How Quickly Things Can Change – The Challenge of Traveling Home Safely as the Coronavirus Outbreak Increases and More and More Borders Closing
It is incredible how much the world around you can change in just a matter of a few weeks with the Coronavirus (Covid-19) continuously exploding throughout the world, from country to country and city to city. We recently returned home to Napa Valley safe and sound after a bit of a travel whirlwind traveling back from Dubai, with a short layover in Rome, and finally six days in England.
It seemed as if every step we took, and every travel decision change we made, with what was rapidly unfolding in front of us each day was different. Maneuvering through our journey was becoming slightly more challenging day by day, but thankfully we finally made our way successfully and safely back home. With a bit of luck and timing on our side, we seemed to have managed to be a day or so ahead of the ever-changing curve. Further details to come…
What was supposed to be a 21-day adventure through Dubai, Sicily and Rome ended up being a 10-day sojourn, “Our Plan B,” on making our way back home safely and healthy to our cozy nest in Napa.
It all started months back when TBEX announced their March conference was to be in Catania, Sicily. TBEX is the largest conference and networking event for travel bloggers, online travel journalists, new media content creators, travel brands, and industry professionals. Each year, TBEX partners with fantastic host destinations in North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific to bring the travel industry’s most creative minds together to learn, network, and do business.
The conference was organized to be held from March 10th to March 14th in the beautiful city of Catania by the coast with majestic Mount Etna towering over this charming ancient Italian city. Late this past October, I registered for the TBEX conference and planned to bring my husband, Dana, with me as we were going to make a three-week adventure around Sicily, Rome along with a 3-day stopover in Dubai on the way there. I know that sounds like a ‘roundabout way to get from San Francisco to Sicily, but the travel logistics worked out perfectly. As this was a travel blogger conference, it was up to us to find our way to Sicily. So, of course, I went the frequent flyer mile route.
As it turned out with using our Alaska Airline Miles going there worked much better flying Emirates than British Airways as there are no fees associated with using your miles when you use your Alaska Airlines miles to fly Emirates. It was a no brainer on that choice, I have always wanted to fly Emirates and, I have always wanted to experience Dubai, which is where the EXPO 2020 will be held. Done!! I booked it in August, and we were confirmed to fly leaving SFO to Rome via Dubai on March 4th. We did make our return booking on British Airways through London from Rome to come back to San Francisco on March 24th. Little did we know what would be in store for us in the months to come.
In our excitement and many months of planning, we created a spectacular itinerary with four days in Dubai, 10 Days in Sicily (4 days for the conference and six days exploring the island), and then Rome for four days. We have a very dear friend, Geoff Westley, who spends much of his time in Rome as he is a well-known classical musician from the UK who does most of his musical production and performances in Italy. What a perfect person and “tour guide friend” to spend four days in Rome with. We had arranged a two-bedroom flat near Campo de’ Fiori. We were going to go to his favorite jazz clubs, hang out with his musician friends, and eat delicious Italian regional cuisine at all of his favorite restaurants. My mouth is still watering just thinking about it and even more so knowing that I missed out on all of this long-planned fun and the food!
After the months of planning our trip around Dubai and Sicily with various tourism groups, food tour companies, wineries, Agriturismos, boutique hotels, restaurants, regional tours, and of course, the busy TBEX conference agenda – our travel plate was full. It would be providing us many, many opportunities for blog posts, features, social media posts, photo opportunities, and numerous stories. As we got a few weeks closer to the conference, our bags were almost packed, the cameras and notebooks set aside, guidebooks, maps, and Italian dictionaries and the necessary artillery of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and zinc spray and lozenges on hand too.
In early February, just a few weeks before we were to begin our long-awaited travel to Sicily, the news started talking about an unknown strain of a virus that had popped up in China, with the first cases showing up in December. It wasn’t that impactful at the time we first started hearing about it, and we really didn’t think much about it. After all, we thought it was far away in China and wouldn’t impact us. We went about our day to day activities, and we were getting excited about our upcoming travels in a few weeks as were the other attendees of the TBEX conference.
