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An empty international departures area of Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport met the Elliott family during their trip home from Nice, France, to Spokane, Washington, on May 17. Photo by Christopher Elliot
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Veteran travel writer experiences COVID-19 impacts here, abroad

Try to imagine LAX, the third-busiest airport in the world, looking like a ghost town.

That was the scene that welcomed Christopher Elliott and his three teens on their return from Europe last week. 

When their flight from Paris arrived in Los Angeles, the Elliotts expected that LAX would be bustling.

“It wasn’t,” Elliott explained on his website Elliott Advocacy (https://www.elliott.org/).  The veteran travel writer and consumer advocate writes weekly columns for several publications.

“We assumed we’d see the usually-frenetic customs processing area. There were banners welcoming us to the United States, but no people.”

Christopher Elliott’s son and daughter stand at the arrivals area at LAX after their nearly 12-hour flight from Paris. LAX is normally teeming with travelers, but the Elliotts found that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the airport into a ghost town. Photo by Christopher Elliott

He compared re-entering the country to being processed at a super-max prison or going into surgery.

“You are greeted by a customs agent with medical mask. You fill out a declaration on where you’ve been and your medical symptoms.”

The 22-hour flight home (11½ hours from Paris to Los Angeles) also had been “very surreal.”

“We went from Paris to L.A. on a plane that can carry 296 people,” Elliott said during a phone call from his temporary home in Spokane, Washington, where the family is quarantined for another week. “There were only 33 people on our flight.  We had a whole section to ourselves.”

This strange journey home was the conclusion to what was supposed to be the family’s last trip before Elliott’s oldest son leaves for college. Because Elliott can work from anywhere and his 13-, 15- and 17-year-olds are schooled online, Elliott often rents a home for several weeks or months so the family can tour an area in depth.

“I had planned a year-long adventure to show the kids the Europe I grew up in,” he wrote in his blog. “I wanted them to hike the Alps with me, to see the Colosseum in Rome, to eat a krapfen at my favorite Kaffeehaus in Vienna. And I could keep writing, and since my kids are home-schooled, they could continue their education while we were abroad.”

Like so many of us, Elliott saw his travel plans fall victim to the COVID-19 pandemic and experienced just how seriously European countries take the meaning of social distancing.

After leaving the United States in January, “we spent a month in Lisbon and Porto and one memorable weekend on the island of Madeira,” Elliott wrote. The next stop was to be Italy, but in late February, “Italy turned into a red zone,” so the family detoured to France where “they were taking the virus seriously.”

This meant that, after settling into an apartment in Nice on the French Riviera, “we couldn’t leave the house except to buy groceries or go to work. You could walk for one hour a day or visit a relative. Both residents and visitors had to carry an “attestation” — a signed affidavit that you fill out online that you were on the way to work. The police did stop you. You had to put your address on the form and you couldn’t be more than 1 kilometer away or they would tell you to go home. Curfew was 8 p.m.”

Other European countries are even more strict, Elliott said.

In the United States, “we have voluntary self-quarantine. We are unmonitored. In Poland, you have to sign in on an app, take selfies twice a day with your location and record your temperature, too. If you don’t report within a certain amount of time, you get fined.”

With travel curtailed for an unknown duration, Elliott, who sold the family car and home to stay long-term in Europe, admits that the future is a question mark.

“This is the first time I’ve been in a situation when I don’t know what comes next,” he said. “I usually plan months in advance.”

As far as Elliott’s work goes, “there’s a really great story to be written — the story of recovery” he said. “The travel industry is going to come back but how long is it going to take? I’m thinking of maybe going to a tourist town and seeing how it happens.”

All in all, Elliott feels optimistic about the future.

“I think there’ll be a happy ending,” he said.

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