficult times. No matter how bad it got, there was one thing that continually helped me regain sanity. Starting at zero.

What does that mean? It means that you imagine that you have nothing that you have. You imagine that you might not have any of it. Then, you mentally add it back bit by bit until you feel gratitude swelling up in your heart for all that you have.

What are some of those things? I might not have a wife, but God has given me a wonderful one. I might not have children, but I have seven of them. I might not have friends, but I have many of them.

When it comes to God, I might not know Him. Yet He has forgiven me and accepted me through the cross of Christ. That is enough, really. If I had nothing other than that, that would be enough.

But I have so much more. Doing Uber, I have met many people who do not have cars. I have a couple of them. I have freedom to move around. I have a home. That home has running water and a heat pump and electricity. I have means to communicate and receive information on my phone and computer. I have music and books.

I was born in America. It has its issues, but there is an opportunity to make money, if you need to. If you are healthy, you can work here. Speaking of that, I do have good health.

Where I get stuck is when I get some specific vision of what good things should be like. Then, when that situation doesn’t come to pass, it feels like there is nothing good. This feeling is loud and strong sometimes, but it does not reflect reality. When I start at zero, I realize that there are all kinds of good things that I already have that I might not have had and do not deserve more than others who do not have them. This helps my heart move toward gratitude and thankfulness and away from despair. So, that’s why I have this rule: when struggling, start at zero.

Our brains present an interesting paradox. When it comes to bad things, we worry about them and go over them again and again. When it comes to good things, we don’t even hold them in our mind for ten seconds.

Rick Hanson, in his helpful book Hardwiring Happiness deals at length with this paradox from the perspective of brain science.

Hanson notes that our brain “has a hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive” (20). He describes the way our brain works this way, “when the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision that downplays everything else” (21). In contrast, Hanson notes, our brains hardly give any attention to good experiences. “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones” (27). Think about it, he says: “how often do we stay with a positive experience for five, ten, or twenty seconds in row?” (27).

We just don’t take in the good. We get stuck in the bad.

How do we start to balance this out? How can we do a better job of taking in the good things that are already part of our lives? We can start at zero in our minds and add all the blessings back from there. This doesn’t ignore the bad. It just helps us take in the good.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I hope this is a helpful concept that will help keep you sane in an insane world. This is part of a series on 40 principles for keeping you sane and productive in an insane world. These are principles that I collected over the years battling for sanity and productivity while serving as a Pastor for 19 years, raising seven kids, earning higher degrees, traveling the world, and trying to be a good citizen. You can read more of them here.


Photo by Simon Maisch on Unsplash

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.

If It Seems Too Good to Be True, It Is

Keeping Sane & Productive in an Insane World, Principle # 6: If It Seems Too Good to Be True, It Is

Growth in skills, acquiring wealth, building relationships, and growing in character all take time, and there is no substitute. But we often want it all without the work, and there are many people who will promise rapid shortcuts.

A few years ago, we were looking for a car. My Dad found a Toyota CRV with low mileage and in great condition. They wanted only $2,000. The person, the ad claimed, was moving to another country to serve as a missionary and simply wanted to get rid of it. It seemed too good to be true, and it was. They wanted money up front without giving us the car. It was a scam.

Experiences like that have multiplied because of the internet and social media. For that, I developed a basic rule: “If something seems too good to be true, it is.”

One of the most common experiences on the internet is the romance scam. Thousands of people give thousands of dollars to criminal organizations that pretend to be a person who loves you and is attracted to you. If you are a 60 something person, don’t believe that a 30 something knock-out with a lot of money is randomly interested in you. If something seems too good to be true, it is.

We all want the quick fix. But most things in life do not happen like that. Most things that are valuable require a lot of work over a long period of time. That’s why it’s much better to get to work than to look for an easy way out. As Henry Wadsowrth Longfellow put it, “Art is long, and time is fleeting . . .”

Now, one thing that does seem too good to be true but is actually true is God’s offer of grace and forgiveness. “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). This is something God offers us freely, and it does seem too good to be true. But it is true.

But many people make a mistake based on this. They think that because the Christian life is rooted in God’s grace that therefore it is free from effort. Not so. We read in the letter of James, “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience” (1:3). The Christian life involves much suffering designed to grow us in character.

The Christian life also involves effort. “And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue . . .” says Saint Peter (2 Pet. 1:5). It takes a lot of diligence. Other versions say, “make every effort.” It’s work to develop character, even in the context of the grace of God. God can change us by a miracle, but most change involves a combination of God’s grace, challenging circumstances, and effort on our part.

When I was a teenager, I started to take a real interest in foreign languages. I was fascinated with communicating in other ways. From time to time, people would come up to me and ask, “What’s the secret to learning a foreign language?”

I would always answer the same, “Hard work.” It doesn’t matter what you do to learn, you just have to work at it . . . a lot.

And that’s how most things are. So, if it seems too good to be true, assume that it is. Give up on the quick fix. Embrace the long but extremely rewarding grind to sanity, growth, relationships, and productivity. It’s the long path and the sure path.


Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

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”