Oct 23, 2020

Armenia or Azerbaijan? Both have much to offer curious travelers

 

Bread hot from the oven at a roadside rest stop between Georgia and Armenia 

"On your first day in Armenia, you are a guest. The second day, you are a friend. The third day you are a relative." - Old Armenian adage.

Armenia or Azerbaijan? 

Although the former Soviet republics sit side by side in the Caucasus, a mountainous region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, visitors to one can't travel to the other without passing through a third country. 

With war upending a fragile, decades-old truce, the reasons why this is so are in the news again. Each country claims the right to control the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave bordering Armenia, but officially inside Azerbaijan. It was here and in surrounding territories where Armenian forces prevailed in a war in the 1990s that displaced 8,000 Azerbaijani, many of whom fled to the capital of Baku to live as refugees in their own country.  

For the average traveler unfamiliar with the political history, it can be frustrating to be so near and yet so far from neighboring countries that would appear easy to visit. 

That's what my husband and I discovered while visiting neighboring Georgia six years ago. We settled on taking a mini-bus from Tbilisi to the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Visiting neighboring Azerbaijan would have required backtracking through Georgia, so we saved that until 2018 when we traveled through Uzbekistan in Central Asia, and caught a short flight from there to Baku.

Both cities were fascinating places to visit, for their history, natural surroundings, pre and post-Soviet architecture and a population of energetic, well-educated young people.

Now, sadly, national attention is focused on the two countries, not because they dazzle as travel destinations, but because fighting once again has erupted over territorial disputes.

Turkey, which sealed its border with Armenia in 1993 to show solidarity with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, backs Azerbaijan in the current conflict. Russia, which considers the territory around Nagorno-Karabakh a land bridge to the Middle East (Nagorno-Karabakh shares a boarder with Iran) backs the Armenian forces.

Cease fires and negotiations brokered by Russia, France and the U.S. will hopefully lead to a renewed truce, but already many lives have been lost. Baku's vibrant downtown main streets have been darkened with giant screens playing video footage of drone strikes by Armenian soldiers.

Until the news of the war hit the front pages, most Americans probably could not find either country on a map. That's a shame, because like most all the former Soviet republics, they offer incredible value and a rich and diverse cultural buffet. You're not likely to meet many Americans, but you will encounter tourists from Iran and other parts of the Middle East. 

I look forward to the time, post COVID-19 and post-war, when adventuresome travelers can again have the chance to explore both countries. In the meantime, here's a recap of some of the highlights of our trip to Yerevan in 2014 and Baku in 2018.


Yerevan's historical center

So much to say about Yerevan, the capital of Armenia in the South Caucasus. The feeling here is young, hip and energetic, with a hint of the Middle East (Iran is about 200 miles away), in a former Soviet republic coming of age. As usual, one of the best parts about being here, apart from the food, is the friendliness of the people. Armenia's shared border with Iran plus its history of being ruled over the years by Persia (present-day Iran), the Ottoman Turks and Soviet Russia, makes for an interesting mix of people and cultures.

Soviet-era monument 

Unlike Tbilisi, Georgia, which had more of a village feel, at least in the old town, Yerevan is more spread out, with wide boulevards, parks and public squares filled with larger-than-life statues. Architect Alexander Tamanyan developed a grid plan for the city in the 1920s when the Soviets we're flush with cash.The main avenues point in the direction of Mt. Ararat, where Noah's Ark is said to have landed after the floods. 

Armenians claim the mountain as their own and treasure the views from here, even though Ararat lies in what now is Turkey. Surrounding elegant rose-colored museums and government buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th century, are lighted fountains and sidewalk cafes decorated like outdoor living roooms.

The State Museum of Armenian History and National Art Gallery, dominate the former Lenin Square, along with government buildings and a Marriott Hotel. We were surprised to find most of the museum explanations in English. Like visitors to the Louvre in Paris who head directly to the Mona Lisa, we were most interested in seeing the world's oldest leather shoe, on display in a lighted glass case. The 5,500-year-old shoe was discovered in a cave by a team of archaeologists a few years ago. The shoe, made of a single piece of cowhide leather was shaped to fit the wearer's right foot. No pictures allowed.

