No Pandemic Traveling … But a Girl Can Dream

The Washington Post recently published a couple articles that may be of interest to those of us who are still staying home but wishing we weren’t.

The first, titled “Here’s what experts want you to know before taking a road trip during the pandemic,” is important. After noting that many people are considering road trips this year, the list begins …

  • Health experts are warning against road trips this summer
  • Pack PPE and other sanitation gear if you go
  • Limit stops and opportunities for contact with others as much as possible
  • Opt for wide open spaces to visit
  • Know the rules of where you’re going

Welp, health experts warning against road trips is a buzz kill don’t you think? It’s certainly what we thought about when we canceled our trip to Rhode Island for our grandgirl’s first birthday in late May. Gas stations, nights in hotels, restaurants we don’t know, and the small matter of a required fourteen-day quarantine upon arrival (since relaxed for folks from “open” states).

We strongly considered going in July but … no. We decided we’re going to be part of the solution, not a part of the problem. This, too, shall pass, and when it does, we’ll be the first folks you know over that bridge to Aquidneck Island.

The second article is of long-term interest. Titled “11 Ways the Pandemic Will Change Travel,” it starts with the hit the travel industry has taken. And it has. But those of us who have long been bitten by the travel bug will enjoy perusing this article, which covers:

  • Expect fewer crowds and experiences at tourist magnets
  • Airlines will have to balance safety and profit
  • Wary travelers will stay closer to home
  • Fewer travelers could mean more expensive travel abroad
  • Buffets out, temperature checks in when cruises resume
  • Relocation will increase demand for home rentals
  • Interest in private travel is here to stay
  • Small restaurants and bars may be decimated for good
  • In hotels, cleaning and contact-free technology will be top priorities
  • Loyalty programs will introduce new, temporary perks
  • Large events / gatherings will creep back with caution—if at all

There’s more than just the headlines here, so do read beyond them. And definitely have a look when you start to get that wanderlust kinda feeling. These articles will help you plan to go farther than the deck in your shady back yard.

 

Pandemic: Will There Be Changes in Air Travel?

Got a newletter from the Atlantic, to which I subscribe, highlighting an article from James Fallows about the ways he anticipates air travel will change.

Remember, what we know about the transmission of COVID19 is it happens when people are in close quarters for long periods of time. So let’s get this out of the way: if you don’t have to go, don’t go. Now is not the time.

But the article was interesting. Though not a happy one: “[P]eople I spoke with during the past several weeks—economists, engineers, aviation analysts, professional pilots—were more certain about what the next few years will bring: namely, sustained bad times for the world’s airlines. What I saw just two months ago in a bustling airport, no one will see, anywhere, for a very long time.”

Here are some things he learned:

Everything will be slower.

If you check baggage, the handles may need to be wiped before staff members touch them. If you don’t think you’ll be checking baggage, think again: The airlines will likely crack down further on carry-on items, which potentially come into contact with other passengers.

American airports will likely add temperature-check gates.

The gates alert quarantine officers to the presence of anyone who seems to have a fever, enabling individual follow-up examination by thermometer. Virtually no U.S. airports ran passengers through such equipment a year ago, and virtually all of them are likely to do so a year from now.

Hate the middle seat? 

No problem! For the foreseeable future, many airlines are taking bookings for aisle and window seats only.

And maybe in-flight Wi-Fi. 

Have you griped about the cost, speed, or reliability of airborne Wi-Fi services? You’ll have fewer of those complaints to make, because some carriers will just eliminate the service. For most of them it has been a technically shaky feature that doesn’t pay its own way.

Fares aren’t all as cheap as you may expect. 

“Why aren’t you seeing the bargain fares you thought you’d find?” Helane Becker, a managing director at the Cowen research group and a longtime analyst of the airline industry, said to me. “The reason is that the airlines have no incentive to cut fares. Usually you can stimulate demand for leisure travel with lower fares. But now you can’t.”

As you know, we canceled a big trip. (Actually, we canceled two trips in the first five months of 2020, but the second was to have been a driving trip.) I can’t say we love flying, but we do love to travel and flying is a means to that end. And just as I’ve been writing this, AARP reports the TSA will be initiating some new procedures by mid-June, the most important of which is that TSA agents will no longer handle boarding passes. Woooo. You can read the rest here; I’m not too impressed yet.

We Had a Trip Planned … And Then We Didn’t

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

I follow the news—all the news—so I was aware, even in late December, that there was an outbreak in China of something-something, and it was bad, and they shut down a city of eleven million people and built sixteen emergency hospitals in a month. Listen, I had a world of stress of my own—work-related—in December, and a trip planned to see my grandbaby. But I was impressed by those hospitals.

I took January off. (I’m self-employed, and I get along with my boss.) I spent the month having two cataract surgeries, catching up on my correspondence, my Ancestry-dot-com activities (actually, there is no such thing as catching up with Ancestry), my sleep, my reading … and also during that time I made a beautiful, detailed itinerary for the two-week trip we were taking in mid-March to Germany to visit friends (a week at their place making day trips, then splitting a week in the Black Forest and the Alps). I researched all the sights to see, mapped everything, made all the reservations (car, hotels, even massages!) and wrote it all up. It is a thing of beauty, I tell you, that itinerary.

