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What’s it like to travel during a pandemic?

We borrowed this post from Select International Tours….a company with a solid financial history and reputation for outstanding Catholic pilgrimages.

Is it safe to travel? How are airlines and airports ensuring the health of their customers? What are the different state and country requirements for arrival – is there testing or quarantine involved?

These are all questions I recently asked myself (and Google) before I armed myself with many masks and bottles of hand sanitizer and embarked on my first domestic and international trips during the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel of course looks very different right now, and our own health and comfort levels should be carefully considered before booking a trip. However there have been many changes to airline and airport protocols during the pandemic to enhance the health and safety of travelers, some of which will likely be maintained even after COVID-19’s peak has passed. Ultimately my domestic trip from Washington, D.C. to Florida, and my move abroad to Rwanda both went smoothly and allowed me to compare what different airlines, airports, and destinations are doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Prior to Travel

Booking flights was a bit more challenging than usual because there are less options due to reduced airline service. The usual flight I take to Florida was temporarily suspended, so I booked a United Airlines flight out of Washington Dulles Airport. We’ve learned this year that things can change very quickly – whether it’s flight schedules or incoming passenger requirements – so it is important to have a plan in place to accommodate these changes. Booking through a travel company like Select International can take the stress out of this process since they work with so many airlines and are always familiar with the most up-to-date policies of each.

I was sure to check baggage requirements far in advance. United Airlines still allowed one carry-on and one personal item, however, I flew Turkish Air to Rwanda and they only allowed a personal item in the cabin to avoid congestion in the plane’s aisle, and so they checked my usual carry-on for free.

I also looked up entry requirements for Florida and Rwanda. Florida had none, but Rwanda, like many popular destinations including Israel/the Holy Land, required a negative COVID-19 test within 3-5 days of departure (as well as an online form to be filled). I’d heard many different stories about testing requirements and the timing of receiving results that it was difficult for me to identify a clinic that could promise the quick turnaround required for travel. I ultimately received a recommended list of clinics from the D.C. Department of Public Health and had to pay out of pocket for an expedited test. This was a very difficult and frustrating pre-departure step that might have been avoided had I booked through a travel company!

At the Airport

Checking In

For my domestic flights, I was grateful to be able to check-in online prior to arrival in order to avoid the crowded check-in/bag-drop area. For my international flight, because Rwanda required certain documents, I had to go to the desk to get my boarding pass and check my bags. Social distancing was observed while waiting in line to check-in, but because the desks are so close together, it got very crowded when I was working with the ticketing agent. I had to show a variety of documents (negative COVID-19 test, completed Government of Rwanda form) to the ticket agent, so it was good that I had printed out everything ahead of time. I would recommend arriving at the airport early because every country has different entry requirements and so the check-in process takes a long time for everyone – I flew through Istanbul to Rwanda, and because Istanbul is a hub, each of my fellow travelers’ end destinations were different and required varied check-in procedures.

TSA

 

Passengers in the check-in line maintained social distance.

 

I experienced TSA both with and without Precheck and was pleasantly surprised with both. Passengers respected social distancing while waiting in line, although not so much when placing/removing their items from the conveyer belt – but I figured that might be the case! However, Precheck had the large advantage of not having to remove my shoes or electronics, which significantly sped up the whole process and reduced the number of bins I had to touch. If you have TSA Precheck, be sure to let your travel company know so they can indicate that with the airline when they purchase your ticket!

Gates and Lounges

The airports were definitely less crowded than normal, but of course, the gate areas were a bit busy. Many people tried to distance by sitting in gates that didn’t have any scheduled flights – this was easier in the bigger airports and in the evenings when less flights were scheduled. I checked out the Turkish Air lounge in Dulles to see if it was less crowded (I assumed they might be limiting the number of entrants).  The main area of the lounge was actually quite crowded, but thankfully I found a back room that many others hadn’t discovered yet.

Flights

Boarding

Airlines are trying to board as efficiently as possible, which for United meant telling customers to ignore the boarding groups on their boarding passes and to listen for their row to be called. This created confusion because the screens still said the boarding groups, so what resulted was a bunch of people crowded around the boarding door – the exact opposite of what they were aiming for! My international flights seemed a bit more health-conscious: Turkish Air took everyone’s temperature before boarding and gave us all a hygiene kit containing masks, hand sanitizer, and antiseptic wipes (United also gave one antiseptic wipe when boarding). Despite these differences, it’s clear that all airlines are working hard to protect passengers and staff, and this is clearly a very new world that we are all learning to adapt to!

