Pandemic Travelling

My family took the plunge last month and travelled overseas. I suppose it was technically ‘optional’ travel, but it didn’t feel very optional since we hadn’t seen Q.’s family since 2019 (the kids had not one, but two cousins who hadn’t been born the last time we were there). We wouldn’t have flown just for a vacation. I was very stressed about the decision, but we survived and came home Covid-free. I thought it might be useful to post about a few things that helped us travel without catching Covid.

There are many reports in the news about the chaos in Canada with renewing passports and the chaos at airports, and our personal experience attests that none of these reports is exaggerated. Getting the kids their Canadian passports was very stressful even though we started the application process long before our trip date (I’d like to acknowledge how amazing the Australians were at processing the applications, while also recognizing that we probably got better treatment because we were lodging the applications overseas as I’ve heard reports things are bad there too). When I finally picked up the kids’ passports (24 hours before our flight), I thought the worst was over. I was wrong.

We also fell afoul of the delays at the airports. Every flight we took to get to Australia was late. In two cases, we were late (at least partly) because the plane was waiting for late passengers. On both occasions, that lateness caused us to then miss our connecting flight (which did not wait for us). One of these missed connections led to an unexpected three-day layover in a city where we had not planned to spend more than 90 minutes. I do not think the airline is going to compensate us for any of this.

The total travel time (door-to-door) ended up being 113 hours, for a trip that is normally 24.

Like I said, I wouldn’t have chosen to fly this summer just for a vacation.

But we went, and (eventually) we got there, and we did have a good time. So here’s how we stayed Covid-free:

Luck

Let’s face it, in an era of ‘personal responsibility’ and lack of any government mandates or precautionary measures, you can’t actually be sure that you can protect yourself from catching Covid if you go out into the world. I’m very aware that we engaged in a number of high-risk activities, and the odds could have gone against us. We spent hours upon hours in airplanes or airports. We had to eat indoors on some occasions (including in airports and on airplanes). We didn’t do a lot of things we would have done in a pre-pandemic world, but we were also out in the world a LOT more than we had been at home. The house where we stayed the whole time we were overseas had people in it who didn’t mask and who participated in activities we wouldn’t feel comfortable doing (eating in restaurants, exercising in group settings indoors, etc.), and they continued with these behaviours while we were there. People were invited maskless into that house without rapid tests beforehand. There was an unmasked toddler sitting directly across the aisle from me on our long return flight who spent the entire trip coughing. We were lucky. We could create safer travel, not safe.

Privilege

Everything we did to make our travel safer cost money, or time, or both. We could afford an unexpected three-day layover that the airline will not be compensating us for. Travelling generally requires privilege. Travelling as we did requires even more. I had the time and the knowledge to navigate the system to fix the problem with the passports (including lining up outside one of the offices at 4.30 am to make sure I would be able to speak to an actual person).

The tools we used to keep ourselves safer cost money.

Public health shouldn’t depend on privilege.

Government Measures

Ok, there are almost no government measures left, but Canada still requires masks on airlines and in airports and THANK GOODNESS IT DOES.

Yes the air on the airplanes is heavily filtered, blah blah blah, but it wasn’t as good as I was expecting (more on that below). I saw a study (linked to on Twitter, can’t find it at the moment) which suggests that the filtering on airplanes makes the 18 inch space between your face and the person sitting next to you equivalent to a 2 meter distance. So the filtering does help, a lot, but without masks it’s not going to be enough.

Australia was also in a BA 5 wave while we were there and there was lots of hand-wringing and suggestions that it was strongly recommended to wear masks in indoor spaces, but no mandates, so guess what? Not many other people were wearing masks.

(Effective) Masks

We wore KN-95-equivalent masks everywhere, except in the house where we stayed and in two other relatives’ houses, who were part of our visit bubble (and who also aggressively rapid tested whenever anyone felt even the slightest bit off). Every public transit vehicle. Every shop. Every indoor space, and some outdoor spaces when they were crowded. I was really proud of my kids, who were almost always the only kids wearing a mask (and often no one else around us was masking). They masked up without complaint every time. They slept in their masks on the plane. They asked me whether I had masks whenever we left the house. When one of our relatives had a big family party four days before we left to come home, my kids put their masks on every single time they went into the house, even though they were surrounded by unmasked children.

We get our masks here (no affiliation, I just love them and want them to get all the recognition they deserve). I brought packs of their kid-sized masks for my SIL, who struggles to find good KN-95s for children in Australia.

When we took 113 hours to get there, we went through a crazy amount of masks. I packed way more than I thought we would need, and I’m so glad I did. I’m also glad we didn’t lose our luggage because I underestimated on the way there how many masks we would need to have in our carry on. Lesson learned.

The masks we buy cost $15.90 (plus tax) for 10. They’re good for eight hours continuous wearing (but in theory you can then air them out and reuse them if they’re not dirty/damaged – the kids’ masks have never made it past a full day of wear). We have spent hundreds on them in the past year.

