For 20 years, my husband and I have had a rule: we never check our bags. Ever. We only bring carry-ons.
It was hard at first. We had to consciously think of what we were packing, then discard at least half of what we had laid out. But we learned first-hand what travel experts have always said, that most people pack far too many clothes when they go on holiday. One of our trips was centred around music festivals in Europe — five opera, dance and symphonic performances in a week. So, everyone on the trip uniformly wore black. Appropriate, minimalist and no one scrambled to dress up.
But this June, we went with friends on a three-island tour to the Orkneys and Shetlands above Scotland, and the Faroe Islands, east of Iceland and west of Norway. There were a lot of hikes planned, so we decided, just this once, to check our bags on the flight from Toronto to Edinburgh. Of course, my bag wasn’t with the others when they dribbled out onto the conveyor at Edinburgh Airport. It turned out there was no one at the lost luggage counter, and a hand-written sign with a phone number to call was met with dead air.
This was our first encounter with the staff shortages that have caused chaos at airports around the world. My luggage caught up with me on the Shetlands five days later, and I had to buy some clothes in the meantime. But I’ve relearned my lesson: never check your bags! I know, it’s hard to change habits, especially later in life. But learning how to pack ‘small’ is one habit that will save untold aggravation when you travel again.
Our recent trip also provided valuable lessons on anticipating COVID-19 and travelling through it.
Of the 16 people on our three-island trip, eight of us got COVID-19, which we knew because we all carried rapid tests. The cases were mild, including mine. But two of our group had very expensive non-refundable extensions after our tour and they wisely left us when the first person tested positive for COVID-19. Two others had recently recovered from COVID-19, so they stayed and were fine. All of us scrambled to rebook flights and re-read our travel insurance policies. Our worst fear was that we would test positive for COVID-19, feel sick and have to isolate in Edinburgh for at least five days before we’d be able to get on a plane back home. These kinds of uncertainties are the unfortunate reality of travel when COVID-19 is still mutating and rising in incidence.
Yet, while we were scrambling to stay safe, the Faroese and others back in Britain and other European countries seemed to be treating COVID-19 as a mild social inconvenience.
When my husband called the Norwegian tour operator to say we were cancelling our trip there because I’d tested positive for COVID-19 and was heading home to Canada, he was bewildered. “But it’s perfectly safe here if you’re COVID-19-positive. You can travel on planes and trains, eat in restaurants. Just wear a mask.”
It seems we Canadians, with the highest vaccination rates in the world, are completely naïve about how other countries now handle travel and COVID. In Canada, wearing a mask is generally still viewed as a precaution against getting COVID-19. In Europe, wearing a mask signals you have COVID and want to protect others from getting it from you.
With new COVID variants sure to emerge, only time will tell if traveling with COVID-19 will simply become a new reality. Most of us, including most older travellers, will have mild symptoms as I did, with a light cough and sniffles. But a few will become gravely ill. At this writing, we simply don’t know. Each traveller should assess their own risk based on their personal health history.
As a group, we also learned that most travel insurance policies won’t cover all your costs if you need to shorten a trip because of COVID-19. They’ll only cover $200 a day. You also need to get a PCR test, not after you get home but where you are, and you can’t claim anything until that test is positive. You’ll also need to provide your insurer with proof of your incurred expenses.
The biggest lesson of all was what wasn’t demanded.
We flew home directly from Edinburgh to Toronto. We fretted that we might not be allowed to board the plane and that we’d be pulled aside on arrival. But at Edinburgh Airport, no one asked us a single question. In Toronto, the same. I produced our ArriveCan form and he waved us through. Nothing.
This contrasted with the actual Air Canada flight, where we all masked up, except when we were eating, a policy rigidly enforced by the flight attendants. Confusing for sure. Ineffective too.
So, if you’re older and want to travel outside Canada, I’d suggest three things:
Assess your own health status
If you’re frail or have multiple health issues, think twice about going abroad. If you go, plan to stay in one place, and limit your exposure to groups and how long you spend in their company. And don’t be shy about asking your travel companions to mask up when appropriate. Most seniors will be travelling to see their families after this long hiatus: they don’t need to do that in crowded restaurants.
Get your fourth vaccine
They’re available and free to any Canadian over 60. Try to get it at least two weeks before you leave the country.
Only bring a carry-on
Don’t check your bags. Not just to avoid the horror stories chronicled in this piece, but because baggage line-ups are great places for COVID-19 to spread, especially with mask policies being unevenly enforceds.
Finally, if you’re at a concert or restaurant or on a bus or train, mask up. Don’t let social pressure keep you from caring for yourself, especially in a far-off place.