I haven’t posted in a while, but I’m back from a trip and am ready to start posting some more Yakpacker goodness!
After a long pause of travelling, Mrs. Yakpacker and I started up again last week. We just got back from a trip to Switzerland and Liechtenstein– with a quick detour over to Austria and Germany. A few weeks before that, we went to the beaches of Oostende on the Belgian Coast and went hiking in southern Belgium. While I’ll post separately about those trips, I wanted to share a few impressions of travelling during the pandemic. Europe’s countries sealed borders with one-another in March and only re-opened on June 15. This allowed us to see firsthand how neighboring countries are adapting and cautiously re-opening tourism during the pandemic. We did a road trip, which was a great way to experience the vast raw nature of Switzerland — and avoid public transportation.
Perhaps this will seem obvious, but the thing that struck me the most was how empty and accessible the attractions were. Many scenic spots only had a handful of local visitors, queues were non-existent, and there was plenty of room at restaurants. (Some restaurants only offered outdoor seating, but with the great weather we would’ve gone al fresco anyways : ) In many cities, life continued on as normal, albeit with a few adjustments: masks were sometimes mandatory, hand sanitizer stations were posted at entrances of most establishments, and social distancing signs were plentiful.
It has been interesting to see how the scene has varied among neighboring countries. Below are a few impressions from some countries we recently passed through. (Note– this only reflects my impressions of specific places visited, but naturally it’s going to vary from urban to rural settings, touristic vs. non-touristic areas, etc.)
Belgium: Nearly everything has been re-opened: bars, restaurants, museums, cafes – – everything except night clubs and crowded public events. Masks are mandatory on public transport, but not many people are wearing them around town. While there’s a lower density of tourism, I’ve been surprised to see how quickly things have returned to (a new) normal.
Switzerland: As with Belgium, I didn’t see many people wearing masks and life seemed to be largely back to normal. Lucern was farily crowded, whereas Interlaken was more sparsely populated. We stayed in the gorgeous mountain village of Kandersteg, where we basically had the place to ourselves. It was nice– but a bit eerie– walking around the nearly-abandoned town in the evening. Some attractions (like the Gelmar Funicular) gathered tourists, but no major crowds — and advance reservations weren’t necessary.
Liechtenstein: I’d been to the capital of Vaduz in November 2016 for a bustling winter festival, so it was a real shock to come back and see Vaduz as a total ghost town. The main streets were nearly empty, with only one restaurant filled with people (outdoor seating only). I didn’t see anyone wearing masks here, but I also didn’t see that many people, period. It’s still a lovely place and a fun stopover while in the area!
Austria: We passed through Dornbirn, Austria, which was more bustling with people and it felt more-or-less normal. They had vending machines selling masks and sanitizer in the city center, which was a nice touch.
Germany: We spent one afternoon in Ulm, Germany, where there were definitely more people wearing masks; it was mandatory to wear them inside many local stores and tourist attractions. The city had plenty of local traffic but not much tourism.
Planning Approach: Given that we’re dealing with a brave new world of travel, we took a lot of things into consideration before travelling. Considering the circumstances, we gravitated towards nature-centric travel, rather than spending lots of time in crowded urban hot spots. Other key considerations:
1) Advance Research — We picked destinations that have had sustained (very) low periods of COVID transmission– and have been rigorous about sterilization practices. We also ensured that there were no cross-border travel restrictions or quarantine requirements in the countries we were visiting– or returning to. Note that some attractions are operating at limited capacity and fill up quickly– so it’s best to research if advance reservations are necessary. For instance, we wanted to pop over to the recently re-opened Neuschwanstein Castle, but they’re running tours at 10% capacity and were therefore booked solid.
2) Packing — We brought plenty of hand sanitizer and wipes. We also brought masks, which came in particularly handy in Germany, where they were mandatory to enter some places. We packed a cooler with sandwiches and food to cut down on the number of restaurant visits we would have to make– and to provide flexibility in case we didn’t feel good about the restaurant scene in any location.
3) Hotels — We tried to pick small boutique hotels or big-name ones that will have high-quality air filters. We also prioritized places with the highest ratings in the “cleanliness” category. (Now is not the time to compromise on hotel quality!) (If you have any doubts — ask the hotels what type of air filters they use and how often they’re changed.) Just to be extra safe, we wiped down surfaces with sanitizers upon arrival and kept the windows open at night for some cross-ventilation. We also brought our own pillowcases, but that’s probably overkill : )
4) Restaurants — We ate outside and away from big crowds. The breakfast buffet at our hotel was quite an experience — there were hand sanitizer stations at the front and back of the room, with mandatory plastic gloves at the entrance. There were tape marks and arrows directing the flow of traffic through the buffet area, and tables were designated for specific guests upon arrival — spaced out, of course. The salt and pepper shakers were on a designated platter, indicating they had been sanitized. These measures certainly helped, although I still only took food I could boil myself (such as soft-boiled eggs), or things that were wrapped (yogurt cups, bananas, etc).
Finally — and this has nothing to do with COVID — but I need to vent about the small glass walls that are in the showers of hotels everywhere nowadays. They don’t work! I’m not sure if the people who are installing these 1.5-foot wide glass panels have ever actually tried showering with them, but the water splashes off your body and floods the bathroom floor. My heart sinks every time I get to a hotel and they have one of these, for I know I’m going to use all of my towels mopping up the inevitable lake that is about to form in my bathroom. These things are as ill-conceived as they are popular, and I really don’t understand why so many hotels have them! (Then again, Mrs. Yakpacker seemed to do fine with it, so maybe it’s just me : )