Travel in the time of coronavirus

(Last Updated On: August 31, 2020)

I am supposed to be in Sicily now.

I was planning to spend a month there to attend a conference, take some sponsored tours, and then spend three weeks slowly wandering the island with my husband.

(Spoiler alert: I’m not in Sicily. But I did go there. Briefly.)

Here’s how my trip to Sicily worked out

Go or cancel?

With a scheduled departure date of March 8, it seems like I spent weeks doing nothing but monitoring the spread of coronavirus into Italy and trying to determine 1.) if the conference I planned to attend in Sicily would still occur (it was cancelled on March 2) and then 2.) whether I should scrap my entire trip.

Looking back, I’m amazed there was less than a week between the date the conference was cancelled and the date I flew out. It felt like an eternity – an eternity filled with uncertainty and constant change.

There were reasons behind my decisions

So why didn’t I cancel my trip when my conference was cancelled?

  • The conference was cancelled for lots of reasons that had nothing to do with me.
    • With presenters and attendees from all over the world, some were from places where restrictions were already in place or on the horizon.
    • Many attendees and presenters had family or work commitments that made getting stuck in Italy or in quarantine back home a serious problem.
    • The organization planning the conference had to consider the financial and logistical risks of going forward – including the possibility of government restrictions on the type and size of gatherings. (Restrictions that became reality.)
  • Conference hosts in Sicily believed (correctly, at the time), that it (unlike Northern Italy) was a low-risk destination.
  • Conference hosts put together a full slate of activities (which kept changing as new restrictions were put in place) to supplement and/or replace other conference activities.
  • Other people were still planning to visit, so I wouldn’t be there alone.
  • The conference accounted for only ¼ of the time I planned to be in Sicily.
  • Italy seemed to have coronavirus isolated to the original outbreak area in the north (far from Sicily) and, at the time, it seemed as if it would be over soon.
  • If things took a turn for the worse in Sicily, I could go elsewhere in Europe, where I have family and friends.
  • Neither my spouse or I had any place we had to be right after our trip until mid-May. If we got stuck in Sicily for more than the month we had planned, it would not be the end of the world. And, just in case, I loaded my travel computer with enough material to keep me busy for the foreseeable future. I even verified with my insurance what potential expenses would, and would not, be covered. (And was pleasantly surprised by how much was eligible for coverage.)

Pre-booked flights and accommodations didn’t really factor into my decision.

Having used frequent flier miles for the flights to Europe, we really only had a few hundred dollars of real out out-of-pocket cash on the line for our flights. In addition, all rental car reservations were all fully refundable. And, conveniently, I hadn’t booked most lodging as I waited first for decisions on conference tours and then on the conference itself. The only lodging I had booked in advance (for the conference itself) was inexpensive and could be cancelled until March 6.

Still, it is a hard decision to make

So, I continued to go back and forth, just as I had before the conference was cancelled.

Should I go, or should I cancel?

I continued to check (at least daily) for new coronavirus cases in Sicily. (There were none beyond the original family and their friend.) I checked with other people to see who was still going and who wasn’t. I checked for updated information from the US embassy in Rome. I read news reports. I was glued to Facebook. No work got done.

On March 5th I am sick of uncertainty and decide to cancel the whole trip and be done with it.

But I don’t.

Canceling seems like overkill. As long as the situation in Sicily remains fairly stable and there are activities planned, it makes sense to go. Once I am actually there, we can decide whether my husband will join me as planned (unlikely) or if I will change my tickets and return sometime after my activities in Sicily conclude.

By March 7th I am excited to be heading to Sicily.

Things start changing fast

An hour before heading to the airport the morning of March 8, I check my Sicily WhatsApp group. There are tons of messages.

Italy just closed all museums and monuments.

More people are cancelling. Others still plan to come – or are already there and sending pictures showing how lovely it is and how much fun they are having.

