Jun 26, 2021

Forget Portlandia: Here's what the 'other' Oregon has to offer

 

The frontier town of Mitchell is a gateway to the Painted Hills 


For many travelers, interest in exploring parts of Oregon, east of the Cascade mountains, begins and ends in Bend.

A collection of breweries along the Ale Trail beckon bikers, hikers and kayakers drawn to this high desert former lumber town transformed into a hip, outdoor adventure destination. Think vegan restaurants, gluten-free bakeries and Joe Biden bumper stickers.

 Travel 35 miles northeast to Prineville, gateway to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and you're in a slice of the state that looks and feels more like the Old West.  

 Cattle graze on open ranges. Trucks piled with hay bales rumble along the highway, past businesses with names such as "Boots and Blooms" and "Grizzly Mountain Construction."

Red Neck tacos and Hog Wild fries are on the menu at Dillon's Grill,  named for a town leader known for rolling and selling his own cigars.  Across from the Crook County Bank, now a historical museum with an exhibit devoted to hometown tire king Les Schwab, Prineville Men's Wear is the go-to store for boots, hats and Wrangler jeans.

City slicker alert: John Day - a 14,000- acre preserve showcasing 7 million to more than 40 million years of geological history, starting when this arid desert area was semi-tropical  - is a remote destination that takes at least a day's worth of driving to explore. And that's if you start in either Mitchell, a frontier town 40 miles from the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center,  or Prineville, 80 miles away.

My vote goes to overnighting in bigger Prineville, with a morning detour in Mitchell for coffee and croissants.



Ashley Tolton is owner and sole baker at Painted Hills Pastry in Mitchell, Oregon


Watch for the blue flashing lights atop the Painted Hills Pastry www.paintedhillspastry.com sign visible from the Highway 26 turnoff. Owner and baker Ashley Tolton CQ opens at 7 a.m. to sell her french pastries, sandwiches and fruit tarts to tourists passing through.

John Day's three main locations or "units," Sheep Rock, Painted Hills and Clarno, each about an hour's drive from the other, preserve the fossilized remains of plants and animals in colorful  rock formations made up of materials from volcanic eruptions.


The Painted Hills


Closest to Mitchell is the Painted Hills unit, known for its layered bands of black, grey and red that change colors with the light and weather.

 You could save time by stopping here first, but photographers recommend waiting until late afternoon for the best pictures. 

With this in mind, my husband and I and saved the Painted Hills until the end of the day on a recent visit, and pressed on from Mitchell another 30 miles to Sheep Rock and the visitor center named for Reverend Thomas Condon, the first chair of the Geology Department at the University of Oregon.

 Photos, murals and fossil displays help explain what otherwise would be left mostly to the imagination for visitors in 2021. 


Sheep Rock

 Sheep Rock, for instance, was named for wild, bighorn sheep that once roamed the area. The National Park Service maintains seven trails here, most not more than a half-mile round-trip. Interpretive signs and fossil replicas lead hikers along the 1.3-mile Island in Time trail, a gravel path ascending though blue-green bluffs colored by reworked layers of ash turned to stone. 

The northernmost destination is the Clarno unit, 77 miles from Sheep Rock and 18 miles west of Fossil, Oregon. Not everyone makes it this far along remote, two-lane roads, but for those who do, the rewards are nearly empty trails below towering Palisades, the remains of volcanic lahars, or mud and ash flows.


Trails in the Clarno Unit

 Fossil-hunters may be able to spot leaf imprints within boulders that have fallen from the cliffs. The half-mile Geologic Time trail creates a 40 million-year timeline, with each foot representing 37,000 years of changes.

Exhibits in the visitor center show how seasonal flooding washed away dead animals fossilized in the Hancock Mammal Quarry including small three-toed horses; large rhino-like animals and bear-like creatures similar to modern pigs.

