Last Updated on March 7, 2021
When I put together my annual travel reflections for 2020, I did not expect such a massive post, but somehow, despite a global pandemic, this year was anything but boring. In March, when I returned to the U.S. from Australia, my first big trip of the year, just in time to see New York City shut down completely, I assumed that it would also be my last trip of the year. However, I ended up traveling quite a bit – and even ticked a major item of off my travel bucket list (you’ll have to wait until the second part of my 2020 round-up to see what that was) – something that I did not foresee at all.
While I did have some amazing travel experiences this year, I want to keep things real here though and also mention the darker moments – of which there were many. I lost almost all of my income, my tour business came to a halt, I witnessed Covid-19 first-hand and had a rough time in self-isolation for nearly three months. I am sharing my highs and lows of each month below, so read on to find out what I got up to from January till June 2020:
January: New York City, California and Australia
I started 2020 in a techno club in Bushwick, which I left around 9.30am on 1 January, and slept pretty much through all of the first day of 2020. This was the longest I’ve stayed out in a very long time. Since January is low season in New York and it tends to be very cold, I had scheduled only a few tours and spent the rest of the time working from cafes until it was time to leave New York for my first big trip of the year in mid-January.
I started my Australia trip with a little detour – knowing that I’d have to fly through LAX, I added a weekend in Southern California to my trip, visiting friends who live just south of L.A. After a low key weekend with some hiking, workouts, good food and lots of catching up, it was time for my first new country of the year: Australia!
A whole new continent. Considering that Australia was on the original itinerary for the Round-the-world trip that I left on in 2010, but for some reason never made it there, it was a pretty special moment when I finally landed in “Down Under” ten years later than expected.
I started my trip with a few days in Melbourne and a weekend in St Kilda by the beach, took a day trip to Phillip Island during which I got to get up, close & personal with wallabies, kangaroos and koalas (and declared that this had already made the trip for me!) and drove the Great Ocean Road.
Sydney was my second stop, and I immediately fell for Australia’s largest city – I cannot wait to go back and spend more time there.
Spending time in Southern California
I hadn’t seen my friends Jen & Chris since 2016, when I looked after their adorable pooch Henry for almost a month. I still have fond memories of my time with Henry during that month (September 2016) and was excited to spend a long weekend with them during an extended layover on my way to Australia. Jen showed me a few spots in Orange County I hadn’t been to yet, took me to my first ever kickboxing class, we went hiking, and made pizza in their wood-fired pizza oven. All of that, plus Henry snuggles, made this a fantastic weekend.
Driving the Great Ocean Road
I had to give myself a little pep talk to convince me I’d be fine driving not only on the “wrong” side of the road, but to also have the steering wheel on the right side of the car, which feels foreign to me. Because we’re not talking about driving just any road – we’re talking about driving a narrow, winding road with so.many.curves. But I knew that taking an organized tour of the Great Ocean Road instead of driving it myself wouldn’t cut it for me, and so I overcame my hesitation and rented a car in Melbourne. I hadn’t driven on the left side since I lived in England – I’d guess the last time I drove there must have been around 2009 – but it came back quickly to me and I gained back my confidence after only a few short kilometers. I would’ve never been able to experience the Great Ocean Road the way I did on this drive, and I’m glad I did it. The rock formations in the ocean were spectacular, the sweeping views never got old, and seeing the Twelve Apostels at sunset was incredibly beautiful.
Every moment spent in Sydney
I purposely chose to start my Australia trip in Melbourne and not in Sydney – I just had a feeling that from what I’d heard and read about Melbourne, it was “my kind of city”: lots of street art, a thriving coffee culture (the coffee capital of Australia!), and interesting neighborhoods, some of which had a similar feel to my favorite neighborhoods in Brooklyn. And yes, I did enjoy my time in Melbourne. But when I arrived in Sydney, I fell for the city instantly.
There was just something about Sydney that Melbourne didn’t have. The weather was better, the beaches were nicer, the neighborhoods were just as eclectic and diverse as Melbourne’s, and there was so much to see and do! I started my visit with a scenic coastal walk in Manly (thanks for the recommendation, Katie!), visited a flea market in Paddington, had amazing food, had superb coffee, and replaced the hat that I assume was lost at LAX (see below).
