Returning from South Africa: A US family races to get home before all flights are canceled

Mar 25, 2020

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Last week, TPG shared one family’s story about traveling from the U.S. to Israel to South Africa during the coronavirus COVID-19 crisis. The family planned to ride out the threat to the U.S. in South Africa but decided to come home once the U.S. issues a level 4 travel advisory. Here’s the rest of their story.

After spending a week in an apartment just outside of Tel Aviv, Israel, there’s nothing that feels as socially distant as driving six hours from a major city to stay in a game lodge with no other guests. That’s where we found ourselves after a remarkably uneventful flight from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg, South Africa.

Our hosts at the Shalati Kruger Lodge informed us that all the other guests had either canceled their stays or had been turned back upon arrival to the country. Yet, apart from having a handheld infrared scanner pointed at us (presumably for a temperature check) and a lack of lines, there was nothing unusual about the immigration and customs procedures at the Johannesburg airport on March 16.

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(Photo by Jason Steele)

At the lodge, there was limited internet connection so the roar of lions in the distance and warnings of leopards on the property seemed (temporarily) more dangerous than coronavirus. In response to our 12-year-old daughter’s pleadings, we agreed to try to avoid discussing the worldwide crisis and to instead focus on our experiences during our first day of safari in Kruger National Park. 

(Photo by Jason Steele)

But our brief encounters with a faint trickle of internet service were enough to download the pleadings of our friends and family for our safety. We felt very safe in South Africa at almost the end of the earth, and one of the last countries to be affected by the virus.

Reports of throngs of returning travelers to the U.S., both sick and well, being essentially detained in arrivals halls while awaiting perfunctory health checks were not comforting. As many have noted, that’s the opposite of what should be done to contain the spread of any disease. We hoped that the process would become streamlined by the time of our return. 

(Photo by Jason Steele)

We also hoped that the airlines would continue service to the U.S., which they seemed to be committed to — albeit at a fraction of their former schedules. And finally, we hoped to see as much of South Africa as we could before it follows the lead of Israel and the United States by closing restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions. While we were there, we heard rumors of Kruger Park being closed within days. 

But most of all, we did our best to gather hard facts from credible sources. Unlike our friends, family and colleagues back home, we had no exposure to television, let alone the 24-hour news broadcasts. We were hypersensitive to any indication that Americans would be unable to return home, or that airports would be completely closed like they were after 9/11.

Until then, we continued to try to enjoy South Africa (while practicing extreme social distancing) until we had to return to the United States.

The decision to return to the United States

We spent March 16 and 17 in the tented encampment at the Shalati Kruger Lodge and then went to the nearby Rukiya Safari Lodge for an additional three nights. For better or for worse, this camp offered reliable internet service, which exposed us to the dire news from back home, along with ever more pleadings to return. But their messages seemed contradictory. We were having the time of our lives, while our friend and family were essentially saying, “It’s terrible here. You should return home immediately!”

A rare leopard sighting near the Rukiya Safari Camp. (Photo by Jason Steele)

The key moment for us was probably Wednesday’s level 4 advisory from the State Department indicating that Americans who didn’t return home now were likely to remain abroad indefinitely. The message to us was crystal clear: According to the United States Government, we’re on our own. That’s when we struggled to find remaining award seats back home. 

Searching for last-minute award flights

Finding award seats wasn’t as much of a challenge as booking them. We got an error at United’s website when we tried to change or cancel our existing flights for March 3. So I had to call United to book the tickets, which was a challenge in and of itself. I believe that there’s a special place in hell for the people who designed United’s laughably bad voice recognition system that’s used on their reservation line, along with anyone who continues to imagine that this system is functional in any way. 

Once I reached a competent reservations agent, I was able to book the six of us for a flight to London on South African Airways for Tuesday, followed by United flights the rest of the way to Denver via Washington Dulles. United also told us that if South African Airlines canceled this flight, it would be their responsibility to accommodate us, as United wouldn’t buy us a ticket on another airline.

With that out of the way, we attempted to enjoy our safari adventures, which included numerous sightings of the rare, endangered leopard. But on Saturday, we learned the shocking news that South African Airways has ceased all international operations effective immediately, rendering our return tickets void. 

Our hearts sunk as we desperately looked for any seats out of South Africa, as one airline after another had ceased service there or had gone out of business entirely. United was unreachable, Expedia was no help, as were calls to American Express Travel that went unanswered.