 The hour and a half drive back to Mitchell leaves time for an early dinner before sunset on the patio at the Tiger Town Brewing Co. and a peak inside the historic Oregon Hotel, local lodging for those who may want to overnight closer to the park for a second day of exploration. 


The Painted Cove Trail


 The hours before sunset bring the most visitors to the Painted Hills.

  Five short trails lead to different vistas. Skipping the most aggressive, the 1.6-mile uphill Carroll Rim trail, the others can be walked fairly quickly, each yielding views of differing color palates as sunset approaches and the light shifts. 

Our favorite was the quarter-mile Painted Cove Trail, with a level boardwalk, protecting sensitive soils, snaking through hills of yellow and crimson rock. 

ADA-accessible and pet-friendly, this is a trail suited for everyone, although, as it was almost everywhere we went, there were few others around.



If you go


Park information: John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is part of the national park system. Entrance is free.  

 Start your visit at the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center in the Sheep Rock unit, 32651 Highway 19, Kimberly, Or.  Exhibits include displays of more than 500 fossil specimens. Scientifically accurate murals depict the environments in which plants and animals lived. Check on opening hours before visiting.

What to bring: The drive between units is long, and services are limited. Bring a picnic lunch, water, hat, sun screen and a full tank of gas.

Lodging:  There is no camping or overnight lodging within the park. Closest to Sheep Rock is the Oregon Hotel in Mitchell.

For lodging options in surrounding counties, see https://www.nps.gov/joda/planyourvisit/lodging.htm. For nearby campgrounds, see https://www.nps.gov/joda/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm

We booked an Airbnb  in Prineville with private entrance and a kitchen for $128 per night.

May 10, 2021

The only constant is change when it comes to travel in the post-Covid era

Fast-pass pilot program in Seattle

When and if you decide to fly soon, a grab bag of changes awaits at airports, on airline booking sites, at rental car agencies and at international borders.

Here's a few to note, with more to come in the next few months.

Vaccine verification

No U.S. airline is requiring that passengers provide proof of vaccination, but some foreign airlines are, and many countries are or are expected to allow vaccinated visitors to enter without showing a negative Covid-19 test or requiring a quarantine (Iceland and Greece are two so far).

The U.S. has not come up with a digital system for entering and verifying Americans' vaccination records, leaving travelers to figure out how to safely carry and preserve their paper cards, or come up with a digital solution on their own

For residents of Washington State, and many others, one way is to electronically access your records on file with the Washington State Department of Health. Doctors and clinics are required to provide immunizations to the state, mainly so parents can prove to schools that their children have the necessary shots.

I registered on the state's mobile site, MyIrMobile, and requested that my Covid immunizations be added. Once registered, you can access your information anytime from your device.

The other way is by electronically accessing records on file with your health care provider, in my case, Kaiser Permanente. My information was easily verifiable by opening Kaiser's app, signing in, and clicking on "immunizations." 

PreCheck for those who don't have PreCheck

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (now called SEA Airport) is one of the first in the U.S. to investigate a virtual queuing system as a solution for crowded general screening lines. 

SEA Spot Saver is a free, reservation-based system for those who are not signed up for TSA's PreCheck expedited screening program, and instead must use the slower general screening security checkpoints. The pilot program will test if SEA Spot Saver reduces wait times and crowding.

The pilot will run through August at Checkpoints 2 and 5 from 4 a.m. to noon to reduce congestion during the peak morning travel period. To use the system, passengers on either Alaska Airlines or Delta sign-up up a day in advance of travel for expedited screening without an extra cost, membership, or account. 

Changing/cancelling reservations

Some airlines have begun to pull back on their Covid policies of allowing changes or cancellations without a fee (Customers receive an e-credit for cancellations and pay whatever the fare difference is for the changes).

Delta so far still allows free changes and cancellations, and surprise, if the fare drops between the time you booked and make a change, it gives you a credit for the difference.

