Podcast #180 — Tracking COVID Travel Requirements; Cycling Thru Puglia

Gotta Stay Hydrated

Back at the microphone after two weeks in Southern Italy. Lots of travel segments that could’ve gone wrong, but none of them did. We talk about what international travel is like in COVID times, about the challenge of keeping track and complying with the different COVID travel requirements that seem to be constantly changing, and then some thoughts about our bike tour through Puglia with Backroads. All this and more – click here to download the podcast file, go up to the Subscribe section in the top menu bar to subscribe on your favorite site, or listen right here by clicking on the arrow on the player.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #180:

Since The Last Episode

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois after 2 weeks in the south of Italy, a cycling tour through Puglia, and then visiting friends in Sicily; they’re grabbing one last bit of sunshine, topping up their vitamin D levels before the short, cold days of northern Europe’s winter sets in. I’ve talked in the last couple of episodes about travel planning for this trip, the changes, the shifts I’ve had to make, and about all the places, the segments that could’ve gone wrong — but none of them did! For sure there was a little weirdness along the way, especially in Sicily, but every flight and train leg was on-time and pretty uneventful. 
  • We hit what are now typical mask rule inconsistencies right off the bat in ORD. We walked into the Swissport Lounge that Air France and others use for business class and got the mask rules — mask on unless actively eating or drinking; airplane rules — and then walk into a small room with no food and a pretty dire bar. We sat down, but after a couple of minutes walked back out, straight down the concourse to Tortas Frontera, our favorite ORD restaurant, for good margaritas, and where they were applying Chicago indoor mask rules — you can drop your mask once you’re at your table. It was worth paying $90 to drink quality in comfort rather than playing mask peek-a-boo with the Swissport’s free wine.
  • The next morning, DeGaulle was more confusing than I remember it being in 2019. Getting from Terminal 2E to 2F seemed to take more cognitive power than it should’ve; maybe I hadn’t gotten as much sleep on the flight over as I thought. But all in all, it was an easy, uneventful flight over to Italy.
  • As I expected it to be. My biggest worry was our flights the following week from Brindisi in Puglia to Catania in Sicily, connecting through Rome on what would be the second day of operations for ITA, the Italian government’s successor to the bankrupt Alitalia. This itinerary certainly wasn’t my first choice, but as I’ve mentioned in the last couple of episodes, I didn’t have another one. There were labor actions leading up to the switch over that had disrupted operations, and even without that, you’d figure there’d be at least a hundred places where some minor snafu could botch up their big Rome hub. But other than a couple of agents maybe staging an impromptu work slowdown at the Brindisi check-in desk (or that was just their normal pace), it all went smoothly. And really, across all our travel legs, but for wearing masks and having our vaccination cards checked, it didn’t seem all that different from 2019. Now I know that’s a pretty big “But for”, but I’ll happily take it.
  • Bridge Music — Perfect Stranger by stellarartwars (c) 2014 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://ccmixter.org/files/stellarartwars/45510 Ft: TheDice

