To my readers, I’m making this post about international travel to Africa because I found myself anxious and reluctant to travel based on all the chaos the politicians and media create around COVID. If it weren’t for my friend Ruth who organized the trip and was bound to go, I wouldn’t have ended up on a fantastic safari in 2021. Anyone who is on the fence about international travel with connecting flights and long distances because they don’t know what to expect, this post if for you. I hope I can provide some clarity.
As we all know, international travel has been quite the challenge during COVID. Every time a restriction lifts, it seems a new COVID variant shuts down easy travel. Consequently, getting from the USA to Africa, specifically Zambia, can be challenging.
We were scheduled for a Zambia safari in 2020 but deferred the trip a year in hopes of easier travel. For a little while, things looked promising, but it didn’t take long for the Delta variant to put a wrench in our plans. This time, however, we embraced the hassles.
Not surprisingly, the airline schedules turned difficult. Initially booked on AA and British Air through London to Johannesburg, the British Air flight cancelled about one month in advance. Sadly, three of the four of us (with airline status no less) were not notified of the cancellation and would have been stranded in London had our 4th not notified us all. Shameful!
With the UK tightening restrictions and including Zambia on its “redlist”, we ditched flying through London altogether. Two of us bought a ticket on United direct from Newark to Johannesburg. At least that way, if there were any maintenance issues or bad weather, we wouldn’t be stranded and potentially quarantined. I’m still unclear how people in transit are treated if something goes wrong.
A few others extended their journey nine hours by flying on Qatar through Doha. At least they would be flying on an amazing airline.
With the flights settled, the COVID PCR test proved to be the next hurdle. Despite being fully vaccinated, to enter Zambia, we needed to get a PCR test 72 hours prior to our FIRST flight. For me, this was from Denver to Newark on a Monday.
If at all possible, AVOID flying internationally on a Monday. It is extremely difficult to find testing places that guarantee results over the weekend. For my trip to St. Lucia in April, I used Any Lab Test Now, and they guaranteed the results in 48 hours during the week. Now, on a weekend, they would not. Likely because transportation has been so unreliable of late.
After searching online many times with different search terms, I finally found same day results, rapid PCR tests at Advanced Urgent Care for $125, not covered by insurance. While I wanted to call to be certain of my search results, the website did not include a phone number. As a result, I drove to the clinic on Thursday to ensure I’d receive same day results. The clinician confirmed this.
I got tested on Saturday just to leave room for error, and as promised I received my results later that day. I promptly uploaded them to the United Airlines website only to find them declined the next morning because the results did not include the clinic’s name!
I finally found a letter under “forms” in my portal which was accepted, though despite all the approved paperwork, I still couldn’t check in online.
Other Required Forms
In addition to the COVID test, Zambia required filling out a form which creates a QR code. I found this out by utilizing the Sherpa website which provides COVID requirements for each country. After facing some technical difficulty, I printed this form out along with my itinerary as well as a form for South Africa.
Armed with all my papers, I arrived at Denver International Airport to find only one United Agent helping all premium passengers at bag check. I didn’t even have a bag to check but had to go through the kiosk only to wait for the agent to approve my check in which wasn’t allowed online.
Airport Procedures in Johannesburg
Finally, I was on the plane and after an extended layover in Newark, I boarded the next plane with my friend bound for Johannesburg, a 15 hour flight. As expected, when we weren’t eating or drinking. we were required to wear a mask, though it didn’t have to be a surgical one.
Upon landing in Johannesburg, we went through two checks in the immigration line before we reached the agent. First, we handed over the South African form which was available both online and on the plane. The agent holding a temperature gauge collected it. Not only did she not read the form, she didn’t even aim the temperature gun at us! I don’t even know why she was holding it!!
On to Zambia
Next, we provided another agent with our passport and COVID test. After a cursory review, we were sent to the immigration agents who stamped our passports. With only an overnight layover which did not require a visa, we stayed at the Marriott Protea Airport Hotel which could be reached by the hotel shuttle every half hour. Beware of the porters who want a $5 tip to show you to the bus terminal. Perhaps it is worth it when jetlagged and tired.
The following morning, we continued to Livingstone, Zambia via Airlink. Upon entering the airport, we stood on a pad to check our temperature, but it didn’t feel like the agent was truly checking it. Then we headed to the check in at the counter and handed over our QR code and COVID test. The airline agent did not know what the QR code was and dismissed it.
