The phone rang, a number calling from California, just 13 hours before I was set to embark on a long trip to Malaysia for a college friend’s wedding. I was packing and doing laundry but thought I should answer.
Japan Airlines, the facilitator of the overseas portion of my trip, rang to inform me that I needed a visa (which I did not have) to transit through Japan on an overnight layover. Otherwise, I would not be able to fly.
My heart sank as I grappled with the implications of this news. A quick Google search made it clear that while same-day transit through a Japanese airport is allowed, overnight layovers are currently barred for noncitizens due to COVID-19 protocols.
My thoughts raced: Why was I ever able to book this ticket with such an itinerary? Would I be able to make this trip happen?
While the world is opening up and some COVID-19 restrictions ease, many countries still require travelers to jump through hoops to visit or even transit through an airport. Such is the reality of our new pandemic present, which many of us hoped was already in the past.
Distraught, I called American Airlines customer service and was informed it might be two hours before someone could reach me. Later that night, the estimated wait time rose to five or six hours.
Eventually, I did receive a callback and arranged flights with a layover in Qatar instead. But after one trip to the airport and a second bungled itinerary, I was informed it would be four days later before I could travel, based on flight availability.
I called my ride back to the airport, frustrated beyond words with my situation. I got in the car and bawled. I shouldn’t have been surprised at my stroke of bad luck amid a summer that has seen a huge increase in travel demand, but also a surge in canceled flights and additional travel requirements.
Dear reader, this story has a happier ending. I did make it to Malaysia — three or four extra days after I was originally scheduled to arrive — but in enough time to experience some incredible food, hospitality, sightseeing and a joyous wedding. However, getting there sure took its toll on me.
If there was ever a time when travel by air was enjoyable, the pandemic has stripped us of that serenity, adding additional stress at each step of the journey. Despite the headache of navigating airports in a COVID-19 world, traveling internationally amid ongoing restrictions proves that if there’s a will, there’s still a way.
Here are ways to navigate the ongoing pandemic-related challenges of traveling abroad.
As soon as Josh Lim, one of my best friends from Ohio University, told me he was going to be married this year, I knew I would do everything in my power to get to the other side of the world.
But after the collective trauma we’ve all endured in the last two and a half years, I knew I should be appropriately cautious — in case the wedding was postponed or I caught COVID-19 (for the second time).
I invested in travel insurance shortly after I purchased my flight. There are many options available both through travel agents and online businesses. I opted for a plan from Trawick International that ensured I could get all or most of my money back if the trip was canceled or interrupted.
In addition, the plan insured me against trip interruption, delays, missed connections, accidental death and dismemberment, medical accidents and sickness, baggage delays and property damage.
In another almost comedic twist in a series of unfortunate travel events, my checked bag didn’t show up until a day-and-a-half after I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, but eventually, we reunited.
Carrying such insurance should make it possible to get money back on nonrefundable lodging and experiences, should you experience a delay in flights or travel.
While I still haven’t forgiven American Airlines for robbing me of several extra days with one of my best friends from college, I did arrive in Malaysia in time for all of the important things. And to their credit, the airline carrier tried to make amends by offering bonus miles in my account.
As one of the groomsmen, I still made the rehearsal and the bachelor party and I helped greet other international guests as they arrived. And I got there in plenty of time before the wedding, the most important part.
I did miss out on several extra days of eating, visiting, catching up and exploring a country that was brand-new to me. But because I built in extra time at the beginning of my trip, I was there for the events and moments that really counted. My altered timeline just means I’m due for another longer visit soon.
I spent time researching COVID-19 restrictions before I traveled. Luckily, Malaysia did away with a mandatory quarantine for vaccinated travelers before my trip. The country even nixed the test-upon-entry requirement.
I thought I might need a test for traveling through Japan, but I completely missed the stipulation that prevented me from having an overnight layover. I still don’t think I should have been able to book this itinerary through American Airlines in the first place, but I could have done better research.
In navigating ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, visit Sherpa, an online resource that aids travelers in navigating a confusing array of rules and visa requirements. Enter your point of origin and destination, plus any connections, and the site will list any documentation, tests or visas required for each country.
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Sherpa also allows travelers to apply for some eVisas.
Amid our new reality, it’s worth asking the age-old question: Is it about the journey or the destination?
Parts of the journey might still carry bliss and intrigue: gazing in awe at a sunset casting golden light across the landscape from 40,000 feet above the earth, then finding yourself in an airport on the other side of the globe with signs in Arabic and English. Wondering about people around you, where they came from, what their stories are, where they’re headed.
But during a time when masking is common on planes and some typical comforts of travel are stripped, it might be more about the destination.
Savor every moment of an international vacation, especially given what a monumental effort it takes to get there.
Returning from travel inevitably comes with the experience of pinching yourself and remembering how real the trip was, even if it feels like just a dream. It’s great to relive the moments and feel nostalgia for the recent past through photos, and though it’s not like actually being there — these are the things that make all of the hassle worthwhile.