The Critical Points: How TPG readers are handling being stuck abroad
Each week in his column “The Critical Points,” TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn’t agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.
As each day rolls along, the reality our new world feels like it couldn't possibly shift any more. While we're all dealing with our own new normal, there are TPG readers and their families stuck abroad who would like nothing more than to be home — where most of us now stay on daily basis.
Through the TPG Lounge Facebook Group, I spoke with several of our readers about their own situations or those of family members who are currently outside of the country and trying to get home. Many have been traveling since before the coronavirus outbreak was dominating news headlines here in the U.S. These are their stories, including how they're dealing with the situation and what they've learned from the experience.
(Editor's note: Responses slightly edited for clarity.)
Alan goes to university in Monterrey, Mexico but was on a study-abroad program in Denmark. On March 18, his school informed him that the program would be halted, and he needed to return to Mexico as soon as possible. With his school offering no financial assistance to get home, the savvy TPG reader used 35,000 Lifemiles to book a last-minute, economy award ticket on Lufthansa from Copenhagen (CPH) to Mexico City (MEX) via Frankfurt (FRA).
Unfortunately, the earliest flight he could book was at the end of March. We hope everything remains operating until that time and Alan gets home to Mexico.
When I asked Alan for the one thing he's learned, he responded:
"That for every time you go abroad (especially if its for a year like me) to not only worry for stuff like health insurance and others, but to also have some stash of miles that can be there ... in case you have to go home suddenly, because last minute tickets are really expensive, even in economy class. Those miles are more helpful than a bank account with money."
A registered nurse from Nashville, Linda and her boyfriend went to Peru to visit Machu Picchu as part of a multi-day hiking trip. On Sunday March 15 at 8 p.m., the Peruvian government made a declaration that all borders would be closed. Just 28 hours later, the country implemented a mandatory quarantine. Despite scrambling to make arrangements, airlines began canceling flights, and Linda — along with hundreds of other citizens — could not get a flight home Monday.
What followed for Linda is a harrowing tale of being asked to leave the Tambo del Inka, a Marriott Luxury Collection property, for fear of looters coming down from the mountains to target foreigners and being placed in a two-hour cab ride to Cusco. From there, she was able to get on one of the last flights to Lima in order to be closer to the country's major international airport. Now stuck in Lima, Linda has no knowledge of when airlines will begin operating again or if the two-week quarantine will end with the current deadline.
Linda and other Americans have created a WhatsApp group and Google doc to track each other in the country and monitor needs like insulin and blood-pressure medication. Linda says no one has received any communication from the U.S. Embassy. While she and her boyfriend are in a good location with a property providing staggered meals to help social distancing, many others around the country are in hostels in much less comfortable accommodations.
When I asked Linda for the one thing she's learned, she responded:
“Have a backup plan even if it seems things are in place. Realize how quickly the situation can change — we had an expectation we would have a couple days to get out and we didn’t.”
(Due to company policy, the reader asked to remain anonymous.) This reader and some coworkers were on a work trip to Central America when the country closed all borders on Monday, and only United was able to get one flight out. The U.S. Embassy says they can't provide travel assistance, and while some U.S. citizens are trying to charter a flight, seats would be $2,400 to $3,200 each.
The source and his/her coworkers have tickets for March 28 and believe the situation in the country should continue to hold — meaning they're hopeful the flight will go out on that date. They are in good spirits with air conditioning, Wi-Fi and a pool.
When I asked the source for the one thing he/she learned, here was the response:
"Probably just to stay positive. The first couple of days were really tough for a lot of people, but once we started focusing on the things we had going for us, it helped calm everyone down a lot."
What was supposed to be a three-week cruise continues to be extended indefinitely for Ben from Canada. Ben boarded the Norwegian Jewel on Feb. 28, and he was supposed to disembark on March 20 in Tahiti. The ship has been refused port entry from several different locations and is currently steaming toward Hawaii — which originally granted them port entrance. However, Ben told me Thursday morning that the Hawaii docking is now in doubt, and he expects them to sail all the way to the U.S. mainland.
There are no expected or confirmed cases of coronavirus on the ship.
Ben is a freelance business consultant, so all of his work is currently on hold, and he is in good spirits while enjoying the extended cruise. Norwegian suspended the service charge for all onboard purchases and opened up free Wi-Fi and calling. He says most passengers are remaining positive.
When I asked Ben for the one thing he's learned, he responded:
"I’ve been through worse situations in my life, so I personally don’t feel ‘stuck’ and I quite enjoy the potentially-extended trip, as I finally get time to do things I wanted to do but didn’t have time if this isn’t happening. But if there is something I can say, I would definitely recommend for people who join cruises to always to pack a bit of extra things, such as medication or books, just in case there is unexpected spare time to kill."
Javier's parents are currently stuck in Santa Fe, Argentina, with no clear avenue home, given the country's mandatory quarantine (except for essential services). His parents are Argentinian citizens and permanent U.S. residents with a home in Salt Lake City. They arrived in Argentina on March 6 and have their original Delta tickets home for March 27, but the country's quarantine is not scheduled to be done until the following day. This means they can't complete the six-hour drive to the airport.
Javier is going to change their tickets to a later date and hope Delta will still be operating the route — which currently is not scheduled to be flown in April.
Another cruiser with an extended trip, Heather (who has recounted her whole trip on her blog) remains on the Norwegian Spirit with hopes of docking in South Africa on Sunday. The ship has spent every day except two at sea since the itinerary began on March 2. (Heather was on a previous cruise prior to this one.) On March 19, passengers were given notice at 6 a.m. that they would dock in Cape Town on March 22 but had to fly out of South Africa that day. They had until 10 a.m. — just four hours later — to submit their flight itineraries.
Heather is from Seattle, and during the four-hour window to book travel, she couldn't find flights all the way home. Instead, her plan now is to fly on Qatar to Chang Mai, Thailand via Doha (DOH) and stay there until things have settled.
When I asked Heather to summarize the one thing she's learned, she responded:
"Be flexible whenever you travel. No one could have predicted the events of the past few weeks. Getting upset doesn’t help. Look at the obstacles as all being part of the adventure."
Most of our readers stuck abroad have other layers of stress outside of the current situation — including children at home with other caretakers, unplanned work absences and income loss. My sincere empathy is with all of the readers with whom I spoke, and here at TPG, we're working to get as much information as we can to pass along to each of them.
These are unprecedented times, though it's important to reflect on your own situation and empathize with those in worse ones. If you have loved ones stuck abroad, turning to social media to find those in similar spots seems to be the best bet, once you've ensured your own safe place to hunker down and weather the outbreak. You could also try some of the tips from my column last week to make a positive impact related to the coronavirus.
Finally, we have a guide for what to do if you're stuck abroad that can be a great resource.
We hope all our readers are reunited with their homes and loved ones as soon as possible.