Yep, we did it. After strictly locking down for 3.5 months in New Jersey (and missing 3 trips along the way), we were majorly itching for a getaway when restrictions were finally lifted. We initially planned to travel within the US but honestly, the US is going to shit with its handling of the pandemic. So we looked else where and realized that a number of Caribbean destinations were open/opening to US travelers. We settled on Antigua, which was one of the first Caribbean countries to open to the US back on June 4th, and upon researching, Antigua handled the pandemic quite well. We decided on a short trip over the 4th of July, from Thursday, July 2nd – Tuesday, July 7th. This article details our travels and hopefully will shed some light on the issue for those trying to decide whether to travel this year.
And I will go ahead and say, I’m not advocating for or suggesting that anyone travel this year or even next, but the fact remains that people are traveling and will continue to travel so long as lockdowns are lifted. And frankly, we will be living with this new normal for the foreseeable future (here’s a link to a good Lonely Planet on the issue); its not as if things will magically go back to normal after a date certain. If you are going to travel, you must get a negative COVID-19 test prior to departure, consult with a medical professional regarding your own health and plans, and prepare to take care of yourself and your health during the entire trip, including sanitizing things, wearing a mask, keeping up with virus statistics to avoid hot spots, and comply with all rules regarding quarantining, etc., on arrival and on return. Don’t expect anyone to protect you besides yourself. And on that note, moving on to that first hurdle, obtaining a negative COVID-19 Rapid PCR Test.
Negative COVID-19 Testing. The first interesting bit of this trip was the dreaded COVID-19 testing. At the time we traveled, Antigua did not require a negative COVID-19 test prior to flying (no longer the case), but if you didn’t have one, you would likely receive one on arrival, quarantining (in your hotel…) until the results came back… Since we had no interest in travel with even a remote possibility of testing positive for COVID-19, we decided to tale a test with 48 hours of departure (in line with most other destinations requiring a negative COVID-19 testing prior to entry). After doing a lot of digging online, we learned that the Rapid PCR test is what we wanted – the test that yields results within 15 minutes – and found a location near our home in NJ that administers them, Riverside Medical Group. We called on a Thursday evening, had a 10-minute Zoom consultation with a Nurse Practitioner on Saturday morning, and were scheduled for a test at 7 AM on Wednesday, the day before our flight, at our request (they could have taken us on Monday or Tuesday morning). Side note on these tests, it appears they can be difficult to find, especially in rural areas and those in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak. If you are not in a coastal urban area, I would look into the availability of these tests prior to booking travel in the near future. The test was a painless (seriously painless, and I’m a HUGE baby), done from our car, and took less than 5 seconds. We were also given a throat swab for strep (unsure why it was given, but this was worse than the COVID-19 test). In less than 10 minutes, a Nurse came out and gave us a certificate stating that we each were negative. Trip on!
JFK Airport & Our Flight To Antigua On Jet Blue. We flew to Antigua on Jet Blue direct from New York’s JFK – a 4ish hour flight. We arrived at JFK approximately 2.5 hours before our flight. On arrival, disappointingly, there were absolutely no health checks. No temperature check, no hand sanitizing station, nothing. Since we had checked in online, we printed our bag tag and dropped our 1 piece of checked luggage off with Jet Blue. The person who took our bag did ask us if we had a negative COVID-19 test result, but he didn’t want to see it and I actually think he was just curious. Security was very light and TSA Pre-Check, even lighter. We breezed through in 5 minutes. The only thing of note is that we had to pull down our mask briefly to show the TSA agent our face.
Once in the Jet Blue Terminal (T5), most stores, restaurants, and cafes were closed, and no lounges were open. And honestly, it was a bit sad. However, more was open than I expected, especially in the morning. In early July, Starbucks, a food court with a couple hot options, including pizza, breakfast platters, and bagel sandwiches, and cold grocery options, including La Colombe coffee cans, and a couple Hudson News stores were open. The Hudson News was selling masks, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes for the plane. We ate breakfast at the food court. My breakfast wrap was meh but the side of hash browns were 100%. There was also at least 1 bar in T5, purportedly open at 8 but likely serving earlier. The bar was only open for take away drinks to be drank in the terminal. Since I had not been to an airport in like 3 months, I drank a double glass of red wine just for funsies over looking the runway (very easy to social distance in the gate area due to so few flights)! I missed overpaying for mediocre wine at airports.
