Illustration by Katakari/Shutterstock.com
Illustration by Katakari/Shutterstock.com
It’s every international traveler’s nightmare: After enjoying a trip abroad, they test positive for Covid-19 and can’t board their return flight to the U.S.
They now face a period of quarantine in their destination, whether they were prepared for that possibility or not.
Some countries are loosening their testing rules, and ASTA is lobbying to have CDC-mandated testing requirements for returning U.S. travelers dropped. But as of this writing, the best hope for travelers under current testing rules is to have a travel advisor as an ally.
During the pandemic, advisors have proven to be effective advocates who help clients ride out their Covid storms in peace and ease their return home.
And clients aren’t the only ones who can be caught with a surprise positive test. As advisors are venturing abroad in increasing numbers, the same outcome can affect them personally, as well.
Advisors have also identified some steps that are critically important to helping make an involuntary quarantine experience less stressful. The importance of booking travel insurance and working with trusted partners are chief among them.
Here are stories and advice from travel advisors who have had clients who have faced this dreaded situation:
LEAN INTO PARTNERSHIPS
For most of the pandemic, Betsy Talbot, owner of Travel by Talbot in Mandeville, La., had zero clients test positive for Covid during their travels. But that all changed on Dec. 23. From that date until New Year’s Eve, she had four clients contact her about positive test results, making for a tumultuous holiday season.
One, in South Africa, was an asymptomatic adult in a family of five. With the help of Africa Inscribed, the safari company they had traveled with, the client was put up at a hotel with outdoor space until she tested negative. She was also provided with a gift basket of puzzles and food, and she enjoyed the chance to rest and relax in quarantine.
Talbot’s other three positive clients were in Mexico, at different hotels. Her experiences with hoteliers there ran the gamut from outstanding to uncooperative, the latter not even allowing the client to remain in the hotel to quarantine despite the client’s willingness to pay for the room. But Talbot was able to help all of her clients find places to stay before getting them home. In her own words:
Your partners on the ground are key. I think knowing properties’ policies makes a big difference. I learned that.
Also, of course, we all talk about insurance. Insurance varies for different things, but luckily [thanks to insurance], none of my clients incurred a lot of big costs. But it could have been very costly.
Your partners on the ground — Mexico is a little easier, but gosh, in South Africa, if I had not had someone like Africa Inscribed, that would have just been a completely different situation.
Every island, every country has different rules. For both Mexico and South Africa, as soon as you tested negative, you could fly home. Others, that’s not always the case. Just know what’s required and make sure you have a backup plan. One hotel would definitely put clients up. Another said they would, but they didn’t. But an alternate, less-expensive hotel I found ended up being a godsend.
KNOW CLIENT PREFERENCES
In May, Cylia Blitz, founder of Lux Planners in New York, had a nervous client. He was back and forth on whether he should take his family on vacation, but he bit the bullet, and they headed to Jamaica for a much-needed getaway. Unfortunately, before returning, both parents tested positive.
The family was taken to a quarantine villa set aside for exactly that purpose and felt well taken care of by the staff, which checked in regularly and tested them every two days. On day six, everyone was negative, and they headed home.
Blitz has had a few other experiences with positive tests in destinations. For a group of friends who were stuck in Barcelona, she found them an Airbnb and had food and spa items delivered. In December, she had a father quarantine in his room in Turks and Caicos while his negative-testing family members flew home on a private plane she arranged.
I really think the pandemic made traveling with a travel agent a key factor when planning their trip. The industry as a whole gained a lot of clients who want this service. It’s someone in their back pocket to handle every detail, to get them home safely, to get them accommodations while they simply focus on getting healthy. They don’t have to pick up the phone. They don’t have to call anybody. They just send me a text and it’s done.
A big thing I would recommend, if you do have a very nervous traveler, is do not send them to an island or place that doesn’t have a hospital nearby. If it’s somewhere remote and they’re stuck, their anxiety is going to take over more than the illness is going to take over. I would recommend a place that has good healthcare, a bigger city or a bigger island. You don’t want to be stuck somewhere on the other side of the world without any healthcare possible.
