Stranded in the Pacific – Cancelled flights, lost luggage, and coronavirus
To be honest, we thought our travels this year may have been a little easier. We had fewer countries to visit (16 to be exact) and we tried to plan ahead more than usual this time by reserving all of our flights in the Pacific.
Logistically speaking, arranging flights to get around in the Pacific Islands isn’t an easy task. It takes many, many hours of research and planning. When it comes to paying for all the flights to get between islands, it made us nauseous – it does not come cheap. This is easily the most expensive part of the world to travel to.
We were satisfied that the route we’d chosen to visit 8 of the 10 countries we had left in the Pacific was solid. We didn’t have the time to visit the other three countries before we had return flights booked back to Europe/Africa in early March.
Besides, we always imagined our last country to visit in the world would be in the Pacific.
After the latest series of unfortunate events that have happened to us over the past few months, our travel plans are all over the place due to the number of flight cancellations and re-routings we’ve encountered and the ongoing threat of the spread of coronavirus across the entire world.
This leg of our journey through (some) of the Pacific happened like this.
We got stranded in the Pacific! But Let’s start with Vanuatu
Check out our Travel Guide to Vanuatu. We tried to cover everything you need to know if you’re planning a visit. The food markets were fantastic here! A highlight for me was the fresh fish and coconut curries from the main market in Port Vila.
Don’t forget about the 5 foods you need to try when you visit Vanuatu – we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised about how good this cuisine really is.
Time to slow down in Tonga
After Vanuatu, we then spent a fantastic week in Tonga. We easily slipped into the slow and steady pace of life here and loved the sense of community of the Tongan people.
This is a destination for those who love to escape the tourist trail – it’s authentic, raw and real. It feels like attending church and spending time with family are a top priority. From all of the Pacific island nations, in our opinion, Tonga is one of the more affordable ones.
We found that it’s very possible to travel to Tonga on a budget. There are some great budget accommodation options for those travellers looking to keep costs down so you have more time to enjoy the natural beauty.
Tuvalu – one of the tiniest countries in the world
Next, we moved on to one of the tiniest countries in the world – Tuvalu. It’s not the easiest (or cheapest) island to reach, but after endless views of the dark blue ocean from the plane, these islands pop up with striking turquoise and green colours.
From above, it’s hard to imagine that life is possible here. One thing is for certain here, the warmth of the people was immediate.
If you are planning to visit, you will find all the necessary information in our post about how to travel to Tuvalu.
It gives you an idea of what to expect here if you visit and how to plan it all. Perhaps you’ll be one of the 2000+ visitors that makes the effort to see Tuvalu per year.
On the runway in Tuvalu
One of our favourite things in Tuvalu was spending time with locals on the airstrip – the hub and social scene of the country.
We departed Australia in late January. Our first Pacific nation to visit was Vanuatu. And it was all smooth sailing. We really enjoyed exploring the main island of Efate and we discovered some great beaches and snorkelling spots.
The first cancelled flight of many
After spending a few days on this really likable little island, news came by chance that our onward flight to our next destination, Kiribati was then cancelled.
We found out the day before our departure (by asking a small travel agency there, not communicated to us by the airline, Air Kiribati) and we immediately started trying to source alternative options, which we already knew were limited.
We spent the entire day at this travel agency trying to make arrangements with Air Kiribati over the phone and via email. The only other airline that services Tuvalu is Fiji Airways. They have a flight a few times a week back to Suva, Fiji.
The kicker here is that every flight back to Fiji over the next 8 days was completely full. Oh no! We could literally see our entire onward itinerary of at least ten more reserved flights simply fall apart if we couldn’t find two seats on these flights back to Fiji to try and catch up.
In the end, after communicating with Air Kiribati for hours on end, the ONLY option was for them to place us both on a waitlist on the flight leaving the day after tomorrow. If that didn’t succeed, we had confirmed seats on the flight departing in 8 days, which would ruin our entire Pacific itinerary.
Will we catch this flight or get stranded in the Pacific on Tuvalu for weeks?
We arranged another night at our hotel which is nice, but it’s expensive. Our fingers were crossed that luck would be on our side the following day. There must be two seats available for us – we had to get off the island and get back on track with visiting these countries we’d planned in the Pacific.
Stranded in the Pacific and waiting at Tuvalu airport for a flight out
The flight to Fiji was supposed to depart at 11.20 am and the airline staff told us to come at 11.00 am. Of course, we arrived a little earlier and let them know that we were on the waitlist and we’d sit over there, but clearly in their line of sight so they didn’t forget about us. The staff were very friendly and seemed to be ‘on the ball’.