Boarding on Jet Blue was right on time and went from back of the plane to front. As Jet Blue is blocking middle seats (through the rest of the Summer currently), Dan and I had a row to ourselves. The flight was uneventful and through there is no food and drink service, the flight attendants did hand out a plastic bag containing a tiny bottle of water, cookies, and a nut bar. Face masks were required and wearing them was enforced in flight except when eating or drinking. Reading materials usually in the seat back pocket were removed and instead, listed on Jet Blue’s website. There was also a brief explanation of plane cleaning procedures by both a flight attendant and one of the pilots. I would further note that we were allowed to bring both a carry-on and a personal item on board with us. No restrictions there.
We arrived in Antigua early and as the passengers were departing, Jet Blue already started sanitizing the plane. I felt quite comfortable flying Jet Blue during these times.
Arrival In Antigua. Before landing in Antigua, each passenger was given a health questionnaire to complete, basically asking if the traveler had any known contact with COVID-19 in the past 14 days, and the standard immigration form. We completed our papers in the air and on arrival, waited in a monitored socially distanced line to reach the health check and immigration. Face masks are absolutely required and we did not see a person without one in the Antigua airport.
Prior to immigration, each passenger had their temperature checked via something that looked like a camera and then each group of travelers (i.e. my husband and I went together) visited a health official, dressed in head to toe plastic with a mask and face shield. Most people were asked a number of questions and seemed to be completing a more robust health questionnaire, but we were simply asked our name, lodging, and phone number, and then were told to go to the “swabbing area.” GREAT. We were the only ones there, so we were taken together into a tiny room that felt like a broom closet and a large man outfitted in even more protective gear was presumably going to test us both for COVID-19. However, we promptly told him that we had been tested with the last 48 hours and presented our negative certifications. He then let us go without another test. As of early July, I believe a random group of people were getting tested, because Dan and I answered no to every question on the questionnaire and had no symptoms and no temperature. In any case, we were glad that we didn’t have to take another test in that tiny little room (but obviously would have done so)! Note that as of today, Antigua requires a negative COVID-19 test within 7 days of travel to enter the country.
After the health screening, Immigration was a breeze (nothing asked about COVID), we picked up our luggage and cleared customs. Note, no shops are anything of the like were open post-Immigration and Customs at the airport (meaning, no coffee, water, etc.). Pro tip – hit the ATM in the airport for at least some local currency. Many places take US dollars and credit card but some smaller businesses will not.
Transportation To Our Hotel. Tourists could not rent cars when we visited Antigua due to COVID-19, and only COVID-19 Certified taxis are allowed to operate. This translates to: you must book your taxi in advance, preferably 24 hours in advance. We booked through our hotel, and our driver was waiting with a sign outside the airport. The driver was wearing a mask and drove us the 45 minutes to our hotel on Falmouth Bay for $50 US. It used to cost $35 US but COVID has driven up the price! US cash was accepted.
Our Hotel In Antigua – Admiral’s Inn And Gunpowder Suites. In Antigua, hotels can only open to tourists once they are certified by the government to re-open during COVID-19 and follow certain safety measures. We booked our hotel in June, and only about 6 hotels were certified at that time. However, more are opening by the day. I recommend confirming before booking that the hotel has been certified and will be operational for your stay (this goes for any destination).
We stayed at the lovely Admirals Inn & Gunpowder Suites in Falmouth Bay, which will be the subject of another blog post! Admiral’s Inn & Gunpowder Suites is actually two properties set across from each other on a small harbor. I thought we booked the less expensive Admiral’s Inn, but that was not operational when we visited due to COVID-19, and we instead stayed at the Gunpowder Suites in a cottage over looking the beautiful infinity pool! According to the property manager, we were 2 of 6 guests on the property and social distancing was no problem at all. We barely saw anyone else during our stay. Due to the low number of tourists, as mentioned, we were upgraded to a fancy suite and when we had a problem with our air conditioning, the hotel simply gave us the adjoining room and let use use both during our stay for no extra cost.
