• Russell Levinson

How I planned an international trip during the pandemic

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

My first Covid trip was Sept-27th-Nov 1st, 2020. It was a classic “open” trip for me, meaning no return flight (I don't necessarily recommend this) I booked a one-way to Las Vegas, got Covid-19 while there. (Read my post on that: (, drove to Lake Tahoe, then on to San Francisco, and eventually flew to Turkey for 10 days. It was a great trip, but it ended a little early due to a toothache! That trip should have gone for another 10 days or so, but the pain was bad, so I flew home. This trip required a ton of planning and then adjusting to problems. Almost everything was planned last minute (but researched for many weeks prior). Keeping notes on flights, hotels, and activities, as I always do, I am able to look back easily when the stars align. I used Jetblue miles for my flight to Vegas, and then my Avianca Lifemiles for my flight to Istanbul. Hotel rates are cheap in Turkey, so I paid some nights and used points for others. The same goes for Vegas (and Tahoe) where I was comped most of my nights because of my Diamond status with Caesars. I arrived back home via Emirates (paid for with Alaska Airlines miles) on November 1st.

So, as crazy as I am, and with nothing tying me down, I quickly started thinking about another trip. Travelling solo often allows me to travel last minute. Most people cannot do this, but it does open new possibilities (and sometimes closes others). What do I mean? When using miles to book a flight, sometimes more opportunities will arise closer to the departure date. Some airlines release seats as awards just 2 weeks or even a few days before departure. I have booked Lufthansa first class to Germany this way before. On the other hand, if paying cash, usually both hotel and flight prices rise within a week or two of departure. Generally speaking, procrastination is not good for travel, but I have made it work quite a bit.

Ok, so back to planning this trip…. the options were limited due to restrictions on travel. Mexico was the logical choice, as it is and has been fully open to Americans flying in. Many countries have banned tourists or require a negative test before getting on the plane and getting a test and the results within the time frame of the requirements can be difficult.

I narrowed my search between Mexico, Dubai, and London. Dubai requires a test with 96 hours of the flight. Every country is trying to figure out how to deal with the virus but also not destroy their economies. I would soon find out that Dubai is essentially built for tourism, and they did shut down in the early days of the virus, but ultimately settled on being pretty open with a focus on masks and testing. The more I looked at Dubai, the more I liked it…. big city, modern, new, with beaches? I wanted in.

Unfortunately, the virus was hitting all-time highs in the U.S. and testing sites were packed. My timing had to be perfect. I picked December 20th, 2020 as my goal departure date and searched award flights on all my airline accounts…nothing appealing popped up but did find a paid flight that I could use my Amex points for (Air France via Paris).

Amex membership rewards points can be unbelievably valuable. You may be able to get 85,000 for signing up for the Platinum card or the Business platinum.

I have the business platinum, and one of the neat benefits is discount pricing on certain flights. Another benefit is they give 35% of the points you spend on a business or first-class flight back to you (after about 30 days). So, my discovery of a $1300 one-way to Dubai for about 76,000 points after the rebate was perfect and booked! I was then able to schedule a Covid test at my local walk-in clinic and 48 hours later, the negative result was in, allowing me to finalize the trip with hotel bookings. I booked a nice Sheraton on the north side of Dubai for 5 nights with my Marriott points. I picked this hotel because of the excellent reviews, and the fact that I would have club lounge access and free breakfast.

The rest of the trip was completely open, and I took notes on things to do, hotel prices, and possible flights back, with the intention of finishing the details on the way and in Dubai. This trip was more about just being away than trying to do and see everything. Dubai is expensive. My goal would be to try and spend very little:

Dubai is an incredibly special place and I hope to go back for the amazing World Expo scheduled for October, 2021 through March, 2022.

I really fell in love with Dubai and this song/video really captures Dubai like no other:

And that is how a crazy solo traveler books a vacation during a pandemic.

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