Podcast #183 — COVID Test Anxiety; Michelin Food Adventures

Post-dinner pic complete with gang sign

No travel since the last episode, but lots of travel planning. Are we making our way back to pre-COVID travel planning patterns? Omicron has lots of people worried about testing positive and getting stuck abroad. Michael Giusti of InsuranceQuotes.com talks about how travel insurance can help. A blogger’s brutal review of a Michelin-starred restaurant where we ate in October gets me thinking about food as an adventure. 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 #183:

Since The Last Episode

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois. Hope everyone had a great New Year’s. No travel since the last episode, which has turned out to be a good thing given the, what?, two weeks straight of over 1,000 cancelled flights a day. I’ve always tried to avoid traveling during the Christmas holidays; crowded planes, lots of not-very-experienced travelers, and the inevitable winter storm or two has never resulted in smooth travel experiences. Add to that airlines struggling to staff back up to passenger loads and then omicron comes ripping through their ranks…. The two folks I knew flying last week both got home a day late which, given all this, could’ve been a lot worse. Like being trapped in that 27-hour mess on I-95 in Northern Virginia. Definitely a reminder never to let yourself get below a quarter tank.
  • So while I haven’t been traveling, I have been travel planning, which is not unusual. January has traditionally been the big travel planning month; pack up the Christmas decorations, figure out where you want to go this year and then put in your time off requests. And because January is just the worst month of the year, at least in the upper Northern Hemisphere when it’s the coldest month of the year and the sun sets early; so you need something, anything to look forward to.
  • But COVID changed all that, of course, especially the planning timeline. We’ve talked in prior episodes how last-minute travel restrictions have made that planning timeline, what the travel industry calls the booking window, a lot shorter. Last year, in the January 2021 episode, I talked about having to make a last-minute pivot away from a San Diego trip I’d booked just the month before because California was still in their post-holiday lock down and not letting out-of-state visitors make hotel reservations. 
  • I thought this year I’d revert back to the old patterns and do a bit more longer-term travel planning. Looking at Kayak’s flight search trends, where they now compare current flight search volumes to pre-pandemic levels, so comparing 2021 to 2019, seem to be an optimistic outlier because their search volumes have cratered vs. 2 year ago. Eyeballing their trend chart, I’d say it’s down something like 50%. Though switching over and looking at Google’s Hotel Insights page, I might not be too far out of the fat part of the curve; their hotel search trends seem to be recovering. Which sorta maps into our plans. In February, we’re driving down to Louisville rather than flying, giving the airlines a couple of months to unscramble their operations, and then getting on planes — to New York in March, Santa Fe, NM in April, maybe DC in May. But for that February drive down I-65, across the frozen tundra of central Indiana, we’re definitely packing a couple of blankets — and snacks — and keeping the gas tank topped off just in case. News reports of that I-95 jam up talked about a Good Samaritan family going car to car, passing out oranges they were bringing back from Florida. Coming back from Louisville, I’m guessing any Good Samaritan would be going car to car with a couple bottles of bourbon and a sleeve of plastic shot glasses — which is not a bad thing. Would definitely warm you up for at least a little bit.
  • Bridge Music —  DLDN Instrumental by St Paul

