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.

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.

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.  

Mind-traveling in the moment; Sometimes things happen for a reason


Monastery of the Caves, Kiev

I've never been a believer in the "Things happen for a reason" theory. Until now.

Coronavirus foiled our plans for a three-week trip through Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania in April. Had we gone, we would have spent Orthodox Easter in otherwise-beautiful Kiev while it was engulfed in smoke from wild fires at the Chernobyl nuclear site. 

No doubt, we would have been among the visitors to Pechersk Lavra - the Monastery of the Caves - a 1,000-year-old center of Orthodox Christianity that later became a coronavirus hot spot after hundreds of believers visited in defiance of a police ban.


Modern Minsk, the capital of Belarus

Moving onto to Belarus, we would have entered one of the few countries in the world where government leaders have refused to acknowledge the dangers of Covid19, or do anything to mitigate its spread.

Off-the-beaten-path travel usually presents more rewards than risks. It's why, over the years, my husband and I have spent time exploring countries such as Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia, Romania, Albania, Egypt, Turkey and Taiwan. And it's why, this time, we choose Ukraine and Belarus. 

Travel to Europe was a no-go by the time we were to leave in early April, but had we gone, Kiev would have looked like a disaster area because of the fires. The Chernobyl tour we booked would have been cancelled. Belarus was a stretch at best, requiring us to fly in rather than take the train, to obtain a visa good for only five days. Once the virus hit, surrounding countries sealed their boarders quickly. 

Should this serve as a warning to stay away from off-the-radar destinations in the future? Not in my mind. But my guess is that most Americans will deem it "safer" to stay home rather than travel out of the country in the next year or two, let alone to less well-known destinations.  

Given our country's lack of a comprehensive national plan for testing and contact tracing, it won't be surprising to see other countries imposing travel bans on Americans. None of us know when it will be possible to resume international travel, but whenever that might be, I'll look forward to giving Ukraine and Belarus another chance. 

What to do in the meantime? The next best thing to travel is thinking and reading about it, and, of course, planning the next trip. 

The Internet has made it easy to stay in touch with friends in other countries. My husband and I recently reconnected with friends in Argentina over a Zoom chat. I stay in touch with Italian, Egyptian and Chinese friends over Facebook, and check in with Mexican friend over WhatsApp.



Mind-traveling to Paris

Twice a week I  "go to Paris" by attending an online class on the history of Paris architecture offered by the University of Washington in Seattle. Instead of taking the bus an hour each way to campus, I sit at my desk and listen to recorded lectures about the genesis of buildings, streets and neighborhoods I know well.

Krakow Explorers, a student group that sponsors real-life walking tours, is one of many walking tour companies that have gone virtual. Guests are invited to "grab a coffee or wine and your comfiest pajamas and 'meet' in Kraków" for one-hour Zoom tours of Old Town's historic sites. 

Travel television and radio host Rick Steves continues with his "Daily Dose of Europe" postings on his website while his real tours are on hold. Stories on his exploits from Oslo to Istanbul are excerpted from his upcoming book, "For the Love of Europe" due out in July. 

Steves' guides post coronavirus updates from various European cities, and he continues his weekly podcasts often focused on domestic destinations and destinations outside Europe. A travel addict could spend all day on his site, feeding the desire to mind- travel in the moment.

Despite plunging guidebook sales and cancelled European tours, Steves seems to be enjoying staying home this summer for the first time in many years. 

If he can do it, so can we. 


Airline refund update

We're still hearing complaints about airlines and third-party booking sites, such as Expedia, offering vouchers for future travel instead of cash refunds for cancelled flights.

Remember:  U.S. Department of Transportation rules make it crystal clear: you are due a refund if the airline cancels a flight or makes a “significant schedule change.” 

The Department of Transportation has become aware of airlines playing fast and loose with the rules, Forbes magazine reports. This excellent article covers what to do, including how to dispute the charge with your credit card company if all else fails.

Many of the complaints are with United Airlines which redefined "significant schedule change" from two hours to 25 hours, and back to six hours; tried rebooking customers on flights with convoluted routings; and attempted to hand out vouchers with the promise of a refund after a year if the credit hasn't been used. 


Stay flexible when it comes to post- Coronavirus travel planning


 Museo Mural Diego Rivera, Mexico City

Now that most of us are finished undoing our travel plans for the coming months, it's a good time to think ahead to when we might again travel, and how to strategize for an uncertain future. 

Before the Coronavirus pandemic, no one thought anything about scheduling a trip nine months to a year or more in advance. Family obligations, school schedules and work vacations dictated advance planning. Incentives from tour companies and cruise lines encouraged early reservations. Flights were booked months out. Vacation rentals required non-refundable deposits. 

All this will change as travelers look for ways to replace locked-in, long-term commitments with flexible plans and last-minute bookings.

Where to start? For those with the luxury of time and money to think about future travel, one idea is to put together plans for a mix of local and international trips that could be shuffled around, replaced, tweaked or cancelled with little or no risk. 