But it was on my radar, that something-something (although we didn’t even think to connect it to our trip scheduled for March), because I’m old enough to remember other pandemics. I have relatives who died in the 1918 flu pandemic. I myself got H1N1, which was not airborne but transmitted by touch. (It was miserable. I was bedridden for two weeks and weak and sick for another month.)

Then China quarantined an entire city/province and built two giant hospitals in ten days in early January. That got everybody’s attention. Travel to China came to a halt. Then flights were banned.

Then it got bad in South Korea. And Japan. Iran.

Then Italy.

About mid-February I started wondering if travel to another country was a good idea. I mean, you know how much trouble I used to have flying.

We knew by then that China had tried to cover up the severity of the outbreak when it first happened. Now we were hearing that the Iranian government was saying one thing (few cases) and health care workers were saying something else (many cases). One television clip showed the Iranian deputy health minister speaking at a press conference and looking very, very unwell. Every night on the news there were more countries with reported cases. It went from four countries to eight to two dozen in, like, two days, maybe three.

I started checking the CDC website. I started looking for news on Germany. They had zero cases.

Gerry and I started talking about it every night. Travel is exhausting. We’re old. Gerry was more concerned about passing through the airports, where there are many people who could be carriers, than what we might find on the other end. We’d connect in DC, not a small airport. And Frankfurt, for example, is a center for international banking; its airport is the hub for all Lufthansa flights and it gets a lot of business (fifteenth busiest in the world). Rachel Maddow said on the news one night she had never been to Germany to visit but had many times been through the Frankfurt airport because it was where you change planes arriving from anywhere east of the Mississippi, and going just about anywhere else, even the Middle East.

On February 21st we learned that the Trump administration had no contingency plan for any of this: back in May 2018, John Bolton broke up the team in charge of global health security which had been set up by President Obama when the ebola virus surfaced. Because the Trump administration has been systematically undoing anything done by the Obama administration, as one does. Childish, but true.

Then we started hearing about the one California case. And the people quarantined at that hotel in Tenerife. And bringing the infected Americans home from the cruise ship against CDC recommendations. Large gatherings—festivals, business conventions—were being canceled all over the world.

By Tuesday the 25th I was researching, daily, in earnest. No cases in Germany that night. But that day, Stars & Stripes* reported, “Some Army facilities in Italy could be shuttered beyond March 1 due to concerns related to the coronavirus, which the military expects will also have implications for troops in Germany.” We learned the US government can establish a quarantine without warrant or recourse, and we might have to pay for it if we were away from home.

We’d been talking every evening at bedtime about what we’d read. At first it seemed like it was too soon to tell, right? Still, all these facts started to accumulate, so we asked ourselves every night: should we go or not? Neither of us are fearful people; we were determined to go. But this Tuesday was the day we really started to wonder about what we should do. The stock market had tanked on Monday, more than a thousand points, and on Tuesday it was down another 879 points (on Thursday it would drop another 1190). And Trump started accusing Democrats of, no joke, talking about, raising concerns about the coronavirus to make him look bad. At his rally in South Carolina on Friday, he called the coronavirus a hoax. No, really. Someone should make that guy shut up.

After that, things really heated up. Pandemic talk everywhere. The day before Germany had five reported cases; the next there were a thousand people (not confirmed cases, just a safety move) quarantined up near Bonn after a festival, and the German government had begun registering anyone arriving in the country by air or by sea. The situation was (and still is) just incredibly fluid. Day after day, in the morning I was positive about keeping our plans; by evening I was discouraged. Gerry and I kept talking about what the dangers were. We were concerned about (in no particular order):
> passing through busy airports and picking up the virus there and bringing it to our friends in Germany;
> similarly, inadvertently bringing the virus home to our own community;
> the potential for closure of important historical sites we’d like to visit;
> having flights canceled while we were in Germany and not being able to get home;
> that because vacations are tiring, we could be lowering our resistance to anything we might be exposed to.

But those plane tickets were expensive and American Airlines wasn’t and still isn’t waivering flights to Frankfurt (see update 1 below). We didn’t want to sacrifice thousands of dollars without seeing if they’d do the right thing first.

By Friday the 28th, we began hearing that major airports were becoming … not busy. Lufthansa were sending staff home from Frankfurt airport due to lack of business. We heard JFK was very slow. That same day there were sixty confirmed cases in Germany. The day before it had been five. Five! I checked the American Airlines website again, hoping for a recognition of reality. However, at that point, if you were traveling to or through or from:

  • Bologna, Italy (BLQ)
  • Florence, Italy (FLR)
  • Milan Linate, Milan, Italy (LIN)
  • Milan Milapensa, Milan, Italy (MXP)
  • Milan Orio al Serio, Milan, Italy (BGY)
  • Naples, Italy (NAP)
  • Pisa, Italy (PSA)
  • Rome, Italy (FCO)
  • Turin, Italy (TRN)
  • Venice, Italy (VCE)
  • Verona, Italy (VRN)

Your change fee may (notice that may!) be waived if you …

  • Are traveling on an American Airlines flight
  • Bought your ticket by February 27, 2020
  • Are scheduled to travel February 27 – March 15, 2020
  • Can travel February 27 – April 3, 2020 (notice how little movement in dates)**
  • Don’t change your origin or destination city
  • Rebook in the same cabin or pay the difference

So you see, American was really not offering much. And as I write this on 6 March, the material is the same.

