La dolce vita in Rome over Christmas

January 18, 2022

After spending the week after Christmas, 2021 and the first week of 2022 in Italy with my family, I am compelled to pen an unapologetic love letter to Italy.  Last week I made the case for Italy being safer than Raleigh during Omicron.  My real-time notes bear out the sweet life to be had in Rome:

December 27

Slept in past 800am this morning, a late-rising record for me, as we adjusted to Euro time. We were pleased to see sunlight after yesterday’s all-day rain. With the shops open after the holiday weekend, my wife found a rain jacket to replace one inexplicably lost by TSA on Saturday at the RDU security screen.

It was a twenty minute walk to the Vatican to visit St. Peter’s Basilica.

Entry to the giant church is free, but a long queue and airport-style security made it a somewhat slow process. A young priest was on hand armed with a digital thermometer to check everyone’s forehead temp prior to entry, too. Once inside St. Peter’s, the enormous space easily swallowed up the multitudes who’d been waiting in line, including us.

Looking around, our twenty-something son quipped, straight-faced, that he was impressed at the scale and beauty built for the “Angels & Demons” movie set.

The Vatican Museum, which includes the Sistine Chapel, charges a fee, something we may do later this week.

Walking back to our apartment in the Largo Argentina, we stopped at Buddy (no apostrophe “s”), a vegetarian and vegan restaurant, for a delicious pizza lunch before strolling around the street market at Campo de Fiori. 

Then another visit to nearby Piazza Navona where I spied Enoteca Cul de Sac, yesterday’s lunch spot, at the end of an alley.

We wandered into an elegant cheese and wine shop in the Jewish Ghetto, this one reputed to stock among the most varied and exotic cheeses in Rome. (Certainly more cheese than found in the Monty Python “cheese shop” skit).

The day passed quickly, mid-afternoon spent stocking up on groceries and household supplies from the local Coop grocery. Tonight seven of us dine in the Ghetto at a well-regarded vegetarian restaurant. Reservations are for 800pm, early by Italian standards.  Unlike the U.S., evening meals in Italy begin in earnest around 900pm and frequently go on for hours.

December 28

Since arriving two days ago, I’ve praised this apartment’s marvelous location on the Largo Argentina for easy walking access to virtually every major Roman site. Most ancient places are on this side of the Tiber River, a major exception being the Vatican on the far side (but still relatively close on foot).

Today our daughter mapped out several walks on the other side of the Tiber that are some distance from the Holy See. The route included crossing the pedestrian-only Ponte Sisto and passing the Roman Botanical Garden (at €13 each, we gave it a miss).

Several restaurants had signs posted like the photo above. The Super Green Pass is the Italian version of a vax card. The American CDC vax card is accepted as equivalent.

Picture above was taken from the vantage of one of the Roman hills we surmounted on our walk.

For lunch our daughter found a new vegan restaurant called Aromaticus, which boasts of a “Green Kitchen” (100% vegan). Very modern, sleek & stylish place with a young, well-dressed clientele. Delicious dishes! We tried, among other entrees, falafel, hummus, salad, and curry. All were excellent.

Great concept, and one of two in Rome. We chatted with the owner. He and his wife invented the restaurants. My impression: Vegan meets Italian chefs equals YUM!

Then back to our gorgeous apartment to greet and confer with famous archeologist Darius Arya, expert in ancient Rome. Darius and his wife are friends of Joe and Joel Brancatelli, and we are most grateful for the introduction. He is graciously taking us on a private tour tomorrow of the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, and the Coliseum.

Our son relaxing in the living room of our rented flat in Rome

Darius has produced some 600 videos on ancient Rome and Italy. One recent on his YouTube channel is of Pompeii and has clocked over 80,000 views to date. Darius has also done an eight-part series for National Geographic and recently agreed to produce an ancient culture series for The Great Courses. I’ll post a report after our tours with Darius tomorrow.

Every night at 8:00 PM this week here in Rome, Joe Brancatelli has planned a rich dining experience, with careful consideration to individual palates and needs. As for example our daughter, who prefers a vegan diet.  Selecting restaurants that offer something to please everyone’s taste is a challenge, one Joe excelled at.

This evening it was a seafood restaurant tucked away in a narrow alley between the Campo di Fiori and Piazza Navona. I don’t know how the heck he found it.

Unassuming in appearance and quite small, with a single waiter, the kitchen produced one delicious culinary gem after another through four courses.

I could describe the pictured dishes, but it wouldn’t do them justice. Every plate held a work of art for the eyes and mouth.  No leftovers, either!

+++ End of real-time notes +++

Next week I’ll describe our four-hour walking tour of ancient Rome led by Darius Arya.  My first visit to the ruins was in 1973, but now I realize that I had dim appreciation for it until seeing Roman history through the eyes of an expert archeologist. 

Italy safer than America during Omicron

January 11, 2022

My family joined me for nine nights in Rome, Bologna, and Milan. We flew over on Christmas night.

Was it crazy to visit Italy at the height of the Omicron surge?  No, absolutely not. Safer than life in Raleigh. Because the Italians have adapted to living large under the coronavirus cloud far better than we Americans have.  After suffering one of the highest death rates (140,000) when the Covid pandemic began in 2020, Italy took serious measures to quell the spread while recognizing the need to keep the country’s economy open and to accommodate its celebrated vibrant lifestyle.

Consider these facts:

  • Italy has a fully vaccinated rate of 75.7% over all age ranges, compared to 57.3% in North Carolina. More than 86% of those 12 and over in Italy have been vaccinated, and some 15% of children aged five to eleven have received their first vaccine.
  • In Italy, everyone must wear a mask inside and outside.  Except in private homes.  With very few exceptions, the vast majority of people we saw in Italy wore masks.  Sadly, the few who didn’t that I overheard speaking tended to be young and American.
  • Entry to Italian public transport and public buildings requires wearing N95 or equivalent masks, not cloth masks. This requirement was uniformly enforced on the trains we rode to Bologna and Milan.  Our CDC is finally warming up to this notion.
  • And, just as most countries do these days, Italy requires a negative Covid test within 72 hours of flying in from overseas.

While the list of hurdles can seem daunting on its face, we were able to comply without much trouble. While in Italy, our experience was the requirements were cheerfully met. Routinely masked and fully vaccinated, Italians are going about their lives with their usual joy and verve. Meanwhile, here in the U.S. plenty of unvaccinated Americans dither, and some of my fellow citizens openly scoff at those of us who wear masks even inside places of business, let alone while outside.

The reward while visiting Italy for adhering to these reasonable and easy rules is to enjoy life again much as before the pandemic!  Something the Italians excel at doing—better even than the French, in my opinion—and effortlessly.  Following are my real-time notes and photos of our first day (December 26th) in Rome, with more to come in ensuing posts.

