Remember when international travel used to be a breeze?
You’d buy a ticket, board a plane, be treated to a meal that didn’t come from a sealed plastic bag, and enjoy a few hours of disconnectedness as you gently made your way across the skies.
Covid-19 changed many things in travel. For two years, many of us remained grounded, unwilling or unable to fly internationally and silently praying for the ability to do so shortly.
When finally we dipped our toes into that first international trip, it was with anticipation. Some of us could barely remember what it was like to pack, let alone fly (this is why I have a handy packing list, for when I forget).
As I prepared for a month in Mexico and Honduras, I couldn’t help but feel excited. At last, I’d be on the road again.
I knew things would be different. Just not THAT different.
The best way to share these newfound lessons is by telling you a story: here’s how I took the long way home.
Planning the trip
I was in Mexico on a writing assignment when I started getting a scratchy throat. No issue there – these things happen. Probably just a cold, I thought. It wouldn’t go away so I used one of the Covid self-tests I had brought along. Negative.
The day before boarding my plane to Honduras I used the last of my test kits, just to be sure. Negative again. I flew off to the second part of my assignment.
I was thrilled at the prospect of exploring my 97th country and gazed around me in anticipation as we drove into the capital, Tegucigalpa. I’m not very familiar with Central America so I watched with interest as the deforested hills sped by, along an ultra-modern autoroute that occasionally forgot it was a 21st-century wonder as it played host to horse-drawn carts and the occasional darting dog.
The capital itself is not particularly walkable. It’s a high-security destination, and the most affable hotel clerks will warn women not to walk alone, not in the wealthy parts of town, and not even at the height of midday.
I was in the middle of my first interview when I started feeling faint.
My working colleagues were wonderful and reacted immediately and the next thing I knew, I was in the hospital, testing positive for Covid.
LESSON: If you suspect you have Covid, get yourself to a testing facility. Self-tests are useful, but not always accurate when they reveal negative (the positive result is usually more reliable).
It was all a bit of a blur as I got prodded and poked by uniformed men and women carrying what I thought were rather large needles. (I have problem veins and drawing any kind of blood can take an hour or more, along with half a dozen “attempts”. My arms are still black and blue from those attempts.)
LESSON: Research the best medical care at your destination before you go. Find out the name of the top-notch hospital, and get your hands on a list of English-speaking doctors. A good source of information is expat groups online, either forums or Facebook groups.
All I remember was waking up attached to a drip, wondering idly just how much this would cost.
LESSON: Never travel without travel health insurance, and while the epidemic is still with us, make sure it covers Covid-related care.
The doctor said I had probably been infected for days and that the self-tests aren’t always accurate when they show up negative. Certainly true in my case…
He also told me I was fortunate to have been vaccinated because my symptoms could have been much much worse (I’ve had my two Pfizer shots and two boosters).
I did eventually get released and told to isolate in my hotel by the kind doctors at the Honduras Medical Center, but I still had to go to the hospital daily for my two hours of drip (plus one hour of searching for the vein). I also hauled around a bagful of prescription drugs and an admonition to “take it easy” for the next few weeks. If all went well, they said, I could travel in a week.
That week crawled by as I ordered room service and washed my own dishes in the bathtub before returning them. I did Honduras a disservice by claiming its food was bland and tasteless when in fact, I was the one who could no longer smell or taste.
My room faced a lovely garden filled with palms and an enticing swimming pool in which I’d planned to wear my new bathing suit bought in Mexico City.
I’d have to settle for a vivid imagination.
The trip itself
It was 06:00 when I left my hotel room in Tegucigalpa, more than a week after I had arrived. Much as I was anxious to get home, I dislike change and said an emotional goodbye to what had been my temporary quarantine digs.
Before heading out, I filled in the many forms required for travel these days: Covid status, vaccination certificate uploads, symptoms, temperature and the like. Of course, the online forms didn’t quite work as they should so I ended up with three QR codes to my name in one case, and a promise to send me an activation email (that never came) in another.
LESSON: Carry around some pens. You’ll have to fill out more forms than you can imagine and in many countries, the online forms are buggy. You’ll usually be able to get a printed version at the airport – but chances are you won’t find a pen.
