Aug 7, 2020

COVID-19 flight risks: Five months in, is it really too early to tell?




How likely are you to become infected with COVID-19 as a result of flying?

"Several experts have said it's too early to know the transmission virus during air travel," according to a recent New York Times article on weighing the risks of general travel.

Really?

We know how many people check-in for flights each day at U.S. airports. The Transportation Security Administration keeps daily statistics published on its website.  

The National Transportation Safety Board requires airlines to track everything from reports of mishandled luggage to flight delays. How hard would it be to compile information on the percentages of passengers who reported becoming ill - say within 14 days - of boarding a flight?

How hard would it be to require airlines to provide this information by asking passengers to submit contact information, and agree, as a prerequisite to boarding, to provide current health information when asked in a post-flight e-mail or phone follow-up?

This comes to mind after reading a study by MIT Sloan School of Management professor Arnold Barnett on the likelihood of contacting the virus from a nearby passenger if the middle seat was left unoccupied.

His conclusion: The mathematical probability of being infected by COVID-19 while flying on a U.S. air carrier in July, 2020 was one in 4,300. With the middle seat empty, that fell to one in 7,700. 

The point of the study was to measure the benefits of leaving the middle seat open.  What jumped out at me was the conclusion that the probability of overall risk seems to be low, or at least lower than I think most of us would perceive it to be. 

The point is we don't know, and we should. If this study's conclusions are true, and the methodology solid, it would seem to behove airlines to start gathering their own statistics, and publicize them, along with comparison data on the statistical risks of doing other things such as traveling by train or going to the grocery store.

TSA's figures show the airlines have been carrying about  500,000-700,000 passengers per day since the beginning of July. That's down considerably from the 2.5 million or so per day during the same period last year. So yes, it might be too early to see what the situation would be if planes were full. But chances are they won't be for a while, so why not start compiling data now based on current numbers?

Airlines are fighting a battle of perception vs. reality. Most would-be flyers don't realize that the risk from touching surfaces is minimal, and air circulation isn't the real concern, with HEPA filters installed to catch 99 percent of airborne microbes. Spending time in an enclosed airport or sitting next to someone for a long period of time is, thus the emphasis on social distancing and leaving middle seats open.

My inbox fills daily with press releases from airlines about their cleaning methods, mask requirements, temperature checks, changes in food and beverage offerings etc. It's all window-dressing unless they can do more to assure passengers that others on the plane aren't infected. 

No amount of cleaning can make up for this type of assurance.

Mask requirements are a start. Next needs to come mandatory testing for everyone 72 hours before flying, and compilation and publication of the numbers who report infections two weeks or less after flying.

It will be up to individual airlines to make any of this happen. The Federal Aviation Administration has failed so far to mandate a national policy for COVID-19 prevention precautions on planes or in airports.

Granted there are variables. A person could become infected while lingering at the airport, or contact the virus some other way post-flight. No statistics are 100 percent foolproof, but having at least some information would go a long way towards making people comfortable about flying again.

Airbnbs vs. hotels

I favor Airbnbs over hotels while traveling during COVID-19, mostly because I'm more concerned about the number of people with whom I might come in contact (in hallways, lobbies, elevators etc.) than I am about what types of cleaning products are used to sanitize a room. 

The safest bets are self-contained Airbnb units, such as a mother-in-law apartment or cottage as opposed to a condo in a large building or room in someone's house. I've rented two stand-alone Airbnbs in the past month, both clean and well-kept. In looking through the listings, I noticed that Airbnb is now including the bottom-line price, including taxes and fees, in the initial listing.

This is a change from before when the total price came up only after you clicked the "reserve" button. True, you saw the total cost before entering your credit card info, but by that time, you were ready to book and likely reluctant to keep looking.  

Now the listings look like the one below. The base price is listed in bold with the total below it in small print. 



Full disclosure aside, how does an "entire cabin" in Ashland, Oregon (see above) go from a listed price of $57 a night to a total of $116, more than double the advertised price? This is because the  "cleaning" fee is $45, almost the cost of the room, and the Airbnb service fee is another $14.

My hunch is that Airbnb has convinced owners to tack on higher cleaning fees as a way to generate more revenue while having the base price appear low.

How to get around this? There are plenty of options out there. Look for places that have low ($10-$20) or no cleaning fees, and pass on the rest. 



