juliamhammond

Julia's Travels

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.

Latest

Why I’m still not booked up for summer

I’ve never found it harder to resist booking a trip than over the last few days. The UK vaccine rollout continues apace; I’m finally old enough to be booked in and if all goes according to plan, I will be fully protected (as much as any vaccine can do so) by mid-June. Of course currently, international leisure travel is banned here in the UK, but each day, my social media feeds and inbox bring news of more countries that will permit entry for vaccinated travellers without the need for quarantine. Everyone, it seems, is competing to have us back. So why haven’t I booked?

Quarantine uncertainty

One thing I learnt last year was that predicting what the situation with travel will be in the weeks and months ahead is fraught with uncertainty. After the Icelandic government altered their quarantine arrangements, I had to reschedule my trip in a hurry, dropping everything to leave almost a month ahead of my planned departure date.

The information about current entry requirements is fairly easy to obtain – my go-to is the FCDO travel advice which is a UK government site updated regularly. From this, I have a tentative shortlist of countries to which I might travel later in 2021. But as coronavirus case numbers change, so too can national policies. In other words, just because somewhere is saying they’re welcoming us now doesn’t mean their borders will still be open in the summer.

Inbound quarantine restrictions are also a factor. The UK government currently have a “red list” of countries which trigger a compulsory inbound quarantine for ten days on arrival in England. Whether that takes place at a hotel or in your own home depends on where you have travelled and the route you take to reach England:

“If you’re travelling to England you must either quarantine in the place you’re staying or in a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days because of coronavirus (COVID-19). What you need to do depends on where you travel in the 10 days before you arrive in England.”

Costs for the managed hotel option are significant and certainly a deterrent- as intended. I’m sure those who have already booked are hopeful, maybe even confident, that their destination won’t appear on the list. At some point, as yet unspecified, this requirement will be lifted, but with case rates still worryingly high in some parts of the world, there are no guarantees.

Testing requirements

The requirement for a PCR test (or two) is an added complication. There’s a lot of variation between countries. Some offer testing on arrival with a requirement to quarantine or at least limit activities until a negative result is received. Others require tests to be carried out in advance, usually within a 72 hour window. A positive result would scupper your holiday at the last minute, as it’s hard to find an insurance policy which would cover cancellation in those circumstances.

Even if it’s negative, it could add a considerable sum to the cost of your holiday. In the UK, such tests should be done privately and are quite expensive. Abroad, the cost of testing varies a lot. Last year, I paid around £50 for two tests in Iceland but nothing for the test on arrival in Madeira. It’s worth doing thorough research in advance to avoid getting a bill you weren’t expecting. Test to release on the inbound leg currently adds another cost.

Vaccine passports

Some countries, tour operators and airlines have indicated they’ll require guests to be fully vaccinated before they are eligible to travel. In some cases, such as Iceland, this removes the need to take a PCR test so long as you carry official proof. Being vaccinated isn’t likely to be a problem for the over 50s, as we’re not permitted to travel internationally until at least May 17th. But younger travellers might need to wait until autumn until they receive that crucial second dose to qualify. Vaccine passports are also probably going to be a requirement, but the precise nature of the document, how to apply and how much it will cost is still being worked out. As with many things during the pandemic, governments are having to play catch up as the situation evolves.

The holiday itself

As numbers continue to spike in countries across the world, quite rightly governments are reacting with local or national lockdowns. When that happens, visitor attractions are an early casualty. Some trips would be worse affected by this than others: the trips I made last year to Iceland and to Madeira largely focused on walking outdoor trails. Aside from dining, much of what I did wouldn’t have been affected by the closure of museums and other indoor attractions.

Hit the jackpot, of course, and you get to experience popular places without the crowds. I visited St Petersburg just before things really kicked off last March and toured its breathtaking palaces with no waiting in line and no jostling to see their exhibits. That was an extraordinarily special thing. But it’s a gamble; if you’ve always wanted to visit a particular attraction but it’s closed, ask yourself whether that would ruin the trip. Had I been in Funchal and missed out on the famous wicker toboggan ride, I’d have been disappointed; thankfully they were able to operate.

