Pilgrimage travel is back, but travel looks different than what we are all used to. Since January this year, Select International Tours has sent over 30 different pilgrimage groups to nearly every destination we travel to. In each of those trips, we have seen things change myriad times. We are cautiously optimistic that things will start to improve, but it is important that you understand precisely where things stand in relation to your trips in 2022 and into the early part of 2023.
COVID Testing and Vaccination Requirements
At this time, most countries no longer require proof of vaccination for entry. COVID testing for unvaccinated travelers is still sometimes required for entry. The US also recently dropped the requirement for testing on your return.
That being said, we are encouraging all travelers to have a PCR or Rapid Antigen test before traveling. Why? For two reasons:
- Select International Tours is committed to the common good of all our pilgrims. In order to provide a safe and equitable atmosphere for all our pilgrims, it is important that no one knowingly exposes others to COVID-19 or any other virus. By testing before travel, we are assuring that our actions do not put others at risk.
- Even though negative test results are not required by most countries, this could change at any moment. AND, perhaps, more importantly, the requirements are subject to the understanding of overworked and undertrained airline and TSA staff. We have had passengers delayed because they did not follow our advice to have negative test results in hand at the airport.
Pandemic Induced Shortages
While COVID restrictions continue to fall away, the effects of the pandemic are still weighing on the travel industry. Perhaps the most notable shortage is in airport/airline staff where many workers have left the industry and others are getting sick with COVID, some needing to take an extended time to recover.
If you have been following the news, you will know that flight cancellations and delays are on the rise. Thousands of flights are being canceled or delayed due to labor shortages, technical problems, or the weather. These disruptions have made group travel especially challenging. An open letter from Lufthansa, addressing this issue, recently made the news. We applaud Lufthansa’s forthcoming honesty in addressing the challenges they and the entire travel industry have been facing since March 2020 and continue to face even now.
Airline staff levels are still far short of pre-pandemic levels. This means that there are fewer pilots, aircrew staff, and on-the-ground support staff to handle the enormous restart of travel around the world. Travel levels are back at 90% of pre-COVID levels, but there are not as many people to provide the necessary service to accommodate all the travelers. Many times the delays are long and the tempers are short.
How does this affect me?
There have been a number of group flight cancellations for Select International Tours’ trips over the last several months. Each time the airline cancels a flight or has a major delay, your Account Managers and our Air Department work tirelessly to rebook everyone registered for the trip. This is time-consuming and requires dedicated concentration. Please know that we are working hard to keep your group moving forward, but the additional work has our staff working overtime and on the weekends.
So, we ask you to help us, by utilizing email for as many questions as possible. This allows our Travel Account Managers to reply when they are not focused on flight rebookings and for you to have a record of the reply. We are happy to report that we have been able to rebook every pilgrim on every trip so far, but it has been challenging.
We are advising all group participants to listen to our 2-minute online travel tips for useful information, read the helpful information we provide in the document package and stay positive and calm. Due to long lines at the airports, we are advising all our groups to plan on being at the airport at least 4 hours before their international flight departure and at least 2 hours for domestic flights.
Sites and Services Overseas
Overseas service providers are also experiencing labor shortages and increased workloads, which is leading to delays in receiving Mass schedules, confirmations, and final itineraries. Many last-minute schedule changes are becoming necessary on the ground while touring. For instance, some sacred sites and churches are operating with skeleton staff levels, leading to unannounced closures and schedules.
Hotels are facing more stringent requirements for disinfection and sanitation and they are working with similar labor shortages, so room services are sometimes delayed. On days you return early from touring, you may return to an unserviced room. Please know that the staff is working as quickly as they can and they will service your room as soon as possible.
Food service is similarly affected and may be slower than pre-pandemic levels.
How does this affect my trip?
Our ground staff is working closely with sites to assure that you get to every location on your itinerary. However, the planned itinerary may need to be adjusted on the ground in order to get you to all the locations. Your Group Leader and Guide are meeting daily to work through the details and they will alert you to changes accordingly.
In hotels and restaurants, you may experience inexperienced and inefficient service. However, we have found that most service providers are excited to see you and that they are doing their best to provide services for you. So please be kind, patient, and accepting knowing we are all in this together in America and overseas.
Select International Tours Staff
Select International Tours has not been immune to the challenges facing the rest of the Travel Industry. We too have had to reduce valued staff during the Pandemic and have met challenges in trying to bring on board new dedicated and qualified staff. Additionally, as noted above, flight cancellations and challenges related to unforeseen realities of the current travel situation have added additional time and pressure on our already stretched staff. This coupled with the process of rebooking many of you from trips scheduled in 2021 and 2022 has required our remaining staff to work longer and more efficiently than ever before.
We are committed to serving pilgrims with the utmost care and attention. So please know that we are doing our best to get you answers and confirmations as quickly as we can. Our responses may take a little longer than we would like or not be as thorough as you would like. We ask for your patience and understanding while we work with our travel partners to provide you with the best trip possible.
How can I get an answer more quickly?
In an effort to help you stay informed and feel at ease traveling, we have begun to address the questions we are most commonly asked with our Two Minute Travel Tips. If you are on Facebook, you will see these on our Facebook Page (click here) every Tuesday. If you’re not on Facebook, or if you would like to explore the 50+ two-minute videos we have already created, please visit the Two Minute Travel Tips section on our website.
We are always looking for new video ideas, so if you have one you would like to see addressed, please let us know! Email your suggestion to Matt (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the subject line: New Two Minute Video Idea.
If you have specific questions regarding your trip, which are not addressed elsewhere, the best way to get a timely answer is to email your Travel Account Manager. This would be the person on the brochure or who you have already been in contact with. Our Travel Account Managers work hard to answer every email and most are answered or addressed within 24 hours.
You may call our office at any time, but please understand that our Account Managers are answering hundreds of emails and dozens of calls daily, working with airlines and ground staff, and arranging all the details of your trip, so their time is limited and they may need to return your call. Additionally, if you are looking to change flights or upgrade air, add a special request, etc., we will need your request in writing anyway. So often an email is the shortest path to the answer you’re looking for.
Should I Still Travel in This Environment?
Unequivocally, yes! Even with the challenges and uncertainties of travel in the “new normal” pilgrims are having a better time than ever before. Crowds are smaller, lines are shorter, and service (while slower) is often better. Our overseas brothers and sisters are so excited to see us that they are going over and above to welcome you. So, yes, now is a GREAT time to travel.
How can I make sure I have a good trip?
Remember that you are on pilgrimage, not a vacation. In every step, God is trying to teach you something. If you keep that in mind and look for His leading, we are confident that you will be amazed at how often He shows up.
The pilgrims who are having the best trips right now all exude three qualities: patience, flexibility, and grace. They are patient and expect service to be a little slower than usual, so they aren’t frustrated when it is. They are flexible and know that even if there are changes to the itinerary, God is still present in the journey. They are full of grace, accepting that just as this experience is new to them, there are challenges and changes that everyone working for them is navigating as well. By employing an attitude of patience, flexibility, and grace, they allow God to work on them through the pilgrimage. And really, that’s the whole point.