Armenian pizza 

Of course we enjoyed the food, more Middle-Eastern than Georgian, with lots of grilled vegetables, and dishes incorporating walnuts, apricots and pomegranate. Armenia's specialty is  Cognac. Travelers can take tours and enjoy tastings at the Yerevan Ararat Brandy-Wine-Vodka Factory on the grounds of a former Persian fortress that once housed a mosque, gardens and underground tunnels used to get in and out of the city safely. 

Privately-owned until it was nationalized by the Russians, the factory was abandoned after the collapes of the Soviet Union in 1991. It reopened again in 2002 under the ownership of a local politician and arm wrestling champion, and now produces fine Cognacs sold all over the world, but mainly in Russia. 


Armenian flute maker 

A day trip into the countryside with Envoy Hostels led us to Kolya Torosyan, above, a musical instrument maker in his 80s. He lives in the village of Byurakan on the slopes of Mt. Aragats, the highest mountain in Armenia. He carved this traditional flute, called a duduk-doodook, from apricot wood in a closet-size workshop in back of his house. The flute has a warm, low-pitched saxophone sound. It now hangs in our living room in Seattle as a remembrance of a very special trip.

Baku

Anthony Bourdain traveled the world for his television show “Parts Unknown,” so it’s a shame he never made it to Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, boarded by Iran, Russia and Armenia in the South Caucuses.



Old Town Baku with one of a trio of modern "Flame Towers" in the background

From land-locked Uzbekistan, we flew across the Caspian Sea to experience one of the ex-Soviet Union’s most prosperous cities situated along the old Silk Road trade route linking China to Europe. Baku’s old city, hidden behind iron gates and medieval walls, evokes a colorful past. Outside the walls is the modern city, filled with one-of-a-kind new office towers, museums, fountains and parks. 

The government banned Bourdain from coming here because he filmed a TV show in  Nagorno-Karabakh. The  Azerbaijan government prohibits anyone who visits Nagono-Karabakh from entering the country. It’s the first question the government asks on its visa application. Lie and they find out, you’ll be denied entry, even if your visa was approved.

After prospering as a Silk Road stopover for traders carrying carpets and silk to the west, Baku’s fortunes rose again during an oil boom in the late 1800s. Wealthy merchants from Europe, Russia and the Middle East created a multi-cultural society where Muslims, Christians and Jews mixed an even inter-married. The country enjoyed just two precious years of independence between 1918 and 1920 after the fall of the Russian empire and before the rise of the Soviet Union. During that time, Azerbaijan established a parliament, and became the first majority-Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights with men. 



The Flame Towers are covered with the LED screens that display the movement of fire visible all over the city.

Preserved behind fortress walls is the old city, while just outside the walls are European-styled buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries and futuristic skyscrapers from the 21st. 

Baku is surprisingly affordable for being an oil-rich city that attracts international business. Public transport was a bargain. Our seven-room boutique hotel with all the mod-cons and a heated bathroom floor i was $100 a night. A half-hour ride on the new airport Express Bus to town was $1.60. A subway ride cost 15 cents. Dinner for two - olives, bread fresh from the clay oven, soup, salad, a platter of grilled vegetables, roasted chicken and wine -averaged around $17. 

Some call Baku the Dubai of the Caucasus, but I think it’s a far more interesting city, given its history and combination of Soviet-style, European and modern architecture. We took an excellent two-hour free walking tour with a volunteer from Baku Explorer. The majority of  people are Muslim, but most practice a version our guide called “Islam Lite.” Almost no one wears a head scarf, and cafes and restaurants serve alcohol. 

Baku metro station

Above is the Icherisheher station in the old city. Underground, the station preserves the original Soviet architectural style, similar to what we saw in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, although customers use reloadable plastic cards instead of plastic tokens to pay for fares. Above ground, the design in more in sync with modern times.


The Carpet Museum in Baku 


Carpets on display

Museums showcase Azerbaijan’s history as a center for literature, art and textiles. There’s a national museum of literature, named for it’s most famous poet, Nizami Ganjavi; a Museum of Miniature Books filled with 3,000 titles displayed in glass cases; and my favorites, the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, shaped like a rolled-up carpet; and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, an art museum and exhibition center, known for its flowing, white curves, and excellent permanent exhibit on the history of art, music and crafts in Azerbaijan.


Oct 6, 2020

The best virtual experiences connect travelers with locals in real time

 


Ashraf Chalif at home in Kerala

It's 6:30 a.m. in a tropical village near Kozhikode, a coastal city in the Southern Indian state of Kerala. Fatima and her daughter-in-law are preparing ginger coffee atop a wood stove as my husband and I settle in front of our TV in Seattle for a visit.