I lined up all my fresh masks because, unlike in some parts of the world, they take infection seriously here. Even now, you cannot enter a shop or any public place without a mask. In some more upmarket venues, a guard takes your temperature and sprays your hands when you walk in.
I left unnaturally early (six hours before my flight) because things can happen. A flat tire. A roadblock. A breakdown. As it was, all was fine but I’d rather spend the time being bored at the airport than worried sick trying to get there.
LESSON: Leave plenty of time to get to the airport. You don’t want to miss your flight because some truck spilled a sticky mess all over the road.
I should have known my departure was too smooth.
My flight was on time and off I went to Panama’s newly enlarged airport. Keen for different food, I ordered a chili dog but threw it away in disgust. I still couldn’t taste a thing.
And just like that, it was time for my 11-hour flight to Amsterdam. Hard to believe this would actually be the easiest part of my trip…
I paid for an upgrade to Legroom Plus Class (not its real name) and off I went. I slept about an hour in total, because I can fall asleep standing up on a bus but for some reason, never on a plane. (Unless I’m in Business Class, of course, in which case I’ll fall asleep before I even sit down.)
We landed 11 hours later, and I braced for the nine-hour airport wait I had between flights.
LESSON: Check your flight connections before you pay for your ticket. What seems bearable on paper will be much less so in person.
I arrived into a Schiphol (Amsterdam’s airport) of turmoil. Crowds everywhere. Piles of unclaimed suitcases stacked into ungainly pyramids throughout the baggage claim area. Cries of frustration everywhere. I was instantly thankful I hadn’t checked my luggage as I’d initially planned.
LESSON: Don’t check luggage through unless you absolutely have to. During the height of the Covid-19 epidemic, many airports laid off staff. These staff have gone on to better jobs and have not been replaced. As a result, all the care that went into getting your luggage to its destination has evaporated and you’ll be lucky if you ever see your precious Samsonite again.
Thanking my lucky stars, I clutched my passport and my carry-on and headed toward immigration. Fortunately, I have a European passport (French) which allowed me to get through the “unmanned” machine-reading turnstiles relatively quickly. My eyes turned to the thick lines of people waiting patiently for an hour or more to reach immigration and I was glad that wasn’t me. By now I’d been traveling for over 16 hours, exhausted, and not at my best.
LESSON: Factor in extra time at each turn. Things WILL take a lot longer. You used to be able to get to an airport 2-3 hours before your international flight. Now, it’s more like 5-6, because you will have to stand in line, for everything, for longer than you can believe.
A board listed an earlier flight heading for Geneva with KLM, the airline I was on. My hopes soared and I ran to the gate (located at the other end of the airport, of course) to ask if they might let me sneak on board − but their computers were down and so No, a nice man said apologetically, he could not. I begged but he stood firm.
I headed off in the general direction of the gates where my connecting flight to Geneva would probably leave from a few hours later. On my way, I stood in an impossibly long line for Starbucks, gave up on Burger King (about a half-hour’s wait just to order!), and settled for a rubber sandwich from one of the standard concessions. It would be fine, since my taste buds were on holiday anyway.
My nine-hour connection was now shrinking and I only had about two hours to go when my flight disappeared from the screen. I rushed to the counter of the flight departing just before mine but was told they were only dealing with Alitalia and no, they couldn’t look up my KLM flight.
I quickly downloaded the airline app and checked my flight.
You don’t have to speak Dutch to understand this is not good news…
LESSON: Just because you have a long layover doesn’t mean you can head into town and live it up − not for a while, anyway. Your flight might be cancelled in your absence. And some airports now require five hours for check-in or Security. So before you plan for those few agreeable hours of escape, check with local people to find out what’s really happening at the airport.
Of course, it was the last flight of the day to Geneva, barring one EasyJet flight leaving in half an hour and which was already overbooked (I’d downloaded their app to see if I could nab one of their seats).
LESSON: Download your airline’s app before heading to the airport. Make sure your phone is charged up in case you have to scour the Internet at the last minute.
What to do?
Here I was, stranded at Schiphol, with no foreseeable way of leaving. I headed for the Transfer Desk, where some 200+ people stood in line ahead of me. I bypassed the queue and swerved behind the crowd to catch the lone attendant and ask a quick question: Is this the right line if your flight’s been canceled and you need to rebook?