Following Up

  • Last April, the Department of Homeland Security kicked the Real ID can down the road — again — so now we have until May 2023 before we’ll need Real ID-compliant identification to get through a TSA checkpoint. We don’t have to get a Real ID driver’s license; a passport or a Global Entry card would work also. But, last month, since I had to visit the 5th Circle of Hell also known as the Dept of Motor Vehicles, to renew my expiring driver’s license, I figured I might as well get the Real ID version. And why not? In Illinois, the Real and non-Real ID driver’s licenses cost the same, you go through the same lines…. The only difference was it took maybe an extra 3 minutes for them to scan in my social security card and the documents I used to prove my address. Which, if I’d kept in mind the Distributive Property of Cybersecurity, “Any data entered into a system will eventually be hacked and distributed on the dark web” — I would’ve used something a bit more innocuous than my bank statement.  But, I now have a driver’s license with a requisite gold start in the upper right corner just in case DHS is really serious this time about the Real ID deadline.
  • In the last episode, I talked about finishing up my Global Entry renewal. And so with that done, last week I sent my passport into the void that is the US Passport Agency for renewal. I don’t have any international travel planned right now, but I’m very uncomfortable to be without my passport. I don’t know why, but I am. And the discomfort is only amplified by the 8-11 week processing time the State Department is now quoting. It also reminded me that it’s been 10 years since my most embarrassing cock-up – letting my backpack with my son’s and my passports get stolen from the overhead rack of the train to Brussels airport. I told the whole story in episode #98, about what a stupid, what I called “the rookie-est of rookie mistakes” it was, and how it could’ve been worse, but for the very pleasant and helpful Brussels airport police and US Embassy staff, and that my son and I then got in a couple extra days of Belgian beer drinking.  Lesson learned, though; I’ve kept my passport on my person when traveling ever since.
  • It’s funny, sometimes, how travel can prepare you for things back home. Back in episode #180, talking about our travels through Italy, I walked through what were back then the most stringent vaccine passport requirements around; you need to show an EU Green Pass on your phone or, for us, our CDC vaccination cards to get into restaurants, bars, airports, train stations,…. And so when Chicago started doing the same thing on January 1st, we were ready. In some ways Chicago is easier than Italy — showing a picture of my CDC card is quicker than waiting for someone to scan a QR code; but here, and New York City and Washington, DC, we’ve added the extra step — having to show a picture ID that matches to the vax card. We didn’t have to do that in Italy. You know, if I hadn’t had to send my passport in, maybe I’d just do what I did in Italy, carry my CDC card in my passport; I could pull ‘em both out in one hopefully suave and graceful move and be done with it.
  • Back in the November episode, I said that I’d already gotten status roll-overs from Marriott, Hilton, and IHG, extending my current level in their frequent sleeper programs for the third time — now they expire in February or March 2023. I figured that was the end of it, so when I received a note from Southwest in mid-December with the subject line “Surprise: A-List status extended,” it was pretty accurate. I was very surprised! I hadn’t expected any airlines to extend status; they all seemed to be lowering the qualification clip levels instead. So, thanks Southwest! I’ll be using this status on my flights to LGA and ABQ — also because I still have some 2020 pandemic cancellation credits that are about to hit their disappearing 2-year birthday. Any chance you can extend that expiration data too?
  • Just to spin the propeller on top of the travel tech beanie hat for a sec…. Over the past couple of trips, I’ve noticed my briefcase/messenger bag has finally passed a tipping point — I now have more electronic devices needing a newer USB-C cord than an original USB-A cord. (I told you this would be a propeller spin). The USB-C cord invasion started with the iPhone 11 Pro; another cord to carry, but it occasionally came in handy, like when Hertz gave me a birthday upgrade a few years back to a Mercedes A220; it only had the smaller USB-C plugs. But the invasion picked up speed with each upgrade — first it was my new Bose headphones, then when I upgraded my battery pack, my power bank; then again when I got my MacBook Air, and again squared when I got a pair of cheap Anker earbuds last Prime Day. Which led me, finally, to replacing my dual USB-A power adapter for one with two USB-C plugs and one USB-A for my old Samsung tablet that just won’t die. But I still have to carry an old iPhone USB-A cord for those times when all that’s left on the Hertz lot is a 3-year old Chevy Malibu.
  • 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 — Goodbye Sooner or Later by oldDog