Ashraf, a 29-year-old guide who in pre-COVID times arranged sightseeing for tourists from the Middle East in Kerala for medical care, invites us into his family's kitchen via Zoom. His tour, offered by a group called tenLocals, happens in real time which means it's 6 p.m. in Seattle as we watch his mother and wife prepare breakfast.


Tapping sap from a coconut tree 

As Ashraf walks us past coconut, banana and lemon trees, the surroundings look familiar. I'm transported to a similar village where we arranged a homestay in 2006. It was from our host family that we learned if you have coconut trees, you have just about everything you need to survive in rural Southern India. You can drink the milk, make liquor from the sap, use the palms and wood as building materials or brooms; eat the pulp; grind it for cooking; cook with the oil; make rope by soaking the husks in water; and burn the shells for fuel or use them to make dessert cups.


Our Kerala host family in 2006


Ginger coffee, as it turns out, is more like tea, made by crushing tulsi, ginger, black pepper, coriander seeds, long pepper and jaggery, an Asian cane sugar, with a mortar and pestle. We "imagine" we're sipping the morning beverage as Ashraf walks us through the family compound, past fruit trees, chickens, goats and a fish tank filled with Malaysian guppies. 

Ashraf's family is Muslim. He speaks Arabic which explains his connections in the Middle East. Unlike in some other parts of India, Hindus, Christians and Muslims mix with relative ease in Kerala. I remember being wakened by chanting from a nearby mosque, and an hour later, hearing music from a temple and bells from a church. If I could return to India, Kerala is a place I would re-visit. Knowing that I won't be able to get there again soon, I was pleased to wet my appetite virtually, not by watching a pre-recorded video, but by actually "being" there as Ashraf and his family began their day.


The Chalif family's backyard 

From visits to Bali, Kenya and India to walks and wine-tastings in Southern Italian villages, virtual tourism is taking off. Some experiences are better than others, but chosen carefully, they can bring us closer to the people and places we love or still yearn to discover.

tenLocals, based in Boston, charges participants a small fee (I paid $14.95) for a live virtual experience with a faraway guide out of work due to the pandemic.  We enjoyed our India visit so much we signed on for another, this time to Bhutan with Jamtso, 36, who was leading tours before Covid. He now collects the equivalent of around $150 a month from the government.

Jamtso took us on a tour of the home where he lives with his two daughters, his mother and brother's family. His wife, Gyelmo, demonstrated how to cook Ema datshi, the Bhutanese national dish made with hot chili peppers and cheese, and served with a pink rice.  


Jamtso's mother in the Buddhist prayer room upstairs in their home in Bhutan.



Gyelmo in Bhutan with her chili-cheese dish 

Very different from our tours with tenLocals was an online trip I took earlier this year with a couple from New York who invited me to join a food, wine and art program focused on Southern Italy. The couple's relatives own Borgo La Pietraia, a country inn in Capaccio Paestum, nestled between the Amalfi and Cilento Coats in Southern Italy. As it was with Kerala, "being" in this part of Italy brought back memories of off-the-beaten path travel in a corner of the country unfamiliar to most Americans. My relatives come from the nearby province of Avellino, and I've done stories over the years on some of the wine areas and small towns covered on the virtual visits.

Organized by Feast on History owners Danielle Oteri and Christian Galliani, the tour featured three or four Zoom gatherings a week for a month with a small group of travelers from various parts of the United States. We dropped in on an Italian chef for lessons on how to make stuffed peppers and zucchini fritters. There were pre-recorded visits to wineries, followed by live tastings over Zoom. Fridays were reserved for a weekly "happy hour" when everyone gathered to make and share drinks such an affogato, gelato with a shot of espresso spiked with amaretto.


Our Eatwith meal in Mexico City

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to book a meal in someone's home through  Eatwith.com. Our dinner last November with a family in Mexico City lasted for several hours, and included multiple courses prepared by a delightful couple for whom cooking is a hobby. 

