COVID-19 testing

Why We Spit on Viking Cruises

What’s the best part of taking a cruise around Iceland right now?

The food? The views? The waterfalls? Take your pick.

We’re fully vaccinated. But were we worried about traveling out of the country when the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t yet officially over?

You bet.

Still, when Viking Cruises sent an invite for a cruise around Iceland on the Viking Sky on one of the voyages in the “Welcome Back” collection, we said yes.

Just getting to go somewhere was an attraction of course. And there are now many researched-during-the pandemic places on our go-there-soon list.

But Iceland went to the top of the list when we took a look at the cruise itinerary and contemplated all the waterfalls, fjords, and elf-anointed landscapes we’d get to visit.

Viking’s Health and Safety program and COVID-19 prevention and mitigation plans, as described, were an attraction too.

Before the cruise, passengers had to provide proof of vaccination and fill out multiple health surveys. (I was a bit late on the uptake with that and got a phone call gently reminding me to get with the program.)

And in addition to wearing masks on board and while out on excursions, we had to agree to daily temperature checks, to wear contact-tracing devices, and to take daily non-invasive PCR tests once on board.

We were assured that crew members would be wearing the contact tracing devices and be tested daily too.

That PCR testing involves spitting into a tube left in our staterooms each night.

And to be honest, filling the tube to the required line isn’t that easy. And it is certainly not ‘cruise fun’ to be reminded by a staff member to take care of this task before leaving the cabin each day.

But it is important.

What happens to all that spit?

All the tubes get delivered daily to the onboard lab Viking has created on the ship. (Each Viking ocean ship has one now.) And the team in that lab uses highly sensitive equipment to test and evaluate all those PCR tests each day.

As we learned a few days into this cruise, this protocol works very well.

Although everyone on board is vaccinated, the lab discovered a suspected positive case of COVID_19 on board.

That fully vaccinated and asymptomatic guest was quickly re-tested and isolated in a dedicated section of the ship. The contact tracing system was activated.

We have another level of safety on board that has been protecting passengers from COVID-19: A pair of UV sanitizing robots, named R2 and D2. While passengers sleep, these efficient machines are sent into public spaces such as the fitness room and the atrium to UV-away any viruses that may be hanging about.

Still, the Icelandic authorities are making the Viking Sky skip some scheduled port visits. But because the onboard protocol is so extensive and efficient, there is no need for the rest of the passengers on board to restrict activities as we head back to Reykjavik.

There is no shortage of alcohol, sushi, or fact-filled lectures. And there are no other cases of COVID-19 discovered. (Yes, we keep spitting).

So we are all fine. It is, after all, a cruise ship filled with wonderful amenities and incredibly enthusiastic staff. There is no need to feel sorry for this merry band of cruisers.

[Update: the bars are now open. And Viking’s Chief Health Officer has arrived in Iceland to meet with officials and ensure the cruise line’s protocols are in sync with the country’s health officials and the Coast Guard. ]

As is their way, the team at Viking Cruises is keeping everyone very informed of what is happening – or not – and offering generous partial refunds (50% ) to customers, many of whom are already talking about their future cruises.

And as I move about the ship I hear disappointment, of course, but barely a grumble.

And that is why we are happy to spit on Viking Cruises.

Travel Tidbits: Testing, Festivals, and More

COVID-19 testing required for international travel – and maybe domestic travel too.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now requires that all travelers flying to the United States from abroad show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding their flight.

The new rule went into effect on January 26. And in addition to the pre-flight test, CDC is also recommending that anyone arriving in the U.S. be tested 3-5 days after travel and stay home to self-quarantine for 7 days after travel. Or self-quarantine for 10 days if they don’t get a test.

Airlines, hotels, and airports are rushing to help travelers comply with this new travel requirement.

United Airlines, for example, rolled out is “Travel-Ready Center.” This digital site lets passengers review COVID-19 entry requirements, find local testing sites, and upload required testing and vaccination records for both international and domestic travel.

The new ruling is quite rigorous for international travel. And on Tuesday it was reported that the Biden administration is “actively looking” at expanding mandatory COVID-19 testing to travelers on U.S. domestic flights.

We’ll see if that extra layer of testing become reality. But in the meantime, if you do plan to travel soon it will be good to brush up on the current rulings.

Another airline bans emotional support animals

Southwest Airlines announced that as of March 1, 2021 emotional support animals will be banned from flights.

Starting that day, Southwest will only accept dogs that are trained service animals. The airline will still allow pets to fly in the cabin, but only if they are vaccinated domestic cats or dogs in an appropriate pet carrier. And if they have a ticket. Fares are $95 each way per pet carrier.

Southwest joins all other major airlines in making this ruling. Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Frontier, JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines, and United Airlines have already put their “no emotional support animals” policy in force.

Festivals rebooked for real

Dare we hope?

While many annual events around the country and the world are being postponed or canceled for yet another year, some are going forward.

In New Orleans, the Jazz & Heritage Festival that was canceled last spring is now scheduled for October 8-17. And the French Quarter Festival is now planned to take place September 30-October 3.

