Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Jul 13, 2020

Join us to discuss your travel-related questions, comments, suspicions, warnings, gripes, sad tales, etc.!

Hey everyone and welcome to Talk About Travel! We're happy you're with us after taking last week off, and hope everyone had a safe and restful holiday. This week in travel, Andrea found out what it's like to travel by plane, train and automobile (ha!) right now with the pandemic raging. Tell us about your biggest trip mishap on a plane, train or road trip, for the chance to win a Washington Post mug, which we'll mail to you as soon as we're able to. 

As usual, here's a link for the Post's coronavirus live blog, which is continuously updated with the latest developments. You can also sign up here for the Post's Coronavirus Updates newsletter; all stories linked in the newsletter are free to access. 

Let's get going with your questions!

I have written in many times (4 maybe?) about the difficulty I was having getting a refund from tickets I bought on Lufthansa via AMEX travel that were canceled in mid-March. I followed all your various steps of advice, including lodging a complaint with DOT at the end of May. Two weeks ago, I got an email from a DOT rep saying they were pursuing my case with the two vendors. Like a 4th of July miracle, the money was refunded just a few days later. I actually got the letter from DOT informing me I was due a refund and an email from Lufthansa apologizing (and thanking me for the complaint to DOT so they had an opportunity to respond) after the money was deposited. What a pain - I am glad I lost track of how many hours of waiting on hold it took for me to get the refund! So BIG THANKS to you all for the advice and for the chatters sharing their frustrations and successes to let me know I wasn't alone. Bonne chance to all those who are still in limbo!!!

That's great! Thank you for letting us know.

Hello! My parents will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in three years. They would like to take the family on a trip to celebrate. In three years, they will be in their late 70s, and have six grandchildren that will be from 7-13 then, plus their two kids and spouses. My parents and one family live in the DC area, and the other family is military so they don't know where they will be then. They have thought of a cruise or Disney, but were looking for other ideas that would suit a wide range of ages. They understand we don't need to be together 24/7. Any ideas? Thank you!

It's difficult to predict what the travel landscape will look like three years from now. If all is back to normal, a cruise makes sense, although we don't yet know the long-term Covid ramifications for cruise lines. Unless the grandparents love Disney, that sounds as if it would be a vacation geared more toward the kids. Perhaps an upscale all-inclusive in the Caribbean? I'd start thinking about it, but I'd wait a bit before deciding. 

When you think Americans will be allowed to return to most international destinations? Do issues like the controversy of over wearing masks in-flight and on the ground in the US increase the likelihood of these bans being extended?

We have no way of predicting when restrictions will lift, unfortunately. The restrictions are directly tied to the United States' inability to contain the coronavirus outbreaks, and I don't expect restrictions to loosen until we get it under control. The issues you mentioned probably affect how well we're able to stop the spread. 

Has anyone driven to MA from VA recently with quarantine? VA is a State not excluded from quarantine. I know it is just a guideline and many ignore it (flying/driving) but we plan to drive Granddaughter to college and then visit around State and stay at Hotels. I looked at hotel website and they say you need to abide by MA guidelines. So will be have a problem at checkin? One thought I had was to take a CV test when we got there. Thoughts?

Massachusetts is clear in its directive -- a 14-day quarantine is required for visitors from all states except New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Not sure whether you will have a problem at check-in, but you will be in violation of the directive. Test results don't come back instantaneously. 

Hello, I just booked a trip to South Africa for next July to give myself something to look forward to and satisfy the wanderlust. :) I have a two-year-old who doesn't yet have her passport and realized that she has to go to an in-person appointment with both parents to apply? I'm not excited at this point about taking the whole family to a post office and hanging around, at what point do you think we need to set up her appointment to get a passport in time for the trip?

The State Department is still dealing with the backlog from earlier months, so I would give yourself some time. As long as the agency does not suspend processing again, you should be okay to wait till late fall or winter. Note that you can make an appointment, so you won't have to wait for too long. To find a facility, check here.

Air Canada said my credited ticket is good until Dec. 31, 2020...but since we can't travel lots of places, will they (and other airlines)extend it?

It is hard to know. So many of the airlines are waiting till the last minute to make changes to their policies. The airline could make the case that you can still travel domestically.

Is that deadline to book or travel by?  You could book a trip and cancel, so that you have more time on your credit. Just be sure you don't have to pay a change fee.

