• sarah.bb@eatsdrinksandsleeps.com

Eating and drinking my way through life and learning all the while

Travelling during COVID – Riding my luck to dodge lockdowns

As I was reminded today, the noose is tightening.

Travel right now is undoubtedly harder than ever and for good reason there is a global pandemic. We’ve decided to deal with this global emergency on a national and local level rather than unite with anything resembling a coherent global strategy.

And let’s be honest this is a flawed strategy that will only result in more local, national and regional flare ups for an extended period of time, I’m bracing myself for 18 months – 2 years, but hope some miracle prevails.

There continues to be a healthy dose of judgement about those who have not heeded the call to write off 2020 and probably much of 2021 until this storm has passed. I’m going to try and explain – note not justify – why I’m still moving around, albeit slower and more socially distanced than ever. And why in the midst of all this craziness travel can actually still be fun and maybe even more of an adventure than ever. But it certainly isn’t for everyone.

I will flag up front, before I’m totally lambasted, that for all my adventures, unlike a certain Mr Cummings, I have not broken any lock down restrictions but I have moved fast once restrictions have been lifted or moved before restrictions have been announced – sometimes in anticipation, sometimes by sheer luck.

The latter is why I ended up in the Caribbean for 3 months instead of locked inside a flat in Madrid for 12 weeks.

My main reasons for travel since March have been largely for personal family health crises and work and I feel no obligation to apologise for either of these. My personal leisure travel I’ve restricted to Spain as I still have so much to explore in my adopted country and for short trips jumping on a plane just isn’t worth the bother right now.

I’m going to be there for my family when they need me or I need them and honestly don’t feel bad about doing so. I’ve made these trips in the most responsible way I can, quarantining, social distancing, submitting for tests etc all voluntarily. I have assessed the risks and made the trips anyway – with full awareness from both me and my husband that they could leave me stuck somewhere for a while. But being stuck with family isn’t really being stuck and never something I’m likely to regret, however, potentially missing the chance to see someone while I still can or support someone I love when I could do, I really would regret.

The second reason is work. I cannot wait until 2021 to be earning bucks. There is no safety net for me so I will keep on going and earning where I can. My business is young and stopping now will not only write off the next 2 years but also likely impact my earning potential for the next 5+ and some major life choices. In short, I need to make hay while the sun shines.

And being honest I also travel because I want to, I enjoy it and I’m still free to do so legally.

As travel is such a pain right now and no route so straight forward, I do look to factor in detours that make the trips I need to make a little more interesting and fun as opposed to just a ball ache.

I read the news in English and Spanish from around the world, listen to the guidance and what is being leaked during briefings for some kind of heads up. And where it’s permitted I make a point of frequenting local businesses and spending money with those industries most affected by this mess i.e small independent businesses, owner-operators, bars, restaurants and hotels – these companies can’t hold out until 2021 they need income now.

The narrative that paints anyone who spends money outside their home as bad at a time of record closures, redundancies and job losses strikes me as odd.

But moral compass aside, travel definitely isn’t for everyone right now. Not many can deal with the sheer unpredictability of it all, the need to not make solid plans more than a few days in advance as it is likely to change again very soon.

Not knowing where you’ll be next week, next month – or where you are staying tomorrow night even – is far too uncomfortable for most. But I’m pretty light of foot and flexible, my husband is incredibly independent and understanding, and importantly I have the ability to work remotely for the most part. I do have some dates I want to be in certain places to keep my promises to people and clients, which ojalá I will do, come what may.

But on the flip side.  There has not been a more exciting time to travel for a long time. 

For years travel was ace but also predictable and very safe. It was pretty easy to get from A-B, to research where you were going and to know exactly what to expect when you landed. So much so, what were once little known gems were now full on tourist hot spots with everyone headed to the same place to get the same IG picture to prove they’d been.

Discovery kinda went out of the window for a while, travel became a tick box exercise for many and a superficial experience.

Now nothing is certain, the rules are changing daily and what you can expect when you land – who knows, honestly unless you have someone on the ground you really won’t know what life is truly like there. From my own experience, reports of life on the ground in Madrid and actually living there for example were two very different things.

Places are so much quieter right now, which is a terrible thing economically for all those businesses that rely on high footfall, but also means there are few crowds, queues and visiting anywhere is just that little bit more relaxing than at any other time in summer, usually the height of tourist season.

All I’ve ever wanted to do when I travelled was to live like a local somewhere for a bit, understand what life is really like there, and I’d seek out the spots where regular people eat, drink and hang out and stare at the beautiful artworks hanging in local galleries that often talk to a place’s cultural history. Well, the tourist train has stopped, towns are now overwhelmingly full of people that actually live there, not just visit. This is actually pretty nice and makes it more enjoyable and easier to experience what it means to live there.

Also, in this weird moment I’ve found a travel community on twitter that has been super helpful. Helping to discover new routes, locations, sites to check the latest and keeping me updated in real time of lock downs that may affect my onward journey.