Suddenly the siren blasts outside – this is what they do in Tuvalu to alert everybody to clear the airstrip when there is a plane soon to land. Our hearts were pounding as we carefully watch for the ladies from the small airline desk to call us over with good news.
Yasss! They’ve got a few spare seats – we’re good to go! We immediately walk through the security check with our carry-on backpacks in tow and soon after we felt elated to board the flight and be on our way.
Yes! We’ve got a flight to continue on with our travels around the Pacific
At this stage, we’ve accepted the fact that we cannot reach Kiribati now. The flight connections from Fiji are just not in our favour.
We had already lost one additional night spent in Tuvalu and now we must stay in Fiji for two additional nights (a country not even on our list as we’ve already travelled here before) before we catch up on our itinerary and head towards Nauru.
There’s always a silver lining
The best part about our unplanned stopover in Fiji was that we got to see one of our very good travel friends, GG. Originally, we met this guy a few months back in Burundi, Africa. GG is also visiting every country. We met at the embassy of Burundi in Rwanda, both trying desperately to get visas to cross into the country overland.
It was a funny story, you can read about the struggles we had trying to secure this visa here.
GG is also visiting all of the nations in the Pacific, yet travelling the opposite way to us. It didn’t surprise us that his onward flights were cancelled too. Needless to say, we had such a good time catching up with GG in Fiji (that rhymes).
See the whole country in less than a half-hour
Approaching the small island of Nauru is a weird experience. After hours of looking down to see the ocean, suddenly a small island pops up. The landing looks as though you’re about to nosedive straight into the water, but right at the end, land appears and we touchdown.
The beaches of Nauru Island from above
Nauru is super small, about 20 sq km. A good road guides you all the way around the little island and it takes less than 30 min to drive around it without stopping. Or you can run around the island if you are keen. But was super hot and humid when we were there.
There are some great beaches and opportunities for diving and snorkelling in Nauru. In saying that and because of the very few flights arriving and departing from the island each week, any visitors that do stop here will generally do so very briefly.
Obtaining a visa for Nauru isn’t the most straightforward process either, which can be a deterrent to potential visitors.
The Marshall Islands – Umm…but where’s Marty’s luggage?
Upon arrival in the Marshall Islands, Marty’s luggage wasn’t there. We were kicking ourselves as we are carry-on travellers (we never check our bags in) and just this one time we opted to check our bags in. Wrong decision.
The amount of time we spent trying to communicate with Nauru Airlines about the location of the bag and how we could facilitate its movements of it to catch up with us was exhausting.
Lesson learned. We’re never checking our bags in again…
Robert Reimers hotel in Majuro – the Marshall Islands
How ironic: Marty’s bag got to visit Kiribati, yet we didn’t
About five days after Marty’s luggage went missing, the airline finally located it in Kiribati – the island we couldn’t visit because of the cancelled flight. This happened on our way to the Marshall Islands, as our flight made a stop at Tarawa, Kiribati to unload and pick up more passengers.
Obviously, the ground staff unloaded Marty’s bag, along with a hundred or so esky’s (coolers) that the locals in the Pacific use as suitcases or to transport products (true story). It’s kinda genius if you think about it.
We made jokes that Marty’s bag probably got to sit in the sun, maybe drink a cocktail by the pool in Kiribati, the things that what we envisioned doing there. But we didn’t get the chance.
The most disappointing thing here is that now we still have to return to Kiribati in the future to actually visit and explore. We stopped here not once, but twice (we had to backtrack through most of the islands already visited later on in this story).
We lived out of Rach’s backpack for almost three weeks
So, for the next few weeks, we lived out of my backpack. We bought Marty a few items to wear, but it’s not the easiest task to find suitable clothing in this part of the world. There are no H&M or Quiksilver stores here.
In addition to not having all of her belongings including clothes, swimsuit, toiletries, flip flops, and extra contact lenses, the most annoying thing about losing the bag was that Marty’s Macbook charger was in her luggage. It was the one thing that we definitely couldn’t replace over the next few weeks (as nobody has the latest Macbook on these islands).
It meant that she couldn’t work on her computer, research future travels or write any posts, etc. We each use our Macbooks daily for continuous planning of this adventure.
The Marshall Islands
To be honest, our time spent in the Marshall Islands was heavily affected by trying to get in contact with the airline to try and locate Marty’s bag. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if it had happened somewhere else in the world because there would have been many more flights connections to get the bag to us much quicker.
