Over the last 25 years, I've visited over a hundred countries and learned a lot about saving money without scrimping on the travel experience. If you're looking to broaden your horizons and make your travel budget stretch further, then Julia's Travels is for you. To find out more about my work as a freelance travel writer, please visit www.juliahammond.co.uk.
Post pandemic, travel’s starting to return to normal. After a couple of years of lockdowns, border closures and administrative hoops, it’s finally possible to travel more or less as we used to. Except there’s a problem: staffing. To weather the crisis, many travel businesses – accommodation, airports and airlines among them – had to lay off staff to make it through. Some of those haven’t returned and as a result, travellers across the world have faced disruption, longer than usual queues and sometimes lengthy delays. So what can you do to avoid being caught up in it?
Do your homework
Before you book with any airline, do some research. Even a quick Google search might give you a flavour of the current situation. Have they made the news for repeated flight cancellations and if so, have they implemented measures which have resolved the problems? Ditto the airport. Is it a busy hub that’s been struggling with demand, such as Heathrow or Schipol? If so, see if you have other options. Finally, try to find out if there are any strikes planned as industrial action is a possibility too.
Choose your flight time carefully
Certain times of day are busier than others. For instance, London Stansted has a night quota restriction which means it cannot operate as many flights between 11pm and 6am. It’s often very busy in those first couple of hours when the rules no longer apply, so you’d need to factor in additional time to pass through the airport. At a minimum, allow two to three hours. However, this needs to be balanced with the chance of delays, which tends to be lower earlier in the day.
Opt for hand baggage only
Depending on who you’re flying with, you might find carry-on allowances are surprisingly generous. Given that there have been some well documented cases of luggage hold ups or losses, you might find it less stressful to keep your bags with you. Check airline policies carefully as making sure you measure up is crucial. With some low-cost carriers, such as Ryanair, you might find it’s more cost effective to pay for priority boarding where it comes with a cabin bag allowance than to pay for hold luggage separately.
Be organised for security
Security procedures concerning liquids are something we’ve been saddled with for many years, so check what you’re carrying in your hand luggage carefully. Pack everything that has to come out into an easily accessible outside pocket. Wear slip on shoes if you’re travelling to places such as the USA which require most passengers to remove them. Consider purchasing a fast track pass if you are concerned about time. Some airports will allow you to buy one there and then, so you can see what the queue is like before you hand over your money.
Embrace holidaying at home
As we learnt when border restrictions ruled out international travel, holidaying at home can be just as rewarding. Post COVID, I’ve explored ruined castles in Northumberland, hiked to a pretty waterfall in Shropshire, drove the Bealach na Bà in Scotland and had fun with the dog at the beach on the Isle of Wight. And you don’t even need to spend a night away from home. Be a tourist in your own city or local area – it can cost next to nothing to create a holiday vibe and best of all, you can give the airport a miss completely.
Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage was one of the Coober Pedy attractions I was most looking forward to. The sale of Aboriginal art and a modest entry charge help support this South Australian outback institution in the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned joeys.
Animal lovers Josephine and Terry Brennan-Kuss opened their orphanage in 2008 and since then have rescued wildlife in need from an area the size of Germany. Some have been orphaned after their parents died in road traffic accidents. Feeding time kicks off with a chance to interact with the older kangaroos who have a thing for wasabi peas. The spicy taste apparently reminds them of a shrub they eat in the wild.
Next, it was time for Terry to fetch Olly, one of two joeys at the orphanage at the time of my visit. Terry gave him his bottle while we looked on. After Olly had a hop around – and was interrupted from some mischievous munching of potting compost – we got to give him a cuddle. Holding his tail very firmly, he settled back for a rest and plenty of strokes. Unlike the older kangaroos, he hadn’t yet developed a fear of having his ears touched. (When a kangaroo gets into a fight, it throws its head back so its opponent doesn’t gouge out its eyes.)
Olly hopped head first into his bag – mimicking Mum’s pouch – and it was time for us to say goodbye. You can find the orphanage on Coober Pedy’s Hutchison Street. Feeding time is late afternoon.