Jul 28, 2020

Putting joy into the journey on a COVID-19 driving trip


Front desk at the Phoenix Inn in Eugene, Oregon 


Advice for "staying safe" on road trips seems to be in the news these days as Americans eschew air travel, and remain unwelcome outside the U.S. due the spread of COVID-19.

I've never liked use of the word "safe" to describe ways to travel responsibly. I hate it when someone bids me "safe travels." Telling someone to "stay safe" implies there's something to fear. Up until now that meant a terrorist attack, a protest, or  simply encountering something or someone "foreign." Now it's COVID-19.

My husband and I recently took a driving trip from our home in Seattle. The main purpose was to to visit my mother in Ashland, Oregon, 450 miles away. We planned thoughtfully for what turned out to be a successful and enjoyable four-day venture bookended with stops in Eugene and Bend to visit friends. A bonus was traveling through Crater Lake National Park between Ashland and Bend. Visitors were few, and the views spectacular. 

"Must have been scary," an acquaintance remarked when he heard about our trip. He wondered where we stayed, how we went to the bathroom and how we ate. I can't offer tips that will keep you "safe," but I can offer some insight into how you can do limited local travel that minimizes health risks while putting joy into the journey. 

Responsibility comes first

Most areas of the country are not encouraging anything beyond limited non-essential travel, so  have a good reason to leave your state, keep the trip short, and consider your impact on the destination. In our case, Washington and Oregon are neighboring states that generally adhere to similar health and safety protocols.

Washington has more COVID cases than Oregon, but the numbers vary widely, depending on the region and the county. Cases were few in the three Oregon counties we visited. We've also had very few cases in our own zip code here in Seattle.

Tom and I don't gather in groups, go to parties, or go inside people's homes. We do go to the grocery every two weeks, and get together with friends two at a time for picnics, a walk, or a socially-distanced happy hour on our deck. While we didn't self-isolate before we left, we did limit these activities the week before. 

On the road

We intentionally broke up the drive into 3-6-hour segments, minimizing the need for stops. Packed snacks and water kept going after breakfast until we got to our next destination. Tom used roadside rest stops for bathroom breaks (nicer in Oregon than Washington), while I lobbied for McDonald's where the restrooms appeared to be cleaned often. 

Where to stay

I see no reason for sleeping in your car, or camping to "stay safe," unless, of course, you enjoy camping. If so, be aware that campgrounds and RV parks are attracting many visitors. Your chances of contact with others is probably less at a hotel or Airbnb. 

We love bed and breakfasts, but for now the best strategy for reducing COVID risk seems to be to limit contact with groups of people, especially in shared indoor spaces. This is why we opted for two Airbnb stays, both in self-contained, mother-in-law type units where we were the only guests.

Both units - In Ashland, a converted two-story garage with an upper deck for socially-distanced visiting, and in Bend, a farmhouse cottage - offered self-check in. Under different circumstances, it would have been nice to meet the owners, but communication through text and e-mail went smoothly.


Our Airbnb in Ashland, Oregon 

Hotels make a fuss about how and how often they clean their rooms, but given the low risks associated with touching surfaces, I'm more concerned about how many people I might run into in the lobby, elevators, at check-in etc. Unable to find a suitable Airbnb in Eugene, we opted for a room at the Phoenix Inn Suites, part of an Oregon chain that had closed during the beginning of the pandemic, and reopened July 1.

This hotel could be a model for COVID-19 planning. They day before we left, I received an e-mail for online check-in. I was asked to take a picture of my driver's license and download it onto a secure site along with my credit card information. A desk clerk, wearing a face shield, greeted us with a key card, and offered free face masks along with a menu for a grab-and-go breakfast. The room itself seemed no different than before, with the exception of paper coffee cups in place of ceramic ones, and a "clean" TV remote coated in plastic. For now, the Phoenix leaves rooms unoccupied for 24 hours between guests. 

Where to eat

We're avoiding eating inside at restaurants for now, but do take advantage of the nice weather to occasionally eat outdoors. I researched restaurants with decks and patios before we left, and came up with a list of possibilities in all three cities. We made a pact. If they were crowded, or seemed risky, we'd leave and look elsewhere. 

Our most relaxing meal was probably an early-morning breakfast at SweetWaters on the River in Eugene. No crowds and lots of shade at 7:30 a.m. on the deck overlooking the Willamette River bike trail. A close second was the patio at the McCay Cottage in Bend. It was surprisingly busy around that same time (a Saturday vs. our Wednesday breakfast in Eugene). Normally we would have taken one of the tables inside the 916 bungalow with its kitschy antique furnishings. Instead we waited patiently for a table outside.