Less than two weeks before we were set to take off, we were attending the South Beach Wine and Food Festival as a guest of Loews Miami Beach from February 20 to February 24th. I was there to cover the event and the many spectacular culinary events held at the Loews. While we were in Miami Beach for those few days and attending many crowded events, there was really no particular concern about what was happening far, far away in Wuhan, China. Though we did get bits and pieces of news that the virus was now discovered in the Northern part of Italy around Milan and also Venice. At this juncture, we were just nine days from our departure date to fly out to Sicily via Dubai.
On our last day in South Beach, while enjoying the views of the ocean and indulging in fresh seafood, we received a call from our friend Geoff in England who we were slated to meet in Rome in three weeks. It was a casual call and certainly not alarming. He just wanted to let us know that we were all confirmed for our Rome adventure and that the few cases at that time in Italy of the Coronavirus were isolated to a few villages in Northern Italy. He said he had been in touch with his friends in Rome and it was life as usual there. This was the 23rd of February, and he said Rome was untouched and life was going on as usual. “Probably nothing to be concerned about” he reiterated. The virus seemed so far away, and again we really didn’t seem to think much about it or realize it was that big of a thing.
The week of the 24th of February, we were back home in Napa, preparing for our trip, which was just over one week away. In the meantime, the news about the growing Coronavirus was increasing, as were the cases growing in Northern Italy. We still went about our daily activities and carried on with our plans to leave in a week. During this time, there was a growing concern on the TBEX Catania Facebook page, with many of the 400 plus attendees starting to express their thoughts about what was going on in Northern Italy. Were they still going to keep the conference going as planned? At that point, still, no one knew.
The southern part of Italy, including Rome, Naples, and Sicily appeared to be unaffected by what was going on in Northern Italy. Still, we remained determined to go on with our travels, and we were not particularly concerned with all of the so-called “Media Hype”! Many travel bloggers were posting, “who is going to let this interfere with planned travel?”
Most bloggers said this definitely was not going interfere with their existing travel plans. At this point, we were certainly not going to let it mess up our long-planned adventure to Sicily, even though as we got closer to our departure date, friends and family were advising us to postpone our trip. I certainly didn’t want to miss the TBEX Conference that I was so looking forward to, networking, seeing friends, and exploring Catania and experiencing the culture.
Well, as the next few days unfolded on March 2nd, just two days before our scheduled departure, Rick Calvert – CEO of TBEX made a heartfelt decision and sent out a letter to the hundreds of pending attendees, “We have made the decision to re-schedule TBEX Europe 2020 in Catania until later this year.”
This is part of the message we received from Rick.
“On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States raised the travel warning from level 2 to level 3. This is still in effect, and the CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to Italy. On Saturday, Vice President Pence announced during a press conference that the CDC was raising the travel warning to level 4 for parts of Italy. For a level 4 travel warning, The CDC recommends that travelers avoid all travel to affected areas within Italy.
Taking these travel warnings in mind as well as other countries advising against traveling to some parts of Italy, we are confident re-scheduling TBEX Europe 2020 is the most responsible thing to do for everyone involved.
If you are still planning on traveling to Catania and Sicily in the next week or two, we have been told by our friends in Catania that they would still like to offer several of the Pre-BEX Post-BEX Tours and FAM Trips that were planned to happen before and after TBEX.”
My husband Dana and I read Rick’s message, watched the news at length, in-depth, and spoke to many friends who had their opinions leaning both ways. We cavalierly and boldly together made the decision to forge on with our plans to travel in a day and a half on March 4th.
In hindsight, had we been a fortune-teller predicting what the future had in store in the next ten days or just had a bit more common sense, our decision would absolutely have been different. Had we made the smart decision to cancel and stay home as we should have, we would not have had this story to tell of our ten-day roller-coaster ride traveling with a world pandemic unfolding at warp speed around us with country lockdowns happening every day.