I visited Australia many years ago, and one of the highlights of my trip was doing the Neighbours tour. Since then much has happened. First, the tour was extended to include the outdoor areas of the set, something that wasn’t possible on the original version. Most recently, news broke that Neighbours was coming to an end after being on our screens for 37 years. That was enough incentive for me to book flights to Melbourne and take the Neighbours tour again. If you’re a fan too, here are some photos from the tour. It runs until the end of July 2022; after that the future of the tour is uncertain.
First up, the street in real life: Pin Oak Court and the houses used for exterior shots.
Just down the road, at the Nunawading studios, you’ll find some of the back gardens plus Karl Kennedy’s greenhouse. In case you were wondering, you can still see one of Sheila’s gnomes even though she moved out.
As you walk in from the main gate and on the set, the first things you see are the cars, including Hermione and an Erinsborough Hospital ambulance, plus the tram.
Next, you pass by some of the less frequently used business sets, including Grease Monkeys, Fitzgerald Motors, the yard owned by Kyle Canning when he ran Dial-a-Kyle and Sonya’s Nursery. There’s an indoor set at the mechanics too, which you can see if you peer through the window.
You might also remember Sonia’s mural, the community centre, these trees and The Hive/Leo’s Backpackers. Also, you can see the university mural featuring a young Toadie (and Harlow) plus a couple of lecture rooms. The sign for the Geography department at Erinsborough High is nearer the entrance to the studios.
However, the main attraction is the Lassiters complex, of course, home to The Waterhole, Harold’s Cafe, the hotel and much more. Some of these businesses have indoor staging too, so for instance you can see the hotel lobby and lift, as well as Jarrod’s office.
When I reached downtown Chicago last night, several buildings were lit in blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. This morning I took a look at a piece of art that’s also a link to this Eastern European country.
This bronze relief is called Chicago Rising from the Lake and it’s the work of a Ukrainian artist called Milton Horn. Born near Kyiv, he came to the United States as a child. The work was created in 1954 and represents Chicago herself. Lake Michigan’s ripples feature at the bottom, a sheaf of wheat is a reference to the city’s importance to agricultural trade, while a bull is a nod to its stockyards. Even the curved bars have meaning: they’re Chicago’s railways, industry and commerce.
It was displayed for a time on the wall of a garage not far from where I’m staying. But despite the significance of the piece to the Windy City, it was torn down and languished in a warehouse for many years before being lost altogether for a time. Eventually it was discovered by a firefighter and then restored at a cost of $60,000.
Today, you’ll find it on Columbus Drive Bridge on Chicago’s River Walk.
After a tough couple of years, it really is starting to look more positive for travel. By making such a statement I hope I haven’t jinxed my upcoming trips, but my inbox is now full of optimistic predictions which have replaced desperate pleas imploring me to “dream now, book later”. I’ve travelled as much as I can internationally since March 2020. At times, that was anxiety-inducing. Would governments hold their nerve and keep the borders open? Would I test positive and throw the whole trip off? Would it feel safe and sensible to travel at all? To keep travelling, I’ve had to change the way I plan trips. If you’re still a little unsure about whether to take the plunge again, here are a few things I’ve learnt along the way.
Embrace independent travel
COVID is the viral equivalent of a shapeshifter and has been a constant headache for my travel plans. Back when I was a teacher tied to school holidays, I would think nothing of booking a scheduled flight 11 months ahead of departure to lock in a decent price. Now, I think that would be foolish, partly because flight schedules are changing so frequently and partly because it only takes one vaccine-resistant variant to throw the whole world into disarray. You only have to look at government actions regarding Omicron to see this in action. But I’ve never been a big fan of package tours. They often unfairly penalise solos and regardless, I prefer to be the one in charge of my travel decision-making. So how does that affect me as an independent traveller? Short answer: not much. In fact, being able to decide whether it feels right to travel without having to convince anyone else is a bonus right now.