I would recommend bringing rapid tests because it helps you prepare. If you have a bunch of rapid tests with you, you don’t have to wait until the last day. You can test your family or your group pretty much every day, and if you notice a positive result, we can take action a lot quicker.
Be prepared. Have a list of everything the clients might need, everything they want, down to the foods they like, the water they drink, movies they like, what their kids play with, so you don’t have to bother them. You want to do the opposite: You want everything to be delivered seamlessly without having much back-and-forth dialogue.
Since the pandemic, I did create a client profile sheet that I require my clients to fill out. It gives us all the resources to manage a seamless trip. You have everyone’s passports on file, you have their preferences.
Travel insurance is huge. Before the pandemic, I maybe booked it once in my 10-year experience, and now I’m booking it for every single trip. It doesn’t matter if the trip as a whole cost $2,000, it doesn’t matter if the trip cost $200,000. Book travel insurance.
‘A SILVER LINING’
Despite multiple tests before and during an Antarctica trip in December, Ralph Iantosca, owner of Iantosca Travel in Irving, Texas, and his partner, Michael, had their return plans foiled by Covid and, in turn, missed spending Christmas and New Year’s together.
Over the course of their trip, several fellow passengers had tested positive and were quarantined in special cabins. Iantosca himself took several rapid tests to make sure his sore throat was just caused by the dry Antarctic air. But upon disembarkation, Michael tested positive and was required to quarantine in a hotel in Punta Arenas, Chile, for 10 days.
Iantosca, too, tested positive, but only after he had flown home alone. His case was mild, and he is applying lessons learned to his travel business every day.
There was a silver lining. This actually ended up being a good thing even though it was unfortunate that it happened. Now, I’ve gone back and talked to every one of my clients, and before I start a new itinerary, we have a conversation about the risk of getting stuck. It’s been great. I just hung up with a client of mine by saying, “What expectations do you have coming home? What responsibilities do you have to get back to? And what happens if you get stuck? How do you make this work?”
This is the world that we live in today. Not that it’s going to happen, but it’s happened to me, and since it happened to me I am now that advocate who says let’s start at the end, and have a plan B and plan C in play. Let’s talk about your pets. Let’s talk about your house. Let’s talk about your parents. Let’s talk about your kids. Then, once we have it put together, let’s plan the trip.
What’s nice about this is that you’ll only be waiting on and booking clients who are serious travelers, and that’s the benefit for all of us. Only serious travelers are going to travel. If you have a serious traveler, you’re going to be able to earn the kind of income that you want to earn.
I think it’s important that people really understand that point, because there’s nothing better than having someone understand, take the risks and be accountable. So many travelers don’t like to be accountable. You can’t get away with this without being accountable.
BE A HUMAN FIRST
Johnna Hiatt is an advisor with First in Service. She focuses on entertainment travel, which took a big hit when the pandemic was first declared. But she had something else to keep her busy: The dozens of horses under her care at her nonprofit horse rescue, Hiatt Equestrian Rescue & Recreation in Bigfork, Mont.
As the pandemic stretched out, Hiatt did have clients test positive while shooting a TV show in London. It was in the earlier part of 2021, just after vaccines had become available (the clients were vaccinated). They were dropped off at a hotel but given no further instructions.
Hiatt, a big believer in natural remedies, immediately got on the phone with a naturopathic doctor who overnighted them essentials. While continuing to check in on them throughout the experience, Hiatt arranged and paid for their Covid tests and travel home.
First and foremost is to see that person and be as humane as possible. Take the travel and the money off the table for a minute and just see that other person and be present. What can you do? What do they need? Be as resourceful with that as you are with travel.