Having a kitchen in our Ashland Airbnb meant we could pop into town and bring a bakery breakfast back to our deck. For dinner one evening, we brought picnic food and wine  to a table in my mother's backyard. In Eugene and Bend, we ate dinner on the patios of our friends' homes. 

The watchword for all of our meals was "outside." While this is doable in most places this time of year, it won't be as we move into fall and winter. Or maybe it will. These times remind me of a visit to China a few years ago where we stayed with a family who ran a small bed and breakfast. They ate all their meals outdoors year-round. When it was cold, they came to the table in coats and hats. 



Taking in the view of Crater Lake on the drive from Ashland to Bend 

Jun 15, 2020

How airlines, booking sites, airports can restore trust post-COVID-19



Put safety before profits. Focus on customer service. Replace feel-good measures with meaningful changes that will restore trust. 

These seem like simple solutions for a travel industry struggling to recover post-COVID-19.

Instead we get airline "rules" "requiring" passengers to wear masks, but no enforcement. We get promises of temperature checks instead of a system of pre-boarding testing. We get assurances of social distancing, then hear about packed planes with middle seats filled. 


Third-party booking sites pass the buck for cancelled reservations to the airlines and hotels which pass it back. 

Travel insurance? Forget it. Covid-19 is either "unforeseen" or "foreseen." Either way, you're not covered. 

I've been thinking about the trust issue after reading a Facebook post by a friend who spent the better park of a week sitting on hold with Expedia, listening to Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound," while trying to resolve a refund dispute in which the airline and Expedia bounced her back and forth, each blaming the other. 

"What is the point or advantage of using Expedia,?" she asked. Not one of 87 people who commented were able to provide an answer.

She finally extracted a verbal promise from Expedia that she was due a full refund. The catch: It will take two to six months to process.

Her conclusion. "They count on you just giving up."

To restore trust, these sites need to revamp their whole purpose for being, starting with customer service when something goes wrong. "Pretending" to offer convenience (they rarely offer value) while hiding behind the fine print when it comes to resolving disputes won't cut it in a post-COVID world. 

This is a good time to remind travelers having trouble getting refunds to which they are entitled to challenge the charge through their credit-card issuer. This takes time, but almost always works. I know several people who did this recently after getting the run-around from airlines and third-party sites. The process is known as a "chargeback," because the credit card companies take back the money from the travel providers as part of their contract that requires refunds for services paid for but not provided. 

There's one important new wrinkle to watch out for the next time you sign up for a tour or a cruise. A law firm recently advised travel advisers to rewrite their contracts with customers to forfeit their right to a chargeback. The purpose of this is to allow the travel companies to issue vouchers for future travel instead of cash refunds as many tried to do during COVID-19.

Here's what Jeffrey Ment, managing partner of The Ment Law Group, recommended in a recent story in Travel Age West


"When discussing this with clients, I suggest using language that states: “While we do accept major credit cards including Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover, customers must provide us a signed charge authorization agreement for every transaction for your trip.
Your authorization is a binding agreement for us to charge your card, and as such, you waive any right to a chargeback in the case of cancellation for any cause (excepting fraud), including a force majeure event (meaning cancellations due to unpredictable events such as as floods, riots, COVID-19 outbreak etc.), and agree to refund policies (read this to mean vouchers instead of cash refunds) and procedures as outlined in these terms and conditions." 

Best advice going forward: If your travel advisor, cruise line or tour operator asks you to sign something like this, don't. 
 
Airlines/Airports

Airlines are falling over each other to promote their new deep cleaning methods, seat blocking to reduce capacity and requirements that crew and passengers wear face masks. 

None of these will make a real difference in how people feel about flying until the Federal Aviation Administration steps in to create across-the-board policies for all airlines and U.S. airports.


These should include:

*Mandatory pre-flight virus testing (available through a home kit) for anyone boarding a plane. Sounds extreme, but anything short of that, including temperature checks, are meaningless in terms of assuring passengers that a flight is virus-free.

*Even with adequate testing, there will be false negatives. Airlines should be required to follow-up with passengers two weeks after a flight via an e-mail questionnaire to start compiling real data about the risk of infection after flying. These results should be published along with data the FAA requires airlines provide regarding involuntary bumping, lost luggage etc.  

