Megan Ealy thought she had everything that would make her “happy:” close friends, a beautiful garden apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and a successful marketing agency, Sisu. But she wasn’t.
Realizing that she had, for so long, relied on things to make her happy, she decided to make a change. She walked away from her marriage, sold all of her belongings, and decided to travel in search of new views on life and happiness from other communities around the world.
And then COVID hit.
We caught up with Ealy just as she was returning home from 10 months traveling to learn more about what her experience has been like—which countries she visited, which were the most serious and the most lax about COVID, what airline she recommends (and which she most certainly doesn’t), how the virus shifted her plans, and much, much more.
[Interview edited for clarity]
To start off, let's set the scene. How long have you been traveling? Where did you go?
I started traveling in January 2020, and my plan was to travel until November. So I started out in Colombia, and then I went to Mexico City. I then stopped briefly and went home to New York for the quarantine time. I couldn’t stand not traveling, so I took a little leap of faith, hoped to goodness everything would be fine, and bought a plane ticket to fly out the next day (back to Mexico). I went to Tulum and, from there, Croatia and Italy. I was in Venice, Rome, Vatican City, Florence, Naples, and the Amalfi Coast. I wanted one last trip, so I went to Greece to live there for the month. I did Athens and Santorini before flying back home.
When COVID hit, did you consider calling it quits and coming home for good?
When COVID happened at first, I wasn’t going to come home. But then, one by one, my friends abroad started going home. I was a little nervous, so I came back and thought to myself, I’ll just re-start when COVID stops. But then I started hearing things, and people were saying that COVID’s not going to end for a while. One of my friends in Arizona decided that she was flying back to Mexico, and I go...wait. If she can do this, and she went first, and she was there for two weeks, and she was telling me that it’s fine, why can't I? I was hearing all these reports saying, it’s not okay. But there she was telling me that it's great, so I said...okay, fine. And that’s when I decided to do it.
I told my family, and they said, you’re going where? You’re leaving? And I just remember getting on the airplane and flying into Mexico thinking, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
The news was saying that they were laughing at the virus and not taking any precautions in Mexico. But honestly, they were safer than the US. I flew in, and my temperature was immediately checked. I was asked a ton of questions and had to tell them exactly where I was going to live. There was hand sanitizer everywhere, people were all wearing masks, and everything had to be distanced in the airport. You couldn't be in the car with more than two people. Once you got into certain towns, that’s when it was more lax. But in cities like Cancun, they were very, very strict—whereas in the US, I flew home and they didn’t check anything. They just said, hi! Welcome!!
If you had to pick one, what was your favorite destination? How did it surprise you or exceed your expectations?
There were ones that I really loved from the standpoint of beauty, but I was really nervous health-wise about the virus, so I'm going to focus on my favorite in terms of how I felt when I was there. And it would be Italy. I felt the most safe there compared to anywhere else. My experience was amazing, and we were there a month and a half. Just the way that they controlled the virus after everything happened and how many precautions they had with masks. But you were still able to enjoy the sites, and it was completely empty. I was able to go to Rome and stand in no lines. So that was, by far, the best experience because I felt safe and they took the virus very seriously compared to all the other countries.
Highs and lows of the trip...GO.
The high would be the fact that the crowds were minimal. I went to the Vatican and it was completely empty. I was in the Colosseum and it was empty, which is totally unheard of.
The low would be when we got into Italy and were taking the train. We were sitting there just chatting with friends and not paying attention. We accidentally hopped on the wrong train and went to Milan which, at the time, was the epicenter. We were so scared because the train was packed and it was a Level 4 advisory area, meaning you’re not even supposed to be there from the United States. Your insurance isn’t even covered there! So we were trying to get to Venice and leave as fast as possible, and by the time we get to the next train stop, my bag was gone. I had nothing—except for my laptop, thankfully.
Another low would be the fear in countries like Croatia and Greece to walk down the street because no one’s wearing a mask and everyone’s coughing. That was the scariest part. Being so high-strung in the areas that weren’t safe.
Wait, you’re telling me that no one was wearing a mask?
Nope, they thought it was a joke. And laughed. In Croatia, I was actually told to take off my mask in a store. They told me I didn’t need to wear it because it’s fake, this is all fake. And I’m like...IT’S NOT FAKE!
Logistically, was it difficult navigating from one city or country to the next with COVID? Were all the countries that you visited countries you planned on visiting? Or did you shift your itinerary based on countries that were open and would accept you?
Before Mexico, I was actually planning to go to Iceland. I had my ticket already purchased. It was a few days before, and all flights were cancelled going in. They closed it to the US. So that’s when I got discouraged, but then I said to myself: I’m going to Mexico. My friend’s going to Mexico, I’m going to Mexico.
