Travel Quarantines: Enduring the Mundane, One Day at a Time

Running a half-marathon in your hotel room. Hearing the sea, but not seeing it. Fixating on food. Here’s how some travelers passed the time during their mandatory quarantines.

May Samali knew she’d reached her limit when she saw a tentacle emerging from her hotel dinner in Sydney, Australia.

“I called downstairs and said, ‘I’m a vegan now, thank you!’” she said. “It was just so much fish. I’d gotten to the point where even thinking about it made me gag.”

Ms. Samali swore off the seemingly unlimited seafood while in the middle of a required quarantine in the Hotel Sofitel in Sydney this December and early January. An executive coach, she was repatriating back to Australia after her U.S. work visa expired. In addition to an excess of fish, Ms. Samali was confined to her room all day, forbidden from stepping outside, for two weeks.

Air travelers around the world are finding themselves in similar situations, enduring mandatory government quarantines in hotels as they travel to countries that are very serious about containing the coronavirus.

Their quarantine is not the cushy experience of shorter-term quarantines or “resort bubbles” found in some destinations like Kauai and the British Virgin Islands, where you are able to roam relatively freely on a resort’s expansive grounds while waiting for a negative coronavirus test.

This is the more extreme, yet typical experience of quarantine life. These mandatory quarantines involve confinement to your room, 24 hours a day, for up to two weeks (assuming you test negative, that is). And with some exceptions, you are footing the bill — quarantine in New South Wales, Australia, for example, costs about $2,300, or 3,000 Australian dollars for a two-week quarantine for one adult, and up to 5,000 Australian dollars for a family of four to quarantine for two weeks (in January, Britain announced a mandatory 10-day quarantine from high-risk areas with a similar cost of about $2,500 for one adult).

Travelers now journeying to countries with mandatory hotel quarantines, which also include New Zealand, mainland China and Tunisia, generally must have compelling reasons to do so — visiting ailing family members, “essential” business travel or permanent relocation.

Most accept the inconvenience and inevitable claustrophobia of the quarantine as the price of traveling. But while there can be comfort in establishing some kind of routine resembling normal life, travelers find themselves craving human connection, fresh air and, well, different food (the staff at the Sofitel happily accommodated Ms. Samali’s request; she is still off fish).

Pete Lee, a San Francisco-based filmmaker, directed a shoot in Austin, Texas, over Zoom at 4 a.m. one morning while in quarantine at the Roaders Hotel in Taipei, Taiwan.
Pete Lee

In general, people are still traveling but far less — the first two months of 2021 have seen fewer than half the number of air passengers as the same period in 2020, according to checkpoint travel numbers released by the Transportation Security Administration, which includes all domestic and international departures from the United States.

Travel quarantine might seem manageable, even familiar, for those who have been living in places with shelter-in-place orders and working from home. Pete Lee, a San Francisco-based filmmaker, wasn’t concerned about the quarantine when he flew to Taiwan for work and to visit family.

“I was a little bit cocky when I first heard about the requirement,” said Mr. Lee, during his eighth day at the Roaders Hotel in Taipei, Taiwan. “I was inside my San Francisco apartment for 22 out of 24 hours a day! But it’s a surprisingly intense experience. Those two hours make a big difference.”

Much of quarantine life is determined by your hotel. And depending on where you are traveling, you may get to choose your quarantine hotel, or you may be assigned upon arrival. Mr. Lee, in Taiwan, was able to choose and book his quarantine hotel from a list compiled by the Taiwanese government, complete with information about location, cost, room size and the presence (or lack thereof) of windows. He also footed the bill.

Similarly, Ouiem Chettaoui, a public policy specialist who splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Tunisia, was able to choose a hotel for her weeklong quarantine when returning to Tunis with her husband in September; she based her selection, the Medina Belisaire & Thalasso on price and proximity to the Mediterranean Sea (“We couldn’t see it, but we could hear it … at least, we told ourselves we could!” she said).

Brett Barna, an investment manager who relocated to Shanghai with his fiancée in November, could select a district in the city, but not the hotel itself. In an attempt to improve their odds, Mr. Barna chose the upscale Huangpu district where, he hoped, the hotels would be higher quality.

Brett Barna

“There were four possible hotels in the district, three of which were nice enough. And then there was the budget option, the Home Inn,” he said. Mr. Barna and his fiancée, to their dismay, ended up paying for quarantine in that option, which had peeling wallpaper and bleach stains on the floor thanks to aggressive cleaning protocols.

In Australia and New Zealand, there’s no choice in the matter — upon landing, your entire flight is bused to a quarantine hotel with capacity. In most instances, travelers do not know where they are going until the bus pulls up at the hotel itself.

Joy Jones, a coach and educator who is based in San Francisco, traveled to New Zealand with her husband, a New Zealand citizen, and two young daughters in January. She learned before their departure that they would have no say where in the country they would be quarantined.