In-flight

 

In-flight hygiene kits are a new addition on some airlines.

 

Flight attendants constantly reminded us to keep our masks on unless we were eating. Passengers on my international flights followed this rule much better than those on my domestic flights. Each flight gave us snack bags (domestic) or meal bags (international) with no other options for food or drink. The United snack bags contained water and biscuits, and the Turkish meals included a sandwich, dessert, water, and juice. Both airlines also provided more antiseptic wipes with the food, and Turkish continually passed out additional water bottles throughout the flight. I decided to wait to eat until the people around me had finished so that we didn’t all have our masks off at the same time. As for other amenities, we were given individually wrapped headphones on all of the flights, and the international flights provided individually wrapped blankets, but no pillows. Neither airline seemed to be restricting middle seats; about half of my flights were almost completely booked, and half were at about 50% capacity – it seemed to just depend on the demand for each flight and the size of the plane.

Deplaning, Luggage, and Immigration

All flights were deplaned orderly by rows. One of my United flights gate-checked all rolling bags because of the small plane, which led to a lot of congestion on the air bridge to retrieve our luggage. For international travel, every country will have different health and immigration rules, but I imagine some will be similar to my experience in Rwanda. Immediately on arrival a health official took my temperature and pulled up the form I had submitted prior to travel. He confirmed that I had not been experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms, and then I was able to pass through to immigration. Everyone socially distanced in the Kigali airport for immigration and luggage pick-up.

My Takeaways

Overall my recent flying experiences went very smoothly. Because of my own precautions – lots of hand sanitizer and continual mask-wearing – I felt safe on these flights (and thankfully I can now confirm that I remained healthy after)! My main tips for anyone traveling would be:

  • Check updated airline rules and procedures – many have changed their luggage policies, and all have specific mask guidelines. It’s also helpful to get a sense of the meal service (or lack thereof) so you can plan ahead.
  • Bring a surplus of masks and hand sanitizer – although airlines provide some items, it’s best to bring your own to be safe.
  • To the extent possible, avoid congested areas of the airports – you can do this by checking-in online, using TSA pre-check, and potentially by obtaining lounge access.

As vaccines roll-out and travel begins to increase again, many countries are opening back up with specific entry guidelines in place to keep their citizens and visitors safe. However, no two countries are the same. For example, starting in April, Israel/the Holy Land will begin welcoming visitors who have received a negative COVID-19 test within 3 days of departure and who have obtained comprehensive health travel insurance; which while similar to the requirements I encountered for Rwanda, are not identical. Therefore, choosing to book your upcoming travel with a tour company like Select International is a great option to reduce the stress of figuring out each country’s and airline’s requirements and to ensure you have a safe, healthy, and enjoyable trip!

(Please note that these trips were taken between September-November 2020; the details provided are accurate of my experiences during that time, however airline and airport policies may have since changed).

About the Author

Gracie Rosenbach is an international development professional who is passionate about travel and loves experiencing the beauty of Catholicism all over the world. Working in international food policy by day and sharing stories of the Universal Church on her Instagram and blog by night, Gracie hopes that her experiences meeting new people and visiting Catholic sites around the globe will inspire your wanderlust and help you to grow deeper in your faith

 

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June 14-23: Feast of Corpus Christi in Spello, Italy

The Feast of Corpus Christi is celebrated around the world, but most especially here in Spello, Italy.  It lasts a whole week….in 2019 it will be from June 14 to 23.

Events during the whole week include: the Competition of Hand embroidery “Flowering Windows, Balconies and Alleys“, the competition of Flower Cake Design “Cakes in Bloom”, the floriculture exhibition market of “Spello in Bloom”, night tours of the citizen art sites “InfiorArt”.

Throughout the event it is open the Museum of Infiorate, you can see the beautiful flowered balconies and corners of the city and you can eat at the “Tavern of Infioratori”, menu based on flowers.