Then, when we were in Italy, we were planning to head to France because of the Tour de France (I’m a big cycling fan). All of a sudden, the night before we were leaving, there was a report that came out that Paris was a new hotspot, so we had to cancel that ticket and book a last-minute train to Naples down south. Because Greece, at the time, wasn’t allowing US citizens to come in. We also tried to go to Switzerland, but it was impossible. One of the hardest parts of traveling with the virus is that you can’t book a plane ticket more than a few days before unless you know for a fact that you can get a refund.
For Airbnbs, we were able to message them and say: hey, we’re coming to you, but can we get it in writing that if we don’t get into the country, we can get our money back? We were able to get a refund because Airbnb honored the written message. One time, we paid the service fee, but overall they were really great about that.
Itching to hop on a plane and get back to exploring?
Journy is staying up to date on COVID-related travel policies, only booking refundable properties, and carefully vetting all hotel/restaurant sanitary measures.
You mentioned witnessing the full spectrum of "seriousness" when it came to COVID safety precautions and protocols. Can you tell me more about that?
The most strict would definitely be Italy. That’s a place that everyone should go. The restaurants were great and I never felt unsafe. There were plastic partitions between all the diners.
Croatia was the most lax, but it was interesting because they were the most strict to get into the country if you were coming from the US. They questioned you, they made you quarantine. But when you got in, there were no precautions at all. I got on a ferry, and I remember at the time thinking...if we don’t get COVID from this ferry ride and the bus ride that we had to take, then we’re very lucky. It was packed, and no one was wearing masks but us.
I remember being on the island of Hvar, and we were trying to decide if we wanted to stay. I kept hearing people cough and no one was wearing masks, and I thought to myself...this is really unsafe. I think we need to leave. And then that day, I went down to the market. And as I’m going, they’re pulling out a body. I went to the spa later that day, and the lady goes, Oh did you hear, someone died of COVID. The next day, we booked a ferry to go to Italy. They just don’t care in Croatia. You can go to a nail salon, and they won’t be wearing masks.
How was your experience flying? Were there certain airlines implementing the strictest COVID protocols?
Oh, yes. The best airline by far was Delta / KLM / AirFrance. It’s more expensive but the safest I’ve ever felt. They made sure everyone was spread out, and they boarded the plane from back to front. Everyone had a hand cloth and everyone had to wear a mask.
The worst was American Airlines. It was packed and we were right next to each other. What was most terrifying was the fact that they served food to everybody at the same time, so everyone took off their mask and ate together for 30 minutes! My recommendation is to keep your mask on when everyone’s eating and to eat after.
How was it returning home to the states? What was the process like walking through the airport in terms of testing, temperature checks, etc?
I’ve actually flown into the states three times since COVID started. The first time I came in was in March after leaving a group of 20-something fellow travelers. We all flew into different parts of the country, and not one of us was checked. We weren’t even questioned, they just let us in.
The second time was in July—I came in through Texas, which was not good. Nobody was wearing a mask in the airport and we were never questioned about where we were coming from. Not screened. Nothing.
This last time coming in, I was terrified. I was told by clients that people were being quarantined in New York. That if you came in from out of country, then you had to quarantine for 14 days and tell them where you were staying. I flew in, and they just let me go. They didn’t care at all. I could have stayed in New York and quarantined. Instead, I got in a car, came home to Georgia, and quarantined there myself. But I was never once asked to do so or temperature checked.
I'm curious what your thoughts are on this novel concept of "travel shaming"—the idea that people actually are traveling right now but not telling friends or publicizing it on social media because they fear backlash from people who deem it irresponsible.
I had people reach out and ask me why I was traveling. I had clients that were not happy that I would even leave the country. In my opinion, if you’re traveling and taking precautions by wearing a mask, washing your hands, and staying distant, then I think you should travel. It’s fine.
But take, for instance, Mexico. They had a massive outbreak in Tulum and Cancun because you had all these spring breakers who weren’t wearing masks, weren’t taking precautions, and weren’t being tested. It destroyed that community.
So if you are going to travel, make sure you get checked for COVID. When we got to Croatia, there were people who couldn’t afford the test—at the time, it was 200 euros, and their average monthly income is 400 euros. If you're American and have access to a COVID test, then take it before you travel because you can wind up in a country where people don’t have access to masks or the financial means to get a test.
Considering a post-COVID trip? Keep this hotel hack in mind.
And if you're interested in learning more about remote work, meet Marc LeBourdais, a software engineer who spent 19.5 months on the road pre-pandemic.