COVID Test Anxiety

  • A friend of mine said he wanted to get together this month. “Sure,” I said, “but if we can’t, we’ll be together for a weekend in February in Louisville at a wedding.” “Uh, no,” he said, “I’m not going.” “Why not?” “I’m going to isolate, kinda like a soft quarantine in February, don’t go outside except to walk the dog so I don’t screw up my trip to Egypt. It’s non-refundable, so I’ll be out a lot of money if I test positive for COVID before leaving and can’t go.”
  • And last month, in early December, right when everyone was tightening travel restrictions in what turned out to be a futile effort to keep omicron out of their country, another friend cancelled a long-planned trip to Scotland. “I just don’t want to get trapped, away from home,” he said.
  • COVID test anxiety. I understand it, especially around test-on-arrival rules. The week before our flight to London in November, I got a text from my doctor group — time to get your COVID booster. I clicked through to the appointment website, started looking at slots, but then stopped. I have to take a COVID test by our second day in London. What if that spike of antibodies from the booster lingers long enough to turn that test positive? I clicked onto the next page of the website and booked my booster for December, after we got back home.
  • As I mentioned in the last episode, we tested negative on our test in London and went about our vacation. But as we got close to our return date, that anxiety crept back in. This was before the US tightened the testing window, so we took our Abbott tests 2 days before departure, both to give us some wiggle room, some time to retest if one came up positive, but also to calm those worries. I remember on that trip talking to an American guy in the elevator of our hotel in London. He had an Abbott rapid test sticking out of his briefcase. “Getting ready to head home?” I asked. “No,” he said, “I just test myself every 2 days.” I kinda laughed at that, thinking it was a bit over-rotation. But thinking back on it now, maybe he had it right — test yourself every couple of days to relieve that uncertainty rather than waiting for the night before departure.
  • But even that might not be enough. I tweeted out an article from the UK Times newspaper written by a guy who visited Thailand last month. The article starts “On December 19, after a week of near-hourly negative lateral flow and PCR tests, I flew to Thailand.” The next sentence (you know where this is going): “On December 20 I stepped off the plane, took another PCR, and headed to my hotel. The next morning I received a text informing me I had tested positive.” And then he tells the story of his 10 days of solo isolation in a Thai hospital. He did everything right and it still went wrong.
  • One big anxiety driver is the cost for those extra days quarantined in a hotel somewhere. This should be the kind of risk that trip insurance could help you manage. So I rang up Michael Giusti, senior writer at InsuranceQuotes.com — he was with us on episode #173 last March, talking about travel insurance one year after the pandemic lockdowns — to ask him about this.
    • Michael: So from a travel insurance policy perspective that scenario you just said is actually almost the better scenario because that’s what travel insurance is built for. So you come up with a positive test — that kicks in the policy language. Now they can hit their contingency plans, whether that’s paying you per day for the extended stay or finding alternative ways home. What scares me is the no man’s land where you can’t find a test. A lot of these policies have language that excludes government mandates and so if you just can’t find a test and now can’t get in not because you’re sick, because being sick would trigger the policy, but because the government mandate has got you in limbo, that’s the scary part and that’s really gonna come down to a policy-by-policy view to see how they’re gonna handle it.
    • Mark: Is this standard travel insurance coverage or is there something special you need to look for?
    • Michael: When you’re buying your policy, you do need to pay attention, but there are the three buckets you want to make sure are included. One is the cancellation that’s going to protect you if you get sick before the trip. One is health and that’s going to pay for care while you’re abroad or outside of your normal healthcare network. But the other is interruption and that’s the piece that I was just talking about. The interruption policy is going to be standard in their baseline, we’ll call it the silver plan — not the platinum, not the bronze — that standard baseline plan should have all three of those buckets. But know what you’re buying because I was reading through some policies over the weekend and there were definitely some that were peeling one or more buckets out to save some costs. That’s great if you want to take that risk but do it with open eyes, knowing what you’re doing. Insurance is there to protect you from unknown risks, unknowable risks. All of these policies, when you start reading the language, they’re quick to point out “COVID-19 became a global pandemic in January of 2020.” They want you to know this is a known risk and then that sets the table — with this being known, how are you going to protect yourself? Some of them are built into the standard policies but some require that COVID rider, some different policy language which most of them are offering. But you can’t just assume it’s gonna be wrapped into standard coverage. You need to be asking the COVID question.
  • Thanks to Michael Giusti for joining us. Interesting point he makes about test access being a grey area for coverage. As I mentioned earlier, Irene and I brought our own Abbott tests with us to Italy and the UK, but more for convenience than concern about availability. I wrote up a detailed “how to” on ordering and using the Abbott BinaxNOW testing kit. It’s on the TravelCommons website in case you want to sidestep Michael’s addition to  COVID test anxiety.
  • Bridge Music —  Test Drive by Zapac