Following Up

  • Jerry Sarfati hit the TravelCommons’ Instagram feed to say that he’s seen no delays in TSA’s Global Entry processing. Jerry said
    • “Thanks for the latest podcast. I refreshed my Global Entry. Very easy. Was told 72 hours later that all was approved; no interview needed.”
  • Thanks for that, Jerry. I just checked. A month-and-a-half later (936 hrs using Jerry’s unit of measure), the TTP Dashboard (Trusted Traveler Program) still shows an hourglass next to “Wait for Conditional Approval”. But I’m guessing I’m probably a bit more of a suspect character than you. 
  • Twitter user @LAflyer weighed in on last episode’s discussion about how business travelers are still MIA (missing in action)
    • “Thanks for the new episode. In my opinion, face-to-face is becoming increasingly the edge case. I think we’ve proven we can manage so much remotely that the need for on-site/in-person meetings will be the exception, not the rule anymore. That’s ok with me. I prefer my own bed over traveling 200,000 miles annually.”
  • I think this is a valid and widely-held opinion/belief/hope — that beginning in March 2020, we’ve now all lived through an extended crash course in remote work and video conference, we’ve done it successfully, and so can significantly reduce the need for business travel, which will allow people to spend more time in their own beds and with their families as well as reducing business expenses, and reducing airplane carbon emissions. How much business travel will be eliminated? That’s the big question that I’m guessing will take another year before we begin to see the answer.
  • Back in the August episode,  asking the question “What Will Remain from These Pandemic Times?” the death of daily hotel room cleaning service was at the top of my list. Indeed, Hilton had just announced their move to on-demand housekeeping across all their non-luxury brands. But in Italy, I saw none of this. Not only did every hotel service our rooms every day, they were still doing turndowns every night. And they were doing their regular breakfasts, though with staff plating your food from the buffet rather than you digging in yourself. Now, we weren’t staying at major brands; only small Italian brands or independents, so I don’t know if that changes things, but they were much better hotel experiences than I’ve had recently in the US.
  • I didn’t realize how aggressive Apple is about iOS updates until this trip. I update pretty quickly when I’m at home, but on this trip, it seemed like I had to wave off the 15.0.2 update every couple of days. I didn’t bring my laptop with me, so I had no way to recover on the slight chance that the upgrade bricked my iPhone — without which I wouldn’t have been able to do the video chat session for the Abbott home test kit or display the test results, which was how we were getting back into the US. As if we didn’t know it already, you just can’t easily travel anymore without a working mobile phone.
  • I’ve talked in past episodes about how I will use a VPN, a virtual private network, when using public WiFi networks in hotels, airports, Starbucks to make my connection more secure. I’ve used all the top paid VPNs over the years — ExpressVPN, NordVPN, PIA — and am using NordVPN now. And I’ve never had a problem with nailing up a connection — until this trip to Italy. More than a couple of times, the VPN client wouldn’t connect to an Italian server. So, as I’m too prone to do, I bitch-tweeted at NordVPN and, to their credit, they immediately responded. We flipped over the direct messaging and they started trouble-shooting. What finally worked was connecting to one of their obfuscated servers, specialized VPN servers that hide the fact that you’re using a VPN. I don’t know if there are Italian regulations against using VPNs or if it’s just a couple of Italian ISPs blocking VPNs for some reason. Whatever the reason, I give NordVPN props for constructively responding to my whining and quickly solving my problem.
  • Also back in the August episode when talking about booking our travel over to Italy, I talked about burning off some Amex points to fly Air France business class. I think, by now, the standard business class seat is an individual pod that give you your own space, your own cocoon — some are snugger than others, the buttons and amenities are a bit different — but over the last 5-6 years, that’s what I’ve come to expect when I walk into a business class cabin. So when I got to my seat on this Air France 777, I was very underwhelmed — no pods, just a standard 2-3-2 seat configuration with no separators between the seats. I tweeted out a couple of pictures. It wasn’t a great first impression. But the service was good, the food and wine were very good (as I’d expect from Air France) and they didn’t put a 3rd person in Irene’s and my center section. And I ended up sleeping very well, probably with the help of an after-dinner armagnac.
  • Flying home was Lufthansa from Catania to Munich and then United straight to ORD.  I wasn’t thrilled with the connection through Munich; the last time we’d connected through there, long lines at passport control and security had us sprinting down the concourse to make what should’ve been a reasonably timed connection. But this time, it wasn’t a problem. There was maybe a 5-minute queue at passport control and no additional security, so we had time to grab some breakfast in the Lufthansa lounge before heading down to the United gate. Walking to the gate, I said to Irene “Looks like they fixed whatever the problem was when we were last here ‘cause it’s been a smooth connection.” And as the word “smooth” left my mouth, we saw the line. Luckily, for us, we weren’t in it. There was a huge tailback out of passport control for people arriving from the US getting into the Schengen zone to make their connecting flights — the same thing that happened to us. So they hadn’t fixed the problem. Arriving MUC from the US; still a problem. Leaving MUC to the US; not so much. I’ve filed that away for future reference.
  • Once on the United 787, I noticed that our seatback screens weren’t working. I mentioned this to the flight attendant when she came by to check on us. It wasn’t a problem; there was no one in the center section and all those screens were working, so we could just slide over if we wanted to. As it was, Irene was reading a book and I was listening to podcasts, so we didn’t need the screens. I just figured I’d tell the flight attendant so the ORD maintenance crew would know to look at it.  About halfway through the flight, the attendant comes back around and says she wants to give us something for our inconvenience. “I want to do something for you because you’ve been so nice about this,” she said. There was absolutely no inconvenience, but if United wants to give me free stuff, who am I to refuse. She pulled out her phone, opened an app, and for each of us, checked our e-mail addresses, and asked if we wanted 7,500 miles or $150 in credit (we took the money). And when we lit up our phones on the runway at ORD, we both had emails with the voucher details. I gotta be nice more often.
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along to comments@travelcommons.com — you can send a Twitter message to @mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or the Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can post comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Paint the Sky by Hans Atom (c) 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://ccmixter.org/files/hansatom/50718 Ft: Miss Judged