This happened to me when I thought to recheck the price on a flight I purchased for travel in November. The fare had dropped $75. I was about to cancel and rebook at the new, lower fare, when I saw a more convenient return flight. The fare difference for the better flight was $22 in my favor which Delta credited to my account.

Delta also added an accelerator to the way it calculates mileage and spending requirements to maintain elite status. This makes it easer for those of us who will fly this year, just not as much as usual, to retain elite status.

When it comes to accommodations and tours, if your provider does not have a generous cancellation policy, look elsewhere. Travel is still too uncertain to lock in non-refundable or even partially-refundable reservations.

In researching a possible trip to Iceland in August, I've found that nearly every tour company offers total refunds for trips cancelled 24 hours in advance. The Airbnb I booked in Reykjavik is cancellable with a full refund, including the Airbnb fee, up to a week in advance. This has been the case with most Airbnbs I've booked recently in the U.S as well, with many offering full refunds for cancellations within a day or two of arrival.


Testing requirements

Expect these to change as more countries sort out their policies for vaccinated visitors. Iceland, for instance, still requires a rapid test on arrival, but will revaluate that rule June 1. 


Be aware of Hawaii's changing Covid rules

The island of Maui in Hawaii waives a test on arrival for vaccinated tourists, but like all the islands, requires proof of a negative test taken 72 hours before departure from the mainland, even for vaccinated travelers. 

As of this week, vaccinated inter-island travelers can upload an image of their vaccination card to Hawaii's Safe Travels portal and avoid additional testing. The state and the individual islands change their requirements frequently, so double-check on current rules close to the time you leave. 

Keep in mind, the U.S has not yet changed its requirement that anyone, including American citizens, entering the country, present proof of a negative Covid test taken no more than three days before departure. Recently approved were self-administered tests performed through an approved telehealth company. 

Rental cars

Cars are in short supply for various reasons, and rates for summer travel are outrageous. There are ways to whittle down the price below what you'll get by plugging in dates for airport pick-up and drop-off. Consider renting off-airport even if you have to take a taxi or Uber to reach the site. 

Costco and Expedia are two places to comparison shop. If you are willing to drive a pick-up truck (I'm not), you'll likely find a better deal than you will on in-demand economy cars. And don't forget the Airbnb-style sites where individuals rent their personal cars. Try Turo and Get Around, with descriptions of the cars, and reviews by past users. I didn't see any bargains when I checked, but if you've dreamed of getting behind the wheel of a Mercedes or a Tesla, this might be your chance.  


Apr 20, 2021

Cookbooks, YouTube videos, Zoom gatherings guide travelers to Palestine


Urfa, Turkey, the city of Abraham dedicated to the patriarch of Christianity, Judaism and Islam

"Have you been to Israel?'' is a common question.

I haven't, but in thinking about a future trip, I've stumbled onto a trove of information on Palestinian history, culture and food. I know now that the West Bank, including the cities of Hebron and Ramallah, will be on my itinerary.

This assumes a post-Covid era when more vaccinations have reached Palestinians, and international travel in general opens again. But Israel is leading the world in vaccinations, and while it's not yet possible to travel there, it is a good time to begin researching the possibilities beyond Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Travel guidebook author and television host Rick Steves' excellent YouTube video titled "The Holy Land: Israel and Palestine Today," is good place to start. Along with the usual religious and historical sites in Jerusalem, Steves leads viewers to an olive harvest near Hebron, a family home in Bethlehem and a university in Ramallah. 

Most useful is a 48-page downloadable guide Steves compiled that blends historical background with practical advice.

"Arriving in Bethlehem, I checked into my guesthouse, and within minutes, met my Palestinian tour guide," Steves writes."He took me to a tourist-friendly restaurant that posted a “families only” sign so they could turn away rowdy young men. I guess we looked harmless enough, as they let us right in. We sat down, and an impressive array of Palestinian dishes appeared.