We go home to Ireland every year for a two-week visit. This year, because Ireland is currently allowing Americans in with a 14-day self-isolation requirement, we are considering extending the trip to a month. We have a family home there so we can actually work from home there for the first two weeks. Our concern of course is the airport situation going and coming. Are there any statistics on how risky an airport might be? We have face shields and masks and would be armed with disinfectant wipes, of course. We always fly Aer Lingus, if that matters. Would you go if it were you?

I haven't seen any hard statistics on airport risks.  The TSA made some changes to procedures after a whistleblower complained: More than 900 TSA screeners, out of a workforce of about 50,000, have tested positive.  Right now, flights are not going out full, but more U.S. citizens have been traveling to Ireland, and that trend has received some negative press there. Aer Lingus is doing the usual safety precautions, but I see no mention of limiting the number of passengers on flights. I can't say whether I'd go because so much could change by September. 

I've read that airplane ventilation systems pull in more fresh outside air than most buildings do. Is that true? Also, what is the circulation pattern within a plane, front to back before going into a filter? I assume air doesn't go directly upward from each row into the filter, but must circulate the plane one before reaching the filter. Can you present a diagram of air flow? Thank you.

Here is an article by our Transportation team that outlines how this works. 

Andrea, thanks for taking the lead on traveling so that we can hear about thse experiences first-hand. (Didn't you also go to a resort? I do wonder if you lost a bet or drew the short straw to be the Post's designated traveler guinea pig?) I also thought your analogy of mask-less passengers to pants-less passengers was apt. We are struggling with whether and where to travel, and the lack of mask compliance is a big reason why we are hesitant to travel in shared spaces. I guess this is a rhetorical question for a sociologist, but Why Is It So Hard for some of our compatriots to follow mask guidelines, and for airlines etc. to enforce them? Thanks again and take care!

Hi I am like Mikey in that old Life cereal commercial. I will try anything, and I am happy to do this, so you don't have to -- or feel comfortable enough to. I completely agree with you. If we see a sign that says we need shoes and shirts to enter, we put on shoes and shirts. I think the problem is that wearing a mask has shifted from a health care issue to a defiant political statement. But the companies should put the health of passengers over politics. Honestly, I am trying to get these points across with my analogies. (At the resort, I used the smoking scenario: That they would kick me out if I lit up in the lobby.) You can read about my next Mikey Adventure this week.

I'm trying to be hopeful and plan a trip, but I'm having a hard time figuring out when I would actually feel safe and be able to enjoy myself. Are you guys going through the same thing?

Yes. I canceled all of my trips for July and August and I'm already starting to feel restless. You too? I have absolutely no idea when it'll be safe to get out there. I like the EU definition from Sunday's Navigator. I might use that.

Assuming things are back to normal in three years, we had a similar celebration for a milestone birthday last year and took a cruise together. There were 15 people ranging in ages from 15 to 80. We were on Royal Caribbean, and everyone was able to do their own thing during the day, and then get together at night for dinner, see a show, etc. It worked out really well. (I am not typically a cruise person, but it does work great for large groups of differently aged, abled, and interested people.) RC also has kids club and childcare, IIRC, so that the parents can get some kid-free time. If a cruise isn't possible, perhaps renting a house at a beach or lake would work.

Yes, I've been a proponent of cruises for multi-generational groups in the past, and I hope that cruise lines will survive, evolve and improve their safety procedures after Covid. I didn't advise renting a house because that's not as carefree: Someone has to plan meals, cook, etc. For a 50th wedding anniversary, want to make sure that grandma isn't doing loads of laundry! 

As someone who’s always on the lookout for interesting travel reading, I enjoyed Jen Rose Smith’s list of books about epic travel disasters, and have a book I read recently that has stayed with me: Bailey White's "Mama Makes Up Her Mind: And Other Dangers of Southern Living." The Georgia writer's essay “Maritime Disasters” describes her success in teaching schoolchildren to read by telling them stories of maritime disasters, a subject compelling enough to engage their attention and make them want to know more. The shipwreck in Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea” would fit right in with her curriculum. When the whaleship Essex was rammed by a massive bull sperm whale in open ocean and sank in 1820, the crew of 20 had a choice to sail west to the islands of the South Pacific or sail east against the trade winds and strong ocean currents to return to the coast of South America. Fearing that South Sea islands were full of cannibals and the men would be slaughtered if they landed there, the crew’s three whaleboats straggled eastward aiming for Chile or Peru about 2000 miles away, although the Marquesas Islands were about half that distance to the southwest. Some of the crew would survive long enough to be rescued after 3 months at sea, but not before resorting to cannibalism—thus realizing the men’s very fear of being killed, butchered, and eaten. Published 20 years ago, this book nevertheless has an element relevant to current events: discussion throughout the text of the differing social and economic conditions for white versus black sailors, and why the black shipwrecked crew members were the first to succumb to starvation.