Arriving at the airport to check in for my flight to Australia and finding out I don’t have a ticket
When I arrived at the airport to check in for my flight to Melbourne, I was told that I only had a reservation, but not a ticket. My jaw dropped. “What do you mean I don’t have a ticket???”. The agent explained that apparently, the booking had never been confirmed.
A few weeks before my departure date, I had in fact noticed that my credit card was never charged for the flight and contacted Qantas. I usually call an airline when I have a question or problem with my booking, but I saw that Qantas had a SMS chat option to contact customer service and decided to use that instead of calling, because then I’d have everything in writing. Well, I am glad I did! I pulled up the conversation with the Qantas agent on my phone, in which I was reassured that I had a valid booking and my payment had gone through, and the check-in agent was able to get me on the flight that I had booked. Crisis averted! I also want to mention that Qantas was absolutely amazing to fly with, from customer service to meals on the plane to comfort, and every communication ever since.
Losing my hat on the way to Australia (before even leaving the US)
This wasn’t a big deal, but it was annoying. I’d traveled to L.A. with my beloved travel fedora, and by the time I arrived in Melbourne, I noticed that the hat was gone. I assume that I left it at the airport in LA while I was waiting to board my flight to Melbourne.
February 2020: Australia
February was amazing. I started the month in Sydney, where I packed in so much in my week there that I was grateful for the break the Whitsunday Islands gave me afterwards. There, I snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef – definitely a bucket list item! I also signed up for a skydive on a whim, which turned out to be a highlight, despite my huge fear of heights. I then flew down to Brisbane from the Whitsunday Coast and ended up loving the city much more than I thought I would. It made up for the rained out days in Byron Bay. From Brisbane, I flew to the West Coast – which I’d been deliberating over for a long time. Should I include Western Australia in my itinerary? Australia is such a huge country, I quickly realized I wouldn’t be able to fit everything into my trip, but eventually I chose Western Australia over the Outback for one simple reason: the quokkas! (see below in Best Moments). I also got to look after two adorable Rottweilers just south of Perth which was a welcome break after four weeks of fast-paced travels.
There were so many highlights in February, from celebrating my 10th “quitversary” (I walked out of my corporate job in London on 1 February 2010) with some bubbly and new friends outside Sydney’s Opera House, to touring vineyards in the Margaret River wine region in Western Australia to falling in love with Fremantle, a port city just south of Perth. I also saw some amazing art: the art museums in Sydney and Brisbane were world-class, and I saw a Keith Haring & Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit in Melbourne that wowed me. And let’s not forget the wildlife: seeing kangaroos in the wild in Western Australia was a travel dream come true, and snorkeling with turtles in the Whitsundays was as amazing as all my other turtle experiences.
Taking quokka selfies on Rottnest Island
Ever since seeing articles filled with funny and adorable quokka selfies, I knew I had to go get a quokka selfie when I’d finally make it to Australia. One of the first things I did after booking my flight to Oz was researching where these elusive quokkas live. Rottnest Island. A quick look at GoogleMaps revealed that these unique little mammals lived on a small island off the coast of Western Australia. Waaaaaay out of the way of any of the places I had tentatively put on my itinerary! The detour would include a six-hour flight and a 1-hour ferry ride from any place I had on my itinerary. And it’d be an expensive detour.
But it had to happen, and it was so worth it! My visit to Rottnest Island ended up being one of the highlights of my Australia trip and not only did I fall hard for the quokkas – I also fell in love with this tiny island, which is just 7.3 sq miles (19 sq kilometers) big. Rottnest Island was one of the most beautiful places I saw in all of Australia.
Overcoming my fear of heights and skydive
I have a huge fear of heights, and skydiving was a thing that I always listed as something “I’d never do”. Well, never say never! I signed up for a skydive on a whim in Airlie Beach on the Whitsunday Coast simply because the photograph outside the skydiving operator’s office looked so pretty and because it was fairly cheap, especially with the conversion rate to U.S. Dollars.
I am so glad that I took myself out of my comfort zone, because the skydive was incredible. The flight up to our jump height was already worth the money – the view over the Whitsunday Islands was breathtaking – and I gladly admit that I would’ve been happy to just go back down in the plane instead of throwing myself out of it, but my instructor made me feel so safe that I felt positive about surviving the jump. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect that day, and the feeling of jumping out of a plane is something I won’t forget anytime soon.