Joy Jones

“That was probably the hardest part,” she said. “I could put together a bag of activities for my older daughter, and plan on doing laundry in the sink. But not having an answer to where we’d be — after more than 21 hours of flying, with masks — would we have to get another flight? A three-hour bus ride?” They didn’t. Ms. Jones and her family were taken to Stamford Plaza in Auckland, just 25 minutes from the airport.

Pim Techamuanvivit and her New Zealander husband, however, were not so lucky. After arriving in Auckland from San Francisco, they were promptly directed to board another flight to Christchurch, and to the Novotel Christchurch Airport hotel. “At that point, we just really, really wanted to get to the hotel!” said Ms. Techamuanvivit, the chef-owner of Nari and Kin Khao restaurants in San Francisco and the executive chef of Nahm in Bangkok.

Relief at arriving — finally — might be the initial reaction, but it doesn’t take long for reality to set in. The hotel room is all that you’ll see for a not insignificant period of time.

As Adrian Wallace, a technology project manager who was quarantined at the Sydney Hilton in August after visiting his ailing father in Britain, put it: “That moment when the door slams … it’s reminiscent of the opening scene of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’!” Mr. Wallace said, referring to the 1994 prison movie with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.

The challenge is managing the tedium. Working remotely helped pass the time for a number of the travelers, including Tait Sye, a senior director at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who traveled to Taipei, Taiwan, from Washington, D.C. in November. Mr. Sye attempted to maintain East Coast hours for the majority of his quarantine at the Hanns House Hotel, working from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Mr. Wallace ran a half marathon around his Sydney hotel room (he was unable to adjust the in-room air-conditioner and got very sweaty). Mr. Barna and his fiancée in Shanghai had date nights on Zoom, since official policy required them to quarantine in separate rooms. A major highlight of their days came when a hotel employee, clad in full, hazmat-style P.P.E., knocked on the door and pointed an infrared thermometer at their heads. They were not allowed outside.

May Samali
May Samali

In New Zealand, travelers who test negative for the virus are allowed on the hotel grounds for supervised constitutionals after checking in with guards at multiple checkpoints (masks and distancing are still required, and the rules can quickly change if there is any threat of an outbreak in the country). The ability to get fresh air and walk was crucial for Ms. Jones, and a key part of the routine she created for her family. Other aspects included morning yoga, remote school, nap times, playtime and art projects (her husband worked remotely from the bathroom).

“We decorated a paper horse that we hung in our window — every day, a different part of it — that was a favorite activity. We’d have dance parties. And we’d watch a movie every night. We did what we could to bring some fun into it,” Ms. Jones said.

Meals become very important in quarantine life, to mark the passing of the time and as regular occurrences to break up the monotony of the day. Food quality, though, varies widely, as Mr. Sye learned in Taipei, where meals were ordered from nearby restaurants.

He recounted the highs of a Michelin-starred meal from Kam’s Roast Goose and the thoughtfulness of a Thanksgiving dinner decorated with a paper turkey to the low of an absolutely terrible pizza (at least it was accompanied by a beer).

Tait Sye
Tait Sye

For Ms. Techamuanvivit who documented her quarantine in Christchurch on Twitter, ordering food and grocery delivery was a life-saver. “I’m a chef. I suppose I am, shall we say, a snob!” she said. “As a restaurateur, I don’t have much love for UberEats. But ordering Indian takeaway proved to be important.” (Others who had delivery options available similarly cited them as game-changing).

Ms. Techamuanvivit spiced up hotel meals with leftover Indian pickles and found that Greek tzatziki sauce ordered from the grocery store worked well as a salad dressing. She and her husband also treated themselves to nice bottles of wine from the hotel restaurant’s wine list (In Australia and New Zealand, quarantined guests were limited to a delivery of six beers or one bottle of wine per person per day, perhaps to ward off belligerence. In Shanghai, alcohol was not allowed).

There are Facebook groups dedicated to hotel quarantine, by region and even by specific hotel, where members share tips for boiling eggs using in-room kettles and “cooking” with an iron. They were also a source of community; Mr. Wallace, who learned of the Sydney Hilton’s Facebook group while on the bus from the airport, participated in a daily Zoom call with members of the group (the meals of the day were a constant topic of conversation).

Mr. Lee moderated filmmaking conversations on Clubhouse, an invitation-only social media app, and spent time on Tinder while in quarantine; he connected with a woman who was nearing the end of her confinement in another hotel across town.

Ms. Jones documented her family’s quarantine experience on her private Instagram account, showing forts made of blankets, paper airplane competitions and “bowling” with water bottles and a crumpled ball made of paper. She was touched that friends and family, both in New Zealand and in the United States, sent her family meals, treats and toys for her daughters in response to her posts.

“It was a really cool way to feel love, and connection, from such an isolated space,” she said.

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