Make sure you’ve checked the (literal) fine print!
As soon as the agent at San Francisco International Airport’s United check-in desk pulled out a magnifying glass to inspect my forms, I knew something wasn’t right.
Still, I really felt sure that I had everything needed for my first international flight since the beginning of COVID. Not only was I fully vaccinated, but I’d also gotten my yellow fever vaccine two weeks before, expedited my visa, and procured a negative COVID test only 36 hours earlier. However, as I stood at the counter, I could sense the impatience of the people in line behind me, their eyes searing into the back of my skull in exactly the same way I’d been doing to others only a few moments ago. “What could possibly be taking them so long?” I’d been thinking.
Now that it was my turn, my trip to Ghana seemed to be slipping away with each masked breath. The West African country had been on the top of my travel list for years, ever since reading author Tanya Shaffer’s memoir Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa, back in 2003. In 2020, Ghana launched Beyond the Return, a 10-year campaign highlighting the African renaissance and welcoming a new generation of visitors, so when the opportunity to go there for work arose, I jumped on it. Ghana was open to overseas travelers, and I was ready to return to the skies once more.
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“I love that you’re going big with your first flight since the pandemic,” said one acquaintance.
“Africa,” wrote another. “How amazing!”
And I’m sure it would have been incredible—if I’d have actually gotten off the ground.
Despite headlines like E.U. Set to Let Vaccinated Tourists Visit this Summer, it’ll likely be a while before overseas travel feels “normal” again. In many cases, flying out of the U.S. is even more confusing than ever. I make my living as a travel journalist, but because of new restrictions and that vary from country to country as well as an admitted unfamiliarity with pandemic travel, I found myself back in San Francisco battling the fog last weekend rather than discovering Accra’s cultural and natural wonders. If only I’d heeded these tips beforehand.
Read the Fine Print
As countries begin reopening to travelers, each place has its own set of rules and travel prerequisites. For me, not only did they include an International Certificate of Vaccination (ICV) or “yellow card,” completed with my yellow fever vaccine info—signed and validated with an official stamp—and a tourist visa, but also a negative COVID test less than 72 hours before my flight to Accra. I had obtained all of these.
However, when the airline emailed me 24-hours prior to my SFO flight with the subject line, “Airport check-in required” (something I was expecting because they’d need to check my COVID test results), I didn’t bother reading the text. A bad move, since the email contained information detailing additional requirements for boarding the flight. In this case, a certificate of health—which many countries now require—to be signed and dated; a required pre-payment of $150 for another COVID test upon landing in Accra; and a QR code to add to my test results.
So when the United agent asked me, “Where is your health declaration form?” I really had no idea what she was talking about.
Thankfully, I was able to access the form via a link and fill it out on my phone while she continued her work with the magnifying glass. However, the prepaid COVID test at Accra’s Kotoka International Airport threw me for a loop, because it was a completely unexpected fee. It’s also one that I was happy that I hadn’t yet paid, since the agent with the magnifying glass was about to hit me with more unexpected news.
All COVID Tests are Not Created Equal
In Thailand, there’s a common phrase that goes, “Same same, but different.” This refers to the idea that while street vendors might be selling similar wares, like a pair of fisherman pants or a tiny Buddha statue, not all wares are exactly the same. When it comes to COVID tests, this is a call worth heeding.
By definition, a molecular COVID-19 test checks whether you have the COVID virus by detecting its DNA in your system. However, this is where the similarities end. Each country has a specific type of Covid test that it requires for travelers to enter, and this test varies from place to place.
Two evenings before my scheduled flight, I walked over to an urgent care center in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood that advertised immediate COVID test results. After a brief consultation, the doctor sent me upstairs to a rooftop parking lot for a double nasal swabbing. Fifteen minutes later, a volunteer presented me with a one-page paper with my name, date of birth, and test date all handwritten on the upper right corner of the otherwise photocopied page, which also included my test results: negative. I was good to go, or so I thought.
But while my test was an “Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 rapid molecular nuclear acid in-vitro diagnostic test” (NAAT-NEAR), what I needed was a molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which is only available at select locations and testing centers. Although both of these tests check for the same thing (whether or not you’ve been exposed to COVID), the latter is considered to be more sensitive and therefore produce more accurate results. It’s the preferred testing method for many countries around the globe, but not all of them.
I’m sorry, but what?
