|Pancakes in Kiev|
We hadn't planned to be in Kiev for Butter Week, the last week in February when Ukrainians mark the end of winter and week before Lent by eating thin pancakes called bliny and burning down a scarecrow.
But we were planning to be there during Orthodox Easter, as part of a three-week trip starting out in Krakow and moving onto Lviv in Ukraine, then Kiev, Minsk in Belarus and finally Vilnius in Lithuania.
We looked forward to being in Kiev for Easter services when believers parade through the streets with baskets brimming with colorful painted eggs and traditional foods. The Salo (pork fat) Museum in Lviv is was our list, along with sipping acorn coffee in Vilnius and going to the circus in Belarus.
What a difference a few days makes.
Up until this week, I didn't plan to postpone, but it looks now like I will. The virus is spreading in Seattle and elsewhere, and there's an increasing possibility that other countries could begin placing restrictions, such as quarantines, on travelers coming from the U.S. Many destinations are closing major sites, cancelling events and otherwise hunkering down to maximize social distancing. And there are other people to consider. As travelers, we could end up putting undue stress on the overly-stressed and underfunded health care systems of the places we visit.
Flexibility will be the watchword in the near future as travelers grapple with the decision to go ahead with plans, cancel or reschedule or change destinations.
Whether or not to travel is a personal decision that should be based on each individual's overall health and comfort level, but having a checklist for "just in case" situations can help keep the decision rationale instead of reactionary.
Some things to know:
Contrary to what most of us probably think, the Center for Disease Control reminds travelers that risk of getting COVID-19 on an airplane is low.
"Because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on airplanes," the CDC reports in a section on its website devoted to travel.
To boost sagging ticket sales, Airlines have started waiving fees for changing or cancelling tickets purchased before March for travel through April or later. Travelers who want to change their plans will be offered credits, not refunds, and new fares will apply when rebooking.
Country- by- country risk
This website does a good job of putting things in perspective by tabulating country-by-country confirmed cases, recoveries and deaths. There are now more cases of the virus confirmed in the U.S. and the state where I live (Washington) than in many countries in Europe or in any of the places where we planned to go
When it comes to assessing the risk levels in various countries, the CDC has established a warning list with three levels and a helpful point-and-click map for country-specific information.
Warning Level 3 (right now, China, South Korea, Iran and Italy) advises everyone postpone nonessential travel; Alert Level 2 (Japan) advises high-risk groups (older adults or those with chronic medical conditions) to postpone plans. Watch Level 1 (Hong Kong) advises that the risk is low.
With Watch Level 1 and all other countries so far, "travelers shouldn't postpone or cancel travel plans," the CDC says, "but should take precautions like avoiding contact with sick people; avoiding touching their eyes, nose or mouth before washing their hands; and wash hands often.
The site has a helpful FAQ section answering such queries as "Should I cancel my trip?" and "Is it safe to go on a cruise?''
Other governments offer relevant information on their websites. The UK, for instance, offers advice for travelers advice through the National Travel Health Network and Centre. https://travelhealthpro.org.uk/news/499/novel-coronavirus-covid-19-general-advice-for-travelers
What other countries decide to about travelers coming into their areas is a moving target. Israel is requiring anyone, including its own citizens, who have been in several European countries to self-quarantine at home for two weeks. It's considering adding Washington State, New York and California to its list.
Check local news sources
It's always a good idea to cultivate contacts in the destinations where you plan to travel. Can you get in touch a friend, a friend of a friend, your Airbnb host, or someone else to get a read on what's really happening? Facebook works well for this. Other reliable sources of information are the websites of local newspapers. I bookmarked several for my trip, and checked them daily.
Avoid non-refundable bookings
Now is not the time to snag a cheaper rate on a hotel room with a non-refundable booking. Third-party booking sites, such as Booking.com and Hotels.com, offer some rooms at a discount if you pre-pay a non-refundable rate. Some hotels have started doing the same. For maximum flexibility, avoid these offers.
If the hotel you want demands prepayment, find another place. I currently have reservations at five places to stay in five cities, all of which can be cancelled without penalty a day or two before arrival. I also have a set of train tickets refundable until 20 minutes before departure.
Check your travel and medical insurance
Medicare doesn't cover health emergencies overseas, but many supplemental and advantage plans do. Check to make sure, and if not, purchase a separate plan.
Most travel insurance, including policies that come with use of a credit card, include secondary medical coverage (paid after you file a claim with your own insurance company). But unless you buy an expensive "Cancel for any reason" policy, it won't cover trip cancellation expenses should you decide not to travel due to fears of being exposed the Coronavirus, even if the CDC or the State Department advises against travel.
Travel insurance can cover you, though, in case of a disruption while you're on your trip, such as a quarantine period that might force a change of plans.
The websites of overseas U.S. embassies include detailed information on where Americans can go for medical and other help when traveling. The U.S. embassy in Ukraine, for instance, maintains a list of local medical facilities, some with English-speaking staff, where help can be found if the situation warrants professional care.
Check the website of the embassy or consulate in the country you plan to visit, and keep a print-out of PDF document of relevant information handy.
Have a Plan B
Stay flexible and think about what you might do if a destination on your itinerary no longer feels safe. Could you alter your plans by taking a train, a bus or flying elsewhere? If so, where would you go? Where would you stay? What guidebook or Internet info would you need to begin changing your plans at the last minute?
One of the best ways to prepare for uncertainty is to ask and answer your own set of "what if" questions.
With nothing but an airline change fee to lose (I bought my tickets in January), I'll be waiting a few more weeks before I pull the plug. In the meantime, I've begun to focus on ways I can balance personal safety with supporting our struggling businesses here at home.