Pandemic wanderlust

By Susan Redstone

Oblivious to the looming COVID-19 shutdowns, my November 2019 travels to Ireland comprised, on their own merits, an enriching five-day trip. We were to drive from Shannon to Cork, experiencing part-day hikes and a series of storied, historic hotels for refueling on the gourmet locavore cuisine. It lived up to every bit of expectation.

Cut to a year later, and the draw of this place is still such that I’m sure I’ll find a moment for a revisit when the pandemic-pandemonium is over.

During the arc of the pandemic in the United States, it is hard to pinpoint exactly when the wanderlust took hold, but I’m guessing it was sometime between the late-spring “Tiger King” Netflix phenomenon and mid-July moment when both CNN and MSNBC pulled away from the President of the United States and his — by the pundits’ own admission — puerile, rambling insults about his opponent in the Rose Garden.

It was time for fantasy travel. At least until things sorted themselves out. A slew of photos flooded social media, throw-back Thursdays and all that, mostly reposted trip details but with newer added comments.

As the summer lingered on, domestic travel became the pacifier for Americans who were sick of staycations (although recreational vehicles had a boom year). All things international dwindled to a stop.

I sought insight from Jonathan Guerin, a senior public relations manager with United Airlines, arguably the Roaring Fork Valley’s most significant global travel provider.

“Before COVID, United ran 20 flights a day from various U.S. cities to London — and the last weekend in December, it shrunk to only four,” he said, his voice dropping, reporting on the dismal number.

“As we emerge into January, it will be just two, from just Chicago and Newark,” he continued.

Back in November, United was thought of as leading the pack as they embarked on a monthlong trial that ended Dec. 11, a sort of practice run for at-the-gate testing for both sides of the pond. This initiative was Newark-to-London-Heathrow only. Last week, that data was still being analyzed, and in light of the new faster-transmissible virus emerging in the U.K., it’s becoming clear that the airlines are going to have their work cut out for them in order to keep pace.

Beginning Dec. 28, United customers traveling from London Heathrow to Chicago, Newark, Washington and San Francisco are now required to present proof of a negative COVID test taken no later than 72 hours to departure. Same-day, pre-flight rapid tests are also available for ticketed passengers at a testing center located in Terminal 2 at Heathrow.

Heathrow Airport charges about $130 for PCR tests with results within 48 hours and about $60 dollars for antigen tests with results within 45 minutes. Private clinics charge even more for both tests.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, whose city of Newark is a gateway to the U.K., was quick to firm up a protocol and immediately put out a statement requiring, also beginning Dec. 28, that U.S.-bound U.K. customers “be required to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test obtained within 72 hours of departure for incoming flights to Newark Liberty International Airport.”

Things however can quickly get a lot more complicated in the continuing pandemic era. At the time of writing, a travel ban barred those from the U.K. to venture to mainland Europe due to the new COVID variant, creating yet another moving target for the travel industry.

If travel out of London after a few days of arriving to go to the European continent, say Paris or Milan, is no longer possible, that’s a problem for many travelers. And once any ban is lifted, there still looms the logistical obstacle that will require new levels of cooperation and collaboration between otherwise competing airlines and local and international authorities: continued widespread testing and, most recently, tracking vaccine implementation.

Hope on the horizon

As far as London goes, it actually ranks the highest in airport safety for Europe and fifth worldwide, per, a website created by a travel research and analysis company that provides data and independent analysis for bodies like the International Air Transport Association, Travelport and Phocuswright. Since all the rules change frequently, it’s a trove of collated information. Last week, Delta had earned a top ranking for North America, but according to the website’s co-founder and CEO Virendra Jain, “In general, we see U.S. airlines lacking compared to their Middle Eastern and Asian counterparts.” That said, Southwest features on the global leaderboard, too.

An almost-empty Dreamliner en route to London from the U.S.Susan Redstone/Special to the Aspen Daily News

So how does an airline score high on the barometer?

“We critically assess airlines’ policies around adjacent seats, disinfection methods and frequency, flexible cancellations and refund terms,” Jain said, describing these initiatives as “foundational” to ensuring customer peace of mind when choosing a travel provider.

What Safe Travel Barometer does is highlight that health and safety precautions among U.S. airlines are mostly based on recommendations rather than actual government or civil regulation. Other than mandatory face masks, they can pretty much make up company-specific rules as they see fit — or as Jain subtly put it, “going in their unique ways to incorporate safe-travel initiatives.”

That doesn’t mean some sort of standardization isn’t forthcoming.