Ditch the idea of planning too far in advance
How far in advance is too far? I guess the answer to that one is, How long is a piece of string? In summer 2020, I had an Iceland trip all ready to go and then regulations changed. To avoid a five day quarantine, I ended up bringing the trip forward by a month and replanning everything in the space of a day and a half. At one point during that fraught weekend, I wondered if I should go at all. I did and it was one of the best holidays I have ever had. Empty roads, cheap accommodation and those incredible landscapes almost to myself in such gloriously sunny weather I wondered whether this could be Iceland at all. That was the first post-pandemic trip I made, and it felt like a weight had been lifted.
Accept that things might change
Since then, in addition to some remarkable trips within the UK, I’ve flown out to Madeira, Iceland again, Germany and Austria, Menorca, Sweden and the USA a week after it finally reopened its borders to leisure travellers. Right now, I have international bookings lined up for the USA in March and France in April. I’m looking at adding the Azores and Uzbekistan to that list for later in the year. On my bookshelf are guidebooks to Rwanda, Madagascar and Benin ready for some point in the future. But things change. Pre-pandemic, I thrived on visiting off the beaten track places in unusual destinations. I miss that, but if I’m honest, I’m still unsure about travelling to parts of the world where healthcare provision is patchy and where access can be a challenge. I don’t want to get stranded somewhere. Actually, I don’t want to get stranded anywhere.
Check the regulations with a reliable source
Even though I’m now sufficiently convinced that booking a month or two in advance isn’t a big risk to my finances, there are still a few considerations that are influencing my choice of destination. I’m happy to test in advance. I figure if the result is positive, that still leaves me time to cancel or preferably reschedule my bookings and I’m unlikely to be out of pocket. Testing on arrival, which to be fair I was OK with on that first trip to Iceland, now seems risky, given how much more spreadable variants such as Delta and Omicron proved to be. I’m fully vaccinated and boostered, but though that’s likely to prevent me becoming seriously ill, I can still catch it. I don’t want to test positive the minute I step off the plane and risk that massive disappointment. Similarly, nowadays, anywhere with a quarantine in place is a no for me, for example, as that might imply high case numbers. I use the FCDO’s travel advice pages in conjunction with other official government sites and tourist board socials to get as full a picture as I can of the current situation before settling on a destination.
Keep flights flexible
I’ve always planned trips to be flexible to some degree, but that’s even more the case now. I’ve tried to choose flights with airlines that permit date changes. Over the past couple of years that’s been BA, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic but policies change so double check the small print if you plan to fly with them. Ryanair didn’t offer the same flexibility when it came to planning my Stockholm trip last December but they were so much cheaper and more convenient than other airlines I figured I’d risk it and write off the cost of the flight if I had to. I didn’t, by the way, and the trip went off as planned. Another thing I’m trying to do at the moment is stick to direct flights, which reduces the chance of something changing at the layover destination and preventing inward or onward travel.
Make the most of free cancellation policies
I often use booking.com to source accommodation – just a personal preference rather than a travel writer perk – and they offer to book on a free cancellation basis which has been a real help. You do need to check the dates, however. Some properties offer free cancellation as late as 6pm on the day of arrival whereas others require you to lock in your reservation as much as a week or more in advance – which might be fine for a hotel you’re planning to use later in the trip but not the one you plan to stay in when you first arrive. Where possible, if I have to cancel, I do so as far in advance as I can; more often, I try to move the reservation to alternative dates. I mark crucial dates in my diary, usually a reminder 24 hours before the cancellation might need to be made and double check the situation once more before embarking on the trip.
Manage your risk
Travel insurance has never been more necessary, I’d argue, but read the policy document carefully to see exactly what you are covered for. It’s wise to have decent medical cover and provision for unforeseen expenses should you need to stay longer than planned. Take a close look at those exclusions for cancellations to see if COVID is one of them. You don’t really know if an insurance provider is any good until you need to make a claim, but it’s worth reading their reviews and ratings to see if they help you make a decision on which to use.
Everyone’s different and for some people, it’s still to early to consider travelling beyond their own border. I respect that, though it’s not for me. As visitor numbers haven’t yet fully recovered to 2019 levels, it’s still a great time to see the world, especially those places that typically have attracted large numbers of tourists. Wherever 2022 takes you, happy travels and follow your dreams.