*Keeping sick people off planes by requiring airlines to drop change fees for flights rescheduled within one year.

*Getting rid of "Basic Economy," a bad idea from the beginning. Airlines threw budget passengers a few dollars of savings in exchange for giving up seat selection and overhead storage space for carry-ons.

*Coming up with a system for replacing food and beverage carts with bags filled with snacks and bottle water available at the gate.  Anyone who needs extra water could request it onboard. 



*Restricting entry to airports to ticketed passengers only and may one other for those who need extra help.

*Allowing airports to spend money on temperature screening. FAA recently informed Seattle-Tacoma International Airport that public health screening is generally not considered proper use of airport revenue. That needs to change.

* Requiring all airport personnel to wear masks.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee wrote that a federal response is necessary for people to be protected from COVID-19 and to have confidence in the safety of air travel.

He suggested the collection of contact information for passengers and travel details, and asked that COVID-19 tests be offered at airports for all passengers arriving from other countries.

These are hard and expensive measures to be sure. But nothing short of  constancy when it comes to airlines and U.S airports will make people feel better about flying again.


Jun 13, 2020

Neighborhood walks and bakery stops: The perfect COVID-19 outing


Rose Ralson displays mask cookies at the Edmonds Bakery

Escape to the tropics by way of a Hawaiian bakery in an industrial section of Seattle called Georgetown, then explore a neighborhood dotted with quirky garden art, and a Godzilla-sized cowboy hat and boots.

Taste-travel to Japan near Expedia's new  headquarters, then burn off the calories with a stroll along Elliott Bay.

Line-up for croissants and sprouted rye in urban Fremont, then stop by the giant, concrete Fremont Troll for a rare photo with no tourists in the way.

A neighborhood walk combined with a bakery stop ticks all the  boxes for a close-to-home COVID-19 outing.  Bakeries open early, and sell coffee to-go. Parks and walking paths are quiet and uncrowded in the morning, perfect for a breakfast picnic and brisk walk alone or with a friend.

Part of this post ran in the Seattle Times today, but it's an idea that could work in any city. Start making your own list. In the meantime, here are four of my Seattle-area favorites:

Georgetown

The bakery: Cakes of Paradise, 6322 6th Ave S.

This family-run Hawaiian bakery closed for a month in mid-March when COVID-19 hit, then re-opened in April, selling its tropical treats from a walk-up window under a Seattle Seahawks canopy. 

Lining the cases inside are rows of Long Johns, a traditional Hawaiian crispy donut with a custard filling; nine types of cookies and slices of its best-selling strawberry cake topped with homemade guava sauce.


Pualani Kani-Sims at Cakes of Paradise

 "We weren't sure if we would be busy," says Pualani Kani-Sims, one of the owners.  "But we discovered that people really want their comfort sweets during this time."
  
The walk: 

My husband and I found a sun break on a recent rainy Saturday to enjoy our Long Johns and coffee at nearby Oxbow Park, site of the giant "Hats n' Boots sculpture relocated here from a western-style gas station in Georgetown. 


Hats 'n Boots

Picnic on the seats under the 44-foot-wide cowboy hat, then explore the neighborhood featured on the annual Georgetown Garden Walk. Plans for this year's walk were undecided at press time, but a stroll along Carleton and Flora Avenues South turns up well-tended gardens and some funky yard art.  

Notice the kinetic mobile pieced together from foil, tin cans and old bicycle parts in the median at Carleton and Warsaw Street South. At the corner of South Eddy and Ellis Avenue South., a fake frog hooked up to a motion sensor croaks as you walk by. 


Funky yard art in Georgetown

Heading back towards the park, view the restored historic Gessner mansion at 6420 Carleton. The brass marker notes it was once a rooming house, a brothel and home to a ghost named Sara.

Interbay (Queen Anne/Magnolia) 

The bakery: Fuji Bakery, 1030 Elliott Ave. W. 

Painted bright pink and strung with white lights, this Japanese bakery with a French twist sits across the street from Expedia's new headquarters on the Seattle waterfront.


Breakfast picnic on the Seattle waterfront

Lining its cases are trays of elegant and colorful sweet and savory treats including crunchy creams, its signature Brioche donut coated with corn flakes and filled with vanilla custard; fresh pear croissants; and Portuguese Malasadas oozing with Ube, a purple sweet potato filling. 