The industry perspective

The impact of the global pandemic has been horrendous for tourism-driven companies. Even the most profitable airlines have taken a huge hit and there are no guarantees that routes or even airlines will be around. Make a booking and you do your bit to help to save the industry, but if it all goes belly-up you potentially won’t see your hard-earned cash again. If you do plan to pay upfront, check your insurance policy and make sure you’re happy with the cover it provides.

But many companies are offering flexible bookings, and we know a lot more about who did the right thing in 2020 when it came to refunds thanks to this useful survey by the travel team at Which? If your gamble pays off you can win big. Hotels have slashed their rates, meaning you can enjoy luxury on a modest budget, while outside of peak season, the cheap fares we’ve come to expect from airlines are there for the taking. However, in my experience, last minute flights in 2020 were pretty affordable and accommodation was widely available even on the day, so if you’re not too fussed about where you go and where you stay, there’s an argument for waiting.

But a word of caution: the vaccine rollout might change that for 2021 as costs are always influenced by supply and demand. If more Brits feel confident to travel abroad this summer, the prices will reflect that increase. But last March we couldn’t have imagined a winter booking could be risky, so who knows what the situation will be like later this year?

The new GHIC card

Ever the optimist, in a week when foreign travel slipped even further from our grasp, I’m now the proud owner of the new GHIC card. It replaces the EHIC card, though Brits still in possession of a valid card can use it until it expires.

What does it cover?

The UK government website says:

An EHIC or GHIC covers state healthcare, not private treatment. With an EHIC or GHIC you can get emergency or necessary medical care for the same cost as aresident in the country you’re visiting. This means that you can get healthcare at a reduced cost or for free, but planned treatment is not covered. What is covered does vary from country to country, so it’s best to check on the website. There’s a handy drop down menu for each country. You can also use the FCDO travel advice by country site; the “Health” section has helpful country-specific information. Broadly speaking, though, if the treatment would be free in the UK, then for card-holders it also would be for the countries that are part of the scheme.

Where is it accepted?

Basically, it’s valid throughout most of the EU, but there are some exceptions. The following parts of Europe are not covered by the scheme, but also didn’t accept the EHIC: the Channel Islands, including Guernsey, Alderney and Sark; the Isle of Man; Monaco; San Marino and the Vatican. In addition, UK GHIC holders are no longer covered for treatment in Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Contrary to the “global” in its name, it doesn’t entitle the holder to global cover.

What if I lose it?

The government website is clear that you’ll still be covered but you will need to apply for a PRC, which stands for the Provisional Replacement Certificate. If you lose your GHIC or it is stolen while you are away, then call NHS Overseas Healthcare Services on +44 191 218 1999. Someone will be there to help you from Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm, but not at weekends.

So why do I still need travel insurance?

One of the most costly aspects of a medical emergency or serious incident abroad is the cost of getting home. This isn’t covered by the GHIC (and also wasn’t covered by the EHIC). So for instance, if during the course of treatment you are told by doctors that you can be medically repatriated to the UK, the bill can run to thousands of pounds. Even if that’s not the case, some countries expect you to pay at least part of the cost for your treatment upfront and then claim it fully or partially back later. Having decent travel insurance is vital.

How to apply

Applying is free if you are a UK citizen. Applications are made through the NHS website and you will not need to enter any payment information. However you will need your NHS number or National Insurance number, so have it to hand. The form’s pretty straightforward and only takes a few minutes.

The USA on the big screen

It’s getting harder to write about travel plans and look back on past trips. Though the UK vaccination programme proceeds at a decent pace, there’s still a long way to go before I reach the front of the queue and who knows when I’ll be able to travel abroad again. Lockdown has been tough this time, not least because the ground is sodden from one of the wettest winters we’ve had. I’m fortunate to have plenty of work and much to do around the house. But television and film allow me to travel vicariously and get my USA fix until I can get back there in real life. This list is certainly not a critics’ roundup, but instead it represents some of my favourite movies which celebrate the diverse and wonderful country which is the USA.

