A trip to one of the world's best beaches proved that spontaneous travel is still possible
I thought the spontaneity of travel was a casualty of the pandemic, but I was wrong.
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, many countries that once welcomed U.S. citizens with few restrictions closed their borders or established strict entry requirements. And even though the world is beginning to reopen, travel isn't as easy as it was back in 2019.
After all, international travelers have to take COVID-19 tests to enter some destinations, as well as the mandatory test to fly back to the United States. Some destinations demand prior authorization before you can board your flight. Others still require a mandatory quarantine upon arrival or proof of vaccination.
So, while travel is very much on the upswing, actually planning a trip during the pandemic requires more advanced preparation than ever before.
For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
However, on a recent afternoon, I decided to put what I knew about pandemic travel to the test and booked a two-day trip to Turks and Caicos, a destination I’d wanted to visit for years.
I’d previously taken spur-of-the-moment trips to Mexico and the Netherlands, for example, and considered myself a last-minute travel fan. But these trips were all before the pandemic when the only requirement was a valid passport.
And because I really wanted to see how much spontaneity was possible, I also chose to book a Hotwire “Hot Rate” hotel that wouldn’t tell me the property’s name until confirming my reservation.
Here’s how I booked a last-minute vacation and, in the process, learned that spontaneous travel is still possible.
Booking a last-minute trip to Turks and Caicos
Initially, I was concerned about whether I could pull off a trip like this just three days in advance of departure. I was also still a little bummed that the reason I was even away from work -- a week-long trip to Bogotá, Colombia, I’d booked earlier this year -- had to be postponed due to rioting in the country. But with the time off, I didn’t want to sit at home.
With only two days to spend on the island, I knew I wanted to avoid having a stopover. Luckily, Delta Air Lines and JetBlue fly nonstop between New York (JFK) and Providenciales (PLS), while United Airlines offers a nonstop route from Newark (EWR).
I didn’t have any JetBlue TrueBlue points and didn’t want to fly out of Newark, so the Delta flight was the obvious choice. I was able to find pretty good award availability even the day before the flight, so I booked my ticket using 20,000 SkyMiles. I also paid about $100 in taxes, the cost of which was covered by my Platinum Card® from American Express’s annual airline fee statement credit (enrollment required).
With the flight booked, I turned to other logistics. I had done some previous research about Turks and Caicos’ entry requirements to know that I’d need a negative PCR test taken within five days of travel. I scheduled a rapid PCR test online at an urgent care facility near my home in Brooklyn that promised results within 24 hours, which was free with my insurance. I also got a second test from a mobile testing clinic, a rapid antigen with a 15 minute turnaround time, which would be acceptable to reenter the U.S.
Additionally, all travelers to the island must visit the TCI Assured Travel Authorization Portal to apply for a travel authorization for arrival. This rule applies to all foreigners, whether you’ve been vaccinated or not. Travelers to the island are also required to have insurance to cover the cost of a quarantine period of up to 14 days in case of a positive test. The travel authorization form must be presented at the time of check-in and then again while you board -- you can’t fly without it.
Turnaround time for my approval was roughly 21 hours but can sometimes be shorter.
With my negative PCR test results and travel authorization in hand, I was almost ready for vacation.
My experience booking a ‘secret’ hotel rate
I try to stay in four or five-star hotels when traveling, preferably properties associated with a major brand. That’s because a hotel, on vacation, isn’t just a place to drop off my bags. I try to take advantage of hotel perks and spend at least one day lazing about in bed reading while on vacation.
I have top-tier Hyatt elite status, which comes in handy while traveling. Unfortunately, that doesn’t typically apply to travel to the Caribbean. That’s because there are only a handful of Hyatt hotels in the region, most of which are Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH). In fact, there are two SLH hotels in Turks and Caicos, but both are Category 8 resorts, which cost a whopping 40,000 World of Hyatt points a night, and I didn’t want to drain my balance for such a short trip.