"For too many, unfortunately, the word 'Palestinian' raises an automatic association with terrorism. Because of this fear, the typical Christian pilgrimage tour visits Bethlehem as a side-trip from Israel...These unfortunate travelers miss a lot and come home with only one narrative. "


Reem Kassis

East Jerusalem native Reem Kassis, author of The Palestinian Table and a new book, The Arabesque Table, expressed the same sentiment in a recent interview with NPR's Terry Gross. 

"It's comical because all it takes is for me to use the word 'Palestinian' and anything that I want to talk about — no matter how far removed from politics — suddenly it's political," she said.

Kassis' books could double as travel guides to Palestine and other parts of the Middle East with insights into the Arabic origin of familiar foods such as hummus and bagels. She uses food as a common denominator, stressing that  "regardless of where you come from or what religion you are or what your beliefs are, you have to eat. "

Another excellent resource is the The Abraham Path Initiative (API), a nonprofit organization established to develop walking trails for tourists to learn about the people and culture of the Middle East, a geographical description it replaces with "Southwest Asia" to avoid pre-conceived judgements.


Pilgrams in Abraham's Cave, Urfa, Turkey

API started when 25 people embarked on a trip from Urfa in Turkey to Hebron, following the prophet Abraham’s legendary walk from what may have been his place of birth, to the place he is believed to be buried. This laid the foundation for the development of walking trails approximating the travels of Abraham and his family in Mesopotamia, who shared hospitality with people they met along the way

Since that time, API has worked with local partners to create over 2,000 miles of trails in Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, Sinai, and Iraq, providing economic benefits to local communities and opportunities for walkers to have positive intercultural encounters. 

During Covid, I've enjoyed tuning into API's Webinars on YouTube featuring interviews with people in those areas involved in organic farming, olive oil production, seed sourcing and Saudi tourism. Check the website for upcoming Zoom events.

Anyone looking for an organized tour into Palestine might want to consider one of the "Reality Tours" offered by San Francisco-based Global Exchange, an international nonprofit dedicated to promoting social and economic justice.

All tours are on hold for the moment, but pre-Covid, the group sponsored an annual "Palestine During the Olive Harvest" trip where visitors had the opportunity to volunteer with local farmers.  Travelers took part in Oktoberfest in Taybeh, featuring traditional Palestinian dance, music, and food. This trip has been on my list for some time, so I'm hoping it will restart in the fall of 2022 if not this year. 

"Marhaba! I'm Charlie, born and raised in the old city in Jerusalem," is how a young guide begins a walking tour sponsored by tenLocals, a new Covid-era company employing local guides in cities around the world who give live tours in real time to travelers over Zoom.

Charlie focuses on Jerusalem where he includes a walk through a Jewish neighborhood bordering the West Bank, and a stroll through the Musrara neighborhood where the Green line (border) between Israel and the West Bank was drawn. 

Finally, The Bradt Guide to Palestine, separate from the publisher's guide to Israel, is one of the few guidebooks devoted exclusively to Palestine. It hasn't been updated since 2011, so it's most useful for general information, historical perspective and an overall sense of why go.

Writes author Sarah Irving, "This tiny area packs in more historical, religious and cultural heritage than perhaps anywhere else in the world."


Apr 6, 2021

Thumbs up, thumbs down for post-Covid policies on tap for 2021 travel

 

Iceland is open to U.S. visitors who have been vaccinated

As Covid vaccinations ramp up across the U.S., it's time to sort through some of the ideas on how to kick-start travel here and abroad.

Here's my take on what policies deserve a thumbs up or thumbs down as summer approaches, Covid is still with us, and pent-up demand fuels an uptick in travel.

Airline change/cancellation fees

Thumbs up to a policy in effect at most airlines to waive cancellation and change fees. You won't get your money but you will get a credit good for future travel. Airlines must continue this policy if they expect to discourage passengers from traveling while sick just to avoid paying a change fee.

Thumbs down to a policy in effect by most airlines to exclude basic economy fares from the change/cancellation fee waivers. 

