Being stuck stranded abroad with two dogs during Covid has been an unexpected challenge. Pet owners didn’t see it coming – that airlines would restrict pets from being transported in their cargo holds. This is the first time I’ve ever been restricted during my travel experiences. I was blindsided and I’m writing this to vent about my experiences.

Over the recent years, prior to Covid, I was fortunate to be able to travel relatively unrestrained – to visit new beautiful places, to spend time (and live with) with my girlfriend in El Salvador and always to return home to visit my family in the United States.

When Covid struck, everything changed. Aside from the fact that I no longer trust any politician in the world, and hate the mainstream news, myself and many other pet owners have been stifled in our ability to travel with our beloved dogs. These “civil servants” have been abusing their authority to accumulate power and wealth while the rest of us suffer financially and emotionally. End rant.

It’s been a challenge. Having limited freedom in this new world of Covid has been hell at times. When a country in Latin America locks everything down…they don’t mess around. Police here are serious.

But it hasn’t all been bad – after all, I live with my girlfriend in El Salvador. It’s not like I’m stranded at a hostel or a hotel and hemorrhaging money like some other stranded travelers. My situation is more sustainable than others’ to some degree, which I’ll discuss more in a moment.

Stuck Abroad With Two Dogs

Dogs Stranded Abroad Covid
My two fur-babies: Snowbird is on the left, with the black nose. Tornado is on the right, with the red nose.

I adopted my two dogs during my residency here in El Salvador, before the Coronavirus plagued the planet. Their names are Tornado and Snowbird. It was January 2020 and they were still tiny when I “adopted” them, with their eyes still sealed shut. I can remember them waddling around on their bellies while they blindly navigated the room and occasionally bumped into each other. Sometimes we fed them with little baby bottles. Adorable, right?

Feeding Baby Puppy Litter Bottle

Unbeknownst to me, these little fur-balls would become my best friends during Covid19. Covid hadn’t even hit the United States yet. It wasn’t declared to be a pandemic by that point and nobody knew it would eventually spread globally. My pups were less than a week old. I watched them grow from little floor wigglers to energized curious white puff balls that get into everything. It was an great experience.

But there was an unsuspecting trap materializing behind the scenes that I never would have suspected. I’ve always flown without restriction for the most part. I knew that dogs could travel on flights in the cargo hold, so I didn’t think much of it. Surely they could travel with me, right?

Coronavirus 2020 Strikes

When Covid was heating up, I wasn’t even thinking about traveling. The lockdowns were worrying, but mostly due to fear of contracting the virus itself. Politicians were promising to close everything “for only two weeks, to flatten the curve“. Uh huh – now we know. But it was no big deal at the time.

I imagined that we would just travel after the lockdowns. After all, I was relatively comfortable living in El Salvador with my girlfriend and her family. No biggie.

Even when the first Coronavirus wave finally slowed down 7 months later, and everything started returning to normal in El Salvador, I still didn’t look into flights. I figured travelers worldwide would be scurrying to jump on flights, and I wasn’t really thrilled to hop on the bandwagon in those hell’ish travel conditions: jam-packed flights, hysterical travelers, mask nazis, tubs of alcohol gel to bathe in…not exactly a relaxing journey.

I figured I’d wait for things to cool down and to let the dust settle.

So I waited a bit. It was still August. I figured that as long as I could get home for Christmas, everything would work out just fine. El Salvador’s international airport reopened in September. Great! There was plenty of time for things to return to normal before the holidays.

Holiday Travel Planning Begins

In November I started searching for flights to return home for Christmas. There were numerous flights with multiple airlines – perfect! “I’ve got this”, I overconfidently thought. Flights were running daily. Early December is a good time to travel – not too close to Christmas and not too near after Thanksgiving.

“Oh yeah, I need to buy a couple crates for my dogs”.

Plastic travel kennels are required for pets to travel in cargo holds on flights. It was an unexpected cost for me, but not much of an issue. Fortunately, I’m a member of Expats of El Salvador, an awesome Facebook group where foreigners in El Salvador exchange advice and sometimes help each other out. I found some kennels on the Facebook group, bought two kennels, and also made a couple new friends in the process. Then I got both of my dogs vaccinated.

After all of that, I just needed to finalize purchasing a flight.

Purchasing international flights is nothing new to me. I’ve bought flights dozens of times in the past. I’ve backpacked all of Central America, written about it, bought the t-shirt and…never saw the brick wall in front of me that I was heading for.

Then it hit me.

Pet Travel Restrictions During Covid

In my relative optimism and lackadaisical stupor, I never realized that airlines stopped permitting dogs to travel during and after the Coronavirus pandemic (before we knew of a second wave). When I started researching pet travel, I found endless articles about pet restrictions – all of which had happened months ago, before I even knew to look into it.

“Due to changing flight schedules in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Delta Cargo will temporarily embargo all PET shipments effective April 1, 2020, until further notice.”

Delta – Shipping Your Pet

This happened back in April. Ouch. As a new pet owner, I totally missed the memo.

Here’s American Airlines Restriction:

American Airlines Pet Covid Policy

I called American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines and Spirit. No luck. They all stopped permitting pets in the cargo hold.