It’s rainy but warm-ish here in Rome this Sunday afternoon. We checked into the fabulous apartment (above picture) in Largo Argentina: three bedrooms, three full baths, and an eye-popping view directly into the forum where Julius Ceasar was murdered in 44 B.C. (photo below). That’s just like yesterday for Rome.

The pictures don’t do this place justice. It is decadent, fit for royalty. Makes me wonder what we are doing here. We are stunned by its beauty, luxury decor, and premier location.

Off for an espresso in the piazza to keep us awake until our 3:00 PM meal at Enoteca Cul de Sac.

We managed to stay awake despite jetlag to dine at Enoteca Cul de Sac as planned at 300p. The apartment is ideally located, central to everything for walking. It took just seven minutes to get to the enoteca. The photo just above is of the Largo Argentina where Ceasar was killed, looking back at our penthouse flat in the yellowish building on the left. That’s our terrace on the far end.

The photo just above is the Enoteca Cul de Sac. The wine was excellent and the food scrumptious. I had duck ravioli (below). We shared one serving of Cul de Sac’s signature chocolate mousse with whipped cream to cap the dining experience. I sheepishly admit that I didn’t feel much guilt for those we left behind back in the USA.

After stuffing ourselves, we strolled for two hours to walk off the food and wine and to get some exercise after the long plane ride.

First a walk through the beautiful Piazza Navona (above) after leaving Enoteca Cul de Sac. Navona and its famous fountain are mere steps away from Cul de Sac.

Only a five-minute walk from our apartment to the Pantheon, breathtaking any time of the day or night, but particularly haunting at dusk.

Commissioned and built in the first and second centuries A.D., the Pantheon is a masterpiece of design and ancient construction.

Then on to the nearby Column of Marcus Aurelius, completed just before 200 A.D.

From there we strolled along the Via del Corso, Rome’s main Street, admiring the Rome-themed Christmas lights and the big Christmas tree at the well-known “Wedding Cake” memorial to the unification of Italy (built 1885). Ruins of the ancient Roman Forum begin just behind the memorial.

The photo below was taken from the terrace of our apartment looking down into the ruins of the Curia of Pompei where on the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 B.C. Julius Ceasar was stabbed to death, assassinated by Senators bent on restoring the Roman Republic (it didn’t happen; the Republic was dead and followed by Imperial Rome).

Wow, we only arrived at ten this morning, and it looks like we have seen much of Rome already! Guess we can go home now.

Nah, that’s not for another nine days.

Delta to Rome on Christmas night

January 4, 2022

Seven or eight months ago, I snagged a special deal on Delta during the period when international flights had few riders due to Covid: Low award travel seats in Comfort+ Raleigh to Rome leaving on Christmas. I immediately snagged four seats going over for me, my wife, and our two adult children without being certain of the return date. 

It took some scrounging on the Delta website to find days and flights coming home that matched the low mileage award seat offer, but I located four such seats returning from Milan on January 4 and grabbed them.

I noticed about 10 days later that those low, low overseas award travel deals on Delta were gone, so my timing was good. I’d been looking for seats to Rome to accept an invitation from Joe Brancatelli to show us the real Rome he has come to know and love in twenty-plus years of visits.  I was thrilled to find a bargain means of flying to make the trip possible.

Thus began the most memorable trip I’ve ever made to Italy, and I’ve been going fairly regularly since 1973.  I’ll be describing the trip day by day, and fabulous experience by experience, in coming posts.  This report covers getting there on Christmas night.  Here are my real-time notes and photos:

December 25, 2021

1:15 PM – Arrived RDU airport, which appears very busy.  The RDU Delta SkyClub staff said we are lucky to be flying to Rome through ATL because the JFK/FCO flight has already been canceled.

Otherwise, only one cancellation notice on the departure board, ATL leaving here at 755pm. Given all the news about Omicron-related flight cancellations, I am surprised it isn’t more. 

1:59 PM – Successful at standing by for an earlier RDU/ATL departure leaving at 159pm, although we are in rows 37 and 38 (very rear of the plane). No matter. Always better to get to a connecting point earlier, and our original 350pm flight was already showing a creeping delay. 

2:41 PM – En route to Atlanta, a 1 hr 15 min flight I’ve made a hundred times at least, the beverage cart came to row 38 with a choice of only water or coffee. I asked why no other choices. “So short a flight” was the canned answer. Funny, but I used to be served a full tray meal on these Delta flights between Raleigh and Atlanta even in coach in the 80s and 90s. Again, no matter. It was pleasant not to be rushed, and we arrived in Atlanta with almost four hours to connect.

4:46 PM – In the Delta SkyClub in the E (international) Concourse of the ATL Airport waiting for our 725p flight to Rome.  Busy, but not overcrowded.  Good food and even real Champagne on offer. Special Christmas cupcakes, too.  We are filling up here in anticipation of not getting equivalent quantity or quality in our Comfort+ seats on Delta to Rome. I didn’t pay much in miles for these awards seats because I got them at a huge bargain about 7 months ago.

Delta’s app now teases me with an offer to upgrade to business class one way to Rome for $3202 extra per person, a mere $12,800 for the four of us. Needless to say, I declined the offer. We can drink Champagne and eat pretty well here in the SkyClub for zero extra dollars and will arrive in Rome tomorrow sated and ready to go.

Besides which, I have 300p reservations for the four of us at Rome’s superb Enoteca Cul de Sac tomorrow, Dec 26. The memory of their food and wine makes my mouth water!

5:06 PM – Delta ATL/LHR is canceled tonight, but ATL/JNB is boarding now.

5:55 PM – Someone asked how we will get tested for Covid returning to the States 24 hours before our flight.  In anticipation of that problem, I brought 8 Abbott tests with me. 

Outbound, it was tedious to jump through all the hoops to be able to fly to Rome.  All four of us got PCR-tested by Wake County (where Raleigh is located), which I had to upload along with photos of our CDC vaccination cards.  I also had to complete and upload a long contact tracing form required by some EU countries, including Italy.  Although the Delta website proclaimed the various uploads were successful (through a 3rd party vendor), I brought along hard copies of all the documents with me, just in case.

7:00 PM – We are on board in Comfort+ in much-coveted bulkhead seats right behind Business Class.. Flight DL64 ATL/FCO seems to be mostly full. I was happily surprised that all the pre-work I did the last few days to upload the several forms and test results through the Delta portal paid off at the gate. We were just waved on board with no tedious document checks. Next stop, hopefully, Roma!

December 26, 2021

10:29 AM – Flight report: The advantage of bulkhead seats is lots of extra legroom and no one leaning a seat back into your personal space. The downside is being adjacent to the galley, certain to be lit throughout the flight. Flight attendants also tend to congregate and yap there.

