Just this morning, during a COVID-19 press briefing, President Trump spoke of a group of Americans in Peru and another in Morocco, all stuck because of cancelled flights and border closures. Hopefully, by the time you’re reading this, the current pandemic will long have abated and all our fellow Americans are back home. Almost anyone who was traveling early this year or had travel plans had to make changes, and an unprecedented number of folks worldwide were caught short, if not exactly stuck.
I’ve never seen anything quite like this, but stuff happens. In order to travel anywhere some risk (and inevitable inconvenience and frustration) must be understood and accepted. We aren’t yet to the point where we can say, “Scotty, beam me to the Serengeti!” Flights (and travel plans) are delayed or cancelled for innumerable reasons, sometimes due to the vagaries of Mother Nature (storms, wildfires, floods) and sometimes because of man-made problems. Some years back, daughter Brittany, Donna, and I got stuck in Harare when South African Airways went on strike. When stuff like that happens, my experience has been that the airlines are very accommodating, but it takes patience. We cooled our heels for three days and were finally booked out on Swiss Air through Zurich.
Rarely, as with the COVID-19 situation, things are more serious. Years ago, Joe Bishop and I were in C.A.R. when one of their periodic rebellions erupted, the only real airport closed by mortar shells and machine-gun fire. We caught a westbound twin-engine from a dirt strip and exited through Gabon, absent visas but with surprisingly few problems.
An odd quirk to American culture is that we are among the least-traveled of Western societies, with an unusually low incidence of passport holders. According to surveys, few of us journey outside our home states to hunt, so travel concerns simply don’t apply to many. On the other hand, in international hunting, the U.S. market is the world’s largest. So although the percentage is small, Americans do travel to hunt. If you aren’t used to it, getting on any plane may be daunting and the prospect of international travel downright frightening.
Travel with firearms is a different subject, to be addressed separately, so let’s stick with basic travel rules. First, be aware that the most inexpensive air fares are often inflexible, sometimes not changeable at all or with high change fees. This applies especially to tickets booked through third parties (such as bargain websites). On any trip involving air travel anything can happen, so always play the “what if?” game, read the fine print, and make sure you know what you’re getting. For domestic travel, maybe you roll the dice and save a few bucks, but with international travel, it’s safest and smartest to book directly with airlines or through a competent travel agent. Fares go up and down, seemingly whimsically, so keep checking and plan ahead, weeks for domestic travel and months for international. Cost differential is usually minimal, and when you book with a carrier (airline) or a travel agent, you have someone to call if “stuff happens.”
These days almost all airlines charge for checked bags and for overweight. In the United States 50 pounds is the normal limit per bag, but it can be less with international carriers. Bag and overweight charges are also in the fine print!
Make sure you have current, valid, and proper ID: passport for international travel or, within the United States, “real ID” acceptable to the TSA folks. And keep it with you. Not so long ago, I left home at 1:00 a.m. and drove four hours to LAX for an early flight, the first leg of a trip to Africa. At the ticket counter, I couldn’t find my passport and then it hit me. It was on my printer, where I’d left it after making copies! As often in times of genuine crisis, the airline folks were wonderful, rebooking me—with no penalty—for the next day. I had no choice but to turn around, drive four hours north to collect my passport, and then head back down at 1:00 a.m. the following morning. Making and packing passport copies, including an electronic copy, is a good idea, but safeguard the real thing. Internationally, I also carry my vaccination record; hopefully, it will soon include a vaccine for COVID-19.
The real key to solving travel problems is communication. I have a hard time remembering exactly how we got by before cell phones. Joe Bishop and I managed to extricate ourselves safely from that mess in C.A.R. because Joe had an early satellite phone. It was a monstrous thing requiring its own briefcase, but it worked. Today there’s really no excuse for not having communication. Interestingly, much of the world is more reliant on cellular comms than we are, so I’ve been in areas on all continents where cell reception was far better than on my Kansas farm. Your cell phone may not be set up for use outside the United States, but this is generally easily fixed with an “international chip” or a limited international extension of your plan. Make sure you understand the costs. Outside the United States, I disable data as soon as I land. There are several applications that allow more-or-less free cellular comm, although Wi-Fi connectivity may be required. “WhatsApp” is extremely popular among outfitters and guides the world over.
That said, cellular connectivity is unlikely in remote areas no matter which continent. Satellite communications are the backup; all that’s necessary is for the antenna to see the sky. I travel enough that I have one, but satellite phones can be inexpensively rented for the duration of a trip. Explorer Satellite (explorersatellite.com) has long been my go-to. Different systems work better in certain areas, but the Explorer folks will tell you what you need and what will best serve you.
Two things: Whatever communication system you plan to rely on, make sure you know how to use it and make sure you have all the phone numbers you might need. These include not only multiple points of contact at your destination, but also key numbers back home, including airlines, travel agent, booking agent—anybody who might assist if you get in a bind.
What about insurance? Usually, I don’t bother, but I had trip insurance when a hunt to Armenia went south over a border dispute with Azerbaijan. Coverage was refused because “acts of war” were excluded. “All risk” trip insurance is costly, so play the “what if?” game again and make sure you know what is covered. With recent experience in mind, maybe check to make sure “viral violence” is on the list.
Perhaps the most important thing: Keep a good attitude and roll with the punches. Unexpected delays are part of travel. I have a red-headed temper, but getting angry at a ticket agent or official (who is usually just trying to do his or her job) won’t get you anywhere. I’ve learned to take a deep breath and try to smile—or let Donna lead me away. If there’s no quick solution, I reach for a phone and start punching numbers. Thanks to modern communications, delays don’t bother me much anymore. Sooner or later you’ll get where you need to be!