Travel Planning in the Time of Covid-19

A whirlwind ending to our overseas travel

March 2020

Filed under: thailand

Between mid-February and mid-March we altered our travel plans frequently as the news and reaction to COVID-19 changed on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis. To give you an idea of what it was like to be abroad and traveling during this time, here’s a rough timeline of our unexpected roller coaster ride.

February 17ish - Zanzibar, Tanzania

Singapore has 89 cases. Maybe post-India we should go somewhere else? On our shortlist is Israel, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. After a couple weeks there, we will resume our planned itinerary and continue to Thailand to meet up with a couple friends.

February 19 - leaving Zanzibar, Tanzania for Bangalore, India

In preparation for questions from Indian immigration, let’s choose a post-India country. Israel looks good, has amazing food, and has a bunch of flights to Asia.

February 20 - Bangalore, India

Israel has banned travelers from Thailand and Singapore and may be considering stopping flights to Thailand. Maybe Israel isn’t the best place to go if we want to go to Thailand afterwards. We talked to our Thailand trip friends, they are still in.

February 27 - Mysore, India

Israel seems like an awful place to be if they close down locations which attract crowds, AKA everywhere we would want to go. Singapore is actually handling their cases well. Forget Israel, let’s go to Singapore and then Thailand.

Our British homestay host teases us when we discuss coronavirus. Generally he teases us a lot about being American. A sign of the times.

March 4 - Delhi, India

Friends agree to cancel their flights to Thailand since they go through Japan. It sucks that they have to cancel, but we’re now free to go anywhere in the world!

March 5 - Delhi, India

Let’s avoid the countries that are sticking their heads in the sand and pretending that COVID-19 doesn’t exist in their countries (looking at you Indonesia and Cambodia). The shortlist is now Singapore, Vietnam, and New Zealand.

March 6 - Agra, India

Decision made! We will go to Singapore until the end of March and then go to New Zealand to campervan around for a month! What better place could there be than in the wilderness of sparsely populated New Zealand? It will be expensive and we will need to buy some warmer clothes.

We visit the Taj Mahal. About a third of the tourists are wearing masks. On the way back to the homestay, a few locals shout "corona" at us. The manager of our homestay tells us that yesterday an Italian tourist was hospitalized in Agra with coronavirus.

March 9 - Jaipur, India

Actually Singapore is really expensive, especially this close to travel dates. Let’s go to Thailand and then to New Zealand. We actually purchase plane tickets for March 20 (the day our Indian visa expires) from Delhi to Bangkok. We also kind of start looking at cheap Indian pants to bulk up our wardrobe.

March 13 - Jodhpur, India

Our flight for March 20 is cancelled and the airline rebooks us for March 21. That won’t work, since our visa expires on the 20th. We spend a long time on hold with the airline, even resorting to complaining on Twitter, and eventually succeed at changing our flight to the 19th.

March 14 - Jaisalmer, India

Our flight for the 19th is cancelled and this time they don’t even bother rebooking us. We look at the airline’s available options and they are all pretty awful - long layovers that push us close to our visa expiration date. We request a refund and book a flight with a different airline on the 19th. It is not a direct flight, but we decide to take the chance. New Zealand announces all international travelers must self-isolate for 14 days after arriving in New Zealand. Does traveling around in a campervan count as self-isolating? We’re willing to find out.

March 16 - Jaisalmer, India

The Indian government closes the Taj Mahal to tourists. We ride camels in the desert in northwest India. We discuss our travel plans with some European travelers over a campfire, who plan to stay for two weeks in the beachy area of Goa while waiting for some of the craziness in Europe to calm down.

March 18 - Delhi, India

Our friend Priscilla's flight gets cancelled. Her rebooked flight is diverted to Newark and delayed 12 hours.

We go to see the Lotus Temple, but the inside is closed due to covid-19.

After Priscilla leaves, we sit around and read for a while, and grab dinner close by. We stop by the Indian equivalent of 7-Eleven to buy some snacks for our day of travel.

March 19 - Delhi, India

We are so tired of India that after checking out of our Airbnb at 11 am we grab our last authentic lassi from the corner dairy and then take an Uber to the airport, even though we are there 5 hours before our flight is supposed to leave. Tiffany enjoys Pizza Hut at the airport while Brian eats a pretty ok dosa. We watch the movie “Okja” and puzzle over Jake Gyllenhall’s completely insane performance.