Our cabin crew was especially galley-chatty overnight, perhaps because it was Christmas. Still and all, I managed to sleep for several hours of the nearly nine-hour flight; on-board rest is important for me to survive the first day. A lifetime of travel worldwide has taught me that the relatively short six-hour time difference to Europe from the U.S. East Coast kicks my backside with jetlag like no other international journey.

Comfort+ passengers were given big pillows, thin blankets, eyeshades, earplugs, and a toothbrush. The plane was freezing, causing me to mummify inside the blanket all night. The eyeshades came in handy to block the galley light for sleeping. I watched one movie before turning in. The seats are pretty comfortable despite being narrow.

Dinner and drinks came quickly after takeoff last night. Two choices: some sort of Indian-style chicken, or a cheese ravioli. My wife and I had one of each. Both came with a small salad weirdly crammed into a plastic cup. Both entrees were typically bland, made slightly more palatable by a well-chilled, tasty prosecco. I pre-ordered a vegan meal for our daughter, which she seemed to enjoy. The meal service was as expected for economy class: just better than minimal.

Flight attendants made rounds during the flight with orange juice and water.

A small but filling breakfast consisting of hot egg and cheese on an English muffin and a fruit cup was served 75 minutes before landing. I was surprised at, and appreciative of, the second meal service.

The purser and the lead flight attendant came round individually to speak to me before we left Atlanta.  Each brought a handwritten personal note thanking me for my five and one-half million miles of Delta flying.  The FA also brought me a small bag with five premium liquor mini-bottles—a nice surprise—and a Chinese brass incense burner.  It was a kind gesture, which I greatly appreciated. I would have appreciated even more being upgraded to business class, but that didn’t happen.

We arrived 15 minutes early to weather in the high 50s Fahrenheit and intermittent showers. More later as we reach the city.  The plane has parked at the gate, and the door is about to open.

+++ End of real-time notes. +++

Next time I’ll describe our spectacular Roman apartment overlooking the Largo Argentina where Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C.

A surfeit of travel uncertainty

December 14, 2021

Could just be me over-reacting, but a pall of existential uncertainty seems to hang over these Covid times like an inversion layer of air pollution. Personal examples follow.

What’s in a name?

After 9/11, a lot. Nowadays, it feels like even more.

Over the weekend I heard from a friend who is about to apply for TSA Global Entry/Pre-check credentials.  He wanted to know whether he should include his middle name.  I advised that he should use his passport name precisely even if that name doesn’t exactly match what’s on his birth certificate. Since 9/11, I explained, one’s name in the government database must equal all other name identifiers for travel.

Not as easy as it sounds.  My full name is William Anderson Allen III.  The suffix “III” is what databases commonly trip over.  Sometimes, it’s the lack of a comma between “Allen” and “III” that causes confusion, especially when using legacy systems speaking to TSA systems. 

Usually, I go by simply Will Allen, and sometimes Will Allen III. But not at the airports of the world, not even for domestic travel.  In airline frequent flyer program databases I am variously known as Will Allen; Will Allen III; Will Allen, III; Will A. Allen; Will A Allen; William Allen; William A. Allen; W. A. Allen III; and so on, ad infinitum.  It’s maddening that we are twenty years past 9/11, and the airline computers will still not change my name to exactly what’s on my passport. 

Thus, the American AAdvantage program which I joined in 1981—two decades before 9/11—shows my name as William A. Allen, and AA stubbornly refuses to spell out my middle name and to add the “III” suffix.  That little glitch kicks out my name as a potential threat most times I try to check in online at AA.com, forcing me to show my face to a counter agent at the airport.

But not every time, and the uncertainty is maddening.  I never know if I’ll be able to check-in for an American flight.  Doesn’t appear to matter whether it’s a domestic or international itinerary.

Ditto for using my AAdvantage number for partner airlines like JetBlue and Qatar.  If I have used my passport name (as I must) to book flights on Qatar Airways, then their system thinks my AAdvantage number is wrong because the AA name isn’t exactly like the one in their PNR.  And therefore I often don’t get credit for the partner miles.

Not just American, either.  I had a similar issue with United a few months ago flying from Raleigh to Newark.  The counter agent shook her head and said it happens pretty often. 

Delta’s system has my correct passport name, and yet even then some snag related to my names prevents me from checking in online. 

I’m not feeling any airline love these days

In previous posts, I’ve justifiably moaned and griped about United Airlines’ shoddy performance on two itineraries RDU to Johannesburg in the summer and fall.  United was exceptionally annoying in canceling my RDU/EWR flight in July and left no options, then refused to acknowledge it, promised to refund my domestic first-class upgrade fee of $63, and never did.  That and the bare minimum of supposedly deluxe Polaris business class service for 14 hours to Johannesburg and back were exasperating.

At least UA recently reopened the Newark Polaris Lounge, but for over a year, the airline forced Polaris customers—its best and most loyal flyers—into the dismal, over-crowded United Club, a very long walk from its Newark international gates. 

Why did I fly subject myself to United wretchedness?  Uncertainty.  Delta sky-high fares and Delta’s on-again, off-again service between the USA and South Africa were, Delta told me, due to Covid.  Since Delta couldn’t be sure when their suspended ATL/JNB service would restart, I booked three United itineraries.  I felt fortunate to find a bargain business class fare, too, until I survived the first round trip and realized I didn’t get the value I paid for, not even for a low price. More uncertainty, not to mention irony.

Delta’s high fares to Johannesburg earlier this year which had pushed me to the godawful United flights seemed to have dropped for late February and early March when I’m flying back for my third trip (since July) to South Africa’s astonishing Kruger National Park. I checked yesterday and found the nonstop flights were $1600 in Premium Economy and $3005 in Delta One from RDU.  Double-checked today and found the same flights are now priced at $2559 and $7161.  Uncertainty strikes again.

I can go some places overseas

But I must choose carefully. Not everywhere I’d like to go (e.g., Morocco, Japan, China, Bhutan).

The Washington Post says the Omicron variant is shredding our travel plans.  Reasons for the misery include tough international travel testing regimens both leaving and returning; airlines insisting upon issuing credits rather than refunds for cancellations; local restrictions suddenly shutting down public places, potentially even alcohol sales (South Africa); and unknown Omicron infection rates.

Since uncertainty rules, I am a travel opportunist.  Do I normally go three times in the space of twelve months to South Africa?  No.  But South Africa has remained open to tourists despite the challenges of dealing with Covid.  I took a friend in July and August, and my wife accompanied me in November to the Kruger.  I am taking four more friends in February-March for that third Kruger trip unless stopped by new Covid roadblocks.