Amsterdam: Maybe next year

For summer or fall, for instance, I'll put together a list of Northwest destinations within driving distance of our home in Seattle. A weekend on the Long Beach Peninsula or a trip along the Oregon Coast seem more realistic than rescheduling a trip to Europe, although if things should miraculously change, I could put something together fairly quickly, one advantage of having several plans in the hopper ready to go.


Puebla, Mexico

There's a family wedding celebration scheduled in Ohio for August.  I'll put that down as a "maybe," but hold off on buying an airline ticket.  Thanksgiving? Who knows, especially if the virus pops up again in late fall. More realistic might be to plan for January. Perhaps we will will lay the groundwork for a trip to Mexico or Hawaii, pay for nothing in advance, and be prepared to switch plans at the last minute, and drive to Mount Rainier instead. 

Everyone's comfort level with travel will be different, just as it was after 9/11. How and when we book air travel in post-Coronavirus will pose one of the biggest challenges.

There's rarely been any reason to book flights more than eight weeks in advance, but people do, either because they fear fares may rise, or because they don't feel like a trip is nailed down until the flights are booked. With airlines adjusting schedules, fares and cancellation policies almost weekly, now is not the time to book months ahead. Learn what the words "non-refundable" mean, and be prepared for the consequences.

Most airlines waived fees for customers who had to change or cancel flights due to Coronavirus travel restrictions. But baring another big surge in infections, that's unlikely to happen again, and if it does, the windows for rebooking could be shorter, and come with strings attached.

Delta recently announced it will waive change fees for tickets purchased through the end of May. This sounds like a good insurance policy for future travel. However, if the fare is higher when you rebook, you'll be charged the higher price. If the fare drops, you're still pay your original fare, with no credit for the difference. 

Best advice: 

*Don't book air travel too far in advance. Wait for schedules and fares to shake out closer to the time you plan to travel. 

*Stay away from the cash-strapped budget airlines for now. They could stop flying anytime, and leave you stranded with no way to get home or worthless vouchers for future travel.  This especially applies to some of the European budget carriers. 

*Skip the "saver" or "basic economy" fares for now. The savings aren't that great vs. the hassle factor of unassigned seats, baggage restrictions and strict cancellation policies. 

*Know your rights should an airline cancel your flight, and not offer you a suitable rebooking (U.S. and European government rules mandate cash refunds, not vouchers).  

When it comes to lodging, avoid non-refundable reservations. Third-party sites such as Booking.com and Expedia.com and many hotel websites often show discounted rates for making non-refundable bookings. Avoid these for now, along with non-refundable rates on rental cars and non-refundable deposits on tours and cruses.

Before buying travel insurance, check on what's covered. Unless you buy an expensive "cancel for any reason" policy, you won't be covered just because you decide not to take a trip.  After 9/11, some companies started selling policies that covered cancellations due to terrorist attacks. I would expect some policies to begin addressing pandemics. 

With these caveats in mind, start planning your next few trips. Read, watch videos, listen to travel podcasts, research blogs or take a class on a destination that interests you. 


Paris: Notre- Dame before the fire

I recently signed up for an online University of Washington class on Paris architecture. When I sit down to listen to the lectures and view the power points of familiar streets and landmarks, I'm transported, not in quite the same way as being there, but close enough for now, and far away from the news about the Coronavirus. 

How to apply for a cash refund when an airline cancels your flight


Delta's Coronavirus updates offer no info on your rights to a refund

Shortly after writing about a friend's experience with a Delta flight cancellation due to the coronavirus situation, I received my own e-mail from Delta, notifying me that it cancelled my upcoming flight to Europe, and automatically issued me an electronic voucher good for future travel. 

As I pointed out last week, a U.S. Department of Transportation rule guarantee cash refunds to customers when an airline cancels a flight, no matter what the reason. Airlines are counting on most people not knowing this, and accepting vouchers instead. These vouchers, or eCredits as they're sometimes called, have been coming with strings attached, including a requirement that you travel within a year of the time you purchased the ticket. In a sign airlines may be loosening up on that, Delta announced Friday that passengers due to fly in April or May would now have the flexibility to change their flights for up to two years without paying a change fee. 

That's nice, but you're still entitled to a refund if you want one.

The USDOT clarified this in an enforcement notice this week, notifying consumers that airlines "remain obligated to provide a prompt refund to passengers for flights to, within, or from the United States when the carrier cancels the passenger’s scheduled flight."

Few people read an airline's contract of carriage, the pages of fine print that spell out its legal obligations to customers. If they did, they would find that all the major airlines guarantee refunds as per USDOT rules. 

Delta spells it out this way:

"If there is a flight cancellation, diversion, delay of greater than 90 minutes, or that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment."


The operative words here are "at the passenger's request."  With three to four-hour waits on the phone to speak to an agent, the airlines are hoping most will give up and accept the vouchers instead. 

Better to put your request in writing as I did last week. 

Rather than call and wait on hold, I went to the top right hand corner of Delta's home page. I clicked on "Need Help" but found no information there on how to apply for a refund. I then clicked on "More," and in the drop-down box, clicked on "Comment/Complaint."