Sadly, but without remorse…we never made it to Catania. We will get there one day I hope in the near future. Here is our journey as it unfolded…
Travel Day 1 – Wednesday, March 4th
So, on Wednesday, March 4th, off we went to San Francisco Airport to board our long-anticipated flight on Emirates business class to Dubai. On the airport shuttle, we ran into a friend, Kelly, who is a flight attendant for United. She concerningly told us that her flight to London was only 1/3 full, and many flight cancelations were happening everywhere.
It still didn’t really affect us; however, we were aware that air travel bookings were trending down at the time due to concerns about the growing Coronavirus.
We headed to the Emirates lounge to await boarding our flight to Dubai. The lounge was quiet and practically empty, and when we finally boarded our flight, we realized that our cabin upstairs on the Airbus A380 was only 20% full. We were just beginning to feel the effects of how the Coronavirus was impacting travel. As soon as we got to our seats, we pulled out our trusty disinfectant wipes and thoroughly sanitized our entire seating area, tables, seat belts, etc.
For the next 15 plus hours, we enjoyed the comfort and service provided to us on our Emirates flight from San Francisco to Dubai. Despite the fact, Dana was a bit disappointed when he visited the business class lounge and didn’t find Jennifer Anniston hanging out there like we have seen so many times in the Emirates commercials on TV!
Travel Day 2 – Thursday, March 5th
We arrived in Dubai on Thursday evening, March 5th, around 8 pm to find the airport practically deserted. It was a breeze going through customs and arriving at the Marriott Marquis in Dubai, along with no lines to check-in to our room. Our driver to the hotel told us that Dubai that tourism was starting to slow down as a good majority of the tourists to their city and surrounding areas were visitors from China and other Asian countries. They were just not coming into Dubai right now in the growing wake of the Coronavirus throughout Asia.
After checking into our room, we headed up to the 71st floor of the Marriott Marquis to the Vault Lounge, which displayed an impressive panorama of the stunning evening views overlooking this magnificent city. The growth and building around the city are impressive as they prepare to the world to visit during EXPO2020.
Travel Day 3 – Friday, March 6th
We woke up very early after trying to sleep without much luck. Dana even took off and went to the gym for an hour or so.
Our travel clock and our sleeping patterns were utterly off as we were 12 hours ahead of San Francisco time. So, we found ourselves watching CNN each morning before venturing out to see the sights and sounds of this spectacular space-age city surrounded by massive desert lands. The news was becoming more intense, and each hour something new related to the Coronavirus was unfolding around the planet and was beginning to be a bit unsettling.
Travel Day 3 and 4 – Friday and Saturday, March 6th and 7th
In spite of everything exploding around the world, we were determined to enjoy our adventures in the UAE – United Arab Emirates. We spent two days exploring old and new Dubai as they offer two different perspectives on the complexion and culture of this modern city in the UAE city of Dubai.
We were hosted for the three days we were there by the travel group owned by Emirates, Arabian Adventures, and who had arranged a variety of excursions and activities for us around Dubai. Our various guides for the next few days were very helpful and informative about the culture, history and the growth of this impressive city. Though they too expressed their concern about the current dwindling tourism but did not seem to be as concerned about the impact of the Coronavirus on their country as of yet.
The first two nights, we were hosted by the Marriott Marquis hotel, which is the tallest 5-star hotel in the world. Dubai loves to be the first, the biggest and the best in everything. If they are not they will build it.
Our lovely room was on the 66th floor and offered stunning views overlooking the city. When we visited the 148th floor of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world the next day, souring in height over the surrounding edifices. The 72-story Marriott Marquis seemed minuscule in comparison to this towering pinnacle in the sky.
