After spending time in Patagonia seeing glaciers and beautiful mountainous peaks, we headed to Ushuaia. In our time there, we had to check to see if there were any last-minute deals on cruises to Antarctica, and managed to find one. It was a dream come true, as we have always wanted to visit the seventh continent. Our boat was booked and all we had to do is wait about a week, rent some gear, and go. As coronavirus became more widespread, we started worrying things might get canceled, but continued to be hopeful and optimistic.
Then things changed dramatically, and our entire world trip was canceled. We had to go home. This is our story of flying home during the coronavirus outbreak.
The End of the World
Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world and the launching point for many Antarctica excursions and cruises to fjords. The locals call it “Fin del Mundo” or the “End of the World”. When we first arrived, the town was bustling full of people landing from various cruise ships or awaiting the next one. Slowly the mood of the city changed and fewer people were around. The cruise ships stopped coming and most businesses were empty.
Then shock set in when Quark Expeditions canceled our Antarctica trip two days before our departure.
We knew that we needed to get home from Argentina as soon as possible as borders to all of the countries we wanted to visit were shutting down. The world was closing around us, and traveling was no longer possible. We were under lockdown in our last days in Ushuaia, Argentina, and stuck in our Airbnb scrambling to get flights before they grounded all planes. We were very stressed and anxious that we might get trapped in Ushuaia. It was a challenging time to be abroad, and unfortunately, it ended up being our last destination as we ended our world tour early. Flying home during the coronavirus outbreak would be challenging. The world seemed to end at the End of the World.
Shortly after all of this, we found Ushuaia became a total ghost town with very few people around. Everyone was wearing masks, and those who handled money or credit cards had their hand sanitizer at the ready. Especially looking European, we were more scrutinized because of the dramatic spread of the virus in Italy. I literally saw fear in the eyes of someone who took my credit card for payment. It took me by surprise, as no one has ever looked at me with fear before. Just to think there are many minorities that feel this every day. It is a unique perspective that I have never felt.
Argentina Taking Action
The government of Argentina took action quickly and closed restaurants, bars, and non-essential businesses. Grocery stores and takeout restaurants were the only ways to get food. They also started shutting down their borders and flights were grounded. Even though they didn’t have as many cases, Argentina wasn’t taking any chances. Government officials reported two cases in Ushuaia, and that put us on edge. They also shut down the national parks. This all happened within a few days and forced us to get out, or get stuck.
Since we have travel insurance through SafetyWing, we could claim political evacuation insurance to help cover our flights. We asked to see if they could arrange something and they told us the soonest they could get would be in ten days. That surely would not work as the border would shut down in two days, so I began looking for our own flights. After a panic attack, I called back to ask if I could just book the flights and get reimbursed. Sure enough, this is the way most people do it, and I did not know that. So then I spent the next few hours finding a flight that would get us out of Argentina before the doors closed. I booked a 35-hour trip home that involved four different flights.
When I woke up the morning of the flights, I checked the status of our first flight and it was canceled. This is not what I wanted to see, and I lost all hope. So I tried seeing what other flights were going out of Ushuaia that day to see if any would line up with the remaining onward booked flights. There weren’t any. The thought of having to rebook that flight and all subsequent flights sounded daunting. In complete panic, I then called the US embassy in Argentina to get their advice. They told me to get a direct flight out of the country to avoid the next day’s lockdown of all international flights. Since I was having a hard time doing that, they said to head to the airport and see what they could do. The coronavirus was wreaking havoc on so many flights.
We got a taxi and immediately headed to the airport. The taxi driver wore a mask and sprayed the entire taxi with some kind of sanitizer to help protect herself and us. We also wore masks. Upon arrival at the airport, each person had to have their temperature taken. We also had to keep a meter’s distance from others. At the Aerolineas Argentinas counter, they confirmed canceling our flight. However, there was another flight leaving at the same time as our original flight that would get us to Buenos Aires even sooner but would involve an airport transfer across town. We booked it with no additional charges.
While we awaited our flight, we heard someone yelling frantically at the ticket counter. We didn’t understand what was happening since it was all in Spanish, but the person sounded so desperate. It was suddenly quiet, and we then saw an unconscious person being escorted out in a wheelchair by police. Perhaps the person looked too sick to travel. It was scary thinking about what tense times we are living in and the thought of not flying home.
The Trip North
Our first flight was pretty packed with people, many trying to get home before flight restrictions took hold. There was no in-flight service on the plane, as they did not want to put their flight attendants at risk or spread the virus. That didn’t matter; we were on our way home or at least to a bigger city. Buenos Aires would have more options in case the airlines canceled onward flights. We put notifications on each flight to keep us aware of any changes. They labeled our upcoming flights as on time. What a relief!
Buenos Aires Airport Transfer
Upon arrival at the domestic airport in Buenos Aires, we knew we had to arrange for a bus or taxi to get to Ezeiza International Airport. Coming out of security a company approached us to take us to the other airport for about 1,400 pesos each ($22 USD). Knowing that people approaching you are usually the ones with the highest prices, we walked away and looked up the best price for the transfer online. We found Tienda Leon could get both of us there cheaper at 580 pesos each ($9 USD). Best of all, the bus was nearly empty because no one was traveling. The ride was comfortable and only stopped once on the way to pick up people in the city center.