Visiting the Whitsunday Islands
Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef was a “must do” item on my Australia wish list, but it turned out that visiting the Whitsundays is quite pricey. I absolutely don’t regret splurging on the experience – it was a perfect mini vacation during my travels around Australia, and I loved swimming with sea turtles again and seeing a beautiful Maori Wrasse close-up for the very first time.
I had a difficult time deciding if I wanted to sail around the Whitsunday Islands, base myself on one of the islands, or base myself on the mainland and take a trip from there. Basing myself on the islands was the most expensive option, so I decided against it, and sailing seemed to be quite intense (uncomfortable bunks and a lot of time on a small boat). I think I ended up with the best option: a resort from which we took boat trips to several snorkeling spots and of the course the stunning White Haven Beach.
Not having a debit card
My debit card for my “travel funds” bank account expired on 31 January, and my new card did not arrive before I left on my trip. That meant I had to use my credit card for my entire trip – something I didn’t necessarily want to do (it took money out of my “day to day expenses in New York” account instead of my “travel account”). But I managed, and luckily I had enough money saved in that account that it wasn’t the end of the world.
Falling out of a boat and killing almost all my electronics
Yup, I fell out of a boat. When we arrived at the Paradise Grove Resort in the Whitsundays, we were transported from our speedboat to the resort in a small dinghy, and somehow I lost my balance when we hopped out of the dinghy into the shallow water, so that I ended up falling into the water. I would’ve just laughed it off, had my tote bag not gotten wet. Even though I reacted quickly and got it out of the water within seconds, my electronics all got wet and not all of them survived: my Kindle Fire, my portable charger, some of my charger cords – they all died.
March: Melbourne and New York City and NOT Guatemala
I began the month in Melbourne and I ended the month in New York City – and not in Guatemala, as I had originally planned. I was going to return to New York City for a quick job and two conferences and was supposed to fly to Guatemala mid-March. This was going to be my anniversary trip – the trip to celebrate a huge milestone: 10 years of Globetrottergirls.
I don’t need to tell you what happened: COVID-19 brought the world to a halt. I had monitored the spread of the virus while traveling Australia, fearful that it would shut down New York City the way that it had shut down Wuhan in January, but my friends back in New York told me I was being paranoid and dramatic when I left them panicky voicemails from the other side of the globe (Australia). New York City wouldn’t be shut down, I shouldn’t be worried, they assured me. Of course I was worried though, because my tour business is very much reliant on tourists coming to New York. And my fears turned out to be not unfounded: New York City did shut down. Guatemala closed its borders. My business died. My travel blog traffic tanked. My income took a huge hit.
Let’s look at the best and worst moments of the month:
A special visitor in New York City
I was scheduled to be in New York for less than two weeks and had quite a hectic schedule during that time (two conferences, meet-ups, work) but when a good friend told me she could schedule her visit to NYC to coincide with my extended “layover” in New York, I didn’t have to think about it: YES! COVID-19 was starting to spiral out of control, but we were still able to enjoy some fun New York moments: we visited the Vessel, which she hadn’t seen yet, and took a spring stroll around Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery. We had NY-style pizza slices and a yummy dinner at TimeOut Market and we indulged in Levain’s Cookies and Magnolia Bakery’s Banana Pudding, trying to suppress the bad feeling we were both had about COVID-19. For me it was the fear that I wouldn’t be able to go to Guatemala, for her it was the fear of not making it down to Florida and getting back to Europe. Read on for what happened next in Worst Moments below.
COVID-19 bringing the world to a halt
Three days before my scheduled flight to Guatemala, one of the hotel owners in Guatemala, who kept me up-to-date about COVID-19 related travel restrictions in Guatemala, informed me that the government had extended their travel ban for foreign visitors to US residents. The next day, American Airlines canceled my flight. For a moment I had considered trying to bump up my flight to arrive in Guatemala before the travel restrictions went into effect, but in the end, I decided not to tempt my luck. What if I got stuck in Guatemala? (Side note: That’s what happened to hundreds of travelers, and in retrospect, I am glad I got stuck in my lovely apartment in Brooklyn instead!)
My friend was able to get out of New York City, but she never made it down to Florida to visit family and friends there. Instead, she flew back to Europe earlier than planned, on a crowded flight with people scrambling to get back home.