Aside from social distancing, which again was SO EASY due to the few people there, the hotel placed hand sanitizer throughout the property and a mandatory hand washing sink to enter the restaurant and pool area. This was strictly enforced. Staff did wear masks. We carried masks with us everywhere, but didn’t really wear them often because no one was around. Guests did wear them entering and leaving the restaurant and pool area, as required. The hotel also removed items from the minibar due to COVID-19, but other amenities were left in room and our room was cleaned daily.
As mentioned, 1/2 of the hotel was closed (i.e. the Admiral’s Inn) and only 1 of the hotel’s 2 restaurants was open, from 9:30 AM – 8:00 PM (last order at 7 PM). This cut down on food options and our preference to eat a later dinner, but it was a small price to pay for being able to get away. At my request, the hotel also sent us a list of the handful of local restaurants that are open in area, as well as directions to a grocery store.
In sum, I felt comfortable at the Admiral’s Inn and Gunpowder Suites and would totally return. Our stay was truly lovely. I have heard other people state that they prefer to stay at large branded hotels during the pandemic because they have the resources to clean, etc. (for example, Hilton has famous partnered with Lysol). Personally, I would not discount small properties and would think twice about booking at large chains, such as Sandals or Beaches, that are popular with the general American population. Before our sunset cruise (read about it below), we walked around the Sandals resort from which our cruise left. There were many, MANY people staying here and from what we observed, were practicing a variety of safety measures, from what appeared decent to absolutely none at all… This can be problematic and even ruin your vacation, as if no one else is practicing proper social distancing and masking measures, you are going to be confined to your room or engaging in risky activity. As such, going forward, we will be staying at smaller hotels with fewer guests, or in a cottage or bungalow separated from the rest of the resort.
Wherever you stay, its important to remember that many hotels are operating limited facilities. I would call in advance and confirm prior to booking exactly what will be open, particularly in terms of food options and any “must do” activities.
Getting Around. As mentioned, tourists could not rent cars in Antigua as of July and are required to use a state COVID-19 certified taxi, which were kind of pricey. In Falmouth Bay, we were able to walk to dinner and the beach. We did take a taxi for our sunset cruise departing from St. John’s (35 minutes away). The cost was $80 US round trip and our driver was not wearing a mask. Not thrilled with that.
Changing Money. In Falmouth Bay, I did not see an open bank and the sole ATM in the local grocery store only accepts local debit cards. Luckily, our hotel and the local grocery store both changed $40 US into local currency, which was more than enough for a few lunches at Mr. Panzerotto (see below). I recommend going to the ATM at the airport and taking out at least $50 US in local currency.
Restaurants. Surprisingly, finding food proved to be one of the more stressful activities. We expected our hotel’s restaurant to be open daily, but it was closed two days of our stay. Lucky for us, Falmouth Bay is home to a number of casual restaurants, which were each open a few nights a week. Based on some internet staking and Facebook messaging (my favorite way to contact foreign restaurants), we learned that the following were open in Falmouth Bay during our stay:
Boom Restaurant: Our hotel’s restaurant was open for lunch and dinner Wednesday – Sunday from 12 – 8 PM. They also made breakfast for hotel guests each morning after 9:30 if requested the prior day. Hand washing required to enter. Bar closed off, but you can go just for drinks ($25 US minimum spend per person, includes use of the pool). Totally outdoors and open air with a covered roof.
Trappas Restaurant: The BEST food of our trip, despite the restaurant looking iffy from the outside. From the internet, it looks like Trappas is open daily. However, they were closed on Friday and Saturday when we visited, open Sunday – Tuesday. Hand washing required prior to entry. Temperature checked on entry. Outdoor and indoor seating.
Cloggy’s: Also great food in Falmouth Bay in a gorgeous setting. Closed Monday. Open for lunch Tuesday and Sunday from 12 – 4 PM, bar open at night. Open for lunch Wednesday – Saturday and dinner 6 PM – 9 PM. Hand washing required prior to entry. Outdoor seating only (indoors closed) and it gets crowded (though social distancing was enforced). Reservations recommended. Bar area open for drinks only, but patrons must sit at a socially distanced bar-area outdoor table.