Our first flight, to Kolkata, goes off without a hitch. In Kolkata we are desperate for food and order “Chinese” from a place called Wow! China. We order fried rice and some noodles. We receive the fried rice but the noodles are not quite ready. We hear the final boarding call and decide we’d rather miss the noodles than our flight, and race to the gate, where we’re the final passengers to board.

Before going to airplane mode, we read that New Zealand has now closed their borders to foreigners.

March 20 - Bangkok, Thailand

We sleep until noon. After some breakfast from 7-11 (amazing ramen and Japanese style banana cakes!!), we catch up with some fellow travelers and learn they are all headed home, ending their trips early. One who is still in India tells us that India immediately halted all international flights. Turns out we got out of India in the knick of time.

The US passes 20,000 confirmed cases and the State Department issues a global do not travel advisory. NY, Illinois, and Connecticut join California and Pennsylvania in locking down. Is it actually safer to stay out of the US?

March 21 - Bangkok, Thailand

We book tickets home for March 24, using points. That should give us a tiny bit of time to relax and enjoy the Thai food before spending 27+ hours traveling to Orlando. The Bangkok government then orders all restaurants and malls (where there are a ridiculous amount of restaurants) to be closed. WTF.

We text our Airbnb hostess about our new plans, which she completely understands. We eat our feelings at Raan Jay Fai, visit a mall, explore a small amount of Bangkok, and finish the day eating the best khao soi in the city.

March 24 - Bangkok, Thailand to Orlando

Buckle up. This is a long one.

We’ve been indoors for nearly three days, eating takeout, and now feeling fully ready to go home. We leave our Airbnb at 10:30 am for our 2:30 pm flight to Taipei. When we get to the airport we are told that we cannot check into our flight, as Taiwan has closed its borders to all foreigners including transiting passengers. When did this happen? This morning.

We go to the Thai Airways office and stand in a long line of other surprised cancellees. The Thai Airways agent tells us that since we booked through United, we have to call them to rebook. On the phone, United tells us that the next option to fly to Orlando is in 2 days and only in business class, since we booked our original tickets with points we will have to pay 100,000 additional points for the business class tickets. We even ask about getting anywhere in the States (San Francisco, Chicago, Houston) but the itineraries are all messed up with new travel bans and very little availability out of Bangkok.

We hang up to deliberate and look online, we find some business class tickets leaving in an hour to London and then JFK. We are super close to booking it. Brian goes to talk with the check-in agent to make sure we can even make the flight; she assures us that there is absolutely no availability on the flight, and the United website must not be up to date.

Back to the laptop. Finding tickets all the way to Orlando is difficult, lengthy (40+ hours), and/or over $1.5k per person. Eventually, we decide on an itinerary to Chicago through American Airlines/Japan Airlines that leaves at 10 pm with layovers in Tokyo and JFK. We cancel our United itinerary and are told that our 80,000 points are non-refundable, but can be used anytime in the next year.

We kill 10 hours in the Bangkok airport and eventually board a nearly-full flight to Tokyo.

Bangkok’s Departure Screen

March 25 - Tokyo, Japan to Orlando

In Tokyo, we wait 5.5 hours for our flight to JFK. We eat some breakfast ramen and try to sleep for a bit. Luckily, Tokyo’s airport is nice and don’t have armrests on their chairs so there are people strewn about trying to sleep (including Tiffany).

Our flight to JFK is maybe 40% full (there were only 5 passengers in the entire first, business, and premium economy areas).

12 hours later, we land at JFK and encounter the emptiest airport yet. We go through customs and marvel at the lack of temperature screening and questions about covid-19 symptoms. During the flight, we decided to try to skip Chicago and go directly from JFK to Orlando. It wasn’t difficult to find a cheap flight to Orlando, but we would have to wait another 5 hours in JFK.

More half-successful naps in the airport and some mood-enhancing Shake Shack. We realize we have not eaten beef in 5-6 weeks. We board a plane with fewer than 15 people on it headed to Orlando.

Surreal Empty JFK

We land in Orlando around 7 pm local time, making March 25 approximately 36 hours long, and easily the longest day in our lives.

We check into an Airbnb, where we will quarantine for 2 weeks.

April 6 - Orlando

SpiceJet, the airline that cancelled our flights out of India, emails Brian saying they cannot refund our ticket and instead will give us an airline credit good for the next 12 months. Now we have United holding 80,000 of our points hostage and SpiceJet holding $200 hostage. Brian rage-deletes the email and we watch a few episodes of Tiger King.