I felt like I was blindsided. They sunk my battleship.

After all, I have never travelled with dogs. These are the first dogs I’ve had in my adult life. And I definitely never considered pet-specific restrictions during Covid. And while Americans can freely travel to the United States right now (although that’s changing) – dogs absolutely cannot travel freely. I had missed this news altogether. I never imagined that airlines could or would change restrictions specifically for pets.

Here I was, this experienced traveler, fearless to hop on a flight to god knows where and now I wasn’t able to travel unless I sacrificed my new buddies – the two little furballs that I love so much.

The fine print: Sure, you can bring a service pet with you, one animal, if the pet is small enough to fit in a small crate under the seat in front of you. Unfortunately, my dogs are mid-size. And I have two. Note: These rules even changed on December 2nd – now you can only bring one dog. Cats and birds are no longer allowed. Some news even joked about the new restrictions. It seems that “emotional support” animals, aside from dogs, are finished in terms of qualifying as “service” animals.

The US Embassy Was Not Helpful

It was frustrating. I knew that the typically fee to place dogs in cargo is between $150 to $200 per dog. It’s pricey considering that I have two dogs, but I was willing to cover that.

Given my lack of options, I called the US Embassy in El Salvador. Maybe they had a trick up their sleave (I hoped). While speaking to a representative at the US Embassy, I was told to contact United Airlines and ask specifically for a “humanitarian flight”. Interesting. Sounds like something that could work. But I knew that “animals” don’t exactly fit with “human-itarian” services. Hmmm.

I contacted United Airlines and asked for a humanitarian flight. I waited on hold. I waited some more on hold. Then, no dice. The woman explained that dogs…again…were not allowed in the cargo hold.

That was essentially the end of the rope for me. I was defeated.

Not Without My Doggers

So I’m still in El Salvador. Yep. That’s what happened.

It was somewhat of an uncomfortable and rude awakening to go through that experience. Having two dogs, my responsibilities have shifted. Now I know that when I’m traveling I need to be very certain that I can accommodate the needs of my two fur-babies.

Certainly I have the option to leave them here with my girlfriend – but that’s complicated in other ways. I’ll be gone for a while. I probably can’t return anytime soon – now that the second wave of Coronavirus is taking hold, travel (for humans too) is being restricted again. Countries are going into lock-down mode and nobody knows when airlines will lift their restrictions. It could take most of 2021. Nobody knows except the dick-head politicians that get paychecks regardless of their starving populations.

I’m stuck. I can’t say that we’re stranded because we’re ok. But stuck – yes. My pooches can’t go so I won’t go.

The Biggest Downside: Missing Family

Last year, in 2019, I made a conscious decision to stay in El Salvador with my Salvadoran girlfriend Stephanie. I sacrificed Christmas with my family in the United States, assuming I’d be able to travel back at any point the following year, this year (2020). Well, now we know that Covid would crush all of 2020.

So, this is the second Christmas I’m missing with my family in the United States. It sucks. Covid has really caught me off guard and put me into an unusual situation. It’s happening to everyone in the world to some degree – I’m not the only one.

The Silver Lining

I love Central America and the tropical climate that El Salvador offers. I cannot complain about the warm temperature here. Many people in the United States are facing frigid temperatures and blizzards. I feel guilty for that – I should be suffering through that too, with my family in the United States. But I do appreciate that I’m not freezing while I’m stuck abroad.

Also, being a software developer has permitted me to work while I’m stuck abroad. I write code in multiple programming languages and I can do my work with only a computer and a WiFi connection.

But let’s slow down. Some people think that software developers make a lot of money – some do. But it’s very different living internationally, during the Covid recession and trying to run a small freelance business that serves clients in the United States while living overseas in a developing country. Power outages and poor WiFi connections are common here. My clients are suffering due to lower sales, or no sales. Coronavirus is affecting us all in some way. Ugg.

But I’m grateful for what I have. My girlfriend and her mother are supportive. We’re healthy. At least we’re getting by. We were even able to help 24 Salvadoran families with food this year, much thanks to the kind souls that contributed to our fundraising effort.

Being Stranded Abroad With Pets

Adorable Dog Guilt

I can’t speak for other travelers, although I’ve read some of their stories of being stranded abroad. My heart goes out to travelers that have been stuck in less hospitable situations. Some people have had to pay nearly $40,000 to get their pet home. Yikes. I can’t imagine.

Check out these tragic stories from October 2020 – stories of dogs and cats getting stuck abroad after their owners had to make very difficult decisions. In another story, an Italian woman named Giorgia decided to stay with her dog after they got stuck from Covid during a vacation.

For me, I choose to count my blessings. At least we’re safe, we have food, we can earn enough money to stay afloat, and we live in a place surrounded by natural beauty.

Now A New Covid Strain?

If you didn’t know, a new Covid strain is here. It’s still in it’s early stages, so not much is known about it. However, this new strain of Coronavirus is almost certainly going to extend travel restrictions. Currently this new strain has been found only in the UK and Africa.

Fortunately, we’re all alright for now.

My heart goes out to families that have had to leave their pets behind during Covid, or have suffered from the challenging circumstances of traveling under Coronavirus restrictions.