Should You Come Home To The Virus-Embattled U.S. Now, Stay Abroad – Or Even Leave?

My award booking partner Steve Belkin and his wife have been traveling abroad for a month, most recently in Mozambique. (He’s been teaching scuba diving.) They faced the question whether to return home to the virus as it spreads in the U.S.,

Which would be safer — my position to “duck and cover” in the remote beach hamlet of Tofo, where there are zero confirmed cases, but almost zero medical facilities? Or Julie’s position of hightailing it back to the United States amid escalating confirmed cases, but also first-world medical facilities?

Steve laid out the case to his wife: “quarantined in Tofo [where there are few outsiders, and a young population, in] 85-degree weather, a $300-per-month beach hut overlooking beautiful crescent beach, $9 fresh fish dinners, with more palm trees clustered together than people? We could hold out for months with the Mozambique cost of living” while noting it would take them five flights to make it home. His wife, an ophthalmologist, felt an obligation to be near family and patients.

He knew if they left they wouldn’t be able to return for some time. If they didn’t leave soon they might not be able to return. Given hours to decide and neither one willing to concede, they decided to go separate ways for now.

Happy endings are reassuring and sad endings are regrettable, but for us, the coronavirus has created a perplexing utter lack of an ending. A marriage suddenly in suspended animation and a speedy resolution squarely out of our control, likely for months.

Steve can’t be stuck at home. I first corresponded with him when he was in Northern Thailand, working as a labor broker hiring disabled Thai rice farmers to travel back and forth between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mail each day – crediting flights to United for 1K status after 10 days, or to Aeroplan where miles could be redeemed for any business class seat on the airline. His plan worked until the DEA stepped in (after local agents first became clients to have their own ‘local’ 1K customers with international upgrades at their disposal). Having locals fly 5 times a day out of the opium capital of the world without any checked luggage set off every alarm in the drug warrior system.

Le Meridien Chiang Rai

I don’t think I could make that same choice – I couldn’t be away from my family even if it meant giving everything else up. If things go south there quickly, though, he’s still got an opportunity – on March 30th the U.S. government is providing a commercial flight from Maputo back to the States.

James Post, on the other hand, thinks the U.S. elderly should escape the U.S. to Thailand, although his plan is postponed while the country is in a partial lockdown. In his view Thailand is responding to the virus better than the U.S., it isn’t nearly as widespread, it’s an affordable place to ‘wait it out.’

Given that the US government is strongly recommending against travel I suspect there will be a lot of criticism of this plan. While there are many places safer right now than the U.S. I’m torn about Thailand compared to some of those. Infections there may be far greater than reported. And while there’s advanced health care in Bangkok, more remote and poorer regions of the country less so. I shared my criticisms with Post and he pushes back that hospitals in Chiang Mai are excellent as well. I don’t think that really rebuts the concern.

Taiwan, which has been among the most effective at containing the virus, has even suspended transit passengers March 24 – April 7. Singapore has done so as well. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to even make the choice of come home or leave. At least for awhile that decision is being made for us.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Friends who were visiting Rabat faced a vaguely similar choice – albeit staying in a very comfortable apartment in a much more modern setting, in a locked-down nation where the government is taking the virus more seriously than our national leadership is. They decided to stay in place for now. Personally, I’d get back home if I were in your friend Steve’s situation, since the virus very possibly will spread to where he is and if it does he’s screwed. In addition, I couldn’t imagine being separated from my wife under these circumstance. But I can see how this is a personal decision for everyone. I wish him and his family the best – and the best to your and your family, Gary, and to everyone who reads VFTW.

  2. You are right to be very doubtful about that piece on Thailand. I doubt you could find a single expat to agree with any of it, other than those with a vested interest in doing so. It’s dangerously misleading.
    There could be a grain of truth in it for those in an isolated rural retreat, but certainly not for urban areas

  3. “…working as a labor broker hiring disabled Thai rice farmers to travel back and forth between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mail each day – crediting flights to United for 1K status after 10 days…”

    Tangential, but…can somebody explain what the hell this means? Is he paying people to take flights and accruing the status himself? I am so confused, that seems like United would kibosh that very quickly.

  4. @Gary – How does paying other people to become elites and/or get miles help a third party unless the person paying sold the miles?

  5. @Steve Regarding the labor broker bit. Yeah, I’m very confused about what this means as well. It sounds quite shady.

  6. Daughter is a grad student in central London. Her university suspended classes last week, and debated whether to remain or leave, as she could continue to utilise the still-open uni library.. I told her I was skeptical of the UK’s ability to maintain supply chains, as the links are fragile. She thought about it an finally agreed to return to the US–for now–an continue her online work, ordering supplemental texts from Amazon.

    Just received a call from her an hour ago, she landed in Dulles (loved the UA Polaris seat, “best flight ever”) and, sad as she is to leave London behind, she is relieved as the UK has gone into full lockdown, and the uni library, her main reason to stay, has closed.

    So in this type of situation one has to consider ALL variables and assume that a lockdown may happen, and if so, what location offers the best resources?

  7. “Steve Belkin realized that he could hire people to fly for him, taking control of their frequent flier accounts” This sounds really shady. If he used the miles for anyone but the person actually flying, then he was violating the terms by being a mileage broker. If they flew under his name, it was a false identity situation. I wonder if stuff like that is what got OMAAT banned from MileagePlus.

  8. I’m faced with the stay or go dilemma as well. I’m Brazilian/US dual citizen and took a job in Sales in NY over a year ago and moved from Sao Paulo. Work in person is on hold until further notice and all my local friends have gone ‘home’ to wherever there families are in the US, mostly around the northeast, FL and CA.