It’s like when I help horses, because the vets, you know, they hit walls a lot of times and they’ll say, “Just call Johnna.” The first thing they’ll say is, “Well, how much is this going to cost?” I’m like, it’s going to cost you nothing, because I don’t want your focus to be about money. I want your focus to be about getting this horse better and connecting to that process. That’s the most important thing.
A lot of travel agents, it’s about income, right? It’s a cycle that they’ve gotten into, and it’s become a part of their rhythm. They need to alter that rhythm and to be present. What can you do? How can you be of service? How can you help? And to be present and be there — that should mean more than what fee they’re going to charge.
There are so many changes that have occurred in travel, and sometimes the pace is faster than others. There’s just so much fear and unknown, and everybody just has to take a deep breath. It’s going to be what it’s going to be, but worrying and stressing is not going to do anything but make people sick and cause more problems. We just have to be open and navigate with the rhythm, navigate through it.
RISK IS INHERENT
Josh Geller, a luxury advisor with Embark Beyond based in Los Angeles, was looking forward to a holiday trip with his extended family at the end of last year. They were going to visit St. Lucia before taking a boat down to the Grenadines. Right before the boat left, Geller tested positive.
He quarantined at the Viceroy Sugar Beach for 10 days. The property was very accommodating, he said, and well prepared for the situation. He enjoyed a discounted rate and use of a private outdoor plunge pool as well as room service from any menu across the property.
Geller’s case of Covid arrived at the same time as many others, part of the spread of the omicron variant. Because of that, he spent a good amount of quarantined time working. When he did get a chance to unwind a bit, he watched some football.
For clients, it’s important not to shy away from the reality that this can happen. I think it’s really understanding there is some form of risk involved. For a lot of people, they’re seeing what happened to me and they’re saying, “God, you’re so lucky to get stuck in quarantine in some of these places.”
It just depends on some people’s reality. If you have young kids and you’re worried about getting stuck away from them, or you have a job where you physically need to be there in person, I understand those risks. But for people with a more flexible lifestyle, if they were to potentially get stuck somewhere, you can still work remotely, and you’re not really separated from people you need to be around. I think the risk is worth it.
It’s important to talk through all of the possibilities with clients and make sure they understand everything and all the testing that’s involved. Just stay as up to date on everything as possible. Allow the clients to ultimately make the decision based on the information at hand.
People should use advisors to assist on things like this, because if there’s an extended-stay rate, for instance, I think they take care of our clients considerably better than if someone just books on their own.
GET OUT AND TRAVEL
In December, the CDC shortened its window to 24 hours for Covid testing for travelers headed back to the U.S. With that change came an uptick in people getting stuck abroad, said Leslie Tillem, owner of Eltee/Tzell Travel in New York and Boca Raton, Fla.
Tillem has had a handful of clients test positive in destinations. Interestingly, she said, the client testing positive is often a vaccinated teenager. More often than not, one parent opts to stay behind, she said.
In one instance, a teenager stayed in Italy with his older brother after testing positive. He had been staying on a family yacht. Tillem attempted to book him into the hotel where the rest of the family had stayed, but the manager declined because of his positive status. She will no longer work with that property, she said, especially when other partners have been so accommodating of Covid-positive clients.
Tillem herself has been leading by example, traveling and telling clients about it. And she recommends that travel advisors get out and travel, too.
I think we are representative of what needs to be done in this industry, and if you’re not going to travel due to your own fear, you’re sending that message to your clients.
I try to be out there as much as possible. When I first got vaccinated, I went to Egypt. I went to Greece. I flew back and forth. I believe that we need to show it’s safe, and if we show that and put it on social media, people follow. Just as you’re seeing all the negative news, we need to show the positive. I let my clients know that I’m here for them every step of the way should they have a problem. But life goes on at this point, and I want them to see that — and we’re the ones who need to prove that.
As an advisor, you need to work with your partners. They are truly proving themselves to be just that. Those that aren’t, they’re not my partners. Honestly, they probably never were. But I am learning there are so many more out there that I never realized were truly partners and who so appreciate the travel advisors and want to work with us. This is their way of stepping up, so I appreciate that.