“Health will become an integral part of traveler documentation and pre-trip screening process, beyond the prevailing passport, visa and security standards,” Jain said. “It took two decades for security aspects to get standardized and consistent across all the major global transit points.”

The Safe Travel Barometer website is also useful for reading about destination policies, with the aim to reduce anxiety ahead of time, not for just grading businesses with a “safe travel score.” It extends past the obvious airlines and airports into museums, attractions, amusement parks and so on. Users can look up real-time statistics for myriad providers in myriad sectors.

In better news, it does appear that ticket change fees are gone for good, industrywide. And the vibe within the airline communications field is optimistic that 2021 will surge with “VFR” travel (read, visiting friends and family) and accordingly, airlines like United have new routes on the planner. Routes that connect more African destinations to places like Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa are coming soon — surely cause for celebration for all the Cape Town and Johannesburg expats in Aspen.

“There will be lots of leisure travel,” Guerin assured. “People have been separated for so long, so there’s pent-up demand for that.”

Industry insiders do not expect business travel to bounce back any time soon, though.

Ultimately, it will be up to the consumers to determine when there’s a collective “feeling” that it is safe to travel. For some, it may not happen until they’ve been vaccinated or a portion of the world’s population has. Some cruise aficionados are waiting patiently for their favorite lines to resume. Open-sea enthusiasts should be prepared for testing protocols and higher-priced tickets.

“U.S. carriers will experiment with various processes, protocols to verify travelers’ health, and you may see airlines partner with third parties — incorporate software in their pre-departure process to screen already-vaccinated ‘safe’ versus potentially ‘risky’ travelers,” Jain said.

Until then, travelers will continue to watch and wait from their computers and couches. This holiday gift-giving season saw a flurry of ordering that brought the world into one’s home where one had missed out on bringing back goodies as gifts from travels afar.

Edible and imbibing treats topped that list.

Flaviar, an online company whose brand as a global whisk(e)y-tasting subscription service (but sells other spirits) saw a surge of orders by offering collections in categories like “Asia and Oceana,” “Secret Flavors of Japan” and “Schnapps of the Alps.” Business doubled in some categories in the past six months. Tequila was up 340%, and the specialist spirits category saw lots of interest in Armagnac, Belgian and South African whiskeys.

Says CEO and co-founder of Flaviar Jugoslav Petkovic: “All this demonstrates a stronger inclination to experiment — or perhaps a thirst for the exotic in lieu of travel.”

And then there was Bokksu, a Japanese snack box subscription that exploded in the fall, with people thinking ahead for Christmas deliveries. Customer reviews on Bokksu’s website reveal that the colorful little packages and new flavors were met with delight, as well as the detail-oriented presentation.

A local appetite for future travel

Many Aspen locals really do have a thirst for exploration again. Carbondale-based private chef Matt Meir took a pre-pandemic cultural trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, but now he’s angling to get back to scuba diving, citing divers’ paradise reef-hook diving in Palau in Oceania and Raja Ampat in Indonesia. Greece is high on the list, too: For Meir, to visit Greece would be to visit the historic “cradle of democracy,” which is apropos post 2020. He’d read too that scuba, ruins and shipwrecks were not mutually exclusive in Greece.

Woody Creek ranch manager Kelly Potter, an intrepid traveler who normally makes ventures to expand her view of the natural world — like to the Great Barrier Reef, Antarctica and the Galapagos — also called out a wish for Greece, for the Parthenon and Acropolis. Perhaps in a time of uncertain futures, it’s a moment to be drawn to places with deep historic energies.

Personally, this writer craves some Nordic chic. Some pristine Iceland, professional-grade Hygge, the comfort of shaggy ponies and all things white. A review of simple, all things minimal and all things Scandinavian. An aesthetic cleanse of the visual palate.

Until such fantasies have a real-world chance of coming to fruition, many are left with memories of past travels or samples of other cultures from online orders.

I still yearn for that claw-foot tub soak at Cahernane House in Killarney, within the Ring of Kerry. Cresting over the top of Molls Gap, a drive not unlike our own Independence Pass over the Continental Divide, was a delightful drop down into the town of Kenmare, which has a history dating to 1690 with quaint, charming tiny pubs.

I’d start my post-pandemic trip back at our final night of that Irish visit, which culminated at Ballymaloe House, a self-sustaining farm-to-table dining destination and cooking school with a 1750-built house at its center. Its architecturally notable tower addition gave it “castle” status in olden times. Hopefully it won’t be long now.

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