The Valley Vagabond: Adventures in Pandemic Travel, Ireland Edition (Part One)

[Guest Post by Jeff Lewis]

There are angels and demons who walk among us. Some work in the travel industry.

It’s been 4 decades since I last had the opportunity to travel overseas, so when the possibility of traveling to Ireland came up, I was all in. A lot has changed since that last trip, and with a global pandemic wreaking havoc on the world, the things I had to learn and do to make the trip possible were substantial.

If you have any thoughts of international travel in the near or distant future, read on, and you may be able to avoid some of the pitfalls that I experienced.

Why Ireland? It all started two years ago when my college student daughter called one day to let us know that she had signed up for an archeological field study program in the town of Wexford, Ireland. This announcement was entirely out of the blue and was totally out of her normal comfort zone.

Still, we were excited for her in all the possibilities that this brought her to complete her college degree and the life lessons that study abroad presents.

Preparations were underway, her excitement level was peaking, and then Covid hit. Lockdowns both here and abroad began. Travel restrictions for all non-essential travel were put into place, and sadly the program was canceled. Not to be deterred, our daughter contacted the program directors and had them put her on the list for this year, starting the long wait to see if it would ever happen.

As 2020 progressed, plans started firming up, and towards the end of the year, it started looking like the program would take place in the summer of 2021. Gradually, lockdowns were lifting as the vaccine for the virus was developed and administered.

Even up to a short time before the program started in July, Ireland required all foreign travelers to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival into the country. Again, the directors were forced to delay the program’s start, hoping the rapidly changing government restrictions would turn in their favor.

With this optimism from the field study coordinators came the late-blooming idea that perhaps with the daughter already being in Ireland, Mom and Dad might be able to join her. This was the start of our very steep learning curve and the start of a fantastic trip for the three of us.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The first lesson learned when planning foreign travel on a planet grappling with a pandemic is to start planning early. Early meaning a year or so. In our case, we didn’t have a year. We also didn’t have passports, so this became job one.

When one applies for a passport, the wait time is estimated to be 18 weeks at a minimum. The processing of paperwork is taking a lot longer with staffing shortages and postal delays. If time is short, as in our case, paying extra can expedite the process. We were prepared to pay whatever it took to ensure that we had that first necessary document, but even with expedited handling, we were told we could expect a 12-week wait, which would cut things close.

Next, one must get an appointment to turn in the paperwork. Gone are the days of dropping by city hall or the post office and being done with it. Now an appointment must be made online at a minimal number of places with minimal openings, particularly now that more people want to travel.

Lesson two would be to get intimately familiar with the government websites and various offices of the US and the country you plan to visit. Become experts at keeping track of the changing restrictions through their Department of Health and their State Department. We frequented the American websites for the State Department regarding our passport processing status and the travel advisories they put out regarding foreign travel.

We also became familiar with our local Congresswoman Kim Schrier’s office as they have staff in place to assist constituents as they work with various federal government offices. This became a huge issue as the clock continued to tick away towards our proposed travel date, and we still had not received our passports.

While waiting for the passports to process, we started putting together an itinerary. Lesson three was to make all reservations as flexible as possible with money-back guarantees in place if one needs to change dates or cancel at the last minute.

With travel restrictions being so fluid, we had to change dates and locations multiple times. We also had the airlines change their plans forcing across-the-board changes for lodging and the like. For us, it often made sense to speak directly with the assorted hotels and bed and breakfast establishments rather than book through a travel website like hotels.com, Expedia, VRBO, etc.

It ended up being a little less expensive and fun to talk to someone with that grand Irish accent! We learned at this stage was that it’s helpful if all of one’s airline reservations are made through the same travel website at the same time or through an airline’s website all at the same time. We made reservations for our international travel through Travelocity on United airlines and our domestic travel directly through Alaska airlines. This turned out to be a big mistake later.

