Waiting at the End of the World: Traveling during the pandemic still isn’t easy

Jan 5, 2022

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Editor’s note: TPG’s Melanie Lieberman traveled to Antarctica on a free trip provided by Atlas Ocean Voyages. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren’t subject to review by the line.


For a moment, it seemed as though the trip wasn’t going to happen after all.

I had been traveling since I left New York City around 6 a.m. on Thursday, and it was now Friday evening. I was still wearing the same clothes I’d left home in. I was relieved I’d kept my backpack with my chargers and toiletries with me for the day, though. Otherwise, I’d have been in an even sorrier state.

We had flown together, 89 of us, on a charter flight from Orlando (MCO) to Ushuaia, Argentina (USH), the so-called End of the World, that departed on Thursday, Dec. 9. Our cruise to Antarctica was supposed to embark on Friday, but that didn’t happen — and we were starting to wonder if it would happen at all.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

Instead of deplaning in Ushuaia and boarding our expedition vessel, the brand-new World Navigator by debut cruise line Atlas Ocean Voyages, we had been ushered onto tour buses for an afternoon drive around Ushuaia and into the wilds of Patagonia.

At first, I was happy to have the opportunity to see a bit of the town and surrounding scenery. After a lengthy lunch and a few extra detours, however, it was clear something was amiss.

Later, we’d find out a handful of crew members on board had tested positive for COVID-19.

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On standby

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

When the buses pulled into the port on Friday evening and we saw the gleaming navy-and-white livery of the vessel, there was a collective sense of relief. After a long day — more than 30 hours of travel — we would finally be reunited with our luggage and begin sailing toward Antarctica, which was still roughly two days away, across the notorious Drake Passage.

But then, we were gathered onto a catamaran for a dinner cruise around some of the nearby islands in the Beagle Channel. We saw Magellanic and imperial cormorants and a colony of sea lions, the powerful marine odor arriving long before we could hear the cacophony of barks.

We were fed and plied with as much wine as we wanted. But as the hours stretched on, the future of our Antarctica expedition was clearly in jeopardy.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

I was traveling for free as a guest of Atlas along with a small group of writers, videographers and other content creators. We were disappointed with how the evening was going, but it was nothing to the swell of frustration building among some cruisers.

And suddenly, all that wine seemed like a regrettable decision.

Harrison Liu, Atlas Cruise Line’s senior director of communications, happened to be on the sailing with us and was able to communicate what he knew to the exasperated group of would-be travelers. Representatives from the ship were not allowed “to visit any guests shoreside as they waited for updates,” Liu told me later in an email.

Around midnight, we were divided up and bused to hotels around Ushuaia, our Antarctica trip balancing on a knife edge.

Uncertainty abroad

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

Leading up to the trip, it had been very difficult for me to speak about Antarctica given how uncertain any travel plans are at the current moment. As I settled into my hotel room in Ushuaia that night, I realized I hadn’t mentioned it to all that many people outside of work. Now, it was perfectly clear to me why I’d been so reticent to say I was going on a bucket-list trip to the southernmost continent: Especially in the days of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, nothing is sure until your boots are on the ice.

I’m not particularly superstitious, but this trip had, from the beginning, felt vulnerable to all sorts of jinxes and maledictions. Everything in the world, including the new omicron variant that was emerging, seemed poised to keep me from getting to Antarctica.

On Saturday morning, after finally sleeping — horizontal and on a bed, no less — we awoke to even more uncertainty. The voyage might be canceled, or it might not.

The fate of our Antarctica expedition seemed dependent on whether the Argentine port authority would allow Atlas to disembark the crew members who tested positive and their close contacts, and to allow a new flock of eager passengers to board.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

Guests were told a final decision would be made that day.

We filled our Saturday as best we could, which included at least a few gin and tonics at the hotel restaurant. The End of the World is a beautiful port city framed by the spiny peaks of the Andes, but it is not Antarctica.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

We weren’t certain we’d be going there at all until after dinner, when we were told buses were coming to bring us back to the port, where the World Navigator was waiting for us to board.

Bound for the ice

I sat down with Liu while sailing toward Antarctica in the ship’s light-filled Dome observation lounge. The trip was happening — an outcome that had seemed increasingly unlikely when I woke up in the same clothes on Saturday morning in Argentina. (Though I wouldn’t really believe it until our first stop, when I set foot on the rocky, windswept crescent of Half Moon Island in the South Shetland Islands.)

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

Liu and I discussed the back-and-forth between the Argentine authorities and the cruise line, as well as some of the time-consuming processes happening behind the scenes.