The very next day, Saturday the 29th, Washington State quadrupled its affected citizens in one day. On Sunday, Germany had more cases: 129, compared with 66 on Saturday. There was a confirmed case in NYC and one in Providence, Rhode Island, forty minutes’ drive away from my grandgirl. And in Paris that same Sunday, the staff of the Louvre did not open the doors in the morning but stayed closed to have a staff meeting about the coronavirus. They were supposed to open for the afternoon, but did not. That’s right: the Louvre stayed closed all day. We started to wonder if discretion would be the better part of valor.

Also that weekend: news that officials think Washington State’s cases are underreported, that it’s been there for weeks. Most cases are mild. But it spreads like wildfire. And the United States can’t accurately report confirmed cases, because they have few working tests (see update 2 on this below); meanwhile, the Trump administration can’t or won’t seem to acquire any.

In fact, Trump is more worried about the stock market, which was at a ten-year low (that is, lower than the 2008 recession) a few days ago. He continues to call it a hoax and says that it is no worse than the flu (but do note the flu doesn’t generally shut down global markets). Nonetheless, he appointed Mike Pence to head up a team of no science/medical experts whatsoever, the efforts of which consist of muzzling the scientists at the CDC (all communications must run through Pence). Consider this: Why are there so few tests for the coronavirus in the United States? (Fewer tests, fewer confirmed cases.) Why is Trump holding political rallies instead of working to solve this problem? (He’s concerned about reelection. If his administration, such as it is, even pretends to work on a solution it shows there is a problem.) Why is Pence, supposedly in charge of the coronavirus response, appearing on Rush Limbaugh’s show and attending a fund-raiser instead? (Again, if Pence gives any time to a solution to the coronavirus pandemic, it proves there is a problem. Of course, if it emerges that there really is a problem, Trump will feel free to blame Pence for not solving it.)

On Monday March 2nd, our friends in Germany got in touch. We’d talked the week before, when we affirmed that we were coming, and they affirmed that everything seemed fine. This time, though, they were starting to question the wisdom of anyone visiting from the States. They were surrounded by confirmed cases and had heard rumors that flights to the States might be restricted. (One of our worries.) We agreed. That very day British Airways had started canceling flights to Europe, including Germany, from London. And a close friend had told me her employer, a large corporation, had issued a travel ban to its employees. No travel for work—and not for pleasure either. All employees were also instructed to be prepared at any moment to work from home.

I kept thinking that any minute American Airlines would score a public relations coup by announcing that anyone could change flights—even the nonrefundable ones like ours—penalty free. (I know this is going to be hard for everyone in the tourism industry. How could it not be? But they could go into this easily, building lots of goodwill. Or not.) Yet nothing has changed with them. The website informs folks to call reservations. I did. The Reservations lady told me to contact Customer Relations through the AA website. (“But the website told me to call you,” I said. “And you have,” she said. “Now I’m telling you to contact Customer Relations.”) She had to talk me through it, that’s how hard it is to find the place to send a message to Customer Relations. I sent CR a simple message (coached by the lady at Reservations). I got an email from them right away, informing me that it will take up to five business days or more to reply to me. That fifth business day is next Tuesday, the day before we are scheduled to fly to Washington DC and then on to Frankfurt.

I have no idea what to do to salvage that situation. I thought wait-and-see was the correct thing to do. I thought not panicking was the right thing to do.

Now it’s Wednesday the 4th. We are still checking the news. Today the Berlin Spectator says, “On Monday of last week, Germany did not have a single confirmed Coronavirus case. By now there are more than 260. Almost all federal states are affected. At the Virchow Clinic in Berlin, patients who might be infected formed a waiting line in front of an emergency admission established for that purpose.” I also read that there’d been some panic buying in some areas.

So that’s where we’re at.*** We had a trip to Germany planned, and we were very much looking forward to it. And now we don’t have a trip scheduled (although we still have flights we do not intend to take). Almost everything was checked off my pre-travel to-do list. Now almost everything is checked off my cancellation to-do list. We are sad, but resigned. My attitude about travel has always been we have enough time to see what we want to see, and I’m taking that to heart in this situation. See you next year, Germany.

• • •

* Stars and Stripes is an American military newspaper that focuses and reports on matters concerning members of the US armed forces. It’s a trusted source. I am mostly not linking most of my sources here because you know this news as well as I do.
** Later AA adjusted the dates out to June 30, 2020.
*** I kept having to change this as I wrote because things were developing; pardon me if I’ve gotten the timeline wrong.