Airbnb cancellation policies

Thumbs up to Airbnb hosts who offer full refunds on reservations (including the Airbnb service fee) cancelled a week or less ahead of arrival. This is a major incentive to book ahead without worrying about how Covid changes could impact your trip.

Thumbs down to a decision by some some hosts to require payment in full with the promise of just a 50 percent refund if you cancel.  A recent search for Airbnbs on the Big Island of Hawaii turned up many with liberal cancellation polices, but it wasn't always easy to recognize those that didn't because of the tricky wording advertising "Free cancellation" for 48 hours; after that, get a 50 percent refund minus the service fee." 

Vaccine verification 

Thumbs up to efforts by various private companies and airline groups to standardize a system for digital verification of Covid vaccinations and tests. Other countries are ahead of the U.S. with this, and thus will make it easier for their citizens to travel internationally. Let's hope we catch up, but so far, with so much whining about privacy,  it looks like we'll have to rely on privately-developed apps rather than a federal standard.

Thumbs down to efforts in Florida and Texas to thwart a vaccine verification system by insisting on calling this a "passport," and turning the issue into one of privacy rather than public health.  

International travel 

Thumbs up to airlines and countries that require either proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test to enter. I predict most countries will adopt the Iceland model: Enter freely with proof of vaccination or do a double test (on departure and arrival) along with a short quarantine in between.

Thumbs down to airlines and countries that require nothing more than a temperature check to travel. This so far applies to U.S. airlines flying domestically and countries such as Mexico which has put tourism ahead of health precautions. 


Hawaii requires visitors to have a negative Covid test

Destinations

Thumbs up to states such as Hawaii and countries such as Greece and Iceland which have come up with reasonable safety protocols such as requiring negative tests and/or vaccinations, masks and social distancing.

Thumbs down to states such as Texas, Florida, North Dakota and South Dakota and others with no mask mandates or other Covid safety restrictions. And a big thumbs down to Jamaica for its new Covid-era travel policy which restricts visitors to a tourist zone filled with corporate-owned resorts and expensive government-approved transport.

Foreign visitors must stay inside a special""Resilient Corridor" and stay only in hotels on a government "approved" list. They can only visit attractions approved by the Jamaica Tourist Board, and must travel to and from the sites on transportation licensed under the Tourist Board Act.  

Cruises

Thumbs up to Norwegian Cruise Line, Windstar and a few others for announcing they will require vaccination for all guests and crew. Expect other lines to follow as they gear up to resume cruises from U.S. ports in July.

Thumbs down to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for recommending but not requiring cruise lines to make sure all passengers and crew are vaccinated. By making vaccinations a recommendation rather than a requirement, the CDC avoided conflict with Florida, one of the biggest bases of operation for the cruise industry.


Mar 16, 2021

Lend a hand: How travelers can help from home while waiting out the pandemic

 

Chef Erum from Shef.com


The New York Times recently interviewed a 30-something couple about their hopes for post-Covid summer travel in Italy.

Their plan: "We will rent a house so we have our own space," the woman said. "I imagine we'll interact with the community less than we normally would."

I can't think of a worse plan for anyone hoping to experience the culture of another country. Until the notion of "restarting" travel moves away from the idea of building a wall between ourselves and the people around us, I prefer to focus on finding ways here at home to connect with people and places in far-off destinations. 

This is how my husband and I found ourselves sitting down to a dinner recently prepared by Erum, a young Seattle-area home cook who prepares Hyderabadi-Pakistani fusion meals delivered by Shef.com, an Airbnb-like platform for immigrant cooks who earn money by sharing the cuisine of their cultures. 

For around $45, including a tip and delivery to our home, we sampled Erum's mother's recipes for aaloo palak, a vegetarian dish of soft spinach and potato blended with tomato paste; chicken achar gosht, boneless chicken cooked in a tomato and chili sauce; and sheer khorma, a traditional dessert, made with milk, vermacelli. My only regret is not requesting one-star heat. The spicy meal literally fired up memories of our travels in India some years ago where we enjoyed local cooking in three different homestays.  