Is it worth going if I can’t go into museums, churches, and historic sites?

A quick discussion with the folks in Italy indicates they are changing the tours (again), but there will still be a hike on Etna, walking tours, a Segway tour, food and wine tastings, and sailing along the coast. (Most, but not all, of those will be canceled before I get to Rome.) Right now, restaurants and bars are open, the sun is shining, the trains are running, and people are going about their business.

There probably wont’ be 10 days of planned activities anymore, but five seems likely. That’s enough. And, with local contacts and other travelers to coordinate with, we can probably plan some activities of our own.

I head to the airport.

Off to Sicily

The flight to JFK is pretty normal. Not packed, but pretty full. The Delta lounge at JFK also seems pretty busy, not packed, but busy. (But then, I really have no idea how busy it normally is.)

The flight to Rome is a different story.

Two of us have the entire Comfort+ section to ourselves.

With my own row, I’m really looking forward to a good night’s sleep! Unfortunately, it turns out that airplane seats are at least as uncomfortable to lay on as they are to sit in. Still, it is nice to have room to actually lay down, even if I don’t get much sleep.

The airport in Rome is quiet, but not totally deserted. There are very few flights going out, but the ones that are flying all seem pretty full.

The flight itself is uneventful. Clouds obscure my view of the Italian coast until we reach Sicily. Mount Etna is largely hidden behind clouds, but the green fields and orchards and the stone towns look like something from a painting. (So I turned them into one.)

artistic version of Sicily from the air

This is going to be great!

A not very reassuring beginning

I expect a health screening when I land in Sicily. And, indeed, I come around a corner to suddenly find a mob packed into a corridor. (Not a great way to avoid spreading disease.)

A man in the equivalent of a hazmat suit asks each passenger a couple of questions before sending almost everyone to a nearby woman in a hazmat suit. (A few get to skip the woman and go straight to the baggage area.) The woman holds a device near each person’s forehead, takes a few notes on her clipboard, then waves each one on to the baggage carousel.

It is a slow process.

Since I don’t understand more than a few words of Italian (and most of those relate to food), I know I need to really concentrate on what the man is going to ask me. So, when it is my turn, I look directly at him and await his questions. He just looks at me like I am a moron, waves his hand in the general direction of the baggage claim and/or the woman in a hazmat suite, and mumbles something I interpret as “go.” The woman also waves me on.

Later I learn that no one in our little international group actually had their temperature checked on arrival. Not even those on the flight from Milan.

It isn’t a reassuring discovery.

Catania, Sicily

The trip between the airport and my B&B in downtown Catania does not leave me thinking “Oh I’m so glad I came here!” either.

I already know from friends and other travelers that Catania is a little “gritty.” (Rick Steve’s word.) But, even knowing that and with the cab driver telling me how beautiful it is in the area where I am staying, it doesn’t look promising.

And my B&B, located in an unattractive alley, is equally unpromising. I am welcomed by a super-friendly young woman (everyone says the people of Catania are the warmest in Italy), but the room itself is very plain and very cold – with no heat. Lovely in summer, perhaps, but not very welcoming this early in the season.

On the other hand, it has a very nice view from the balcony. And the tiny shower has lots of wonderful hot water.

So, things are looking better by late afternoon.

Of course, I am hungry, having not had a real meal yet today. Time to check in and see when and where people are meeting for dinner.

The answer: 8:30 p.m. at a fine dining restaurant called Be Quiet.

I get it. This is Italy and 8:30 is a perfectly reasonable time for dinner in Italy. But I want to get out have a snack or beer or something and it would be nice to have someone to do that with.

My Sicilian adventure begin and ends

By 6:30 I am in the main square looking for a woman from Wisconsin named Penny. We are going to have drinks together until a woman from England can join us.

The weather is beautiful. It is unmistakably spring, with air that is soft and warm. And, as dusk settles on the city, the massive Baroque buildings began to glow under the city lights.