The walk:

Cross Elliott Avenue, and walk over the futuristic pedestrian bridge to Centennial Park with paved paths, picnic tables, benches and views of the ferries and fireboats plying Elliott Bay.


Elliott Bay views from the beach

Walk north and see the many improvements Expedia made to the park, or walk south past a rose garden, beach areas and the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park.  

Fremont

The Bakery: Sea Wolf Bakers, 3621 Stone Way N. 

Brothers Jesse and Kit Schumann loved the idea of having a space where customers could watch their bakers work, but when COVID-19 hit, they shifted into farmers market mode, selling their breads, croissants, plant starts and pantry products from an open-air tent next door.

"We shifted everything outside and turned the bakery over to the bakers," says Jesse Schumann. Customers wait patiently in line as bakers ferry croissants, muffins and baguettes from the ovens onto rolling pastry racks. Recommended are the cinnamon rolls made with croissant dough and the salt and sesame lye rolls. 

The walk:  

Explore the neighborhood that calls itself the Center of the Universe. Start by walking west on North 36th Street to the Fremont Troll under the Aurora Bridge. 


Fremont Troll

Take a picture of the concrete creature crushing a Volkswagen Beetle in his hand. From there, head south on Troll Avenue N. and west on North 35th Street past the Fremont Library to the A.B. Ernst pocket park with a stairway down to North 34th St. 

Walk west past the Fremont Bridge and then south on Evanston Avenue N. to the Quadrant Lake Union Center.  A plaza with stone sculptures and wavy concrete steps leads to a  paved path along the Lake Washington Ship Canal. 


Washington Ship Canal path

Enjoy the views here, or walk east to where the path connects to the Burke-Gilman trail with waterside benches and picnic tables. Among the public art projects is the "Dreamer of World Peace," a bronze sculpture that commemorates Sri Chinmoy, a life-long ambassador for peace and world harmony.  


Sri Chinmoy statue on Seattle's Lake Union 

Edmonds

The bakery: The Edmonds Bakery, 418 Main St. 

Forget fancy French pastries. Old-fashioned cake and glazed donuts and fat cinnamon rolls await at this American-style bakery that's been in the same location since 1927. 

Ken Bellingham bought the shop in 1993, decorating it with a collection of 400 ceramic cookie jars. 


Edmonds baker Ken Bellingham 

He favors the pastries he learned to make in baking school in the '80s.  Think jelly donuts, apple and cherry turnovers and "chicken bones," long raised donuts with a crunchy coconut topping. 

When COVID-19 hit, he was making a batch of yellow daisy-shaped cookies. He added eyes and a strip of blue icing around the mouth, and voila, mask cookies.  

The walk:

Explore the Edmonds waterfront from Brackett's Landing North and South, named for George Brackett who founded Edmonds in 1876. Where shingle mills once stood, there are twin parks with paved walking paths, beaches, benches, picnic tables and art skirting the railroad tracks near the Washington State ferry terminal.


Brackett's Landing North

Brackett's North is the bigger of the two, and includes the 22-acre Edmonds Underwater Park popular with scuba divers. 


May 31, 2020

Post-COVID travel: Just because we can go, will we want to? Should we?

Cheese as art in a French village


When will it be safe to travel?

That seems to be the question on everyone's mind.

Perhaps, as one reader points out, we should be asking, "When will reasonably safe travel be fun?"

"It's hard to enjoy traveling if you have to view every other human as a potential killer," he wrote. 

I might substitute the word "threat" for killer. But he has a point.

Just because we can go, will we still want to? Maybe more important, should we?
This is a good time to think about what our next trip will be like, and how the experience could be changed by COVID-19.

Restaurant goers in Japan, for instance, are encouraged to sit side by side rather than face to face, refrain from talking as much as possible, and listen to background music instead. Not my idea of how to enjoy an expensive kaiseki dinner.


Lively street markets are a part of Parisian life

I love Paris, but will I still love it when plexiglass barriers go up around cafe tables, espresso arrives in a plastic cup and shopping at a neighborhood market becomes a hands-off, hurry-up affair? On the other hand, will I love it more when there are fewer people on the buses, trains and in restaurants and museums, albeit longer waits for everything?

There will be upsides and downsides to life in a post -COVID world. 

It's too early to tell what things will be like in the fall or in 2021. Most countries have closed international borders to Americans for now, but when they reopen, becoming a socially-responsible traveler will be more important than ever. 

