For those who live for travel, the unique mix of excitement and anticipation that accompanies the night before a long journey never loses its kick. Bags neatly packed, itineraries ready, and your imagination of the far-flung destination fusing with pictures glimpsed in guidebooks and travel blogs… Little by little, each trip begins to fill in the blanks of this planet we call home, replacing them with a watercolour of photos, friendships, and fond memories. There really is nothing quite like it.
Until, a once-in-a-generation global pandemic happens to coincide with your plans.
Less than two weeks ago, with less than twenty-four hours to go before jetting off to my chosen destination, Mexico City, I found myself in this very situation. Not long after receiving a (very generous) grant from St Hilda’s to support my studies of Spanish, the uncertainty now synonymous with Covid-19 began to grip conversations around the globe as Northern Italy announced its first lockdown.
I was nervous. So much so, that in the week prior to my departure, I decided to ring my GP: was I right to go ahead with my trip, or should I postpone for another time?
Fortunately, the calm response from the other end of the phone abated my brewing unease: as long as I felt well and official guidance did not change beforehand, I could still very much ‘enjoy the trip’. Time to swap tea for tequila. Anyone reading this with the benefit of hindsight would think such advice unimaginable. Yet in an age before social distancing, pub closures, and the ‘one-form-of-outdoor-exercise-per-day’ rule (even I struggle to believe such luxuries were a reality just three weeks ago), the matter was settled.
Aeroméxico, however, had other ideas.
At midnight the day before the trip, moments before settling down for a night I hoped might eventually lead to some form of light sleep, a chilling email from the carrier appeared in my inbox: ‘Flight cancellation’. A wave of dread welled up, shattering the warm anticipation to which I had clung so fervently. Still in a state of disbelief, shock, heart-pounding confusion, the inertia alone led me to tap on the message, and I learnt that my returning flight had been altered as, “the coronavirus situation is constantly evolving.”
My chosen airline had, to their credit, automatically booked me onto the subsequent service, yet any mirage that I might still be able to enjoy my time in Mexico in spite of Covid-19 all but evaporated. Seeing how quickly airlines could cancel flights and hearing of constantly-changing border policies to try and limit the virus’s spread, it suddenly dawned on me that any attempt to travel could now potentially leave me stranded in Central America during a global pandemic.
I think it took a few minutes for the gravity of the situation to sink in. I was left with just one option: cancelling the entire trip.
On the day I was supposed to be rushing to Heathrow, I was now in an even more intense race against the clock, attempting to recover as much money as I could. The start was promising: Airbnb mercifully issued a full refund thanks to their generous cancellation scheme, for Covid-19. With the air fares, however, the situation was less clear. It took ten stress-filled minutes frantically scouring the internet for me to encounter a website detailing passenger rights if an airline cancels. Although conveniently absent in the email I received, I discovered that I was entitled to a full refund for both legs of the journey.
Frantically dialling Aeroméxico’s UK call centre as soon as it opened for calls, the ensuing two hours spent on hold were gruelling, and illustrative of just how serious the health crisis had become. I was in a state of disbelief when the preceding one hundred and twenty-two minutes of torturously repetitive jazz music (a ploy to encourage callers to hang up out of desperation, perhaps) were replaced by a human voice. I went straight to the point, quoting the necessary legislation, and politely demanded my refund. Not long after, and with just hours before my scheduled flight, all had been arranged. The money should be with me in a couple of days’ time. Time for a well-deserved cup of tea.
What lessons, if any, can be learnt from my travel tragedy that ultimately ended with a relieved sigh, herbal brew in hand, many thousands of miles from Mexico?
If anyone reading this has shared in my misfortune, sugar coating the truth is pointless. Cancelling travel plans will always leave a bitter taste of regret, as missed opportunities and futile expectations all amount to zero. The following ordeal of the refund process does little to lessen the blow.
Truth be told, although I am not an optimist, my own denouement could have been far worse. The following day, Tuesday 17th March – at which point I would have been approaching the sea of hazy, orange street lights and concrete apartment blocks that make up Mexico City – Dominic Raab announced the British government was now advising against all non-essential travel for UK nationals. In other words, had I decided to travel regardless of the risk, I would have found myself on the next flight back to London, this time potentially hundreds of pounds out of pocket.
But perhaps the most important lesson runs far deeper than stressful emails, manic web searches, or even the words ‘please hold the line’. My experience has stressed the fact that when it comes to the health and wellbeing of your family, your community, and ultimately of yourself, even that ‘once in a lifetime’ trip can – and must – wait a little bit longer.