Whoa, thanks for the rec! Sounds like a compelling read. For those who missed it: also in this week's issue, one of our writers has a list of travel adventures that will make you want to stay home, check that out here

Will I lose my points if the airlines don't extend the due date for using my airline ticket?

Yes, probably. But you should ask for an extension. Airlines are being pretty lenient, especially for people in loyalty programs.

Your travel mishaps:

My biggest travel mishap was going to Antarctica. I purposely routed through Dallas in the winter so that there would be no snow. I didn't plan on a tornado shutting down DFW for 30 minutes- my in bound flight was delayed, but my outbound went off on time. Ok so I pulled out of the flight- left my luggage on it with ALL of my cold weather gear (I had a spare pair of leggings, a sweater and some underwear with me). The nice rebooking lady said that I only had one choice to make my flights- a flight to Vegas. She called the gate agent to hold it while I would sprint 5 minutes to the gate, the gate agent said no, and hung up the phone. She asked the plane to pull off my luggage. Again, no. She booked me on a flight to Vegas with a 25 minute layover. OK. I could do that. Get to that gate and I hear "uh the crew is delayed, it should be 15 minutes for them to get there." I went in line to find out if they could hold my outbound flight from Vegas, and they say "oh we were wrong, it's an hour delayed". Back to the flight rebooking- remember I have spent 18 months saving for this one trip- and I'm crying because I'm stressed. I go up with my 17 tickets to the lady, ignoring the Marine handing me tissues, and blubber something like "they said there was only one way I could make my flight to Antarctica and I'm going to miss it and...." cue the waterworks again. She rebooked me, and I do a 20 minute layover in Orlando, to Miami, to Santiago to Puntas Arenas Chile. In each airport I ask if they can find my luggage. Crying, of course because now I'm stressed AND I haven't slept in 36 hours. No one has seen it. No one thinks they can do anything about it. My dad ends up calling, suggesting that it's a research trip to Antarctica, has American airlines go outside protocol to get the bag to Chile. I finally land in Puntas Arenas, make bff's with the guy in charge of luggage (yay Sebastian!) and live in the same clothes for 3 days. I get my luggage 15 minutes before my cruise to Antarctica started.

I was two years out of college and working for a company that was downsizing in one location and growing in another. As part of this, they decided to move a bunch of office furniture from DC to NYC and CT. I was tasked with getting bids, and after doing so I researched the cost of a rental UHaul and car, and offered the services of me and a buddy to bring the furniture to NYC and CT, then drop off the UHaul and pick up a rental car to drive home. This got approved, so we loaded the truck up in DC and drove to NYC and had our first experience with double parking in order to unload everything in the Manhattan office. Leaving for CT, we inadvertently went through Broadway traffic right before showtime -- so it was our UHaul surrounded by 150 Yellow Cabs, and us having to get across four lanes of traffic to make a left-hand turn. We finally get out of that and drop the rest of the stuff off in CT. We go to the UHaul place, drop off the truck, and take a cab to the car rental. Where they tell us "Ooooh, sorry, you're under 25 so we can't rent to you." I point out that they didn't ask me that when I called to rent the car, they claimed they always ask, and they wouldn't rent us the car. This is before cell phones, so they point us to the payphone and say "You can try some of the other rental companies around here, see if they'll rent to you." No luck there. I finally get our company president on the phone and the company agrees to rent to us if they can put a $500 charge on his card "just in case" and then remove it when we return the car. So some three hours after arriving at the rental location we leave, and make it home without another issue. Epilogue: Monday morning the DC boss gets a call from the NYC boss complaining about the low quality of the furniture that got sent. "We can't use any of this, it's horrible. It's going right in the trash."

in a perfect world, I'd like to go somewhere I get tested when I land, that has a low to zero infection rate, like Iceland. Is Iceland my only option as someone with an American passport? thank you

According to the U.S. Embassy in Iceland, U.S. citizens aren't permitted to travel to Iceland until further notice as the country is participating in the E.U./Schengen zone travel ban. Unless you're an Icelandic citizen or resident, you can't come in. Some other countries are still accepting American travelers, but it looks like Iceland isn't one of them right now.

What happens if a traveler comes down with COVID overseas?

The same thing as here -- you would seek medical attention and get well. When you're ready to come home, you may have to show a COVID test or submit to a temperature screening. The rules change almost by the minute.