    I’m now faced with the option of staying alone in my small apt in Manhattan or going back home and staying with family in (heavily infected) Sao Paulo, after the suggested 2 weeks of self isolation post-flight. Have awards booked on DL (one of the last remaining JFK-GRU services) on a few different dates but worry about the US ‘turning back on’ and being stuck without flights down south. Don’t want to risk work but seems that could be at risk anyway….

  9. As an “elderly” American and a frequent traveler to Thailand all I can say is that the @Post article is dangerously wrong.
    In Bangkok myself from early Jan to early Feb – there was NO health inspection, etc. of Chinese people coming from known hot spot areas. Masks were plentiful and reasonably priced (I know b/c I was using them for the severe air pollution as were many others). As soon as it became clear mid Jan what was going on – no masks were available ANYWHERE (and still aren’t except for some pitiful efforts by the gov to hand out a few for a somewhat reasonable price). Massive amounts were purchased by some Chinese to send back to China, some rich/connected Thai’s stockpiled massive amounts for ??? purposes. Arrests have been made for masks being sold as new that were used and “washed” and re-packaged as new, I suspect the tip of the iceberg.
    Data on reporting is not reliable (more so than many other places), testing – if available – costs more than many Thai’s make in a month or more and if you are a foreigner, well you pay a LOT more. Thais’s were told by their doctors a long time ago not to believe the statistics.
    The government person he “applauds”, well read some of the truth for yourself – let’s just say his report is FAR from the truth.
    NO SANITIZING is available most places (with an exception for some expensive malls which are now mostly closed) – including at the forced fingerprints at immigration (at least until last week don’t know now) which is touched by thousands – despite multiple requests. General sanitation in Thailand is far from what we know in the US (street stalls commonly wash their dishes in cold water in a basin – which works well under most situations, but….)
    One the plus side – Thais are used to wearing masks and have been for a long time (even children, some schools required it due to the air pollution), cases are now being reported and the increase is alarming. Many venues were suddenly shut down, but that led to thousands of people crowding bus stations to get home (many to other countries as they were low paid workers and now have no source of income) before the borders were shut. Probably some of them are infected and will spread covid 19 to their own countries 🙁
    Yes, there is excellent medical care available if you are in the right place, can afford it, and it is not overrun, but
    As bad as our system is in the US I feel I made the right decision to stay here rather than in Bangkok 😉

  10. I am currently in New Zealand under quarantine with a friend and the country’s about to go into total lockdown. Even though I could try and get out on the 30th the last flight between the USA and New Zealand would have to be running, all airports and borders open, and my connecting flight to MT running also. Given the complete mess the USA is in with no end in sight I decided to ride this one out here.

  11. Given Trump’s desire to roll back all or some his Covid-19 guidelines as soon as next week, I wouldn’t suggest returning here. Thailand is not the best choice either. The military government is not very trustworthy. Its idea of helping the people is a 3% reduction in the price of public utilities.

  12. China Southern brought the A380s out of hibernation to operate CAN-LAX CZ327/8 in response to surging demand out of the US as many fears the Trump administration isn’t handling the pandemic effectively.

    Some flights record 0 outbound passengers and over 400 inbound.

  13. I agree that the idea of traveling to a foreign country to shelter from Covid 19 is foolish. Both the risk in transit, plus the lack of local connections/knowledge/support if you get sick make that a poor decision.

    In general, I’d suggest people shelter in place, especially now with the increasing travel restrictions. Stay in New Zealand if you are there, or Morocco, or even Mozambique. We all saw the mad crowds from the European lockdown- there’s too much risk that you’ll be quarantined with other sick people, infected in transit, end up in an untenable situation.

    I was in the US at the beginning of March, so faced the question in reverse. It was kind of a no-brainer, though- despite the risks from traveling, I flew back to Singapore to be with family and in a country that seems to have a much better handle on covid prevention. I was never happier to see Changi than on that trip, and certainly feel I made the right decision now.

    There’s a very interesting guest article over on OMAAT from an expat returning to Beijing recently- seems like a smart move to me.

  14. I’m in Bangkok right now and have no plans to leave. I feel I’m far better off holed up here than in multiple international airports to get to the US.

    @Paolo is 100% correct in that you should be “very doubtful about that piece on Thailand.” The government here can be trusted every bit as the government of China – i.e. not a single iota.

  15. Currently in Bangkok. There are masks and sanitizer everywhere. Always puzzling to me that many present themselves as knowledgeable and proceed to bad mouth Thailand.
    Everything except grocery and medicine currently closed by decree. Not so much fun lately.

  16. @Dalo – I wouldn’t be surprised if the masks and sanitizer are as legitimate as the Coach purses being sold in Patpong night market.

  17. 2 points about masks/sanitizer in Bangkok:
    * there was no supply at all between the end of January and mid-March ( I left on the 14th). None.
    * millions of masks were seized by police. They were going to be sent to China ( following a tip-off about a meeting between a ‘businessman’ and a staffer of a government minister ( the minister in question has an extremely colourful past, having served several years in prison in Australia for conspiracy to import heroin).
    One hopes that the masks in circulation now are pristine; the other recent scandal re masks involved someone buying millions of used ones from the hospital trash, washing and ironing them, for sale as new. Almost unbelievable.
    It’s sad to see the cases skyrocket ( almost 1,000 as of today, across 46 provinces). I hope it can be contained. Thailand seems to take hit after hit after hit…they deserve better.

  18. “Or Julie’s position of hightailing it back to the United States amid escalating confirmed cases, but also first-world medical facilities?”

    AHAHAHAHAHA people still think the USA has first-world medical facilities at a time when hospitals are scrambling to get basic supplies like masks, sanitizer, etc? When employees are making makeshift masks?

    Stay in Africa, you’re safer there.

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