Perhaps best of all, ordering take-out from Shef.com provided a connection with an enterprising young entrepreneur from a part of the world that needs the support of travelers who can't yet travel. Finding more opportunities like is a good way to spend some of our travel dollars while we wait out the pandemic.

Live virtual walking tours with tenLocals


This is the reason I support Boston-based tenLocals which charges participants a small fee (around $14.90-$19.90) for a live virtual tour with a faraway guide out of work due to the pandemic.  We've so far visited India, Bhutan, Russia and Ukraine along with small groups of other travelers, all connected to the guide and each other live on Zoom where everyone can interact and ask questions. Upcoming trips include a tour of an urban forest in Tokyo; a day in the life of a Venice citizen living on the island of Murano in Italy; and a tour of an artisan chocolate factory in Quito, Ecuador. The video and sound quality vary with the guide, but I've found all to be generous with their time and willing to answer any questions that come up.

New York's Museum of Food and Drink uses food as a lens for cultural understanding. It's  Kitchen Without Borders program connects participants with recipes and stories from refugee and immigrant chefs in one-hour online sessions ($15) sponsored by Eat Offbeat, a catering and meal delivery service staffed by chefs from Syria, Iran, Eritrea, Venezuela, and other countries.

Free are interactive Zoom programs sponsored by the Abraham Path Initiative, a nonprofit established to develop walking trails for tourists to to connect with people in the Middle East. Since Covid, API has focused on webinars called "Meet us on the Abraham Path."  The most recent featured Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library where she works with farmers to recover threatened heirloom varieties.

Making a small loan through Kiva.org has long been one of my favorite ways to support third-world entrepreneurs in need of help to start or support a small business. Kiva organizes lenders into groups, and uses non-profit organizations to find and vet borrowers who pay back the money on a monthly schedule. Once a borrower pays back in full, the money is available for Kiva lenders to reclaim or lend again. So far, I've rolled over an initial $125 investment 59 times for a total of $1,475 loans in 16 countries.


I nearly always look for an opportunity to make a loan in a country where we plan to travel. Farmers in Peru and Myanmar were the most recent. Another focus has been female entrepreneurs in Cambodia where we traveled some years ago. Recently, however, I began to think about the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. from Central America, and what we could do to help prop up their local economies.

This how I came to find Madelin, Jose and Maritza, bread bakers in rural Nicaragua, in need of a loan to buy flour, yeast, margarine, firewood and sugar. I joined 21 other lenders, each us contributing a minimum of $25 towards a $1,025 loan to be paid back over 14 months. So for, success. Despite Covid, the bakers have paid back 60 percent of the loan amount, with $400 more to go.


Feb 13, 2021

Vaccinations could soon replace testing, quarantines for cruises, international travel

 

The American Queen Steamboat line will require passengers to be vaccinated

"Vaccinations will be key to the reopening of borders and to enhancing travel confidence." Goh Choon Phong, CEO of Singapore Airlines.

Will U.S. airlines require passengers to have COVID-19 vaccinations to board domestic flights? Doubtful. The CEO of United Airlines says he wants to make the vaccine mandatory for employees, yet his airline, along with other U.S. carriers, opposes any suggestion of requiring negative Covid tests, let alone vaccinations, from the flying public.

How is it that people will feel more apt to fly knowing that the crew has been vaccinated, but their fellow passengers board with nothing more than a temperature check?

It makes no sense, which is why when it comes to restarting international travel as well as cruising, it's going to be one or the other, but not neither.  

I expect most cruise lines to eventually follow the lead of  the American Queen Steamboat Company and its sister company Victory Cruise Lines which will require all guests and crew to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for all sailings, starting in July.