Preparing the streets for the celebration of The Feast of Corpus Christi in Spello, Italy
Preparing the streets for the celebration of The Feast of Corpus Christi in Spello, Italy

The townspeople work throught the previous day an in to the evening, then the highlight comes on Sunday, the Feast of Corpus Christi:  the streets are covered with a carpet of polychrome and perfumed of 70 infiorate by the religious theme, ready for the passage of the Sacred procession led by the Bishop.

You can check out our webpage on Spello here.

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Holy Stairs in Rome to re-open on April 11

Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs in RomeThe Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs….housing the marble steps that Jesus climbed, leading up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem on His way to trial.

The frescoes and paintings on the walls had been dirtied through centuries of use, and were in need of restoration.

Beginning early last year, the Sanctuary was closed to allow the restoration to take place.

 

They are now restored to their formal glory, and the Sanctuary has been open to the public beginning April 11, 2019.  They will remain uncovered until June 30, 2019, when they will again be covered.

The steps themselves were covered with wood with slots in them so that pilgrims could view the steps as they climbed to the top (usually on their knees).

They are now un-covered…and for the next month pilgrims can climb up the actual steps without the wood covering.

You can read more at Catholic News Service (CNS)

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Yes: Your kids do need passports for international travel

Its the summer travel season for many, and often families travel out of the country.  In the rush to get everything arranged, sometimes things fall through the cracks.  But mistakes can be costly….and even ruin an otherwise well-planned vacation.

For citizens of many countries , all children must present a valid passport for international air travel. This rule applies regardless of age, including infants and newborns.

A slight exception exists for citizens of the U.S.:  if you’re traveling to Canada, minors 15 and younger may cross land or sea borders without a passport, but a certified copy of a birth certificate is necessary.  But we suggest you get them a passport anyway.  Most are good for five years and if any chances to travel come up, then you are prepared instead of having to wait weeks for a passport.

In almost 100% of the cases, if they do not have a passport they will not be allowed to board the plane for an international flight.  The airline faces heavy fines for failure to follow this rule, so don’t bother asking them to break it…they won’t.  So you can just get back in the car and drive home from the airport.

And don’t forget, if you are going on a cruise, the same requirements may be in effect if you are making a stop in any foreign country.  It is best to just go ahead and get the passport.

There are a few other examples of passport problems that can crop up…….as we have outlined here.  We suggest you check that article out.

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Air France Returns to Dallas/Fort Worth

Air France flights from DFWAlthough a major hub, the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport has not had any non-stop flights to Paris via the country’s carrier, Air France (other than a brief period right before 9/11).

American Airlines offers non-stop service to Paris, and has for several years.  With their connections from many other U.S. cities in the Southwest, they are a good choice for travel to Paris.

However, if you were connecting to other French cities it was often thought more convenient to fly on Air France. Unfortunately you either had to connect through Atlanta (using Delta, Air France’s partner) or drive south to Houston to take Air France non-stop to Paris.

Beginning March 31, 2019, Air France began offering three flights a week (Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays) until June 30, when they will expand to five flights per week (daily except Tuesday and Thursday). Then after the summer, they will go back to three flights weekly from September 4 through October 25. The airline will drop back to thrice-weekly service from Sept. 4 through Oct. 25.

After that, we don’t know if they will continue service from DFW….it will naturally depend upon the traffic they get during what is apparently a trial period.

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Facing a long airport layover? Ever wondered how to access the VIP lounges?

Interest in using an airport lounge?

 

Most of us have been there:  whiling away the hours in an airport while waiting for your flight to be called, sitting in those uncomfortable seats, watching endless news on the overhead TV screens……..while a few lucky ones are in one of the VIP  lounges that offer plush seating, coffee, wine, food….even showers in some cases.

Here’s a comment we received:  “A few years back, we decided to cash in some of our frequent flier miles for a couple of first class tickets from LAX to Paris.  One of the advantages that came with those tickets was access to the Air France lounge.  Leaving LAX we got to relax, have a glass of wine, some great snacks and then board at our leisure.  The morning we flew back, the lounge had fresh orange juice, delicious buttery croissants (this was France, after all) and fresh brewed coffee.  A great way to start the long flight home (quite a bit longer due to the prevailing westerly winds), and we did not have to pay for breakfast at our hotel.”

So how can you take advantage of that?  Well, obviously if you have a first class (and sometimes business class) ticket, it comes along with the extra cost.  For the rest of us, there are a couple of options.

