Traveling the World During a Pandemic – One Client’s Story
Real Life Story: “S” is for Safety Net
The following amazing story, written by one of our valued clients, documents their travels to Southeast Asia as the coronavirus threat emerged into a worldwide pandemic. If ever there was a time to have a professional travel advisor on your side, this was it. Therefore, not only is this a heartfelt testimonial to one of our most seasoned advisors, Jane Hughes, it also represents a fitting Real Life Story in our We Speak Travel-Ease campaign, illustrating the advantages of having an experienced, knowledgeable – and accessible – travel advisor in your court as you travel!
Traveling the globe during an emerging worldwide pandemic requires heavy doses of preparedness, resiliency, flexibility, connectedness, and a truly adventurous spirit. And it doesn’t hurt to have a trustworthy professional travel advisor by your side either!
We originally planned an early February departure for our 10-week journey through Southeast Asia. However, in early January, when we heard about the virus outbreak in China, we diligently tracked the progress of the virus from that point forward. I believed that it was just a matter of time before it became a world issue. We certainly questioned our decision to stick to our plans, but the final decision was reached that we could possibly stay ahead of the virus hot spots and get home before the epidemic hit the United States. My initial thought at this time was that we had about 8 weeks of travel before we would be forced to return to the USA due to hot spots. It turned out to be 5 weeks, as the virus spread across the globe faster than we had predicted. (I want everyone reading this to know that we are healthy and now back at home in Vermont, and we are very happy that we got to travel for the 5 weeks.)
Prior to our departure from the NYC area, we tried to be as prepared as possible with regard to virus protection, as well as our own general medical needs. (If you can’t tell already, I should mention that my husband and I are both medical persons – he is a retired Cardiologist and I am a retired Physician’s Assistant.) We were equipped with two N100 replaceable filtered masks (along with enough refills to last 10 weeks), 10 single use N100 disposable masks, 26 N75 disposable single use masks, and 50-60 individual alcohol wipes and Germ X wipes. We also packed one quart of hand sanitizer refill solution and 15 smaller individual hand sanitizer bottles which we carried in every back pack, suitcase, and fanny-pack that we had on board and while on the move. In addition, we carried three types of antibiotics, and several other meds, including an epi-pen in case of emergency. As you can probably gather, I recommend being well-prepared and well-equipped if you’re going to travel during uncertain times like a pre-pandemic. Taking every precaution with good hand-washing practices and judicial use of hand sanitizer at all times are also strongly recommended. Lastly, it is imperative to remember that in order to stay healthy and safe, one must stay connected and stay informed.
After a week’s stay in Frankfurt, Germany in early February, we arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam on Valentine’s Day, February 14th. We met our guide donned in our face masks and them in theirs. We traveled with a private guide in a private car and were never in large crowds. When possible, we attended all events early in the day before the tour groups arrived. We loved Vietnam – the people, the food, the accommodations, the sites, the flowers, the architecture, the temples, the motorbike, the cyclo-transports, the theater, the music, and the open exchange of ideas with discussions about life and the culture of Vietnam. We traveled from Hanoi to Halong Bay, overnighted on a boat in the bay, flew to Hue, then to Hoi An and Denang. From here, we flew to Saigon-Ho Chi Min City. We ended our adventure in Vietnam on March 1st, arriving into Bangkok, Thailand.
At this point, we re-evaluated our itinerary due to virus alerts we received by text and email from the US State Dept STEP alerts system, the CDC alert system, and the WHO alert system. (We had registered for all of these alert systems ahead of our journey – highly recommended.) We also compiled our own virus tracking research using data from these resources, which we checked daily as we traveled. We carried a laptop computer and had cell phone coverage everywhere we traveled. We signed up for WhatsApp to communicate with anyone around the world and linked this account to all our family members in case of an emergency.
