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It's time to plan that international vacation

We're taking the familiar drive towards LAX under a moonlit sky at 5 a.m. We know the drive, but the start to this trip is slightly different.

I've worked in travel since 1987. While I'd never pretend to have the process dialed in, experience has made many of the challenges inherent in foreign travel less intimidating, and I'm usually confident in my ability to navigate the inevitable disruptions. This trip, though, we have a heightened awareness due to some new protocols and the fact that we'll be far from home while COVID 19 is far from over.

We're thrilled to be going, though, and the timing is perfect. One in our group celebrated a special birthday abroad, and I believe it's important for our business that I'm venturing out on a major trip closer to the front end of the inevitable travel recovery. I hope this account provides some clarity on the changes in the travel experience, and maybe encourages others to consider their own adventure.

Some things are incredibly predictable, traffic near and at LAX is as thick as ever. Even prepaid parking was nearly sold out and the shuttle to the terminal took close to 20 minutes. Airport check-in was packed with long lines, but our experience was fast and pleasant.

My wife's "Wine Lover" face mask brought a smile (we could see it in her eyes, hear it in her voice …) to the American Airlines agent that checked us in, and for some reason nothing was said about our largest bag that was noticeably overweight. We strive to travel light, but we have two days in Barcelona followed by an Avalon River Cruise on the Rhone and Saone rivers in France.

We connected through Miami and the airport was buzzing with activity on a Saturday afternoon. Still we had time to get our boarding pass for our connecting flight to Barcelona. The first new step in our travel experience was to show our Spanish health pass before boarding the international flight. A few days before departure, we had filled out online health pass forms for Spain and France. Both countries required passport and vaccination card downloads. We received emails with a health pass that includes a QR code; Spain sent the pass in about an hour, France took a day or two to deliver. It appears France might sort traveler's requests by departure date. It was surprisingly easy, and you can print the passes or store them on your phone for easy access. This was new to me; I did both.

We arrived in Barcelona about 8:15 a.m. on Sunday. The airport was quiet on this Sunday morning and we moved quickly to the health check station. They used a QR code scanner on our passes and within seconds a green checkmark appears on the screen. Our first experience with a health pass was a breeze. We cleared the health station and passport control, claimed our bags, and got some euros all within half an hour.

Thankfully, after an overnight flight, the hotel allowed us to check in early. They asked for our health pass and we were required to wear a mask in common areas and elevators. No masks required for the restaurant or bar.

Walking the beach boardwalk by 11 a.m., we had a wonderful seafood lunch there and resisted the temptation to take a nap. The hope is staying awake this first day accelerates your acclimation to the nine-hour time change. 

Day two in Barcelona featured a walk to the Sagrada Cathedral. We took a self-guided tour but you still need a reservation. The cathedral is not complete but it's obvious it will be one of the most significant religious buildings in Europe. A stunning experience.

Lunch and the afternoon was spent at the Mercat St. Josep. This is a treat for all the senses. Butchers, bakers, florists, olive oils, produce and gifts are just the start. Plenty of prepared food options and even a couple of bars are interspersed throughout. You will not be disappointed if you take the time to visit this market.

We finished our time in Barcelona with a traditional tapas meal at L'Ostia, a suggestion from the hotel. It was a quaint, modest building, and the food was authentic and delicious. The restaurant is a block or two inland from the tourist-oriented restaurants with water views, it seemed to cater to locals, and they didn't speak much English. Google Translate and a few nuggets barely retained from high school Spanish helped us have a memorable meal.

COVID restrictions in Spain seemed similar to here in Bakersfield. Wear a mask indoors to protect service personnel, but there was little to no appetite for enforcement. By traveling in late October we felt like we had a very local experience in an area that's sure to be overrun with tourists closer to the summer months.

The next morning we took a train from Barcelona to Marseille. The trains are clean, efficient and fast. I love traveling by train in Europe. For this trip, the route mostly hugged the coast of the Mediterranean.

The views were wonderful and I was thrilled to frequently see flamingos in the coastal marshes. The trains aren't for everybody, though. There are many commuters, and the process moves quickly. Waiting areas are not as comfortable as the airport and we had enough luggage to make the self-service part of train travel a bit challenging. For now, make sure you have your health pass handy and remember masks are required.

We boarded the Avalon Poetry II in Port St. Louis du Rhone, France about 3:30 p.m. to start our weeklong trip up the Rhone and Saone rivers. Within 10 minutes of pulling up in front of the vessel, we were in our cabin with bags delivered. Everything was spotless, inviting, and well-engineered. 

If you haven't been on a river cruise, the vessels have a distinct shape and size to fit in the river locks and under the ancient bridges that are an integral part of the itinerary. They still provide an inviting and exciting aura, but they are far more intimate than an ocean cruise.

The French health pass was required to board and once again it felt too easy and simple. Masks were consistently worn by the crew. Passengers could choose whether to wear a mask onboard; most did not.

Masks were required to approach any buffet-style food presentation. On tours, we did not wear masks on the buses. The health pass was required for larger restaurants and indoor cathedral/museum experiences, and masks were often required.

We started our cruise in Port St. Louis and our itinerary included stops in Arles, Avingon, Viviers, Tournon, Vivienne, Lyon, Tournus and St. Jean De Losne. From tiny Arles, to the big city of Lyon, they all were incredibly welcoming. After a long COVID shutdown, and probably because we were the second-to-last sailing of the season, everyone we came across seemed to be happy to be back in the tourism business. And it appeared that at each of our stops business was good and they were ready to serve. If there were business failures during the downtime, it wasn't obvious, we had plenty of options for dining and shopping.

The news cycle seems to show an uneven recovery from the COVID pandemic. We've stopped trying to predict what will happen with travel. What we can say, though, is that the fellow tourists we encountered were happy to be traveling again, and we were well-received by our hosts.

Rules and protocols are constantly changing. We always advocate for using travel professionals, but if you choose to do your own work we advise checking with the State Department, and the equivalent of the State Department for the countries you are visiting. Until COVID surges are totally managed, it is wise to check with our CDC and the CDC equivalent for your destinations.

Finally, a word of advice and encouragement: If current trends hold, the next 18 months should be busy for the travel industry. There is a level of excitement we haven't seen in well over a year. If you're ready to get back on the road, this is a year to book ahead.

Ray Watson is the president of Uniglobe Golden Empire Travel, which was started in 1987 and continues under the same ownership and management, which is 100 percent local. Uniglobe partners with Uniglobe Travel International and with Virtuoso, international leader in vacation sales.