 

1.  In many cases you can purchase a short time pass directly at the airline’s lounge.  It depends upon the airline, and its policy of course, and there is no guarantee that you can get it that particular day and time.

2.  Some airlines offer access for an annual fee. If you fly regularly, it may be worth looking into a membership with a particular airline.  Usually for a fixed annual fee, you will receive a certain amount of passes per year. After you’ve used the passes, you can purchase more, or often receive a discount on booking future visits. Some of the high-end VIP airport lounges may only be accessible to premium class passengers, some still are available for cash access.  And, you are usually limited to that airline’s club….not any others.

3.  Some credit cards have arranged for you to pay with miles to access their clubs…..but it is an expensive way to use those hard-earned miles.

4. You can try our newest advertiser, Lounge Buddy.  They have an app that is easy to use without an annual fee, the costs to access are often lower, and there’s usually a wider choice of lounges available to the ‘casual’ flyer.

Lounge Buddy works by providing details of every available lounge in an airport, and how to access them. Lounge Buddy offers genuine reviews by real customers, details of all facilities, and photographs. For example, if you need fast wi-fi, find which VIP airport lounge offers the best by browsing them on Lounge Buddy. Likewise, if you’re interested in a drink and some snacks, but don’t want to pay the high price of the airport concessions, use Lounge Buddy to discover which lounges offer complimentary drinks and snacks.

Find out more about Lounge Buddy here.  They also offer reviews of hundreds of lounges around the world…(not all of them are worth the money), where they are located in the airport, and what services are offered.

If you purchase via them, The Catholic travel guide may earn a commission – although the cost to you WILL NOT increase. But commissions like this help support our website.

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Reminder: The “Holy Stairs” in Rome are still closed for now

 

The entrance of the Holy Stairs before its' closure
The entrance of “The Holy Stairs” before its’ closure

You

The restoration work is not being done on the stairs themselves (which are protected by a wood covering) but of the frescoes on the walls surrounding the stairs.  Over the years they became darkened and could barely be seen. Restoration will restore them to their original beauty, but has necessitated closing of the stairs themselves.

But you can still visit:  Although a temporary image of the entrance has been placed over the actual entrance, an additional set of stairs has been installed next to the stairway, and pilgrims can climb those instead.

The stairs will reopen in late 2018, but we do not have a definite date at this point.

Here is a great video about the work being done from Catholic News Service.

 

 

 

 

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Best travel insurance for hurricanes

For 6 months out of the year, hurricanes pose a serious threat to travelers taking their long-awaited vacations. Many travelers look for travel insurance to offset that risk during hurricane season, however finding the best travel insurance for hurricanes is important to make sure you’re covered.

The Best Travel Insurance for Hurricanes is Comprehensive

Travelers who are worried about a hurricane or tropical storm ruining their trip should search for a policy with the Trip Cancellation benefit. Most cancellation policies automatically include Hurricane & Weather coverage.

Trip Cancellation can refund 100% of your prepaid and non-refundable trip expenses if you have to cancel your trip altogether before leaving your home. To search for travel insurance policies with this coverage, go to Squaremouth and select “Yes” when asked “Should this search include Trip Cancellation coverage?” By doing so, you will be prompted to enter the trip cost you would like to protect.

Getting a cancellation policy with comprehensive coverage also means you will have Trip Interruption coverage. This benefit covers the same events as Trip Cancellation, however coverage begins after you have left for your trip. If you need to cut your trip short, Trip Interruption can refund the cost of the unused portion of your trip, as well as the additional transportation expenses you incur to return home.

Because most policies are comprehensive, a cancellation-style policy will also have coverage for medical emergencies, travel delays, and luggage.

When You’re Covered if There is a Storm

Most comprehensive travel insurance policies can refund your trip costs if a storm significantly impacts your trip or prevents you from traveling. Each policy has specific situations that can trigger coverage. In order for coverage to begin, typically one of the following must occur:

  • Your flight or cruise is delayed by at least 6-48 hours, or canceled outright
  • Your hotel at your destination is severely damaged and deemed uninhabitable
  • A mandatory evacuation order or a hurricane warning is issued at your destination
  • Your home is rendered uninhabitable by the storm

Cancel For Any Reason: an Option for Added Flexibility

For additional flexibility, you may be able to upgrade a policy to include Cancel For Any Reason, which refunds you if you have to cancel for a reason not covered by Trip Cancellation. This can include simply changing your mind and not wanting to travel, fear of traveling, or loss of enjoyment at your destination, such as the beaches being less appealing than you were hoping.