Flight to Panama
When we arrived in Buenos Aires Ezeiza airport, there were warning signs to prevent the spread of coronavirus. They mentioned washing your hands, keeping your distance, and also listed many of the symptoms. The shops and restaurants were closed. It felt like a ghost town. There were some places to grab food if needed, but we had made our own lunches to hold us over.
Staff members called our names along with several other Americans before boarding the flight. They wanted to make sure we were going to the United States and were not heading to any other destination besides our home country. They allowed us to board after letting them know we were going to Oregon. Unfortunately, a person heading to Colombia was not allowed to board the flight. He could only return to his home country.
We flew on Copa Airlines and had our first long-haul flight since we flew from Turkey to Santiago back in early February. It was a very full flight as many other people were trying to get home to the US and this was the best route we could take. This flight had meals onboard and entertainment. The attendants wore gloves and masks to protect themselves. It felt more like a normal flight other than half the people were wearing masks and sanitizing the surrounding areas. Every cough or sneeze made us nervous. We kept our masks on for the duration of the flight unless we were eating.
Arriving in Panama City there were more signs warning of the coronavirus. At the check-in counter, there were ropes that kept us a meter away from the attendants behind the desks. All the agents wore masks and gloves to protect themselves. The gates were also very empty unless flights were arriving.
We had to go through a special American security area to abide by the laws of the US. Brianna wasn’t so lucky as security searched her bag multiple times. We definitely didn’t miss the more stringent American security checks. Finally, we could board our flight to San Francisco, which helped to ease our anxiety about getting home. There was always a chance of cancellation, but thankfully we made our flight.
Arriving in San Francisco
Arriving in San Francisco, we were relieved to be back in the United States. The airport was empty and our readmission into the United States was the easiest ever. There were only two people in line ahead of us. We quickly made it into the airport where we spent much of our time in the makeshift airport lounge. It was basically the only restaurant open where we could use our Priority Pass lounge access. The airport was so quiet that it felt like it was 3am. It was empty.
The precautions taken in the San Francisco airport, or lack thereof, were so much different from the other airports. Hardly anyone was wearing masks or gloves. We were told to stay 6 feet away from other patrons, but several people weren’t following the rules. Even with San Francisco under lock-down, the behavior of the American staff was nowhere near what we had seen in South and Central America.
Flight to Eugene
Our final leg was to Eugene, and it was a short hour-and-a-half flight. It had a whopping 15 people onboard including the crew. For once we could practice social distancing easily and spread out if we wanted to. Our excitement was building as we were almost home. Thinking about family and our two kitties helped us forget about all the places we could no longer visit. For now, this was our best place to be.
Practicing Good Hygiene
For the entire trip, we wore our own masks, which we bought on our trip to Japan back in 2015. In our current environment, it is more important for health care providers to have masks available, so we do not suggest you buy them unless you are sick. We used hand sanitizer before eating and washed our hands as often as possible. Knowing we were coming home to a family, many of whom are over 60 years old, we did not want to infect them.
We maintained at least a 6-foot distance from people in the airports, as instructed. At check-in counters, the personnel wore masks and had a sign or a physical barrier to keep you at least a meter away from them. This was the case for most of the stops during our journey, except for the USA. Several people were more relaxed about the situation, and it upset us that so many Americans did very little to protect themselves or others. This was a stark contrast to our previous two countries.
After passing through six airports and riding on four planes, we chose to be self-quarantined in our bedroom to keep the rest of the family from any potential virus we might be carrying. If we venture out, we always use hand sanitizer and wear our masks as a precaution. We plan to do this for two weeks. This isn’t how we wanted to come home, but we surely do not want to get our family sick. We are not too worried as we used as many preventative measures as possible, but it is better to be safe than sorry.
My Thoughts and Feelings
The end of this trip was a complete roller coaster of emotions. I was so happy during the time in Patagonia seeing all of the beautiful places. Then with the chance of going to Antarctica was exciting, until it was canceled. Dread, depression, and anxiety were overwhelming me as all of the possible travel options disappeared. I was looking at Australia as an alternative to Asia, but then each border closed or had mandatory quarantines for 14 days. I also looked at other places in South America until the same happened there.
The world was closing all around me and I felt trapped as I worked on booking flights to get home. Things changed so quickly and I wasn’t prepared to upend my travel life in this way. I’m glad to make it back now, but feel this experience will forever change my life and my perception of travel. You never know how quickly the world can change, and you have very little say in what happens.
The Future after coronavirus
When the dust settles and the world reopens for business, we plan to go to Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Our travel style will change too, as we want to spend longer amounts of time in fewer places. Even before all of this happened, that was the plan for what we were calling World Trip Two. We are a little sad that we have this break on this trip, but we look forward to our future travels. We have loads of content to publish, so stay tuned.
Stay safe everyone!
What is your experience traveling with coronavirus and how has it changed you?
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