I’ve told this story so many times already that I decided to finally write it down.
Besides, this pandemic period will probably be mentioned in future history books, so when my kids ask me how it was for us, this is the post I’m gonna refer them to.
So, continue reading this if you wanna know:
- How we left our country to travel full-time and how long it lasted
- How we changed tomorrow’s destination country three times in one day
- Why we decided to come back to our home country
- Why we were denied boarding for our flight
- How many non-refundable tickets we bought
- How was it on the way home
- Our current situation and future plans
What does failure even mean?
I mean, I actually left the country with one-way ticket and long travel plans.
I traveled around the whole island of Sri Lanka: watched elephants in natural parks, climbed UNESCO sites, shoot photos with various waterfalls, visited Buddha temples, indulged in Sri Lankan food, swam with turtles, and much more. It gave me enough material to write a few posts about my adventures and schedule even more to write later.
This was the exact lifestyle I was hoping for.
The thing is: it only lasted one month.
So I decided to go all-in and expected a lifestyle of traveling and adventures, but merely got a month-long vacation. A very stressful one, I should add, although amazing anyway.
The happy beginning
Changing careers and jumping into a travel blogger lifestyle wasn’t just a whim for me.
I planned this for about a year.
I gave my notice far in advance, in midsummer, as I liked the company and wanted to keep the good relationship after leaving.
September was the month I officially stopped calling myself a full-time Android developer and started to think of myself as a travel blogger. I love how my last working day happened to be Friday, 13th.
In the end of September my husband and I went to Spain for a month to kind of test this lifestyle and see how it suits us both.
Malaga was a great destination to test the nomadic lifestyle. It was sunny, warm, and social enough. We actually decided that it was the first place we visited where we could possibly stay for life.
It gave us some understanding of how we felt about potentially living like this long term, and what needs to be changed for us to feel even better.
Then we came back in November and started preparing for a real trip, the one with no coming back in the foreseeable future.
We gave ourselves some time to fix ongoing health issues, to get rid of our stuff, and to use all the gift certificates for experiences that would expire when we left for a year.
Our new life was going to start in February.
Soon, the day X came.
We packed two suitcases and two small backpacks, gave up our rent, said our goodbyes to all the friends and family members, and jumped in a taxi to the airport.
Coincidentally, we were leaving on February 14th. We took it as a good sign! Little did we know…
Here are the photos from our leaving day. Can you tell how excited we are?
Our first destination was Sri Lanka. Besides our honeymoon at the Maldives, where we pretty much didn’t see anything but our hotel, this was the first time we’d go to Asia. So we were really excited to immerse ourselves in a totally different culture.
And it was an amazing month-long trip. Unforgettable even. The perfect way to start a new travel-based lifestyle. We visited plenty of places, stayed in cool authentic Sri Lankan homestays, explored beautiful beaches, hiked in Sigiriya, went on breathtaking safaris, attended a cooking class with a local family, and learned a lot about Sri Lankan culture.
It was our last day in Sri Lanka when it all went downhill in a matter of hours.
Friday, March 13
See how it was Friday 13th again? Only this time it wasn’t lucky.
Situation on Friday morning: we are going to India tomorrow and then to Nepal in a month!
…I was downloading all the tickets and other documents for tomorrow’s trip as I wanted to ask our hotel to print them for us. I opened my visa approval letter from Indian Department of Immigration to print it. It said that I should print a correct visa form from their site instead of printing from this email.
Surely, I clicked through to their site. And this popped up.
All existing visas issued to nationals of any country except those issued to Diplomats, Official passport holders, those in UN / International organizations, those on Employment, Project visas and those who are operating aircrew of scheduled commercial airlines, and who had not yet entered India, are suspended…From the Indian Government website.
India closed the borders the day before we entered. How lucky we are!
This is when it all went wrong
First of all, I’m not someone who jumps on sudden trips.
I like to plan ahead, book everything in advance, and know (at least to some extent) where I will be every day.
Yeah, it’s not very adventurous of me and probably not the best quality for a travel blogger, but it is who I am.
And suddenly realizing that tomorrow’s trip is not happening… I can’t even describe how stressful it was.
At least I found out about this the day before thanks to my organization skills, and not in the airport when we would be denied boarding the next day.
So we had to find another country to go to. To-mor-row. This alone blew my mind. I’ve never ever planned anything for tomorrow, not even a coffee meeting! And now – a whole trip to replace a long thorough-planned and fully booked trip to India.
Ok, it was southern Asia, options were many.
Of course, India was the closest, but it was out of the picture.