There are, however, some stipulations regarding Cancel For Any Reason coverage:

  • Cancel For Any Reason is only available for 14-30 days after making your first trip payment
  • Your premium will typically increase by about 40%, and you must insure 100% of your prepaid and non-refundable trip costs
  • You can be reimbursed up to 75% of those trip costs
  • You must cancel at least 2-3 before you are scheduled to depart.

See this video on  “Cancel for any Reason” here.

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Tips to make Italy train travel a breeze

Italy is one of the world’s most beautiful places. Since the time of the Romans and before, travelers have long sought out this part of Europe. From the snow capped mountains of the Italian Alps to the joys of the pretty beaches at the foot of Italy, Italy is a traveler’s delight. Despite offering culture, art and wonderful views at every turn, the nation of Italy is a relatively compact place. This makes it easy to get around. There are many ways for people to travel around Italy. People can flit from village to village by boat or head out one of the country’s famous highways. One of the most popular forms of all transport is by train. Italy’s trains are famously run on time and crisscross the entire country.

While travel by train is a great way to see both urban Italy and the Italian countryside, Italian trains can also be stressful. It helps to keep a few tips in mind when buying tickets, boarding, sitting on the train and heading out from the train platform. It also helps to keep a few tips in mind when navigating from one Italian line to the next.

 

Different Types of Trains

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that most Italian trains have two classes. There’s first class and second class. There are few differences between the two. Many local city trains, such as those found in Rome, do not have classes at all. Another important thing to keep in mind are the many different types of Italian train lines. There are both public train lines and privately run train lines.

In general, the Italian lines are divided into three types.

The Le Frecce trains provide high speed rail transit between major Italian cities.

Other important lines are the EuroCity, the InterCity, and the international train lines. These trains are part of a much larger network of trains typically spanning not only Italy but the surrounding nations as well. These are often covered by a rail pass.

There also regional trains. Regional trains are the local workhorse of the area, serving both travelers as well as commuters on their way to work.

 

Advance Reservations

It’s highly important to keep in mind that some lines require travelers to make advanced reservations. The Le Frecce lines require such reservations. It’s a good idea to make them as soon as your travel. Travelers can purchase specific passholder seat reservations that are reserved for their use. These are sold at both train stations and from many travel agencies in the United States and other places. If you have your agenda already, you’re in luck. You can easily reserve more than one of your planned trains during a single visit to the platform. You are not required to meet deadlines so this can be shortly before boarding. It’s a good idea to do this well in advance before you travel. Look up each route that you want to take before you go so. Make sure you know when the train departs and when it arrives.

 

Specific Trains

Many Italian trains travel a route that includes several major cities in a single city. For example, a train may go from Florence to Rome and then to Naples. However, some trains stick to specific route. Be aware of these routes before you leave. For example, the Circumvesuviana brings travelers from Naples and then to Pompei and to further south to Amalfi. This is the only train that covers these routes. Likewise, the Malpensa Express train is the train that will get you from the center of Milan to the airport. These train lines should be reserved in advance whenever possible. If you have not done so, you should make sure to allow enough time to get the station. During the busier and more popular tourist times, seats fill up fast. Getting there early will help you make sure you don’t miss your connections and you do get a seat.

 

Where to Buy Tickets

It is possible to buy a rail pass. However, the rail pass is not accepted on all lines. In that case, you may need to buy your tickets at the station. There are ticket machines found in all railways. At the same time, many people avoid these machines as they can be complicated and confusing. Buying ticket at the ticket window gives you more options and a person to speak with. Make sure you are standing in the right line or you’ll have to start all over again. Buying tickets at travel agencies may cost a little more but it can help avoid crowds and work with people who understand the local trains intimately. They frequently have discounts not available to the general public. Keep in mind there are discounts available for certain groups. For example, if you are sixty or over, you can save money on your train fare. The same is true for those under twenty-five and under. They can also be eligible for discount train tickets. Sensible measures will make your Italian train travel far easier and far less stressful.