When Harry Met Sally

Let’s start at the beginning. Over three decades ago, I walked across the Rainbow Bridge to the American side of Niagara Falls; a couple of years later I returned for my first trip to New York City. It was a few years after When Harry Met Sally was released. As on the big screen, I stood beside the arch in Washington Square Park, ate “what she’s having” in Katz’s Deli and strolled through Central Park. I roller-bladed on the Wollman Rink too, though these days you can only skate in winter, on ice.

127 Hours

Fortunately, my experience of Canyonlands National Park was nothing like that of Aron Ralston and this film, recounting the accident he had in which he lost an arm, is a tough watch. It’s set in Bluejohn Canyon, well off the main highway, which was apparently named after an outlaw called John Griffiths who had one blue and one brown eye. I never made it to this photogenic slot canyon, but the colours of the rock under the changing light bring back memories of the other, more accessible parts of the park I visited.

Unstoppable

I do love a good Denzel Washington action thriller and no matter how many times I watch this movie, I never get bored of it. The runaway train scenes are stylishly shot as you’d expect from Tony Scott but I also love how this film has a really strong sense of place as it represents blue collar Pennsylvania. The “Stanton Curve” which is the setting for one of the most tense sequences in the movie, is actually the B & O Railroad Viaduct linking Bellaire, Ohio and Benwood, West Virginia.

The Horse Whisperer

I’m as much a fan of Robert Redford as I am of America’s wide open spaces, so this film is one I’ve watched many times. Southern Montana, specifically the ranch country at the base of the Absaroka Range south of Livingston, provided the breathtaking backdrop for much of the movie. That said, the opening sequence in a wintry upstate New York lane never loses its dramatic punch to the gut.

Ocean’s Eleven

I’m not sure whether it’s the music but the sequence in front of the Bellagio’s fountains is a splendid way to end a film. I’m not alone; apparently when they won the TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice award for top landmark in the United States over a decade later, the film was credited for reminding visitors of their appeal. Las Vegas has grown on me; the first time we visited I took some persuasion to go at all, but having been to the Neon Boneyard and Mob Museum, I’m now a convert.

Wild

It’s rare that both a book and a movie can have the same impact; often we connect with one more than the other. Cheryl Strayed’s hike along the Pacific Crest Trail was an emotional read but translated well to the big screen. Reese Witherspoon did an incredible job but the trail scenery in Oregon and Washington was unquestionably the star.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

This award-winning film wasn’t set in Missouri. But that isn’t really the point. It was shot near Asheville, North Carolina; downtown Sylva, an hour away, became the fictitious Ebbing. It was chosen as it had a quintessentially small town feel and, I read, the buildings in its main street were close enough together to throw something from one into another. I haven’t yet made it to Asheville, but it brings to mind similar places as far apart as Colorado and Maine.

Nights in Rodanthe

My final pick is also for a place I’ve never been, though North Carolina’s Outer Banks have been on my wish list for a while. The herd of wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs that Diane Lane catches sight of do roam the northernmost Currituck Outer Banks, though that’s not where they are in the movie. Another thing that’s moved is the inn itself. Had Richard Gere survived (oh I wish that he had) he’d be surprised to find it in a different location. It was moved 2 years after the film came out to protect it from future storms.

Do you have a favourite movie that’s set in the USA? I’d love you to leave a comment and share your picks.

This blog contains a mix of images; some are my own but those illustrating Unstoppable, Ocean’s Eleven, Wild and Nights in Rodanthe are sourced from Pixabay.

Get a jump on your travel planning – trips that require forward planning

Right now we can’t travel far, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about it. In fact, some destinations require a lot of forward planning. If you’re keen to tick one of these trips off your wishlist, then you should get started on your research.

The Oberammergau Passion Play, Germany

Oberammergau’s Passion Play only takes place once every ten years and so if you miss out, there’s a long wait before you can try again. In the 17th century, this part of Germany was affected by the plague. The desperate villagers prayed to God and promised to perform the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ every decade, if no one else died. Their prayers were answered and the villagers honoured their word. In 1634 the first Passion Play took place. The promise has been kept every decade, but the 2020 performances, like many events last year, didn’t take place. Fortunately the play was postponed rather than cancelled and the organisers are now taking reservations for 2022. Make sure you buy your tickets from the official website only.