Days of waiting for our passports turned to weeks, and our travel date was fast approaching. You can check online to see the status, but once submitted, it will either tell you that it is received and is processing or that it has been shipped. With just two weeks to go before our travel deadline for cancelations, we hadn’t received the passports, so a friend suggested we contact our representative’s office to see if they could help.

I’ve never had a member of congress work on my personal behalf. Still, I contacted Congresswoman Shrier’s office, and they gladly offered to intervene with one stipulation for us. We must contact the State Department and make an appointment to have a face-to-face meeting in Seattle. This sort of meeting must be made by phone, not online, can only be scheduled if international travel is within 10 days of the meeting, and the meeting itself must be within 3 business days of travel. That’s not cutting it close now, is it?

I got on their horrid, automated phone system and waited. After working through the first series of choices, you either got put on hold, or the system would disconnect, forcing you to start all over. If you were lucky and got put on hold, the estimated wait time was greater than an hour and a half. Once a real person picked up the phone and you told them what you wanted to do, they had to transfer you to a duty officer who would hopefully schedule the meeting, or the system would once again disconnect you putting you back to square one.

I had three active phones sitting before me that day, each in various states of hold. I ended up dialing their number over 80 times over the course of 7 and a half hours, starting at 5 am. It was frustrating, to say the least.

Eventually, I spoke with a real person who scheduled our meeting for August 5th, just 4 days before our scheduled flight. She was able to track our paperwork to their processing facility in Arizona and try to get it up to Seattle for our meeting. Just in case, she advised, bring copies of all the required documentation and receipts, including the D-11 application form, a copy of the photo we had supplied and an original certified birth certificate.

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t have stacks of original, certified birth certificates just lying around. In fact, the ones that my wife and I did have were with our paperwork down in Arizona. With just days to go before our scheduled meeting, we had to get new birth certificates; mine from King County and my wife’s from Milwaukee.

As it turns out, our passports shipped and showed up on the 3rd, two days before our meeting date and just 6 days before our travel date. I don’t know if the Congresswoman’s staff were able to move us up in the line or if the stars just finally aligned, but we finally had them in hand, and it looked like we would be on our way! More expedited processing, more money and a quick drive into Seattle to pick mine up, and we were set.

Now, back to the airlines… There aren’t many flights going from the US to Ireland and back on any given day. In their infinite wisdom, United decided to change our return flight from a non-stop from Dublin to Chicago to Newark with a connecting flight to Chicago. That’s all well and good except that they put our daughter, who would return from her field study program, with us on a different flight into Chicago.

Again, hours of waiting on hold. Apps that won’t do what you need them to do. More money to get the flights you want and credits for canceled flights are messed up because airlines and travel websites do not take responsibility for either’s actions. Gone are the good old days of having a travel agent do all this stuff for you. We eventually got everything ironed out with persistence and patience.

With 3 days to go, we had our passports, hotel and airline reservations. We finally had confirmation that there would be no quarantine in place order upon arrival. Restaurants and pubs were reopening in Ireland. We were vaccinated and had our proof of vaccination cards tucked safely inside our passports.

This was important as EVERY pub or restaurant required us to show both identification and proof of vaccination every time we ate indoors. They recorded your name, phone number and place of residence for contact tracing. Be always prepared and have them ready.

Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash

About this time, the US State Department announced that Ireland was on their highest level of places NOT to visit, but with three days to go, we weren’t letting that stop us! Finally, one must provide a negative Covid test taken no more than three days before travel when you enter Ireland, so we spent that third day getting our test taken. Results for my wife came back right away, but mine did not. The pharmacy said they sent them, but hours of phone and web time again resulted in nothing.

It wasn’t until Monday rolled around and just a half-hour before leaving for the airport that I finally got in touch with a real person on the phone who discovered that my birthday had been entered incorrectly. She was able to get me my proof of negative test results, and 30 minutes later, we were on our way.

Almost…

Next in Part II- Did our local grocer make it to Ireland?  Tune in next week to find out!

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