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Pro tips for 2022 pandemic journeys gleaned from an epic trip

Pro tips for 2022 pandemic journeys gleaned from an epic trip

Published on

03 Jan 2022

Published by

The Straits Times


Santa did not knock on my hotel room door on Christmas morning. Instead, a woman in green medical overalls showed up with a Covid-19 test kit. That was my 11th test in four months of travel in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.

 

It is now the mid-point of my eight-month trip that started in early September last year. So far, I have crossed eight borders, searched frantically for Covid-19 test centres in chaotic Caribbean port towns and scraped through nail-biting applications for pre-approval to travel.

 

Dear travellers, I thought the world may have changed. I am wrong - the tourism realm is still evolving, with health rules spinning faster than people can grasp. The world's most despised name morphed overnight from Delta to Omicron.

 

Still, travellers are hoping to explore the world this year. Pandemic journeys are possible with proper precautions and pro tips.

 

Here is what the world of travel is facing.

 

1. Airfares remain cheap, but inflation rears its ugly head

 

I paid $200 for a 700km half-empty British Airways flight from the Caribbean's most industrialised country of Trinidad to the sailing hub of Antigua. But the 20km ride from Antigua's airport to my hotel cost a whopping $65.

 

"Our costs have gone up by 30 per cent since Covid-19 started. Higher fuel costs, sanitisers, limited seating capacity," rattles off taxi driver Sammy Drake. He points to the plexiglass he has installed to create a safety cocoon in his cab.

 

My thoughts drift back to the $15 I paid for a ride of barely 3km in St Vincent and the Grenadines the previous week.

 

While there is a sense that the cab drivers are trying to make up for 11/2 years of lost tourism dollars, inflation is getting ugly. Food prices are being pushed up by higher logistics costs, overheads and hefty local taxes.

 

At the local supermarket in Grenada, I am stumped that an imported can of Diet Coke cost $2.60 - while its local beer is half the price.

 

At a laid-back beachside restaurant in St Vincent and the Grenadines, I eat what is possibly the most expensive piece of dough of my life - a $72 lobster pizza. It is delicious but has me poking about earnestly for the star ingredient.

 

The locals are not spared. I struggle to do the maths on how they make ends meet, as tourism struggles to reopen, local wages remain stagnant or reduced, and layoffs continue. In Economics 101, the Caribbean islands seem to be wading towards stagflation.

 

Pro tip: Food is the social fabric of the community, so eat like a local.

 

One satisfying meal in the Caribbean is the beloved Trinidadian street food called Doubles. Indian in origin, the dish has two flatbreads slapped together and filled with curried chickpea and various chutneys. And its price is fixed at 90 cents throughout the country.

 

Eat what is in season. When I was there, it was Caribbean spiny lobsters, huge as a human head. A wriggling lobster weighing 1.4kg cost about $70 in restaurants, half or less what it does in Singapore.

 

Even better, suss out the spear fishermen who return to shore early afternoon and buy fresh seafood from them at half the restaurant's prices. They will even clean the fish for you. Then take the fresh fish to a friendly restaurant to be cooked.

 

For transportation options, check out Rome2rio. This excellent platform searches cities, towns, landmarks, attractions or addresses across the globe to get people from A to B. It provides options and even difficult-to-find public transportation schedules.

 

Always do a quick subject-matter search on Tripadvisor Forums where locals share useful information.

 

But my first stop for any destination is Wikitravel, the open-source travel platform. The whole world is at your fingertips.

 

2. Booking hotel rooms on third-party platforms can be tricky. Some research easily pays off.

 

Hotel rates have crept up as travellers trickle back. My default hotel stays are the global brands - Hyatt and InterContinental Hotels Group - for their product consistency, service delivery, global presence, flexible changes and, most of all, the membership perks such as free upgrades and reward nights.

 

Outside these brands, I turn to third-party booking platforms.

 

Previously, platforms would quote room rates inclusive of taxes and fees. But now, with consolidator search engines scanning for the lowest prices, the third-party platforms sneakily quote room rates in bold, and tuck away the additional fees and taxes in fine print.

 

Prices can range drastically from platform to platform. Some offer bigger discounts, free breakfasts or even free stays. For example, Hotels.com, a unit of Expedia, offers a 10th stay for free - based on average value of the earlier nine stays. Be aware that it partially claws back the "free stay" by bumping up its quotes occasionally.

 

The price difference, for the same room type, can be staggering. For example, using the Booking.com mobile app resulted in a substantial US$307 (S$410) difference versus the most expensive quote by Agoda.

 

For this eight-month trip, I expect to book at least 150 nights via third-party booking platforms. If I am blindsided by US$50 every night, that is US$7,500 down the drain - the research pays off.

 

Pro tip: When searching among the booking platforms, make sure you compare the room types, freebies and cancellation policies. For a recent stay in St Vincent and the Grenadines, Booking.com offered a garden view room while Hotels.com quoted the same price, but it was for a premium marina/sea view room with breakfast thrown in.

 

Also, the various platforms may list different sets of properties.

 

And even if the property is not available on the platform, you can contact the hotel directly to check for availability or deals. I have cut deals directly with hotels at lower rates since they are slapped with commissions of up to 30 per cent for listing on the platforms. Finally, check the mobile apps - Booking.com has many special rates on its mobile app that are not available on its main webpages.