Hotels add COVID-19 testing to amenity lists

Courtesy Arora Group

Skip the lines and get a COVID-19 test at your hotel

(This is a slightly different version of our story for NBC News)

You may not be able to work out in hotel gyms or hang out in lobby bars just yet. But at an increasing number of hotels, guests can now get COVID-19 tests as part of their stay.

The tests are offered in partnership with a local laboratory or medical company and at an extra, sometimes hefty expense. But now that a negative COVID-19 test is required for crossing many state and country borders, hotels hoping to stand-out are adding medical testing to their list of amenities.

Results before you fly

“Test and Rest” packages starting at about $240 at the Sofitel Heathrow and about $200 at the Sofitel Gatwick allows guests to check-in and take a self-administered saliva COVID-19 test from a kit.

Twice a day, the hotel sends test samples via courier to a HALO testing laboratory. Results, plus a certificate to be printed at reception, are emailed to guests so they can go from the airport hotel to the plane.

“It seemed to be the right thing to do to both encourage travel and get people booking airport hotels again,” said Raj Shah, Commercial Director – Hotel Division of the Arora Group. The company operates several hotels at both Heathrow and Gatwick.

COVID-19 testing at resorts and boutique hotels

In Las Vegas, the REVIV wellness spa at the Cosmopolitan offers COVID-19 PCR testing ($100) with results and documents promised within 24-hours. Antibody tests ($40) are also available, with discounts offered to guests who bundle their tests with some of the spa’s treatments.

With HELIX Urgent Care, Florida’s Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa provides COVID-19 testing for guests three days a week. The fee is $125, with results promised in 48 hours or less.  

Both the W South Beach in Miami Beach and Chateau Marmont Hotel, Cottages and Bungalows in Hollywood are partnering with Sollis Health to offer guest COVID-19 PCR tests with a 24-hour turnaround. Test prices are $175 at the W South Beach and are included as part of the amenity package at Chateau Marmont, where rates start at about $475 a night.  

For $299, the Nemacolin, a resort in Farmington, PA, is offering guests rapid COVID-19 tests that are analyzed on-site, with results in 15-20 minutes. “Should a positive test result occur, you will be expected to re-test immediately,” the resort tells guests.

And at the Nobu Hotel Palo Alto in California’s Silicon Valley, guests simply ask their private concierge to arrange an on-site COVID-19 test. A licensed medical professional then arrives in full personal protective equipment (PPE) to administer the test. And couriers take the samples to a certified laboratory for expedited results. The white-glove service starts at $500.

What do you think of this new hotel amenity?

Hawaii bound? Get tested for COVID-19

Hawaii reopens to tourists on October 15. Yay, right?

But the only visitors who will be able to skip the 14-day quarantine rules will be those with proof of testing negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours before they depart the mainland.

Hawaii officials will only accept test results from approved providers.

Here’s information about those testing partners from the Hawaii State Department of Health. The list was posted on 10/13/20 and will likely be updated.

Be sure to check with providers for prices and updated information.

Where to get tested

AFC Urgent Care – COVID-19 tests are available at clinics on the AFC Urgent Care website. Tests available for ages five and older. Schedule in advance to guarantee appointment availability. A printed version of the results is provided prior to leaving the clinic.

Bartell Drugs – Only for Alaska Airlines passengers to Hawaii at select Bartell Drugs locations. Tests available for ages five and older. Appointments are required at least one day in advance. Guaranteed results within 72 hours.

Carbon Health – Tests offered at dedicated sites with results delivered within two hours. Tests available for ages five and older for Alaska Airlines passengers in Seattle only. ($135)

CityHealth Urgent Care – CityHealth Urgent Care offers tests utilizing state-of-the-art Abbott Lab instrumentation for results in 15 minutes. Tests available for ages five and older.  

Color  Tests available for ages five and older for United Airlines passengers going to Hawaii from San Francisco International Airport.

CVS Health – Travelers may schedule an appointment up to two days in advance at select CVS Pharmacy drive-thru locations. Tests available for ages 12 and older. Pre-registration is required. ($139).

Discovery Health MD – Individuals traveling to Hawaii may schedule testing online with same ($329) and next day ($279) results at designated testing sites. Tests available for ages five and older. A limited number of walk-ups can be accommodated.

Kaiser Permanente – Kaiser Permanente members may schedule a test online, or contact the appointment call center or nurse advice line in their home region for scheduling instructions.

Quest Diagnostics – Individuals may order and schedule the company’s COVID-19 Active Infection Test online and select from more than 500 Walmart drive-thru pharmacy locations for a nasal swab test.

Vault Health – At-home tests with real-time audio-visual supervision are available. Tests available for ages five and older. Tests are mailed with accurate results in 72 hours or less.

Walgreens – Drive-thru testing locations available. Appointment required.

COVID-19 Testing Information from Airlines and Airports

If you are heading to Hawaii, your airline will offer information about COVID-19 tests and current requlations.

Here are links to the pre-travel testing requirements for Hawaii travelers and additional information about testing options from airlines – and from Oakland International Airport.

Alaska Airlines 

American Airlines 

Hawaiian Airlines 

Oakland International Airport 

Southwest Airlines

United Airlines 

If you go, send us a postcard.