But, here in the Pacific Islands, time, paired with work ethic are not a high priority and most of the time there is only one flight per week to the next island. It’s a logistical nightmare. We knew there was a slim chance of getting the bag back while we moved around the Pacific, but we were optimistic as usual.
Long story short, after a week or so of very poor communication between Nauru Airlines staff and us, we ended up asking the airline to just send the bag back to Australia. We had zero confidence in any of the staff to make arrangements to reunite us with Marty’s luggage any time soon.
Coronavirus is beginning to affect our flights in the Pacific
At the same time as trying to find out any information in the days after the bag went missing, we were carefully watching the news, blogs, and forums about the increasing restrictions cropping up for containing the coronavirus infection.
We had a feeling that it was going to get worse. It felt like all of our flights in the Pacific trying to visit the remaining five countries left on our meticulously planned out itinerary was slowly starting to fall apart.
Majuro lacks energy and life
Our room at Robert Reimers Hotel in Majuro. Rate per night is USD 129 incl tax
We found that the main island of Majuro was underwhelming and lacked any energy or life. It’s such an expensive island for visitors (currency is USD and you pay tax on top of everything).
Accommodation is very limited (only a few hotels to accommodate visitors) and we found two hotels were dated, old and pricey for what you get.
Eneko Island – the best beach in the Marshall Islands
We managed to leave Majuro behind for a few days and took a trip to Eneko Island. This gorgeous island is about 25min away by speedboat transfer, and it was the relaxing break we needed after the past few days.
We enjoyed Eneko Island and we pretty much had the island to ourselves except for a few day-trippers.
The sunset here in the evening was gorgeous – as colours of deep pink and hot purple filled the sky mirrored by the calming sounds of the ocean lapping at the shore – it was bliss.
Sunset on Eneko Island, the best beach in the Marshall Islands
Up next: Micronesia
Our next island nation to visit was the Federated States of Micronesia, or simply known as Micronesia. We instantly took a liking to the island of Pohnpei once we landed.
The lush tropical feel, the relaxed vibe, and the people were some of the friendliest we’ve met in the world.
The car we rented (a small pick-up van) made us laugh, it was the only thing available. We couldn’t wait to set off and explore this lush island.
Roads are surprisingly good across the entire island and people drive with care here. The highlight of our day was exploring ‘Nan Madol’. These ancient ruins from the 14th century, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site is fascinating.
After an awesome day exploring the island in our car, we happened to stop by a popular diving shop that offers visitors snorkelling/diving day trips. Micronesia is reported to have some of the most incredible diving and underwater shipwrecks anywhere in the world
Exploring Nan Madol in Micronesia
The guy there was a little startled to see us walk into his shop. He quickly informed us that business had been very quiet lately as flights have been cancelled.
There are no tourists from Australia or Asia coming in due to coronavirus and the new travel ban introduced by Micronesia (All nationalities coming from a country with known cases of Coronavirus had to go into 14-day quarantine). These nationalities make up the bulk of his clientele, therefore business had come to a halt.
Subsequently, he couldn’t really offer us a day trip as running costs for just two people are very high, and in reality, we weren’t prepared to pay a couple of hundred each to go snorkelling here.
As we walked away and jumped back into our car, we had a feeling that this couldn’t be good. If there were no flights coming in…..that means there are no planes on the ground to fill up and fly out.
So, what does this mean for us?
Here we go again – we are stranded in the Pacific again!
After speaking to the guy earlier that day, we felt we should stop by a travel agency to double-check that our flight out in a few days was still operating.
The very friendly lady there informed us without missing a beat that Air Niugini had cancelled that direct flight from Pohnpei, Micronesia to Port Moresby, PNG until at least the end of March.
She said she received an email about the cancelled flight schedule two days ago. The reason was due to the ongoing threat of the spread of coronavirus and the airline hoped to resume operating that flight again in about 5-6 weeks. She very calmly asked us we could just fly then?
*sigh* Oh no, not again. Marty and I looked at each other in disbelief – we know that there are very limited options for getting outta here, let alone to get to Papua New Guinea as planned.
We were miles awayfrom anywhere on this island – deep down, we felt this wasn’t going to end well. The rest of our entire itinerary would only work if we could get off the island and somehow find our way to Port Moresby.
