Hard lessons learned: international travel (3 tips on traveling during pandemic times)

In early May 2022, I flew to Montreal, Canada to attend a work conference. On my way back to the states, several things went wrong and I think it's because the universe was getting me ready for how things are going to be during the next year while I travel to and from many different countries.


I'm sharing some advice here that I learned along the way that I hope comes in handy for the rest of you!


(Tip #3 was a new experience for me and now I know better and will never make that mistake again. Check out all the tips below!)


Tip #1: Just get the negative Covid test

I had Covid back in April so before I traveled to Canada I went to the doctor to get a "letter of recovery". From what I read, I should be able to board flights back to the US if I had two things:

1. My original positive Covid test result

2. A letter of recovery from a doctor that stated I was able to return to normal activity


However, after going through customs, TSA, and arriving at my gate, I was called up to the desk and asked for my negative test. I explained that I had these two documents instead. When the woman read my letter of recovery she started to shake her head... ****panic attack and anxiety ensues****


She told me that she couldn't accept this letter of recovery because it didn't plainly say "cleared for travel". When I asked her why it would need to say that, she told me that all doctors knew that was the requirement and that Air Canada (through United) was turning away many people because of this issue. I think she saw the absolute panic on my face because after reading the letter again and looking at my positive test, she called someone. She explained the situation to the person and read the letter. Thankfully, the Oz behind the curtain granted me access to board the flight. (I would HOPE so!!)


In my mind, "return to normal activities" includes travel. But I learned a good lesson that day: JUST GET THE NEGATIVE TEST (even if you're a budget traveler like me and always looking to save money).


Tip #2: Don't trust those layovers

I was told by a friend that if the airline is offering you a flight with a connection, and the layover seems a bit short to you, they wouldn't offer it if they didn't think you couldn't make the next flight. While this may be true, it doesn't leave a lot of room for errors or delays. And in the Covid-era of travel, there will be a lot more delays and errors than usual.


Take my Canada trip for example.

We were late boarding the plane because we were 'waiting on our flight crew' and then after we boarded the flight, we were told that we didn't have a pilot because he was sick. We sat at the gate for over 45 minutes as a replacement pilot was found and he made his way through airport security.


In any other case, a 45-minute delay wouldn't be a big deal. But the airline gave me a connection of only 52 minutes in San Francisco, which meant that my plane landed at SFO the minute my plane to Portland took off. 👋🏻 👋🏻 👋🏻


I learned a lesson that day - make sure you have AMPLE time between flights, especially when you're traveling internationally. It seems like a no-brainer but when the airline offered me to book my tickets like that, I chose to trust their judgment - not anymore!


Photo of an airplane wing above some dark and stormy clouds. A distant orange and red sunset can be seen.
Flying above thunderstorms over the Great Lakes

Tip #3: Ask for a hotel - but double confirm!

Alright, so I landed in SFO the very minute my Portland flight took off at 11:45pm. I had no idea what to do (I even asked the flight crew, who had no idea). I knew I had a few options for how I was going to spend the night in San Francisco...

  1. Ask United to cover a hotel for the evening (this is something I've never had to do before, so I was very unsure how it worked. Especially since it was an Air Canada plane that was delayed but we booked it through United).

  2. Sleep on the floor of SFO (now this I've done before and it was not something I wanted to repeat).

After making my way through customs I walked through the nearly empty airport up to the backend of TSA because I knew that it closed at some point and if I left I wouldn't be able to get back into the main part of the airport. I spoke with a friendly woman who let me know they close TSA at 12:25am - I had just about 25 minutes to figure out what I was doing for the night.


She pointed me towards the United kiosk (thank goodness it was still open because several other airline desks were closed already). After being directed to three different United desks and walking the length of Terminal 2 of SFO, I finally made it to the right place. I explained the situation and they told me that their system already booked me on the 8am flight to Portland.


This is where I thought I'd be offered a hotel room, but she stared at me with a blank expression. I'm not one to take things laying down so I asked her about hotels and food vouchers. She immediately said that this was something they could do and started the process - but take note: they did not just offer this to me, I had to ask!


This was the process for getting United to comp a hotel for the night and food vouchers:

  • She asked for my phone number where I could receive a text (this is good to know given that in foreign countries I might not always have service).

  • I received a text with a link that displayed two hotel options - I chose the closest hotel.

  • I followed the prompts to book that hotel and it opened up a new tab on my browser with a confirmation code (Note: it did not email/text me this code but having this was imperative later in this process. DO NOT close that browser window or make sure to take a screenshot).

  • I had been staying at the desk this whole time so that if I ran into any snafus the woman could help me, she told me that I was all set to go and that unfortunately there wasn't a shuttle to take me.

  • I booked a $50 Uber to get to the hotel 🙄

  • When I arrived at the hotel I told the woman at the front desk that United had sent me - and she immediately shook her head and said "I don't know why they sent you, we don't have any rooms available ****panic attack and anxiety ensues****

I immediately started crying because of the stress of the entire endeavor, but I made sure to not get mad at her - I was frustrated with the situation. Now the next part is really up to interpretation, but a few other folks walked into the lobby at that time and I watched the clock strike 12:25am - my option to sleep inside SFO was officially gone. I explained that I no longer could go back to the airport and asked if she could at all help me figure out this complicated mess.


She told me she was going to check in the other folks first and work with me. Now I don't know why she had a sudden change of demeanor... was it because we now had an audience? Was it because I was a young white woman that started crying (whoops) or was it that she really did just feel bad for me? I'm not sure. But after checking in the other folks, she let me know that they had one final room available, their ADA room, and that I could stay.


Now here is where the confirmation code from United was pivotal. She asked me to forward the code to her so she could print it out for her records because without it they couldn't bill United for the room. I sent her the screenshot and she finally checked me in.



I was so incredibly grateful to have a room for the night and not sleep on the streets of San Francisco or on the floor of SFO but I learned a valuable lesson that night - call ahead and make sure the hotel is expecting you and has a room for you!



I hope these lessons I learned that hard way make your travels smoother and more enjoyable. Let me know in the comments about other lessons you've had to learn while traveling. Let's learn from each other and avoid the same mistakes.



Bon Voyage!



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