• • •

UPDATE 1 on American Airlines: at 10:44pm on Wednesday night, March 4th, AA sent me an email saying they would voucher our tickets. (We did not get the entire cost back, but we got most of it.) A voucher (as opposed to a waiver) means we don’t have to decide on a date right now, nor do we have to go to Germany. They’re good until 4 March 2021.

UPDATE 2: The CDC managed to send out a significant amount of test kits this first week in March. It’s not nearly enough yet. The Trump administration was caught flat-footed on this, possibly because Trump doesn’t want to test because it will show there are are more cases than he’d like to admit to. Meanwhile, a few states like New York and California have begun producing their own tests. He is still telling audiences and journalists that it is “mostly contained.” Oh yeah.

UPDATE 3: Los Angeles City and County declared state of emergency on the 4th. And Italy closed all schools and universities nationwide.

UPDATE 4: On the 5th, a friend who lives in the DC airport area called me and said, “Lots of new cases in my neighborhood, please don’t fly through DC.” Also on the 5th it began to be reported that the pathological changes described for this new coronavirus are consistent with COVID19 clinical reports (pulmonary fibrosis and lymphopenia). The lung damage caused by this coronavirus is also similar to the damage caused by the closely related SARS virus. Autopsies of COVID victims in China suggest this virus is “like a combination of SARS and AIDS as it damages both the lungs and immune systems,” and can cause “irreversible” lung damage even if the patient survives.

UPDATE 5: Also on the 5th, the CEO of Southwest Airlines said on CNBC: “We’re 97 percent domestic, so what we’re seeing is a drop-off in domestic travel. … It has a 9/11-like feel.” This was in response to Trump saying people are staying in the US and spending their money in the US.

UPDATE 6: South by Southwest, a conglomeration of music, tech, and media festivals helf annually in Austin Texas, was cancelled on the 6th, ten days before it was due to start.

UPDATE 7: On Saturday the 7th we started seeing roundtrip flights from NYC to Rome for—I kid you not—$276.

UPDATE 8: On the 19th the State Department issued a Level 4 travel advisory advising US citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19, saying, “If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe.”

• • •

AFTERWORD
The story goes on and on, of course. (Every day.) No doubt you have seen how bad it is, and how right we were to cancel. We don’t regret our decision.

In Airport Security, Keep an Eye On Your Stuff!

This article came across my desk a few weeks ago and it got my attention:

As travellers sling their wallets, purses, laptops, smartphones, keys and other valuables into the grey plastic tray heading into an airport security scanner, many have a slight frisson of fear. What if you’re held up and then find on the other side that someone has raided your tray?

There’s a lot going on in the situation cited here, but the most important part is that airport security did not treat this theft as a high priority—which it should have. So be aware that airport security is not keeping an eye on your expensive laptop, and don’t hesitate to speak up if you see something happening.

The security line is a madhouse, for sure.

If you’re traveling with someone, one of you can hang back and wait with the majority of your possessions that need to go through the scanner while the other goes ahead through the body scanner. Now you’ve got one person on each side. If security personnel try to urge you through, remind them about the posted “Don’t let your belongings out of your sight” signs. You’re doing what you should do.

If you’re traveling alone, it will be better to be ahead of your possessions, waiting for them to come through, than behind them. This situation has always made me nervous, and I also almost always am traveling with a laptop. The best advice—and it’s hardly helpful—is to keep a sharp eye out.

That said, there’s one more very important protection that would have made a big difference to the denouement of this particular story: back up your computer before you leave home! The technology exists: use it.

 

Dear American Airlines …

We took a trip from Nashville to Dublin. It was (ahem) not fun. You should consider these issues going forward. I know it’s only us two little old people, but we plan to travel more now, and we will think long and hard about flying American from now on.

We were at the airport with plenty of time to spare—just the way I like it. No rushing. Which meant we had plenty of time to deal with Adventures with American Airlines Part 1: AA emailed us last night to check in on the computer and get boarding passes. This was new to us (on American), and it seemed to only included the first leg of our itinerary (BNA to CLT), so we didn’t do it. (In retrospect, we should have. One lives and learns.) Thus when we were checking in at the airport—all electronic now, and for people like us not accustomed to this new way and thus find it baffling, exasperating, and inefficient (not to mention that human jobs will be eliminated by this technology)—we got a screen that told us we were in boarding group 5 but we could be in an earlier group if we each paid $26! Aha!

Now, my preference in the past has always been to board as close to last as I can get … except these days the Overhead Baggage Wars are brutal—do not get me started on the size and number of carryons, and the people who abuse this aspect of air travel—and sure enough, having declined to pay AA another $52, we were treated to an announcement that was new to us (how long has this been going on?): that only twenty-five* wheeled carryons can be accepted and rest will have to be gate checked. (*This rule is in effect the small airplanes used on regional flights; international flights have plenty of bin room.) Note: we were not traveling with wheeled carryon luggage.