Our next planned destination after India was Nepal – I started investigating it and quickly found out that they did the same as India and closed the borders.
A few other visa-free options were either the same or too close to China, the coronavirus epicenter.
After some digging and a lot of reading from travel-related and nomadic communities, we decided that Thailand was safe enough. There weren’t many cases of coronavirus and many travelers who was there at the time decided to stay.
So we bought the tickets and booked a nice accommodation for a month. We decided not to travel much around the country and stay in one place as the situation was uncertain. It looked like a good and safe option to replace India.
However, during this investigation, we started to see a lot of things that were happening in the world in the context of the virus. They hadn’t started to call it a pandemic yet, but many countries introduced some restrictions. We saw a few countries that restricted entrance from China and all the nearby countries, including Thailand.
At this point it became obvious that we probably won’t be able to travel to many places after Thailand and we’d have trouble getting anywhere else next month.
This is when we decided to cut the trip short and come back to Ukraine after Thailand in case situation gets worse.
So we bought the tickets from Thailand to Ukraine, and went to bed feeling anxious, but somewhat relieved.
Situation in the end of Friday: we are going to Thailand tomorrow and then back to Ukraine in a month!
Saturday, March 14
We woke up to Ukrainian news featuring our president’s video speech.
He just announced that all the air travel would be suspended after March 16.
Apparently, now we had less than 3 days to come back home if we wanted to.
This was a tough decision to make.
Did we consider staying in Sri Lanka?
Of course we did! We loved our Sri Lankan adventures and would gladly stay for more.
However, our visa would expire on Monday.
We could of course ask for visa extension, but:
- The Department of Immigration was located in Colombo, whereas we weren’t anywhere near at the time.
- Visa acceptance application working hours were from 8.30 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. Monday to Friday. It was already Friday afternoon and we weren’t even in Colombo.
- Monday was our last permitted day, so we could try to come and apply for an extension, but should they decline, we’d have to leave immediately. And as other countries started to suspend visas, we thought that the chances for our extension being declined were high.
- Unless we left on Sunday, we wouldn’t be able to come back to Ukraine anymore.
A few days later Sri Lankan department of immigration decided to extend all the current visas for present foreigners for another month. But we couldn’t possibly foresee this happening, and it was still for one month only. Even if we stayed, we would be in the same situation again in April. But coming back to Ukraine wouldn’t be an option anymore.
Why we decided to go home
The main reason is: uncertainty.
We had some other options, but at the same time there were many things to consider.
Countries started to close borders and suspend visas
India (our next destination) already suspended our visas, Nepal (our planned destination after India) already closed its borders, and some other closest Asian countries as well. This means that at some point we could potentially get stuck in a transit zone of some country. Not being able to go anywhere if every country closed borders, and not being able to stay as our short travel visa would expire. Even the mere thought of this frightened us big time.
As Ukrainians, we could only stay up to 30 days in most countries
Being a travel blogger, you don’t have a reason for any visa other than a short-term tourist visa. With my Ukrainian passport, I can go to many places with either an online requested visa or obtain a visa upon arrival. However, this only works for short term tourist intentions, usually up to one month, and then you need to leave.
With all the uncertainty in the world and restrictions changing literally every day, it was too risky to expect that every month there would be some country nearby to welcome us and give us a travel visa for another month. Not with all the chaos that was already happening around us.
We wouldn’t be able to come back home later
As I already mentioned, we only had 3 days to return to Ukraine before they closed the air.
And even if it was physically possible to come from Sri Lanka by land, the neighboring to Ukraine European countries like Poland and Hungary already closed the borders. We heard all those news about long lines of cars and buses being stuck in-between countries for days and not being able to come home. And we wouldn’t want to risk it.
In case the current visa expired and no other country would let us in, we wouldn’t even be able to go home. The thought of not being able to live anywhere in the world was terrifying.
Simple things like eating would be a hard quest every day
Imagine coming to a foreign country for the first time when everything tourist-oriented is closed.
You don’t know anything about the infrastructure, you can’t go to a restaurant to eat, and you don’t speak the language to buy your own food. Local markets are most likely closed anyway. Even if you find a place to leave that has a kitchen (for example, in Sri Lanka we only stayed in homestays and hotels without a kitchen), you don’t know where the supermarket is (if there are any at all), and public transport might not operate for you to get there.
Not that it would necessarily be that dramatic, but at that point this is how we saw it. And, to be honest, it could.
