When your phone rings at 2:15 a.m., it’s a safe bet the news isn’t good. Turns out the odds are even better when you’re an American traveling overseas amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The voice on the other end was our daughter, wanting to make sure my wife and I had heard that “President Trump just banned all travel from Europe!” No, we had not heard that, because we were sound asleep in the rented Paris apartment where we had been staying the week, intending to return to New York on Saturday.
Now, all at once, our plans threatened to be upended. We clicked on the TV and checked Twitter. It did, in fact, appear that the president was putting a sweeping ban in place, starting midnight Friday.
I jumped online and frantically tried to change our Saturday flight to something sooner, but our attempts to rebook or cancel would not go through. We called the customer service number and were told the wait time to speak to a representative was four hours.
Worried about missing what seemed to be a looming deadline to get back home, we started looking for new tickets — without having canceled the old ones. It was immediately obvious that, less than an hour after Mr. Trump’s pronouncement, swarms of other anxious travelers were trying to do the same thing. We’d click on an airfare, only to find it was “no longer available.” It was like trying to catch a firefly that hovered before you for a moment and then winked out before you could grab it.
What was left were increasingly oddball flights — 31-hour treks on airlines we’d never heard of — and a smattering of very expensive ones. Same-day economy tickets from Paris to New York appeared for thousands of dollars apiece. Because my credit card’s travel benefit has a 24-hour cancellation policy, I took the plunge and used it to buy two basic one-way tickets that, combined, cost more than $5,000. We rationalized the cost by figuring if we were eventually able to get a better deal by changing our original tickets, we could still get our money back for these new ones.
No sooner did I hit the “purchase” button than an update appeared on CNN: President Trump’s travel ban did not cover Americans in Europe after all, only foreign nationals. Whipsawed, we scrambled to cancel the tickets we had just bought — and quickly found it impossible. Cancellation options online were either unavailable or did not work, and the airline’s wait time for callers was now up to six hours. And my credit card customer service line played music for two hours before disconnecting.
We decided on one last play: Get to the airport and try to cancel, in person, through a ticket agent. We packed up, assuming that if our scheme didn’t work, we’d have to decide on the spot whether to take the flight and be done with it. A 45-minute Uber ride later, we were at Charles de Gaulle Airport, staring at an impossibly long line of passengers beseeching harried ticket agents for help. It was obvious that in the hours it would take to finally reach the customer service counter, our flight would have already left.
We debated what to do. Looking around at the growing chaos that seemed destined to intensify in the coming days, we swallowed hard and pulled out our gold-plated economy tickets. The agent who checked our bags said we were not alone, explaining that he had just heard from a man who had gone online earlier that morning and paid “$20,000 for economy tickets” and was now trying to cancel them. The agent did not know if the passenger was successful.
Fortified with that tale of someone else’s woe, we boarded the flight to New York, joining other frazzled Americans, wiping down seat armrests with sanitizer and wondering if being home would really be any safer than staying away.
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