The dinners are continuing in many cities, but for those of us who can't travel, Eatwith hosts offer live, online cooking classes. A Florentine chef will teach you to make pasta, or you can join a home cook Budapest for a hands-on lesson in preparing Hungarian goulash. Most are group classes, so there's a chance to interact with others as everyone gathers around the kitchen counter or a communal table. Cost is around $22-$35 per person, not including ingredients which you buy and assemble ahead. Hosts live-stream from their home countries, so that a class starting 10 p.m. in Budapest begins at 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. 



Author Fred Plotkin with some of Michelangelo's favorite cheeses 

Many virtual tours are inexpensive or even free, so check out these types of experiences before signing onto more commercial offerings such as Amazon's new Amazon Explore.  A cooking lesson listed on Amazon with an Italian chef is around $70 compared to similar Eatwith.com offerings for half that amount. Amazon's classes are two-way audio, but only one-way video, meaning the host can hear  and answer questions but not see participants. To me, that adds up a one-way experience that eliminates the sense of really "being there" with another human being. 

More worthwhile was the hour I spent recently with the charming Fred Plotkin, the American godfather of Italian food, wine and opera. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles originally planned "Nourishing Genius: Wine and Food in the Time of Michelangelo"  in May to coincide with an exhibit of the artist's drawings. When COVID forced cancellation of the program, curators "reimagined" it as a free online event available on its YouTube channel. 

The Getty invited viewers to tune in free (Tickets for the live event had been $75) as Fred told us how the young artist, mostly content to refuel on anchovies, stewed fennel and herring,   developed a palate for fine wines and cheeses by dining at the tables of popes and patrons. We were encouraged to assemble a few of Michelangelo's 15th and 16th century favorites (Frascati wine, Pecorino cheeses, ripe pears), and taste along as Fred displayed wedges of cheese and an overflowing fruit basket. 


A virtual tasting with Fred Plotkin at the Getty

Fred is best known as the author of "Italy for the Gourmet Traveler." It's a book we've used many times in our travels to find overlooked Italian towns studded with culinary gems. Noto in Sicily was one. Most visitors come to see the town's elaborate baroque carvings, but with Fred's help, we also found his favorite pastry shop specializing in Arabic-style sorbets. The owner described his tangerine flavor as a "little bit of Sicilia in your mouth."

The mouth is a good place to cultivate an appreciation for a foreign land. No language skills required. Just a good appetite, a smile and an enthusiastic "Delicioso!' My thanks to Fred and the Getty for bringing a bit of Italy into our living room with a glass of wine and few shavings of Pecorino.

Sep 1, 2020

Airbnb or hotel? Making the right choice when COVID cabin fever strikes

 

Our Airbnb on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State.
 Our Airbnb on Washington's Long Beach peninsula 

Airbnb or hotel? It's a question that pops up when COVID cabin fever sets in, and a string of late-summer sunny days calls for a short getaway.

My husband and I booked two four-day trips recently, both within Washington State or a short distance across the border to Oregon in keeping with health experts' suggestions to stay close to home in Seattle. 

Airbnbs were our first choice, mainly because by booking self-contained units such as mother-in-law apartments or backyard cottages, we could cut the risks associated with indoor lobbies, elevators, hallways etc. used by many people at the same time.

The four units I booked averaged out at around $125 per night, including taxes and fees. All had private entrances, small kitchens and private bathrooms. 

At the Writer's Hearth on Washington's Long Beach Peninsula, our host Christine, left a dozen fresh eggs on our door stop laid by her hens that morning. We relaxed on her deck overlooking the clear Walapa Bay, snacking on the fruit and cheese platter she left in the fridge. The room was small, but had everything we needed, including a private entrance, sparking private bathroom, coffee and a coffee maker.  


Dinner on the deck

In Port Townsend, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, we rented an entire house with water views and a full kitchen where we were able to invite friends for dinner and eat together on the outdoor patio.

Hotels may have the advantage when it comes to professional cleaning protocols, but most Airbnb hosts know how to clean. Most adhere to Airbnb’s enhanced cleaning protocol—a set of standards developed by Airbnb with health and hospitality experts for COVID-19 times and beyond. 

That said, picking the right Airbnb - one that fits your budget, location preferences, cancellation requirements etc. - requires some research. Airbnb listings contain detailed information about the units themselves, the hosts and the locations. The challenge is knowing to follow links labeled "Read More" or "Details."

Here are a few tips to help avoid surprises. 

Starting your search:

Assuming you've registered and set up a profile, start your search with your exact location of your destination, then use the filters to avoid having to comb through listings that don't suit your needs.