The staff member glared at me, trying to will my stupidity away.
“Of course. But we cannot help you. We are closing this desk in 20 minutes.”
Those 200+ people were already screaming for blood. I didn’t want to be around when the “Closed” sign went up.
LESSON: If your flight is canceled check to see if you’re owed compensation. I’ve been reimbursed twice through Airhelp. It doesn’t cost me a thing – they take a commission but also take care of all the paperwork. Each time I benefited from several hundred dollars, for doing absolutely nothing other than giving them my flight details.
I phoned around, calling sensible friends to try to find a solution. I debated taking to social media but wasn’t quite sure what to post.
“Anyone out there with a private plane wants to fly me to Geneva? Anyone in the mood for a road trip across France? How about just a couch for the night?” Nothing sounded right but then, I was already a tired mess.
I checked the hotels at the airport. I found ONE room available, at 450 Euros − about USD 470 − for the night. Oh, c’mon!
LESSON: Make lists of people you know in cities you’ll be traveling through. You never know when you might need to sleep on someone’s couch at the last minute. Identify a cheap hotel nearby in case you need one quickly. Take a look at the airport map to find areas with armrest-free benches where you can catch a bit of shut-eye if you need it.
I headed for the train station in the airport’s basement, figuring that once I was there, I could head South. Anywhere South.
Everything was sold out. I mean EVERYTHING.
There was one single, solitary train ticket to Brussels leaving in an hour.
I grabbed it.
On the train, I frantically sought ways of getting further South.
Ole, a Norwegian whose flight had also been canceled, offered to take me home to his wife in Brussels for a meal. Did I look that hungry?
A lovely Russian woman whose name I failed to get took to the Internet and found me buses from Brussels to Paris.
Karine, the train attendant, gave me a bottle of water.
I think they all saw the state I was in and took pity. I was older, emerging from Covid, and clearly not at my best.
I reserved a bus leaving for Paris at 3:45 am. I would get to Brussels at midnight, and wait around the train station for my bus, which left from a nearby street.
But no. Karine was horrified, stating that this was an impossible plan: the train station closed at 01:45 and kicked everyone out. And the street outside was too dangerous, filled with unsavory characters who might be only too happy to part me from my iPhone or carry-on bag. Nor were there any open bars nearby, or cafés.
I called a friend in Brussels, who didn’t pick up, probably convinced my unfamiliar number belonged to a robot trying to sell him a vacuum cleaner.
We rushed back to the Internet to look for options. There was an earlier bus, one that left just as the station closed. I grabbed it, unable to cancel the later ride, but by this point, who cares?
LESSON: Budget for disaster. Assume something will go wrong and you’ll have to disburse more money than expected. In my case there was hospitalization for Covid (I’ll eventually get an insurance reimbursement but I still had to advance the money); an unused plane ticket (which may or may not be refunded); a partly refunded bus ticket and a full bus ticket; two expensive additional train tickets; food for an extra day at the airport.
Standing outside a deserted Brussels Midi station, clutching my bag, I realized I had left my Tegucigalpa hotel room a full 24 hours ago.
Slowly, others began to cluster around the bus stop. A bus showed up from Paris, carrying the driver who would take us back on his return trip.
LESSON: Always have a Plan B. As you make your way smoothly through your travel planning checklist, ask yourself: What if? What if my flight is cancelled? What if I miss it because it takes three hours to get through security? What-if-anything-beyond-imagination-happens? And make a plan.
My bus was half an hour late. I would have loved to head into Brussels, a city I very much like and whose culinary delights would surely have revived my failing taste buds.
“Don’t worry, we’ll catch up the time,” promised the French driver.
No, no, no! I thought, please do NOT catch up the time. Just drive safely and get us there.
Off we went: me, the former fashion photographer who had met Onassis, the green-haired tattooed teenager, the Ukrainian who spoke not a word of French, the young Caribbean man whose earphones were on so loud we could dance to the reggae… about 60 of us, all anxious to reach Paris, each for our own private reason.
I hadn’t been on an overnight bus since I rode across the island of Sumatra with a madman driver who wanted to make it to our destination, Aceh, before sunrise so he could pray at the mosque. I, on the other hand, was already praying.