Interestingly, the business-class patrons are in the first group to board, and they are inevitably big users of wheeled carryons to avoid checking luggage. Maddeningly, while we had a “bulkhead” seat, we had to put our (not-wheeled, not huge) carryons in bins about a dozen rows behind us. Why? Because there wasn’t enough room in business class for all those huge carryons, so the business-class folks came into our seating area to store them. (I plan to voice my displeasure to your management about this.) Another issue, of course, is the folks who have seats in row 30 but throw their bags into the bin over row 8—I guess because they don’t want to carry them any farther—which seems rude and also counterproductive.

Seriously, y’all, I used to love air travel, but in the last decade, I’ve grown to hate/dread it. American Airlines might also consider that group boarding—with one’s group determined by how early one checks in—makes sense when there are no assigned seats (as on Southwest); but when seats are reserved in advance, it seems that it would be wiser to assign groups by row numbers. I think my problem with all this is I keep wanting flying to be a civilized thing. But it’s just not any more. It’s very cutthroat, from the reduction in seat size to the carryon situation. Don’t get me started on TSA agents … but that’s not your fault, American, although it does add to the overall negative experience.

We had a very short layover in Charlotte, so I got off the plane with my purse and my laptop and started to the gate for our international flight while G, who walks considerably faster than me, waited for the rest of the plane to unload so he could go back the twelve rows to retrieve our carryon (my CPAP and his little bag). It’s a good thing we did split up because they were about to board the big plane by the time we got there.

Ah. A huge ocean-hopping airplane. Again G had paid extra to have bulkhead seats but instead we were in for Adventures with American Airlines Part 2. When we arrived at the row clearly marked on tickets we’d purchased months earlier, we were not seated in a bulkhead. We consulted with the flight attendant and learned that the plane had been reconfigured like a big ol’ Lego toy. The flight attendants were just getting used to it too. G was sent back outside to the check-in gate to make his complaint and get a refund, and over the next ten or fifteen minutes we were moved to and seated in four different places.

You read that correctly. Four.

Ultimately we were seated in a bulkhead-ish location, right under a large TV screen that was never turned off—this was a night flight—and right at a little crook in the aisle created by this reconfiguration. (American, make a note: aisles should be straight!) This guaranteed that I, sitting on the aisle, was bumped by every cart or person who walked by. No joke. A bump from the drinks cart. A bump from every flight attendant. It was a miserable experience, American Airlines.

And it wasn’t just us. The couple across the aisle from us had also paid extra for seats that no longer existed. There was also a tour group you inconvenienced with your reconfiguration, and that’s why we were late taking off. Sure, sure, the pilots made up for lost time in the air, but the fact is you pissed off not only the people who didn’t get the seats they’d paid for, but everyone around them who had to stand up to let them pass, move their overhead luggage, and on and on and on. Also, we sat on the runway for forty minutes after we arrived—not your fault, I know, but it added to the annoyance factor.

It was not a good public relations event for you, American Airlines. Just sayin’.

In December, Everything Came to a Head

We’ve had a lot going on here. My workload’s been heavy (that’s good, actually) but with deadlines that moved up and down my production schedule (publishers and authors sometimes shuffle things around), which caused bottlenecks and logjams that raised my stress level. (In fact, my young whippersnapper doctor put me on a low-dose blood pressure medicine late in the year. But that’s another story entirely.)

In September we learned our beloved cat, Bean (that’s her photo at the top of this blog), was sick—probably lymphoma, which is incurable, but we continued to try various meds and nutrition changes, as well as an ultrasound and needle biopsy on the sixth of December. She was weakening, and my heart was breaking.

In October our annual termite inspection yield the information that our master bathroom floor might fall through, so while we wrangled with the insurance company, we decamped to the upstairs bathroom for our daily ablutions. It took weeks to get the paperwork settled, and work finally began on December fifth. There was dust everywhere. Thank goodness we hadn’t had time to put out Christmas decorations, or they’d have been dusty too.

In November, finally, some good news: my son and his fiancée married. Actually, that was a really special day amidst a month of growing strain. I was working night and day to dismantle my logjam. Bean needed meds and you try giving a cat a pill. It was just … a crazy time. Not good, not bad, but a lot.

Happy couple a few days later: Thanksgiving at our place.

And then, on December eighth, we got a call from Dublin in the very early morning that we’d been worried would come. Gerry’s eighty-seven-year-old mother had been in and out of the hospital all year. Her body wasn’t well but her mind was still just as sharp as a tack. Since Gerry had married me and returned with me to the United States in late 2015, his younger brother, Richie, and Richie’s wife, Isolde, had taken on the responsibility of keeping an eye on Bridie. It hadn’t been an easy year for them either.

The call was from Richie: Bridie had gone to the hospital that morning. The question had already been asked (“She has a son in America—should we call him home?”) but the answer we received at 5am was “Not yet. Let’s wait and see.” So I went off to my doctor for my annual physical at 8am and, of course, my blood pressure was through the roof—I left with a prescription for the low-dose bp meds, madder than a wet hen about it too. Which did nothing to lower my bp.