April: Stuck in New York City
April was a difficult month. New York City was hit hard by the Coronavirus, and watching the infection rates and growing death numbers every day was challenging for my mental health. Being thousands of miles away from my family was also not easy. Seeing friends contract COVID-19 (including some severe cases) and two people die from the disease was anxiety-inducing. I spent 22 to 23 hours a day self-isolating in my apartment, only leaving the house for grocery hauls, exercise, and to delivery groceries to my friend who had fallen very ill with COVID-19. My income had dried up almost entirely. The blog only makes me money when people read it, and nobody wanted to read about travel while stuck at home, not knowing when we’d be able to travel again. Almost nobody was paying to have travel content written. And my Brooklyn tours? Well obviously they only make me money when I can run them. I felt completely crushed. What I had hoped was going to be my financially most lucrative year yet was shaping up to bring me close to bankruptcy.
A care package from Germany
This one goes into the category “kindness of strangers”: A follower of my blog and Instagram had seen that I was running out of my international chocolate supply (I am not a big fan of American chocolate) and decided to send me a huge package filled with all of my favorite chocolates: different kinds of Ritter Sport, all sorts of Kinder chocolates– it felt like it was Christmas and my birthday on one and the same day! I would’ve appreciated a care package like this at any time, but during these trying times, it felt particularly special and I was grateful every single day for the sweet treats that gave me comfort. Looking back, I am still amazed by the kindness someone who barely knew me showed me.
The uncertainty of COVID-19
My mind was constantly racing in April, with thoughts like: Would I be able to keep my apartment? How many more months would I be able to pay rent? When would I run out of my savings? When would tourists be able to return to New York City? When would people start reading travel blogs again? Would I end up in one of the makeshift hospitals that the city had set up? Would I die from Coronavirus if I got it?
There was a lot of fear and a lot of worry. The uncertainty was dreadful.
Witnessing COVID-19 firsthand
As I already mentioned, several friends and people I knew got sick with Coronavirus and two people died from it. It was an emotional time with lots of tears.
Seeing New York City during COVID-19
I love New York City so much, and I was devastated to see “my” city hurt so much. Restaurants closed, theaters closed, shops closed – basically, all life had disappeared from the streets. Seeing a vibrant city like New York so silent, literally shut down, was heartbreaking. Instead of chatter in the streets you’d hear sirens all the time. Seeing “morgue trucks” outside the hospitals, hearing about people having their lives destroyed – it was devastating. I wrote about what it was like to live in New York City during COVID-19 here.
May: Still stuck in New York City
We started May with over 162,000 cases of Coronavirus in New York City, and over 13,000 deaths. Looking at the numbers every day was mind-boggling, especially since so many other countries had managed to contain the virus. New York City, however, had more cases than 190 countries. The good news was that it finally looked like case numbers were slowly declining – NYC seemed to have passed the peak. This month, nobody I knew got sick.
After a long and difficult April, May was also much easier for me personally. I had gotten into a good routine of working, exercising, and socializing either online or with the folks in my “COVID pod”. I didn’t feel lonely, I kept myself busy with work (mainly going through the roughly 1,500 articles on Globetrottergirls, deleting irrelevant articles and updating outdated content, but I also managed to get a few freelance projects). I got used to this “new normal” and kept myself entertained with Online Experiences and cooking and baking – including a 3-week sugar detox after indulging a bit too much in sugar in April thanks to the above-mentioned care package. I had excellent pizza several times this month (pre- and post-detox), I went to my friend’s house for a dinner after she recovered from COVID-19, I met another friend for socially distant runs, I took a virtual coffee experience, I had picnics in the park, I watched a couple of TV shows that I enjoyed (Derry Girls made me laugh, and Normal People made me cry a few times). I went on long bike rides around Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens and even made it to Staten Island once. It felt amazing to have the ferry almost to myself (no tourists!).
I also made the decision to spend the summer with my family in Germany, which meant this was going to be my last full month in NYC for a while.
Making it through a 21-day sugar detox
Even though I’ve done this detox several times in the past, I still find it incredibly hard to cut out sugar and carbs completely for a full three weeks. But challenging myself to do it and seeing that I am able to function without sugar feels like a huge achievement every single time. Plus:
Finishing a half marathon in Coney Island
The Brooklyn Half Marathon was supposed to happen mid-May, but due to COVID-19, it had to be canceled. The organizers set up a virtual half marathon instead, which means anyone can run 13.1 miles, no matter where in the world they are. Not only did I sign up for the half marathon, but I challenged myself to run a half marathon while on the sugar detox, during which I usually don’t have a lot of energy because I exist almost entirely on vegetables. I ran all the way down to Coney Island, and admittedly, I didn’t run very fast, but I finished.