We sped through Belgium, through northern France into Lille, and then onto Paris, watching the sun slowly rise and the traffic rapidly increase.
Here I realized it was July 1st, the first day of the French holidays. No wonder everything was so crowded! And then I heard Air France workers were taking advantage of the holidays to go on strike. Now this I could have and should have guessed… It didn’t affect me, other than fill up every train heading South from Paris.
While everyone snored away the bus ride to Paris, I spent the night frantically trying to book myself a trip home. My eyes were crying themselves shut when finally, I found ONE. SINGLE. SEAT. To Geneva, which is close to where I live over the border in France.
It took more than a frustrating half-hour to book that train on the notoriously unreliable app belonging to the SNCF, the French railways. I paid twice as much for a one-way trip as I usually would for a round-trip ride.
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But then, hadn’t the entire trip been like that?
The app wouldn’t accept my senior discount card. It wouldn’t accept my credit card. At one point it wouldn’t even accept my name. I was starting to seriously panic, fueled by visions of my one single seat evaporating like an ice cube in the sun. I was hungry, exhausted, and worried about getting sick again.
Finally, at around 4am, with my red battery signal flashing, I managed to buy that one precious seat.
LESSON: If you’re carrying a laptop, you can charge your phone through it if you have a cable. Always have a cable. And each time you buy a ticket or fill out a form, take a screenshot and save it in your photo stream. At least you’ll have a picture of your QR code when the wifi at your point of departure fails.
We reached Paris at sunrise, and I wandered around the bus station looking for signs to the train station.
I knew from Google Maps the two stations were only an 11-minute walk apart. I still had a tiny bit of battery charge, which took me through a deserted park, across some sleepy streets, and finally, into the back of the Gare de Lyon, my train station.
LESSON: Find your way to your next destination on Google Maps and take a screenshot, in case there’s no reception for your phone or you run out of battery. At least the screenshot won’t use as much power as the map itself. And carry a small power pack so you can recharge your phone in an emergency.
I now had a few hours to kill and crossed the street to one of the several cafés that serve breakfast to deliriously tired travelers like myself.
It was good to drink coffee out of a porcelain cup, even though I couldn’t taste it.
I ordered a tartine, a typical breakfast in France, and was comforted by the brusqueness of the waiters. They were a distinctly dour and unhappy bunch. Ah, Paris, I felt I was being welcomed home.
After breakfast I roamed around the Gare de Lyon, greedily eyeing the likes of Pierre Hermé sweets and Ladurée macarons (both shops have an outlet at the train station) but not willing to spend the money, given my damaged taste buds.
I tried to stay awake by walking back and forth from one end of the station to the other, and almost got derailed when someone abandoned a suitcase and the police threatened to show up in full force. Stations often get evacuated because of suspicious parcels, but any additional delay and they’d have to scrape me off the floor. I was such a wreck by now that I found myself holding onto a pillar just to stay upright. There were moments I felt my hands were slipping and imagined myself on a heap on the ground, possibly prevented by well-meaning medics from boarding my train.
The train finally came, and I sank into my seat, with just enough clarity to set my alarm clock and ask my neighbours to wake me up at my station.
Despite nodding off umpteen times, I somehow managed not to miss my train stop.
When I walked into my house to the joyous welcome of my partner, my dogs and my cats, I had been on the road exactly 48 hours, most of them awake.
Given the people I met along the way, my case was far from unique. My neighbours on the train had their flight to Geneva cancelled by the Air France strike. The photographer I met in Brussels was doing the Grand European Tour trying to get to his destination. The Russian girl on the train had been flying to Warsaw when her flight was cancelled − and she was now looking forward to a 22-hour bus ride.
International travel in 2022 is not what it was like pre-pandemic when customer service still existed, and one could expect to reach one’s destination roughly when one was supposed to.
To travel in 2022, you need to have alternative plans, arm yourself with patience, and know that whatever your expectations, there is every chance they will not be fully met.
Expect the unexpected, and your trip will be smooth. Well, smoother, because travel disruptions are the new normal in post-Covid travel.
And now I think I’ll go eat some pizza. Or apple sauce. Or chocolate. It won’t matter, not until I get my taste buds back.