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Imagine planning and saving for an around the world journey and then leaving RIGHT when Coronavirus turned everything upside down. A few months ago I talked with Neal and Madelyn when they had just started their around-the-world trip. They were in riding out a level 4 lockdown in New Zealand. They have since moved on and are traveling through Europe. The journey has been different than they expected but they are making the most of it. I asked them 9 questions about their adventure and what it is like to be some of the few Americans traveling in Europe.
Q: How long were you in New Zealand?
A: Four months. For over two years, my wife and I put together plans to travel around the world for a 14-month trip. Our first two planned locations were French Polynesia and New Zealand for about 6 weeks. A week into our trip in French Polynesia, New Zealand started discussing potential border restrictions. We changed our flight to New Zealand so that we would arrive a day earlier. This ended up being the right move. The New Zealand government would have required self-quarantine if we’d have kept our tickets as they were. A week after we arrived in New Zealand, the lockdown was announced. We were in a small town outside Gisborne.
Q: What was it like being an American quarantined there?
A: The fact that we are Americans didn’t change much. Once we found out about the quarantine, we coordinated with our Airbnb host to extend our stay and they offered a very attractive rate. It was a good partnership for us both, as all of his bookings for the foreseeable future had been cancelled. Clive and his wife were great hosts – they would bring us feijoas a few times a week, and his wife made us some amazing pad thai. Our days were filled with exercise, surfing (when allowed by the government), board games, and wine/beer. We were in the cottage in Wainui Beach for 50 days. It was a great little home for us, with a private lawn and a porch. We were very lucky to have friendly neighbors down the street that we would meet regularly for “socially-distanced” drinks around 4pm a couple of days a week. They made us feijoa cake and cappuccinos regularly. On our last night there, they had us over for curry, and a bit of a “blowout,” as they would say. The day after was the most hungover we’ve been in 2020.
Q: When did you get back on the road?
A: In May, when the New Zealand government announced that lockdown was going to be scaled back, we began travelling around the North Island. We followed the surf and weather forecast, hitting wine regions and hiking areas in between. We were fortunate that we were able to see so much of the country with so few tourists. Most of the kiwis we met were surprised to meet Americans at that time. There were some benefits to being “trapped in paradise.” Our rental car was free for an entire month, and after that, we were able to renew at a cost of $9/day. Most of the Airbnb’s were hurting for guests, so it was a bit of a buyers-market. At the first winery we visited for tastings, we were the first people to have visited since the lockdown ended. We spent a total of two more months in New Zealand after the lockdown was phased down to allow for interregional travel.
Q: What is your track post-New Zealand?
A: Europe! Our original plan was to spend a month each in New Zealand, Australia, and Japan, before heading to Europe for six months. After COVID, Australia and Japan got tossed out – they wouldn’t let us in anyways. Due to some planning, and quite a bit of luck, we were able to enter Europe from New Zealand once the European Commission decided to open their external borders. We arrived in Europe on July 10, and spent the first two weeks in France, a month in Italy, and we’re currently in Slovenia.
Q: What is it like traveling with Coronavirus concerns?
A: Like I would imagine it has for most people, we’ve become somewhat used to it. We’re in Slovenia right now, and we have to wear masks when we go to grocery stores, refill our gas tank, or when we ride public transportation. We pay very close attention to how new cases are developing in nearby countries, as it could prohibit us from being mobile across borders. Aside from that, it’s mostly business as usual for us. The benefits are that there are relatively few tourists here right now. We spent three weeks in southern Italy, and most of the Italians we spoke to were surprised to see us there. “How did you get here?” was their #1 FAQ.
Q: Did you have any interesting experiences to share? What is the strangest thing that has happened?
A: By far, the most interesting experience of the last six months was the trip to Europe from New Zealand. In June the European Commission announced they would begin opening external borders for 15 countries that had managed COVID well. New Zealand was on the list. We were very excited by this news, as we had our hearts set on Europe for the last half of 2020, and we had a leased car waiting for us in Nice. However, getting information about our specific ability to enter, as Americans in New Zealand, was difficult. You couldn’t arrive from America, but you could arrive from New Zealand – what did that mean for us as Americans? Referencing the “Re-Open EU” website, and IATA’s “Travel Centre” often meant finding conflicting information. The Re-Open website might say that “travelers arriving from New Zealand” were allowed, whereas IATA might say “residents of New Zealand” were allowed.” Which was it? We did not want to make it on flights to Europe only to be deported back to the USA.
I decided to reach out to most of the western European embassies in New Zealand to ask how we might interpret the information that was being released. The Swiss were silent. The French were vague. The Germans rushed me off the phone and did not respond to my emails until after we’d landed in Europe. The Spanish embassy in New Zealand, however, was not only responsive, but did everything they could to help us. Their representative asked us for copies of our French Visas in order to confirm that yes, we would be able to enter through Spain as we carried visas to a Schengen member state.
On this news, we booked one-way tickets on Singapore Airlines to Barcelona from Auckland, connecting through Singapore. These were the most expensive tickets I’ve ever booked. We armed ourselves with over two dozen PDF files. These included our communication with the Spanish embassy, copies of our French visas, IATA website references, and anything else that might prove helpful if we were presented with any obstacles on our way. Though the Spanish embassy confirmed we were alright to land in Spain, we still had to convince Singapore Airlines at the check-in counter, the Spanish border control upon arrival, and possibly the French authorities when we drove across the border to Nice after landing.
At the Auckland check-in counter, the pale agent took our passports, laughed, and said “haven’t seen one of these in a while!” We made sure to point out our French visas, which he appreciated. It took him about 20 minutes of consulting with his computer and supervisor, while our heart rates escalated, to confirm that we could board the flight. He finally confirmed that, yes, we could board. The flight to Singapore was completely full, and all transit passengers were given neon green wristbands to wear so that agents could quickly identify us and direct us accordingly upon landing.
The layover at Changi was unlike any we’ve had before. The airport was practically empty, except for the passengers on our flight. Everyone was deplaned and herded directly to their next flights. We were not allowed to divert from directly boarding the next plane, not even to visit the restroom!
The flight from Singapore to Barcelona was almost completely empty. There were no more than 40 passengers on an Airbus A350, which holds over 300. Despite that, due to Singapore Airlines “policy,” we were all placed in the back of the plane, together. We were told we could not change seats, because we were transit passengers, and transit passengers had to be at the back of the plane in a designated section. Many passengers, including us, protested. Why would it make sense to enforce a “social-distanced” 6 feet between passengers inside the airport, but cram us all together on a 13-hour flight? The attendants finally gave us some leeway, and passengers were allowed to move up a few rows to create some space.
We landed in Barcelona around 6:30am, to what was practically an empty airport. I’ve flown through BCN many times, and never seen it like this. We were sixth in line for passport control. After a few minutes of waiting, we handed our passports, turned to the page with the French visas, to the border agent. She reviewed them for a minute, then left to consult her supervisor. Ten minutes later she returned and stamped our passports. We were in! We picked up our rental car and drove the seven hours to Nice. That was July 10, and we’ve been in Europe ever since.
Q: What has been your favorite destination? Why?
A: This is a hard one, but I would say the Puglia region of Italy. The beaches and coasts are beautiful, as is the architecture. It reminds me a lot of coastal Greece. Their tuna, buffalo, pesto sandwiches might be the best things we’ve eaten all year.
Q: Where is your next stop?
A: We’re in Slovenia for another week, and then we head west into the Italian Alps to do some hiking, before meeting friends in Switzerland. After that, we plan to head west to the French Atlantic coast for a month.
Q: How can we follow your journey?
A: We post regularly on Instagram @nealdest and @madalyn_destafney. Follow along!
Are you or someone you know on an amazing adventure? Leave a comment and we may feature the journey in a future post!
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