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Booked: The First International Trip of the New Era

This morning, I woke up with a sensation I haven’t felt in a long, long time: the feeling of anticipation before taking an international trip to a foreign place.

It was a sensation that almost felt a little bit unfamiliar to me, because I’ve remained here in Canada, taking only a few domestic trips from time to time, ever since returning from the Maldives back in early March.

At the same time, there was another distinctly unfamiliar sensation that accompanied it: a faint but distinct sense of anxiety related to travelling internationally in the much-transformed post-COVID world.

It’s with those twin sensations swirling within me that I prepare to embark on my first international flight in over eight months’ time, en route to Dubai for the next couple of weeks.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The Question of International Travel

As we learn to “live with the virus” and seek the correct balance between limiting the spread and finding some semblance of normality in our lives, I’m convinced that travel can be a viable part of that balance if undertaken in a safe and responsible fashion, with due consideration given to the risks involved.

The decision of whether or not to travel – or indeed, to meet up with friends, to dine out at restaurants, etc. – will be unique to the circumstances of each individual. Everyone must weigh up the rewards and benefits against the risks and inconveniences, taking into account the effects on both themselves and others around them on both sides of the equation.

In my personal case, there’s no two ways about it: I’m an avid traveller, I dedicate myself to travel as a key pursuit in life, and I’ve been absolutely itching to travel internationally ever since the depths of lockdown in March and April.

Moreover, Prince of Travel is a travel website that needs travel-related content to sustain itself, and it’s very important to me, as its owner, to be able to speak first-hand to the realities of travel in this new era as we enter it collectively.

I first began thinking about an international trip back in the summer. At that time, much of Europe and other parts of the world had reopened to Canadian travellers, and our own transmission numbers here in Canada were reaching a low point as well.

The way I saw it, if the COVID-19 situation was roughly on par between my home country and my destination (who happened to be welcoming Canadian travellers), then I could plan an international trip in a fairly safe and responsible fashion at some point in September or October.

As summer turned to fall, however, it became clear that a “second wave” of COVID-19 cases was taking shape on both sides of the Atlantic. That culminated in the European Union as a whole removing Canada from its recommended whitelist in October, spelling the end of my hopes of travelling to Europe at some point in the fall.

Meanwhile, Dubai had reopened to Canadian travellers back in July with strict pre-travel testing protocols in place, and with Emirates being one of the few airlines to restore near-full service to their flights, I had half a mind to combine Dubai and Europe in the same trip.

Then, with Europe’s decision to close borders to Canadians, as well as my own decision to push the trip itself back into November due to my move from Montreal to Toronto at the end of October, Dubai became the clear choice of a destination that ticked all of my boxes for somewhere that I could visit on my first international trip of the new era:

  • Welcoming visitors from Canada: Canadian travellers are allowed to visit Dubai with the right pre-travel tests in place. I know I won’t be going to a place where I’m not welcomed as a visitor.
     
  • Taking COVID-19 seriously: Some countries around the world are open to all visitors, but the local government has not demonstrated a willingness to take the virus seriously, and instead promotes a message along the lines of “COVID-19 isn’t a thing around here”. I personally don’t feel comfortable visiting those countries at the moment, even though other travellers may be.
     
  • Clear procedures in the event of contracting COVID-19: As part of its goal to welcome back visitors, Dubai has set out clear procedures for travellers who contract COVID-19 while there. There are government-approved places of quarantine and world-class medical facilities in case they are necessary.
     
    Furthermore, Dubai clearly sets out the requirement for travellers to carry valid health insurance in order to enter – I’ve chosen Manulife’s new COVID-19 Pandemic Travel Policy for this trip, which will provide coverage for medical treatment and quarantine costs should they arise.

Of course, in addition to the choice of destination, there were still several other inherent risks to consider as I weighed up the decision of whether or not to embark on the trip. These included:

  • Risk of contracting COVID-19: Hygiene precautions like mask usage and frequent hand-sanitizing should be a given before considering international travel. Nevertheless, precautions can minimize, but not fully eliminate, the risk of contracting COVID-19 – so was I comfortable with that risk?
     
    In my case, the answer was yes, due to the roughly equal per-capita caseloads between Canada and the UAE at this time and the fact that flying on commercial aircraft has been shown to carry minimal risk of contracting the virus. I figure that if I’m comfortable going out to a restaurant in Montreal or Toronto, which I have been, then I ought to be comfortable with this trip.
     