• • •

(Here’s a tip about that. In those crazy early morning hours, I’d had a cup of tea and a piece of toast, forgetting that they’d take blood at my physical. By the time I got back to the clinic for the bloodwork, it was after Christmas and my blood sugar was up too. A nurse friend of mine rolled her eyes at me, reminded me that stress also causes blood sugar to rise, and said, “Jamie, don’t ever schedule a physical during the holidays!” And I won’t.)

• • •

            By the time I got home, though, “Wait and see” had become “Come home now.” Gerry had already made arrangements with our phone carrier for an international plan, and we came up to the office and sat down at our dueling computers and started looking for a flight for him. I would not be going with him. (Cats, meds, dog, deadlines, and so on.)

Back in the day—you know, when America was great and all that—the airlines offered a sympathy discount for hardship cases like final illnesses and funerals, but no more. We were shocked at the cost of a round trip flight from Nashville to Dublin: the cheapest was British Airways at $3135. It was enough to make us weak in the knees. So we called them. It never hurts to ask, right?

Welp … nope. No family emergency discount. However, the clerk took pity on us and gave us a tip, which I’m passing to you in case you don’t already know it.

• • •

When you are buying tix online, you’ll be asked to choose if you just want the flight, or if you want flight+car or flight+hotel or flight+car+hotel. Let’s say you choose flight+car. You print out a little voucher for a good rate at the car rental place. You don’t pay for it then, you just print the voucher. Magically (!) your flight cost is reduced by half. No joke: the cost went to $1572. The clerk said, “When you reach your destination, just drop by the Hertz window and tell them your plans have changed.”

• • •

            And so he did. Thanks, BA.

I didn’t work much that day. I just helped Gerry gather the things he needed to pack for a two-week stay. (I am proud of the fact that I had stashed 50 euro in bills leftover from the last trip—and several one- and two-euro coins—so Gerry didn’t have to fly off without cash other than dollars.) We were both rattled. And that afternoon I drove my husband to Nashville and put him on a plane to Dublin in the hopes he could see his mother before she parted from this world.

I came home and started sending emails to Gerry’s former work colleagues and other friends of ours, to let them know Gerry would be in Dublin and why. I let our family know. I let our Facebook friends know. I scribbled lists of things I needed to do. I went up and down the stairs letting the dog outside—she stands in the hall and does this low growl until she has your attention—gaining a new appreciation for just how much time Gerry spends letting Suzy out to pee. 🙂

Bridie died Friday just before midnight Dublin time (that would be 6pm our time). Gerry was waiting to board his flight in Chicago, having spoken with her on the phone a little earlier. One of the nieces sent me an electronic message.

Gerry arrived in Dublin in late afternoon on Saturday, precisely twenty-four hours after he’d departed Nashville, and Richie and Isolde took him home and fed him breakfast for supper and put him to bed. The funeral was scheduled for Wednesday. He spent the rest of his time in Dublin emptying the house, speaking with the solicitor, speaking with the realtor, speaking with the bank, and so on. Richie was right there by his side. It was exhausting.

Here at home, the rest of us tottered on. The diuetic I’d been prescribed for the blood pressure made me feel like I’d been run over by a truck. I could barely climb the stairs I felt so fatigued. Also low-grade nausea. But. Just. So. Exhausted. Aaaaagh. (Fortunately it only lasted for a few days.)

Suzy wasn’t getting walked, and she missed her guy. The two of us were walking wounded. On Facebook I posted Opportunity of a lifetime! Take a stroll around the block with the world’s sweetest dog! but got no takers. December is a really busy month for everyone.

The construction in the bathroom continued, which meant our backyard gate was often open. Gerry’s very cautious/aware about these things, but one morning I let her out to do her business, failing, while I was on the phone informing the dentist that Gerry would not make his appointment on Wednesday, to notice that the gate was open… and when I called for her, she was gone. I called and called: Suzy! Suzy!

Nothing.

So instead, I called for Spot the cat, using his mealtime call: SPIT-Spot! SPIT-Spot! He responds very well to it. So does Suzy. So what to my wondering eyes should appear but a seventy-pound yellow Lab who never misses a meal. She was on the driveway between the front yard and the back yard. Came on the run.

I always checked the gate situation after that. We’d had enough trouble.

Yes, Suzy finally took me for a walk today (dragged me around the block). That’s a plastic cup I scooped out of the gutter when I realized I’d forgotten a poop bag. Fortunately I didn’t need to use it.

Those two weeks seemed like two months. I had to let go of a lot of my personal expectations—put up a Christmas tree, decorate, send Christmas cards—and reached a peace with myself. I told myself I’d get to some of it when I could, but for the moment, I just tended to my work and my pets and sat in the hot tub, and knew that all of us would be happy to see Gerry on the other end. I wrapped one present a day and stacked them on the piano.

When you don’t have a tree, the Christmas Piano will do.