Once vaccinations are widely available, most foreign countries will likely adopt rules similar to what Iceland (currently closed to residents of the U.S., Canada and the UK) requires. That is a double COVID-testing procedure (on arrival and five days after) along with a quarantine of 5-6 days UNLESS travelers arrive with a certificate of previous COVID-19 infection or a certificate of vaccination.


Iceland's Covid travel policy

Governments are free to come up with their own entry a requirements, of course, and some will be more lenient or restrictive than others, but proof of vaccination and/or a negative test seem certain to become standard practice once international borders reopen. Some might require both, especially if ongoing research determines that people who have been vaccinated can still carry the virus and transmit it to others. The state of Hawaii, which requires travelers to have proof of a negative test to avoid quarantine, is weighing whether or not to waive test requirements for those who have been vaccinated.  

This brings us to what travel promoters are hyping as "health passports." Rest assured, there will be no "passport" guaranteeing anyone entry across any border, or offering assurance that the rules won't change between the time you arrive and depart.

What various airlines and travel organizations aim to come up with is a digital wallet where you could permanently store your testing and vaccine records.

Etihad Airways and Emirates will start using a digital travel pass, developed by the International Air Transport Association, to help passengers manage their travel plans and provide airlines and governments documentation that they have been vaccinated or tested.

The challenge is creating a document or app that is accepted around the world, that protects privacy and is accessible to people regardless of their access to smartphones.

In the meantime, it would seem wise for U.S. airlines to stop fighting the suggestion that passengers test negative for COVID-19 before boarding domestic flights.

Finding a way to assure passengers that everyone on the plane has been tested would seem  to boost confidence in air travel, but U.S. carriers believe it would discourage travel, or at least that's the excuse for not wanting to bother.

A coalition of airline, travel and aerospace industries and union and airport groups have urged U.S. President Joe Biden not to impose testing requirements, arguing that domestic testing requirements could cause logistical havoc and further reduce demand. 

Sorry guys, but half-way measures like temperature checks,  enhanced cleaning, new filtration systems and empty middle seats just won't cut it. 

Harvard University researchers agree. They endorsed the idea of rapid testing of passengers in a recent report.

"Viral testing is an important public health screening mechanism that can quickly and efficiently identify those with infections and stop them from undergoing activities that could expose others, including potential travel,'' Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a summary of the 262-page report.

Requiring testing for all travelers would not guarantee a plane full of virus-free passengers but may serve a "critical need'' in identifying asymptomatic passengers and keeping them off planes, reducing the risk of transmission, the report concluded.

Rather than kicking and screaming about how costly and inconvenient test requirements would be, a better idea would be for U.S. carriers to follow the lead of Delta Airlines. Delta is pro-actively looking into in-home testing options for passengers departing to destinations, such as Hawaii, that require negative tests. It's also partnering with hotels outside the country that have on-site testing (required to reenter the United States). 


Delta's Covid map

Still a work in progress is a shaded map showing what countries are open to visitors, are open with restrictions or have restricted entry. Can you guess the names of the four countries that currently carry no restrictions on travel? One is in North America, another in Eastern Europe and two are in Africa. 


Jan 24, 2021

Before booking your next trip, check the dates on those five-star reviews

 

My favorite Mexico City hotel: Temporarily closed 


If you rely on online reviews and guidebook recommendations for travel planning, you'll notice something different when you start researching your next trip.  

Much of the information will be outdated by almost a year. With Covid-19 halting travel around the world, guidebook authors were unable to update their work. Bloggers were unable to travel. Hotels and restaurants, used to generating hundreds of reviews each month on sites such as TripAdvisor.com and Booking.com, garnered only a handful of mentions, mostly from locals commenting on services eliminated or changed during Covid.

The upside is that if you are traveling now, there's useful Covid-related information included in  recent online posts.


Traveling now? Check hotel websites for Covid policies

The downside for longer-term trip planning is that the research will take more time, and require more cross-referencing to unearth bits of timely and accurate information. A hotel or restaurant that rated five-star reviews may no longer exist, or could be under new ownership with a less-than-charming new manager.