In February I booked a round-trip flight from Tampa to Amsterdam, for an early-October river cruise that's almost certainly not going to happen. Recently I discovered on the Delta website that my return flight has been cancelled, and the airline says it is "unable to rebook" my reservation, though the outbound flight is still showing as valid. Does this mean I am entitled to a refund from Delta? Is this something I should deal with now--claiming my refund, if I'm due it--or should I just keep waiting for more definitive info? The other complication is that flying from the US to Europe is currently banned, as Chris pointed out in his knowledgeable article a few days ago. What happens if that ban continues through October but Delta refuses a refund based on its own partial cancellation?

Yes, if part of your flight is canceled, then you can get a full refund. Don't wait.

I finally planned a trip! I'm meeting a friend for a long weekend where we'll be staying in a duplex cabin south of Charlottesville - she gets one half and I get the other. We can socially distance the whole weekend and do outdoor wine tastings and get takeout and just sit out in the yard together.

That sounds heavenly! Enjoy.

Hi, travel team! I had a trip planned and partially paid for to Iceland and the Faroe Islands in September. I'm doubtful they'll reopen to US citizens (honestly, a wise choice), so I've cancelled in order not to pay the remaining balance on my tour. I have travel insurance but not cancel at any time insurance. When should I tell the insurance company that I've cancelled? Do I have a better shot at reimbursement if I wait until closer to the trip? If Iceland reopens to US citizens, I assume I can't recover anything, of course. Thanks for your help!

I would let your travel insurance company know about your plans to cancel now. There's no benefit in waiting. You may be able to re-use your insurance for a future trip.

This question is for whenever it is safe to travel again... at that point in time, we will have a 4-5 yo and a baby (hopefully they won't be too much older!) We haven't been able to travel for quite some time, and never with more than one child. How crazy would it be to try to fly from the East Coast to Hawaii to visit family? Europe? In general, with younger kids, is it better to pick super family friendly locations, or to go anywhere but plan around the kids (e.g., you visit Paris, but research the playgrounds beforehand?)

Lots depends on your children's personalities. Is your older child content to sit and read and do puzzles, or is she nonstop action? Will the baby be a screamer? The flight to Hawaii takes about 12 hours with one connection: That's a long trip. Plus there is a six-hour time difference. But you would have family to help out once you get there, so that might make the trip doable. As for whether it's best to pick destinations based on the children, I'll leave that one up to our chatters. My kids were way too active and verbal for long trips at that age, but every family is different. 

More mishaps:

In the 90's, back when we still used paper tickets, I checked in at LAX for a flight home to Nashville. The airline's computers were down, so they just took our tickets, handed us the stub, and boarded us. Just before the door closed for pushback, a couple dashed onto the plane, made their way down the aisle, and stopped at my row. The woman looked at her stub, looked at the seating numbers, looked at me, and said, "You're in my seat. Move!" I looked at my stub and was in the correct seat, but her stub had the same seat assignment. It was a half empty plane, but she kicked up a huge fuss that I had to move, while I was being polite and asking the flight attendant what to do. The woman would not stop. Finally, I said, "You know what, lady? You're right." She said, "Huh?" and I said, "You're absolutely right. Despite the fact that I've never seen you before and don't know your name, I've been lying awake at 3 am every night for a month, plotting how to steal your seat and inconvenience you. And you know why? Because yes, the universe really does revolve around you." She had been so obnoxious that the rest of the plane started applauding. And that's when the flight attendant came back to tell me that my ticket was actually for the following day and I had made the mistake -- which they failed to catch because of the computers being down. Oops. Fortunately, with a half-empty plane they just gave me a different seat and the woman's horribly embarrassed husband prevented her from giving me the stink-eye the whole way home.

I wrote you guys about it: On my way back to DC from Ethiopia my first stop was in Germany, when I got to my seat a big guy was seated in my aisle seat. The flight attendant, asked him to move to his assigned seat, he did it but, he was uncomfortable and needed to pull up the armrest to fit in, by doing so he ended up occupying half of my seat and his elbow was perpetually in my ribs. Half of my body was in the aisle. I immediately asked the flight attendants to help me out, but they indicated that the flight was full, I couldn’t sit any longer when the person fell asleep and ended up completely pushing me further. I tried to wake him up to no avail and ended up informing the flight attendant once more (in tears!). In the end I stood in the back of the plane for about 90 percent of a 9-hour flight and I wasn’t able to eat my meals as I had no place to sit. I  always treated the person with respect, but it was a horrible experience. I made a claim to United and received an apology a sad $75 voucher.