I started checking flight status early and learned that Gerry’s plane out of London Heathrow was delayed. His Chicago flight was due in Nashville at 10pm … but who knew? I’ve been on more than one flight that was held for someone making a tight connection, so I was hoping for that. I checked the flight roster—there was one more flight out of Chicago that night. So I went and brewed a pot of tea.

Ultimately, the fully boarded flight out of London was delayed by an hour and 45 minutes. Why? Because somehow someone had been allowed to board the plane to Chicago whose “paperwork was inadequate to enter the US.” That person was removed from the plane, of course, but the main delay was removing that person’s luggage from the plane. How does that even happen? I still don’t have an answer.

• • •

            But here’s a third tip: If you are flying from Ireland to the US and you have a choice, use a flight that goes directly to the US (Chicago, Boston, NY, DC, Newark, Charlotte, Atlanta … probably others). This allows you to pass customs in Dublin before you ever board a plane. It’s a hassle, you have to be there even earlier than normal, but it’s much less painful than landing in the international terminal, going to baggage claim to collect your luggage, passing through customs, then changing terminals, re-checking your luggage, passing through security, and boarding the next plane.

• • •

            Nonetheless, we took the tickets we could get two weeks ago, and this is what Gerry had to do. There was one last flight to BNA from ORD that night and British Airways took care of booking him on it while he was still in the air. So he collected two pieces of luggage, took them through customs, found his gate, checked the luggage again. As he was boarding for BNA, he got a text from the airlines: “Ooops, sorry, one of your bags didn’t get on the plane. It will follow on the first flight in the morning.” (We’re still puzzled by this. He was there in plenty of time for this flight. He checked them both simultaneously. But one didn’t make it? Why?)

The flight landed at its advertised arrival time of 11:20pm. I was sitting in the huge new park-and-wait and had been since 10pm. Waiting. Tired. Gerry called and said “Don’t come to the terminal until I have my luggage.” So I waited and waited and waited … until 12:30am. Why? Because Gerry had to prove who he was (him with the oops email from the airlines!) and document every leg of his trip, before anyone at the airlines would even agree to say they knew where his missing luggage was! And more paperwork! And me sitting in the park-and-wait having these fantasies about hugging my husband close when I finally laid eyes on him.

“I’M COMING TO GET YOU NOW,” I texted in all caps. “THIS IS RIDICULOUS.”

You would think that the Nashville airport would be reasonably quiet and calm at 1am. But if it’s two days before Christmas, you would be wrong.

Side note on the new arrivals lanes at BNA: They suck. In years past we had a simpler system, a thing of beauty, really, but sometime in the last couple years, airport expansion construction eliminated the ten-minute pull-in parking for loading arrivals and left us with three lanes plus a fourth separated by sidewalk, and it’s insanity because people don’t know how to use it. Drivers are stupid, stopping in the middle two lanes to load their people, thus holding up the entire process, rather than pulling to the two available curbs (lanes 1 and 4) to load, leaving lanes 2 and 3 for through-traffic.

By the time I decided to drive to the terminal, these lanes were backed up well past the curved arrivals entrance (if you know BNA, you know what I mean). And it was raining. When I pulled to the curb, Gerry was banging on the trunk, waiting for me to pop it. He had the suitcase in the trunk before I was out of the car. “This is madness!” I shouted over the roar. No tender hug. “Take me home now!” he shouted back.

• • •

Future tip for airport pickups (especially at holidays): pick up your beloved arrival at departures. Traffic in these lanes is moving quickly, so everything’s more relaxed. In Nashville departures are up one level from baggage claim, and you’re tired and dragging luggage, but pickup goes a lot more smoothly, I’m told.

• • •

            We fell into bed around 1:30am. Gerry awoke at 5am, still on Dublin time. I slept until 6:45am (late for me). We have had breakfast. We are, otherwise, an advertisement for the Walking Dead. But he’s home, and we’re a little travel-wiser. Merry Christmas!

Once Was Lost, But Now …

And there it was, in all its glory. What a day!

Speaking of Paris, I’ve slowly been working on filling in my archives on that trip we made back in 2006. (Work—and life—seems to get in the way of this project, as much as I love it.) And when I posted this one—about our initial little difficulty finding our way out of Terminal 1—on Facebook, a friend of mine remarked that she’d had a similar experience.

I sail into … a mass of unhappy people trying to understand how to take the train into the center of Paris. North American credit cards don’t read in the ticket kiosks and the change machine is not working. And the ticket kiosk takes cash but only exact change. One pauvre l’homme mans a solitary window for two hundred people.

Is this like child birth, the sweaty, grubby, peevish part of a trip that you always forget upon arriving home? Finally I’m on the RER train, surrounded not by urbane French citoyens but equally sweaty Canadian and British tourists who look too large and open-faced for their surroundings.

Yes! She had the same experience as we did! I couldn’t use my credit card either! What a relief to know it wasn’t just us.

You can read my friend’s article here. She’s a wonderful writer and has many travel tales to tell at her blog Solo Travel.

Gratefulness Is a Habit. Kindness Too. And Love—Don’t Forget Love.