Japan’s cherry blossom

Japan’s dense population makes this a crowded country at the best of times, but in sakura season, things ramp up a notch. The Japanese believe that the delicate flowers symbolise the fragility of life, but also, just as importantly, how beautiful it is. And so everyone wants to go and see it. Cherry blossom forecasts are broadcast on television and hordes descend on some of the country’s most scenic paths, such as Kyoto’s Philospoher’s Path, to catch a glimpse of the pretty blossom. Hotels get booked out and so if you want to plan a trip to coincide with sakura season it’s wise to make some advance bookings. Failing that, ditch the idea and time your visit for autumn to see the fall colours instead.

Day of the Dead, Mexico

Mexico’s annual commemoration of their ancestors takes place countrywide, but some cities cater better to visitors with parades and funfairs. Oaxaca is one of them and to secure a room in the centrally located hotel of your choice you’ll need to reserve a year in advance. A number of hotels, such as Casa de las Bugambilias, put on a special programme of events which includes creating an altar, visiting the cemeteries and watching the fancy dress parades, known as comparsas. When I stayed in Oaxaca I had to be content with a hotel on the edge of the city as that was all that was left. Luckily, I was able to join the Bugambilias team for the excursions even though I wasn’t staying there too.

Inti Raymi, Peru

As with permits for the popular Inca Trail, tickets to the Inca Sun God festival known as Inti Raymi need to be bought well upfront. The parade that passes through Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is free to anyone who can find a piece of pavement, but if you wish to watch the ceremony up at Sacsayhuaman Fortress then you have to pay. The spectacle, which involves a colourful procession and re-enactment of an Inca llama sacrifice, is an unforgettable sight and definitely worth the effort. By booking as early as I could, I managed to get a front row seat. Even then, I nearly missed the start of the proceedings as heavy traffic up to Sacsayhuaman meant I had to jump out of the taxi halfway up and run the rest.

Gorillas, Rwanda and Uganda

When I visited Uganda a couple of years ago I opted to trek to see chimpanzees rather than the much rarer mountain gorillas – just 700 or so remain – that occupy the forests both there and in neighbouring Rwanda and the DRC. Partly, my decision was made on the basis of cost (permits can set you back up to $1500) but also as I didn’t think I was fit enough to cope with the physical side of the excursion (chimpanzees typically hang out much closer to where the trucks can park). Despite what would seem to be a prohibitive cost, permits are strictly limited and do sell out, even in Rwanda where there are more habituated groups of these magnificent primates.

Venice Carnival, Italy

Venice’s carnival is one of the oldest in the world, with a history that dates back to the 12th century (although it did take a break for almost 200 years before being reintroduced in 1979). Today, visitors from all over the world flock to this ancient city for the festivities. Masks are an important part of the costumes, made from leather, porcelain or even glass. Several different styles exist: the white bauta which covers the entire face, the shorter colombina, the medico della peste with its long beak and the volto, heaviest of all. Each has a story to tell. For a conveniently located hotel or a ticket for one of the lavish costume parties, get organised in plenty of time. It goes without saying that the same applies if you’re planning to attend the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Jacmel, Haiti or Port of Spain, Trinidad.

The Afrosiyob train, Uzbekistan

The Afrosiyob is Central Asia’s first high speed rail service. It currently links the cities of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara; it’s expected that the train will continue on to Khiva in the near future (slower trains already run this route). Modelled on the Spanish Talgo, train buffs couldn’t wait to get over to Uzbekistan to try it out. Consequently, tickets often sell out (they’re only released 45 days beforehand in any case) and I’ve read that some unfortunate travellers have found that their tour operator has been forced to switch them to a minibus instead. I haven’t yet been, but following a wonderful trip to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan a couple of years ago I would very much like to return to this part of the world. Then, Advantour took care of my arrangements so I expect to entrust them with my tickets when I visit Uzbekistan.

