Two canaries return safely from the mines: a return to international travel

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“Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer” – Anonymous.

When Ray and I announced to friends and family that we were going on a two-week long Smithsonian Journey to Portugal and Spain in March the news was met with a variety of reactions: sharp intakes of breath, rolling eyes, enthusiastic congratulations and silent skepticism.

Admittedly, we were a little nervous ourselves. So was the Smithsonian. It was only in the last two weeks that it became certain that the trip would not be cancelled. Portugal was listed as a CDC level 4 (do not travel), but then, so was Canada.

I was particularly terrified about the testing regulations on both sides of the Atlantic (more below). So it was with great relief that we received negative PCR test results from CVS in South Windsor in plenty of time to clutch them neurotically as we arrived in Lisbon. Did anyone ask for them? Nope. We were asked for our return plane tickets when we passed through Frankfurt, which I had in multiple formats, but in my panic could not locate. The customs guy in Frankfurt took pity on me and waved us on.

No problems arriving in Lisbon (aside from extreme fatigue) and we were met, as promised, by our pre-arranged driver to our hotel. There we joined a sparse few other canaries. Nine to be exact. Eight others very much like us–boomers afraid that their traveling days might be nearing an end and desperate to get back at it, and one single guy who was marching to the beat of a different drummer. So a much smaller group than the 24 maximum size.

So was it worth the worry? Yes!! 

Here are some pros and cons that you might consider if you are thinking about heading out to explore the rest of the world.

The pros:

  • Insurance is now available to cover all Covid contingencies (cancellation, interruption, quarantining, etc) – caveat–it is not cheap!
  • Spain and Portugal both have higher vaccination rates than the US
  • Masks were required in all indoor spaces and on public transportation, and everyone was compliant.
  • There were plenty of people out and about—but it was not over-crowded anywhere.
  • As Americans, I don’t think we were ever as appreciated as we were this year. Frequently we heard the words “Thank you for coming!” Our tour director, for example, had not worked in two years!
  • The US requires a negative covid test as well as up-to-date vaccinations to re-enter. I was super worried about that, but Smithsonian Journeys arranged for a clinician to come to our hotel. She tested us and we had PDFs of our negative results in two hours which the hotel then printed. It cost $25.00 cash for each test. If you are traveling independently, as we will be soon, with a little research ahead of time I’m sure tests are pretty easy to come by. You can certainly get tested at the airports, but I’ve heard it can cost hundreds of dollars. We were asked to produce our negative results in Madrid prior to our flight, but they were certainly not scrutinized. We were not asked for them in the US, but were told that there were random checks. Very random I would say.

The cons:

  • The pre-travel testing saga. Nobody knows what they’re doing! Odyssey International, the travel company in charge of arranging flights and hotels for our group, told us Portugal required testing 48 hours before our first flight for a PCR, just before flight for an antigen test. I could not find any official government document that said that was true. I kept asking about it and kept getting different explanations. In the end we did get tested at the CVS in South Windsor (results from the PCR test arrived in about 18 hours) but Lufthansa never asked for them, nor did customs in Frankfurt or Lisbon. Nor did our tour guide. But I guess it could have happened due to the chaotic nature of pandemic life.  So my advice is to check with your airline and bring a monitored self-test with you if you don’t get tested before you leave. (The regular ones are only good for self diagnosis, not for proof that you don’t have Covid.) We were never asked for our tests anywhere until our return, and we only had to produce our CDC vax records in Boston before departure. 
  • Because our bus was considered public transportation, we had to wear our masks during our travel from one spot to another, even though we were eating together every day unmasked. That seemed excessive, but it is the law, and our bus driver could have been fined if we had been stopped.
  • Just like in the US, the service industry has struggled to come back. We were in under-staffed restaurants and the best parador we were scheduled to stay in was unable to repair  a problem with the hot water because of supply chain issues. Instead we had to stay in a different hotel, which was fine, but a bit disappointing. 

In conclusion, we have no regrets, we had an awesome time, and the whole covid thing was far less scary in reality than in my pre-travel imagination. Here are a few moments to express our joy and wonder at being back at it!

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