My first solo trip to the US, post COVID-19: What was on my Eat, Pray, Love travel itinerary
This Singaporean woman went on an 18-day adventure to the US, adding extra days to a work trip to visit San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York City. Here’s how she planned each leg of her trip, what she did and what she learnt about travelling post-COVID-19.
Travel has come back with a vengeance. Horror stories of friends in London’s Heathrow Airport and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport are not for the faint-hearted but I’m no pushover. So when I was asked to make a work trip to the United States, I asked if I could include some days on both ends of my trip to visit family, in the name of #revengetravel.
The company I worked with agreed and I set about planning my trip, which turned out to be an 18-day multi-city cross-country trip to the US. Here are my travel tips from planning and doing this trip.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE SINGAPORE
Nowadays, travelling is more than simply booking a ticket and hotel. Whether you’re using points, extending days on a long-haul work trip, or making an extended stopover while in transit, planning is key.
My trip involved a combination of air travel, interstate railways and even a road trip by car. Be mindful that each city and state has different rules and health guidelines surrounding COVID-19. It pays to understand the local laws as well as requirements to travel through them.
Singapore citizens do not need a visa to enter the US, however, you would need an ESTA. In addition, you will need to have valid proof of COVID-19 vaccinations, proof of travel insurance to the US, as well as any doctors’ letters, should you have health conditions that prevent you from being vaccinated or medication that you’ll be taking while travelling.
Part of your trip preparations should include getting your vaccination schedule notarised and printing them out for ease of review at customs. What’s more, be prepared with a digital copy for venues which require vaccinations (certain museums and conference centres) for entry.
USEFUL LINKS TO PLAN YOUR TRIP
- ESTA to the US: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/
- CDC Travel Guidelines to the US: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/international-travel-during-COVID-19.html
- Register your travel with Ministry of Foreign Affairs: https://eregister.mfa.gov.sg/eregisterportal/common/preLoginEregisterView.action
- Notarise your vaccination certificate before you travel: https://www.notarise.gov.sg/
IT’S A MUST TO BUILD YOUR ITINERARY FOR EACH STOP
Once you have your list of cities, start to build your itinerary. This should include where you will stay, when you arrive, what you’ll do and other basics like transport and meals.
Make sure your check-in and check-out days and times are clear and research hotel rates across several sites before making a commitment. I used Booking.com, Expedia and Hotels.com plus made bookings directly with hotel groups such as Marriott and Airbnb.
Hotels in the US now practise some degree of COVID-19 management and those in major cities may impose a 24- to 48-hour period where the room is unoccupied between guests. So, book your hotels in advance to ensure you will get your accommodation of choice.The same “book ahead” policy for places of interest applies as many still operate on a limited capacity for safety reasons. Do book a ticket online, then download the tickets or print them (if you’re the hard copy type) and show them for entry. This will ensure you have a spot for the activity and are not wasting time in a line or disappointed by the lack of time to explore or enjoy the experience.
MAKE YOUR LIST OF MUST-HAVES AND CREATURE COMFORTS, THEN PACK THEM
It could be a travel adaptor or your essential skincare and make-up. For me – although it may seem like a luxury – a local SIM or e-SIM for mobile data is non-negotiable. This way, I can stay connected or reach out if I ever felt the need to. I used an e-SIM with holafly which I activated before travelling, and it provided me with good mobile data across the states I travelled.
Big tip for travellers on multi-city itineraries in the US: Budget airlines charge for every piece of carry-on luggage and check-in luggage. Your backpack or handbag must fit in the seat in front of you or it may be chargeable.
Also, in the likely event that your luggage is misplaced, make sure you carry travel-sized toiletries in your carry-on. I bought a backpack for my interstate travels as I did certain legs on budget airlines and checked in only one luggage and a carry-on.
A previous story about a woman losing a luggage only to track it by Apple AirTags to an airport employee’s home prompted me to get my own AirTags as well. I was lucky not to have had to activate Find My AirTags.
Another tip: Avoid carrying too much cash and activate your mobile wallet. Since the pandemic, going cashless is commonplace. It reduces your chances of being robbed and is also easier to track expenses. I used Google Pay for most of my trip.
GET TO KNOW THE LOCAL TRANSPORT
The US is a vast country. It’s essential to understand how to travel – each state and city has varying guidelines from the airports to its local taxes. Knowing each city’s transport system and its quirks is essential to getting around efficiently. This is especially so if you only have two, maybe three days in each stop.
For example, in New York, the same subway station could have many exits, which would lead you to a separate train line on the platforms. In San Francisco’s city area, it was easier to rely on buses and trams but make sure you get on from the right stop – even if you’re on the same street.
It is possible to pay for fares using your mobile-linked wallet via Apple Pay or Google Pay. However, I went old-school and bought a ticket for each city.
Finally, if you are taking cabs, Uber or Lyft (another version of Uber), make sure you know the intersections and the suburb. That way, you can clearly let the drivers know that you’re going to the Blue Bottle Coffee at the corner of Market and 3rd Streets.
PRIORITISE ACTIVITIES THAT SUIT YOUR SCHEDULE AND PERSONALITY
After two and a half years of being confined to the island, the natural reaction once out of the country is to go everywhere and see everything. Sometimes that leaves you exhausted and without time to fully enjoy each sight. My advice: Consider your time in each city and how you like to explore when you plan.