Can’t go to England without surmounting a steep wall of restrictions, but Italy is open as long as I get a PCR test in advance, show my vax card, and wear a mask everywhere. Then get tested 24 hours in advance to satisfy the CDC before returning home. So, yes!  I am taking my family of four to Rome, Bologna, and Milan this month unless the cafes, restaurants, and public places suddenly close.  A marvelous Roman penthouse awaits, overlooking the Largo Argentina where Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March, 44 BCE.

While in Rome—if the Fates allow (uncertainty again)—we will enjoy the spectacular cuisine, including my favorite lunch haunt, the Enoteca Cul de Sac.  I’ll also make a trip to Harry’s Bar wearing my International Bar Fly (IBF) pin, shown here:

This IBF pin was awarded to me at Harry’s New York Bar in Munich in 1976 where I had become a regular patron in ’75 and ’76. Hard to believe it was nearly a half century ago. It seems like yesterday.  In 2009 Chris Barnett wrote fondly about Harry’s in Rome. Word is, Harry’s continues to excel. I’ve been practicing my IBF code words to fellow bar flies: “Bzzzt, bzzzt!”  Seriously.

I’m hopeful, but realistic.  I can’t know for certain until we get there.

Better to be lucky than good

November 30, 2021

My wife and I spent a night and a day in Johannesburg en route to and from South Africa’s Kruger National Park between November 1 and 15. Several friends reached out over the Thanksgiving holidays applauding how smart I was to schedule two weeks in South Africa between the tail end of the Delta variant surge and the looming Omicron variant. In reply to my friends’ praise, I unabashedly owned up to the truth: The timing had nothing to do with cleverness, only luck.

Yep, just luck.  But I’ll take it.  Especially in Covid times.

Lefty Gomez, an all-star pitcher for the New York Yankees in the 1930s, is credited with saying: “I’d rather be lucky than good.”  Mr. Gomez was spot on.  Having been at travel planning since the age of thirteen, I am really good at it and enjoy the task as much now as ever.  Successful trip planning, though, even with sixty years of practice, is founded upon known deadlines, confirmed bookings, and foreseeable risks. The Covid-19 pandemic has made folly of predictability and has all but trashed the value of my expertise.

My wife and I have been back from South Africa two weeks today after flying out of Johannesburg the night of November 15. Of course, we had to be tested and found to be negative before being allowed on the plane coming to the USA.  We’ve felt fine since getting home.

But then I read that Omicron infections were identified as early as November 11 when we were still in South Africa.  Meaning the variant was certainly present during our visit.  Just to be sure, then, we both went for PCR tests yesterday, and we each received results by nightfall: “NOT DETECTED.” Which means “negative” in the careful legal parlance of Covid testing laboratories.   

With more and more Covid variants rising, I feel like a castaway in a sea of travel uncertainty, clinging to the driftwood maxim that indeed it’s better to be lucky than good. So, yeah, I’ll take that lucky Covid sandwich of a South African trip, neatly nestled between Delta and Omicron variants.

Lady Luck doesn’t always smile on my trips, to be sure.  An upcoming week in Italy over the Christmas holidays has become uncertain because of the Omicron unknowns. If the Italians close up restaurants, cafes, shops, and public places again, then why go?  We have very fine accommodation lined up, including a rented penthouse apartment overlooking a prominent Roman piazza with a sweeping panoramic view of the ancient city.  But a snazzy place to sleep isn’t the high point of Rome or anywhere in the country.  It’s the scrumptious food, the gorgeous places, the fascinating history, the spectacular wine, and most of all, the good company: relishing life among the ever-ebullient Italian people. 

The French pursue joie de vivre, yet it’s the Italians who have perfected it in every moment. That effervescent lifestyle is why I love going back to Italy. Having to socially distance would moot the principal fun of the trip, thanks again to Covid dashing that most precious element of life among the Italians: ordinary, everyday human interaction. 

Perhaps my worry is for naught; Italy is open for the moment. Maybe we’ll get lucky again.

Another example of not-so-good fortune: The new variant has caused Morocco to snap shut again.  My wife and I had planned a grand exploration of Morocco to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in the summer of 2020.  I’d already bought Delta and Air France tickets in business class and was about to plunk down for accommodation when Morocco closed the first time.  Covid made mincemeat of our extensive planning. A silver lining of luck showed through in one respect: Delta canceled all flights to Morocco, thus requiring the airline to fully refund my money rather than issue an e-credit.  But we still could not go, and now we still cannot re-plan a trip to that exotic land.  I guess I can watch the 1942 Bob Hope-Bing Crosby comedy classic “The Road to Morocco” although I won’t learn much about the country or its people from the film.

Lastly, I have another trip planned to South Africa’s Kruger National Park in late February 2022 accompanying four friends who have never been there.  After months of long and careful planning to integrate every person’s particular travel needs, air schedules and Kruger accommodation are all set and paid for.  But with Omicron looming, who knows?  I can only hope we get a lucky break, as my wife and I did in early November.

I also hope Omicron won’t break through the vaccines.  In which case I won’t have to worry about fickle luck interfering with trip planning, as I probably won’t be flying anywhere for some time. Heck, if that happens, maybe not even going to get my hair cut.

As it is, stringent new CDC negative test requirements before flying home from overseas (24 hours rather than 3 days) seem imminent. Although I don’t think absolute health can be guaranteed with any test because the virus can be incubating and elude a test even 24 hours in advance.

Or even a day-of-travel test, if one was possible. A test is just a risk reducer. The only near-certainty is to do what Morocco, Israel, China, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan have done: close the borders to everyone from everywhere. And then mandate 100% vaccination compliance to the population. 

Even then unexplained cases will occur. Testing requirements are a poor sub for closed borders if your desire is really to stop the spread. 

But I’m glad most places remain open for now. Especially Italy. Maybe I’ll get lucky again and spend New Year’s Eve in Rome!

The new reality of getting home from overseas

November 18, 2021

On November 16 my wife and I arrived home in Raleigh after a spectacular two week trip through the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  The tedious process of getting home began four days earlier on November 12 and required a lot of my time and attention to be sure it was done right. 

Covid has added a lot of complexity to international travel for returning Americans, requirements that add cost and steal time from a trip.  I fear the non-value-adding activities may be here to stay, counterbalanced somewhat by airline software improvements and Internet-based remote testing solutions.  I wrote about successful remote testing on my previous Kruger visit in August.

I’ve been making trips to South Africa for nearly 31 years. Before Covid, getting home was so perfunctory that I can’t remember any significant hurdles on the return journeys, regardless of my international air carrier.  Now, though, I have to focus and plan carefully.