  • Risk of spreading COVID-19 to others: Not only is there a risk of contracting the virus myself, but the risk of spreading the virus to others must also be considered. I’ll be keeping my interactions on this trip limited to trusted contacts whom I know have undertaken the same precautions as me, and I don’t plan to interact with any vulnerable populations either during or after my trip.
     
  • 14-day quarantine upon return: Currently, with the exception of Alberta, anyone returning to Canada from abroad must quarantine for 14 days upon return. If this policy remains in place when I return in early December, then I’d be comfortable with having to quarantine since I can still get by and get my work done in the meantime.
     
  • Flexibility with travel plans: Because of all the rapidly-changing residency, nationality, and testing requirements for entry, transit, boarding an aircraft, etc., you must have a certain level of flexibility if you choose to travel in the pandemic era.
     
    As a seasoned traveller, I’m no stranger to rescheduling flights last-minute, searching for alternative routings, crashing for the night thanks to SleepingInAirports.net, and so on, so I’m comfortable with the need to be flexible.
     
    (This need is even more pronounced if you happen to be visiting multiple destinations on one trip, so after trying my hand at weaving together a few multi-stop trips through Europe back in the summer, I’m somewhat thankful I’ll only be visiting Dubai this time around.)
     
  • Am I setting the right example for my readers? This is obviously something that I needed to give a lot of thought to, and it’ll be up to all of you to decide.
     
    For anyone who might be inspired or encouraged to plan an international trip of their own, I’d urge you to carry out the same careful thinking that I myself underwent.
     
    As I mentioned, I do firmly believe that travel has a place in the balance we seek in our lives during these tough times; however, whether it’s for family, business, or pleasure, international travel in this era should only be undertaken on the basis of doing everything we can to limit the spread of the virus in the first place.

The Outbound

Now that the big questions are out of the way, let’s talk about the trip itself.

Normally when I’m booking long-haul travel, I look to balance a few different factors when searching for flights, such as the cost and the value proposition of redeeming points, the convenience of the routing, and the quality of the onboard product.

In this new era, the “quality” criterion can mean something very different compared to before:

  • If you’re flying long-haul in a premium cabin, then ideally you’ll want to fly with airlines that are currently offering something close to full onboard service. Even if you have a nice seat, 12 hours is still a very long time to endure with only cold boxed food and limited drink service onboard.
  • Seat privacy may be something you pay more attention to compared to before, with preference given to more optimally socially-distanced seat types than, say, a 2-2-2 configuration in business class where you might find yourself seated next to a stranger as a solo traveller.

With the above in mind, I’ve decided to use the outbound segment of this trip to recreate one of my all-time-favourite aspirational travel memories: the Emirates First Class extravaganza using Alaska Mileage Plan.

Emirates 777 New First Class

I wouldn’t necessarily call this an outstanding sweet spot, as the 150,000 Alaska miles required is very high compared to other excellent redemptions such as 70,000 miles for Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines First Class.

However, I happened to have almost exactly 150,000 miles left in my Alaska balance a couple of months back, and decided to splurge it all on a speculative “extravaganza” booking in November, which I ended up keeping for the following reasons:

Alas, the best-laid plans often go awry, especially during a pandemic. Last week, Emirates swapped out the A380s to Paris for Boeing 777s, meaning that I’d have three of the same 777 New First Class flights back-to-back. Sure, the social distancing is good, but that’s a lot. 

I’m certainly not going to complain about it… but truthfully, I haven’t quite decided yet what I’m going to do:

  • Perhaps I’ll indulge in an almighty bender on three back-to-back flights in the world’s best First Class suite – after everything that’s happened this year, part of me feels like I may as well treat myself and enjoy to the fullest. I’m certainly extremely lucky to be flying downright ridiculous itineraries like this in the first place, and it feels like it’d be a shame to let the “sweet spot” go to waste.
  • On the other hand, if I’m feeling tired after the first flight, I might also be tempted to just exit into Dubai and rest up in a hotel room instead of continuing to fly around for no reason other than the love of flying.
  • A third possibility might be to request a voluntary downgrade at the gate so that I can try out Emirates 777 new business class and write a review of what’s perhaps a more accessible product for flying to the Middle East. But then the social distancing factor comes into play, given Emirates’s 2-3-2 business class configuration, so I’d probably only do that if I could secure a seat without a neighbour.

The Emirates journey begins at New York JFK, which is the only North American destination that consistently gets the newly-refurbished 777s these days.

From Toronto, I booked a one-way flight to Newark for 13,200 Aeroplan points in business class shortly after the new program launched (a nice little savings compared to 15,000 miles before), and a quick call to the New York State Department of Health verified that I was allowed to transit between Newark and JFK on the same day without being subject to the quarantine requirements for out-of-state visitors.