I watched a video interview yesterday with a friend of mine Trevor of Nomadic Backpacker who has been backpacking through Covid. He’d been stuck in Kenya and now risks being stuck in the Balkans but is travelling responsibly, carefully and slowly…Pretty sure MaskTheFuckUp is his motto. If there is a traveller you want to come and visit your city it’s him, he’s considerate and respectful and full of questions, eager to learn about a place.

The dude interviewing him was so impressed that Trevor starting travelling in a pre-smart phone era – and thought it sounded so adventurous like an Indiana Jones mission.

This made me smile, I’m not old enough to have travelled without a mobile phone but do remember my cell being pretty useless abroad in the early days as it only worked on wifi due to heinous roaming charges.

I used to, you know, have to use an actual map, ask for directions and learn how to understand them. When travelling together we’d have to make a date and agree a meet point as there was no way to contact each other if we got split up.

I was always pretty terrible at reading a map but my terrible map reading skills allowed me to accidentally stumble on some real gems that weren’t detailed in Lonely Planet. It was part of the fun and the adventure of it all. I felt like I’d discovered something rather than just following the well trodden path.

I’m living vicariously through Trevor’s tales of being Trevor’ed in different places but I’m definitely not looking to get stuck rather to keep moving and dodging lock downs for as long as I can.

So due to travel restrictions I can’t go back home to Madrid if I want to make my work trip to a Slovenia soon so I have an unexpected week away I hadn’t entirely budgeted for.

I have managed to find a super cheap spot to stay, like £34pn cheap in London (London is unbelievable cheap to stay right now). Spend time with some friends I don’t always have time to connect with when passing through town. Get my hair done, do some shopping, get lots of work done. Spend some cash in some of my favourite London bars – that could do with our support right now. While being away from home for longer than planned isn’t ideal there are still some upsides and silver linings.

London City skyline from Bethnal Green, views of The Shard, Gherkin etc

To be fair my Covid experience has been pretty blessed. Not totally by design more luck but l left Spain just before it had a brutal lock down for 12 weeks, spent 3 glorious months in the Caribbean with my family, returned to Spain when bars were open again, got to hang out with my niece in Bath and help my sis out when she was sick, headed to London just as rules relaxed, and will hopefully get to enjoy Venice or Bled without the tourist scrum. How long I can keep avoiding lock down who knows but I’m riding my luck while I can.

Sites I seem to check daily to regig travel plans.

IATA – a map detailing travel restrictions around the world handily colour coded

This United API – which is based on IATA data and what travel agents and airlines use to check travel restrictions and health requirements based on country of origin, nationality/passport holding, where you’ve traveled recently etc.

And this site which seems to have the latest on which countries are on Slovenia’s green list.

Also obvs check out the embassy of the country I’m traveling to and the British Govt Travel advice site.

WHO situational reports for the latest COVID stats and facts.

Schengen Visa Info for all the latest news on travelling in the Schengen zone.

So it sounds a lot but it’s not that hard just cumbersome at times as you need to do it so frequently to keep up-to-date.

I usually only travel at the weekends anyway, as I’m busy working during the week and I’d thought it would keep me safe from unexpected announcements, although sadly the UK govt does not do forward planning.

I know I’m running a race that will eventually have to stop but my God I’m enjoying running it while I can, it’s almost become a game.

And when I’m forced to stop eventually, which I know will likely happen at some point. Hopefully, I will feel happy to have spent valuable time with my family and have banked enough bucks that I can afford to sit things out for six months while the world figures how next to tackle this shit show and maybe I’ll go back to Spanish school and study properly again.

Once again, I’ll say my life choices are mine and not a reflection on yours. This is what is working for me and hope it will for some time. ¡Ya veremos!

For those that are still moving, here are some top tips for travelling during COVID.

  1. Check if a return is cheaper than a single – airlines are hiking up prices for one way trips as they know a lot of people are stuck but often return tickets are cheaper. Just book for some random date way into the future and who knows you may even get to use it. Also, if you have them use your travel miles – they go a lot, lot further atm.
  2. Have a plan but wait to execute – keep in mind where you want to go but be flex on how to get there and when. There’s no point booking a week or two in advance right now, be nimble, travel light and move quick when the time is right.
  3. Connect with people on the ground. The travel community is super helpful and on the ground intel is useful even if it is just about flagging the sites with the most up to date local info.
  4. Be safe. If you want to keep travelling you need to stay well. Masks and social distancing may not be foolproof but will definitely help reduce your chances of getting sick, and who wants to get sick abroad.
  5. Look for the detours – flightlist.io is great at finding unexpected connections and you can search via country not just airport. For example, flying to Slovenia via Manchester or Edinburgh is a ton cheaper for me and could mean a chance to see my cuz or lil bro
  6. Or go old school and study a map. Where is a good airport hub and how else can you do your onward journey? I loved doing this even before COVID I would usually fly into Croatia or Northern Italy often Venice and then take a GoOpti transfer to Ljubljana or the train or FlixBus for example.

TL:DR Travel is unpredictable right now but if you embrace it, it can still be a fun adventure. Stay safe and travel slow but be prepared to move fast.

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