What we learned from our alerts was that the state department had raised the alert level for South Korea to Level 3 and Japan to Level 2, indicating that these two countries were now becoming hot spots of concern. In response, we cancelled our plans to visit those two countries and decided to go to Bangkok instead. From this point forward, we realized our trip would become a wait-and-see, day-by-day journey. Thanks to our great travel advisor in attendance, Jane Hughes with Avant Travel, who maintained an in-touch stance with us and communicated with us twice daily, we were able to keep on traveling. Without her expertise, we would have been forced to return home much sooner. We all stayed calm, never panicked, and we made insightful decisions together.
We arrived in Bangkok wearing our face masks and met our pick-up driver. Our sense of trepidation and concern about the emerging pandemic was growing, so we decided to do the sightseeing on our own with local guides and with lots of caution. The temperature in Bangkok was 101 degrees and it was challenging wearing an N-100 mask in the heat. It was very hard to breathe or engage in any kind of long-distance walking while wearing the mask, but we managed with N-75 masks, alternating between the two, depending on the crowd density and congestion. We spent five fabulous days seeing Bangkok, the wat temples, the Palace, the architecture, having massages and eating great cuisine. The colors and the flowers are amazing all over the Bangkok region. The people are kind, happy, and gracious, and all were very helpful during our stay.
We stayed at the COMO Metropolitan Bangkok Hotel and the service we experienced was beyond compare. Jane arranged a private tour guide for us for three days to take us to the WATS, and the Palace. We traveled to the floating market region and took boats to many of our destinations. We learned how to greet each other with the traditional bow and about the customs related to the Buddhist religion. We tasted herbs and cuisines that we had not experienced before. My husband now drinks Blue Butterfly tea made from the green pea flowers of Southeast Asia, and he is crazy for all things passion fruit. We definitely plan to return to Thailand in the future.
Following Thailand, we were forced to start our journey back home due to the virus. But not before we stopped off in London for five days due to the low virus numbers reported there and no word of other hot spots in England yet! We stayed at a Red Carnation Hotel near the British Museum and spent a lot of time walking around the city. Interestingly, we were practically the only people wearing face masks while we were in London, which earned us quite a few stares as we walked along and visited the museums. Even though very few were wearing masks, we did notice quite a few people coughing. This reminded us to stick to our plan of playing it safe, utilizing all our gear and continuing with lots of hand washing and sanitizer use. Ultimately, we were glad we did not become more lax in our attention to safety. We returned to the States on March 9th, and to our home in Vermont on March 11th, followed by 16 days of self-quarantine.
Traveling the world during a pandemic is not easy, but it can be done. I think we were as prepared as we could be. In the final analysis, I believe it is up to travelers themselves to stay informed, stay alert, and stay safe.
Had we not had a lifeline in our travel advisor – Jane Hughes – we would not have had the opportunity to continue our journey. She re-booked hotels, private guides, transportation pick-ups and drop-offs, airline tickets and tours, all while we were on the run! She was absolutely wonderful. I felt she treated us like we were part of her own family, looking out for us and protecting our best interest in everything she researched and planned for us. Jane was also very up-to-date and, remarkably, she seemed to be as informed as we were about each country and its virus status during our adventure. I cannot thank Jane enough for her attentiveness, for her caring, and for her patience with us throughout this vacation experience, which turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime in more ways than one! We continue to send her our heartfelt thanks. We had a fabulous time and we credit Jane Hughes for making it possible.
In these uncertain times when you travel – prepare ahead of the journey, be flexible, have a plan B, keep funds in your bank account that can be transferred at any time easily, and I would add, don’t be stubborn, purchase travel insurance that includes disaster and evacuation coverage. Remain calm and don’t panic, be decisive, monitor your health status, and know where to find help locally as you travel. I like knowing where the US embassies are located in each city and keeping a copy of the list of US approved local hospitals and doctors (provided by the state department and CDC) for each city on your itinerary. But, most importantly, have a guardian angel like Jane Hughes hovering over your head at all times.
I hope Jane will continue be our pilot and guardian angel during our future journeys. We absolutely plan to travel again after this virus passes.
Take care, stay safe, be well, and rest assured that “this too shall pass.” I am confident we all will be traveling the world again soon.