I will not live life afraid. Smart? Yes. Afraid, no.
I’ve written here before… maybe it’s the Dane in me, but I feel complete peace, acceptance, and joy when I am near water. I close my eyes and feel the breeze in my hair; I lift my face to the sky and feel the sun and warmth on my face; I listen to the constant ebb and flow of ocean waves or lake water lapping up to the edge, and everything makes sense. Everything is ok.
So after the God forsaken year that was 2020, I was literally counting down days until a long-awaited trip with my husband. By long awaited, I mean rescheduled FOUR TIMES. We did all the research, got all the advice, did all of the planning we could… and this blog is intended to help anyone else doing the same.
My message to you: IT IS POSSIBLE. IT IS SAFE. IT IS SOOOOOO WORTH IT.
DISCLAIMER: This post is in no way a political statement or expression of my personal take on COVID or anything else. You do you; everyone’s circumstances are different.. I hope you keep reading, but if not, I hope you check out another post on this blog! Cheers!
We have a big map of the world hanging in our basement with a push pin set on each place we have visited. Once you do that.. and look at how much you HAVEN’T experienced, you realize what a vast, uncharted world we live in… and I want to see it! Neither Brian nor I had ever been to Jamaica and we heard GLOWING reviews from our friends Kali and Thor Tripp who were married and honeymooned there.
Perfect weather – 82 every day in sunshine and no rain (and this was the end of December!) Awe inspiring views – the ocean on one side, mountains on the other. Some of the kindest, most beautiful people I have ever met. Very reasonable prices and a variety of flight and resort options. If you are considering Jamaica – GO. JUST GO NOW. And to help in your planning, I’m trying to put all of MY pre-trip questions here in one blog to help you!
MY TOP TEN TIPS FOR TRAVELLING DURING THE COVID AGE
10 – TRAVEL AGENTS FOR THE WIN
Brian and I had originally planned to visit Excellence Punta Cana in March of 2020. We have visited two other Excellence Resorts (Playa Mujeres and Riviera Cancun) and have absolutely loved our experiences. We booked our trip ourselves using Vacations By Excellence, which we found out the hard way, was a third party agency that bundles airfare, hotel, etc. We held out until the umpteenth hour to cancel our March 17 trip, which ended up being less than 72 hours before the entire resort – and the world – shut down. Unfortunately for us and who knows how many others, this was the beginning of a LOOOOONG, frustrating battle over phone and email to get credits and/or refunds from our trip. Turns out, Vacations By Excellence is NOT the same as Excellence itself; no straight answers, no emails for direct contact, no phone numbers that seemed to go through to someone who understood what we were trying to accomplish – all complicated by language barriers. We had finally accepted the fact that we might not ever recoup the several thousand dollars we had invested in this trip.. but holding out hope, I texted my longtime friend Megan Boyer, who recently joined the Cruise Planners Omaha Team as a Luxury Travel Specialist. Thanks to Megan’s advice and patience, we finally received an airfare credit and full refund for our resort booking. Lesson: Travel Agents like Megan are EXPERTS. They know the ins and outs, how to get things processed and how to get things DONE. I strongly recommend using a travel agent – particularly for international travel and particularly with so many unknowns right now!
9 – THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT
Flying internationally? Download Mobile Passport! It’s a free app approved by the US Government that process your passport and Customs Declaration Form electronically. When you are landing back in the US, you simply load up your info and submit – and then you can breeze past ALLLLLL of the people waiting in line at Customs and go in the special Mobile Passport line. This probably saved us 20 minutes when we arrived back in the US, and when you are exhausted and ready to hug your kids after being away for a week, that is everything.
Travelling to Jamaica or South America? Download Verifly! Another free app that imports all of your COVID clearance data so once again, when you are boarding onto your plane at the start of your trip, you simply show the app with the big green checkmark to the gate, and you are cleared to go! Especially if you are rushed at the airport, or just want the peace of mind that you WILL get on that plane, this was a big help. Heads up – remember to load up all of your information a few days before!
8 – TSA PRECHECK – JUST DO IT.