Travel Day 4 – Saturday, March 7th
Our last evening, we moved over to Dubai’s beaches and stayed at the impressive Nikki Beach Resort and Spa. On Saturday, March 7th, we spent a relaxing afternoon enjoying the beautiful beaches and pool area while chatting about our trip to Sicily the next day, and at that point, we weren’t even contemplating changing our plans.
Travel Day 5 – Sunday, March 8th
The next morning, we woke up with an entirely different perspective on our pending travel to Sicily and while at breakfast overlooking the white sand beaches and azure waters, Dana and I both looked at each other and almost simultaneously decided, that we had to change our plans and not go to Sicily as we originally planned.
Our decision was based on a number of factors compounded by the growing concerns stemming from the everchanging news and family and friends urging us to change our plans. Our dear friends who travel the world frequently, Chris and Susan, sent us a text on the morning of March 8th, “Do not go to Italy, you might not get out!” This had a great impact on us!
Within hours, upon our arrival at Dubai Airport, while waiting in the Emirates Lounge, my mission was on. With a glass of Moet Champagne in hand, I proceeded to call Alaska Air, where we had booked our award travel to Rome via Dubai with our Alaska points to see what our options were to change our flights. I only had an hour or so to get this setup, which put a bit of stress and pressure on and I needed to get this done.
We were flying to Rome out of Dubai, and we were scheduled originally to stay overnight near the Rome airport and then fly out the next day to Catania. We needed to change our flights to fly from Rome to London instead. My work was cut out for me. The race was on…
Luckily, we were able to change our flight on the leg from London to San Francisco and keep our business class seats if we flew on Sunday 15th of March from LHR to SFO. Though if we wanted to change our flight leg from Rome to London, they were going to charge us over $400 each to change it. Yikes, that was a lot of money for a short flight from Rome to London, which was already on our itinerary.
Since we were going to be in London for six days, British Airways considered it a tourist layover, and they wanted to charge us exorbitant travel taxes to do that. Really? As it turned out, I was able to find a flight instead for 92 Euros that few direct from Rome into Gatwick the next day, business class too! I grabbed it, and our travel was finally set to fly into London on the 9th of March. Whew, what a relief. Time for another glass of bubbles. That was a stressful endeavor getting all of that arranged and confirmed.
Now to call Geoff and let him know we weren’t going to meet him on March 19th in Rome as planned because of the growing travel restrictions and the growing number of flight cancelations out of Italy, not to mention the growing number of cases of Coronavirus in Italy.
Though disappointed about our change in plans, he graciously invited us to stay with him as his charming 15th-century country cottage in Petworth, Sussex, about an hour outside of London. He said, just consider my home your home base for the next six days. Our “Plan B” went into action, and we were off to London the next day instead of arriving in Catania Sicily as initially planned.
I contacted Mario, who was coordinating the few members of the TBEX group who still came into Catania. We were to be amongst that group who chose to still visit Catania during the planned dates. I advised him of our changed plans not to come into Catania after all, and he wished us luck and said he was sorry he would miss seeing us. We were disappointed too but knew in our guts we had made the right decision. As it turns out, we definitively did!
The flight from Dubai to Rome was virtually empty, as was the airport in Dubai. When we boarded the business class area of the plane, we realized we were only two of the eight people traveling in that cabin. There were more flight attendants than there were passengers. Needless to say, we had exceptional service on our Emirates flight to Rome.
Travel Day 5 Continues – Sunday Evening March 8th
Upon arriving in Rome, the airport was like crickets, hardly anyone around, so getting through immigration and customs was a breeze. We had a short and sweet layover Fiumicino, the town adjacent to Fiumicino Airport in Rome.
That was as close to being in Italy as we could get. We had a lovely pasta dinner and a bottle of Montepulciano Abruzzo, realizing sadly that we would be missing out on the next fourteen days of stellar Italian cuisine and wines and Sicily. Though we had to pat ourselves on our backs for making the sound and responsible decision of avoiding travel into Sicily and Rome and heading back home via London.