I see why my friends love Catania!

But the main square is virtually devoid of people – a pair of lovers by the fountain, a trio of tourists (maybe others from my group) outside the Cathedral gate, a couple of older women drinking coffee outside a small café as it closes for the evening. That’s all.

I send a text to Penny and discover we walked past each other.

The bars are already closing because there are no customers, so Penny and I walk to Be Quiet to see if they have a bar. Not really, or at least, not tonight. But they let us go to our table and open a bottle of wine for us.

Soon Dani (who lives in Sweden) and her mom, Mary (from South Dakota), join us. The woman from England comes in with a few others. Soon the table is filled. There are a bunch of us and multiple heaping plates of food.

group of people around a table

Somewhere between the fish and the meat course our host demands silence. He has his phone to his ear and is trying to listen to a press conference given by Italy’s leader. New measures to fight coronavirus are being announced.

All of Italy, even places like Sicily with no sign of coronavirus spreading, is now a “red zone.”

It is not clear what that means.

Our host, a conference organizer who encouraged all of us to come even after the conference was cancelled, is an Italian who lives and works in London. Nothing seemed to faze him, until this. To put it mildly, this new state of affairs freaks him out: “Get a flight out tomorrow, before they close the airports or ban you from returning home!”

Most of us question that fear. After all, Milan had been a red zone for some time and flights are still coming in and out. And, unlike our host, those of us who are citizens of the country where we reside are pretty sure we will be allowed to return home, although a quarantine might be required when we do. Nomads without a permanent address and foreign nationals like our host have more to worry about than the rest of us. But even then, it seems unlikely that everything is going to completely stop tomorrow.

In the midst of this confusion, more and more people arrive, as others from the group stop by to check on after-dinner plans or rumors they’ve heard at their hotel.

The whole room buzzes as everyone, and I mean everyone, gets on their phone to check flight options.

Someone suggests flying or taking the ferry to nearby Malta. I suggest that Malta already prohibits arrivals from Italy.  But flights are available online, so they book. Does anyone want to join them? (Their flight is canceled the next morning. I think they end up in France sometime later and then home after that.) Amsterdam seems like a good option to a number of people. Or maybe Paris. Others say they are staying put for a few days, after all, Sicily is safe, so why leave?

Staying in Sicily a few more days seems like a reasonable alternative to me too. After all, I could always take the ferry to the mainland and travel by train up to the rest of Europe should the airports actually close. But I don’t think they will close. Not completely. (Spoiler alert: There are still flights in and out of Sicily as I write this, although not many.) What’s the hurry?

Besides, I’m not sure where to go. Paris? (My Delta flight attendant said everything is in bloom now.) Amsterdam? Copenhagen so I can hop over to Sweden and stay in a family stuga near the sea? (But not Finland, since my cousin works in a memory care facility for seniors and it is too cold to stay at their summer house.) Lisbon? (Before this conference was announced, I thought this would be the spring my husband and I visited Portugal. He could meet me there for a few weeks now instead of Sicily, since Portugal seems to be virus free.) Someone suggests Spain, which sounds warm and sunny, but also somehow not a good idea.

I never taste the meat course and the restaurant doesn’t even bring out the desserts.

There is no reason to bring more food. No one is thinking about food. Online airfare prices change moment by moment. Internet and phone connections struggle to find adequate bandwith. And, even if you find a decent fare, airline and booking sites crash under the sudden surge of traffic before the reservation goes through.

I need to go somewhere quiet where I can connect to the internet and think.

A handful of us leave together. Walking through the beautifully lit, but largely deserted streets, we split off one or two at a time to return to rooms scattered throughout the city center.

I am sorry to think this might be my only night here. Should I get my camera and take some pictures in the square? No, it must be late already and I need to decide what I am going to do.

About 2 a.m. I find a cheap flight ($65, including checked luggage) to Amsterdam on Transavia. (Yeah, that’s a real airline. They’re even a Delta partner.)