IF YOU PLAN TO TRAVEL BY PLANE ANYWHERE IN THE NEXT 5 YEARS, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND TSA PRECHECK. Brian literally said during this last trip ‘this is the best money we have ever spent.’ For $85, the Travel Safety Administration processes a background check for you and puts in on file, meaning you are CLEARED for five years on any aircraft to skip the security lines at the airport. No removing shoes, laptops, water bottles, jackets, NADDA. Parents, your $85 for five years will also cover your kids, allowing them to skip the lines, too! This last trip, Brian and I were super late for boarding TWICE, due to snow as we left Omaha, and due to my idiocy in not realizing a flight change when we left Jamaica. TSA Precheck was our safety net.
7 – THE HEART OF JAMAICA: THE PEOPLE
For me, the people of a destination are a make-or-break factor. Mexico will always hold a special place in my heart because of the kindness of the folks I’ve met in Cancun, Cabo San Lucas and La Paz. On the flip side, I don’t have any desire to return to the Dominican Republic due to the ‘meh’ nature of almost everyone we met in Punta Cana. As for Jamaica – the people of this incredible place were by far, the most magical, uplifting, endearing part of our trip… and coming from a person who is in love with the ocean, that is saying something! From the moment we landed in Montego Bay at the airport, to our shuttle driver escorting us to the resort, and EVERYONE we met at the Hyatt Zilara Rose, we felt appreciated, pampered and welcomed. These folks went above and beyond to make sure we enjoyed our stay. You ask ‘how are you?’ and I never heard just ‘good’ but ‘fantastic’, ‘wonderful’, ‘blessed’, and always ‘thank you for asking.’ Joy emanates from Jamaicans – they dance while they work, they smile and offer you honest well wishes, and they sincerely hope you enjoy their country and want to return. You can’t help but absorb all of that positivity and gratitude to simply BE ALIVE and to be in such a beautiful place. IT. WAS. AWESOME. If you need a reminder of the good in humanity, oh, and a glorious beach escape – make Jamaica a destination in your travel plans.
6 – COVID TESTING AND SAFEGUARDS
FOR JAMAICA.. yes, you must be tested and cleared of COVID before you can even board a plane to get there. Once you arrive, those safety measures are SERIOUS. You must receive a negative COVID-19 test less than 10 days before your departure date from a certified facility. This can be either an Antigen or PCR test. Brian and I both used Total Wellness at 94th & F in Omaha and were very satisfied; make an appointment online, it’s covered by insurance with no charge, you drive up, and your results are texted to you within 20 minutes. If you do not have insurance, I think it is $80. You then use those results to complete the application for entry with the Jamaican Travel Authority, no more than 5 days from the date of your departure. We had our approval back within minutes (but I would still advise giving yourself the recommended 2-3 days leeway!) Print off everything, pack it up in a pretty folder, and take it with you to the airport – I had it on hand in my carry-on backpack and was glad I did! Once you get to your destination, you are good to go! To get BACK into the US – everything is changing later this month! (Thank you to reader Jeanne Derr) Click here for details!
Once you are in Jamaica – masks are required everywhere you go. I have been telling people Jamaicans are militant about COVID-19 safety; that’s not an exaggeration, as military members were literally at the airport as we got off the plane, and on our resort. They are very nice about it, but they make sure, at all times, you are wearing a mask if you are not sitting at your table eating in a restaurant, or in the privacy of your room. If you are lying on a chair on the beach or at the pool, you are good, but if you get up to walk to the restroom or get a drink, masks up! Was it super awesome? No, but keep in mind, this is a country that was DEVASTATED because tourism, their #1 economic driver, was shut down in their country. They want visitors back and if masks allow them to do that, so be it.
5 – HYATT ZILARA ROSE HALL REVIEW
As I mentioned earlier, my husband and I were Excellence Resorts snobs; after visiting two of their properties, I had an unspoken goal of visiting all five of their Caribbean properties at some point. Unfortunately, Excellence delayed the reopening of Excellence Oyster Bay in Jamaica multiple times, and we finally said NOPE and looked elsewhere on the island. First piece of advice – don’t write off your entire destination just because one resort is closed. Are others open? Check out advisories and restrictions for the entire country!
After comparing prices, amenities, reviews and photos, we felt Hyatt Zilara would be a good fit.