Tracking COVID Travel Requirements

  • If my biggest worry on our Italy trip was our Saturday flights on ITA, my second, more chronic worry was that we’d get caught up in paperwork hassles at one of the borders we were crossing (France, Italy, Germany, the US), maybe missing something in all the different requirements, having some airport gate agent or train conductor or immigration guy enforcing their own unique interpretation; or not our paper CDC vaccination card not accepted in lieu of an EU Green Pass QR code on our phones. The great thing, as I said earlier, is that none of this came to pass. And at the end of each travel day, I let out a small sigh of relief — just enough to feel good, but not so much that it might jinx the next travel day.  
  • Catania Airport, where we flew into and out of Sicily, was the only place that things got a little weird. We landed there at 8pm after a pretty flawless trains, planes, and automobiles travel day — a on-time, almost empty train ride from Lecce to Brindisi, a taxi to the airport, the no-problem ITA flights, and now in Catania, our bags were the first ones to pop out on the luggage belt.  Another small sigh of relief and we walk out of baggage claim to meet our friend — only to be waylaid by two security guards. “Where did you come from?” one of them asked. “Rome,” I said. “Where are you from?” “The US”. “Go to the line on the right,” she said. I looked at the sign; it said “COVID-19 test.”  Apparently, Sicily, or maybe just Catania, was requiring on-site COVID tests for non-EU arrivals. I was completely blindsided. There was nothing like this when we landed in Bari, in Puglia, 10 days earlier, and I didn’t see this anywhere on any of the many Italian governmental websites I checked before our trip. I looked down the testing line; it was beginning to tail back; this was going to be a bad time. “Wait! Wait a minute!” I said to the other guard, “We’ve been in Italy since the beginning of the month.” I pulled out my paper boarding passes that luckily I’d saved. “See, we started our flight in Brindisi; we just connected through Rome.” “You’ve been here two weeks?” he asked. Actually, it was more like 10 days, but I wasn’t going to correct his math. “OK, no need to test. Go to the left,” and he waved to his colleague to let us through. We quickly walked outside before either of them could change their minds and saw the COVID test line full of people trying to fill out forms on each other’s backs while standing in a line that led into a large room full of cubicles where yet more people were waiting to be tested. It looked like at least an hour’s worth of a very bad time. I was very happy the security guard was fluent enough in English to let me talk my way out of that line.
  • All the different shades of testing and tracking requirements — by country, by state, even by city —  Italy requiring an EU digital passenger locator form, proof of vaccination, and a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of arrival (vs. the US’s requirement that the test be taken within 72 hours of departure); Puglia adding to that another form to be filled out and emailed to the regional health department before arrival; there’s Sicily’s stealth on-arrival COVID testing, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what the UK wants of us for our trip there in the back-half of November because it looks like the rules changed a bit this week.  It all keeps you a bit off-balance, a bit anxious that you’ve missed something which is going to land you in a long, expensive line somewhere.
  • The mechanics of it all caught me off-guard at first. Checking into our Air France flight in ORD, the agent checked our vaccination cards and digital passenger locator forms (which, in spite of being digital, I’d printed out to make it easier to show someone). When we arrived in Bari, we walked straight out of baggage claim to the terminal. There was no one to check any of our paperwork. The same thing happened to my son Andrew last month when he flew into Barcelona. It seems like governments have made all of this a boarding requirement and pushed the responsibility to check it onto the carrier. Kinda like the carrier checks your passport and visa to make sure you can get into the country you’re going to; they’ve tacked on these additional COVID requirements. But even then, when I land in a new country, there’s still someone in a booth checking my passport. Irene tried to show one border police guy her vaccination card and he just waved her off.
  • But Italy requires proof of vaccination to go inside a restaurant or bar or a cathedral or an airport, so while the border cops weren’t interested in our vaccination status, a lot of waiters were. We kept our CDC cards handy, tucked in our passports. I worried about places turning us away for not being able to show the EU Green Pass QR code, but again, I was happy to be wrong. There was only one place, a restaurant in Bari, where a young waitress hesitated when we showed her our CDC cards, but almost immediately, one of the older waiters ran up, looked at the cards and said it was all good. Maybe some of this is timing. When Italy first re-opened back in, what July?, and people were trying to figure things out on the fly, it would make sense that waiters or gate agents would turn away people with unfamiliar pieces of cardboard. But now, 2-3 months on, they seem to have figured it out. I’m hoping I can too
  • Bridge Music — Dub the Uke by Kara Square (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/mindmapthat/53340 Ft: DJ Vadim