This is a great travel story—a great airport story. I’m one of those people who love the opening credits in the film Love, Actually. I, too, find airports to have a special energy, a festiveness you find nowhere else. The anticipatory excitement about the arrival—both the arrivors and those awaiting the arrivors—adds an undeniable frisson to the airport experience.

Not that I find air travel particularly fun, mind you. But even the we’re-all-in-this-slog-together atmosphere is a thing that unifies travelers, yes? That’s the nature of this lovely travel story from 2007, which was reprinted on the website of A Network for Grateful Living a couple years ago. As they noted then, it seemed decidedly relevant.

A woman, Naomi Shihab Nye, a writer (she is a year older than me), is in the Albuquerque airport (I’ve been there), having just learned that her flight has been delayed, and hears on the loudspeaker a plea for an Arabic speaker. There is an older Palestinian woman in distress, and she speaks no English. Nye speaks Arabic, though she is rusty; she learns the woman is simply worried, and is able to comfort her. By the time their flight arrives,

[the woman] had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar.

I have had those cookies myself, offered to me when I was visiting the local Middle Eastern grocery, baked by the shop proprietor’s wife. (I must stop back in to see him; I haven’t been in a while.)

This is a beautiful story. Nye is a poet, and it shows in these words.

Not everything is lost, y’all.

Not for Federal Identification!

Things keep popping up in my news feed about driver’s licenses. A friend who’d moved from Tennessee to Arizona was surprised that her new Arizona-issued license bore the ominous phrase “Not For Federal Identification.” A friend who lived in Kentucky was shocked to be told she could be turned away from boarding a flight.

In case you missed it, the REAL ID Act was passed (in 2005) in the wake of the 9/11 report. It established minimum standards that states must follow when issuing and producing driver’s licenses and ID cards. (A REAL ID credential can either be an ID card or a driver’s license.)

Some states just haven’t gotten around to making these changes to the way they issue driver’s licenses/IDs. And if you’ve been renewing online or through the mail, the license you have may not be compliant with federal regulations.

Here are some links that will help you get a handle on the situation:

Enhanced Drivers Licenses: What Are They?
REAL ID FAQs
Current REAL ID Status of States/Territories

All of this is important because, as you know, you must show your driver’s license or state ID in order to board a plane.

Trust me when I say you don’t need any trouble from the authorities right now. Make sure your driver’s license is good for federal ID as well as for driving. Even if the chart I’ve linked above indicates your state is in compliance, you may still be carrying an “old” license. Take a ride down to your local Department of Motor Vehicles office and find out for sure. Make sure you have alternate forms of identification with you when you go.

The REAL ID Act takes effect on 22 January 2018.

Do do it now and get it out of the way. Don’t wait until you’re about to leave for the Bahamas next Christmas.

Those Long, Long Security Lines

Everybody in the travel industry’s talking about the long lines to get through airport security these days. It’s not really a new phenomenon, as far as I’m concerned—I flew across the Atlantic and back twice last year (June and September 2015), and it was a slog going and coming.

But apparently it’s gotten bad all over the United States … even for domestic flights. People are missing flights. Fingers are being pointed. Blame is being totted up.

This CNN article offers a concise list of reasons security lines are long:

  • There aren’t enough screeners
  • Passenger volume is up (15 percent from 2013)
  • People are filling up their carry-ons

That last one is a doozy. Since many of the carriers charge to check bags, lots of passengers load up on carry-on luggage … which all has to go through the security line. People with multiple pieces of carry-on—as many and as large as they think they can get away with—have long been a pet peeve of mine. It slows down boarding, it hogs more than their fair share in the overhead bins, and it slows down the security line.

So we can blame the TSA, we can blame Congress (which funds it), we can blame the airlines and travelers. But I also think travelers’ expectations are to blame.

Folks who travel a lot—business travelers, yes, but pleasure travelers too—get to the point of thinking they “know the drill.” I know Gerry and I did over those long twelve years of back-and-forth. It’s exactly 35.8 miles from our driveway to the loading/unloading zone at the Nashville International Airport, and I can tell you, based on what day of the week and what time of day it is, how long it’s going to take me to get there with pinpoint accuracy.

People who travel a lot also get to dread the airport, frankly. It’s noisy, it’s uncomfortable. So … they want to get it all timed and spend as little time in the airport before boarding as possible. They want to slide in at the last moment.

But you just can’t do that anymore. You can’t count on breezing through security at any time of the day or night, no matter how well you know the drill. You’ve simply got to set aside more time. Grin and bear it.

Or read this article from the New York Times: “How to Zip Through Airport Security,” which includes:

  • Sign up for TSA Precheck
  • Pick the less busy security area
  • By-pass the fumblers crowded around the beginning of the line
  • Depart in the middle of the day, rather than early or late
  • Pay the airlines for premium boarding procedures

The issue is not going to resolve itself fast, y’all. There is no “good” solution. Do what you can to not be a part of the problem, put on a happy face, and allow plenty of time.

Bon voyage!