The rest of our Pacific journey goes pear-shaped right about now
The tickets we originally held in our hands were as follows. We had direct flights booked and paid to go to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. We then had return flights from there to the island of Buka in Bougainville (still Papua New Guinea). Afterward, we were booked to fly to the Solomon Islands to spend a week or so there, then we’d fly back home to Australia.
This cancelled flight to PNG complicated everything. If we couldn’t get there, then the rest of our flight itinerary would essentially topple like a stack of dominoes.
We tried EVERYTHING to try and catch up on our itinerary so we didn’t miss out on visiting these countries.
After speaking with a representative from Air Niugini, the only route they could offer to us (without us having to pay out a ridiculous amount of extra money for flights) is this:
Re-route us through Guam, then to Manila with a 12-hour layover, then finally on to Papua New Guinea. The entire journey time would have been 54 hours, rather than the 4 hours-long direct flight that they were cancelling on us.
We would have taken this route because we were desperate to get moving. We’d have done anything to avoid losing all of our future flight reservations.
But there was a problem with this itinerary. You see, Guam is a US territory. Transiting through here requires you to have a US visa.
Marty requires a US visa to transit through Guam
We no longer qualify for an ESTA (electronic visa) for the USA. After you’ve travelled to certain countries (Iran, North Korea etc), you must apply again and be interviewed at a US embassy to get another visa.
In this particular case, I qualify for a visa waiver to transit through Guam, as I hold an Australian passport. (there are only a handful of nationalities that also qualify). As Marty holds a Slovakian passport, she needs a US visa. And yes…even to just transit for an hour or so in Guam airport before moving on to Manila. We think this rule is ridiculous
We explained this to the airline. They asked Marty to try and apply for the transit visa at the US embassy the next day. Perhaps under the circumstances, they could help us.
The kindness of strangers
We had to give it a shot. We were stranded in the Pacific and forced to extend our stay in Micronesia.
In between all of this uncertainty and a few days earlier, we were fortunate to have met a British woman in a coffee shop. Caro was living and working in Pohnpei. She overheard us talking about the troubles we’d experienced in the Pacific, she offered her spare room in her home to us. She said we were welcome to stay with her as long as we needed.
The kindness of strangers is a beautiful thing. We’ve experienced it all over the world. We felt lucky to have met this wonderful, kind woman.
We called her once we had to extend our stay and she immediately wrote back to say ‘come on over’. It was so nice to have a ‘home base’ while we dealt with everything over the coming days.
The ongoing additional costs for extra nights staying in overpriced hotels were beginning to add up quickly.
Marty applies for a US visa
First thing on Monday morning, Marty went to the US embassy to try and apply for the visa. It was closed. What? Today was President’s Day in the USA. Of the very few public holidays they get in the USA, it happens to occur today. Too funny!
Marty fills in the visa details online and makes an appointment for the following morning. Upon arrival, she asks the clerk if she can just check how long the visa would take if she applies today.
The clerk requested that she must pay USD 160 fee before seeing an immigration officer which will determine her case. After having no choice in the matter, she paid. She then walked through to speak with the man who interviewed her for the visa.
Within a minute, he told her that the visa would take up to 2 weeks to be issued due to her visit to North Korea two years ago. He added that even then it wasn’t guaranteed.
Deflated and $160 out of pocket for nothing
Marty returned home, upset and disappointed with the whole ordeal at the embassy. I agreed that it was very unfair. Now we were back to square one. How were we going to get out of Micronesia?
We spent another day, back and forth on the phone and via email with Air Niugini. We explained that we had tried to get the visa for Marty to take the flight re-routing offered to us, but it was impossible. They had to help us get out of here another way.
The only other route to get off the island was to back-track through the Marshall Islands. We have to spend two nights there, then connect on Nauru Airlines (the airline that lost our bag) via Kiribati (the island we’ve still got to return to), via Nauru (been there, done that), and then to Brisbane Australia.
If we took this route, Air Niugini wouldn’t financially help us with the first leg. This meant we must again pay the USD 500 (AUD 750) each for this one-way UA flight back to Majuro. It’s an incredible amount of money for a 3.5-hour flight that doesn’t offer any meals or decent entertainment.
We’d have to pay for two nights’ accommodation again in Majuro (highly overpriced) plus meals, expenses, etc.
We stayed at the other hotel 2nd time round in Majuro – The Marshall Islands resort.
The positive part of this option was that Air Niugini could help to re-route us from Majuro to Brisbane. We didn’t really have any other option but to take these flights.