Starting with the remote testing.  In August it was just me, but this time two of us needed to go through the remote Emed/Navica testing process.  I took four of the Abbott/Binax test kits with me (two for backups “just in case”).  First, I consulted carefully with the United Airlines “Travel Ready Center” portal to be dead certain of requirements. 

Going over the pond, a PCR test was mandatory per South Africa, and it had be within exactly 72 hours of flight time, not just of the departure date, in our case 9:00 PM on October 31. Thus, our negative test results had to be dated not sooner than 9:00 PM on October 28. Since it’s not possible to be tested at that late hour of any day, we had to wait until the morning of October 29 to go for our PCR tests.

Coming home, United follows the looser CDC guideline that Covid test results, which can be antigen or PCR, must be dated within three days of the flight date.  Our flight departure was scheduled for 10:00 PM on November 15, and per the CDC rule, our negative test results could be any time on November 12 or later.  Checking United’s Travel Ready Center confirmed this, so we targeted the morning of November 12 to go through the remote testing routine. 

Coincidentally, we were at the same Kruger Park camp, Satara, that I reported from before.  Since it worked well there, I expected similar smooth sailing.

I went first, signed into the Navica app, which took me to Emed.com, and went through the test process.  Just as I wrote about in July, a bit slow with a weak Internet signal through my smartphone, and within 45 minutes, done.  Tested negative, and soon had my official report, ready to be uploaded to United.

My wife then began the same process and was repeatedly kicked off the Emed Labs site due to video freezes and connection problems.  But it finally worked after 3+ hours of frustrating repeated tries. By then our morning of planned game drives was shot. Good news was both tests negative.

It then took three tries for United Airlines to acknowledge and approve uploads of our negative Covid tests and vax cards (the latter a new U.S. government requirement, effective November 8), which paved the way for our flight home the night of November 15. The anxiety of being rejected twice before final approval may be common these days as Covid-related requirements for international travel are both fluid and unique country by country. United, not my favorite airline, has admittedly done a good job of adapting to those complexities. For those of us who seek to travel between countries, however, meeting the requirements is no fun in addition to being a costly time sink.

Our actual flights home began with the short hop from Skukuza to Johannesburg on the private, perennially profitable, well-run carrier, SA AIRLINK, not to be confused with government-run and chronic money-loser, SAA (South African Airways).  Airlink is a plucky airline with a well-known sunbird logo on the tail of their planes.

SA Airlink fares are reasonable, too. What I didn’t expect was for Airlink to field a world-class, easy-to-use online check-in process.  I was pleasantly surprised the previous night (November 14) to get an email for checking in on November 15. Done in less than a minute. The tiny Airlink desk at tiny Skukuza Airport quickly handed over our boarding passes when I produced the confirmation. Super easy.

United Airlines also sent an electronic check-in message to my email the night of November 14 which I completed that morning at 400am as we prepared for our game drive. It was a more mind-numbing, even tortured, process than Airlink’s, and took me all of 12 minutes to complete. Reason being, UA is now asking for all kinds of new information related to Covid.

That said, it was hard to find fault with the necessary complexity, and at the end, United produced e-boarding passes for both my wife and me. The United website didn’t do quite that well for me in August, and I wondered if those e-docs would be enough for me to bypass the check-in counter at Johannesburg.

The Airlink flight was a fast and on-time 50 minutes Skukuza to Johannesburg on an ERJ.  Despite the short duration, the flight attendant offered beverages (including beer and wine) and sandwiches, a nice touch.

Arriving Johannesburg on November 15, we decided to try to go straight through, bypassing the check-in counter. We had zero checked luggage, so we found the security screen for Terminal A where United departs, completed the requisite Covid-19 tracing form, and used the boarding passes on my phone to run the security and immigration gauntlet.

Worked like a charm. We had arrived at the domestic terminal from our SA Airlink flight at 230pm, and we were inside security at the international terminal by 330pm.

Sure, that’s common in America for domestic flights, but for a Johannesburg-Newark flight in the fluidly complicated Covid era, I was amazed. Chalk up one for United in enabling our breeze through security and immigration. That’s the easiest experience I’ve had here in 30 years of flying out of Jo’burg.

Once in, Ruth and I made a beeline for the SLOW Lounge that United used in August for business class. But United has moved, I discovered, to the old SAA (South African Airways) Lounge. SAA, now defunct but supposedly being reconstituted by the government, was/is a Star Alliance partner, so I guess moving made sense.

We therefore traipsed down the corridor to the SAA Lounge and were welcomed in. It’s still divided the way it always was between First Class and Business Class sides, but there aren’t any international First Class passengers these days because almost no airline still fields a real international First Class cabin. Business Class has mostly replaced First Class, and that side was empty.

The larger Business Class side of the lounge slowly filled up as the afternoon turned to evening, and I noticed it seemed far more spacious than the SLOW Lounge it replaced. We took showers in the lounge and put on clean clothes for the long flight home tonight. Afterwards, enjoyed pretty good fare from the food offerings and sampled the local gin (very good). Staff was plentiful and attentive, and they were all gracious, eager to serve.  Lots of private nooks and crannies, free wifi, and electric outlets to charge our phones, too.

While enjoying the absence of stress, my phone beeped with a check-in email from Delta Airlines for our flight the following morning (November 16) Newark to Raleigh. After the terrible experiences Jeff Murison and I had on United in July and August, I booked away from United going home just as I did flying JetBlue to Newark two weeks ago. Checking in on the Delta flight took less than a minute, so we were ready to go as long as United got us to Newark on time.

United Airlines UA187 nonstop from Johannesburg to Newark left the gate at November 15, early by 10 minutes, and landed about 10 minutes early (just before 700am on November 16) at Newark after 14.5 hours in the air. I was delighted that the flight was on time, our first OT experience with United.

Service on board the United long-haul flight was perfunctory and minimalist, just as it was going over. A tasteless fish dish with a blue plastic glass of lukewarm champagne was dropped on my business class table all at once on a plastic tray. I didn’t eat or drink much of it. I had to ask for the dessert, which the flight attendants admitted to me they forgot: a tiny container of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream partially melted by the time it reached me.The cabin crew mostly disappeared for 12 hours after clearing the trays until serving another tray of breakfast about an hour before landing. I was asked if I preferred “French toast or eggs” without explanation of how the eggs were prepared. At least I had a choice sitting in row 1. By the time my wife was served in row 3, only eggs were available.

This was my fourth flight in business class on the United nonstops to and from Johannesburg since late July, and service has been about the same on all four: forgettable. The seats lie flat for sleeping, and that’s the only meaningful service difference.  Thankfully, I was able to get a rock bottom business class fare.

It was a bargain, I guess. But I think United should be offering its premium Polaris cabin passengers more.  On the plus side—a big plus these days—UA has excellent software for complying with the labyrinthine regulations of getting home from overseas.

