From The Side of the Road… crossing borders in the age of COVID

As of the Labor Day weekend, I have returned to touring and playing music for people I can actually see. For me this often involves cross-border air travel, and it did this past weekend. I was expecting it to be a logistical nightmare (you know, normal). However, I was pleasantly surprised by how simple it all was. It just requires following a few basic instructions, which I’ll share with you if you’re needing to do any air travel or cross any international borders.

COVID-19 test: All international flights require this, but there’s really not much to it. First, just make sure that it’s a molecular test, as opposed to whatever the opposite of a molecular test is. I think it has some kind of three-letter acronym which I can’t recall at the moment, like PCH, PPP, BPA, or BMI. 

Also make sure the test is taken within 72 hours of the flight time for whichever flight is taking you across a border. Some testing providers estimate that you’ll get results in 24-72 hours, so your window of time can be quite narrow. For example, if your flight is at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, you need to take that test after 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. If you’re going to a place that stops testing at 5:00 p.m., you’ve got 30 minutes to get this done, if you don’t want to be cutting it too close with results. 

Then just make sure you get results that state your name, date of birth, passport number, and zodiac sign. It should also say when you got the test so you have proof that you aren’t outside the 72 hour time frame, and it should also say what kind of test it is, and whether or not you grimaced when someone shoved a swab indelicately up your nose or into the back of your throat. 

The cost for this test ranges from free to $450. I prefer the free one, but you might be different. From what I’ve heard, the swab up the nose is no more comfortable with the $450 version.

Assuming your test is negative, you then just proceed to the airport as usual, armed with your test results. Don’t feel so elated and overconfident after you test negative that you forget your passport, luggage, mandolin, etc. You still have to remember all of the important stuff, and you still have to show up two hours early for an international flight, which I’ve always interpreted as 75 minutes, give or take. Also, check in online, even if your seat is already chosen, though it’s no longer clear why.

No matter how lenient your state or province is about indoor masking, masks are required both in the airport and on the plane. I recommend one that matches your instrument case, but with fewer stickers on it so you can still breathe. A carbon fiber mask is not recommended.

There are a few key times when you’re allowed—required, even—to remove your mask: one is when you’re showing your passport to a security agent. When eating or drinking it’s not required to remove your mask, but it’s definitely less messy and more satisfying.

Boarding is pretty much the same. Boarding tip: when they say “passengers with small children may pre-board at this time,” it’s reasonable to consider your instrument a small child. This is harder to explain if you’re traveling with an upright bass, but if you’ve managed to get a bass to the gate, you’re already someone who can talk your way into a lot of favorable situations. 

Once on the plane, the one complication—apart from all the customary complications—is the occasional unruly passenger who has decided that an altitude of 30,000 feet is the ideal time and place to take a stand on mask requirements, and of course blame the flight attendants as if the rules were their idea. The people who do this do this almost every day and at every altitude, but when you encounter this situation at the Walgreen’s you can simply walk out. In an airplane, that’s not advisable. If you yell, “Put a sock in it, pal!” (a sock is not a viable alternative to a mask, by the way, because it doesn’t cover your nose), you’d better be ready to back this up with physical force, and here again, this is not a great idea at 30,000 feet, or even zero feet. The best course of action is to turn the earbuds up and pretend to be very interested in the flight safety information card. Maybe for once you’ll actually know how to exit the plane in an emergency. In fact, it may seem more and more appealing in this situation.

Once you’ve landed, the situation is much the same as pre-pandemic travel: your baggage may or may not come out on the carousel they say it will, and in some cases it won’t come out at all. If that’s the case, just report the missing bag, and get them to deliver it. Whatever you do, don’t call a toll free number or check a web site to track the progress of your bag; it’ll just scare you. The whereabouts of your bag (or heaven forbid, your instrument) is a closely guarded secret, and they’ll only tell you when it’s arrived, or it will just miraculously appear at your door some morning.

If you’re staying at your destination for three days or less, the moment you land you’ll need to start figuring out where to get your COVID test for the trip home. If you’re staying less that three days, you’ll need to talk someone on the plane into testing you before you land. Maybe the unruly passenger will do that for you using a cocktail straw.

This is easy, right?