Melissa's Travels

Covid-19 Travel and Testing: Practical Tips for International Travel During Covid

I recently took my first international trip since Covid-19’s arrival, and though I have averaged traveling three-to-four months a year for the past 25 years, it felt like a new and nerve-wracking experience heading to the airport again. Kenya reopened its borders to Americans on August 1, and the country, with a population of over 50 million, has had only 748 recorded deaths from the coronavirus. Here are my travel tips from what I learned on the road this October, for those who are inspired to get back out into the world.

Entry Requirements and Air Travel Tips

Some countries, like Kenya, have blanket entry requirements: no one can enter without a negative PCR Covid test taken within 96 hours of arrival, and you must fill out a contact-tracing form issued by the Kenyan Ministry of Health before departure. Others, like Britain, have standard Covid Locator forms that you are required to fill out online, so you can be contact-traced or monitored for self-isolation, if you come from one of the countries that have more stringent requirements associated (the U.S. is one). Even though I was only transiting through Heathrow, I needed to fill out the 12-page locator online form. On my return, I wasn’t required to fill out the form.Covid-Testing Tips:Until there is more widespread adoption of “air bridges” or a digital health pass to allow faster verification of certified Covid tests for travelers, testing will be required prior to overseas travel.While doctors offer various Covid tests, the only one accepted in Kenya, Rwanda and most other countries is the PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) Covid test, which allows for genetic photocopying and the rapid detection of bacteria and viruses. As you may know, it can be hard to get quick PCR results, so you have to be strategic. For my recent trip, I needed results within 96 hours of my Monday evening flight and Tuesday evening arrival (most destinations currently require results within 72-120 hours). While even the fastest labs can take up to 24 hours for results, almost no labs test on Sunday, so I had to get mine on Saturday. If I had gotten a false positive, which can happen, I wouldn’t have had time to get a second test, unless the results came back in less than 24 hours. The bottom line: you want to think through your testing timeline when booking flights, and be sure to have an appointment lined up in advance.The Paper Trail: What You’ll Need:My Covid results were sent via email, but I noticed that the email result that I was sent from NYU Langone Health (which is the fastest place in the New York area that I have found for a PCR turnaround) didn’t display my name. In order for my name to appear with results I had to log in to my NYU Langone MyChart account online and print the results directly from there. On arrival in Kenya, they also wanted to see the QR code for my Kenya Health Certification form, and they asked for the Covid test results in paper form. To show further verification and proof that my results came from a legitimate lab, I also printed the lab certificate. I wasn’t asked for this, but I felt better having it on hand. If you need results or forms to depart a foreign country (which in Kenya’s case, I didn’t, but in Rwanda, for instance, you do), you will also need to bring paper copies.Carry-On Rules:I was able to bring the same amount of hand luggage on my British Airways flights to London and Nairobi as I had pre-Covid. However, Turkish Airways, and others, now restrict passengers to only one personal item (less than 4 kilos or 8.8 pounds in the cabin), so be sure to confirm carry-on allowance rules before traveling.What to Know about Airport Services and Facilities:At JFK, all lounges were closed, as were most shops and restaurants, but at Heathrow and in Nairobi, the airport lounges were open, as were a number of restaurants. Instead of serving yourself in the lounges, though, passengers must either queue for an attendant to place an order with a QR code from your seat. Restaurants at Heathrow require your QR locator or that you fill in a contact-tracing form before you are seated. All seats are spaced for distance.Check Your Tech:I travel with a mobile hotspot and an international plan anyway, but since many interactions are contactless, technological fluency is a new requirement. I thought of my 83-year-old mother, who has an iPhone, but can only answer it, and how she would be incapable of filling out the new forms, which require a QR code or even placing an order in the lounge (also done with a QR code).Meet-and-Greet Assistance (Upon Arrival and Departure):Meet-and-greet can sometimes be unnecessary, but during Covid times, especially when entering a country that has new entry requirements, it really provided an additional layer of comfort. Immediately after deplaning, the meet-and-greet representative was waiting with a sign with my name. He escorted me to the front of the line, where I had to show the QR health form that I had filled out prior to my departure; I was then moved to another individual who looked at my negative Covid results on-paper and, lastly, I was moved to the final station, where my temperature was taken. The meet-and-greet representative facilitated each of the steps, ensuring my forms were at-the-ready to speed the process.Upon Arrival: Hotel Procedures:During check-in, at the majority of hotels and lodges I stayed at, I was given a lengthy Covid protocol orientation outlining social-distancing measures, mask-wearing in common areas and hand-washing rules. My temperature was taken as well. Mask-wearing in common areas was encouraged and actually required at some properties, but at most properties, while the staff would wear masks at all times, other guests were not wearing them. Luckily, the properties were at such reduced capacity that it was easy to avoid even seeing another guest and, during meals, the tables were at least six feet apart.If you are interested in learning more about Melissa's upcoming Insider Journey to Kenya in January 2021, please email Rediscovering the Meaning of Travel During Covid-19

