by Dan Callahan
Last updated: 10:30 AM ET, Fri March 27, 2020
Leading up to our wedding, my now-wife and I's honeymoon was the least of our worries. Our flights and stay at the brand-new Hammock Cove Resort & Spa in Antigua were booked eight months in advance, and we just needed to get by the stress of planning and pulling off a wedding for 150+ people before we were relaxing in paradise for a week.
During the planning stages, we both thought the worst we'd have to deal with was maybe a potential March snowstorm causing some guests to not be able to travel to our celebration. Little did we know a global pandemic would unfold with the U.S. epicenter just an hour and a half north of our location.
And that stress hung around with us during our travels in and out of JFK International Airport.
With that said, I'm thankful that all I can complain about is added stress from this trip. I know many other travelers dealt with much worse and other honeymooners had to postpone or forgo their trips completely. I won't sit here and say the most minor inconveniences stressed us out, but what did cause a lot of anxiety was the fear of the unknown.
Will JFK shutdown? Will American Airlines cancel all flights? Will Antigua close its borders? After we leave the U.S., will we be able to get back in? These were just a few questions running through our heads hourly. There were (and still aren't) 100% clear answers, so all we could do was take the necessary precautions.
Keep in mind, this was just a few days after President Trump suspended travel from Europe. At the time, there were no warnings of traveling to the Caribbean, so we stuck through with our vacation plans, taking extra measures to wash our hands and to avoid touching our faces.
Our flight was scheduled to leave on-time March 16 at 7:45 am, direct to Antigua. We parked at a nearby hotel, hitched a ride on their shuttle, and arrived at JFK at about 5:00 am. The airport wasn't empty by any stretch but wasn't packed either. We used the machine to check our bags and had to tell an American Airlines employee that we haven't traveled to China, Italy, Iran, Korea or Singapore in the last 28 days.
After checking our bags, we waited for 15-minutes in security before clearing and walking to our gate. From getting on the shuttle to our seat at the gate, all-in-all was under an hour, and every person we encountered had gloves on, some with masks.
One positive to come of this entire outbreak was the cleanliness of people and public spaces. Throughout JFK, we saw cleaning crew after cleaning crew making sure the place was spotless. Most people, including us, were avoiding touching anything they didn't have to and washed their hands, used hand sanitizer stations and wiped their seats down as much as possible. Combining this with not touching our faces and keeping our distance from other travelers was also a great precaution to abide by.
When we began boarding in Group 4, hardly anyone had already boarded. Even after we got on the plane and wiped down our seats, tray tables and seat pockets, not many more people boarded behind us. I looked down the aisle and saw only about a third of the plane and was full, and we were about to start taxiing. While it was nice we didn't have anyone in front, next to or behind us, it was an unusual sight to see a normally full flight being a third of the way full due to coronavirus cancelations.
The flight itself was smooth and on-time, followed by a normal experience going through Antigua's V.C. Bird International. Everything seemed pretty much business-as-usual, which was how the rest of our honeymoon went at Hammock Cove.
Thursday rolled around, four days into our honeymoon, and I learned of the State Department raising a Level 4 travel advisory. This, mixed in with the other news coming throughout the NY/NJ areas, the country and the world, the fear of the unknown and those same questions took back over.
As much as we wanted to continue enjoying the perfection our resort and Antigua had to offer, we decided we wouldn't continue to push our luck and we moved our return flights from Monday to Saturday. We were one of the last large group weddings to take place in New Jersey for the foreseeable future and American Airlines was offering no change fees, so figuring our luck was running out, we changed the flights and upgraded to first class for under $150 per ticket.
I was somehow still charged a change fee of $200 per ticket, but after requesting a callback with phone support and explaining the situation, I had it reversed a couple of hours later. That callback feature is golden for times like these, and I wish more companies would implement it on their support lines.
The lines at V.C. Bird International weren't terribly long. They were moving at a decent pace, but our upgrade paid off and allowed us to skip them. Most people in the tiny airport were keeping their distance, wiping down seats, and using sanitizer stations frequently. The same behavior continued on the plane, and many people were offering travelers around them wipes to use if they needed them.
This is where it got quite interesting.
About an hour into the flight, the captain made an announcement saying, "We have some bad news. JFK isn't taking flights from every Caribbean island, Antigua being one of them, and we'll unfortunately have to turn around."
Loud groans filled the cabin. I bought a WiFi pass to get in contact with people on the ground in NYC and Antigua, while others who thought they'd soon be locked out of the country began contacting private pilots in Antigua to get jets fueled-up to go to Miami.
We thought we were smart for cutting our trip short two days and were smooth sailing, only until now to not be allowed back in the country. Our stomachs were sinking, and I forgot at this point to keep my fingers off my face as I began frantically biting my nails.
About 15-minutes later, the captain came back on. "I have better news. It cost me a lot of money and my firstborn child, but JFK is now taking our flight. So we're turning back around and going to New York, and we're only 20-minutes behind schedule." Cheers filled the cabin and I ordered an extra gin double.
It turns out, the FAA halted all flights to New York and Philadelphia-area airports for a brief amount of time due to an air traffic controller trainee testing positive for the coronavirus.
Our flight landed just a few minutes behind schedule, and customs at JFK was a ghost town. I wish I had gotten a photo of this rare occurrence, but I was avoiding touching my phone screen at all costs. We got through in a couple of minutes and boarded a shuttle back to the hotel where we handled a wide-open ride down the NJ Turnpike home with ease to begin self-quarantining.
I've been in frustrating positions related to travel in the past, and if all I did was watch mainstream media, I would've expected all hell to break loose at JFK and on both of our flights. But what helped keep our stress and anxiety to a minimum was having reliable information from our travel resources, knowing trusted travel advisors had our backs, and continuously practicing precautions while in public. Many people were expecting something to seriously throw us off on this trip, but I supposed the luck of the Irish during the week of St. Patrick's Day was on our side.
We'll forever have a unique story to tell about our honeymoon, which was another reason we stuck through with our vacation plans and opted not to outright cancel or postpone.
As the travel industry continues to take a hit from this outbreak, my advice to all would be to not cancel those travel plans but rather simply change the dates! Tourism makes the world go-round, and many people's lives depend on you traveling to their country. So think twice before completely canceling your entire summer vacation if you haven't yet, and consider adjusting the dates. Who knows, at this point, you might find yourself some amazing deals.
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