TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
A SUMMERTIME ODYSSEY
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip through Asia, the Middle East and Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Back in February 2021, when I started planning our annual summer family vacation, my trusty travel advisor found us a business-class fare on United from New York to Dubai, and from Naples to New York for $2,200. After a year of working from home I suddenly saw no reason not to take advantage of the new normal and plan a six-week family odyssey to Dubai, the Maldives, Israel and Ischia. I had been to all these places before, but for my wife, Noa, 15-year-old Zoë and 12-year-old Liam, Dubai and the Maldives were new territory.
We were set to leave Newark on June 30 aboard United to Zurich, connecting to Swiss to Dubai. In early June, I read a column by Travel Weekly travel editor in chief Arnie Weissmann, about the vagaries of trans-Atlantic travel during the pandemic. He particularly mentioned an American couple booked from the U.S. to Athens, connecting in Zurich, reporting that the Swiss authorities took one look at them and herded them not to Athens, but onto the next flight back to New York.
I contacted my travel advisor who told me not to worry: “You’re only connecting in Zurich.” “Yes, but so were they,” I countered, before convincing myself that Arnie’s article must have referred to some peculiar blip in the system.
A couple of nights later, I awoke at 1 a.m. and started thinking about it again. I staggered through the house to my office and went deep into United’s website. It assured me that for this routing all we needed was a 72-hour negative PCR test to enter Dubai.
I went back to sleep. At 3 a.m., I woke up again. Back to the office. I called United and spoke to a Platinum Desk clerk, who was extremely friendly and possessed the voice of authority. “No, you’re only connecting,” she assured me. “It’s fine.” Then she paused. “Let me just check something,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
Forty minutes of Muzak later, she was back on the line. “Mr. Weill, you were right to check,” she said. “Americans cannot even transit through Zurich. They’ll send you back.” I asked her what the alternative was. “You’ll have to call your travel advisor,” she responded.
“But how could you have booked us on a routing we couldn’t complete,” I asked. “Sir, our job is to fly you, not to know each country’s rules for every passenger,” she answered. And as ridiculous as it sounded, she was making a crazy kind of sense. If I were Swiss and lived in New York, I could have connected in Zurich. “But we’re Americans,” I insisted, trying to get her to see reason. Again, she urged me to call my travel advisor.
I waited until dawn to wake up Mayer, my travel advisor at Hayat International Tours of Skokie, Ill., who has never steered me wrong. We went through the whole “but you’re only transiting through Zurich” routine, and I urged him to call United.
By 10 a.m. Mayer was back on the line confirming that the Zurich routing was indeed out of the question, and that he’d rebooked us one day earlier on Air Canada, another of United’s Star Alliance partners, from Newark to Toronto, and then nonstop on a Dreamliner to Dubai. I asked if it changed the fare. “I’m fighting with United about that on the other line,” he said.
Two hours later, new e-tickets were in my e-mail. Trusty Mayer had worked his magic on United and they were honoring the fare. I consulted the Canadian immigration website. Yes, we could connect through Toronto. Phew!
About 14 days later, Switzerland announced it was opening to vaccinated Americans. That whole middle-of-the-night drama had been all for naught. But actually not. We much preferred the new routing—a one-hour flight followed by a 13-hour flight was much better than two seven-hour flights.
Traveling to “exotic” destinations during the Time of Corona is not the slam-dunk of jetting to Europe. It’s a morass of apps, online applications, online forms, uploading photos, passport pages and COVID test results. Surprisingly, nobody asked for shoe size or favorite color, but pretty much everything else.
And of the four destinations to which we were traveling, we happened to pick three that were the most complicated. Dubai was the easiest. The Maldives was last minute and laborious. Israel was the most complicated, since the country is not yet open to tourists, but exceptions are made to those married to an Israeli, as I am. This process required two PhDs— one in genealogy, one in computer science.
To get into Dubai you need to download the COVID19-DXB smart app. Once downloaded, it’s pretty simple—entering name, birthdate and place, passport details, arrival information and hotel name. The downside to the app is that for ever and ever after you receive almost hourly updates informing you how many people in the UAE were vaccinated today, tested positive today, coughed today or spluttered today. But those are easy to ignore.
Packing for six weeks isn’t easy, particularly for someone like me who has a problem managing with carry-on for a long weekend. But somehow six weeks of clothes, gifts and assorted paraphernalia were pounded into four Rimowas, one Away and one Aleon (the latter is a Chinese-made Rimowa knock off that is far sturdier than Rimowa, and a third of the price). We also had assorted backpacks. On June 29, we flew from Newark to Toronto and then connected—via 700 walkways—to the flight to Dubai. The check-in clerk perused our COVID tests and asked for my proof of medical insurance. I presented my card.
“Oh, you need the whole policy to show in Dubai,” the clerk said. “Otherwise, they’ll make you buy insurance at the airport.” On that cheery note, we boarded, giving me 12 hours to imagine how many thousands of dollars this insurance would cost me. I have only flown Air Canada on short hops to Montreal and Toronto, but to be frank was mightily disappointed with the flight from Toronto to Dubai.
You know that feeling at the end of a long flight when the flight attendants’ feet hurt and they’re grumpy and clearly aching to get home? This, with a couple of exceptions, was our crew at the start of the 12-plus hour flight. Air Canada’s business-class seating is one of the best I’ve encountered, with cute little cupboards and compartments and a massive TV screen. But then came the menu, prefaced with a lengthy missive in English and French from the head of Air Canada describing the shortcuts necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The most egregious of these was that there was but one choice of meal. This turned out to be a green and beige mishmash of Middle Eastern and Indian fare, all vegetarian, which might have gone down spectacularly at a wedding in Karachi, but certainly not with two American teenagers. Since this lovely pandemic began, I have crossed the Atlantic in Business on TAP, KLM, Swiss, United, Lufthansa, and Royal Air Maroc, and even though their business-class meals are now confined to a single tray, all five airlines managed to have a choice of at least two appetizers and three entrees. On Air Canada, it’s the Like-It-Or-Lump-It special.
After take-off, the female flight attendants, the grumps and the cordial, donned shapeless disposable gowns as if ready to perform an appendectomy. Weirdly, the male flight attendants, remained gownless. I caught the attention of one of the grumps and begged her to see if there might be an economy meal my children would tolerate, and back she came moments later with a chicken dish that looked passable.
I picked at my like-it-or-lump-it meal, which I would rate somewhere between slightly tolerable and nasty. Really, Air Canada? We know there’s a pandemic. But cutting service to this extent, and attempting to make it appear laudable, is just, as they say in Turkmenistan, utter bullshit.
Luckily, helped by a little Ambien, we all pressed the flatbed button and slept most of the way to the Persian Gulf. Interestingly, the routing did not take us the direct route over the pole, Russia and Iraq. We entered the Eastern Hemisphere over Spain, continued across Italy to Cairo and straight across Saudi Arabia to Dubai. Only an airline nut would even notice an oddity like this. But then I’m an airline nut.
Dubai Airport is, as would be expected, massive, endless, bright and welcoming. After traversing about 27 moving floors, a smiling clerk wished us Marhaba (“welcome” in Arabic), gave our test results the briefest of glances and ushered us forward. All the immigration officers are clad in acres of robes (men in white with black keffiyehs, women in black with heads covered but faces visible) and the passport process was painless as it connected instantly to our COVID19-DBX apps, and all seemed in order. Our luggage was already waiting on the carousel. We exited – not a word was uttered about medical insurance. Well done again, Air Canada.