 Cycling Through Puglia

  • This trip didn’t start off with the idea “Let’s go to Puglia!” Instead, it started at the tired end of a Chicago winter as a combination of “Let’s go back to Europe” and “Let’s go on a cycling tour!” and then looking at what rides were available in the fall, in October because, back in April, Europe was not doing a great job with vaccine roll-out. And that was our path to Puglia. 
  • We’d done a self-guided cycling tour in southwest Scotland some years ago, but in southern Italy, never been here, not sure how much support there would be and how English would be spoken, we decided to go with a full tour. We narrowed the tour companies down to Trek Travel and Backroads. They both had good Puglia itineraries. I’d done a Trek tour in Moab, UT some years back, so we decided to give Backroads a shot.
  • There were 16 people on the tour, 12 of which were Backroads veterans; some very much so. One couple had done a Provence tour with them in July and another woman was doing back-to-back tours — the week before she’d ridden their Sicily tour and then flew straight up to Bari for this tour. These veterans said that Backroads does a great job organizing everything; it makes travel easy. It’s kinda the same thing I hear from people who are big into cruising — show up in some part of the world and have people take care of you. All that being said, after 6 days and 200 miles in the saddle, I came away happy (if a little sore) with the tour and impressed with the hospitality and service ethic of the Backroads tour guides.
  • We were riding through Puglia the week of October 10th which was probably a week too late because the towns were beginning to close up for the season. One day, we had a couple of hours in the hill town of Ostuni for lunch, but struggled to find places that were open. Many of the restaurants were dark, even though the signs on the doors said they should be open, as did the hours listed on their websites and their Google Maps listings. No signs saying “Closed for the season”, just locked doors through which we would see chairs on all the tables. We had similar experiences in Otronto and to a lesser extent in Lecce. One of the Backroads guides said that Puglia is a popular destination for Italian tourists from up north; many of them have vacation homes there. And when those folks head home, the remaining locals and handful of misdirected tourists aren’t enough to keep all the bars and restaurants going.
  • But the touring was great — riding alongside groves of huge, old, gnarled olive trees with vegetable crops like fennel and bitter greens planted underneath; and along the Adriatic Sea, up on the ridge along the coastal road and then down through little beach towns and fishing villages. 
  • And I think that’s the way to do Puglia, touring, doing a couple of days each in Bari and Lecce wandering through the narrow streets of their old towns, a day in Otronto, with half-day stops in Alberobello, Matera, and/or Ostuni, maybe a day or two hanging out in a nice agriturismo or one of those beach towns on the Adriatic. 
  • We drank a lot of wine, mostly the local Primitivo, a grape closely related to California’s Zinfandel, and ate a lot of seafood, especially octopus. At dinner during our second night in Bari, a young guy walked in with two small clear plastic buckets full of small octopus, very similar to a bucket I saw at the feet of a fisherman at the dock earlier in the day. I don’t think the seafood we were eating that week had been out of the Adriatic for much more than 24 hours before it hit our plates.
  • It was a different experience, a different vibe from our prior trips to Italy, which had all been up north — to Tuscany, to Milan, to Venice. But biking through those olive groves, those fields, those little towns; that’s the lower key experience we were looking for — and got — on our time in Puglia. If you want see pictures, head over to the TravelCommons’ Instagram site and click on Puglia/Sicily where I’ve collected some of the better Instagram Stories pictures.


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #180
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