Without knowing a local language foreign quarantine could be tricky
Unless we spoke Sinhala (for Sri Lanka) or Thai (for Thailand) or the language of whatever country we would stay at, it would be really hard and stressful to follow the rules and stay out of trouble. We heard a lot of cases of people being fined in Ukraine for going out without a mask or entering a park when it wasn’t allowed. But here we can follow the rules and know about all the restrictions. With every country having different rules which were a subject to change every few days, we could easily unknowingly get in trouble.
Obviously, being at risk of potentially getting a fine, being put to jail, or even deported was not a fun travel lifestyle we anticipated. This was the last straw that led to our decision of going home.
With all the tourist attractions closed, there wasn’t much to explore anyway
My main reason for traveling is to get to know the world and share my experience here in my blog.
When everything is closed, I wouldn’t have much to write about. So what’s the reason to sit in the apartment abroad and stress about every little thing, if I could sit at home in Ukraine and don’t stress?
And it’s not like all of this would have ended in a month or two. We would get stuck in the uncertainty for who knows how long.
So, we changed our plans again, and found new tickets to Ukraine. This time for today.
Situation on Saturday afternoon: we are going home to Ukraine today!
Anticipated itinerary: Sri Lanka – Qatar – Turkey – Ukraine.
We checked out of our last hotel, called a taxi to Colombo, and went to the airport.
Finally at the airport leaving Sri Lanka… or not?
It was kinda early when we arrived at Negombo airport and we weren’t allowed to go through security just yet, so we spent a couple of hours in the only cafeteria they had there. Finally, check-in time came.
We went through the security scanning and found our flight on the information display. Staying in a queue to drop off our luggage, we felt relieved as we knew we’ll be home soon.
Only this wasn’t the case.
When we handed our passports and tickets to a check-in guy and he was looking at them for too long, I knew something was wrong.
Long story short, Qatar just closed the borders a couple of hours back so they couldn’t let us in on the flight.
Apparently, if we had connected flights, and not self-connected, they would let us through.
But our flights were with different airlines, and we couldn’t go through the transit zone in Qatar. Instead, we’d need to exit the airport and enter it again for the next flight, with passing security, grabbing our luggage, and checking in again. Only now we couldn’t do it as they closed the borders.
Our check-in guy told us that if we could purchase another tickets from some partner company, then they would be able to connect those flights and get us through the transit zone.
He told us a couple of companies that were ok, and we went to look for a local ticket office.
I should say, going back after you passed security is not an easy task.
We were stopped four times by different security guys on the way out and had to tell the story all over again. Then that next guy would shout to a previous one ‘Did you let them through?’, and we were allowed to go a dozen meters until the next one stopped us.
A few minutes later, after running in circles around the airport floors with our luggage and losing each other in elevators, we found the office we were looking for. Only it was closed, and apparently didn’t sell tickets anyway. There were some other lost souls sitting on the floor near that door hoping for the best. Everyone just wanted to go home.
So we sat there to, for a bit. Until I realized that we are wasting precious time.
Wait, did I mention that we only had 40 minutes to find another ticket and get back to that flight?
At some point, we left the airport as they had a ticket office outside, still hoping to find the tickets and catch that flight.
We asked the woman in a ticket box if there were any tickets from allowed partner companies available to connect with our flight. She searched and said no. Only at that point we realized we are actually not flying home.
So there we were, staying on the street with all our belongings, in our phones, trying to find a new way to get to Ukraine in two days.
This was probably the most stressful point of the whole story.
We had nowhere to go, our Sri Lankan visa was about to expire, and we had limited time to come home.
If you think finding tickets online was easy, you are wrong.
Remember that it was the day when our president announced a 3-day window.
Every Ukrainian person from all over the world was trying to get a ticket home, same as we did.
Because of such high demand, the prices jumped from around $300 to $1000 and above.
So you find a new option that fits your time window, the system says ‘there are 2/3/4 tickets left’, you happily start to enter your data to buy them, press Next, and find out that there aren’t any tickets left. Apparently, someone else just bought those last ones a moment faster while you were entering your card information. Right under your nose.
It was a few times like that for both of us until finally we were able to purchase connecting tickets with Turkish Airlines for another $1500. For tomorrow. At least we now had a chance to come home. Fortunately, it would be on the last day before the air restriction.
As we needed to spend another night in Sri Lanka, we found an Airbnb close to the airport, called a taxi and went there. At that point I just wanted to lay down and forget about all of this.
Situation in the end of Saturday: we are staying one more night in Sri Lanka, and going home tomorrow!
Sunday, March 15
Not much to tell here. This time everything was fine. We caught the flight, and then another one.