By this stage, coronavirus restrictions were affecting any flights arriving in PNG and the Solomon Islands (the two countries left on our itinerary) and we’d lost so many days waiting on flight connections and in transit, that our entire itinerary had collapsed anyway.
Let’s just go back to Australia
Long story short – we eventually had to accept that we couldn’t travel to PNG or the Solomon Islands. We couldn’t afford (literally) to get stranded again, so we decided to take the second option from Air Niugini. We felt deflated and defeated but happy to be on our way.
Honestly, it wasn’t just about the money we were losing on cancelled flights, additional accommodation, meals, and expenses we had to fork out for each day. It’s the fact that our entire goal of trying to visit the remaining countries left in the world is in limbo.
We almost didn’t board the flight to go home. Nauru Airlines strikes again
The morning of departure from the Marshall Islands was a tense one. We checked in with plenty of time at the airport. The Nauru Airlines staff member was having trouble clearing Marty to board the flight. “There’s a problem with your visa”, she said. Marty explained that she is a resident in Australia and her visa is linked to her passport.
Something wasn’t adding up for the check-in clerk. She asked us to sit and wait while she asked her colleague to investigate what the problem was. In the meantime, we’re starting to stress out while everybody continues to proceed through check-in.
After some time and with no answers yet, Marty returns to the desk and asks again what is happening. No real information is given. She asks to speak to the person who is checking on her details. She stressed that we must board this flight home today. If we don’t catch this flight, there isn’t another one for seven days.
Taking matters into our own hands
Another staff member comes out to the desk and admits that he hasn’t done anything yet, he’s ‘too busy’. The check-in desk will be closing very soon and we knew it. Marty asks this man in charge to show her what details he has on her passport. Maybe then she could work out the problem.
He asks her into the office out the back and shows her the passport details entered in the system.
Newsflash! Marty is from Slovakia, not Slovenia. Two different countries
Everything looks ok, except for her nationality. Her nationality entered by the clerk was Slovenian. LOL! Classic! Marty’s nationality is Slovakian! There’s the problem – of course, the system won’t accept her details, that person doesn’t exist.
Marty asks him to open the dropdown box and change her nationality to Slovakian. Immediately the red cross turns to a green tick.
Meanwhile, I’m sitting in an almost empty check-in area. By this time, everyone has checked in and cleared security to board the flight. I’m getting worried. I have no idea what’s going on. Where is Marty? Are we going to be leaving Majuro today. Oh god, I hope so!
Let’s go! We’re the last people to board the flight
Momentarily, Marty appears from the back room and gives me a nod. She’s asking the same guy to quickly process our boarding passes. We need to board the flight, quickly. For the second time in the last two weeks, we pay the USD 20 departure tax. We rush through the security screening and head towards the plane.
As we clear that, we enter an empty departure area as everyone else has boarded the waiting aircraft already. The lady quickly checks our boarding pass and we bolt towards the plane. We were both speechless and shaking our heads as we board the waiting flight.
We made it back to Australia on that flight, relieved to no longer be stranded in the Pacific.
Marty with her 40L Farpoint Osprey Backpack
We’ve got 10 countries left to visit – so where to next?
After not being able to visit three of the Pacific countries that couldn’t reach this time around (Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands), we’ve still got 10 countries left to see.
It seems this journey to visit every country will take longer than we anticipated now, but that is entirely out of our control.
The final 10!
The countries we’ve got left to visit are Algeria, Libya, Eritrea, Israel, Palestine, Palau, Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Samoa.
Let’s see how we go trying to visit the final 10 countries left on our journey. With the ongoing restrictions due to the spread of coronavirus across the entire world, we anticipate an interesting few months ahead.
Make sure you get travel insurance before hitting the road. Trust us, it’s one of those things you don’t want to leave home without. We recommend either World Nomads or SafetyWing, depending on the type of traveller you are.
If you enjoyed reading this post (and all the struggles we had in the Pacific), read more about the logistical side of how we planned this trip.
🚌 Transportation: To book trains,Trainline is the best and cheapest website. To book transport in Europe, USA & Canada, we useOmio & FlixbusUS. For travel in Asia, we use 12Go.For all other countries, we use BookaWay to compare and book Bus, Ferry, or train tickets to get around.
Rach is a self-confessed travelling foodie. Her passion for food and culture has seen her eat her way through 190 countries. She's currently on a big food adventure to visit EVERY country in the world!
When Rach isn't travelling, you can find her at the beach, drinking coffee or wine with friends or chowing down on the best eats around her home city of Melbourne, Australia.