Besides drumming up enthusiasm for a trip that discourages contact with people, and has us obsessing over every door knob and room key, we'll need to consider the impact our actions might have on others.

There will be zero tolerance for the traveler who ignores masking and social-distancing, then falls ill and expects a foreign government to provide medical care and a place to isolate until an airline agrees to let him or her on a plane. 

I'm not in favor of making decisions based on "What if" questions. I hate the term "new normal" because that implies where we are now is where we will be forever, or "until there's vaccine." I have no plans to revert to touring the USA in an RV to "stay safe." That said, it does seem like a good time for a reality check, not to discourage future plans, but to plan around what changes the future might bring.

Some examples:

*More people will buy travel insurance, but these policies will require more scrutiny.
Travel insurance covers you if you're ill and can't travel, or have to cancel or cut short your trip due to illness. Unless it's an expensive "cancel for any reason" policy, it doesn't cover you simply because you decide you don't want to go (ie: a new virus outbreak close to the time you plan to travel). 

Expect new polices to incorporate COVID-19- specific language, either including pandemic-related circumstances or excluding them from coverage.

* What is health care like where you plan to travel? Does your insurance plan cover emergency medical care outside the U.S.? What would you do if you became ill, had to quarantine, and your hotel asked you to leave?

*What is your airline's track record on the number of passengers becoming infected on its flights? Everyone assumes the risk is high, but is it? Commercial airplanes use high-efficiency particulate air or HEPA filters, which catches 99 percent of airborne microbes. 

Given that, there are lots of ways airlines could do more to reassure passengers. They could start by waiving cancellation and change fees for passengers who might otherwise fly when they are sick with a flu or cold. Contact tracing should yield some useful statistics on infection spread. Airlines should be required to share that information so travelers can assess which ones are doing the best job at screening passengers and crews.

*What are the border restrictions? Hawaii is a fortress at the moment, with all travelers required to isolate in their rooms for two weeks. Some countries are accepting travelers from neighboring countries, but not yet from the U.S.  Wherever you are thinking of going, consider how welcome you will be. This applies to regional destinations and resort towns in the U.S. that normally want tourists, but aren't yet ready for crowds.


Remote Reykjavik

* What destinations make most sense? I love big Asian and European cities, but visiting them requires moving through crowded airports and using lots of public transportation. Flying into a secondary city, renting a car and touring smaller towns might be a more COVID-friendly option. So will looking beyond the traditional European gateways such as Italy, the UK, Spain and France. Visiting countries such as Iceland or Ireland where the main attractions are outdoors makes more sense, as does exploring off-the-radar destinations such as Georgia, the South Caucasus nation between Turkey and Russia, where the response to the virus was swift and infections few.  


Tbilisi, Georgia

Looking back on a visit last year with a friend who rented an apartment in Southern France, I can envision many such itineraries that fit into the "reasonably safe" category with the emphasis on reasonable. 

We got around by walking or driving short distances. We ate at small restaurants with outdoor tables, walked, hiked and dropped in at family-owned wineries with few visitors. 

It's the kind of trip that fits the times, one focused on outdoor activities conducive to distancing precautions. For now, that seems to make more sense than trying to figure out how to stay healthy and avoid people in a big city or crowded museum.  And certainly more fun.

May 18, 2020

Two-tier travel: The more you spend, the easier it will be to find distance in a post-COVID-19 world


The seven-star Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai where rates start at $1,000 per night

A private jet carrying passengers from from London tries to sneak its way into a French airport where helicopters wait to whisk revelers to a secluded resort. 

A U.S. airline offers to "sell" socially-distanced upgrades by proposing passengers purchase the middle seat.  

Passengers arriving and leaving the airport in Vienna avoid mandatory quarantines by paying $200 for a test certifying they have tested negative for COVID-19.

It will be a while before Americans begin traveling again, but when we do, we should be prepared for a two-tier system that favors those willing to pay for privacy and safety.  

The more you spend, the easier it will be to keep your distance in a post-COVID-19 world.

Luxury travel marketers will take "private" to a new level, promoting stays in private villas, staffed with cooks and caretakers who are tested daily rather than just passing temperature checks.


Private villas come with private pools at a luxury
desert camp near Dubai

Airlines will enjoy increased demand for expensive business class and first-class seats. Less-expensive "premium" economy could include an extra charge for a seat adjacent to one left empty.

