|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.