 

3. Brown-paper bag breakfast and reduced services at hotels

 

When I started my trip in September with visits to the US and Canada, the reduced hotel and dining services was a dark reminder of the pandemic.

 

Those leisurely, sumptuous breakfast buffet spreads disappeared. They were replaced by breakfast in brown paper bags. And even if you spend US$300 a night for your accommodation, do not expect daily housekeeping. You need to make a request. Happy-hour cocktails and canapes on the executive floors of hotels evaporated or got toned down.

 

Many restaurants across the US, especially in smaller cities, are open only during the weekends. The twofold reason: Business has not returned to previous levels and it is hard to recruit service staff.

 

In North America, many workers got cosy with their unemployment benefits, readjusted their lifestyle or decided to move on to other jobs.

 

Pro tip: It still pays to stay with the global hotel chains. For example, in lieu of their closed club floors, some Hyatt properties compensate their guests with food credits which they can use for room service or at their restaurants which have remained open.

 

And as business travellers have not returned in force, room occupancy has not fully ramped up and it is easy to redeem those reward stays. Plus, you get more attention.

 

4. The dreaded 72-hour timeline: Every traveller's bane

 

After my multiple international border crossings, here is the low-down of what I experienced.

 

Rule No. 1: If you are not vaccinated, forget about travelling. Many countries lock out the non-vaccinated visitor, even if you are willing to quarantine.

 

Rule No. 2: A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) Covid-19 test is mandatory and must be taken within a 72-hour window before your flight. There are only a handful of countries such as the US that accept the cheaper and faster antigen rapid test.

 

Rule No. 3: When you check in for your flight, the counter staff may want to see your exit ticket from the destination.

 

I had a harrowing experience in Toronto when I checked in for my flight to Barbados. The counter staff refused to issue my boarding pass since I had not purchased a flight out of Barbados. It was nerve-racking at the airport as I scrambled online to book an exit ticket.

 

Pre-Covid-19, I normally got away by showing my round-trip Singapore Airlines ticket to return home. Now, both the counter staff and the border officers may ask to see the exit ticket.

 

Rule No. 4: Many countries require that you submit your PCR test results, vaccine certification for travel pre-authorisation 24 hours before your flight to their destination.

 

This is a logistical nightmare as not all countries can guarantee a quick turnaround of the PCR tests. To be safe, the test must be done within the first 24-hour block. In countries with limited resources, the laboratory may take a further 24 hours to turn around the results. This narrows the window for the submission of the application for pre-authorisation.

 

However, some Caribbean nations can be standard bearers too. In Barbados, the use of technology was all-encompassing. Travellers scan their passports onto a reader in front of the immigration officer, who is shielded within a glass capsule.

 

All entry and exit data are digitally captured - the passport is not even stamped and there is no physical handling of the passport.

 

Pro tip: Prior to entering a destination, I research its PCR testing centres and their booking requirements.

 

Recently, I had a nail-biting experience trying to arrange a PCR test in Antigua for my onward destination of St Kitts and Nevis. At the time, I was still in Trinidad, but found out too late that Antigua requires a seven-day notice for a PCR test appointment.

 

The situation was compounded by the public holidays over the festive period. In this scenario, I was unable to meet the 72-hour testing window for travel from Antigua to St Kitts.

 

But since PCR tests are readily available in Trinidad, I took two tests instead. The first test was to gain entry to Antigua from Trinidad and a second test, a day later, was for the onward journey from Antigua to St Kitts.

 

Thankfully, the second test was within the 72-hour window, with just 15 minutes to spare.

 

Always research in advance on the availability of PCR tests, turnaround time and their testing regimen, especially when the destination is remote. Never leave tests to the last minute.

 

5. Covid-19 tests come to you

 

Hotels are providing more testing convenience to travellers. In Barbados, I did my PCR test in the Radisson Aquatica even though I was not staying there - it saved me the hassle of a trip to the lab. My result was e-mailed within four hours and, at $135, it was the cheapest test I have done to date.

 

In St Vincent's outer islands, high-end resort Bequia Beach Hotel invested in a PCR machine and set up the necessary lab accreditation.

 

In Hyatt Regency Trinidad, my Christmas morning wake-up call was a Covid-19-test medical worker knocking on my door. I was grateful the hotel also arranged the second test at short notice, when it heard about the testing issues associated with Antigua. Both tests cost even less than what the lab at the airport was quoting.

 

Curious about the PCR testing business, I quiz Mr Richard Ramrekha, who did my second test at Hyatt Regency Trinidad. The busy man has a string of labs that does more than 300 swabs a day - a staggering turnover of more than US$40,000 each day.

 

"A PCR test machine may cost between US$50,000 and US$60,000, but the overheads and consumables are very high," he protests, when I remark that it is a good return on investment. I get my results within four hours - it costs me $166.

 

Somehow, I spy a twinkle in his eye. In such times, with no end in sight, those machines seem like sound investments.

 

The testing regimen will continue. Here is a note to the travel and health authorities: If you want travellers to return, do set up a safe, efficient and cost-effective system. Perhaps a trip would make a good reality check.

 

The writer has stumbled upon Covid-19 testing machines costing less than US$2,000 online. He is now figuring out the accreditation process. 

 


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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