Some flights were listed for sale but upon further research, hadn’t operated in days. Ultimately, I went online to the Turkish Airlines website to purchase six seats back to Denver via Istanbul and San Francisco, departing Saturday night, March 21. Just to be sure, we spoke with a South African Airways representative in the Johannesburg airport, who told us that they couldn’t help us, so we boarded our Turkish Airlines flights. 

Our family returned to an utterly deserted San Francisco International airport at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 22.

Flying during the coronavirus crisis

(Photo by Jason Steele)

The Johannesburg airport wasn’t crowded, but the mood was grim as the status boards showed many canceled flights and it was clear that those remaining were packed with those desperately trying to return home. Only about one in 10 were wearing masks but on board our flight, most were wiping down their seats and some even resorted to wrapping blankets over their nose and mouth. We breathed a sigh of relief when the aircraft took off, and again when we arrived safely in Istanbul’s colossal new airport on a flight that was approximately 80% full. 

All the flights listed in yellow are canceled flights. (Photo by Jason Steele)

Security in Istanbul was very fast and efficient, but we soon realized why. Nearly all departures had been canceled. Crowds were sparse, but there were plenty of travelers trying to get home. Even more were wearing masks and one woman in the lounge was even wearing a blue, full-body hazmat-style suit, that appeared to be made for painters.

A desolate concourse on Sunday afternoon in San Francisco International airport.
A desolate concourse on Sunday afternoon at San Francisco International airport. (Photo by Jason Steele)

The flight to San Francisco was also about 80% full, but we arrived in a deserted terminal. Having submitted our immigration form’s via Clear’s Mobile Passport app, we were the only people in line to speak with a CBP officer. It was a brief conversation as we were asked which countries we visited and how we’re feeling, but that’s it. We were then asked to quarantine for 14 days, which we had anticipated.

Utter desertion in San Francisco International airport at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 22. (Photo by Jason Steele)

The San Francisco airport was virtually deserted, and we and perhaps a dozen others flew to Denver Sunday night, arriving just before midnight, 40 minutes early. And for the first time in our memory, our bags reached the carousel in baggage claim before we did, and we arrived home safely in the wee hours of the morning on Monday, March 23.

Our perspective

Knowing what we know now, it wasn’t a good idea to travel over the last two weeks and I do not recommend anyone travel currently. But hindsight is 20/20 and we don’t live in the world that existed when we departed the U.S. on March 7. And while we took some measure of risk by continuing our trip to South Africa for as long as possible, we stayed informed and made highly calculated decisions based on all the information we had. We also had made several observations of how multiple countries and airlines reacted to this crisis and saw clear patterns that emerged that allowed us to successfully predict events to some extent.

Leaving immediately and joining huge crowds in transit and on arrival would have been a significant risk as well. Ultimately, we left Israel three days earlier than we had planned and returned home over a week ahead of schedule, so it’s not like we just went about our trip as if nothing was going on. Nor did we hit the panic button at the first sign of problems.

My wife is a doctor of pharmacy with an undergraduate degree in microbiology, immunology and virology, so we weren’t naive to the dangers of a pandemic either, many of which have been both understated and overstated. We felt safer in a remote lodge than we would have been back home in a major city.

We now have a unique,  firsthand perspective on coronavirus procedures in three different countries. The truth is that the few South Africans we encountered last week seemed blissfully unaware of the future that awaits them, one that we’ve recently witnessed in Israel and followed closely in the United States.

This picture was taken at a convenience store in South Africa on Saturday, March 21. There’s no panic buying here. (Photo by Jason Steele)

We held out in a pre-pandemic world at what felt like the end of the earth, for as long as possible, and perhaps even a few days longer than we should have. We were doing our best to spare our three children from the chaos at home, and to give them just a few extra days of life before the virus. We also felt like it would be safer to travel through empty airports than the crowds that earlier arrivals experienced.

We realized that for the rest of our children’s lives and ours, we’ll likely remember a world that existed before and during this trip and a completely different one afterward. We tried to prepare them for the coming reality of quarantine, social isolation, canceled school and nearly all events and activities for an indefinite future.

But we’re also trying to put a positive spin on our return. We hope that it will be an era of increased family bonding over socially distant activities such as cooking, bicycling, camping and hiking. And we’ve promised ourselves that we will continue our trip to South Africa as soon as international travel resumes and that it’s safe to do so. We’re sad that we only got to spend five days in that incredible place, but we know that it — and all of our favorite destinations — will be waiting for us in the future.  

Featured image by Denver International Airport

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