The way we travel nowBy Anthony Spaeth
At Incheon Terminal 2, my flight is the only one leaving for the next ten hours. It is deliciously deserted. I have to extricate my IPad at security, remove my jacket, whip off my belt. But after we’ve all been x-rayed, there’s no hurry to get dressed and repacked at the roller belt on the other side. Absolutely no one is behind me.
All the gates are dark except mine. A sign at duty free says sunglasses are half off, but the grill is down. Nothing’s open except the smoking lounge, which I check out although I quit years ago.
For most of my adult life, I have traveled internationally every few weeks. Because of the pandemic, I haven’t in 23 months, the longest period of my life without stepping on an airplane.
What is it like to travel again — and to travel now, as the Omicron variant of Covid-19 spreads around the world?
At the gate, I gaze at my plane on the tarmac and imagine it will be empty. Of course it will — we’re in the middle of a pandemic! I’ll get a row of seats, stretch out and sleep all the way to Europe.
Or is it the opposite: so few planes are flying that this one will be packed to the fasten-your-seatbelt signs?
This is the essential question of my trip: will the pandemic world be empty of travelers and a paradise for brave exceptions like myself? Or will it be so shut down it’s not worth visiting, jammed with people foolish enough to try, all trapped in a widening gyre of pandemic regulations and cancellations — and a prelude to a homecoming as complicated and miserable as any before?
A baby cries, triggering a familiar dread reflex. The public address system comes to life with the sound of a throat clearing, animating the torpid people around me. They scurry for hand luggage.
Some things haven’t changed. We are ready to board.
Many travelers follow a ritual before leaving on a trip. At the front door, they ask themselves, usually aloud and with the patting of appropriate pockets: “Passport? Ticket? Money?”
Say goodbye to that quaint procedure. In the age of Covid, preparing for an overseas trip is so complicated that, in my case, it required weeks of planning.
Two years ago, an American passport holder would have faced no paperwork to go from Seoul to my chosen destination, Italy.
To enter the EU now, I must first file a Passenger Locator Form, which demands to know the exact arrival time of flights and what seats I travel in. Obviously I have to book my tickets — from Seoul to Rome via Frankfurt — before that.
Italy requires a Covid test taken within 72 hours of arrival. I locate my nearest center, a hospital, and figure out how to get tested and, on the day of my flight, collect a paper test result. I make a dry run.
I must be vaccinated. In Korea, we prove this by flashing an app, but to be safe I go to my local medical clinic and get a printout of my vaccination record.
To return to Korea, I need a reentry permit, never required in the past, which is basically a blunt bureaucratic reminder that I will need to get a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test 72 hours before getting on the return flight — or I won’t be allowed back in.
Eight days before departure, an email informs me that Lufthansa has canceled my Frankfurt-Rome flight. I don’t know how to handle the loss of one flight out of four. I cancel those reservations and start all over, which requires filing a new EU Passenger Locator Form.
The cancellation makes me wonder about how we book air tickets these days: through aggregator websites that shoot us to other websites where we’re urged to fill in a ton of details as rapidly as possible to lock in a schedule and fare. When something goes wrong, who helps? Who’s in charge? Who even remembers which website they ended up on?
But this has been our way for more than a decade. I have booked highly complicated itineraries and never had a problem. Flights weren’t canceled. This cancellation seems tied to Covid, a proof of the havoc it has wreaked on the very notion of travel and a portent of ill winds on my journey ahead.
Then a landmine explodes. The Omicron variant arrives, and Korea restores quarantines for incoming travelers. When I return, I will have to isolate at home for ten days. I almost ditch the trip. But I want to visit Florence with my son Ryu, and all the trouble already invested would be wasted. I load my refrigerator and freezer before I leave, my final last minute chores.
My new itinerary takes me via Schiphol Airport and the unwelcoming Dutch immigration guy looks like a Hans Gruber henchmen. He doesn’t let on whether my twice-filed Passenger Locator Form is part of the process. To my surprise, he accepts my Korean app as proof of vaccination.
No one ever asks to see the PCR test results that cost so much time, trouble and money ($117) to get in Seoul.
After taking off from Amsterdam, a KLM flight attendant asks in a low tone if I am willing to assist a disabled passenger a few rows ahead “in case the worst happens.”
“I won’t tell him anything about this,” the steward confides, as if we share a predilection the stodgy old world need know nothing about.
My arrival at my Rome hotel is very nearly a crash landing. The front desk clerk asks for a Green Pass, the inoculation confirmation system used in Italy. I open my Korean phone app and it generates QR codes, one for each of my three inoculations.
The clerk scans them. Instead of green check marks, they elicit ugly red Xs. No guest can check in, the clerk declares, without an accepted QR code.
What can I do?
The only solution is to get a rapid antigen test at a nearby pharmacy.
How long is that good for?
Only 48 hours. But its QR code will allow me into the hotel.
“I only need to scan you once,” the clerk says in a winking, corner-cutting way.
I could not have imagined that one set of documents was needed to get into Italy and another to survive there — to enter restaurants and museums or travel on trains. I check the research I brought with me. For Green Pass approval, Italy’s Ministry of Health accepts vaccine certificates issued by Canada, Japan, Israel, Britain and the U.S.
That leaves me out.
I’ll have to take a rapid Covid test every 48 hours I’m in Italy: six in all, 22 Euros ($25) each. Doable but on the diabolical side.