Covid-Safety Measures on the Ground and in the Air

Plane Reality:Prior to my trip, I interviewed Dr. Scott Weisenberg, who heads up NYU Langone Health’s travel medicine department. He reminded me that airplane cabin air is filtered every few minutes, making it safer than most indoor air, but the idea of being in a confined space was one of my biggest concerns, even knowing that everyone on board had been recently tested. Boarding processes reduce crowding with boarding by back rows (no priority preference) in small batches. On all of my flights, the cabins were less than one-third full, so spacing at a safe distance was very easy.On-Plane Protocols:Though the plane is sanitized before embarking, I wiped down the main touch points on my seat before sitting down as an extra safety precaution. British Airways also handed out hand sanitizer and wipes before takeoff.Mask Learnings:Masks are required on flights but not provided. Before one flight, it was announced that masks are only good for four hours and you should be traveling with enough for the duration of the flight. I packed a lot of masks—from KN95s for flights (and for indoors), along with disposable surgical masks (for the streets or for car rides and long drives with my traveling companions), plus cloth ones (for when I could keep a safe distance). Many hours in a mask can get tiresome, but since you may remove it to eat or drink, there are moments of respite, and I did not find it nearly as claustrophobic as I had expected. Additionally, while I was glad to be prepared with my own masks, I did find that surgical masks were plentiful to buy in the airports and in Kenya—and free at hotels. And while masks were required in public areas when checking in, and the hotel staff always wore theirs (and only removed them during private activities, based on your own comfort level), once you were in your room or seated at a table for a meal, no one wore them.Face Shields:I did travel with a face shield (in addition to my many masks), but–given the emptiness of the plane–I opted to not wear it for the 25-to-30 hours of travel from NYC to Kenya. Face shields do provide an additional layer of safety-comfort, and you will see other travelers wearing them while flying. At the airport, primarily members of TSA wore face shields, and while a few passengers began the journey with face shields on, they often took them off by the end of the flight.Sanitizer Savoir Faire:I stocked up on hand sanitizer, as the TSA has expanded their fluid allowance (up to 12 ounces) as long as it is outside your bag. However, the security team at Heathrow doesn’t make the same exception and made me choose between my sanitizer, makeup and moisturizers. Since the pharmacy at Heathrow is just beyond security, I could restock—making this holdup an expense, not an emergency—but switching to “wipe” products to reduce your liquid count is a wise choice. I recommend wipes for sunscreen, insect repellent, make-up removal and antibacterial cleansing. There are sanitizer stations throughout airports and hotels, but I did find that some are really greasy or have an unpleasant scent, so it’s worth carrying ones that you like, if you can.Immunity-Building Rituals:Whenever I fly, I take aspirin to lower the chances of a blood clot and hydration supplements to restore electrolytes. I also take vitamin C and oregano oil droplets to build immunity. Finally, I use Zicam nasal swabs for a zinc infusion (and because I’ve heard that coating your nose keeps out viruses). On the Indagare Podcast episode about healthy traveling, Dr. Weisenberg didn’t wholeheartedly endorse my practices, but he didn’t see any harm in them either. Throughout this trip, I continued to take vitamin C, zinc and vitamin D daily, as all may have some benefits in reducing the risk or duration of a Covid infection.  I have often carried a small first aid kit when traveling, as well as my preferred vitamins and medicines, but I made sure to carry extra antihistamines, digestion medicines, cold and flu remedies and antibiotics to minimize any unexpected hospital visits.Related: Listen to the Indagare Global Conversations Podcast

General Advice for Travel—During Covid-19 and Beyond...

Adopt a Flexible Mindset:Flight and hotel cancellations are much more likely in this moment, either because of reduced capacity (it may be cheaper to cancel a flight or close a hotel then to run or open them with only a tiny number of travelers) or because of Covid scares (one positive, false or not, and a hotel may have to close). The downside is that you cannot travel with the kind of certainty that we are used to. However, if you are willing to travel with this kind of unpredictability, you may find, as I did, that you have the business class cabin almost to yourself (so very little infection-anxiety in-flight) and last-minute space at hotels that usually require advance bookings. I booked Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, which is notoriously difficult to get into, the day before and found only two couples staying there, so instead of sharing seven giraffes with dozens of people—as one would normally—we had quality time alone with them.While the majority of activities in Nairobi were available, the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage was closed to guests and village visits at lodges were suspended. Many hotels have also reduced spa and restaurant services. City restaurants had reduced hours, because there was a curfew in place, and with country rules changing by-the-minute, it is important to understand what you may or may not be able to reserve and do on the ground, wherever you are going.Know When to Get Extra Insurance:With almost no hotel stays fully refundable at the last-minute, it is essential to purchase Cancel For Any Reason policies for travel, if you can. Additionally, I have long subscribed to MedJet medical evacuation insurance, which now provides Covid-evacuation within the U.S., though not outside, as well as Global Guardian emergency protection services, which tracks my phone and can provide security and evacuation. I also made sure to enroll in the State Department’s Enrollment Program (STEPs), so the local embassy knew my whereabouts and could send critical alerts.If you are interested in learning more about Melissa's upcoming Insider Journey to Kenya in January 2021, please email Ask Indagare: Coronavirus Travel Safety & What is Being Done as the World ReopensIndagare will continue to share honest, on-the-ground testimonials regarding travel during the Covid-19 pandemic. Should you be interested in traveling at this time, our team can match you with the destinations, accommodations and activities that are right for you and provide information on coronavirus travel safety, destinations that are open to travel, COVID-19 hotel policies, transportation options, private villas and charters and more. For further inspiration, explore our curated list of Indagare’s favorite destinations open to U.S. passport holders now: Coronavirus Travel Information: What’s Open To Americans.

Published onOctober 16, 2020

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