The travel machine has started up, a bit hobbled by the historic pandemic, but it’s running, slowly and quite differently than before, but for those with the travel bug, it’s a matter of sanity to get out there again. After learning how to spin plates while counting backwards, I thought I’d share my pre-trip planning experience to prevent others from suffering needlessly.
With pandemic restrictions still in place around the globe, it’s wise to check country-specific entry restrictions before booking a flight, but know that situations can change about every two weeks. Restrictions could also lessen or worsen in the time between booking and departure day. The name of the game is to monitor the country’s entry rules webpage and stay agile.
Choosing your Destination
The first thing I do to choose my target destination is to check Skyscanner’s Travel Restrictions tool. By entering your departure airport, you can view a map in color-coded levels of restrictions, followed by a list of “greens”, which are countries with the lowest level restrictions. Secondly, I think about time in situ, meaning, how long do I have to wear PPE on planes, trains and public transport to get there. For this year, I’m choosing closer destinations to lessen that time and booking only direct, non-stop flights. Thirdly, I’ve extended my length of stay at destinations to make it all worthwhile. I think the time for international short escapes is on hold for now, in my opinion. Short trips are easier to keep local and in your home country.
Preparing for your Flight
This will involve any combination of these things:
- Vaccination card
- Pre-flight negative Covid-19 test result
- Country specific entry form
- Proof of medical insurance, or buying country specific medical plan
- Passport and ticket, as usual
Airlines have taken on some responsibility for keeping their passengers informed about the requirements for entry, so check their websites or install their apps, so they can notify you if things change. Wait times at check-in counters are longer now with all this additional paperwork, so it’s in their best interest to prepare passengers to have all their papers in order before they get in line. It’s not unreasonable to arrive three hours early.
Once you arrive at your destination, you may be asked to report your daily temperature, install a monitoring app or stay quarantined for some days. It all depends on the country.
If you plan to travel internationally right now, there’s a lot more to think about, but the benefits are worth it. For instance, our beach in Sint Maarten is often empty, sometimes a few people, between 5 and 20, show up, depending on the day of the week. I think we travelers have a short window right now, where A-list attractions are seriously uncrowded. This reminds me a German proverb: “Nur die Harten kommen in den Garten”. Roughly translated, it means “only the strong survive”. It certainly feels that way to me.
Sint Maarten/Saint Martin
As you might know, Sint Maarten is the Dutch side, and Saint Martin is the French side of one island. Travel between the two is seamless, but the roads are pretty bad with many speed bumps to force you to slow down. The sidewalks are equally bad, made worse by cars parked on them. Wear sturdy shoes, otherwise it’s easy to twist an ankle.
Since we stayed in St. Maarten for three months, we experienced a little bit of what it’s like to be a local. Most tourists will hit Maho Beach to see airplanes fly a few hundred feet over their heads, which we did, of course. And we spent many an afternoon on the beautiful beaches.
But we also used the very slow postal service, tried to recycle our plastic and glass to no avail, and struggled with intermittent internet and water outages.
Advice: if you are receiving mail or want to send mail anywhere, use a private carrier. I had a letter sent to me by USPS end of May, and it’s still not here mid-July. I don’t expect to see it before I leave the island.
One of my frequent sayings is “teeth happen”, and I have a love-hate relationship with dentistry. I love beautiful healthy teeth, but I hate someone fumbling in my mouth with needles and drills. One of my teeth decided to make itself known while I was here, so I listened to some advice from locals and chose a dentist on the French side. My visit was interesting, no frills, in and out, and very cheap. The dentist did not speak English, so his Dutch assistant, translated for us. As a rule, you can rely on the Dutch to speak English very well. After my tooth was fixed, I paid, what in the U.S. would be the amount of my copay, confirming what I already knew, that U.S. medical and dental expenses are the most costly in the world.
Car rental is another issue to be aware of. Both sides of the island have high rates of car theft. We met two people during our stay whose cars were stolen. One of the victims was then doubly victimized when the rental agency charged the full cost of the vehicle to his credit card. Mon Dieu! We used our two feet to get around, except for a few taxi rides and bus trips. Buses are the best way to get around on this island. For around $2 you can get from A to B, and they are sweet rides, tidy and clean.
Something not to miss for those Star Wars fans out there is the Yoda Museum in Philipsburg. The creator of the Yoda character, Nick Maley, lives here on the island and has created a cool little museum of Star Wars paraphernalia to gawk at. Loved it!
If I had to summarize St. Maarten/Martin in one sentence, I’d say it’s a party island for beach bums who like to shop.
There are three islands within reach by ferry from St. Maarten: Saba, Anguilla and St. Barts. The later being the only one that didn’t require a Covid-19 test or entry form, so the decision was easy.
We booked our ferry with the Great Bay Express Line, and it took about an hour to traverse the distance between and dock at Gustavia, the port town on St. Barts.
The island is very French, with lots of shopping and restaurants right in Gustavia.
A short walk away, we visited the Wall House Museum which had an art exhibit.
It was really just a short break from the heat, nothing much to speak of, but they did have an ancient cotton gin that I found interesting.
We humped it up to Fort Oscar expecting something like a tour, only to find out it’s a functional Gendarmerie. Pooh.
If all that walking is too much for you, just give up and go to the beach. They’re everywhere.
As we were talking to people on the beach one day, the topic of Covid testing came up, as it does. Someone wanted to know what the testing time window was before departure. And there she was, a woman who didn’t realize that there would be any entry requirements for her to go back to her home country. Lucky for her, she stumbled into the conversation and saved herself money and grief. Those Covid tests cost anywhere from $100 to $150. Taking them multiple times, the money adds up. And, even if you think you know your re-entry requirements, they could change while you’re away, so keep checking those notices!
Special Note about the Pandemic
This is my first post-pandemic trip, if I may say that yet, not sure. For so many around the world, the pandemic is going strong. I recognize that and empathize. But after being fully vaccinated, I felt different, still cautious, but less stressed and anxious. We wanted to live, to travel, after being isolated in a small apartment for a year, which was, as a lot of you know, an exercise in patience.
We chose a destination where we could continue to isolate, where Covid numbers were low, and the flight was direct and short. We still don’t eat out in restaurants or go to crowded areas, as a rule. We made a few exceptions here, at the beach and restaurants with outdoor seating. Thankfully, there is a constant breeze here.
The travel experience isn’t what it was pre-pandemic, but right now, we can’t expect much more. We have to be respectful of the situation, especially in the countries we travel to. Expect frequent changes, follow the rules, and think things through a bit more than you used to. It will pay off in the end.