It is scheduled to depart at 10:20 a.m.

Lane is scheduled to fly into Amsterdam, so it seems to make sense to go there on the off-chance he will join me in a week. It’s also a big Delta hub, so I expect (mistakenly) it will be easy and cheap to switch my Delta flight and return home from there.

The flight is cheap and it seems certain that more of Sicily will close in the coming days.

I book it and began repacking.

Good-bye Sicily

The alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m. so I can finish packing. It doesn’t take long, but I want to be ready to go when the B&B’s staff comes in to serve breakfast. I don’t want to get to the airport late, as I expect a very full flight.

The young woman in charge of the B&B knows what is happening as soon as she sees me waiting in the breakfast room. She calls the cab, packs a selection of fresh pastries for me to eat at the airport, and waits with me outside until the cab arrives. Her other guest is also leaving today. She will close the B&B and go home to sit with her cat for however long this lasts.

As I suspected, the check-in line for my flight is already long and getting longer by the moment when I arrive at the airport. And the line moves slowly, giving me time to consider whether or not my decision was too hasty and what I will do once I get to Amsterdam. (I’d begun looking for a hotel in Haarlem after booking my flight, but decided that could wait until I got to the airport in the morning.) Eventually I realize Penny, who thought at dinner she would stay in Sicily a few more days, is in line ahead of me.

Penny and I eat breakfast at an airport coffee shop.

Dani and her mom are at the gate when we get there. We sit together and talk, jointly considering our options once in Amsterdam. While we talk, I book myself into the same Amsterdam hotel Penny has booked. It won’t be as scenic as Haarlem, but I’ll have company as I sort things out.

Surprisingly, the flight to Amsterdam is not full.

Penny and I both like window seats and we are in 6A and 6E. Whoever was supposed to be seated by me never shows up, so once we were in the air and clouds fill the sky below us, Penny moves into the aisle seat by me.

We exchange stories and get to know each other high above Europe.

On to Amsterdam

The hotel Penny picked is in a nothing residential suburb near the airport. But the surrounding countryside is green, the daffodils are blooming, and the town is tidy in the way of Dutch towns.

Finding the hotel is a challenge for our Uber driver, as it is one floor in a new residential building above retail space in what is essentially a modern pedestrian-only “downtown” adjacent to the old commercial area.

Inside, the rooms are small, but squeaky clean and visually interesting. And they have lots of power outlets. There is a good, fast internet connection in the room (but no desk or table) and a 24-hour snack bar in the lobby for apartment residents and hotel guests. In short, a hotel designed for millennials.

All the rooms are named for destinations around the world. I am in the Shanghai Room, which seems rather appropriate.

The staff is very friendly and helpful, but they find it odd that Penny and I only met less than 24 hours earlier. I don’t think they travel much.

The area around the hotel has lots of ethnic restaurants, including a spot serving delicious Turkish food. Penny is less of a foodie than I, so for dinner I order a variety of things for her to try. It is fun and tasty.

Time to do some touring

The next day, knowing my spouse back home is going to try to connect with Delta to figure out how to rebook me to the USA without spending a fortune. (He reached them as I was arriving in Amsterdam and they said it would cost $2,800. That seemed rather unreasonable, so he plans to try again.) I decide not to think about it and have fun for a day while he waits for a return call (that never comes) from Delta.

Penny and I take the train to the museum district to meet Dani and Mary. Our transfer is in the same neighborhood Lane and I walked when we stayed up that way last year. It feels comfortable to be there.

The plan is to take the Hop-on Hop-off boat (which is different from the boat trips I’ve taken previously), but it doesn’t start as early as the website says. That leaves time for a surprisingly nice breakfast with a view of the (nearly deserted) Rijksmuseum before heading to a nearby canal and hopping aboard the boat.

group selfie in Amsterdam

We think the full boat circuit will take a couple hours, so decide to do the whole route and then go back and get off at places that interested us.

view from the water in Amsterdam

It actually takes 3 hours, so doesn’t leave a lot of time for sight-seeing on foot!