"Hotels" within hotels - perhaps whole separate floors - will separate those willing to pay more for being around fewer people. Same with cruises for those who want to avoid group dining, swimming and sunbathing.

It's too early to predict long-lasting trends, but I see a few developing. Some will make travel safer and more comfortable (better hygiene standards, no more packed planes). Others, I fear, threaten to keep us at a distance from the people and places that create the most memorable travel experiences. 

Will we be inclined to opt for an Airbnb the next time we travel, or choose a hermetically sealed hotel room where we'll check ourselves in and out without ever talking to another person? Will we book a private dining room in a four-star restaurant, or patronize the family-run taverna where the tables spill onto the sidewalk crowded with passersby? If a new friend invites us home for dinner, will we accept? 

Coronavirus testing

Look for quick COVID-19 tests to evolve as countries demand proof of a recent negative test as a condition of entry. It's hard to say what the cost will be, hopefully lower than $200, but the tests will likely come at a price, just as there's a charge for TSA Pre-Check or the CLEAR system used by business travelers to avoid hassles at airport security checkpoints.

Home testing kits are set to go on the market soon for $125. On the other hand, destinations hungry to kick-start their tourism could follow Iceland's lead when it reopens to tourists in mid-June. The country is said to be planning to give travelers free tests upon arrival at the airport — those who test negative would be free to enjoy their time in the country, but those who test positive would have to self-isolate for 14 days.

Airline seating

Frontier Airlines dropped its plans to charge extra for keeping middle seats open but what's to stop airlines from intentionally leaving some seats empty, then jacking up fares in general to make up the difference? 

That's essentially what Delta has given itself permission to do with a new policy of reducing capacity to 50-60 percent. Middle and certain aisle and window seats will be blocked. There's no direct link to higher fares, but as demand increases, and as long as the need for distancing remains, fares almost certainly will rise. 

Watch for airlines to begin adding surcharges for "Covid-safety features." (Some dentists and hair salons are already doing this), and new rules limiting the size and weight of carry-on bags along with higher fees for checked bags. 

Lodging/dining 

Hotels are preparing for remote check-in and minimal contact with staff. Private villas and bungalows will be in demand. Not so much the cheap all-inclusive resorts packed with families and the bargain bus tours.


A private view of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate from a suite in the Adlon Hotel 

Celebrity chef David Burke is willing to bet that private dining will thrive. 

“You walk in with your own group, you have the room, you have your own bathroom, your own waiter,” he predicts. “Then when you leave, everything gets cleaned up and another group comes in.” 

Burke, who owns restaurants in New York City, New Jersey, Saratoga Springs, and Washington, D.C., is planning to take this familiar concept even further when he reopens David Burke Tavern in Manhattan, where guests will be able to book a private, contact-less, glass-enclosed dining space built into the back of a flatbed truck.


Street food in Xian, China's Muslim quarter

Bottom line

All of this begs the question:  What is travel all about? I think the emphasis on privacy points to what's ahead for vacationing rather than traveling, if for you as it does to me me, travel means connecting with people and diving into the local culture by mingling with the masses.  



The Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan, Egypt
Sure, I enjoy an occasional retreat to an over-priced hotel bar, especially in third-world countries where the heat and crowds call for an escape. I'm recalling the lunch my husband and I shared this time last year on the terrace of Aswan's Old Cataract Hotel, built in 1889 by Thomas Cook for European travelers taking Nile cruises. So many people want to visit, the hotel requires non-guests to buy $15 vouchers for food or drinks so that others who can't afford it will stay away.

That said, I have no desire to hide away for weeks in an exclusive resort or eat in a private dining room, walled off from the world around me. I don't want to tour the U.S. in an RV, and cook my own food brought from home. 

Take me back to the pulque bar in Mexico City or the street food market in Xian, China's Muslim quarter. More than that lunch at the Cataract in Aswan, I remember zipping around the crowded streets of Cairo in an Uber, using a meal-sharing site to dine in the home of a Egyptian family, and breakfasting on the rooftop of our Airbnb on an island in the Nile. 


A home-cooked Cairo meal


When it will be safe, comfortable or wise to do that type of traveling again, I have no idea, but I'm willing to wait.

May 6, 2020

Travel bubbles: Who's welcome; who's not when the world reopens


Staying put on Seattle's Lake Union

“If you live in Seattle, you stay in Seattle. If you live in Portland, you stay in Portland." 

