Irish vacation turns into a COVID nightmare for Saunders County couple
The idyllic green fields, dramatic seaside cliffs and narrow, stone wall-lined roads of the Irish countryside hold a special allure for Kristen and Craig Gottschalk.
The couple, from rural Saunders County, especially like getting lost in rural Ireland, detouring their travels in pursuit of an out-of-the-way hiking trail or special restaurant.
“I travel by the seat of my pants,” Kristen Gottschalk said. “If you go to a pub, and if someone recommends ‘go do that,’ we’ll get in our car and check it out.”
But a recent trip to Ireland — the fourth for the family — turned into a travel nightmare when the fully vaccinated couple tested positive for COVID-19 in a required test before their scheduled return on Nov. 16.
Their expected 12-day trip turned into an expensive, extended ordeal, with 10 days spent in isolation at remote, rented cottages as they tried to navigate the various requirements to get back on an airplane and return to the U.S.
It’s a cautionary tale, they say, of traveling during the pandemic.
“Not getting answers, not getting the right answers, is the biggest bottleneck,” said Craig, a sergeant at the Saunders County Jail.
“Just plan ahead for the worst-case scenario,” said Kristen, a former government relations director at the Nebraska Rural Electric Association.
The couple left for Ireland on Nov. 4, after providing the necessary proof that they were vaccinated to their airline. All seemed fine as they hiked the Wicklow Mountains and toured through Waterford, County Cork and County Kerry.
But after five days, Craig caught a bad head cold after visiting the Blarney Castle, which, they say, is the kind of “touristy thing” they normally avoid. Then, four days later, Kristen got sick with a cold and a bad sinus headache.
The couple didn’t think too much about it. Their daughter and her husband both had colds back in Nebraska before they left, and their symptoms didn’t last long. They kept on hiking and touring and didn’t feel especially tired or worn out, though one spicy Indian restaurant dish seemed bland.
Ireland required masks indoors, and proof of vaccination was required before entering a pub, restaurant or bed-and-breakfast. Things seemed safe.
Three days before their return, the Gottschalks took rapid COVID-19 tests, as required before boarding a flight to the U.S. The results were positive.
Not believing the results of the self-administered tests, they took a second test at the Dublin Airport. Positive again.
In Ireland, the required quarantine time after a positive test is five days, Kristen said, but getting on a United Airlines flight to America required a 10-day wait and a statement from a doctor saying they had “recovered” from the virus.
The couple rented cottages in rural areas to spend their COVID-19 timeout but continued to hike to pass the time, discovering some local sights, like an Irish hog farm. Kristen bought some watercolors to paint. They got groceries via “no-touch” pickups. Overall, they felt fortunate that it wasn’t the busy tourist season because rental rates were lower.
But things got complicated when they began to seek out a doctor to obtain the required statement of recovery. The couple were told that they couldn’t see a doctor until after their 10-day wait, and then wouldn’t get the recovery statement for five more days. Kristen found a telemedicine service that could deliver the needed recovery documents sooner, but would the airline accept it?
Getting through to the airline to confirm what would be accepted was a challenge. Long waits on hold. Then some conflicting interpretations of the rules.
Finally, they got the OK for obtaining their recovery statement via a telemedicine visit. Just to be sure, Kristen also lined up a video meeting with a second physician, their family doctor in Wahoo, to obtain a second confirmation that they could get on an airplane.
But then a final snag — after two meetings a week ago Wednesday with doctors, and getting their documents of recovery, they couldn’t upload the paperwork to United Airlines. They didn’t know for sure until arriving at the Dublin Airport on Friday if their documents would be sufficient and they would be allowed to board.
A kiosk at the airport indicated that they didn’t have reservations for a flight Friday, but a gate agent later said that it was just a glitch. Kristen said it was a relief to be able to board the flight home.
It was an expensive ordeal — another $800 for their flights home, which had risen in price, and the cost of 10 extra days in Ireland. Kristen said they had bought travel insurance for their camper trailer, which also covers other trips, but found out that it didn’t cover their extra expenses in Ireland because the nation is on the U.S. State Department’s “do not travel” list because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Lincoln travel agency executive, who recently returned from trips to India and Austria, said he discourages anyone from traveling abroad right now without travel insurance.
Most health insurance policies and Medicare won’t cover medical expenses overseas. But some travel insurance policies will cover the costs of quarantining, Steve Glenn of Executive Travel said.
“You’d better have insurance, or you could have some heavy liabilities,” he said.
International travel has become much more complex, Glenn said, with lots of questions about which COVID-19 tests are accepted and where vaccination proof is required. He said he arrived five hours early for his return flight to the U.S. so he would have plenty of time to get a required negative test, then get in line to board his flight.
This all comes as international travel bookings have surged, Glenn said, because of pent-up demand after months of restrictions.
The Gottschalks said they booked their flight to Ireland almost a year ago, when airline tickets were dirt cheap, on the assumption that the pandemic would have waned by now.
Craig said there didn’t seem to be a compelling reason not to take the trip — they take precautions at home, such as avoiding crowds and not dining out. They received their vaccinations as soon as they could. Plus, they had been saving for the trip.
The couple are not sure where they got exposed, Nebraska or Ireland, but think that it would be a good idea to get a COVID-19 test before such a trip to avoid an unexpected, unbudgeted longer stay.
“I can’t say I regret coming,” Craig said. “I wanted to be here. It was our choice. But you need to be prepared for that contingency.”
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