Staffing shortages, testing shortages, changing rules, changing requirements. Can we all agree that it’s a lot? When Steve and I returned from our successful trip to Belgium, our first foray into international travel since January 2020, we decided we could do it. Despite Omicron and the irrational panic over a case of the sniffles, we decided it was time to live our life again: Our life of travel, life of excitement, life of fun, life as normal as possible.
We did our thoroughest research ever and booked a trip to French Polynesia with three weeks’ notice, thinking it was near enough in the future that we could avoid cancellations and major changes. Boy, were we ever wrong. What started as a dream trip on the brink of coming true turned into an anxiety-inducing, logistical nightmare.
French Polynesia is relatively easy to get to—there’s a non-stop flight on United from SFO—but we hadn’t planned a trip there because upgrades are hard to come by, and it’s quite expensive, as you might imagine. But thanks to COVID, we not only found an incredibly flight deal—and got upgraded!—we also found a semi-reasonable price on an overwater bungalow. (As opposed to outrageously expensive.) It seemed like a deal we couldn’t refuse.
We booked the trip on December 23, 2021. We filled out the appropriate forms, figured out everything we would need to do and bring with us for the trip, I e-mailed the tourism board to clarify information that was unclear on the website. We were getting really excited.
Read on: How to Practice Self Care on Travel
Oh, the stressors. I’ve never been one to complain about travel, but I’ve always been committed to telling it like it is. And right now, it’s stressful. Here’s why.
The Rules changed a lot in 21 days.
On December 29, we received an e-mail from the tourism board to inform us that the testing requirement to enter French Polynesia had changed effective the following day. Instead of taking a fast, easy, inexpensive antigen test 48 hours in advance (which we already had at home), we would have to get a time-consuming, hard to find, very expensive RT-PCR test within 24 hours of departure. How expensive? $250. Each. Plus the cost of parking at the airport where the tests we needed were available.
On January 4, we received a message from the French Polynesian government saying the same thing about the new testing requirements.
On January 7, we received an e-mail from the tourism board that could actually be construed as good news. Should we test positive upon arrival or during our stay, we would only need to quarantine for seven days. I don’t know how long the previous quarantine was, but the e-mail did say this was “reduced.” Thank goodness for that.
On January 10, we received a “surveillance” reminder (how’s that for a shot in the gut of an American?). This confirmed what we already knew from our research, that we would be given a PCR test upon arrival, which we already paid for in advance. We were told in bold, underlined, and in all caps that we “must communicate and declare a PERSONAL e-mail address” with which to receive the results. Perhaps someone took the test and gave a fake e-mail so the government couldn’t be in touch. I get it, but now all the rest of us are suspect. Thanks, whoever you are.
Sometimes you have to make hard choices: Why It’s Okay to Mourn Your Cancelled Travel
Speaking of those changing rules, the terminology was a little ambiguous. Perhaps it had to do with the language barrier, but some of the key terminology both the tourism board and the French Polynesian government used in the e-mails we received were confusing. For instance, when they write “Barrier Gestures,” what “gestures” are we supposed to be looking for? Signage? Social distancing? Is someone going to flip us the bird?
Or take “Avoid Contact with the Population” for example. Does this mean we have to isolate? Quarantine? Social distance? Something else? Are we allowed to leave our hotel room or go to a restaurant? Support local businesses by shopping with them? Or are we not allowed to do any of those things? Who knows?
Steve and I were managing our anxiety about testing before our trip. We made an appointment for a test at IAD, our home airport, at 5:30pm Eastern Time, 24 hours before our flight from SFO. We were putting it out of our minds as much possible, but then I found this article from a writer with The Points Guy about how difficult it is to get a test—the writer had to cancel her trip because she couldn’t get the right kind of test, and not for lack of trying! COVID testing and results are two things you just can’t out-plan, out-try, or out-maneuver. They’re 100% out of your control.
We went for our tests at IAD, and it was, of course, very unclear what anyone was supposed to do. We waited over half an hour to be taken back for our tests, despite having an appointment, and then waited another hour for the results. We each took a book and tried not to think about it. There was a sense of relief when both our tests came back negative. It was short-lived, however, since we knew we’d have to test again about 36 hours later, upon arrival in Tahiti.
Our arrival COVID tests in Tahiti was paid for in advance, when we filled out our ETIS form online to enter the country. We actually got swabbed twice: Once with a rapid test, once with a PCR test. We waited at the airport for 30 minutes before being allowed to leave, then we received the results of the PCR test via e-mail a few days later.
Be prepared: What to Do If You Have to Quarantine Abroad
But then there was the matter of documentation. We needed so much paperwork. Steve and I are very organized people, but we had a moment of panic the day before we left when we were trying to organize our documents, and I nearly forgot one, the “sworn statement” that we didn’t knowingly have COVID symptoms. We had everything else: ETIS form and QR Code from the Polynesian Government, our vaccine cards, passports. It’s a good thing I happened to remember the sworn statements we printed weeks ago. I’d put them away for safe keeping and nearly forgot them!
Did We Make It?
We did! The sense of relief was palpable as we got off the plane and walked into the airport. A live band was playing welcoming Tahitian music, the people working there were quick to anticipate and answer our questions, and the scent of tropical flowers put us at ease. My insides swelled with affection for this place I didn’t even know yet, and my eyes filled with tears. We had made it.
We only had one more hurdle to cross: a test upon arrival. An employee showed us to a testing area where medical workers were efficiently swabbing both nostrils of each and every passenger (vigorously, I might add). My eyes welled up with tears for a different reason with each swabbing, and my nose ran. We were then hustled through passport control and baggage claim to wait half an hour before we could leave. At 9:25 pm local time, we walked across the parking lot to the Tahiti Airport Motel and fell into bed exhausted from the stress and subsequent relief.
Was It Worth It?
Anything worth doing has its challenges. Steve and I have been so tired of waiting until a “better” time to travel. A “better” time may never come. This whole thing has gone on quite long enough, and yet, with every baby step we take forward, we seem to take a flying leap back in one way or another. Before we booked this trip, I was fully convinced we were on the up and up and ready to return to the world. During what used to be the exciting, anticipation period, however, both Steve’s and my anxiety were truly overwhelming.
It might have been more worth waiting for, even if we didn’t find such a great deal. It’s quite complicated to visit to begin with, and the changing rules and testing regulations made it much more stressful and much more complicated—as well as $500 more expensive for two people. The pros outweighed the cons for us in the long run, but we would feel differently if even one of the tests we took had come back positive.
One of the best parts is yet to come: What it’s Like Staying in an Overwater Bungalow at the Sofitel Mo’orea
Need some help with making travel plans these days? Take a look at my dedicated Travel Planning Page. And for more about French Polynesia, take a look at my dedicated French Polynesia Page. Good luck!
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