The Club House at the Antigua Yacht Club: Supposedly open daily for lunch and dinner, The Club House at AYC was totally closed for lunch and closed for dinner random nights when we visited. We did not eat here, but people seemed to like their Sunday steak special. Open to the public. Open air seating. Happy hour specials. The downstairs Bar-B restaurant was closed during our trip.
Paparrazi Pizza: Excellent pizza in Antigua! At the time of writing, open Thursday – Sunday 5:30 PM – 9:30 PM for pick up and take out. Those hours are expected to expand. Hand washing station on arrival, but use not required… Indoor and much outdoor seating, with more outdoor than indoor.
Mr. Panzerotto: Small panzerotto (an Italian fried calzone dish – I had it in Italy here!) shop run by two Italians that is a crowd favorite in Antigua and everyone knows it. Open daily 12 – 7 PM. Good food and perfect for lunch! Only accepts local currency. Don’t leave without trying a panzerotto!
Skullduggery Cafe: Small bar and coffee shop with outdoor seating. It seemed to be open every day when we visited from morning until the evening. Snack food, such as toasties, cookies, potato chips, for sale. Classic drinks, and they even have their own rum. Hand washing station on site.
The Covenant Garden: Grocery store in down town Falmouth Bay. Decent selection of local and foreign foods. Open daily from approximately 9 AM – 9 PM when we visited. Beer, wine, and liquor also sold here. An OK selection, mostly inexpensive wine and beer. Good spot to purchase Antiguan rum.
Premier Cru: Wine shop open Thursday – Saturday during the day. Close to Nelson’s Dockyard, across from the Covenant Garden. Good selection, decent prices. There is another wine shop that apparently sells sandwiches near the Antigua Yacht Club.
Life on the Corner : We did not eat here, but our hotel suggested they are open.
Flatties: We did not eat here, but we did pass it. Outdoor seating. It was only open 1 night when we were in town. Purportedly open for lunch and dinner according to our hotel.
Seabreeze Café (for breakfast & lunch):We did not eat here, but they apparently serve breakfast and lunch according to our hotel.
As you can see, all restaurants required hand washing prior to entry and some required temperature checks. Indoor dining is open in Antigua, but since most restaurants have outdoor seating, we were easily able to sit outdoors each evening. Monday and Tuesday appeared to the days when most things are closed, with Thursday – Saturday having the most open. More restaurants are opening quickly, but for now I recommend buying some snacks at the Covenant Garden grocery store or brining snacks from home to supplement the lack of consistently open restaurants. And no matter where you are going, you should inquire into the restaurant and grocery situation prior to visiting. More remote places may require some self-catering.
Bars/Nightlife. Bars and nightlife are basically closed down, and for good reason. It was easy to find drinks during the day and until about 9:30 PM at restaurants. After that, you will need to bring your own back to your room (note, bring your own, because there are no longer mini bars at most hotels due to COVID-19). I would not be surprised, however, if more of the big brand hotels have some form of night life. We brought a bottle of wine from home, and then purchased some additional adult beverages at the Covenant Garden and Grand Cru.
Organized Tours. We did 1 organized tour – a sunset cruise leaving from Dickenson Bay (where the Sandals resorts are located) – and I will not be taking another tour like this until the pandemic is over. While fun and a gorgeous evening, the boat was a bit too crowded and as the evening went on, people got tipsy and totally abandoned social distancing. We sat in a corner in the back of the boat away from everyone else, were able to socially distance on the boat (as it was only 1/2 full), and didn’t talk to anyone except the staff when necessary, but we were still uncomfortable. I mean, the evening ending in a conga line (we did NOT participate)… As such, I won’t book any further organized tours, as its very unclear what social distancing/mask wearing practices are in place (we were 2 of a very few people with masks on the boat).
That being said, if you are looking for organized tours, know that right now many operators remain closed or are operating on a modified schedule. I recommend asking your accommodation what is open and then contacting the tour company to confirm dates, times, and cancellation policy, as well as what measures are in place to ensure guest safety during the pandemic. Our hotel sent us the following list as of early July:
- Sting Ray City – http://www.
- Eli Eco Tour – https://www.adventureantigua.
- Extreme Circumnavigation Tour – https://www.adventureantigua.