We were off the UA plane by 700am and whisked through Immigration and Customs, thanks to our Global Entry membership. Just takes a photo of our faces and done. No passport presented or stamped.

By 722am on November 16 we had passed through Terminal B security to reach the Delta gates for our flight to RDU and were ensconced in the Delta SkyClub to wait. Pretty good for an international arrival to a domestic connection at any airport, but especially at Newark, which has a bad rep for service, regardless of airline. Arriving early morning, of course, accounts for some of the ease.

The Delta flight to Raleigh/Durham left at 10:00 AM on time and arrived 30 minutes early after 60 minutes.  I’d booked us in first class using award tickets (way in advance, so the mileage requirement was low), and it was a comfortable flight with food and drink offered, just as on SA Airlink the day before.  Kudos to both SA Airlink and Delta for providing great domestic short-haul service, quite a contrast to the unexceptional United Polaris cabin service on one of the longest flights on earth.

Altogether, the user software employed by all three airlines, plus the Emed Labs’ CDC-approved remote testing software and the lightning-fast Global Entry kiosks, smoothed the complexity that has grown up around international travel for returning American citizens.  Some bumps still, but it all works routinely.  Knowing I can get home makes me confident that I can and will keep traveling abroad.

United Airlines delay misery redux

En route on United Airlines Flight 188 Newark to Johannesburg in business class on Halloween, these are my real-time notes:

Misery struck again leaving Newark, just as my trip on the same flight in July. We were held at EWR gate 121 “for cargo” for over an hour. Cockpit crew didn’t keep us posted very well, ultimately changing the story to blame our late pushback (75 minutes behind schedule) on alleyway congestion.

Scheduled departure 945pm. Pushed back at 1059pm. Finally off the ground at 1132pm. As we lifted off, I realized that was 12 hours after leaving my house to drive to RDU. Long day already, and a 14.5 hour flight still ahead.

UA188 was scheduled to arrive Johannesburg at 620pm local, now looks closer to 730pm even with favorable tailwinds. Which means the poor folks booked on the return leg JNB/EWR that will use this aircraft will likely also be late arriving back to Newark.

This nonstop flight travels 8,000 miles, an impressive feat. Boeing 787-9 technology has tooled a comfortable cabin in all three classes. I walked back to Premium Economy to try out the seats while waiting at Newark and found them to feel spacious and private in width and in front-to-back separation.

The cabin crew didn’t seem to care about the galling delay and gabbed in the front galley like middle schoolers. I wish they’d at least pretended to concern. Misery, after all, loves company.

Just as in July, despite the late departure, no boarding Champagne, or even a Coca-Cola while waiting. Only a bottle of water handed out when the flight attendants came for our meal and drink order.

I was asked if I wanted “beef, chicken, or pasta” with no elucidation of how each was prepared or what accompanied the entree. When I asked, the flight attendant said only, “I hear the beef is good.”

I gave up hoping for any kind of an explanation and ordered beef and Champagne.

About 45 minutes after becoming airborne, dinner was tray-served all at once, including gelato for dessert, which naturally melted into a coolish goo before the hot food was consumed. I left mine. Nothing whatsoever elegant about the service or presentation. I’ve had better service in coach on other airlines, and even in cafeterias.

My Champagne came in a blue plastic cup in the middle of the tray adjacent to the hot dish. Like the gelato, the Champagne suffered from proximity to heat and was undrinkable. At least I had enjoyed Piper Heidsieck rose hours earlier in the United Club. I did like the tasty braised beef tenderloin and rice, however. Unlike the carrots and broccoli, which were the consistency of shoe leather. The salad was limp and tasteless.

After the trays were cleared, the flight attendants mostly vanished, leaving big bottles of water and small bags of potato chips for self-service in the galley area for the next 10 hours. As we approached southern Africa (Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa), breakfast trays were unpacked and heated. Odd, I thought, that we get breakfast just before landing at dinner time.

The cabin crew seemed to mostly act perfunctorily in their tasks. Except for one friendly flight attendant from Atlanta, the FAs exhibited little warmth and few smiles. The attitude seemed to be: just get the job done. Not even a hint of acknowledgment that United’s vaunted Polaris service was more than window dressing.

Well, really, “Polaris” isn’t much beyond the narrow lie-flat seats in business class. Heck, United won’t even reopen its Polaris Lounge at Newark, forcing Polaris customers to cram into the tired, overcrowded United Club near gate 82 or 84.

All in all, another poor performance by United, both operationally and service-wise. I fly home on November 15th, and I’m booked on one more United round trip in business class in February and March. This flight serves its purpose of getting me there and back (though not on time), but paying for business class, even at the deep discount bargain fare I snagged, isn’t worth it. If there is a next flight on United beyond March, I’ll aim for Premium Economy, enjoy the relative comfort of the PE seats, and not expect any service.

All United Airlines grousing aside, I’m jazzed to be almost back in South Africa! Tomorrow morning I’ll fly the short hop (50 minutes) from Johannesburg to Skukuza in the Kruger National Park. I can hardly wait. After clearing immigration and customs, I’ll walk over to the City Lodge Hotel situated in the airport parking structure to lay my head tonight. I’d be there a lot earlier if this flight was on time.

The high price of the great American road trip in 2021

October 20, 2021

In the fable of Goldilocks, the young girl found a place in the home of the hapless three bears to lay her head that was “just right.”  That hasn’t happened to me in the real world in recent weeks.  I’ve slept in three inns of highly different styles and experiences, yet not one was perfect.  Each had its upsides and negatives.  But all were expensive for what they were.

Which first begs the question: What is my “ideal” in a hostelry?  For me these days, it’s a combination of factors:

  • Safe and secure
  • Reasonable value
  • Attractive and well-maintained condition and appointments inside and out
  • Competent, friendly staff
  • A quiet room in all respects, including HVAC
  • Comfortable, firm beds
  • Good quality sheets and towels
  • Heat and air system that maintains set temp within a small range
  • Good water pressure and plenty of hot water
  • High speed Wi-Fi
  • Complimentary hot breakfast
  • Flat-screen TV with cable
  • Complimentary parking
  • Room service
  • Interesting bar and restaurant

Looking at my list, it seems more basic than ideal, but I’ve cut back on my expectations over the years.  No longer do I look for a Wall Street Journal to be left outside my door, and forget about a concierge lounge.  And certainly not a complimentary shine when leaving my shoes outside my door.  Heck, I don’t even ask for a wake-up call these days, preferring the alarm on my smartphone.  So these are my impressions written from notes after staying in each inn over the past few weeks:

Sewanee Inn in Sewanee, TN

Last night stayed at the swish Sewanee Inn. This picture says it all about the place and its pretensions:

Not pleased that the room was the one closest to the highway.  Soundproofing was adequate, but the headlights were annoying.  And proximity to any road ruins the ambiance.

