On a bright and sunny pandemic day in early March, I received a text message from an old college friend about his spring break travel plans.
“Nice time to get into the travel business, huh? We are working to cancel a trip to California we were taking to Disney/Universal. If we still wanted to go somewhere, leaving Saturday, where would you suggest?” he asked.
“Mexico and Caribbean are good. We are leaving Saturday. Bought it yesterday, Cheap,” I replied.
“Where to, may we join you?” he asked.
“We are going to Cancun. I will shoot you a price for my hotel, if it’s available. We have super cheap places everywhere. March 14-18 are the dates,” I said.
So began my first pandemic vacation and my first pandemic travel sale. My research showed that Mexico and the Caribbean were the safest places to travel, with some of the best deals. I bought a cheap vacation package through my Cruise Planners business at a 5-star, all-inclusive resort on the Cancun Riviera Maya. My five-day vacation package for my wife and our two teenaged children included flights, trip insurance and transfers at an unbelievably low price.
I was not foolhardy about traveling during the pandemic. The virus has killed thousands and is decimating the travel industry. I retired from the military in the fall of 2019 after serving in an Army at war for most of my career and was experienced at doing risk assessments. Unfortunately, I was just beginning to build our recently acquired Cruise Planners travel franchise and establishing clients when a new war began with COVID-19. I had the advantage of some experience in global pandemics having supported the U.S. military response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014. That limited experience gave me some valuable insights into the negative impacts of a highly contagious and deadly virus.
I assessed our risk to travel as low. COVD-19 is very lethal to the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, and my family is not in those high-risk categories. Knowing I would be traveling soon, I had already visited my elderly mother a week before and would stay away from her for at least two weeks post-travel. I registered us with the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment (STEP) with the nearest U.S. Embassy in case of an emergency and reviewed their country information brief on Mexico.
Next, we ensured we had sanitary wipes, sanitizing gel and masks for our trip. At the time, the CDC had issued an advisory to the general public not to wear masks unless they were showing COVID-19 symptoms. However, the CDC did a controversial about-face and recommended all Americans wear masks in April.
We flew to Cancun International Airport on a direct flight out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. O’Hare is normally one of the busiest airports in the U.S., if not the world. During Spring Break it’s normally busier. When we arrived, it was like a ghost town. I’d never seen anything like it, but I was hoping for a smaller crowd at the airport since fewer people means less chance of getting the virus. The plane was also booked at about 50 percent capacity. Mask use was very rare, and we didn’t use ours.
Cancun International Airport seemed to be running business as usual, just with fewer passengers. While masks were still sporadic, we kept up social distancing. The resort was also running at about 50 percent capacity, and the restaurants were light on customers. What should have been a packed morning breakfast buffet was a nearly empty dining hall.
Hand sanitizing was enforced by the staff, but I told my family to wash or sanitize their hands before they ate and generally after touching a surface of any kind. Unlike many cruise ships that recently eliminated self-service from their buffets to avoid contamination, our resort buffet was still self serve.
I worked out in the resort gym which had low occupancy and increased hygiene and sanitation requirements. Good hygiene after touching hard surfaces in common areas like these has been a common habit for me long before the pandemic, so doing it now was easy.
We continued to enjoy our stay and visited the ancient Mayan ruins at Tulum and the Coba Pyramid, which is the highest pyramid on the Yucatan peninsula. We also took a swim in the cool waters of one of Mexico’s many underwater caves, called cenotes. We then stopped at a shopping district in Playa del Carmen at the end of the excursion.
We departed Mexico on March 18 as planned. On our transfer bus, one passenger asked, “Is everybody ready to go into quarantine when they get home?” More public health measures were in place at Cancun International Airport. The airport had staff in Tyvek suits taking thermal scans of passengers as they walked through security. This was a measure I had not seen in U.S. airports. The return flight home had more passengers this time, and I had two people sit next to me. Both of them wore masks, one wore a face shield. I didn’t wear my mask.
We self-isolated for 14 days as planned before our trip. I continued to work my travel business, dealing mostly with clients' travel cancelations, refunds and rebookings due to the pandemic. New travel bookings became rarer. Many countries and states effectively shut down. Although this was horrible for business, the lockdowns and self-isolation didn’t bother me otherwise. I was used to such conditions from being in the military and from working from home since retirement.
Looking to the future, I wondered if we would be able to take a summer vacation and where would we take it? By early summer, the travel industry was reeling from the effects of the pandemic, and a virus surge was occurring in the U.S. Select states in America enacted travel restrictions on out of state visitors. Many countries also required a negative COVID-19 test before entering their country. The problem with such testing was once you were tested you really didn’t know when it would come back, leaving you in travel planning limbo. Plus, you could still catch the virus right after you took the test. To me, this made COVID-19 testing for travel fairly pointless.
I decided to travel through America on a western vacation via a road trip in our SUV in late July. I got a great deal on lodging at Lake Powell, located in Utah and Arizona, through my Cruise Planners business and hit the road with the objective of hitting several U.S. National Parks. Mask usage throughout the country was prevalent wherever we traveled and often required when entering buildings.
My biggest problem with the mask was remembering to keep it on me at all times, walking back to the car in frustration whenever I forgot it. We never wore masks outside in wide-open areas, and very few people we saw did.
Over nine days we drove through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah and Arizona and back. We saw several National Parks, Monuments and Forests including Arches, Zion, Glen Canyon, Grand Staircase Escalante, Bryce Canyon, and Mesa Verde, where ancient stone canyon dwellings were built by the Pueblo Indians.
Lake Powell is an amazing place to see. Located inside Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, it harbors nearby Lone Rock Beach which allows visitors to drive right up to the shoreline and camp there if desired. Lone Rock is also a designated off road vehicle (ORV) site. Lake Powell also has Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend as one of its many tourist attractions. We kayaked thru Antelope Canyon then debarked for a short hike when he hit the land trail. Horseshoe Bend is one of the most famous stone formations in the world and only a short distance from Lake Powell Resort.
On our return drive home, we drove through Monument Valley, a place that has been the backdrop for many western movies and is located in the Navajo Nation. The Navajo tourist sites were all closed because the Navajo Nation has suffered some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the U.S. The good news is you can see Monument Valley for free just by driving US highway163, part of the “Navajo Code Talker Highway” and the “Trail of the Ancients” from Kayenta, Arizona.
All of these locations were bucket list destinations of mine and world-renowned landmarks. There were small crowds at the parks, and nearly everyone practiced good social distancing. The National Parks are one of the best traveling options you can go to in the pandemic. By avoiding crowds in wide-open spaces, your chances of catching the virus are reduced significantly.
While the State Department removed its global, Level 4 travel advisory on August 6, the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. I think we should be prepared to live with COVID-19 for a long time. Everyone should assess their risk to travel and keep the virus in context of how it affects their age group and health status. For us, it was a great time to travel. I’ve been doing risk assessment and risk management in the military for decades, and I assessed my family wasn’t in any more danger than we would be pre-pandemic from all the other ways a person can get hurt or killed.
Additionally, the travel deals I bought through Cruise Planners were unbelievably low and too good to pass up. I was also able to have a reunion with an old college friend and his family while saving his spring break vacation, and mine, at the last minute. He was pretty happy about that and so was I. P.T. Barnum once said, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” Making people happy...that’s what travel advisors do.