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PERSPECTIVE: On Nov. 9, 2020, Fairuz Sallim left Singapore to travel to Johor Bahru for business. From there, he headed to Kuala Lumpur, then flew out to Dubai in the UAE.
Since then, Fairuz has travelled from Dubai to Bangkok, then Bali and Bandung.
He shares about the challenges of travelling during the pandemic, how he kept his monthly expenses on hotel accommodation to S$1,193 per month, and how he received his Covid-19 vaccine overseas.
Fairuz is the founder of Singapore-based travel hacking site Suitesmile and you can find more details of his trip here.
As told to Matthias Ang by Fairuz Sallim
Wanted to see how long I could travel indefinitely
I went to JB (Johor Bahru) on Nov. 9, 2020, under the Reciprocal Green Lane for business purposes. I stayed there for about four nights, then went to Kuala Lumpur to spend another six nights there.
Afterwards, I had the choice of coming back to Singapore or going somewhere else. So I went to Dubai because Dubai was one of the very few cities that was open at that point of time.
I actually started planning for the trip in July 2020. There were not many opportunities back then because of the border restrictions.
I knew that I would like to travel indefinitely but I was not sure about how long it could be sustained financially because of the border restrictions. But my mindset was to use my travel hacking skills to keep my costs low, and to take this opportunity to travel to not-so-dangerous places (in terms of Covid-19).
In terms of raw numbers, I have spent a total of S$20,383 on accommodations for the past 12 months, which comes up to an average of S$1,699 per month. However, once the redeemed miles and free nights are taken into consideration, this monthly figure for accommodation comes down to S$1,193 per month.
I am also still working while travelling although it is much less work compared to what I had in Singapore. It’s mainly e-meetings with clients and blogging for Suitesmile now.
My income is of course very much affected, but if I stay in Singapore, I’m going to spend that much anyway, like S$1,200 a month. It’s quite easy to spend that much in Singapore.
So to spend that overseas and experience hotels that I would not get to experience in non-pandemic times, I think that’s a good opportunity for me.
Dubai has very strict Covid-19 laws in terms of mask-wearing, social distancing and the opening times for restaurants and all that.
Of course there’s a bit of a health risk when you travel but I felt Dubai was safe and it was therefore a good chance to visit the city in the winter, as their summers are as hot as 45°C, and its usually more expensive in winter during non-pandemic times.
It was also a good opportunity for me to check out some of the hotels that were going for 40 to 50 per cent off. If not for that, I don’t think I would be able to afford a long stay in Dubai, especially in winter.
I spent 69 nights, about two and a half months in Dubai, until Jan. 27, 2021.
As a tourist in Dubai, I could extend my visa for 45 days after my first 30 days.
There were challenges from airline staff each time I flew between countries
The real challenge began towards the end of my stay in Dubai.
Just when I thought that things would get better and borders would start opening up, things got worse, because that was the beginning of the Delta variant.
At that point of time, I had a visa for Indonesia already. My plan was to go to Bali but Indonesia tightened its border restrictions again because of Delta. However, Thailand had a Special Tourist Visa programme which required two weeks of quarantine in Bangkok.
So I went to Bangkok instead while waiting for Indonesia to open.
Instead of flying directly there with Emirates, I took a flight with Qatar Airways, using my miles so that the flight on business class cost less than S$100 in taxes and fees.
I was on the first return flight to Qatar, after the blockade was lifted. They actually had a special cupcake for that flight.
[Editor’s Note: In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar accusing it of supporting terrorism, according to the BBC. The four countries also imposed a blockade on Qatar, closing off their land and sea borders, along with their airspace. The blockade was eventually lifted in Jan. 2021, with Qatar Airways resuming flights to Dubai on Jan. 27, 2021]
Initially denied from boarding my flight to Bangkok
This flight was challenging because I was initially denied boarding, even though I had all my documents.
The airline had a problem in keeping up with the changing border measures and they were ready to deny me from boarding as I was not a Thai citizen. I had my permit to enter Thailand under the Special Tourist Visa and the fact that a Singapore passport holder can enter Thailand without a visa under the Tourist Visa Exemption Scheme.
But the staff were saying that I could not go Thailand as I had no visa.
It was very stressful as it was the last day I could stay in the UAE without overstaying. If I did not leave the country on that date, I would have faced quite a few problems.
So I had to do the job of the staff by searching the Thai government websites just to prove to them that yes, there is such a thing as a visa exemption programme.
So after about 30 to 45 minutes, they managed to verify that I could enter Thailand.
Staff asked asked for proof of a flight back to Singapore from Indonesia
I spent 42 nights in Bangkok, and when I flew onward to Jakarta in Indonesia in March 2021, it was via Tokyo with Japan Airlines (JAL) on business class.
I spent 25,000 miles and about US$53 (S$71) for the flight in taxes.
I faced some issue with the JAL staff in Bangkok who said that I would need to prove that I have plans to leave Indonesia, which I had, with a flight booked from Jakarta to Tokyo before the expiry of my business visa.
I have an Alaska Airlines frequent flyer gold benefit which allows me to cancel up to 24 hours before my flight and the miles for it can also be redeemed for JAL, as a partner carrier. So I used that benefit to book the flight out of Indonesia as proof of onward travel.
However, the staff said that Tokyo was not open. My response was, how would you know that it’s going to be closed for the next two months?
The staff then said that they needed to see an onward ticket to Singapore, essentially meaning that I had to book a flight back to Singapore.
So that was quite interesting because eventually, they called Jakarta’s immigration to confirm that I did not actually need to fly back to Singapore.
It took about an hour but I eventually managed to take the flight.
I spent five nights in quarantine in Jakarta, then headed out to Bali immediately afterwards so that the PCR test on my final day could be used for my flight to Bali.