“The Antarctic expedition season only just started,” Liu told me. “There has not been enough precedence … that we as a cruise company or that the government authorities can follow.”

Ultimately, Liu said, the cruise was allowed to continue after the affected crew members and those who had come into close contact with them were disembarked, and the ship underwent a series of deep cleanings to minimize the risk of transmission.

For me, and the other members of the media group, there was no money on the line. We had lost a day in Antarctica along with our fellow passengers, but we hadn’t lost any monetary value.

But for the travelers who had paid upward of $9,699 per person (based on double occupancy) for this nine-day trip to Antarctica, the sense of loss was understandably heightened, even though we were finally sailing toward Antarctica.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

In a letter sent to paying guests, Atlas extended a $100 onboard credit, complimentary Wi-Fi for the duration of the sailing, a 10% refund and a 50% future cruise credit for booking a sailing within 18 months.

The gesture, to me, seemed reasonable — passengers were compensated for the missed day, given additional perks and could even theoretically book a return trip for half the price if they chose to do so.

It’s impossible to know for sure if I’d make the same assessment had I been traveling to Antarctica at my own expense, but I can say with certainty you should not travel during the pandemic if you want to be sure your trip will go off without a hitch.

Pandemic problems

Since 2020, it’s been clear that travel was going to be different after the pandemic. Travelers were planning to spend more on longer, splashier trips. They weren’t going to wait until they retired to take those once-in-a-lifetime journeys.

And as the months stretched on, many decided they wouldn’t wait until after the pandemic, either.

But traveling during these uncertain times does have its drawbacks.

You can purchase all the travel insurance you want (for this sailing, medical evacuation insurance was included in the fare; Argentina requires visitors to purchase separate COVID-19-specific insurance; and, had Atlas ultimately canceled the sailing, travelers would have received, at a minimum, a refund), but nothing will protect you from the disappointment of having a trip you’ve dreamed of your whole life canceled or disrupted at the last minute.

That’s always been possible, of course, but the pandemic has tipped the odds.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

Even after successfully jumping through multiple hurdles to enter a foreign country, trips can still be interrupted by cases of COVID-19. For an Antarctic expedition with Atlas, for example, you could test positive (despite being completely asymptomatic) during the on-arrival testing at MCO, which is mandatory to enter the cruise line’s bubble. If you tested positive then, your trip would come to an end before you even left the country.

In some ways, that is the best worst-case scenario.

Or, as was the case with our trip, crew members could fall ill. In the days of severe staffing shortages, to say nothing of remote destinations, getting a backup crew member (or flight attendant or pilot, for that matter) might be impossible. You could also get a positive test result before flying home and be forced to quarantine abroad.

We talk extensively at TPG about protecting your investment in travel. But when you’re stuck inside an Argentine hotel, your suitcase packed for an Antarctic expedition, it’s likely that no amount of compensation would really soften the emotional blow.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

As I learned firsthand, travel during the pandemic is complicated.

Period.

You can prepare as much as possible to safeguard your health and travel bookings. But for people who are thinking about reserving a bucket-list trip now, remember that we’re still not on the other side of the pandemic, and a single positive test result anywhere along the way can upend your travels.

It helps to have a backup plan, and a backup plan for your backup plan. But most importantly, travelers need to manage their expectations. I know now that by keeping my travel plans quiet, almost a secret, I was trying to steel myself against the heartbreak of a lost adventure.

We all know the acute pain of having to admit to loss: For me, it was better to pretend Antarctica might never happen than have to concede the trip had fallen through.

“We’re still in the midst of [the coronavirus pandemic],” Liu said. “And we’re still understanding all the immense implications that this pandemic has to every aspect of our lives.” What travelers need to understand, he continued, is that “when choosing to travel … they should really come with a great sense of patience and flexibility.”

“These are unprecedented times,” he added, “and while travel is open to a certain extent, travel will never be the same. … We’re all doing our best to try and regain a sense of normalcy, but it’s going to just take a little bit more time.”

So, should you put off that trip you’ve been dreaming of since before the days of COVID-19?

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

Even though it so often feels like the pandemic has forced us all to pump the brakes on our lives, I’d argue it hasn’t — it’s only made us that much more aware of the time that is passing.

Antarctica represented so many milestones to my fellow cruisers on board World Navigator: a final continent, a last frontier. We don’t always have the liberty of waiting for the most opportune moment to cross an item off the bucket list.

But like Liu said, being flexible and amenable to change — particularly now, as we enter a third year of unpredictability — is our only way to move forward and keep experiencing the world.

Featured photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy.

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