8 Valuable Travel Lessons Learned From Travelling During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Even as a seasoned traveller it’s never too late to learn valuable travel lessons as a recent trip to Japan demonstrated

Each travel experience is different.

There is the utterly awesome, ‘I never want to leave this place’ experience. The flip side is the ‘get me out of here’ experience. Most travel experiences can be found on a spectrum between these two extremes.

However, a return trip to Japan in March 2021 was unlike any other travel experience that I have had.

Within a few days of my arrival, the global Covid-19 infection rate had escalated at a rate that beggared belief. One by one, countries shut their borders and airlines took a red marker pen to their schedules.

A deserted Schipol Airport during the coronavirus pandemic

Ironically, bar some museum closures and cancellation of events, Japan was open for business. However, a prevailing sense of anxiety over the availability of routes home cast a grey cloud over this travel experience.

Ultimately, in the face of the cancellation of my return Finnair flight and the advice of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) urging British citizens to come home, I cut short my trip.

This trip to Japan was what you might call a character-building experience and, even as a seasoned traveller, taught me valuable lessons.

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8 Valuable Travel Lessons Learnt

1. Always have a Plan B (at least!)

It became clear that there was a good chance that my return flight could be cancelled at short notice and that alternative options would be severely limited. In all likelihood, I would need to make a quick decision and be in a position to make a speedy getaway.

My original itinerary was based in Kyushu in southwest Japan. However, it made more sense to make my way back to Tokyo sooner rather than later so that I would be in a position to jump on a flight at short notice.

Crunch-time came the night before I was due to stay in Nagasaki, the second city on the Kyushu itinerary, and eight hours by train from Tokyo.

To mitigate the risk of not being able to make a quick getaway, Nagasaki and the rest of the Kyushu itinerary were jettisoned. Instead, I made a return trip to Kyoto, followed by Himeji and Kanazawa, both within easy reach of Tokyo by shinkansen.

narrow canal lined with foliage and buildings in kyoto known as the philosophers path

2. Be flexible

Flexibility is key and goes hand in hand with having a backup plan. Against a backdrop of momentous global events like this pandemic, you cannot afford the luxury of being wedded to the original plan.

Having a Japan Rail Pass increased flexibility in this trip in no small measure.

3. Wherever possible, ensure that your travel arrangements are cancellable without a penalty

This travel lesson was borne out of a past experience.

I have been stung once before, namely a trip to Lille during one of the largest national strikes in French history. Although Eurostar was allowing passengers to rebook without a penalty, my hotel room rate was not cancellable.

I wasn’t going to get stung twice.

To build maximum flexibility into your schedule, either book accommodation on the road or select booking options that are fully cancellable without a fee.

All of my hotel bookings were made through Booking.com or Expedia were cancellable without penalty. The flight from Fukuoka to Tokyo was paid for with Avios and therefore cancellable without a fee.

4. Take out adequate travel insurance

Flexing my travel arrangements did not incur significant additional expense. However, under different circumstances, this may not have been the case.

Having travel insurance in place is so important, but make sure that your policy includes cover for travel disruption. Many cheaper policies exclude this and could, therefore, be a false economy.

5. Keep in the know

I confess that I became a bit of a news junkie.

Key sources of information are your Government’s website: for example, FCO for UK citizens and Travel.State.Gov for US citizens. The UK’s FCO allows travellers to sign up for Twitter updates.

For a general overview, my go-to resources are BBC News and The Guardian.

As Finnair was updating its information on almost a daily basis, I also checked this a few times each day. And it was a good job that I did as I picked up that my return flight had been cancelled before receiving an email from the airline, buying me precious time to source an alternative flight.

deserted airport terminal building with check in counters and screens
Narita Airport during the coronavirus pandemic

6. Phone a friend 

One of the worst aspects of solo travel is that you don’t have someone with you to discuss problems or concerns. At these times, it can feel very lonely as a solo traveller.

About five days into the trip, I didn’t know what was the correct course of action and picked up the phone to call a friend back home. This was the best thing that I could have done.

Not only was it good to have a long chat with a friend, but it was also super helpful to articulate those thoughts that were, until then, just spinning around my head.

7. Keep in touch with those back home

But this goes deeper than just phoning a friend for advice.

For me as a solo traveller, it is important to keep in touch with loved ones back home. And when world events are as extraordinary as they have been in recent weeks, this is doubly important.

8. Keep a sense of perspective

Having to cut short your travel plans sucks. But the alternative is that you could put yourself at risk of not being able to return home for some time. That would suck more.

But this pales into insignificance when you consider the impact that COVID-19 has had on individuals, society and the global economy.

This is the most important travel lesson of all.