I had never been to two of the three cities on my list (San Francisco and Philadelphia), so I prioritised must-do places and activities I could otherwise not enjoy if I travelled with my children. This way, the solo trip becomes truly your own, even with the common tourist sites.
SAN FRANCISCO – WITH A TWIST
In San Francisco, I booked city tours with tour operators that offered unique experiences.
Use aggregator sites like TripAdvisor, Viator or GetYourGuide to make bookings, read reviews and understand the entire tour. Because the US has mostly “opened up”, and I was still wary of catching COVID-19 variants whilst on holiday, I booked with tour providers of smaller tours with unique insights to each place of interest.
The sunset cruise set off from the famous Pier 39 at the Wharf and we got to see the famous sea lions on the piers, suffering my own version of seagulls like in Finding Nemo and the Bay winds blowing through my hair as we watched the sun set.
Another interesting way to see the city is by GoCar in San Francisco. It’s a 150cc engine (much like a motorbike) and fitted for a two-seater to drive around the city, using the inbuilt GPS mounted on an iPad device.
I went with my cousin’s girlfriend and we had a blast visiting key sites in San Francisco including the Ghirardelli Chocolate Experience at Ghirardelli Square, Twin Peaks, going around the Golden Gate Bridge, and the famed Golden Gate Park (which is bigger than New York’s Central Park by 60 hectares). We even had Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe where the coffee is supposed to have originated.
I booked a wine tour to Sonoma Valley in a retro Volkswagen van affectionately called Poppy. The tour is a full seven-hour tour and led me to enjoy tastings across three wineries plus lunch. I also had a chance to drink wine in a man-made cave which was dug to create a cool environment to store wine.
The only hiccup was, I had booked the tour on one of the hottest summer days ever recorded in 2022. While I escaped emergency alerts in the city, I also baked in the 114 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius) climes at the vineyards as the van is not air-conditioned.
However, it didn’t stop me from enjoying some of the region’s popular Pinot Noir and their famous Californian white wine blends in the scenic Sonoma Valley.
One of the major cities I visited for work was Philadelphia. As one of the early settlement cities in the US, I was keen to visit Independence Hall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in July 1776.
I also wanted to see the Liberty Bell, noted for its symbolism for freedom in the 19th century, and abolishing slavery.
Independence Hall is historic and requires bookings here. Admission is free but you’ll need to pay a US$1 reservation fee. Apart from major public holidays like Christmas, the Hall is open year-round.
Diagonally across the Hall is the Liberty Bell Center which houses the Liberty Bell and tells its story from its beginnings, reparations to its crack from being struck and the Bell’s symbolic presence in history.
The glass structure faces a beautiful park and right across the street is the Independence Visitor Center which shows historic films, covering events in Philadelphia. Both centres do not require bookings but are open from 9am to 5pm (with exceptions for major holidays).
The other place I was keen to visit was the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One of the country’s largest and established in 1876, it has more than 200 galleries and 240,000 pieces of art and objects on display from the first century AD till today.
I was lucky enough to join a docent’s tour of the Impressionists’ Gallery and saw one of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers on display at the gallery. There are only two in all of the US and the other is in a private museum.
NEW YORK CITY: TENNIS, ARTS, BROOMSTICKS AND SUCH
New York City is a dream for many and there is so much to do that it really lives up to its nickname as the “city that never sleeps”. I got to do much in my two-day stay.
I was lucky to be hosted for the opening night of the US Open Tennis Grand Slam and had the chance to watch Serena Williams play her last tournament and stargaze at the celebrities also seated courtside.
Flushing Meadows in Queens, where the tournament is held, is sprawling and during the US Open, the grounds turn into a carnival of sorts. If you have tickets to either day or night sessions, you can stay on to shop for US Open merchandise, enjoy the food and beverage across the grounds, or engage in the fun activities on site.
Potterheads will find the Harry Potter New York store in Broadway a treat for all things of the wizarding world. The store is a Harry Potter merchandise heaven with robes, books, and memorabilia for the four Hogwarts houses. It even has wands for each of the key characters! I booked the Virtual Reality experience for Wizards Take Flight and it was an exhilarating VR experience – even for only 10 minutes.
It wasn’t just fun and games for me – I made time to enjoy arts and culture while in New York too. There are more than 80 museums in the five boroughs of New York but the greatest of them is The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Spanning 2.2 million sq ft, the Met has more than 490,000 pieces of art in 17 curatorial departments. The Greek and Roman Art, Egyptian Art, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts are key favourites but it is hard to view 5,000 years of art housed at the Met.
I was aware it would take more than a day or two to see every item on exhibit on site. So I made a list of exhibits I would enjoy and took special care to see the Costume Institute’s In America: An Anthology Of Fashion in its final week on display.
I was also lucky enough to receive a curator’s tour of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (aka The Guggenheim) which houses an ever-expanding collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, modern and contemporary art.
In addition to its marvelous works, the museum itself is a sight to behold, being a UNESCO World Heritage site and designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The artworks hung on the backdrop of the spiral rotunda are intentionally hung slightly askew to follow the spiral and the interior is a sight to behold as you finish your museum trip at the ground level, looking up to the skylight.
When it comes to trips taken, post-pandemic, this one was a soul-fulfilling trip for me. 10/10 would recommend solo travelling.
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