For example, under "Type of Place," indicate if you want a whole unit or house to yourself, or if you want a private room with shared spaces (usually someone's home) or a hotel room. This is important because Airbnb listings now include some commercial hotel rooms or condos owned by real estate investors. 

You can also filter for price, number of bedrooms, bathrooms, air conditioning etc.

Look for units with outdoor spaces if you're planning on having guests 

Next, start looking at listings that fit your criteria, taking special note of the location (visible on the map at right and also on map on the listing itself). Owners provide the exact address only after a reservation is made, but I've found most are willing to supply cross streets or other more specific location information via e-mail before booking. 

Beware that your search might turn up places in nearby towns. This could be confusing if you're unfamiliar with the area. A search for places to stay in Ashford, Washington, near Mount Rainier, for instance, turned up units for rent in Eatonville, Packwood and Morton, all too far away. 

Pricing

Airbnb has recently become more transparent about its pricing, but is still not as up-front as it could be in terms of showing the bottom-line rate in initial searches.

When you look at a listing, you'll first see the nightly rate in bold, followed by a higher, "Total" rate in fine print below. Click on "Total" to see a price break-down that includes the Airbnb fee and the cleaning fee but not taxes.

Example: Airbnb lists a one-bedroom guest house in Portland, Oregon's Mount Tabor neighborhood at $100 a night. The "total" jumps to $171 when a $50 cleaning fee and a $21 service fee are included. Opening the listing to book discloses an additional $29 in local taxes, for a real total of $200 per night.

Not all hosts charge a cleaning fee, and for those that do, $50 is on the high side. Most charge between $25-$40.

I suspect that Airbnb encourages owners to tack on "cleaning fees" as a way to increase revenue without having the higher price show up in bold print. Most owners clean the rooms themselves. Given COVID protocols, a small cleaning fee probably is in order.

Amenities

To find out everything that's provided or not included in your unit, open the listing and click "Read more" under what starts out as a brief description of the property. 

The Writer's Hearth where we stayed in Long Beach, points out that the host supplies bottled water,  chocolate, coffee, tea, snacks, and seasonal fruit. And...important during these times..."You are welcome to bring your home-cooked or take-out meals and heat them in the room's kitchen niche."

Our Port Townsend house mentions a equipped kitchen with "all the accessories you need to cook and dine at home: gas range, refrigerator, microwave, toaster, french press and coffee pot, all cookware, dishes and utensils including outdoor propane BBQ grill."

A list of 10 standard amenities (parking, kitchen, TV etc.) shows up on each listing page. For a full list of what the unit has or doesn't have, click on "Show all amenities." 

Airbnbs normally don't include breakfast, but some hosts supply the fixings for a light morning meal such as oatmeal or yogurt. Many units have coffee and a coffee maker, and most include a small fridge and microwave. 

Cancellation policies

Cancellation policies vary with the unit, but don't assume COVID-19 worries will be accepted as a reason to cancel. 

Airbnb policies call for hosts to refund the entire cost, including the Airbnb fee, within the first 48 hours of booking. After that, it's up to the hosts to set their own refund policies. Some ask for partial or full pre-payment in advance, while others allow full refunds, minus the Airbnb fee, within 48 hours of arrival. To read the fine print on cancellations, click on "Get details" under the cancellation information, then "Full details" to find out more about Airbnb's general policy and COVID-19 updates.

Payment is transferred through credit card info guests supply when they register with Airbnb. No money exchanges hands. 

Read the reviews

Guests rate their Airbnb stays according to cleanliness, communication, check-in, accuracy, location and value. Check on the timelines of reviews, especially given COVID-19 changes after March or April.

Airbnb asks both owners and guests to review each other right after the stay. Both have 14 days to write a review. Comments are posted only after both parties have completed their reviews, or when the 14-day period has expired. 

I've had only one bad experience in many years of using Airbnb. The owner of our London rental left town, and the person she left in charge didn't show up to let us in. We spent several hours on the phone with Airbnb to resolve the problem. Communication was swift, and eventually we were able to gain access by using a code Airbnb had on file.

Contacting the hosts

It's always a good idea to get your questions answered before you book. Click on "Contact host" on the listing page, and send an e-mail. Make a note of your host's contact information, including cell phone number for texts, before you leave. Most send check-in instructions and directions in an e-mail a day or two in advance.  


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.