The Return

In keeping with the highly flexible nature of international travel these days, I’ve planned a few different options for the return journey, and I’m not sure which one I’ll take just yet:

  • Back in the spring, I had booked a Delta/Air France/KLM mistake fare from Budapest to Toronto for about US$750 round-trip, which is a pretty sweet deal. I’ve been able to reschedule this to fit within my return journey, and I could tag on a simple Aeroplan redemption on Swiss (preferred over Turkish Airlines, due to their superior onboard catering at this time) between Dubai and Budapest for 45,000 Aeroplan points.

  • Meanwhile, I could also book something like Dubai–Zurich–Montreal–Toronto on Swiss directly for 85,000 Aeroplan points, which would save me a lot of unnecessary intra-Europe flying. Then, I could push back my Air France flights further out for another trip, since Delta has kindly extended the validity of the overall ticket until December 2022.

Currently, I’m leaning towards the latter, since I figure a review of Swiss A340 business class might be more useful than Air France A350 business class, as we can quite easily redeem Aeroplan points on Swiss but not on Air France.

With cancellation policies being so flexible these days anyway, I’m keeping my options open and still have plenty of time to decide. Who knows, I might even return via Calgary so that I can test out Alberta’s new rapid testing initiative and avoid 14 days of quarantine – although I still wouldn’t be able to leave the province and return to Toronto until 14 days after my arrival in Alberta.

The Hotels

I’ll be joined on this trip by my friend Tiezheng from Vicarious Voyager, and as two dedicated purveyors of luxury experiences at bargain-bin prices, it’s only natural that we’ll be indulging in a bit of hotel-hopping to check out Dubai’s thriving hotel scene.

On my last trip to Dubai, I reviewed three hotels: the JW Marriott Marriott Marquis, the W Dubai The Palm, and the ever-excellent Al Maha Desert Resort on the outskirts of town. Now, I have a feeling that Jessy would be a little upset with me if I returned to Al Maha without her, so this time I’ll most likely be staying within the city (although Tiezheng’s glamping recommendations might sway me as well).

On the first couple of nights, I’ve booked two hotels in Dubai International Financial Centre that I’ve heard great things about: The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai IFC and the Waldorf Astoria Dubai IFC, booked with a cash rate of $250 (offset by some handy Amex Offers) and 52,000 Hilton Honors points, respectively.

Waldorf Astoria Dubai International Financial Centre

This would also mark my first stay at a Waldorf Astoria, Hilton’s top-tier hotel brand which I’ve been meaning to try for a long time.

Tiezheng will be joining me after that, and hey, we can only justify the splurge if we save a little first. I’ve therefore booked a seven-night stay at the Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel & Towers, taking this opportunity to burn up two of my remaining Marriott Bonvoy Category 4 seven-night certificates that I earned from the old program back in 2018, which would otherwise be expiring shortly.

The Sheraton Creek may not be Dubai’s most luxurious address, but I think it’d be good to reviewing some of Dubai’s mid-market properties as well, for readers who might travel to Dubai without necessarily buying into the city’s over-the-top glitz and glam factor. Plus, it’ll allow me to spend more time in the more traditional parts of town near the Gold Souq, where I only passed through briefly on my last visit.

Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel & Towers

That leaves us with about four or five nights to go for a splurge, which we haven’t quite finalized just yet. The Anantara Palm Jumeirah, the Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa itself, or a return to the W The Palm are all potential ideas that we’ve bounced around – and if you have any favourite spots you’d like to recommend, feel free to shout them out in the comments below.

Conclusion

At the tail end of a year of turbulence, and after a very busy period in both life and work, I’m looking forward to being able to unwind a little in the Dubai sunshine.

The decision to travel internationally was not taken lightly. Those of you who’ve already travelled outside of Canada before me can attest to the careful thought process that goes into planning the trip, assessing the risks, and ensuring that you’re comfortable with the possibility that a number of things may go wrong along the way. 

Meanwhile, if you haven’t travelled internationally yet, I’d advise you to give similar weight to the considerations I’ve outlined here before making your decision.  

Alas, this “new normal” style of travel will likely be with us for several years to come, even if a vaccine can help things along sometime sooner rather than later.

I look forward to playing my part to help us navigate that new normal through sharing my experiences on this trip, from the premium cabin experience, to the situation on the ground in Dubai, to all of the last-minute changes and surprises in my travels that will inevitably arise.