With borders beginning to open, many people wonder if traveling is safe? What's the risk? Should they / can they travel right now? Some ask is it irresponsible to travel?
Traveling in the world today is a personal choice. What are the risks and rewards? I believe this varies from person to person. For me, personally, I have read about how the people and wildlife are really suffering around the world due to lack of tourism. Many wildlife rich countries rely on tourism for a large percentage of jobs. The local people are really struggling to make ends meet and to feed their families. With the lack of tourists, funding for rangers and therefore anti-poaching squads is limited at best and the wildlife is also suffering. I chose to travel to support the tourism industy just a little and to support my own wanderlust.
I am certainly not an expert on traveling in these times, but below I detail my experience on the two trips I've made during Covid. The first, a domestic trip in the USA and the other an international trip to Kenya, including a layover.
The travel requirements are changing rapidly and the information provided below is what I experienced. Be sure to check with the destination and airline to make sure your trip happens without any glitches.
My first flight was the beginning of August on United Airlines from Chicago to Seattle. I was upgraded to First class because of my status with United. I thought that was a good thing as the seats are more comfortable in First class and it is a long flight. The first class cabin was completely full while coach class was mostly empty.
I wasn't sure what type of health checks they were going to do at the airport or how long security lines were going to be because of the policies of the employees not touching anything...so I arrived at the airport VERY early for my flight. The airport was empty. I checked in and got through the TSA precheck line within moments. There were no health checks done. No questions about symptoms. That did make me nervous and I wish the United States would put in some flying policies to keep people safe.
All the staff at the United counter and the TSA staff were in masks. Everyone in the main part of the airport that I saw were in masks. I do not, however, believe that it was a requirement. I was asked to remove my mask at TSA for a moment so they could verify the ticket matched my ID and matched my face. There was a plastic clear screen between me and the TSA agent. They did touch my ID and my boarding pass. I used my hand sanitizer after putting them away. I carried hand sanitizer, wipes, and multiple masks so I could change them if necessary.
A lot of the lounges were closed but I did find a United Club that was open. The service was limited (usually there is a buffet of food to snack on pre-flight). I used my hand sanitizer often.
On my outbound flight, they did have signs alerting passengers it was required to wear a mask on the plane and that they had some available if you didn't have one.
When boarding the plane, they handed out a pre-wrapped wipe. They also advertise that the plane is cleaned thoroughly between flights. During the flight, several of the first class passengers moved their masks to below their noses. This is not allowed and every time a flight attendant walked by, they would adjust their mask so they weren't seen. This did make me uncomfortable as there were no health checks prior to boarding. The flight attendants made several announcements throughout the trip that is was required to wear them over the nose and mouth.
Food service was a choice of a box that you can normally buy in coach. My seat mate bought one and so did I. They were delivered at the same time. As a precaution, I waited for my seat mate to eat his and put his mask back on before I took mine off to eat. I did occassionaly take it off to drink water and again, was just conscious of when my seat mate had his off.
I used hand sanitizer often (ie. after unwrapping the plastic from the box, using the restroom, etc) and just periodically.
The Seattle airport was also not crowded. I rented a car at Hertz. They had a plastic screen up and lines on the floor for distancing. The hotel near the airport was not crowded. They had hand sanitizer everywhere. They had the seats in the restaurant spaced apart and the wait staff was wearing masks. Hand sanitizer was on every table as was a sign that showed a table had been sanitized.
On my return home, I again flew United and was upgraded. This time, they made an announcement that the masks with the breathing vents were not allowed to be worn and they had masks available. Pretty much the same thing - First class was full, coach was mostly empty.
I felt very safe on the entire trip but self-quarantined for 2 weeks on my return. A quarantine is not mandatory in Illinois except when arriving from certain states. I chose to limit my exposure just to make sure I didn't come down with Covid. After 2 weeks, I was still sympom free.
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip and for the most part was very happy with the safety procedures in place. I felt safe the majority of the time and when in a situation that seemed risky, I made sure my own behavior was giving me the least amount of risk as possible.
In the middle of September, I went to Kenya. As a wildlife enthusiast and passionate wildlife photographer, I've been researching the impact that the lack of tourists have been having on the animals - and it's not good. Many wildlife rich countries are dependent on tourism to pay the rangers. With lack of funding, poaching has increased. Many locals work at the lodges and in other tourism occupations. Both the wildlife and people are really hurting due to the lack of tourism.
