We intentionally avoided returning to the US in March when things were chaotic. We wanted to wait until our originally planned travel date on May 3 in hopes of having a gentler time with reentry. That seems to have been the right decision since our return trip included zero chaos.
It was interesting for us to realize how many of our flight options were canceled by the time we were ready to travel. Our first goal was to fly out of either of the two regional airports near San Miguel de Allende where we were staying, without having to return to the big international airport in Mexico City. We wanted to avoid that location altogether and especially having a long layover there, because it’s a busy airport in a city where COVID numbers are high. But our originally scheduled flight directly from the BJX airport into Oakland California was canceled. And our backup flight option was also canceled. And our backup to our backup flight option was also canceled. But there were still two flight options out of our preferred regional airport flying directly to the US that would not require flying back through Mexico City so we would have been happy to take either one of those.
On May 3, we had a friend in San Miguel pick us up at 5:00 am to drive us to the BJX airport. The drive was smooth and there were zero issues. It was early and the sun had not risen yet, so we only passed a couple of cars along the way. We got to the BJX airport around 6:15 and thanked our buddy. He said he hoped we could come over to visit his family when we return to San Miguel, which is one of those normal sounding things we couldn’t do during this trip. Just the idea of that seemed to be a good replacement for a hug goodbye, so we thanked him and said we hope to see him again very soon.
The airport was very quiet when we arrived since it only has two flights per day flying to the US, and another five flights per day to other cities in Mexico. There was a national screening process for all passengers by order of Mexico’s national Secretary of Health. We had to verify that we had no COVID symptoms and had not been in contact with anyone who had COVID. All airport staff, airline staff, and passengers were wearing masks.
Once we boarded our flight we both thought it seemed pretty full, but it was a small plane with only 76 seats. Every row of four seats in the main cabin had at least one person and most rows had two people. There was one person in the row behind us, but no one in the row in front of us. The flight crew all wore masks for the entire flight, which was only about two and a half hours, and our fellow passengers also seemed to keep their masks on for the entire flight.
Welcome Back to the US
When we landed in Houston we were prepared for a fairly serious reentry process, and since that’s not at all what happened there were a lot of awkward moments. The gate agent where we deplaned was cheerfully greeting passengers and not wearing a mask or keeping any distance. We walked directly from our gate over to customs and immigration, and the agents we saw were not wearing masks. The very chatty US customs officer we interacted with had lots of friendly comments to make and a few jokes to tell while he checked our passports. Our faces were less than 2 feet from his unmasked face while we stood at his counter. We were glad we did not have to remove our masks to chat with him or to get checked back into the US.
While the customs officer was telling jokes and flipping through our passports I started looking around for hand sanitizer, and it occurred to me that was the first counter I’ve stood at for any reason in probably three months where there was no hand sanitizer. As soon as he gave us back our passports we wiped them down with our disinfecting wipes and gave ourselves a dose of our hand sanitizer after we put our passports away.
Reentry after international travel during COVID was weirdly simple for us. Not only were the airport and customs staff we saw not wearing masks, no one questioned us at all about where we had been, where we were going, or wether we had been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID. When we were in Mexico traveling from San Cristobal to San Miguel we got three temperature checks in one day, and we also got questioned at every point about whether we had any COVID symptoms or if we had been in contact with anyone who had tested positive for COVID. But we entered the US at the Houston airport with zero health checks, zero questions, and zero instructions.
Welcome to Texas
We had a long layover with about 6 hours to spend in the Houston airport so we had time to take some walks and look around. Most restaurants and shops we saw were closed, but some were open and operating normally. The restaurant and store staff we saw were not wearing masks. At one point we went to get snacks at a self service shop where you pick your own items and buy them at a kiosk without help from a sales person. But there was an employee there to keep an eye on the place who decided to approach us without a mask just to tell a joke while I swiped my credit card. The guy was close enough for a hug, cracking himself up, and then followed us for a bit when we walked away. He sure was friendly! Ack!!
Since both of our flights were not serving meals and we had a very long day of travel, we were hoping to get a hot meal before our second flight. As luck would have it the restaurant across from our gate was open and serving. Every chair at the restaurant had an iPad for ordering, so we could submit our order without interacting with anyone. After about 4 hours by the gate we were ready for some food and drinks. We sat down by ourselves, ordered, swiped a credit card, and about five minutes later someone walked over with our drinks. This guy squeezed between us and brushed up against both of us to put the drinks down in front of us. He was very friendly! And of course he was not wearing a mask. Then about 10 minutes later two guys walked up to deliver our food. One brushed up against me, and the other brushed up against Alison. I was holding my breath while the one guy was leaning over me to put my plate down on the table. Ack!!
We definitely received the full “Welcome to Texas” hospitality thing at the airport that day, which we can’t say we appreciated on this visit.
