With our four weeks' stay in Split drawing its conclusion soon, we started to look at "what's next" options. In normal times, we would just pick a location, book tickets and accommodation and off we go! But in this COVID-19 era, the planning process turns out to be very time consuming, emotion-draining and requires a flexible mindset and a lot of lateral thinking ability.
Compared to folks back in Australia, we considered ourselves the lucky ones as we still have the freedom to travel, unlike them who are not allowed to get out of the country possibly until mid 2021. The tradeoff is the uncertainty - border control policies in each country change fast due to the COVID situation in that particular country or other countries - so we always have to deal with the first question "who will let us in?" The choices are very limited and depressing these days. After spending quite some time reading through current country updates, we would gather a list of "open" countries and then check how they are doing in fighting the virus and if visiting them would impose any limitations on our future travels, i.e., is that country currently on anyone's "red list".
Initially we planned to go to Slovenia after finishing off the stay in Croatia, considering it's next door and relatively safe in terms of Coronavirus situation, plus we are always been drawn by its beauty and had planned to go in June, but had to cancel because the country was shut down to foreigners. Things were looking positive for quite a while as both Croatia (country of arrival from) and Australia (citizenship) were on their "green list", which guarantees no restrictions to enter.
However, Slovenia recently put both Croatia and Australia on their "yellow list", which means we would have to self isolate for 14 days after entering the country. After some further reading and map study, we quickly worked out a solution to get around this hurdle - we could do a detour by first visiting Austria (country of arrival from) which is on Slovenia's "green list" and then head to Slovenia. Since Croatia is on Austria's "green list", we would have no problem to enter Austria. And since UK is on Slovenia's "green list", Brad's UK passport (citizenship) would be able to get us into Slovenia via Austria.
(Just a side note: Slovenia put Australia and Croatia on the "yellow list" while keeping the UK on the "green list", considering UK is doing much worse than both of the countries, where is the logic for those lists? - go figure!)
We rang the Slovenia border control hotline just to confirm that our solution was watertight. The lady on the phone was very friendly, but was a little concerned that the border police might have an issue with Ying's Australian passport since Australia is on the "yellow list". So here is the uncertainty No.1. Although we believed a spouse status should give Ying the passage, we remained a little uncertain.
We then looked at the actual transport options - we would use buses and trains for the Austrian detour, which means a lot of exposure to a crowded and enclosed environment. We also looked at the timing of accommodation reservation. Since we were uncertain if we could enter Slovenia, we couldn't risk booking any accommodation until having actually crossed the border. Thus uncertainty No. 2 is that we would have fewer choices and control over accommodation quality and price since we couldn't book in advance. Plus compared to our previous cancelled June booking, the Airbnb accommodation prices have gone up and the quality has gone down!
Things didn't look very rosy at this point. Our love affair with Slovenia was fading away quickly before it even started! We decided to search for some alternative options. We have been wanting to get to South East Asia during the northern hemisphere autumn, but pretty much everything there remains closed to foreigners with no clear signs of reopening dates.
Sticking around in Europe seemed to make sense as it requires shorter distance in travel and more countries in Europe have reopened their borders.
We listed all the current European countries (less than 10) that would allow us in without needing quarantine and negative test results. Then we filtered through them one by one according to their virus situation and cost of living. Ideally we would prefer to visit another Balkan country in the neighbourhood of Croatia such as Montenegro. But it turned out the few possible Balkan countries had their own separate issues. For example, Montenegro was taken off the safe country list by EU recently, if we went there, we would be at risk of being denied entry to other European countries afterwards. Another example is Bulgaria where massive protests against the government have been taking places around the country, so it would not be fun to go there.
After a very careful filtering process, we were left with only one candidate - Portugal. Portugal did pretty well in controlling the Coronavirus and has a very good medical system. Portugal has always been on our list to visit, so it seemed the timing is right now! Further research told us that the cost of living in Portugal is relatively low and there are loads of things to see and do in the country.
So from being frustrated and disappointed at not being able to visit Slovenia, again, we are now conservatively excited about heading to Portugal. We are monitoring all the relevant websites every day just in case Portugal implements any sudden change of policies. We've booked flexible air tickets which allow us to change dates and destinations and also booked the first four weeks' accommodation in Porto, which we've negotiated with the host to make it refundable in case we couldn't enter the country.
During these unprecedented and uncertain times, we've learned to be extremely flexible, quick and lateral thinking, and patient. We've also learned that out of all the uncertainties, at least one thing is certain: life is never dull and you always need to learn!
COVID-19 Travel Planning Resources
The EU has created a really helpful resource for people planning travel to or through Europe called Reopen EU. It has been super helpful for us in understanding where we can travel to and also transit through or not. We found news articles can be misleading sometimes and give you either false hope or false despair, adding salt to the wound! So it's really valuable to have some reliable source of information. We always go double check the individual government site to confirm everything is correct.
Update - August 17, 2020
News came in yesterday that as of today, travellers arriving from Croatia into Austria have to carry a medical certificate proving a negative COIVID-19 PCR test. The Austrian borders yesterday were very congested with long queues of Austrians returning home early in order to avoid complying with the new rule. We would have to face the new rule if we were go ahead with Plan A - going to Slovenia via Austria! It's only been three days since we published the original blog post - again it proved how quickly things change and how uncertain things are!