Travel Day 6 Monday, March 9th
We arrived quite early to Fiumicino Airport in Rome, expecting long lines and crowds, which was the exact opposite of what we discovered. Hardly anyone at the check-in counters, then through the Fast Track line, but not before we had a health screening. We had to stand on two feet signs on the floor while men in orange uniforms did a green laser-like body scan to test our temperatures. The process for us did not take that long as we were the only ones in line. Though the very next day after the borders were set to close at midnight, it was a very different story.
The whole experience for us was very trippy, twilight zone-like as we have never experienced anything like this in our lives, only in movies!
We were cleared to go and headed directly to the British Airways Lounge, which was also crickets. We sat over in the corner, drank bubbles, and had our last and almost only taste of Italian food in Italy of pizza and an Italian sandwich.
It was Monday, March 9th, and we were finally off safely out of our brief 12 hours stay in Italy to London Gatwick Airport, where Geoff picked us up. It was lovely seeing our dear friend again, welcoming us with open arms, and off we went to his humble abode in Petworth for the next six days.
That evening while he was preparing dinner, I saw on the WhatsApp messenger for the Catania group that still traveled to Sicily called the #CataniaSurvivors an urgent message from the coordinator Mario –
“Entire Italy is now on lockdown. I suggest you find any way to leave Italy as soon as possible. Every activity for the group is now suspended! Good luck guys!”
The lockdown was to begin on the 10th of March, and many flights out of Italy would be canceled, including the same flight we took on the 9th from Rome to London! We probably would have been stuck had it been another day. Wow, we missed that fiasco by only one day! We just couldn’t believe it. It was time to drink some good Italian wine and celebrate that we made it out of there safely to the UK in the confines and comfort of Geoff’s cozy and charming cottage.
The group of bloggers that remained in Catania were all scrambling to get flights out to anywhere. There were one or two that decided to remain in Sicily and wait it out. Brave souls. They are still there!
Travel Day 7 – Tuesday, March 10th
We had a leisurely morning relaxing in the Sussex countryside trying to get our bearings as our whole trip itinerary had gone “topsy-turvey” on us. Over a lovely cup of coffee, we had decided to rent a car the next day and venture off to the ancient Roman-inspired town of Bath for several days. We might as well take advantage of our time in the UK and explore the region, which at that time appeared relatively unaffected by what was going on in the outside world or at least the people around us did not seem to be particularly bothered by it.
In actuality, we were supposed to be enjoying our first day in beautiful Catania, where we were to meet up with the other Catania travelers who had also chosen to keep their plans to venture into Sicily. Obviously did not happen.
As we had packed for the warmer climate in Sicily, we were limited in warmer clothing to wear during our five days in the chilly and windy UK weather. We did somehow manage, though, and we were off into the bustling city of London to spend the day exploring, eating pub food, going to the Tate Gallery, and then a dinner in the city.
London seemed to continue to be bustling, with loads of people milling about, the pubs and restaurants were full, it felt like it was life as usual there. Little did they anticipate that less than a week later they too would be on restricted travel and quasi lockdown.
The closet we got to Sicily was actually during our day trip to London on Tuesday evening at Pulcinella Pizzeria in Ealing which is just outside of London. We popped in there for a quick bite to eat after our adventures around London that day. We met up with a lively group of Sicilians who currently live in London. While noshing on some authentic Italian pizzas and sipping some great Italian wines, they shared with us all about their small towns in Sicily outside of Trapani and their mother’s food. If we really wanted to try the best authentic Sicilian cuisine, it had to be from their mother’s kitchens. By the end of the evening, our new Sicilian friends had invited us to visit them there. We will certainly take them up on that when the coast is clear of course to travel there again.