Chronic loud voices from tipsy neighbors lolling in the hallway disturbed my late night slumbers until my call to security had the desired effect. 

The restaurant was pretty good, and the bar was cozy and well-stocked.  I do love a good bar.  Sadly, classy hotel bars are disappearing faster than ice in the arctic.

I didn’t know Sofia Copola produced a branded California bubbly, but when I saw it on the menu at dinner, I ordered a glass. Curious why it was sold only by the glass and not the bottle. I found out when it was delivered in a can (photo).  Champagne in a can can’t be good, I thought.  Big surprise that it was tasty. Price: $8.05 for 375 ml.  Not cheap, but, hey, the Sewanee Inn is a stylish joint.

The complimentary continental breakfast choices were few, and the pastries looked far better than the flavor response on my tongue. After tasting one of everything, I threw it all in the garbage except the packaged yogurt and went to McDonald’s.

Cranky folks at the front desk, which is a real desk with chairs set up, making it awkward to sign in.  I noticed a real management attitude problem towards the housekeeping staff when I asked for soap.

Price, not including dinner: $192.

Verdict: The same concrete blocks as the Red Roof Inn (see next), but concealed by a heavy veneer of conceit.  Too expensive for the product, though I did love the bar.

Red Roof Inn in Monteagle, TN

Seedy and rundown in appearance and in fact.  No pretensions here: unapologetic tired old cinder blocks in need of painting.

Smokey rooms. Had to do room inspections of five or six before finding one that didn’t reek of cigarettes. And those were the ones management swore were “no smoking” rooms. I’d hate to have experienced a “smoking” unit.

I was told up front: no breakfast. I appreciated the candor.  Again, no highfaluting airs.

The only non-smoking room faced the highway.  If I was any closer to the Interstate, I’d have been on it, as evident in this photo:

Staff at odds with other staff: the heavyset owner/manager from Northern India versus the fleshy, tattooed chief housekeeper from South Georgia.  Observing, I’d call it a draw.  Both were nice to me.

A cacophony of drunken laughter and cackling in hoarse, tobacco-ruined voices on the open balcony late at night abated after a spell.  Good thing, as I had no option to phone security at this property.  The working class drunks at the Red Roof Inn were as irritating as the better-dressed midnight inebriates romping down the hallowed halls at the Sewanee Inn.

Sheets and towels at the Sewanee Inn were plusher, but those at the Red Roof Inn were clean and adequate. 

Water pressure was excellent, a nice surprise.

HVAC did the job quietly despite being a typical aging hotel unit.

Truckers and folks driving cars with one headlight out were the norm here at Red Roof versus the more prosperous clientele at Sewanee Inn at the helm of big-ass Mercedes and hulking Yukons.

Price: $92

Verdict:  No bargain at $92: Ouch!  A dump?  No, but a noise hellhole.  Not to mention diesel fumes.

Comfort Inn in West Biltmore/Asheville, NC

A shocking $148 for a Monday night offended me. When I winced, the nice young lady up front happily intoned in her sing-song Appalachian twang, “We’ve been sold out every night in October!”

“Yeah, but there is NO FALL FOLIAGE yet to justify the high price,” I said.

Because for some reason this year most all the leaves are still green and on the trees in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains, foiling the autumn leaf peepers. 

She agreed, but my complaint fell on deaf ears. No rate relief.

Once inside, however, I realized this was the most comfortable and fancy Comfort Inn in my experience: Well-appointed and quiet room of good dimensions. Nice Panasonic flat-screen with oodles of channels. Four sets of big thirsty, fluffy bath, face, and hand towels. Two queens with lots of pillows, firm mattresses, and high quality bedding. Better soap and toiletries than contemporary Hamptons and Courtyards. Free hot breakfast.  Free parking.  Free fast Wi-Fi. A lobby area to relax in and watch TV.

Comfort Inn has upped their game when I wasn’t looking. The front desk manager even called me while still on the road to confirm my late arrival.

Price: $148

Verdict:  $148?   Really?  This isn’t Fort Lauderdale in April.  Nice place, but overpriced.  Comfort Inn used to be synonymous with value. 

Bottom line was that all three inns differed, but one common element stuck out:  Regardless of property booked, I cannot avoid the high price of the great American road trip in 2021.

Flying in 2021 sucks

October 13, 2021

This time last year I thought we’d be done with Covid-19 by now, shaking off the worst of it. I was looking forward to flying again around the world as countries recovered from the pandemic.  Sixty-one years after my first flight and millions upon millions of miles in the air later, I like to believe myself a canny prognosticator of the ups and downs on flying. 

But I crashed and burned on predicting today’s air travel realities.  The pandemic persists, and I’m as exhausted as anyone after hunkering down for 18 months (and counting) of what feels like “house arrest” and damnable Zoom meetings.  Nonetheless, I am vaccinated—including the third booster—so I started flying again.  Trouble is, so did everyone else at the same time.  

Too bad for me that airline execs were caught their pants down. The gods of air carrier board rooms clearly were not prepared for robust demand striking up against severely downsized fleets and workforces like a freight train (to mix my metaphors).  Pick your reasons for why: can’t get planes in the air fast enough; reasonable, though unintentionally divisive, vaccination mandates; employees scared of getting sick from Covid; furloughed staff unwilling to return for the same crummy wages and even worse working conditions.  All and more are probably contributory, yet no one cause is determinative.  At the same time, airline management folks are paid well to make smart, nimble decisions, and they failed us.  Anyway, knowing why doesn’t make it better:  Flying in late 2021 sucks.

How so?  Well, Southwest canceled thousands of flights last weekend and whined that the FAA did it (ATC problems) even though no other airline, governed by the same air traffic controllers, reported disruptions on that scale.

Southwest’s meltdown only partly explains scenes like this photo at Denver over the Columbus Day weekend, taken by a friend who was there:

And that wasn’t even the worst moment.  Later, travelers were backed up the stairs to queue on the mezzanine in the background.  You’d never guess we were still wallowing in a pandemic drawn out by politicizing medical science.

My own flying experiences of late echo such national news reports.  Not one of the four Delta flights I flew recently was tolerable, let alone pleasant. “Relaxing” was a pipedream. Every flight was oversold with zero empty seats. My family flew to the Midwest to attend my wife’s dad’s funeral and paid over $2,000 for four tickets in coach. Not to mention nearly $400 for a midsize rental car for 3 days.

The best I can say about Delta is that the end-to-end experience was not as bad as United or American. Thank goodness that my American Express Platinum Card, which each member of my family carries, allows entry to Delta SkyClubs when flying on Delta tickets.  The SkyClubs were welcome havens between sardine can flights. 

