Empty car parks. The only person on a bus. Blank departure screens. Deserted terminals.
International air travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic is eerie.
International Travel During The COVID-19 Pandemic – A Shock
We are all becoming accustomed to wearing masks, seeing others wearing masks, distancing, washing hands a lot (something we should have been doing all along), grocery and restaurant delivery, as well as isolating.
Of my hundreds of airport experiences, only one has been traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic: returning to the U.S. And that was 6 months ago.
Rationally, I know air travel has changed. Emotionally, it was a shock. It was sad.
Much of the excitement of international travel is the energy of the crowd, but there are no crowds. Traveling to different countries, even though I’m over 50, is still exciting. International travel is exciting for everyone. That feeling of excitement was absent as people looked more apprehensive about boarding the plane than excited about traveling to a foreign country.
Ironically, the lack of people traveling makes traveling safe. At least it should make it safe.
Strangeness Of International Travel During The Pandemic
Most travel days begin with an Uber. Uber requires both riders and drivers to be masked. I used Uber often while in the U.S. (mostly to the mechanic to get my son’s car fixed). Many Uber drivers did not mask-up until I was in the car or did not cover their nose. I’d say, “Can you put your mask on all the way? I used to live in China (this is true), I know what this disease really does to people (not true).” This got their attention.
Our travel day started with a car rental return. Alamo Rent A Car did it right
- Masked employees
We were the only customers in Alamo’s empty parking garage. It was strange.
We boarded the shuttle bus to the terminal. There were three of us onboard: Kim, the driver, and me. This was surreal but we felt safe.
Once in the terminal, we looked at the departure screens for our flight to Puerto Vallarta. Most of the displays were empty. This was disconcerting.
When you enter a large airport, you are often unsure where to go. You look for clues and read signs. People in a long line with luggage indicates the check-in counters. Signs specify the airlines. When we entered, there were no clues:
- No lines.
- No luggage.
- No people.
We followed the signs.
A single check-in counter was open, with five people waiting. Everyone queued at a distance, all masked. The employees wore masks. We felt safe.
Contact Tracing – Mexico
Mexico is one of the few countries still accepting the U.S. passport. How quickly the American passport went from opening the world to U.S citizens to barring them.
Mexico requires contact tracing at check-in. We were happy to complete the form, to help Mexico slow the spread, to keep travel safe, especially for us over 50 travelers.
After check-in, we walked hollow corridors and rode vacant escalators to security.
Weak Links In The Safety Chain
The security checkpoint was where our experience with safe travel began to unravel. People become nervous when they interact with uniformed, armed, authority figures who can detain anyone on any suspicion. It’s understandable.
Unless you are carrying something outrageous, a gun, a bomb, you will pass through security. The scissors you forgot to remove or the pocket knife you forgot you were carrying are items airport security workers the world over encounter many times each day.
Sorry, you are not special enough to detain.
This mild panic leads to nervous behavior. People suddenly forget to distance, they feel rushed, they resort to pre-COVID-19 actions.
We became sandwiched between two people. The woman in front of us somehow forgot she had packed a laptop while the man behind us felt being close to us while unpacking his pockets was helpful.
The same behavior occurred on the other side of the scanning portal as non-rushed passengers rushed to gather their belongings.
At The Gate – Safe For Now
At the gate, people relaxed, which allowed them to think again. They had space to distance. This space was a result of only one gate in use. If two planes were departing and a second gate needed, distancing would not be possible. There were eight gates for the waiting area.
The second weak link is the boarding process. Similar to the security checkpoint, people ‘panic’. Travelers feel they have to get in line now, close to the person in front of them. Do they prefer to sit in the small airplane seat as long as possible? Do they think the plane will leave as the person in front of them boards?
The plane won’t leave. I know, I’ve been the last person to board more than once. The airlines will wait as long as possible; they want you on board.
When everyone tries to board at the same time, the jetway becomes crowded. This is the next weak link in the chain. Of course, this is avoidable as well.
How To Be Safe
We waited until everyone boarded before approaching the jetway. We purchased first-class tickets and could have boarded first. We chose to wait to avoid the other passengers walking by us.
We also purchased first-class tickets to avoid an unknown person sitting centimeters next to us. Kim, who is more over-50 than I am, took the window, which provided the most distance from others.
During the first leg of our trip, one person in coach would not wear his mask. He whined that it was uncomfortable. Then his story changed; it was because he was sick. The flight attendants would have none of it. If it was uncomfortable to wear, he should not fly. If he was sick, he should not fly. He put the mask on.
Later the flight attendants informed him that his behavior had been reported to airlines, and he could no longer fly on Ameican Airlines. This is the response we want to see. It takes just one person to infect us all. American Airlines refused to put up with his nonsense.
The second leg of our flight to Puerto Vallarta was similar. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was empty. Everyone wore a mask and distanced themselves. Passengers bunched up as they boarded. They packed themselves into the jetway.
One person in first-class only occasionally wore her mask. Disappointingly, the flight attendants did not require her to wear it at all times.
Mexico has a plan to beat COVID-19. On arrival, all travelers are contact traced a second time. Medical personnel take everyone’s temperature. Authorities ask questions about your health and previous location. These steps are in sharp contrast to our arrival in the U.S., where the only action taken was no action.
We know there are spreaders who won’t wear a mask. We know international air travel during the COVID-19 pandemic is not risk-free, so we purchased international health insurance. Our go-to company over the years is Saftey Wing. Safety Wing covers COVID-19. How much does it cost to have medical insurance when you are over-50 traveling outside of the United States? $102 a month.
Why Travel At All?
The United States, at this writing, is the most dangerous country. Arizona is the most dangerous state in America. We choose to risk international travel to get to a safer place. Because the number of COVID-19 cases is so high in the U.S., few countries will allow those with an Ameican passport to enter. Our choice of international travel during the pandemic was limited.
We looked at the facts. Puerto Vallarta is in the state of Jalisco has a larger population than the state of Arizona but far fewer cases. Most importantly, far fewer deaths.
|% of population positive||12.5%||0.21%|
Jalisco Has A Plan To Stop COVID-19
The Governor of Jalisco has a plan to keep people safe:
- Hotels can operate at only 25 percent capacity.
- Restaurants and cafes that apply safety protocol can operate at 50 percent capacity.
- The beaches use a flag system:
- Green – Open; few people on the beach.
- Yellow – Open: approaching maximum occupancy.
- Red – Closed: no more people allowed on the beach.
- The government asks people to limit beach time to 4 hours to make room for others.
- Businesses require individuals to wear masks before entering any building, including open-air malls.
- A guard stationed at every entrance applies (too much) hand sanitizer. He or she also enforces the mask policy.
Because of these and other measures, the state of Jalisco has been designated by the World Travel and Tourism Council’s “Safe Travels” as a safe area.
Because the people of Jalisco respect the law and care about their fellow citizens, encountering a person with COVID-19 is rare. For every 1,000 people we meet in Jalisco, 2 have COVID-19. In Arizona, for every 1,000 people we meet, 25 are infected.
We also feel safe using Airbnb. Our Airbnb host went into great detail to describe the precautions taken to sanitize the apartment. Airbnb requires many of the precautions our host described. Both Airbnb and Mexico take this seriously, and it shows in the low number of cases.
International travel may still be risky, but staying in the United States is riskier.