Welcome to California
We were happy to find that our flight to San Francisco was taking off as scheduled, since we had been warned it might be canceled and consolidated with another flight four hours later. The plane appeared to be more empty than our first flight, but it was a bigger Airbus plane with 146 seats. We had three seats to ourselves for the four and a half hour flight, with no one across the aisle from us, and no one in the rows in front of us or behind us. Hallelujah! That’s what makes a comfortable flight for us in the COVID era.
The flight crew all wore masks and many passengers wore masks for the entire flight. But we noticed a fair amount of passengers without masks after take-off. When we got off the plane plenty of our fellow passengers were not wearing masks. We also noticed there was no gate agent there to greet the flight when we landed, which was fine. We walked over to baggage claim and picked up our checked bags pretty quickly. There was one other flight also coming in so there were people spaced out around two baggage carousels at the time. But we didn’t see any airport staff there either. We actually went from our plane to the curb without seeing a single staff person at the airport. And with that we were turned loose in the US after visiting 2 countries and 3 airports, without anyone in the US asking us anything relating to COVID, or giving us any recommendations for isolation. Talk about an easy reentry process! Too easy?
After we walked out to the curb at the San Francisco airport we hired a car to take us to a hotel for our first night so we could take hot showers and sleep in a big fluffy bed. After our 17 hours of travel we were anxious to scrub off all the travel heebie-jeebies and change into clean clothes. The guy at the DoubleTree Hotel front desk was wearing a mask when he greeted us, and he clarified that there were very few staff at the hotel and their restaurant was closed. So if we need anything we were pretty much on our own. No problem. We ordered dinner from a local Japanese restaurant because Alison had been craving sushi for weeks, and they delivered the food to me in the lobby in about 30 minutes. And the food was fabulous! The guy I met for the handoff wore a mask and so did I. No problem.
The next day the weather in San Fransisco was amazing so we wanted to walk to a restaurant to pick up lunch takeout for ourselves before checking out of our hotel, but there wasn’t a single restaurant within a 5 mile radius that was open. No problem. We still had a ton of snacks with us so we weren’t going to starve, and we were ready to head over to our Airbnb at that point anyway. We had been planning to use the local mass transit system, BART, which would have cost about $7 each. But that would required us to take a car from our hotel to the closest station about 15 minutes away, then ride the train for about 90 minutes, and then we would need another car from the last train station to take us about 20 minutes to our Airbnb. At that point we were tired of traveling and we wanted to keep things simple, so we decided to just hire a car to take us from the hotel directly to the Airbnb. The ride took about 90 minutes and cost $81. And it was worth it. Welcome to the US!
Now We Really Can Relax
We’ve had a lot of fellow nomad friends asking us to let them know what the process was like when we came back to the US. We all know it was super chaotic to travel back in March, and we all assumed it would be more relaxed now in early May. But Alison and I were certainly not expecting it to be as casual as it was. So for our nomad friends who are still planning to return to the US because of travel restrictions in the COVID era, here’s the bottom line – from what we saw, US citizens really do not need to worry about a complicated reentry process or any kind of strict quarantine measures. At least for travelers coming through Texas and California, the whole process was very easy.
Here in northern California, the transit system trains are running. Lyft and Uber cars are easy to find. The parks are open, though the park facilities around us like swings and basketball courts are off limits. Grocery stores are open. Restaurants are selling food for takeout and delivery. It seems like we can do whatever we want, as long as we follow the local rules about wearing masks in public places. Social distancing is happening everywhere we look. We have been at our new Airbnb for 5 days now, and we are very happy to be able to take walks throughout the day, always wearing masks.
Food is the tricky part where we are. Grocery stores are strict here, and they have rules about specific types of masks you have to wear in order to enter. We won’t be going out to any stores ourselves during our first 2 weeks here since we are choosing to have a self-imposed period of strict isolation after our long international travel day. Lucky for us we really don’t need anything since my sister stocked our apartment with tons of food and supplies to last for our 2 weeks of strict isolation.
But there are some restaurants that we are excited to try. After cooking for ourselves for the last few months in Mexico, and returning to the US for the first time in more than 7 months, we are pretty excited to try some local restaurant food. To get restaurant food we have to order online or by phone, and then the restaurant staff hand bags of food off at the door to delivery people or customers who are picking up. We learned really quickly that getting food delivered can be complicated since people picking up have to wait outside, and wait times can be long. Depending on when you order, delivery people sometimes are being asked to wait a very long time for a pickup. The other night we were craving Mexican food so we ordered dinner at 5:30 pm, the estimated delivery time was 45 minutes, and the delivery person wasn’t handed food until 7:45 pm, which meant they dropped it at the door here around 8 pm. But hey, the food was excellent!
This all makes sense and seems to fit with being back in the US. These are simple problems to have. We are healthy, and very lucky to have nothing at all to complain about right now. We just need to wear our masks and be patient. No problem.