That's the message the Seattle Times reported coming from a county commissioner in Washington State to would-be visitors to the Long Beach Peninsula resort area on the Pacific Ocean.

A leaflet placed on car windshields by the manager of a WorldMark time share condo was more blunt.

“Your vacation is not worth our lives. Go home. Stay home. Save lives," he wrote.

Normally these people are busy courting tourists with small-town pleasures such as clam fests and kite festivals. 

Now they would rather visitors stay away. The county is relatively free of the coronavirus, and officials would like to keep it that way.

They're hardly alone, as resort areas within states, states themselves and even countries  think about creating "travel bubbles" that would restrict who can move around within their boundaries.

With stay-at-home orders still in effect in many states, the concerns are understandable. Whether travel restrictions will be enforceable is another matter. 

Pacific County, where Long Beach is located, has the second-highest percentage of second homeowners in the state. Do they have a right to use their homes? What will stop people from cities flocking to rural havens for summer vacations? 

Most experts agree that blanket prohibitions against crossing state or county lines would violate the U.S. constitution, but local jurisdictions are within their rights to establish public health measures such as requiring temperature checks or requiring quarantines. 

Maine just joined Hawaii in requiring anyone entering or returning to the state to self-isolate for two weeks. Maine's decree extends at least through July. Hawaii hasn't yet indicated a timetable for extending its order. 

One survey identified travelers' main concerns as catching or spreading COVID-19; mobility and restrictions; and ability to fully enjoy destination.

The third point resonates the most with me. For now, that seems to point towards destinations having to do more with natural surroundings than big cities. Travelers will have choices once again. When the time comes to venture out, most will likely start with local and regional destinations where they feel safe and welcome.


International travel

Expect to see bubbles pop up when it comes to international travel. Countries can use immigration laws to restrict travel from areas where the virus is spreading, and Americans could find they are not among the first invited to return. 

With cases still rising in the U.S., and no national policy on testing or social-distancing, it's hard to see other countries putting out the welcome mat without restrictions. These could include proof of a testing negative for Covid19, temperature checks, cell phone tracking information and self- quarantine requirements. It could also depend on when and how the U.S lifts bans currently in place on travelers from Canada, China, the UK and some parts of Europe. 

The Greek minister of tourism said that the country will prepare to take in foreign tourists beginning in July, but that the arrivals will not be from all over the world, and testing negative for coronavirus will likely be a requirement for entry.

Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told CNN that he wants international, or at least European, standards that set the same travel protocols for all countries.

"I would assume that people will be tested before they get on a plane, not after they arrive here. "They can only get on the plane with a negative test, or with a positive antibody test," he said.

Greece is talking about requiring the tests to be taken no earlier than 72 hours before travel. Where will you get one when the times comes? Airports, likely, and at a steep price. People traveling through the Vienna Airport can already get them at departure and on arrival. The test results are available in around three hours, and cost around $200.

New Zealand and Australia have talked about creating a travel bubble that would allow people to move between the two countries, but restrict others. Under proposed new rules, passengers arriving at airports in the UK- including returning UK citizens - would have to provide an address where they will agree to self-isolate for 14 days, a move that the trade group, Airlines UK, "would effectively kill international travel." 

The European Union has indicated it will extend its current ban on non-essential travel by foreigners at least until September, while French President Emmanuel Macron raised the idea of keeping EU borders closed for six months, and said his country will limit major international travel for its own citizens this summer.

Perhaps the first country to welcome Americans back might be Mexico where tourism generates 17 percent of Mexico's GDP- a larger percentage than any emerging country other than Thailand. 

Negative perceptions pushed by the U.S. government aside, Mexico ranks 20th on a list of countries in numbers of virus cases. There has been speculation that the government has been under-reporting its cases, especially those in Mexico City, but the country still is doing far better than the U.S., which ranks first in the world with 1.2 million, and better than Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada or Belgium. 

Mexico has begun to plan a new marketing campaign aimed at the United States, Europe and parts of Asia, to be rolled out as soon as the virus ebbs. 


A historical mural in Oaxaca's Palacio de Gobierno 

Tourism Secretary Miguel Torruco Marqués has outlined what the campaign will look like. One tag line: “Mexico needs you.”

They do, and for that reason, it could soon be easier to plan a vacation south of the border than anywhere in the U.S.