AAAAAAAHHH. As I gushed about in Tip #7 – the service from the people of Jamaica is simply unparalleled, and absolutely highlighted by Hyatt Zilara staff. A few examples:
- Our concierge emailed me a few days prior to our departure and asked what we would like in our room upon arrival. She answered every email I sent her within an hour each time. When we arrived, that same concierge, Natresha, sent us a bottle of chilled champagne to our room at no charge.
- My ‘got on clearance’ luggage completely ripped apart at the zipper during our flight to Jamaica. We were convinced we were going to have to spring for airport or resort priced luggage just to get my stuff home but one request to our front desk, and they sent their resort ENGINEER to our room to help. This amazing man spent a solid 20 minutes realigning the zipper on my bag to seal it shut and save us a serious purchase.
- Every. Single. Person. on this resort – from the landscape crew to the servers at restaurants to the gift shop staff – hold doors open for you, seem eager to have conversation and learn about you, and are always smiling. Always.
My favorite thing about Hyatt Zilara, aside from the amazing people, WAS THE FOOD. I seriously felt like I experienced a Top Chef culinary tour on this trip, which I don’t feel like is common for all-inclusive resorts. I was DAZZLED by every meal we tried!! My favorite: the sweet corn bisque at Urban Heat. Brian’s favorite: the lamb chops at Petit-PariZ. You MUST try: Di Roza. You literally watch a guy MAKING THE PASTA you are about to eat. I think I gained 5 pounds on this trip, and I regret nothing.
4 – PACK A FEW ESSENTIALS
I have tried to make a mental list with each trip about the things I coulda woulda shoulda brought in my suitcase. For this trip, I think we nailed it! Here are my must have’s if you’re heading to Jamaica.
- Bug Spray. At night.. and sometimes during the day.. THEY ARE EVERYWHERE. This didn’t bother Brian, but I for whatever reason have been a lifelong draw for bugs and mosquitos. If you plan on being out at night, in particular if your patio is at ground level surrounded by landscaping, bring your bug spray!
- Hydrocortisone – see above. Bugs love me. Within 48 hours, I had a few mosquito bites and a BEE STING. Thankfully, my husband had packed a small tube of this magic little lotion and it helped with the itching immensely.
- Swim shoes. This resort is spread out over several acres and we walked A LOT – in the morning along the beach, to simply sightsee our destination, and to different restaurants and shops on site. I loooooooved my swim shoes that I bought on Amazon for $11. Great for walking on the sand and switching right to concrete without getting sand in your feet or rolling an ankle on the rocks in the ocean. I am 100% bringing these to the beach forever!
- Coffeemate to Go. There are few things I love more during vacation than having a fresh cup of coffee while listening to the water. Unfortunately for me – I drink my coffee with ½ java and ½ Coffeemate! I brought along one package of single serving liquid Coffeemate cups – and it was GENIUS to add to my hotel-supplied coffee in my room every morning. Note: there ARE two coffee shops on site at Hyatt Zilara, but I wasn’t super impressed.. and this way, I didn’t have to leave my room to enjoy my morning brew!
- Mt. Dew. This is my husband’s guilty pleasure – he allows himself one a day. Hyatt is a Coke resort and they are not currently stocking mini-fridges due to COVID (but you can request that once you arrive, and as often as you need it filled up.) Thanks to Expert Traveler Advice from my friend Scott Workman, I learned you CAN pack plastic bottles in your suitcase with no explosions, and I secretly brought along a few 20-ouncers for Brian
- Yetis. If you plan to enjoy a beverage or 2 on the resort or at the beach, your all-inclusive will likely give you your drink in a tiny little plastic cup. If you don’t finish that meager 8 ounces within 30 minutes, it will melt in the Caribbean sun! We learned from another couple during our last trip that if you bring your Yeti or whatever your favorite tumbler is, the resort will just fill that – and it stays cold!! Less waiting in line for drinks, less leaving your spot on the beach.. just enjoyment of the cold beverages.
- Cash in SMALL BILLS. Be a good human and tip these amazing people. BUT – if you run out of smaller bills and are left with bigger denominations, you may be out of luck in getting change! (PS – everyone loves dollars, exchanging for Jamaican money isn’t necessary).