She only wanted to see the COVID test which by then was close to the expiration time if comparing to the date to our current flight rather our first flight (the requirement). We were prepared to show our test took place within 72 hours of our first flight in the USA, but we ended up not needing to, and proceeded to security.
At security, we had to fill out another South Africa form and again have our temperature checked, with the gun loosely aimed at our chest. I doubt anything was recorded! Eventually, we boarded the ERJ and soon enough landed in Livingstone where we presented our COVID test and purchased our $50 visa with exact change and crisp bills. This is common place in all of Africa.
To get to Mfuwe, we flew two prop planes operated by Proflight. The first landed in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, where we walked across the tarmac, collected our bags just inside the door of the airport, and rechecked them to Mfuwe.
After a couple hour layover as well as an hour delay in Lusaka, we passed through security once more, and boarded our last flight for a HOT hour to our final destination. With no overhead bins and little space beneath the seats on these planes, we stuffed our carry-ons into a luggage bin at the front of the plane, so there wasn’t much to do except drink the bottle water and eat the small snack provided.
Much to our surprise, we didn’t land in the middle of the bush with a hut for a bathroom as we did in Kenya. We actually landed at a small domestic airport and again collected our bags just inside the airport door.
The ground handlers from our safari camp greeted us at the airport. Upon arrival at Flatdogs, the owners greeted us donning masks and the staff squirted sanitizer in our hands.
The camp, which had a capacity of 40, only hosted 12 guests while we were there over the weekend, and on the final day, we were the only six.
The staff was vaccinated, we had our own safari vehicle, we hardly interacted with the sparse guests, and anytime we entered the main area we were spritzed with hand sanitizer, thus the camp felt safe as it relates to COVID.
After three days at Flatdogs, we were transferred via a game drive through South Luangwa National Park to our next camp, Kakuli. Again, the staff was vaccinated and wore masks, and with each entry into the camp from our game drive, the staff provided warm wash cloths.
With a five-tent set-up, the camp had limited capacity. We were the only six aside from one couple who joined for the night. As a result, once again, we felt rather safe.
More COVID Testing
Before leaving Kakuli, we completed our COVID tests. We coordinated this in advance with our ground handler Kelvin, with Absolute Vantage. It cost a pretty penny to have someone flown in and to have the test results delivered to us at the Lusaka Airport prior to leaving the country, but the procedure was hassle free for us.
With our COVID results in hand, we returned to Johannesburg for another layover, this time 24 hours. Just as before, we turned in the South African form, showed proof of our COVID test, and passed through immigration.
Our Africa travel was easy as pie. Unfortunately, however, United cancelled our flight to Newark due to maintenance. Fortunately, upon calling United, they rebooked us on a Lufthansa flight through Frankfurt, Germany.
With a 24-hour layover and our intra-Africa flights in a different itinerary than our flights to the USA, we thought we might have trouble with our COVID test date and the three-day limit. Not so. The Lufthansa agent did, however, ask to see our vaccination card. Fortunately, we were vaccinated and had the COVID vaccination card. I also had with me my other vaccine card which showed proof of yellow fever, typhoid, hepatitis A and hepatitis B, all recommended shots to go to Africa. I also had my malaria pills!
After we boarded the flight, the Luftansa flight crew provided medical masks to all those with just cloth ones. Having read a recent article, I was aware certain airlines were requiring medical masks.
With a very long layover in Frankfurt, we headed to the Lufthansa Lounge which also required proof of a vaccination card. The agent informed us that Germany requires a vaccination card to enter any restaurant. Also, the lounge required medical masks, as did the airport.
We had one more COVID test check point before we boarded our flight to the USA. While the to/fro to Africa required extra effort, once there, our trip went smoothly and safely. In fact, I may have been safer in Africa than at my nephew’s wedding in the states where guests contracted COVID! Regardless, even with all the flight changes, we made it…coming and going.
While I can’t promise anyone’s safety, I can tell anyone considering international travel that the sky is not falling like the politicians and media represent. Give it a try. Africa will welcome you with open arms. I am very glad I went and look forward to next year’s trip to Botswana. ETB
PS. If you are still worried about contracting COVID abroad, look into Medjet Assist which will fly you from hospital to hospital across borders. I’ve carried this insurance for years, and it is worth the peace of mind.