In a year of lockdowns, flight bans and general coronavirus chaos, there are still some options for people seeking overseas adventures.
But what happens if you are the only one in your friend group willing to travel during these strange times?
That’s exactly what happened to both Josiah Burton and Therese Rocca. No one wanted to travel with them.
And so, even though they were total strangers, they decided to go on vacation together.
“I was supposed to be going to Japan with a friend, but Japan is now closed,” Burton, a 32-year-old from Iowa, tells CNN Travel. “So, I was looking for a country open to Americans.
“My friend decided he didn’t want to travel during the coronavirus, but I still wanted to go. I was originally looking at Croatia, but you needed a negative Covid test within 72 hours. Turkey didn’t have any such requirement, so I chose there.”
With no one to go with, he turned to 10XTravel, a Facebook group followed by 40,000 people that offers advice on ways to save money on the road.
“I didn’t really want to travel alone, so I posted a message in the Facebook group that if anyone’s interested in coming or meeting up, or who will be in Turkey at the same time, to let me know.”
Rocca, 36, from Denver, saw the message and responded almost immediately.
“I was looking for somebody to go on vacation with,” she tells CNN. “And I couldn’t get any of my friends or family members to go because of their worries about the coronavirus.
“So, I saw Josiah’s post and commented on it. He gave me his itinerary and said, feel free to message me to discuss. So, I did.”
“We talked about our travel styles, what we like to do. You know, how mellow we are, how adventurous we are. And then it coincidentally fell on dates that I had already taken off at work because I was supposed to be in South Africa. It’s closed to US citizens right now, so I had to cancel,” she says.
After the pair had a brief conversation online, Rocca decided to book the same trip to Turkey.
“She told me she was going to sleep on it,” says Burton. “But just one hour later she messaged me and said she had booked her trip with the same itinerary. That was that. From that point on we were travel buddies.”
Rocca and Burton continued to chat online in the following days to book tours, transportation and insurance.
“Then it dawned on me that I was going away with a total stranger,” says Rocca. “So, I said to him, are you sure you’re okay with some random girl you’ve never met coming along with you? And he was like: Yeah, totally fine.
“There were moments of like, God, I hope we get along because we just committed to doing this. My family and friends asked if I would be okay with someone I’d never met.
“They also had concerns as to whether I should go on vacation with a total stranger. But they trusted my judgment; I trusted my judgment,” she adds.
“I knew I would be fine, especially during these times. In fact, it made me feel much more comfortable to have a travel companion versus going on this one alone because of what was going on.”
Going away with someone you’ve never met has its advantages, Burton says.
“I was telling my friends that going with a stranger to me is kind of the best of both worlds, because you don’t feel obligated to that person. If they don’t want to do something, then you won’t tend to get annoyed by them.
“We booked separate rooms, so we had our own space. If there were any issues, then we could just go off and do our own thing. I thought to myself, just go and enjoy it.”
The timeframe from the initial introduction online to booking the trip and meeting in person was just four days in total. A timescale that may seem ridiculously quick to some, but is relatively “normal” for an online rendezvous.
“We met online less than a week before the trip,” Burton says. “Chatted for a few days then both flew to Chicago airport for the flight to Istanbul. That was the first time we met, at Chicago airport.”
With a smile stretching across her face, Rocca recalls that first meeting with a great deal of fondness. “He was waiting for me by the check-in counter because my flight got in a little bit later than his. I walked up to him and I was like: Oh my gosh, you’re a real person,” she says.
The pair’s initial encounter was equally as memorable for Burton. “We gave each other a hug, checked in and then sat in the lounge and just kept chatting. Therese had never flown business class before, so we chose seats next to each other.
“The vacation started there, it was fun from that point onwards.”
After enjoying their first international flight together, the pair arrived in Istanbul on September 5 and wasted no time in exploring the city together.
“We were a bit nervous when we landed because we weren’t sure what health checks we had to do or what it was going to be like, but everything was fine,” Burton says.
“The first thing we did after checking into the hotel was to take a ride on a hop-on, hop-off bus so we could see exactly where we wanted to go and where everything was.
“We did almost every major tourist attraction in Istanbul — Taksim Square, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, Hagia Sophia. We also took a Bosporus cruise. It was amazing.”
The new friends then flew to Cappadocia, an area of unusual landscape formations in central Turkey, where they stayed in a cave hotel and enjoyed a hot air balloon ride. From there they went to the coastal town of Kusadasi, where they went paragliding and visited hot springs.
Using a mixture of points and cash, Burton and Rocca managed to secure some great deals on their Turkey vacation.
“We flew with Turkish Airlines and stayed in a mixture of hotels for just over a week. The Hilton was the main hotel group, but we also stayed in an independent hotel in Cappadocia.
“In total we only spent about $1,000 each. That’s including business-class flights, hotel costs and spending money.”
Having spent so much time together, the trip could have gone one of two ways — major fallout or firm friends. For Rocca and Burton it was the latter.
“I would say that the trip exceeded my expectation,” says Rocca. “I didn’t think that it would necessarily turn into a real friendship, but I think it has. We are friends.
“We’ve talked about meeting when we get back because we’re only a two-hour flight from each other. It’s quite easy for both of us to get a flight to Florida as well, so we might meet there.”
“We’ve definitely formed a good friendship. We’ve also talked about taking more trips together. I’ve already booked a trip to Spain with my mom next May and Therese said she might join.
“In fact, we have even discussed setting up a business together to help others find great deals and travel buddies. We’re going to name it Vacation Pursuit. So, watch this space!”