Turks and Caicos, a group of 40 low-lying coral islands, only has a handful of brand-name resorts, including a Ritz Carlton slated to open on Grace Bay Beach later this month. This British Overseas Territory includes the island of Providenciales, also known as Provo. Turks and Caicos is notoriously expensive, and some of the most exclusive resorts on the island can cost thousands of dollars a night. Even low-end hotels and Airbnb’s were averaging around $200 a night for my dates.
My options for a high-end stay were limited, but I needed to find a place to stay -- and quickly.
I browsed several online travel agencies (OTAs) before Hotwire caught my eye. Hotwire offers a feature for travelers called “Hot Rates.” These rates frequently offer significant discounts over booking directly through the hotel — including stays at high-end properties.
However, these are special discounted rates offered with an element of surprise. You can pick your hotel location, room type and star rating, but Hotwire selects the actual hotel. There are ways to check which hotel you’re likely to receive -- most Hot Rate Deals bookings inform you that you’ll receive one of three hotels --, but there are risks, like getting not getting the hotel you think you will.
Some Hot Rate Deals also include identifiable information about the property, such as a photo of the room and its rating on Expedia. In my case, Hotwire informed me that I’d be assigned to a $142 a night four-star hotel in Providenciales with over 400 reviews on Expedia.
Hotwire also provided a photo of the hotel room. I was able to narrow down what hotel I thought I’d be assigned by reverse searching the image on Google and matching up the number of reviews, which eliminated the other two properties.
I was pretty sure I’d get the hotel I’d assumed, but Hot Rate Deals are nonrefundable, so I would have to be happy with whatever property I received.
Did I want to chance it?
After settling on my preferred Hot Rate Deal and room type, I put in my credit card information, held my breath … and hit submit. You find out which hotel you got as soon as your reservation is confirmed -- and I was assigned to Villa Del Mar in Grace Bay, the hotel I’d wanted.
My stay at Villa Del Mar in Turks and Caicos
I felt comfortable traveling to Turks and Caicos because of its strict entry requirements for even fully vaccinated travelers such as myself. Over half of the population have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and the island has managed to keep positive cases low since reopening to tourists last summer. Residents took mask-wearing seriously, and hand sanitizer was frequently on hand. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has the island at a “Level 1: Low Level of COVID-19” designation, the agency’s lowest.
After clearing immigration and presenting my COVID-19-related documentation, I was free to explore the island.
After a quick 30-minute drive, I arrived at Villa Del Mar, located in an area of the island surrounded by other hotels and resorts. I immediately noticed that the resort felt less like a resort and more like a timeshare. I checked in, and a friendly front-desk attendant told me about the hotel’s features.
The hotel had two small but cute pools and a small bar to pick up continental breakfast orders or drinks.
I was assigned to a ground-floor room with views of the pool. While not fancy, it was excellent for a two-night stay, and the service made the hotel feel like a four-star property. The room included a plush couch, whirlpool tub and a walk-out patio. After checking out the room and resort, it was time to hit the waves.
Unfortunately, this hotel didn’t have direct access to the beach. But the property was a short two-minute walk to Grace Bay Beach (considered one of the best in the world) and even had its own section along the beach.
One glance at the beach confirmed that my last-minute, somewhat hectic travel plan had been an excellent idea. It was the most stunning beach I’d ever seen -- and this is not an exaggeration.
The sand was nearly white, and the warm water was crystal clear.
There’s no restaurant at the hotel, but guests can order food at a nearby restaurant and charge it to the room or pay by credit card or cash. The food here is pricey -- think $50 per meal for food and drinks, which is fairly common in the Caribbean. Still, you’ll want to factor those costs into your travel budget.
I’d arrived in Provo with no actual itinerary, preferring to relax by the beach, read and journal. A beach attendant was available to take drink orders, and I ordered several mimosas and piña coladas while listening to the waves crashing on the beach.
After two days of doing little but snoozing by the beach, it was time to head back to the concrete jungle of New York City and its infinitesimally lacking beaches. We took off from Provo airport on a clear, blue day, and my eyes were glued to the beach below. Settling back in my seat after reaching cruising altitude, I realized that my shoulders felt lighter and that I felt less stressed and on edge than when I'd arrived.
My impromptu vacation was just what I’d needed -- and proof that spontaneous travel is still possible even during a pandemic.