Michelin Dining Adventures

  • Last month, I picked up on the buzz around a blogger’s brutal review of a 1-star Michelin restaurant in Italy. It initially caught my eye because Irene and I like to hit a Michelin star or two when we’re traveling. Indeed, a 1-star place called Behind as in “ it’s an open kitchen so there’s nothing to hide behind” got us figuring out how to get from central London to Hackney, a neighborhood we would’ve had no reason to explore otherwise. It was a great lunch; a great experience talking to the chef, and it’s going on my final Best of 2021 list — which is on my to-do list to update right after I finish this podcast. Having said that, we’ve also had some meals that weren’t great, like our 25th anniversary dinner at a 3-star place in Florence, or a 2-star in Spain that we loved — until the next morning when we both came down with food poisoning. But on balance, we’ve had more really good meals than bad, and they’ve often taken us out of the travel bubble to parts of cities we wouldn’t normally go — kinda like my microbrewery taprooms, only a lot more expensive.
  • So when I saw the title “We Eat at The Worst Michelin Starred Restaurant, Ever,” it got my attention. First, what restaurant is it, so we can avoid it, and second, what made it the worst ever because that’s a big claim. But then I see the full title, with the restaurant, Bros in Lecce, Italy. We won’t be able to skip it because we ate there in mid-October, the night after our Puglia bike tour ended. 
  • I read through the reviews and looked closely at the pictures. A couple of courses look familiar, but others — like the now-famous (infamous?) grey foam oozing out of a plaster replica of the chef’s mouth was (thankfully) not on our menu. I have to say that I was on the fence about eating at Bros when Irene brought it up when we were planning our Puglia trip. The reviews I could find were very mixed, and it wasn’t a cheap ticket. We decided to go, but with the understanding that it could be a high-variance meal, with some courses that might not work out. I think the oyster with rancid fat was that dish for Irene. I didn’t love it, but it didn’t trigger a gag reflex like it did for Irene. Certainly not what you hope for, and it was only that dish, the rest was fine. But like I said, we went into Bros eye wide open, expecting an edgy experimental food experience — and definitely not a standard 3-course fine dining Italian meal. We walked out thinking “Well, that was interesting” — not bad, but not the worst 1-star meal I’ve had; probably in the bottom quartile, though. As you might guess, Bros won’t make it on that Best of 2021 list update.
  • So why didn’t this blogger, a James Beard-award winning writer, come in with similar expectations? Who knows, though we do know that outrage porn drives clicks which, for her, also drove some high-profile TV interviews which probably helped move a few copies of her book. And, since no publicity is bad publicity, I’m guessing it was a net positive for the restaurant too.
  • But why pay what was about a lot of money for a meal that I think might be a complete train wreck? I walked past a lot of places in Lecce that I know would put a good meal down in front of us for a lot less. It becomes a bit less about food and a bit more about the experience; less about stomach and more about the brain. It reminded me of something Josh Glenn said in the last episode when I was talking with him about the language of adventure
    • Josh: I mean an adventure is, and that word comes from the Latin meaning to arrive unexpectedly. That’s actually really an important philosophical piece for me as I was going through this, the idea that you can have a trip is not an adventure if nothing unexpected happens and if you don’t take enough risks to allow things unexpected to happen…. The word chance comes from the Latin cadentia meaning falling. So just when we think about how we use the words of “let the chips fall where they may” or “something befalls you”, this idea of having our feet off the ground, falling through space, we can’t grasp anything, what do you do with that? If you’re someone who likes, in some kind of existential way, that feeling of falling, then you’re an adventurer. You’re going to get more out of your travel experiences than someone who wants everything to be exactly the same way every time and never have any hiccups.
  • I always say to Irene “If every meal we have is a great one, then we’re not trying enough weird places.” After food poisoning has befallen you a couple times, how bad can a little rancid fat be?

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #183
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