The gates weren’t even too bad since Delta has cracked the secrets of less-stressful boarding.  But the entire flying parts of the experience were uncomfortable and horribly cramped, made worse by the pervasive existential worry of getting Covid-19 and the 2021 habit of window-seat holders keeping the shades drawn gate-to-gate—a trend I ascribe to smartphone addiction nowadays.  Wearing masks airport-to-airport is an added wrinkle of chronic discomfort and oddly disconcerting, too.

Over the years I’ve been writing this blog I have often railed against bad service aboard airplanes. It’s disheartening that flying is not qualitatively better as we tick off the years of the third decade of the 21st century.  How about just a little relief from pain?

Remote Covid test uncertainty for returning citizens

October 5, 2021

Preparing this week for an international trip next month, I unexpectedly uncovered uncertainties concerning the future of the eMed/Navica (Abbott) remotely-proctored Covid test that worked so well and so easily for me from the African wilderness in August. This is the quick-results antigen test that United Airlines, Delta, and American have been touting as approved by the FDA and CDC for U.S. citizens returning home from overseas

To avoid confusion, I should point out that the test I’m describing is for Americans RETURNING from overseas. Here are the CDC Covid test guidelines for U.S. citizens coming home. Test requirements for GOING vary by country.

I first learned about the eMed/Abbott testing process directly from the United website.  Initially skeptical, I was won over by trouble-free, successful use while surrounded by African wildlife.  The simplicity of the test coupled to the eMed proctored process via smartphone relieved me of stress and avoided a great loss of time and money to utilize alternate test means.  After all, the eMed/Navica (Abbott) test kits costs just $30-35 each, which includes remote live proctoring; it can be done anywhere mobile or Wi-Fi service is available; and the test takes just 20-30 minutes.

By contrast, PCR testing requires finding and traveling to a lab or test site in a foreign country three days in advance of flying, and in South Africa costs $120 per person, which must be paid in cash. Some countries, including Italy and Greece, offer quick antigen tests like the eMed/Abbott process through pharmacies. But even those can be expensive. Last week a friend said a pharmacist came to his hotel on a Greek island to administer a simple antigen test and charged €80 ($92.50 at today’s rate).

Here is an Abbott article explaining how the eMed/Navica (Abbott) test kit works and pictures of which package is approved for returning citizens and which is not:

APPROVED FOR TRAVEL USE

NOT APPROVED FOR TRAVEL USE

United explains it here if you pull down the “Return flights back to the U.S.” tab on that page.

Two issues cloud future use: availability of tests and continued FDA approval.  I discovered both conundrums when ordering additional test kits for my November trip, enough for two people.  (Happily for me, my wife is going this time back to the Kruger Park in South Africa.)

Back in June, I ordered the initial two kits from Optum (see here) for use in August—two because eMed advises taking two kits per person in case one fails to yield a result or indicates a positive for Covid (some false positives do occur).  In either case, the backup kit would be used.

But I only needed one kit and thus brought the second one home from South Africa.  I noticed, though, that it had an expiration date of 10-03-21, which I assumed would void its acceptance when the time comes for me to be tested in November. That prompted me to order new Abbott kits from Optum.

Just as before, the test kits arrived quickly (in just three days) on October 4.  When I examined the boxes, however, I was perplexed to see the expiration dates all read 9-19-21.  In other words, the new kits had already expired.  Even more puzzling, the older kit I had bought in June had a newer expiration date (10-03-21) than the ones I just received.

Concerned that Optum had erred in shipping me out-of-date test kits, I phoned the company.  A very nice customer service person explained that FDA had extended the expiration dates of all the Abbott kits by three months, making the ones I just received good until 12-19-21.  Whew, good, I thought, that would cover my wife and me through our November trip to South Africa.

Suspicious that Optum was sending me old stock, I asked why they had not sent test kits with future expiration dates.  There was a long pause before the rep admitted they had no kits with future expiration dates, only kits that were already expired per the original date (now extended).  When would new kits be arriving? I queried.  I explained that I would need up to twelve more test kits for a family-and-friends trip to Italy in December, returning in early January, and then will require another ten or so kits for my next trip to South Africa’s Kruger National Park with four friends in Feb-Mar, 2022.

“We expect them soon,” was all she’d say. She wouldn’t give me a date, not even a speculative one.  I asked her to please kick me up to her manager, which eventually she did.  After a lengthy wait (I was multi-tasking and patient), the fellow who ran the order center came on.  He candidly confessed that stock nationwide was running low “because Abbott is behind in manufacturing” and Optum had no idea when or even if they would be getting more test kits. Hearing that, I was sure his reps had been instructed to not to volunteer such unhappy news, though I didn’t pin him down on it. 

Afterwards, I found this New York Times article which may partially explain the shortage.  I’ve also read that the proliferation of self-testing using the other Abbott test kit—the one depicted above that is not approved for travel—is causing shortages of the test kit that is approved for travel using the unique eMed remote proctoring procedure.

This was fairly alarming news, leading me to call eMed customer service next.  Maybe they would have more specific information about when I could obtain more test kits.  Soon I was connected to an articulate eMed rep in Cali, Columbia who extolled the virtues of his hometown of Medellin.  (Truth be told, I was quite interested.  I’ve been only to Bogota in Columbia, and his vivid descriptions made me yearn to see more of the country.)

When I then explained my enigma—that is, how to get more test kits—the representative confirmed that only Abbott knows when the travel kit version will be available.  “Anyway,” he said, “The big question is whether the test kits will be reapproved by the FDA beyond December for use at all.”

Are you referring to the expiration date extension? I asked, and the answer was no.  As we talked, he had emailed the eMed letter to me (below) confirming the extended okay for the expired tests.  “But,” he went on, “FDA also has to reapprove the kits, regardless of expiration date, for basic Covid test efficacy.  Blanket approval of the kits without respect to expirations is what really runs out at yearend.”

As the implications of what he told me sank in, my mood plummeted.  If the test kits themselves are not approved for use at all beyond December, it will make return testing from Italy in January and return testing from South Africa in March a big hassle, not to mention expensive.  I’ll have to find places that administer Covid tests that meet CDC rules, carve out time to get tested there three days before our flight home, and pay up to $120 per test. Ugh!

I thanked the man, and took note of his advice to “check back around the first of December” with eMed to see if FDA test kit approvals had been extended.  Of course I will do that, but the current bottom line is the eMed/Navica (Abbott) tests will work for us from South Africa in November, but not for anybody going anywhere after December.  Thus a looming problem for easy, convenient, and inexpensive Covid testing to travel home from abroad in 2022.