And yet, at my first lunch, the waiter who asks for my QR code doesn’t scan it. At my first dinner — tortellini in brodo, cotechino con pure — no one even asks for it.
That gives me an idea. The next day, while my rapid test is valid, I go to as many museums as I can. For the following couple of days, I do things that don’t require it, like walking around — but not in — the Coliseum and Forum. At restaurants, I flash the expired QR code and hope they don’t scan it. This spares me at least one rapid test.
In Trecca, a trendy Roman restaurant specializing in offal, the staff likes its tech. My scan fails, as it must. An anxious manager says he doesn’t want no trouble with the Carabiniere.
I realize I have a photo of my vaccination printout on my phone. That gets me a place at the bar.
Midway through my braised beef cheek, the manager asks about the virus situation in Korea. I think he’s being chatty.
He’s not. He asks very pointedly when I got my booster shot. I produce the photo again, which he studies carefully. He’s visibly relieved when I leave.
When Ryu arrives from New York, he’s carrying a cardboard inoculation card like mine in the 1970s. It has no QR code to scan. On it, a QR code would look like a fountain pen malfunction. Yet it works every time. We notice that museum guards and restaurant maître d’s pay particular attention to his booster shot notation.
I dig out the inoculation printout from my health clinic in Seoul.
That suffices for the rest of the trip.
Outside the Vatican Museum in Rome, there’s a vast expanse set aside for tourists willing to wait hours in queues to gaze up at the Sistine Chapel. It is deserted. In Florence, we get into the Duomo without a wait, the Uffizi, the Palazzo Vecchio, the Pitti. We have no trouble getting tables at restaurants showered online with foodie effusions like so many shavings of truffles. My last overseas trip happened to have been to over-touristed Kyoto, which was a fright. Florence, by contrast, is a delight.
There are tourists, but not a lot, and we realize we would miss them: the Canadian family at the upscale restaurant desperate to remind the staff they ate there on their last trip; the Asians hauling unaccountable quantities of luggage and infants to see Michelangelo’s David. With no other tourists to feel superior to, foreign travel would lose one of its guiltiest pleasures.
I have one last piece of red tape to deal with, and a major one: to get a Covid test 72 hours before my return flight. Italy bases its system on rapid antigen tests, which are fast, cheap and everywhere — but not good enough for Korea. It insists on a PCR test. I ask my Florence hotel for help and that plunges me into a very Italian scene.
“Impossible!” cries the woman behind the front desk. “I just tried for another guest. I was two hours on the phone. Impossible!”
These are very alarming words. I can not get home without the test. I will become a Covid refugee. I have no flexibility on timing: It has to be done on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve for God’s sake. How have I boxed myself in so? What about a surrounding city, I ask? I’m willing to waste a day traveling to get it. I’ll take a taxi. I’ll pay anything.
The woman sighs fatalistically, inputs things into a computer and within ten minutes has an appointment on the right day, not far away and at a rather convenient time.
I feel sorry for that previous guest.
As Christmas approaches, Omicron cases are mounting in Italy and everywhere else, and so are the possibilities of lockdowns. CNN reports that air crews are getting sick and thousands of flights are canceled worldwide. We could be trapped in a shut-down Italy. Christmas meals are an immediate concern. Getting out the following day is the next.
Ryu paid extra for a non-stop flight to lessen the risk of getting stranded. I never thought of it. My risk is double.
In fact, we eat well at Christmas lunch and even better for dinner. Romans go out on Christmas night. Their halls, Omicron be damned, are decked.
At the airport the following morning, Ryu and I give each other an embrace of farewell and congratulations: We made it. Our trip managed to avoid going down in flames.
In Charles de Gaulle, I wait to board my final flight behind a group of Indian merchant seamen. They are familiar figures in airports: grouped together defensively, dressed too lightly or warmly, young and cocky or worryingly pensive, always out of place. They carry documents in neat, schoolboy folders or sloppy plastic bags — work contracts, visa applications, permits for this, exemptions for that — paper shields against any possible blow that can come on land or sea.
I’m behind them once again in Incheon Airport as we wait to print our PCR test results from our phones.
I realize we are all seamen now, adrift in a world that no longer seems moored.
In retrospect, how did my Omicron journey compare to a trip from before the pandemic?
The costs of two PCR tests, two rapid antigen tests and a reentry permit to Korea add up to $256. That’s a Covid tax.
But because of the pandemic, the airfare was cheap and we stayed on the Via Veneto in Rome and next to Florence’s Ponte Vecchio at reasonable rates.
The rescheduling of my entire itinerary — caused by a cancellation I assumed to be Covid-related — actually saved me several hundred dollars.
That might be a wash.
The cost of extra hassles is hard to calculate and that of anxiety impossible — both probably spurious. If I wasn’t taking Covid tests, would I have seen more Raphaels or eaten more porchetta? If I took this trip two years ago, wouldn’t I have been worried about a terrorist attack?
On the other side of the balance sheet, how to quantify the value of seeing Velazquez and Caravaggios without being subsumed into a scrum of jostling hordes? In Rome, I was able to study three different versions of Caravaggio’s “John the Baptist/Youth with a Ram,” up close and at leisure, two in the same museum.
The one absolute in this cost-benefit analysis relates to the 10-day self-isolation I was forced into on my return. It is a scale-tipper. I will not leave Korea again as long as that requirement is in place.
But it did give me plenty of time to write this article.
Anthony Spaeth is editor-in-chief of the Korea JoongAng Daily
BY ANTHONY SPAETH [firstname.lastname@example.org]