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Booked: The First International Trip of the New Era Ricky November 16, 2020

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.

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30 Comments
  1. Avatar
    grant

    Official Global Travel Advisories
    Avoid non-essential travel outside Canada until further notice
    Avoid all cruise ship travel outside Canada until further notice
    As foreign governments implement strict travel restrictions and as fewer international transportation options are available, you may have difficulty returning to Canada or may have to remain abroad for an indeterminate period.

    Many countries continue to have strict travel restrictions in place, and the availability of options for international transportation remain limited. As a result you may have difficulty returning to Canada. While some countries are partially opening their borders, we continue to advise against non-essential travel outside of Canada. We also continue to advise that you avoid all cruise ship travel outside of Canada until further notice.

    The governments of those destinations that have opened their borders to tourists could impose strict travel restrictions suddenly, should they experience an increase in cases of COVID-19. International transportation options could be reduced significantly, making it difficult for you to return to Canada. There are no plans to offer additional repatriation flights. Should you decide to travel despite our advisories, know that you might have to remain abroad longer than you expected.

    1. Ricky
      Ricky

      Thanks for this Grant. I know you’re only looking out for me, rest assured that I’m comfortable with the risks (and am prepared to remain abroad longer than I expected if necessary).

  2. Avatar
    Smsm

    Hey Ricky, I understand you wanted to use your Alaska before expiration, but did you consider the option of redeeming Emirates miles for a round trip? I think it comes to 225K !

    1. Ricky
      Ricky

      Only for saver space, I think. And hey, why redeem 225K for two flights when you can redeem 150K for three? 😉

      Your point is valid though: after April 2021, Emirates Skywards will indeed be the best option for booking Emirates First Class.

  3. Avatar
    Nisheel

    Hi Ricky, how did you route the itinerary on Alaska? It’s JFK – CDG & DXB is the stopover ?

    1. Ricky
      Ricky

      JFK-DXB-CDG-DXB. No stopovers, only layovers all the way.

  4. Avatar
    Glen

    Not sure if you’ve visited/stayed in the Marina, but I really like that part of Dubai. Not sure what hotels are in the area, but I’m sure there’s something nice

    1. Ricky
      Ricky

      I think we’ll definitely pop over to the Marina/Palm area for the last few days — the only question is which hotel.

  5. Avatar
    SJ

    Are you allowed to transit BUD though, especially on different itineraries? I booked the same mistake fare and had a very hard time trying to figure out of I could enter Hungary and immediately leave on another flight that was booked separately.

    1. Ricky
      Ricky

      Last I checked, transit through BUD is allowed, with no mention of same vs. different itineraries. Transiting on different itineraries is still transiting, though, so I suspect it’ll just be a matter of showing the onward itinerary to the gate agent if any questions are asked.

  6. Avatar
    Paul

    We came back to Canada in March and now that winter has started to rear it’s head, we have also made the decision to travel again. We are planning to spend the winter in Thailand on a 60+30 TR tourist visa. Hopefully by March other places in SEA will be open as well, otherwise we’ll head back. We feel pretty good about travelling from Canada through Taipei (no stop, just transiting) to BKK as both Thailand and Taiwan are doing extremely well with Covid. The thought of sitting on a beach on a Thai island without the usual hordes is extremely appealing right now. This isn’t for everyone as you have to spend 15 days in quarantine upon arrival and show you’ve had a balance of at least 500,000 THB in your various financial accounts over the last 6 months. I believe the Canadian Embassy allows you to include investment accounts for this requirement. We should have our visas this week and then we can apply for our Certificates of Entry. Fingers crossed…

    1. Ricky
      Ricky

      Good luck, Paul! You’re right, a Thai island does sound pretty perfect right about now. I’ll take the Palm in Dubai though…

      1. Avatar
        Paul

        I’m sure Dubai will be awesome. Forgot to thank you for your excellent review of the YVR airport hotels. If we do manage to get visas, we need to get Covid test results within 72 hours of our departure. So the plan is to fly into YVR on a Sunday, get tested immediately, then stay somewhere for 3 nights while we wait for the results (which take 48-72 hours) and fly out to TPE early on Thursday. Your article made the YVR Marriott an easy choice.

