I’m in the USA and beyond happy to finally see my family! But, traveling in COVID times adds another big layer of hassle to travel plans. So, I thought I’d share my experience, and what I’ve heard from a few fellow travelers.
The biggest problem for me was finding correct information. What is correct to one official may not be for another, and one person’s experience may be different from someone else’s in the same situation.
We all know that you need a negative COVID test to board a plane. I planned to fly out of David on Monday morning. I went to the airport the week before and the security people there told me that you can get a free test, but it’s only for people traveling. You need to check in and go through security, and testing is located beyond security. So, if I was going to do that, I would need to show up plenty early for my flight and hope I didn’t get a false positive (I’m healthy and vaccinated but still, you never know). I also saw something from people who were traveling David-Panama City-Miami, and were denied because the David tests are only for domestic travel. They had to go to a lab for testing and travel the next day.
I decided I wanted the peace of mind of having a test already in hand. But, the day before I was to travel was a Sunday. Everything was closed. Even the hospital was only doing tests until Saturday noon. Entry into the USA requires a test less than 72 hours old so this would be cutting it close (flight Tuesday morning, 8:30 am) but I decided to take a Saturday morning test. If I had a problem I had all Monday afternoon to get retested at Tocumen airport.
An aside – If you go to the Mae Lewis Hospital website you immediately get a popup about COVID tests which links you to a page where you can sign up for an appointment. I filled out the form, and then got an email directing me to go to Banco General and pay for the test ($42). I did that, and sent a copy of the receipt and my cedula (ID card) as directed. When I got home from the bank I found another email from the lab asking me when I wanted the appointment, and telling me it was about $30. I requested a Sunday appointment, and was told they were only doing tests until Saturday noon. By now I had already paid, so I decided to take my chances rather than looking for another lab. Don’t expect anything to go as expected! But, they did refund me the $12 difference after the gal in the business office made a number of phone calls and filled out a number of papers.
OK, back to the travels. I arrived at the David airport Monday morning, and as soon as I went in the door I was asked for my test results and passport. I was told to look over at a temperature sensor 6-8 feet away. How does that work?? But it did and I passed that checkpoint. I checked in for my flight and was also asked for my test results there. I was told that my test was fine for onward travel on Tuesday. Then, I went through security where I was again asked for my test results, and then I was in the waiting room ready to board the plane.
Another aside – the waiting room is at one end of the airport, and the plane was parked at the very other end of the airport, waaaaay down there! If you have trouble walking you might want to request a wheelchair (which I did for a fellow traveler who was obviously struggling).
The flight was fine, a nice new plane, maybe 2/3 full. We landed in Panama City, picked up our luggage, and I was going to double check with United that I could fly on with my test results, but I was helping the fellow traveler wrestle a lot of luggage over to the center island where you wait for the busito to the hotel (we were both staying at the Riande). As we crossed, the driver approached us so I figured I’d just get on the bus rather than wait 30+ minutes for his return trip.
I met someone I know from Boquete on the plane, and another friend from Boquete on the bus so along with the fellow traveler I kind of adopted there were four of us. We all got together for lunch after we were settled at the hotel which was really fun. One of the ladies had gone to the David airport on Sunday for her COVID test! She said they were done upstairs, no problem, free, so she had hers in hand for the Monday morning flight. I also found out later that she had no problems with onward travel to Orlando, using the test she had gotten in David. If only I had known this!! It would have saved me a lot of stress, worry, and a bit of money (it was about $30 at the hospital)! Grrrr. But, there’s still the possibility I’d be denied onward travel like the folks who went to Miami. As I said, you can never be sure you are getting correct information and this makes things difficult.
My next possible problem was check in on Tuesday morning. My adopted fellow traveler was taking the same 8:30 am flight to Houston so we headed to the airport at 6am. She had a lot of questions, so by the time the check in agent got to me she didn’t even look at my COVID test! I had a paper sticking out of my passport with a Mae Lewis Hospital Laboratory heading, so she probably figured all was in order and she didn’t have to look any closer. WHEW!!
(The COVID testing center at Tocumen airport, just past gate 115)
After that, I was pretty much worry free, well except for my adopted friend who didn’t want a wheelchair. Of course United check in is at one end of the airport, and our flight left from the other end, down to the end of the hall, and then into the new wing, and then waaaay down to the very far end of that. I finally nabbed a guy with a wheelchair and we made it without a whole lot of time to spare. If you have trouble walking, request a wheelchair! That’s why they have them. There is no shame in asking for help to save wear and tear on your body, and time so you can get to your gate when you need to.
The next thing was a layover in Houston where I had to clear customs and again, go waaay to the opposite end of the airport. What is it with my luck in airports?? But I definitely got some exercise to offset all the hours sitting in planes.
Everyone on the planes wore masks, and we were reminded that it was required and failure to cooperate would result in being tossed of the plane and possible other penalties (what is up what all the insanity we see in the news about passengers causing problems on planes?!) Thankfully I saw no problems with anyone but social distancing, not so much. Both Tuesday flights were full and it’s impossible to keep distance when boarding and putting luggage overhead, or doing the reverse on arrival. And you are seated jammed in with your fellow passengers like it always has been. Customs was no better. People were in lines close together with no distancing, but here again everyone was cooperative about wearing masks. We discussed getting me back to the US to be vaccinated, and then decided it was wiser to wait until I was vaccinated in Panama before I traveled. After experiencing travel I’m glad we did. They did everything they could to keep people safe, but it’s still a lot of people in a small space and my mind is much more peaceful knowing I have the protection of the vaccines.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say later about how it feels to be back in the USA, but for now I’ve just been enjoying family time. I’m so thankful for video chatting. The grandkids, including the one who is turning three (today!), connected with me in person right away, almost seamlessly after all the frequent video chats.
Later, I’ll worry about more COVID testing and how I plan to manage getting back to Panama. Today, we play!