- Sunset Catamaran Cruise (the tour we did)- https://tropicalad.com/node/18
- Private 1/2 day or full day sailing with on Deck – http://www.ondecksailing.com/
- Diving with Soul Immersions – http://soulimmersions.ag/soul/
- Antigua Rainforest Zipline Tour – http://www.antiguarainforest.
- Island Safari Tour – https://tropicalad.com/?q=
- ATV & Buggie Excursions – https://www.268buggies.com/
Other Activities: Beaches!! Beaches in Antigua are all public and open! While our hotel did not have a beach on site, there were two very close by: Galleon Beach and Turtle Beach. That being said, the best beaches are apparently a bit further away on the Caribbean side of the island, which seemed like too much trouble for our taste.
Turtle Beach is a 10 minute walk from the hotel. It was busy with locals and tourists on a Monday afternoon. The water here was slightly less turquoise than Galleon Beach and had a bit more waves and current when we visited. There is usually a restaurant/bar here, but it was closed when we visited.
Galleon Beach is a 5 minute complimentary boat ride from the Gunpowder Suites. Galleon Beach is turquoise and lovely for simply beaching. Popular with locals, there are no amenities currently open at Galleon Beach. Be sure to either schedule your return pick up or take the complimentary room cell phone to call the hotel to pick you up when ready to go home. Since there are no amenities, bring everything you need to the beach – including water!
Spas. Spa treatments are open at some hotels, and the spa at our hotel was open upon reservation only. I did a 60 minute massage, booked the day prior. The masseuse was professional and required me to complete a health questionnaire and submit to a temperature check prior to entering the spa facility. Masks were required to be worn during the massage by both the client and masseuse, except when the client is facedown on the massage table.
Shopping. For the shopping fans, bad news bears. I only saw one tourist shop open in Falmouth Bay and a few hawkers on the beach near Sandals. The best place for souvenirs is honestly the airport, where I got my standard magnet, shot glass (collecting goes back to 2000, can’t stop now!), and Christmas ornament. They also had Obama hot sauce. I miss that guy.
Other sites. Other sites are hit or miss. Our hotel was right across from the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nelson’s Dockyard, but it was closed due to COVID-19. We also missed touring around the island due to tours making us uncomfortable after the sunset cruise and taxis being pricey.
Leaving On American Airlines From Antigua. Once again, we took a pre-arranged certified taxi organized by our hotel ($35 US this time). On arrival, Antigua airport was fantastic and spotless, with staff around every corner requiring hand sanitization. Since there were only two flights on deck when we arrived, we checked in and quickly proceeded to a health check and Immigration. Places were marked 6 feet apart. Security was super quick, even though our TSA Pre-Check doesn’t work in Antigua. Through security, a few souvenir shops were open (and this is one of the best places to souvenir ship during COVID since so much else is closed) and 1 restaurant and bar called the Big Banana. We stopped at the Big Banana for a few drinks before our flight. We were not hungry, and were planning to use our Priority Pass to eat in Miami, but the food here looked good. Boarding was easy and since our flight was largely empty, we had a row of 3 to ourselves, even though American does not block middle seats. Again, no food or drink service but we were given a pitiful bag with a tiny water, a tiny bag of pretzels and a single use hand sanitizer… 3+ hours later, we arrived in Miami.
Transiting In Miami. Honestly, transiting in Miami was the worst part of our trip. Many people not properly wearing masks, people getting WAY too close to others, and hand sanitizing stations actually out of hand sanitizer…. Not at all surprising Florida is the new hotspot (and for those in Florida doing exactly what you are supposed to do, I feel you; careless people ruin it for the rest). In any case, we quickly cleared Immigration via Global Entry, picked up and re-deposited our luggage, and proceeded into the terminal, where we were greeted by the appropriately named Corona Beach Lounge. And yes, you read that correctly, nothing at all in the form of a health check. Welcome to America!
We were able to use use our Priority Pass for up to $60 US on food and drink between the two of us at the Corona Beach Lounge and using our Priority Pass was a welcomed tiny sense of normalcy. A bright moment for our Priority Pass during the dark travel year! The Corona Beach House was pretty good – employees wearing masks, hand sanitizer available, bar closed, and tables socially distanced. Food was actually decent and came out super quickly.