  7. Avatar
    Mer

    2 weeks in Dubai? A little too long?

    1. Ricky
      Ricky

      I’d say the same about 8 months in Canada. 😉

  8. Avatar
    Mike

    If your not tied to Bonvoy, check out the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. It’s beautiful, amazing breakfast, private beach, a gym overlooking the Burj al Arab. It includes access to the sister propety next door the Madinat Jumeirah with its gondolas and canals. Wild Wadi Water park is also adjacent. You can book a high tea for lunch at the Burj al Arab while you’re there.

  9. Avatar
    Dana

    Sounds fantastic! I traveled internationally in September, to Turkey. Had an amazing time and couldn’t have timed it better. I flew LX J on the A340 on the outbound and it was absolutely an experience to remember, especially with only two of us in the main cabin.

  10. Avatar
    Al

    Good for you Ricky! I’d travel if I could :(. Anyways Our family loved Dubai in the summer of 2019. We loved the Sheraton Creek- Jocelyn Torino is/was the VIP and Club Services Manager- she is very very good we just dealt with her. We found their lounge very good, make sure to try their afternoon tea.They had a great breakfast buffet as well. They also have a shuttle to Mall or to the beach that you can request. We also stayed at the Westin Mina which was awesome and we got upgraded to the 2 bedroom suite. You should try Atlantis I see they have specials on right now, my kids loved that place, especially the aquarium! Well at least the weather will be nice. It was 49-52C when we were there in August. A bit too hot!

    1. Ricky
      Ricky

      I’ll make sure to see if I can connect with Jocelyn. I think the lounge is closed now but they’re offering afternoon tea and happy hour in the restaurant, so that should do us well. Great tip about the shuttles!

  11. Avatar
    S

    Not sure I would call it a post-Covid world when many countries are currently setting peak case records.

  12. Avatar
    Leah

    You can’t fly through Switzerland. Even for transit, Canadians are not allowed

    1. Avatar
      sash

      I triple checked this and it appears that yes, we can transit through ZRH. There was a loophole that they closed for entering switzerland via transit from a non-high risk country. Think back in the summer USA-Canada-Switzerland

      1. Avatar
        Jason

        Yes, you’re exactly right. Transit is allowed through Zurich as long as you don’t try and leave the airport

    2. Avatar
      jason

      Where do you see this?

  13. Avatar
    Bernard

    1- Grosvenor House a Luxury collection Cat 6.
    2- Havtoor Grand an Autograph Collection Cat 6.
    3- Ajman Saray a Luxury Collection Cat 5 on the beach 30 min north of Dubai.
    4- Ritz Carlton Ras al Khaimah Cat 7. A desert resort each room is a huge tented villa. About 90 minutes north of Dubai.
    5- Waldorf Astoria Ras al khaimah on the beach available for a reasonable price/ points.

    1. Ricky
      Ricky

      Thanks for the recommendations Bernard! Grosvenor House was another one that was on my list, seems like the rooms are getting a bit dated but the lounge makes the hotel what it is. Might be worth a review as a Bonvoy option.

      1. Avatar
        Kunal S.

        There’s also Le Méridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort – Cat 5. and if you’re looking to party, definitely check out their Barasti beach bar.

  14. Avatar
    Alex

    Nice Ricky – sounds like an awesome trip (again)!
    Hopefully, COVID won’t ruin your plans.
    I’ve noticed that Etihad has removed all A380’s from flying till further notice.
    In addition – Etihad has announced today that they will be flying to Tel Aviv, Israel (following their recent peace agreement).
    So I will be looking to use that route to try both Abu Dhabi, Israel and any European country.

  15. Avatar
    JL

    Are you allowed to transfer in CDG these days?
    I’m just wondering if flight transfers are allowed these days at European airports due to COVID19.

Ricky

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