Example: When Google reported my favorite small hotel in Mexico City "permanently closed," I was sad, but skeptical, so I did some checking and found a notice on TripAdvisor that the hotel is temporarily closed until July. When it reopens, it will be hard to know if the standards have changed. The last review was written almost a year ago in February.

For those of us who have taken a few local trips during Covid, or for those who plan to do more once vaccinated, it's important we take the time to contribute fresh reviews. In time, we'll be able to start detecting trends again, and distinguish between one person's bad experience and a pattern of similar complaints. 

I almost skipped posting a review of a Georgian restaurant in downtown Seattle that we tried recently for take- out. The food was excellent, and Yelp reviews were plentiful, but when I noticed that only four customers had left a review on TripAdvisor since November 5, I decided to contribute. 

At the Hotel Theodore in downtown Seattle, someone from management responds to every review posted on TripAdvisor. Sadly there have been only 11 since November, but those included timely and helpful comments for anyone traveling during Covid.

"They brought delivery food up to my room to minimize my contact with the outside world," wrote one guest.

"Due to Covid, some room amenities, like the coffee maker had been removed (The Theadore had in-room Nespresso machines), but the coffee stand in the lobby provided good coffee," another commented.

With Canada's borders closed to U.S. travelers, all four reviews posted since November for the Fairmount Hotel in Vancouver, Canada, were written by people from British Columbia.

"Due to Covid, the Gold Lounge was not open; however, room service was fantastic," one guest wrote. "They brought up a small fridge for us, along with extra tea and welcome drinks given we were celebrating my mom’s birthday. "

For updated policies during Covid, hotel and restaurant web sites seem mostly reliable.

The chapel next door to Il Convento hotel in Naples, Italy

Il Convento, my favorite hotel in Naples, Italy, posts a lengthy list of Covid precautions that include sanitizing the mattresses, cushions and curtains after the departure of each customer, and the elimination of bedspreads, decorative cushions and doilies. Breakfast, normally served around a large, communal table, is now served in the room.

Guidebook publishers research and edit their books a year in advance of publication, so losing all of 2020 will mean most of what's available in print will be information researched in 2019.

Rick Steves planned a new 2021 edition of his Paris guidebook this month, but with France's borders closed to international travel for most of the past year, this would seem difficult to pull off. But Steves' writers routinely post changes to printed guidebook information online, so readers would do well to check his website for current hotel and restaurant information, and use the printed books for historical background and itinerary planning. He maintains an active archive of general types of travel information on his website, along with an archive of past TV shows, podcasts and a tentative line-up of tour itineraries in 2021. 

Other publishers have been using their websites to post topical articles on travel trends.

Fodors.com recently carried articles on topics such as "Thinking about traveling just to get vaccinated," and "I just returned from city packed with tourists (Dubai). Here's what it was like." It's also running a series on "Best Road Trips in America." 

In Your Pocket Guides which publishes free downloadable e-guides to countries and cities many other publishers ignore, tags its online postings with the date they were last updated. Most carry a date of February or March of 2020. A posting called "Basque Food: 5 Must-Try Dishes in Bilbao"  likely is as useful today as it was a year ago. Not so with an article posted around the same time on the "Top 10 Annual Events in Bilbao," nearly all cancelled last year due to Covid. 

Culinarybackstreets.com publishes some of my favorite online city guides, with food-focused articles designed to wet the appetite for its walking tours in cities such as Istanbul, Barcelona, Mexico City and Tbilisi. There's a charge for the walking tours but the city guides are free, and local writers keep them current.

Recent posts include a December, 2020 story about a Syrian man helping refugees become food entrepreneurs in Istanbul and a piece written in early January, 2021 on a family tamale operation near Oaxaca, Mexico. I love both of these cities, so will use these articles to take a culinary voyage for now, then bookmark them for future travels.