If there's one thing I keep learning the hard way, it's that traveling in the age of Covid-19 is not for rookies -- or the faint of heart.
I've made four international trips since the pandemic, negotiating various rules and testing requirements and all the associated stresses: from hard-to-get tests to nail-biting moments wondering whether a negative result would come back within the strict predeparture time frame.
So preparing for my trip to Italy seemed like a breeze. I was on one of the nonstop, so-called Covid-tested flights that enable U.S. citizens who get tested before departure and on arrival to skip the country's strict quarantine requirement. And securing an appointment for a free rapid test the day before I left at a local CVS was a breeze.
But when the results came in late in the afternoon before my 6 a.m. next-day departure, I pulled up my document only to realize that my CVS Minute Clinic account had me listed under a name different than on my passport. While I go by Jeri Clausing on literally every document legal or otherwise in my life, the one exception is my health insurance, which I get through my husband's work.
Of course, pre-Covid, health documents were never an issue for travel. If they were, they were generally for shots obtained through private travel clinics that don't take health insurance. So what name would be on the paperwork never even crossed my mind.
I noticed the discrepancy the minute I pulled up the results. I called the toll-free number listed, but it was impossible to even find an option for getting through to a real person.
I quickly Googled the hours for rapid testing at my home airport, Albuquerque's Sunport, only to discover that clinic wouldn't open until the same time my flight was departing. And that clinic's other private testing center was closing in 15 minutes. And I knew I would never make it in time.
So I hopped in the car during rush hour and zoomed to the pharmacy where I'd had my test.
Turns out that was the right move. The testing clinic was still open, and after taking a picture of my driver's license and insurance card were able to quickly change it.
The whole incident certainly added a few hours of pre-travel stress, but it also served as a good reminder that every i must be dotted and every t has to be crossed and double-checked in the age of Covid travel.
But the drama was far from over.
When I arrived at the airport the next morning, the woman checking me in at the Delta counter reviewed my documents, then told me she was going to have to mark me as "traveling at my own risk." I had never been told such a thing before, so I asked her what she meant. She told me Italy was "one of those countries that's hard to get into," so they would take no responsibility should I have issues. I explained to her that Delta had an agreement with the Italian government to let in Americans on their "Covid-tested" flights. She looked at me as if I were from another planet, then simply said again, "I am marking you as traveling at your own risk."
I said fine, and I took my travel documents. But it occurred to me how alarming such a warning might be to the average traveler. After all, I have been writing for months about travel policies, and I am still confused.
What Delta also failed to alert me to was the fact that I would need to take another rapid test at the Atlanta airport before boarding my flight to Rome. While some fellow travelers said they found the information buried deep in the documents about travel to Italy, I don't recall seeing that when I looked.
And despite the repeated alerts I got from Delta about my plane being prepared, etc., while working in the lounge during my layover, never once did any of the alerts about the upcoming flights and boarding times note that rapid tests were being conducted near the gate. I found out when I asked the desk attendants at the lounge if I should go to the gate early in case I need to queue up to show my test results again.
Fortunately, the process was orderly and fast. And after getting those results and filling some rather confusing forms I was able to board the plane.
On landing, there was one more trial. A more than hourlong wait for yet one more Covid test to get into the country.
Still, while time-consuming and sometimes frustrating, the process was well worth the effort. On Sunday afternoon I arrived in the beautiful, wonderfully uncrowded city of Venice, where I boarded Uniworld Boutique River Cruises' new S.S. La Venezia, the first river cruise ship to welcome Americans since the pandemic.