An hour later, we boarded our 2.5 hour flight from Miami to New York, when our trip started to get real dicey. On the flight from Miami to NY, we were able to get a row to ourselves, but only because we saw it empty when the doors closed and grabbed it. The flight attendants did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to assist parties in social distancing and did not enforce face mask wearing during the flight (see below). Once in air a few people moved seats to practice further social distancing. Once again there was no food/drink service and we received the same bag as on our prior flight. As you can probably tell, I was not thrilled with this flight. If you are flying American Airlines, seriously prepare to fend for yourself. I complained about this flight to AA and just received a boiler plate response. The Jet Blue experience was significantly better.
On arrival in NY (at the swanky new LGA terminal B!), no temperature checks, no questions, nothing, even for a flight coming from the “new hotspot” Miami. We were handed a form to complete concerning recent travel that advised if coming from certain states, a 14 day quarantine is required in NY. This form was to be dropped off in a box in exiting the airport, but no one was watching or enforcing this. Very disheartening. However, I was happy to learn from the form and an announcement from NJ’s governor, people merely transiting via flight through a quarantine-required state are not subject to the mandatory 14-day quarantine as long as you are there for a short period and don’t leave the airport.
Bottom Line. Traveling during COVID-19 is not ideal and definitely not for everyone. If you decide to travel, you must take responsibility for yourself and 100% get tested before traveling and after you get back (or quarantine). I would also stress that traveling is a different animal this year and many attractions, restaurants, events, etc. will remain closed or cancelled through at least the end of the year (and likely longer). As such, I would put off big cultural/sightseeing trips until at least April 2021, particularly if it is a big “bucket list” trip for you. While those waiting for a big trip probably don’t want to wait until 2021, as much as it sucks you will get way more out of your trip when things are open and COVID-19 poses less of a risk. Plus, you don’t want to have a mask on in all of your pictures! My advice is that the best trips for now are destinations where you can socially distance and simply enjoy the scenery, without doing any other “things.” Beaches, mountains, and deserts are particularly well suited to these types of trips. City destinations are better saved for next year. That being said, as long as borders are open, my home state continues to keep COVID-19 under control (we are currently 3 states doing so), and there is no lockdown, I will travel internationally again this year!
In terms of Antigua, I felt during my stay and found it very easy to socially distance where we stayed. The tourist industry seemed happy to have us, as they need safe tourism to return, and we made sure to tip extra, as a lot of people had not been able to work for several months. As long as you are being safe, I would recommend a trip to Antigua. Its going to be different from a typical vacation, but its still a fabulous getaway. Feel free to message with any questions.
SHORT LIST OF TIPS IF YOU’RE TRAVELING DURING COVID-19
- Absolutely get a COVID-19 test before you leave home. Its quick and painless and even if your destination does not require it, its for the public good, people.
- Don’t plan to eat at the airport. Most things are closed and the few that are open are packed.
- Bring everything you will need on the plane yourself – masks, Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer,water, snacks, entertainment, blankets, etc. Don’t expect anything from the airport or the airline.
- Pre-book transportation from the airport with your accommodation.
- Reach out to your accommodation to confirm what is open and operational prior to visiting. Depending on what you are looking for, this could impact your trip.
- Also, confirm the food situation in your destination. A staggering number of restaurants are closed or keeping modified hours.
- Like bringing stuff on the plane, bring essential things to the resort. For example, sunscreen and aloe, over the counter medicines, toothpaste, etc. While a grocery store was within walking distance of our hotel, many of these types of places remain closed and its not nearly as easy to “pop in” to a shop and buy these types of things during COVID-19. Best to bring from home.
- Continuously check the entry requirements of your destination; they change frequently. For example, while we were in Antigua, the rule of no COVID-19 test changed to a required test within seven days of arrival.
- Insure your trip or at least read the cancellation policy! With rules changing rapidly, at times without notice, its impossible to say whether a particular trip will go forward. Protect yourself.
- Tip extra while away. Many in the tourist industry have not worked for months and will be working a much lighter schedule than expected for at least a few more months.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Antigua and Barbuda: Antigua and Barbuda’s website. Most up to date health information found on this site. When we visited, Barbuda was closed due to COVID-19 and continued recovery from Hurricane Maria.
Admiral’s Inn and Gunpowder Suites: Book directly with the hotel. They are quite responsive and extremely helpful. We loved them.