However, we have time to explore Dam Square and wander a bit. At my suggestion we also find Blue (a restaurant observation deck) and have a lovely snack and drinks overlooking the city. Then we walk some more, crossing and re-crossing canals until we decide it is time for dinner at a great little Italian restaurant.

Things keep changing

That evening Lane reports having zero luck reaching Delta. My own research shows that all the reasonable fares I was seeing online tripled or quadrupled when you actually went to book them. But, if I’m willing to hang out in Amsterdam for a week or so, I can book a flight for a reasonable price. It seems like an option.

Besides, a friend who lives north of Amsterdam has offered that I stay with her for a bit. That would be fun! And it would buy me some time until airfare drops again.

And, while browsing Facebook, I discover a friend from home will be living in Catania next year. So, now I know that we will reschedule our Sicily trip for next spring. Things are looking up.

About 2 a.m. WhatsApp starts going crazy. I ignore the first couple pings, but more than that usually indicates something is happening.

Yup. Trump is banning flights from Europe in a couple of days.

Even half asleep that seems HIGHLY unlikely. But it’s evening in the US, so I call my spouse while searching the internet to see what Trump really said. We both agreed that, although that was what Trump said, that probably wasn’t what was really happening. There were going to be flights and citizens were going to be able to come home. But they might require a quarantine if you came back after the deadline.

It seemed I had several options:

  • Go back to sleep and figure it out in the morning, knowing I could stay with my friend for a bit.
  • Look for a ticket that gets me home before the deadline, but doesn’t cost more than $500-$600 dollars. (Not likely.)
  • Find a cheaper ticket that gets me home just after the deadline.
  • Look for a ticket to London and figure out how to get home from there.

Not realizing that Dublin was a good option (since it isn’t part of the UK), the best airfare I can find is a $700 Friday morning flight on Icelandic that would get me into Boston by late afternoon (before Trump’s deadline) or a $500 flight on TAP that has a 31-hour layover in Portugal and wouldn’t get me into Chicago until after Trump’s deadline. It would be nice to see my friend, but the Netherlands, which seemed completely oblivious to coronavirus 24 hours ago, is starting to react too. And I am tired both of responding to friends who think I shouldn’t be here and having to make decisions at 2 a.m.

I book the $700 flight figuring it’s worth the extra cost to get home before whatever Trump has planned and not have to think about more changes or closures!

Good-bye my friends

The next morning I consider canceling my flight. There’s no reason to leave at this moment since I have a place to stay.

Instead I find Penny and discover she also booked a flight in the middle of the night – the same TAP flight to Chicago I’d considered. Meanwhile, Dani and her mom are off to rent a car so they can drive back to Sweden.

Even though it is a cold, wet, windy day, we decide to meet at the Amsterdam Lookout – a rooftop patio with swings and two floors of bars and restaurants with a view of the waterfront.

Amsterdam from the Lookout

It was way too nasty to want to swing (and you can’t take a camera on the swing), but it was an interesting excursion.

After thoroughly touring the facility, we find a lovely restaurant nearby and enjoy one final meal together.

And then Dani and her mom get in their rental car and head to Sweden, via friends in Utrecht. With heavy rains moving through the city, Penny and I forgo more sightseeing and head back to the hotel.

Besides, I have packing to do. And I still need to figure out when and how I am getting from Boston to Minneapolis. I haven’t actually logged in to check email in days either, so I probably should do that too.

(There was nothing leaving Boston late enough to make a same-day connection to Minneapolis, but a few frequent flier miles buy a ticket for the next day on Delta. A ticket that is immediately upgraded to Comfort+. Hotel points cover a room at a hotel with an airport shuttle.)