This isn’t a complete list by any stretch of the imagination, but nevertheless I hope that this roundup has given you food for thought. I should also add that only the pictures of Day of the Dead and Inti Raymi were taken by yours truly; thanks to Pixabay for the rest.

A different kind of New Year’s travel resolution?

There’ll be plenty in the travel media over the next week or so about travel resolutions and if last year was anything to go by (who knows after the year we’ve had?) sustainability will feature heavily. I’m not a one for making New Year’s resolutions anymore, having broken so many in the past, but if I’m forced to come up with something I’d say that next year I’d like to learn to speak Icelandic.

Having spent a blissful eleven days in Iceland in the summer, it wasn’t until I returned home that I realised just how little Icelandic I had heard. Many of the hotel and restaurant staff I came into contact with were foreign nationals and those who weren’t spoke almost faultless English. That’s understandable: tourism numbers have grown exponentially in recent years and with such a small population, I guess it was inevitable that they might have to look beyond the border to fill some of the jobs that had been created.

I’m usually more of a fan of unspoilt nature, particularly in a place where the landscape is as ruggedly handsome as in Iceland. But the beautiful East Fjords port of Seyðisfjörður challenged that somewhat. Sadly it’s been in the news the last few days as there has been a terrible landslide which has caused significant damage to property. Luckily the authorities evacuated everyone in good time but they have been left with one hell of a cleanup task.

I thought it was a pretty little place: my guesthouse was right on the water’s edge and I could walk to the church – an Instagrammers’ favourite thanks to the rainbow path that leads up to it – in a couple of minutes. Travelling in August, the village was just busy enough not to feel like a ghost town yet not so overcrowded that it was overrun. I might have had a different opinion about that rainbow path if it had been. Instead, I ambled along it in a very good mood indeed having just purchased a pair of equally colourful knitted-by-nanas socks. I was enticed away only by the thought of a beer in the sunshine; in my defence the temperatures were uncharacteristically warm.

And so I have fond memories of Seyðisfjörður. When I got home, I was itching to watch the exceptional crime drama Trapped, which actually premiered back in 2015 under its Icelandic title Ófærð. The action in the first series centres on Seyðisfjörður and its ferry. So, I was excited to reminisce and “share” the place with my husband, though it turned out a lot of the scenes were shot in the North Iceland village of Siglufjörður which I had bypassed. Honestly, though, if there’s even the slimmest of chances I’d get to see Trapped’s detective Andri Ólafsson, then a repeat visit is most definitely on the cards. Season 3 is currently in production and due to air sometime in 2021.

But I digress. The show is subtitled for international audiences, rather than dubbed, so it was only then that I became aware of what I had missed. Icelandic is a delightfully melodic language and one that I could listen to just for the sake of the sound. But it’s also fiendishly difficult to pronounce, as we found out when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull blew its top a decade ago. It doesn’t help that the Icelandic alphabet has 32 characters: no c, q, w or z but letters like æ, pronounced i and þ, pronounced th.

There are even whole words where we don’t have an equivalent – like dalalæða (valley-sneak fog) or sólarfrí (an unexpected day off when it’s sunny). Others are literal translations that just wouldn’t work in most places. Take Sauðljóst, for instance, which describes the pre-dawn haze as “the time of day when there is just enough light to see your sheep.” There are phrases too, such as Þetta reddast, which strictly speaking means it will all work out fine, but more often is used when the exact opposite is the case.

All is not lost, however. Fortunately for those who intend to stick to their resolutions (not saying whether that will be me), there are similarities between some words. Fiskur means fish, hús can only be house, dóttir is not dissimilar to daughter, fjall and fell (as in our northern hills) are obviously connected and vegur (which you’ll see on numerous road signs) translates as way. And as we quickly learned from Trapped – not to mention another gripping Nordic noir series The Valhalla Murders – there are plenty of English words that Icelanders have adopted. One of these loanwords (þriller) even means thriller.

So check back in next December and see how I’m getting on. After all, it doesn’t look like I’ll be travelling for a while, so I may as well make use of the time.