Seeing friends IRL
After not seeing any of my friends for what felt like YEARS, I slowly started seeing a few close friends in May. Having actual face-to-face hangouts instead of just Facetime and WhatsApp video calls felt amazing. I consider myself a social person and not being able to socialize was the hardest aspect of the shelter-in-place order for me.
I can’t think of a single horrible moment. I think I put things in perspective for myself this month: I (still) have money, I have a nice apartment, I have access to delicious food, I am healthy, I have people in my life who care about me – I honestly have nothing to complain about.
June: New York City and Germany
After nearly 90 days of self-isolation in New York City, I was more than ready for a change of scenery. My family had already asked me back in April to come to Germany and stay with them, and I thought about it for a long time before I agreed to it. The most important thing for me was not to put them at risk, which is why I decided to wait out the peak of the infection rate in NYC. It was announced that the city would loosen quarantine restrictions in June, and I was hoping that by the time I’d fly out, travel restrictions would be eased.
Unfortunately, by early June, not much had changed in New York City. The city began its reopening, which would slowly roll out in four phases, on 8 June, with wholesale, manufacturing and construction work being resumed, but everyone else was still under shelter-at-home order. Germany, on the other hand, was much further ahead already, with life being almost back to normal (except for face coverings being required inside stores and restaurants). Travel restrictions were still in place, which means US citizens were still not allowed to enter the EU, but since I have a German passport and my trip was considered essential, I was able to leave the U.S.
Just before I left for Germany, the protests following the George Floyd killing started to go full force in New York and in other cities around the U.S.. It was an interesting time – on the one hand, I was excited to see so many people get involved in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and speak up against systemic racism and police brutality, on the other hand I felt extremely anxious about crowds gathering and a possible new spike in COVID-19 infections, after months of shutdown and the city just starting to reopen. Knowing that I’d put my family back in Germany in danger by exposing myself to the virus, I was only able to watch the protests from the sideline.
Every time things like this happen – another black person dying unjustified, people taking to the streets and making their outrage known, but things normalizing eventually and people seeming to forget about the horrible injustice in this country.. until the next terrible thing occurs – I feel so hopeless about the state of the world and my adopted home country: America. Nobody should feel discriminated against because of their race or the color of their skin. Nobody should experience violence because of their race or the color of their skin. Nobody should be killed because of their race or the color of their skin. And yet, it is happening again and again.
I truly hope that time around, things will change for the better. I hope that white people become more introspective and face their own racism, often ingrained through upbringing and societal norms. I hope that white people will educate themselves on the issue of racism and that police departments around the U.S. will restructure their training process and the way they handle arrests. This will not be a quick change, but if the protests of June 2020 lead to long lasting changes, it’d make me happy.
Reuniting with my family
Easily the best moment of the month! After months of uncertainty about when I’d be able to see my family again, it was such a relief to arrive at my sister’s house. An even bigger relief was to make it through 14 days of obligatory quarantine upon arrival in Germany without developing any symptoms of COVID-19. I’d worried I may have been exposed to the virus on my plane ride to Europe – see below for why.
The flight from NYC to FRA
After the first flight I booked was canceled by the airline on short notice (less than two weeks before the departure date!), I decided to pay a little more and book a flight with Delta Airlines, mainly because they promised “extra safety” on their flights and social distancing measures. The flight was via Atlanta, a big Delta hub. The first flight was okay – the middle seat was left empty so that I had some distance between me and the other passenger in my row.
On the 9-hour flight from Atlanta to Frankfurt, however, I was shocked to discover to have someone sitting right next to me. When you book a flight thinking social distancing isn’t going to be a problem but then find yourself so close to someone that your legs and arms touch frequently on an overnight flight – not great. I convinced myself that I picked up COVID-19 on the flight – after I’d been so careful the weeks prior to my flight, so that I wouldn’t get anyone in my family sick. I was extremely frustrated about this, and spent the entire flight stressing about bringing coronavirus to a part of Germany that had only seen a couple of COVID cases and zero deaths. I was so relieved when I finished my 2-week quarantine without having developed any symptoms.
Continue here to read about the second half of my 2020.. The second half of 2020 included some travels around Europe in the summer, and my return to the U.S., which included an unexpected trip to a new-to-me destination: