Stranded Abroad: How to Navigate COVID-19 While on Holiday

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Hopefully you will never need this guide. Hopefully you are home and safe right now. Hopefully we will never see another pandemic like COVID-19 in our lifetimes. But we have a story to tell, regardless.

Ever been on holiday while a pandemic sweeps the world? No? Me neither! That was until last week when I was stuck 5,000 miles across the world, while the coronavirus took hold of the planet. Here, I’ll take you through exactly what happened, and how I got home.

It all started on 10th March, a date I’d been looking forward to for months. Admittedly, we knew the coronavirus situation around the world was worsening, but cancelling our holiday plans at this late stage was not advised by the government, nor did we want to, so we hopped on a plane to San Francisco – a very empty plane at that.

Empty aeroplane due to Covid-19

After speaking with an air steward, we were told that the plane was only filled to a quarter of its total capacity, with less people in economy than in the premium classes put together. This subsequently meant that we had a whole section of the plane to ourselves. At this point we realised how seriously people were taking the situation, but we were also shocked considering there was no reference in the news to travel outside of the UK not being advised. Regardless, we were on the plane and ready to embark on the trip of a lifetime.

At this stage, the only European country that the US was not accepting visitors from was Italy. Even the officer at border control was shocked that our flight from London was so empty. There was clearly very little panic in the state of California at this stage – oh, what a difference 10 days can make.

We spent every day in San Francisco as we had intended: riding the cable cars, cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge and taking a trip over to Alcatraz. The city was quieter than we had expected, but we saw this as a positive. Less tourists meant less waiting around, less crowds, and less anxiety about the virus, plus – great pictures.

On the day we were due to leave San Francisco for Monterey, 14th March, Trump suspended all flights from the UK, due to take effect from the following Monday. At this point, it was unclear as to whether this included flights to the UK, so the only thing we could do was play the waiting game, and continue to our next accommodation.

The Bixby Bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway

We spent two days exploring the Pacific Coast and the joys that Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea had to offer, but on the morning that we were due to leave for LA, the Monday, we were notified that our flight had, indeed, been cancelled.

This was obviously worrying news. We wondered whether we’d be able to get back at all, and if all flights were blocked from the US until further notice. It was also not a good day for this to happen as we intended to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles, and therefore had little-to-no service on our mobiles. We kept in contact with family as much as possible, but the airline refused to speak with anyone who wasn’t flying within 72 hours, meaning we had to wait until the following day to speak to someone.

Again, it was a matter of playing the waiting game. The key thing to remember at this point is that we were halfway through a holiday – the holiday of a lifetime that we had been planning down to the hour for months. But believe it or not, the prospect of being stuck on holiday with no way home can really have the ability to ruin the remainder of your time abroad. But this was something we were determined not to allow happen. We continued to smile, took pictures at every opportunity, even through the pouring rain and grey skies (pathetic fallacy, I know). The thought of not knowing was the fact that worried us most, and the thought of having to fund more time in another country.

Beach hut at sunset on Santa Monica Beach

We arrived in Malibu as the sun dipped behind the sea, and LA went dark – in many senses of the word – though, we weren’t aware of it at this point. We’d secured some back-up accommodation with family, should we not be able to get back on Friday. This somewhat put our minds at ease, but as we drove through La La Land, the city where dreams are made, our hearts sank. Every restaurant was shut, every bar was closed, the traffic was much smoother than we expected. I checked the news and the city had been placed into a soft lockdown. This meant all restaurants were to close immediately, all attractions had shut down days before, and the people of the city were told to practise social distancing.

As you can imagine, this proved challenging when it came to exploring the city. The only places we could get food were takeaways. We couldn’t cook, as we didn’t have the facilities in our accommodation. Thankfully, at this stage, public spaces were still open, so we were able to walk to the Hollywood Sign, wander Venice Beach Boardwalk, visit Santa Monica Beach, and even walk around the outdoor areas of the Griffith Observatory, all things that we wanted to do. However, many things had to be removed from the list, including a trip to Universal Studios, brunch in Beverly Hills, and much to my boyfriend’s disappointment, a Lakers game. Considering all of this though, we really made the best of it. We tried a different takeout every night, ate lunch on Malibu Beach and ticked what we could off our list including a drive through the mansions of Bel Air.

Hollywood Sign at sunset from the Griffith Observatory

On our second day in the city, we were able to transfer our flight to an alternative departure on the same day. This was a welcome relief and allowed us to enjoy the holiday in the knowledge that we could return home on the day we’d intended. However, each day, more restrictions were imposed on the people of California, until Friday when a ‘stay at home order’ was issued by the governor for the entire state. This was the nail in the coffin, but it thankfully fell on our final day, so we took that time to pack and get ready for the long flight ahead of us.

The state of California has been about four days ahead of the UK in terms of lockdowns and orders imposed. The beach car parks, city parks and trails have now also been shut, to discourage people from leaving their homes at all. It is believed that the USA could become the centre of the pandemic, following from Italy, if the virus continues to grow as it has done so far.

Our flight back was emptier than we thought it would be, but luckily for us that meant a free and unexpected upgrade. Every cloud, hey?

What did I take away from the whole experience? To stay positive and to stay calm. The way we saw it, we still had half a holiday to enjoy, which we had been looking forward to for the best part of a year. Secondly, there was no way our airline or the British Embassy would leave us stranded abroad without accommodation or money. Thankfully, we did have back-up accommodation, but we also had insurance, and that is key.

Please, never go on holiday without insurance, because, as you can see, the unexpected does happen.