Luxury advisor Martha Good, a Departure Lounge affiliate based in Naples, Fla., and Philadelphia, had a client facing a potential 28-day quarantine in the Maldives. A husband and wife took tests the day before departing, and the husband tested positive. At the time, the Maldivian government required a 14-day quarantine followed by retesting.
While the wife hadn’t tested positive, because of her exposure, she was also required to quarantine. The big concern was that a positive test after her initial quarantine period would trigger another 14-day quarantine.
Fortunately, the property they were staying at was very helpful and offered a lowered rate, Good said. Even more fortunately, the 14-day period was reduced to seven toward the end of the clients’ first quarantine, and they were both able to fly home earlier than anticipated.
From my perspective, one really important piece of this right now is just to make sure that you’re having that discussion. Saying yes, absolutely you can travel, it’s a great time to travel, and I’m sure you’re dying to get out there. This is the risk that you’re taking, as long as you’re comfortable with that. Just make sure that you can work remotely and you have anything that you need to stay that amount of time.
I have clients with travel coming up, and that’s just the conversation we have. Fortunately, these clients were fantastic. Obviously, it wasn’t ideal, but they were very relaxed and understood, and we worked together and got through it.
For me, it definitely makes me realize the importance of working with people who are patient and understanding. We’re all just trying to navigate this the best that we can. Make sure that you’re managing clients’ expectations and explaining what the risk is that’s involved.
And also, travel insurance. It’s one thing to get stuck there and have insurance that at least can help with some, if not all, of the financial implications. But if you don’t have that insurance, it’s salt on a wound. Not only are you getting stuck, but you’re out of pocket for what could be thousands and thousands of dollars.
MAKE A PLAN
Meaghan Carfrey has the unlucky designation of being the Conrad Punta de Mita’s first guest to test positive for Covid-19. Carfrey, Cadence Travel’s Richmond, Va.-based director of strategic account management, had been in Mexico for 10 days in August, staying at several properties. The Conrad was the last, and she tested positive the day before she was to leave for home. The friend she had been traveling with tested negative.
Carfrey’s test triggered what would be a 10-day quarantine period, but it went smoothly thanks to the Conrad. In addition to providing her with everything she needed, the employees went above and beyond, she said.
One of the hotel managers brought her his personal Apple TV streaming device because she couldn’t access her Netflix account outside of the U.S. It was delivered alongside popcorn for a movie night.
While testing positive is never ideal, Carfrey said she was grateful for an experience she could share with her colleagues and customers (she works for Cadence’s meetings and incentives division).
One thing that I would highly recommend is pre-testing before departure. It’s likely not a requirement of all destinations — I know Mexico, it wasn’t — but pre-testing before you go and then making a plan. There is a risk that travelers might be stuck there even if they have no symptoms, so make sure that your travelers have childcare set up. That [people back home] know where you’re staying. That you have brought extra medicine if you need it. I ran low on vitamins in the time I was there. And also, your computer. I was on a vacation, but thankfully I had my laptop so I was able to work while I was quarantined.
I can’t speak more highly about the Conrad Punta de Mita and how incredible they made this stay for me. It’s a roller coaster of emotions because your mind goes through so many places. I’m in a different country. Am I going to have to go to a hospital? Will my insurance work there? You kind of start spiraling. But they were so incredible and so warm and comforting. They were always checking in. They truly were my lifeline and my home away from home, and it made everything so much easier.
I know a lot of our partners really had no idea what to do in these situations, and we’re all learning together, giving grace and just working with each other to figure out these scenarios.
But the more that we can plan ahead of time and understand the risks, the easier and more confident we are going into it. Of course, there’s all the QR codes when you travel now and additional layers that just make travel more stressful, especially international. I think that’s why working with a travel advisor is so important, to make sure that you have someone on your side and on your team that you can call or ask questions.