I filled out my flight details along with my confirmation number, ticket numbers, and attached a PDF of my receipt along with this note:

"You recently notified me that my and my husband's flights were cancelled by Delta, and that I would receive an eCredit good for one year from the date of purchase. U.S Department of Transportation rules require you to issue a refund - not an eCredit. Therefore I request an immediate refund. If this is not resolved as soon as possible, I will contact our credit card company for a charge-back."  

Within the hour, I received an email from Delta saying it would credit me for the full amount, and post a refund to my credit card within 30 days. 

This should work in most cases, but if your airline still refuses a refund, don't waste anymore of your time. Instead, dispute the charge though your credit card issuer. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, your credit card cannot be charged for a product or service not delivered. This may be the route many have to go with some of the smaller European airlines. They are bound by similar rules when it comes to refunds for cancelled flights, but many are ignoring the laws, pleading cash shortages. 

“Airlines must refund canceled flight tickets,” EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean told Bloomberg News. “They can of course also offer a voucher but -- and this is very important -- only if the customer agrees to accept this. If the customer does not want a voucher or other proposed solution, the company must reimburse.” 

Most airlines don't make the refund guarantees obvious anywhere in coronavirus updates on their home pages. All the information has to do with what happens when you cancel a flight. 

Air Lingus is one of the few to publish a form on its website, providing a way for customers to apply for a refund for a cancelled flight.  Find it by clicking on "support" on the home page, then "cancellations and refunds."

If you have an upcoming flight in the next month or two, here's my advice. Wait for the airline to cancel, rather than cancel yourself and accept a voucher. Then plead your case by going through the normal channels with your airline, or, if that fails, appeal to your credit card company. 

Delta and Alaska, the two airlines that do the most business out Seattle-Tacoma Airport, are slashing their flight schedules by 70-80 percent in April and May. Other airlines are doing the same, so there's a good chance your flight will be cancelled. 

How far out do airlines cancel flights? Most do it sooner than the day before, which still leaves you time to cancel yourself if playing the cat and mouse game becomes too nerve-wracking. 

Delta cancelled my flight nine days ahead. To get an idea of what your airline is doing, check web sites such as flightstats.com to see which flights have been cancelled in the past few days. In Seattle, the Port of Seattle updates the status of flights for the current day and the day following. 

Let's hope the travel industry rights the ship in the direction of consumers




When Delta Airlines cancelled a friend's April flight between Seattle and Paris, she received a notice saying Delta credited her with an electronic voucher good for travel for one year from her original booking date. 

Delta automatically issued the voucher instead of a refund, despite a U.S. Department of Transportation rule that guarantees cash refunds to customers when an airline cancels their flight, and can't rebook them, no matter what the reason - in this case, a temporary U.S. ban on travel from Europe and an advisory for Americans to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of the coronavirus. 

Delta's own contract of carriage spells it out this way:

"If there is a flight cancellation, diversion, delay of greater than 90 minutes, or that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment."

The operative words here seem to be "at the passenger's request," which means my friend will apparently have to spend hours on hold waiting to speak to a live agent to "request" what federal regulations require. 

These are difficult times for the travel industry for sure. Many travel providers are stepping up by waiving cancellation penalties and/or issuing refunds for non-refundable reservations. This is admirable. But as we talk about bailouts for the airlines, cruise lines, hotels etc., it's time for the travel industry to come up with long-term policies designed to inform and protect their customers.

For airlines, that means coming clean with what the law requires when they cancel a flight (there's plenty of info on their websites about what happens when you cancel or try to change a flight) rather than hope their customers don't know the rules, and will accept a restrictive voucher with no questions asked. 

For hotels and Airbnb, it's time to stop advertising room rates minus booking fees, cleaning fees, resort fees and taxes. 

For third-party booking sites, such as Expedia and Booking.com, it's time to stop promoting non-refundable reservations for rooms, travel packages and rental cars. Yes, it's the customer's responsibility to know the meaning of non-refundable, but in uncertain times, responsible travel providers should take the lead in eliminating these options.

Airbnb especially needs to clean up its act. Rates quoted on initial listing pages -the pages everyone looks at before they proceed with a booking - are for often for current month only, and don't include extra fees which can hike the rate up substantially. 

Example: The listing page for a studio apartment near Seattle's Pike Place Market quotes a price of $27 a night. That was indeed the rate when I plugged in March dates, but when I requested April dates, the price jumped to $49. A cleaning fee, service fee and occupancy taxes brought a two-night stay to $199.  

The listing page for a "super clean" artists loft in Portland, Oregon showed a rate of $47 per night. When I took the next step, and plugged in April dates, the price was $90. Taxes and fees bring a two-night booking to $297. 

Most hotels quote room rates without taxes, and most don't include hidden resort fees in their quoted rates. Cruise lines require customers to read fine print to find out that they have few options if the cruise line decides to change the itinerary or skip ports of call.

These are devastating times for travel providers. All of us want them to survive, but while they're struggling to right the ship, let's hope they steer some permanent changes our way.


Sheltering in place in Seattle