In terms of Bali, it’s quite different from the rest of Indonesia because their vaccination rate has always been about the same as Singapore. It is so much higher compared to other parts of Indonesia.
I think it’s because they have been planning to open Bali, but it’s not open until now.
Bali is also somehow treated a little bit like a foreign country, because even locals from Jakarta or Bandung need a PCR test to travel to Bali and vice versa.
I have stayed in Indonesia for more than 240 nights, most of them in Bali. On Friday, November 12, 2021, I flew into Bandung.
The good thing about being here in Indonesia is that they allow us to extend our visa continuously without leaving the country. Not a lot of countries have this kind of luxury for foreigners.
I entered Indonesia with a business visa and decided to apply for a social visa afterwards. The social visa is 30 days long with the possibility of four more extensions, consisting of 30 days each.
After the fourth extension, I can apply for a new social visa, again, subject to approval by the immigration here.
Hotel service was much better while travelling during this period
The positive part of my travels is that service is much more personalised because every single staff knows who is in the hotel. There are like 10 to 20 guests per night so they recognise your face.
Service is therefore much more friendly and the noise level is way down. You have the hotel’s facilities all to yourself, such as the pools, the gym, the sauna and all that.
Of course, the restrictions that you are used to in staycations in Singapore also apply, such as the gym and pool only opening for 12 hours instead of 24, and the lack of a hotel buffet.
However, quite a number of hotels are also able to send your breakfast to the room as there are not many guests, so they can finally offer that service without extra charges.
I was essentially getting superior service for much less cost and I have not had to pay for my breakfast, which is important in sustaining a travel period that is this long.
Became very close to some of the hotel staff in Bali
I also became very close to some of the staff.
At Hilton Garden Inn Bali, the staff knew me by my first name as I stayed there for a few months from June to August, before it was closed for three months.
The sad part was that the staff knew about the closure just a few minutes before I did. Both the staff and guests had about five days to pack up and leave the hotel.
I think that was very disrespectful of the owners to just decide to close just like without informing the hotel management at least one week or five days in advance.
This meant they did not have time to prepare the refund or compensation process.
So the staff just found out that they are jobless and now they have to share that information with guests who are pissed off that they are being kicked out from the hotel.
It was very harsh for me to see with my own eyes.
I cannot forget the way that the voice of one of the female staff was breaking, and she was tearing up a little bit as well, when she broke the news to me.
It was also really hard for me to push them for fair compensation because they were losing their jobs and they were my friends.
Eventually, I received a refund on the day just before I left, for my remaining four nights, and I moved to a hotel under a different chain afterwards.
Taking the Covid-19 vaccine in Bali
I also got the Covid-19 vaccine in Bali. I missed being able to receive the Sinopharm vaccine in Dubai as a tourist by a day.
Because Bali was vaccinating its local population very quickly, some hospitals had additional vaccination slots, which they opened to non-residents for a week, before they stopped.
I had to download an e-booking app too secure a slot as each hospital has a fixed quota of vaccination appointments per day. So I had to stay up to midnight to ensure that I could get an appointment for the next day.
Once I was able to secure my first dose at a hospital, this meant that they were obligated to complete my full AstraZeneca regime.
The period between the first and second dose for AstraZeneca is about 12 weeks or three months, so I was only fully vaccinated in early October.
Overall, it was very well-organised and not messy at all.
My next challenge was ensuring my vaccine papers were recognised.
For non-residents in Indonesia, we do not have an official certificate for our vaccination, just a piece of paper saying that we were vaccinated at this time, with a hospital stamp.
Fortunately, I was able to get my Indonesia vaccine recognised by Switzerland, so that I could convert it into an EU vaccination certificate — one of the most recognised in the world right now.
So it was a huge relief that they recognised my vaccination, and that will be my gateway back to Singapore under the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme.
The rule according to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) is that as long as you have a certificate issued in any VTL country, you can enter Singapore.
So even though my vaccine was done in Indonesia, I have an EU certificate to recognise my vaccine.
How have I kept my costs for accommodation to about S$1,200 per month?
To keep my costs low, I have to constantly look for deals every single day for hotels that will be my next roof over my head. So it’s constant work to look for that.
And of course, while doing that, when I find good deals, I will share it on Suitesmile and which helps with the website’s content as well, such as flying business class to Europe for S$1,400 on Turkish Airlines and Etihad.
A lot of my hotel stays are in four-night blocks because there is a benefit with the Citi Prestige card that offers the fourth night free for hotel stays. This benefit largely contributes to my low overall cost too.
The cost of living in Indonesia is also very low. I ended up missing my sister’s wedding in April but she was very understanding about it because at that point in time, the cost of returning to Singapore was equivalent to the cost of living for three months in Bali.
My sister understood that it made no sense to pay for the PCR tests, for more expensive flights and two weeks of quarantine in a hotel in Singapore. The total cost would be about S$3,000.
In Bali, it’s good quality living in hotels, with your breakfast taken care of and no electricity or water bills.
My trips are also financed by side investing and my income from photography for wedding and corporate events, although these have been badly hit by the pandemic. However, I do have some staff that are still running the business at a much smaller scale right now.
Coming back to Singapore in Jan. 2022
Prior to Singapore’s Nov. 15 announcement of a VTL with Indonesia, my plan was to take a flight from Jakarta to Milan in late Feb., before heading to Singapore from Europe. I bought a one-way Etihad Business Class flight for just S$490.
I have since started planning some changes to Plan A. I am planning to return home in Jan. 2022 as the Hilton Garden Inn has had a soft re-opening and I will be staying there for 40 nights. It is probably my last chance to enjoy Bali. As I was unable to reroute my flight from Jakarta to Milan, I have changed that flight to April instead.
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Top photos courtesy of Fairuz Sallim