Having never taken a COVID test prior to this, I had no idea that there was more than one kind, and that not every kind of test was acceptable for my specific destination. Needing a test within 72 hours of my flight departure, I’d simply looked for a COVID testing center that could produce results in that time frame. Unfortunately, the process requires a little more footwork…in more ways than one.
For instance, even if I had taken the type of COVID test (in this case, molecular PCR) required for my particular destination, the desk agent’s ever-present magnifying glass warned me that there was even more trouble afoot. This, it turns out, was that my name, date of birth, and date of testing on the results of my COVID test were handwritten, and the rest of the form photocopied. According to the United desk agent that I spoke with (and her colleagues), test results must be completely computer-generated and either printed out and/or available online, since forgeries are a real thing.
Do Your Travel Homework
Although I ran through the airport to see if one of SFO’s three on-site COVID-19 testing centers had the molecular PCR test that I needed, I was out of luck. The center that did offer a PCR test, combined with rapid results that could be obtained within an hour (another on-site center offered PCR tests, but results took up to 24-hours), didn’t open until 8 a.m. My flight would already be boarding at that time.
It was time to call it a day, but I learned some valuable lessons.
Every country has its own requirements and restrictions for travelers as overseas destinations continue opening up, and it’s important to figure out exactly what they are beforehand.
Individual Ministry of Tourism and Federal Foreign Office websites will likely provide the information you need for the places you’re intending to go; and remember: while international travel is becoming more and more possible, to what extent really varies country-to-country. Know what you’re getting into.
For example, the man in front of me in line at the SFO COVID testing center was heading to France, which at the time required from U.S. visitors a sworn statement of heath (declaring that you’re not experiencing fever, chills, unexpected headaches, or other possible COVID symptoms), negative results of an RT-PCR COVID taken within 72-hours of flight departure, the possibility of a second test upon arrival, and a seven-day isolation, after which another RT-PCR COVID test is necessary.
Be prepared for extra fees.
I’d set aside money for the visa, yellow fever vaccine, and a COVID test, but not three COVID tests. Adding up the costs in my head, I realized that the trip was becoming more expensive than I’d bargained for.
Download the airline’s app.
Honestly, I’ve never been one for downloading more apps than I need. However, United (and other airlines, I expect) uploads the travel requirements of each destination you have a plane ticket for in their app’s “travel center.” Several times during check-in airline agents mentioned, “the app should have shown you this.” If I’d actually had the app, that is.
Take matters into your own hands.
Even if you’re used to relying on others, whether it’s a work trip or an organized tour, for your destination requirements, don’t take for granted that they’re going to know the COVID nuances of each individual country. The truth is, the rules are changing daily and we’re all just learning as we go.
While the United desk agent said she could rebook me the following day, the brevity of my overall trip coupled with the rising fees kept me from committing. Thankfully, the flexibility of my ticket (and a three-month tourist visa) gives me a little more time to figure things out. Which is why, when the employee at SFO’s COVID testing center said to me, “We don’t have the COVID test that you need, and I’d rather not waste your time or your money,” I didn’t fuss or argue. I was more appreciative than she knew.
This is a prime example of why people should consider using an experienced travel professional because we make sure this doesn't happen.
I'm a little surprised that a travel writer would not have done more research regarding COVID protocol specifics for an international trip to Africa. Those types of things are part of their job, IMHO. I just visited the USVI, and while there were not as many hoops to jump through to be allowed entry into St. Thomas, the testing guidelines were very specific with several nuances. Most of my research was done on Trip Advisor, where numerous posts exist that answer all kinds of COVID testing questions. I would be willing to bet that the same information is available on Fodor's forums.
What I learned from this article is that the author did not have or trust a professional travel agent. PCR tests are the norm these days, not the exception. Wisdom of the crowd is invaluable but nothing beats someone who does this for a living and lives it 24/7.
Also with international travel that requires a connection, beware of the transiting country's requirements. I just had a friend deported from Zurich airport back to the US, when he was connecting on to a flight to Greece. The airline had clearly not done it's due diligence in allowing him, (and others in the same situation), to board. Once back in the US, he had to get rebooked at significant expense, on another airline, and transit via Istanbul to reach his final destination.
Good reminder to always read the fine print. I'm amazed I even made it to Hawaii in December. I can't tell you how much time I spent reading the fine print almost everyday. That's the other thing, you have to keep up-to-date on changing situations so you have to be online interacting with multiple sources. I joined two Hawaii Facebook groups that discussed what was happening real time on the ground and in the air.