Rapid (and Molecular) Tests

I brought 20 rapid tests on our trip. We used almost all of them. Some of them were free; some of them we bought online.

We used them to confirm none of us caught Covid on our (extended) journey there.

We used them to gather safely with family.

We used them whenever one of us appeared symptomatic. Some relatives we spent a lot of time with nearly always had cold/allergy symptoms (which inevitably transferred to us). So we all spent heaps of time doing rapid tests to be certain that’s all it was.

We also had a couple of the Lucira Check It molecular tests, which are an at-home PCR-level test. These are really expensive – $75 USD per test. One of my relatives has access to a steady supply of them as a work benefit, and they’re able to flick a few extras on to us. Without easy access to PCR testing, these help us determine whether we need to be masking the entire household during those days when a rapid test might produce a false negative.

We used one when E. had a weird rapid test result (a shadow, not a line, and not quite in the right spot for the second line) and one when Q. was sick with the other family’s cold and we had a big family event to attend. Both times the tests were negative. Both times the result was a huge relief.

Again, see privilege above.

CO2 Monitor

I made a somewhat impulse decision to buy a CO2 monitor right before we left on our trip. I’d borrowed one from a friend for a few days earlier in the spring, so I knew how useful they could be, but I’d been hesitating over the cost.

In the end, I took the plunge (because, privilege), and I am SO GLAD I did. I bought an Aranet4 from here (no affiliation but they were fabulous to deal with and so fast!), which was the one my friend (who is a ventilation engineer by profession) told me was the best one to get. Quick summary: the monitor provides readings every five minutes of the level of CO2 in the air. Outside air has around 420 ppm. 1200 ppm means about 2% of the air you’re breathing has already been in someone else’s lungs. Cleaner air = less chance of catching Covid. (The monitors don’t take into account the impact of HEPA filters.)

That monitor paid for itself when our outbound trip took 113 hours instead of 24. It told me how good the air was in the airports (in three of the four, exceptional; in the fourth, very good). It told me how good the air was in the airplanes (disappointingly high, although I know the air is heavily filtered). It told me how good the air was in the hotel we ended up staying in (very very good, including in the restaurant).

When you are flying/travelling continuously for as long as we were, you can’t refuse to eat or drink and just keep your mask on. It’s not possible or safe. The CO2 monitor let us make better choices about when/where to unmask. It’s a lot less stressful to eat indoors for the first time since the pandemic started when you can see that the air is reading 480 ppm.

The kids had a particular public transit route they desperately, desperately wanted to take – it was on their list of things they most wanted to do down under. We rode it, and learned the air quality wasn’t good enough. So on the return trip, we took a different option with better air.

Now that we’re back home, I’m going to use the CO2 monitor to help me figure out which things we can add back into our lives. Indoor spaces can be safe with masks (even without mandates) if the ventilation is good enough. Covid isn’t going away, and our governments don’t seem interested in doing the work to control it. I would like to be able to do more things with my kids, but I would also like to know that we’re choosing safer environments.

I’m also really excited about the potential of the Raven CleanAir Map, which hadn’t launched yet while we were away. This is an attempt to crowdsource CO2 readings of public spaces, to help everyone make better choices. Someone posted a reading for a packed movie theatre in my city. No mask mandate. The air was excellent! We haven’t been to the movies the entire pandemic, and I’m not sure I could cope with a full house, but maybe seeing a movie that’s been out for a while is a possibility for us now.

Governments should be requiring businesses and public spaces to post their CO2 readings, and should have incentive programs to improve the ventilation in buildings that are found to have inadequate airflow.

But they won’t, and they don’t, so citizen activism will have to fill in the gaps.

I hope this was helpful! Does anyone else have good travel tips?

4 Comments

Filed under COVID-19, Down Under, Soapbox, What were we thinking? (aka travelling with small children)

4 responses to “Pandemic Travelling

  1. Glad to hear you had a nice, safe holiday! I appreciate the tips, and I’m intrigued by the CO2 monitor and the app. And I agree with every word you had to say about our so-called government. (eyeroll) It’s infuriating.

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  3. Thanks so much for sharing! We’re going to be forced to fly in the next year for family, even though I think it’s the height of foolishness for our family (we have one child who cannot mask but the rest of the family cannot be bothered to care) under the current circumstances. I had wondered if the CO2 monitor might help us. I’m most concerned about the flight, and I think the monitor will at least help us with figuring out when we can more safely unmask to eat and drink. Other than keeping our youngest safely tucked between us to distance them from other people while on the plane, I’m not sure how else we can protect them when the air isn’t filtered.

  4. Turia

    That sounds like a really hard situation, and I’m so sorry you’ll be forced into it. The CO2 monitor might at least be able to give you some data so you can feel more or less comfortable with the risk of staying wherever you happen to be. It’s such a challenging thing to navigate. The new variants are so easily spread that one-way masking doesn’t do much over long periods. I wish our governments would actually do something to make things better!

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