3 – MEAL PLANNING REQUIRED
The first time my husband tried an All-Inclusive resort was on our honeymoon: Dreams Los Cabos. I don’t remember making ANY dinner reservations; we just walked around and tried whatever sounded good that night. Now in the age of COVID.. that’s a no go. With limited capacity and social distancing, restaurants at our resort did the best they could to accommodate everyone but planning was definitely required. Restaurants were only open on a rotation – we had to wait until our final night at 9pm to even get in to the French restaurant we were dying to try. Make this a priority with your concierge when you arrive – or even in the days leading up to your trip if possible – to find out what will be open, and when you can make your reservation. (If you are heading to the Hyatt, you can make your reservation up to 48 hours in advance – and they have nifty iPad guides in every room showcasing what is open each day, and what is on each menu!) You will also need to follow a dress code in certain restaurants – men, think closed toe shoes, and women, no bikini tops while you eat!
2 – CLUB MOBAY ALL THE WAY
Here’s an equation for you: COVID + TRAVEL + INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT = CLUB MOBAY.
When I go on vacation, I dream about those handful of days for MONTHS leading up to the trip. I want to get off my plane and GET. THERE. as soon as possible. So the idea of standing around in an international airport, trying to figure out another culture and paperwork and customs and luggage AND COVID requirements? Ain’t nobody got time for that! So when I found out about Club Mobay on another traveler’s blog, it seemed like a no brainer. You pay $50 for arrival and $30 for departure for VIP treatment at the airport to guide you through customs, walk you exactly where you need to go, and ultimately get you to your resort FASTER. Everything I wrote earlier about Verifly? 100% stand by that – TO GET YOU ON THE PLANE TO JAMAICA. What about when you get off? We had a gal waiting for us with our names on a sign the second we stepped off the plane. She led us through customs (bumping us to the front of each line), to the baggage claim, and to our resort shuttle. There is also a lounge you get to enjoy while you wait – but our shuttle was ready before we could experience that… so was it worth our $100? Not sure. But it definitely gave me peace of mind.. which flying out of a blizzard, and going through xxx COVID checks, was certainly appreciated!
Now going HOME – 100% worth every penny. Remember I mentioned we were an hour late getting on our flight home because of a change in our flight? We ARRIVED at the airport just minutes before our plane was set to board.. and found HUGE lines at check in. AT CHECK IN. But one reference that ‘we were Club Mobay’.. and the amazing attendant rushed us right to the front of the line to get us going to catch our flight. I could’ve hugged her (and might have if not for the whole pandemic thing.) We skipped ALL the lines and got to our gate in time. HUGE. What would you pay to ensure you get home to see your children at the end of a long trip? PRICELESS.
1 – BP NO PHONE HOME
TURN OFF YOUR PHONE. SWITCH TO DO NOT DISTURB. DESIGNATE ONE PERSON TO LEAVE THEIR PHONE ON FOR EMERGENCIES AND CALL IT GOOD.
Guys, I can’t stress this enough. This is the second time I have done this while on vacation – no social media checks, no email checks, no answering texts, phone on SILENT. You can literally feel lightness, happiness, and a spirit of LIFE resurface. It really makes me sad that I have become that person that is THAT weighed down by so much crap, so addicted to a tiny piece of machinery, but there we have it.
The world will revolve without you. Cover all your bases at work before you leave. Make a printout day by day schedule for your kids complete with lunch preferences and phone numbers. When you return, apologize then that you didn’t respond to the funny text, question or request.
All that being said, I would TAKE your phone. Dang, my iPhone 11 takes some freaking phenomenal photos, and at Hyatt Zilara, you need your phone in restaurants to scan a QR code for menus (no printed menus!). But then PUT IT AWAY. Don’t touch it. That will always be there – the ocean, the people, the smells and sounds and laughter and that ice cold pina colada… you will want them SO BADLY the second you are home with that phone back in your hands. Just LET IT GO.. let it all go and focus on the beauty and experience around you for that short time.
So there you have it. My rambling, hodge podge recap of our blissful escape to Jamaica. To all of you considering a trip, DOOOOOOO ITTTT. So worth it. So magical. THIS is what life is about, remember? We work and sacrifice and give of our days and time so we CAN have magical moments to truly experience LIFE.
I have no idea what COVID will mean for us tomorrow, or next week, or next month. I do know we have experienced too much damn loss in the last year to take a single moment for granted.
Dream, save, plan and GO.
Safe travels – and report back! I need to plan for our next destination 🙂