Travel Day 8 – Wednesday, March 11th
We were off to the Enterprise rental car agency in Haslemere and then off on our adventure through the quaint winding roads along the emerald-green countryside to Bath, with Dana driving on the opposite side of the road with a left-hand stick shift mind you. He did quite well as you can see, we made it through our 3-day driving adventure safely.
Travel days 8, 9 and 10 – Wednesday to Saturday, March 11th to March 14th
Details of our time cruising around southern England will be in a subsequent story about our adventures there, so stay tuned for that. A quick snapshot – We made the best of our three days venturing around Bath and Portsmouth, sightseeing, going to pubs drinking local ales and sipping on gin and tonics.
We also noticed that very few people along the way seemed to be concerned about what was going on in the world. It was pretty much life as usual in the English countryside. We spent 2 nights in Bath and one night in Portsmouth before heading back to Geoff’s home in Petworth.
On March 12th, we discovered while watching the morning BBC news that President Trump had just issued a 30-day travel ban suspending most travel from Europe, preventing citizens from European countries to travel into the US with the exception of the UK and Ireland. US citizens, green card holders, and diplomats were exempt from this declaration. The news also shared that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita announced they had been infected with the Coronavirus. The stress was continuing to mount. It was difficult to relax and enjoy our time visiting the bucolic countryside in southern England.
Travel day 10 – Last Day in England – Saturday, March 14th
We made it back to Geoff’s home, after our 3-day adventure around Southern England, to enjoy the last evening preparing a lovely supper and indulging in quite a few bottles of fantastic Italian wine. Yet another milestone took place as that afternoon, the day before we were to leave, President Trump added the UK and Ireland to the existing European travel ban, which was to take effect midnight on the 15th. Luckily, we were ok to travel home….
Travel day 11 – Finally Our Journey Home – Sunday, March 15th
Our flight was scheduled to leave from Heathrow on British Airways at 3 pm, our only concern was what if it were to cancel. We made it to LHR early, arriving just before noon, not knowing what to expect when we got to the airport. The crowds were somewhat light but much busier than it had been as this was the last day that passport holders from the UK could actually fly into the United States.
We anxiously awaited our 11-hour flight in the British Airways lounge. Once we boarded the plane, we knew we were safely on the home stretch. We disinfected our surrounding seating area, toasted and took a lovely sip of bubbles, took a deep breath, and gave each other a big hug knowing we had survived our Plan B journey to get home along with lots of stories to tell and memories we will never forget.
Upon landing and arrival stateside at San Francisco International Airport at 7:50 pm there were just a few more hurdles and steps we had to take before we could get into our UBER to head back to the safety of our sanctuary we call Home, Sweet, Home.
Before we could actually deplane, we were advised that only ten people could disembark the aircraft at a time. This was to keep the social distancing in check while we turned in our health and travel documents to the half a dozen screeners waiting to interview us as we passed through on the way to customs and passport control.
Dana and I cleared easily but not without the stress of the anticipated experience. We were given an information card on self-quarantining and were sent on our way. Next was customs, where the lines were quite long, at least an hour plus wait. Luckily, we had Mobile Passport, and we were the only ones in line to go through to the customs desk for Mobile Passport. Whew, yet another aha moment!
It was a quiet Sunday night, so virtually no traffic, and in an hour, we were home! Voila! We have never been so relieved to walk through our door and into our welcoming living room. Time for a glass of wine or two or three and more big hugs, then totally exhausted from the journey sinking into our couch and enjoying a delicious plate of scrambled eggs and bacon! Yes indeed, it was Home, Sweet, Home!
As the pandemic of the world continues to unfold around us and the “Shelter in Place” order now in effect in Napa Valley, all around the San Francisco Bay Area and around the world, we expect more of the unexpected in the days to come. In the meantime, we are in the confines and safety of our home for the next three weeks. Stay tuned…
Sending best wishes to all! Be Smart, Be Safe, and Be Well! Wishing this global nightmare will soon be behind us…
Dynie and Dana