The next morning Penny and I have breakfast at the hotel before I leave (in the rain).

Returning home

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is surprisingly quiet. Security and immigration are a breeze, but for whatever reason there is a second passport check. (One that passengers could bypass – without issues – if they knew where the gate was and went directly there without following the signs!) That check ended with security dudes asking if you had been in China or Iran in the past 14 days. No one cared if you’d been in Italy.

Beyond the last screening point, the airport feels really empty.

Vacant airport walkway with windows and plants but no travelers

And, sometime between when I check in and when I reach the gate, the gate is changed. There’s no one there and the flight isn’t posted. And there’s nothing indicating whether the flight was moved, changed, or canceled.

As I’m looking around the empty passage wondering where I’m supposed to find my flight, an American college student wanders by and asks if I’m looking for the flight to Boston.

Together we walk back to a more central area, find a board with a different gate listed, and head to our flight.

Despite the seemingly empty airport, the flight from Amsterdam to Boston (with a plane change in Reykjavik) is packed – mostly with American exchange students of all ages who got a call from their parents at breakfast yesterday telling them they were leaving the next day.

Iceland

I am surprised by how happy and relaxed I feel when we land in Iceland.

I wander through the gift shop. Over at duty free I find favorite brands of both skyr and of chocolate. But I also splurge on a salad (no food on Icelandic Air), and a rich local beer.

I love Iceland.

Can I just stay here?

Iceland Air is another matter. After the orderly and professional boarding experience in Amsterdam I had completely forgotten what boarding looks like at their home airport.

Yeah, total chaos with long lines, no boarding area, and security guys questioning every passenger as they ever-so-slowly approach the gate. Oh, and to make it more fun, there are FOUR totally packed flights (including one headed for MSP) departing from adjacent gates. But at least we don’t have to go through a full security screening!

Still, there’s no sense in being part of that chaos. I plop down on a bench by the gate to wait. I wish I’d taken more time to enjoy my beer.

But eventually we are on board and in the air. I get one last look at Iceland as we turn toward the sea.

Iceland from the air

It is a long, packed, boring flight. But it is daytime and the clouds part enough to get a glimpse of Greenland.

Greenland from the air

Seeing Greenland always makes me happy. I don’t know why, because I’m not a big fan of snow and ice at home, but I really want to go there some day.

Boston

With my GOES card it takes all of ten seconds to get through immigration in Boston, but it is a super long wait for luggage. It finally arrives, I call the hotel, and then wait in the cold for the shuttle.

Everything is pleasant at the hotel – a nice, new one in an ugly, boring area. Fortunately, they have a small restaurant with decent food. I sit by the fireplace with my food and a beer and have a nice conversation with another woman staying at the hotel.

Delta upgrades me again the next morning, so I end up in first class next to a woman from Los Angeles who is bringing her daughter back from school. She is lovely and well-traveled and the turbulence we are warned about at the beginning of the flight never materializes, so I feel guilty for not giving up my window so she and her daughter can sit together.

There are signs of spring when I reach Minneapolis. But mostly I’m just glad to be with my husband again and get a good night’s sleep.

Dani and her mom cross from Copenhagen into Sweden about the same time I arrive home, less than a day before the border closes. She’s married to a Swedish national, so I’m guessing they would have gotten into the country anyway, but she was relieved to be on the final leg of her journey up the west coast toward home.

 Penny arrived in the USA two days after me on her TAP flight through Portugal. By then the chaotic mob scene that formed at O’Hare the day Trump’s restrictions took place had completely dissipated. She reported that it took longer to get her baggage than to get through immigration and the health check.

4 thoughts on “Travel in the time of coronavirus”

    1. Thanks! I’ll let you know when I get photos from the Lookout published — or anything else from our time together. It was so nice to get to know you – the time in Amsterdam made the trip worthwhile. Looking forward to visiting you in Sweden some day! Stay well.

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