At the time I booked my flight, Europe was closed to American citizens. However, many airports were allowing transit passengers from the USA. London, Paris, and Amsterdam have clearly written rules about transit passengers. Frankfurt was allowing transit passengers from the USA but did not have clear rules and I had heard that some Americans were turned away from their flights. After much research, I decided to fly on Qatar and I splurged for a business class seat - for 2 reasons. 1. My camera gear weighs a lot and I had heard Qatar was very strict with their carry-on policy and their coach class policy is NOT generous (at least for a photographer) and 2. the business class has POD seats. If you aren't familiar with POD seats, it's like you have your own little room with a door that closes. The top is open for air circulation but you have no one next to you and this felt like the safest option for the long flight.
Qatar airlines has many awards and I can totally understand why! Amazing service.
At the O'Hare international terminal, it was a little more crowded than domestic but still much emptier than on a normal travel day.
Even with the plane half empty, they enforced the carry-on rule for Coach customers. They did not budge on the policy even when the customer was getting a bit billegerent. I've had airlines question my carry-on until I show my camera gear and they have let me through. I do not believe I would have been granted access on Qatar coach. For business, they did not weigh or look at my carry-ons. I did, however use a smaller back pack then usual as I was still a few pounds overweight and left some of my gear at home. I wonder if I had my larger / normal back pack if I would have had a problem - something to look into before traveling again.
I was through security quickly (didn't even have to wait in line) and went to the shared lounge. The lounge had less food / drink options than non-covid days. The seats were placed apart and although they did have a mask policy, several people were not wearing theirs.
The Qatar flight to Doha was 13.5 hours. At each seat was a big bottle of hand sanitizer (the size of a hand lotion bottle). On Qatar, you are required to wear a mask and a face shield. They handed out the face shields to every customer. They are required at all times in Coach but at your leisure in Business since you can close the POD door. The POD was very comfortable. I'm 5'3" and about a size 10. The seat was comfortable but not overly wide. I would have enjoyed a wider seat. I felt extremely safe with the POD door closed. I was in a window seat which had over head bins, so there was not much space above the POD door. In the middle seats, there are no over head compartments so there is a lot more space over the walls of the POD. I felt cozy and secure in my POD. I even got a pair of super soft pajamas to wear. They too were cozy and very comfortable.
On the plane, they showed a video about the Doha airport. They showed how they were sanitizing the airport and it was impressive. They use state of the art sanitizing robots. They have a spa and hotel inside the secure area that looked beautiful. Lots of shopping too. I didn't have too much time to explore and decided to make use of the business class lounge. They took my temperature before I could enter. The lounge was very spacious and bright. Hand sanitizer available everywhere. They had a luggage check which was very nice as my carry-ons (with camera gear) weighed over 35 pounds. They did have self-service drinks (so I used my own sanitizer) and I believe they had food, but I didn't eat in the lounge as my layover was short.
My next flight was 6 hours. The business class had sleeper seats but no PODs. It was a 2 x 2 configuration and they had no one seated in the aisle seats - so that was great! I kept my mask and shield on for the entire flight. It was surprisingly ok to sleep with the shield on. I felt comfortable taking off my mask to eat and drink.
Upon arrival in Nairobi, we had temperature checks and had to show proof of a negative PCR Covid test that had been taken within 96 hours of the start of travel. We also had to fill out a health form. The risk in traveling to Kenya was if anyone had symptoms upon arrival, everyone seated within 2 rows would be quarantined for 2 weeks. Since you had to show a negative COVID test to board the plane, I was hopeful that wouldn't be a problem but was still quite relieved when I was through the aiport and out the other side.
I had heard from some of my contacts in Kenya that they were refusing to do at airport VISAs at random times. So, it is best to have your VISA prior to travling, which I did.
As I had all my paperwork ready, I was through security and customs within ten minutes. Collected my bags and was super relieved when meeting with my driver and leaving the airport.
Kenya has a tourism safety certificate because of the Covid policies they have in place. At every hotel, a temperature check was done. Hand sanitizer was widely available and most everyone was wearing masks. All employees had to be tested before returning to work. In my lodge reviews, I talk about the policies of each lodge that I visited. The lodge reviews will be posted soon on the facebook group "Wildlife Travel and Conservation".
Will I travel again?
I would absolutely travel again during Covid making sure to keep myself safe with masks, wipes, and hand sanitizer depending on the location and the policies and procedures they have in place. At this time, I do not have plans to travel again until May due to photography trips being rescheduled but the wanderlust in me is strong, the wildlife and my cameras are calling... so you never know where in the world I may end up.
You can follow my journies on Instagram and Facebook as Lisa M Roberti. You can also join my facebook group Wildlife Travel and Conservation to have conversations about both. In the group, I post lodge reviews and daily recaps of my travels as well as wildlife wins and struggles. If you aren't on facebook, you can join my email list to get access to the lodge reviews and daily recaps.
As always, I would love your comments or questions below.