About one third of the people in the airports were in masks, including all the staff. Some people just used scarves to cover their faces.
Up to that day, there were no known cases of the virus in Sri Lanka, it was calm and safe. Nobody would wear masks on the streets. So the airport seemed surreal and as if we were in some kind of a pandemic movie.
Despite our personal rush, it wasn’t like that for everyone. The travel industry was already suffering, we just weren’t aware of it. For example, I had never saw a half empty plane in my life before. And this is how a huge Istanbul airport, which is a main hub for many connections, looked when we arrived. Disturbingly empty.
Monday, March 16
We arrived in Lviv in the morning and checked in to the hotel we managed to book for a week in between flights.
We chose the one with a breakfast included option to not worry about at least one meal per day.
Ironically, the next morning new restrictions came up in Ukraine and all the cafeterias were forced to close, including the one in our hotel. Sorry, they said, we can’t make you breakfast anymore.
We stayed there for a week and then moved to an Airbnb for a month so we had a kitchen to cook our own food.
In April, we found another Airbnb and negotiated a good price to stay for three months during quarantine. Now we extended that to 6 month, so we are staying here till October. And then we’ll decide what’s next depending on the world situation.
As of today, May 24th, there are 20k registered cases of coronavirus in Ukraine. The number grows every day and quarantine continues.
I haven’t been out of the apartment for two months straight. But they are lifting some restrictions now, and at least we are allowed to visit parks again. There are quite different opinions amongst people around us: some are scared and wash everything that comes from the supermarket with soap, some don’t even believe that coronavirus exists.
We choose to stay somewhere in the middle: be cautious, but sane. And looking forward to a better future.
One day I’ll be a full-time traveler again, just not today.
Some sad statistics
Here is some simple statistics to sum up.
Flights, crazy amounts of wasted money, all non-refundable:
- 1 flight from Sri Lanka to India
- 2 domestic flights around India
- 1 flight from India to Nepal
- 2 flights from Sri Lanka to Thailand
- 2 flights from Thailand to Ukraine
- 3 flights from Sri Lanka to Ukraine
Double all of the above as there are two of us.
Finally, 2 flights from Sri Lanka to Ukraine that actually took us home for insane $1500.
Oh my, even writing this summary two months later makes me wanna cry!
So much money lost for nothing.
Did we try to get refunds?
Oh yes, we tried. Of course we hoped to get at least some of it back.
Yes, they are non-refundable, – we thought. – But it’s the coronavirus, not our fault in any way, of course, they will understand and give us our money back.
How naive we were!
We used to purchase tickets through flight aggregators as they could connect 2 or 3 flights into one itinerary. This always seemed reasonable and convenient.
Until something went wrong and we needed a refund.
This is when everyone started pointing fingers to avoid giving us our money back.
Airlines would tell us that we should deal with the travel agent who we purchased tickets from. Travel agents (flight aggregators) would say that we should talk to airlines. This was a vicious circle we couldn’t break.
Just to illustrate this, here is what we got from Trip.com:
Not only they didn’t look into it personally, they didn’t even bother including the customer name or correct flight details (see all those xxxxx?). This alone says a lot about their customer service.
The best we got was some change from Indigo – they refunded some extra commissions from our Indian flights, but not the ticket price itself.
Accommodations, all successfully cancelled with no fees (thank heavens!)
- 5 hotels in India (6 weeks altogether)
- 1 hotel in Thailand (1 full month)
- 1 hotel in Ukraine (rushed to book as we needed somewhere to live upon coming back, but reconsidered after reading the bad reviews)
Thanks to Booking.com where we book most of our travel accommodations, we didn’t have to pay for all of these. They rolled out a new feature (or at least I didn’t know about it before) that lets you ask your accommodation to waive cancellation fees. I used it for each of the listed hotels and all of them let us cancel for free.
So the only thing I lost here was time: a few days of planning an itinerary, researching and booking accommodations.
Anyways, this was a huge relief as we saved two month worth of living abroad, but it is still far from the amount we lost on flights.
Add to this Indian visa fees we paid online to get a visa for a year. One more instance of wasted money.
Final thoughts about our homecoming journey
We’ve been through a lot, we learned a lot, and survived.
We went through all of this as a family, relied on each other, and it brought us even closer together.
As they say, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
Today I’m learning to be a better blogger and photographer, so I can do better when we leave again. I’m staying optimistic and looking for the good despite all.
Next time we’ll do some things differently and start smarter on many aspects.
Stay tuned for my next attempt to become a full-time traveler after coronavirus!