Having just canceled a big group beach vacation due to COVID concerns, my wife and I were trying to figure out a replacement beach or lake trip for just the two of us. Thinking 8 hours or less for driving from DC, and preferably we could rent a small cabin/condo and have some socially-distanced water time. (We are concerned that something like Rehoboth, OC, etc. on the nearby beaches would be too crazy/crowded.)

I would suggest the Outer Banks, which has a slew of spaced-out rentals and miles and miles of beach. Pick one of the sleepier areas, like Avon, Hatteras or Ocracoke, my favorite part of OBX.

I saw that American is reducing it's international capacity at several airports. Is that a trend you expect to see from other US airlines?

Until the EU allows Americans to visit, I imagine airlines will cut or consolidate flights.

We're headed to MA in August and had a similar question. 2 different groups of friends just got back from the Cape and said NO ONE asked what state they were from, had they quarantined, etc. One friend had no idea what we were talking about. It's like the rule didn't exist.

I think that's true of lots of rules and regulations designed to stop the spread of Covid. Localities don't have enough personnel to enforce, so it's up to individuals to adhere or not. 

I went on a 5-day trek in Peru for my 40th birthday. 3 hours in on the first day, I slipped and broke my ankle. Had a harrowing 36-hours of evacuation, hosptials, and flights home. Once I got home, it was surgery, months of rehab, and lots of paperwork to get reimbursed from my travel insurance. Ugh. I can't even see photos of Machu Picchu without cringing.

About 15 years ago, I was traveling to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, carrying an urn with the cremains of a family member. In the Detroit airport, I was bumped from the last leg of the flight. This was Northwest Airlines. They did manage to book me on a flight to the opposite side of the Upper Peninsula, and I scrambled to change my rental car reservation. I swore I would never fly Northwest Airlines again. I didn't, and they went out of business anyway.

I wrote a couple weeks ago asking if I am entitled to a refund for a flight from Boston to Toronto that was delayed 5+ hours and was told that I am. It was since delayed again, now it's up to an 11+ hour delay. I called Air Canada to get a refund and was told I can get miles, a credit, or a transferable voucher. I said that under U.S. Dept of Transportation rules, I'm entitled to a refund. I was told that the DOT rules don't apply to delays or cancellations related to the coronavirus and the agent wouldn't budge. The flight is scheduled for July 25 and I expect it to get cancelled. I don't want miles, a credit or voucher. What's my next move? Thanks!

Air Canada is wrong. Contact the Transportation Department and fill out a complaint form

I drove to MA a few weeks ago when it was suggested that we quarentine for 14 days. I did not, but I did get tested before I left and had my negative results with me in case I needed them. I had no issues. I complied with all of the regulations when I arrived and found that people were following the rules to a T--including complying with mask-mandatory zones.

Those are my rule-following people! (I am from Massachusetts.) Thanks for the report from the road.

With all the angst and problems people are having trying to cancel their travel, I thought I'd post some positive shout-outs. In January we booked a 3-week, 5-location European trip, with an overseas flight and another intra-European flight. It's been a LONG slog, but we have now managed to unpick the whole trip and were lucky enough to be refunded for everything, including non-refundable hotel reservations across the board (with the caveat that some of the refunds are still in process and haven't yet hit our credit card.) Airlines: I can vouch that it's worth white-knuckling it to wait for airlines to cancel your flight. Tip #1: When they do, make sure you pay attention to the language they use. Virgin Atlantic sent us an email telling us that we needed to call them to "book changes to our flight." When I called, they said the first leg had "changed" and the whole outbound itinerary would need to be "updated." I had to say, "That sounds like you've canceled the first leg. Is that true?" Once they admitted it was a cancelation, I asked for the refund, and at that point they couldn't have been nicer. (Though they are one of the airlines taking FOREVER, and the still haven't sent me the promised email confirmation of the promised refund, so I just filed with DOT). Tip #2: Be really careful using the airline's links or you'll find yourself asking for a voucher without meaning to. British Airways was terrific about their cancelation, didn't try to avoid using the word, and when I called they processed the refund request in 5 minutes and sent an email before I even hung up. I was worried about that one, because the flight didn't touch US soil and not subject to DOT, but they couldn't have been nicer or more efficient. But first I tried their link and almost accidentally ended up with a voucher, so be careful. Hotels: Tip #3: be super polite, use email to keep a paper trail, and don't take no for a first answer. Especially if it's a non-refundable reservation in a country not allowing US citizens. Acknowledge sympathy for their situation, let them know that you're really hoping to visit them whenever you are able to make it, and use the phrase, "But I must politely insist on a refund given that you can't provide the service for which I paid." Booking.com was surprisingly great for the one hotel we booked through them; airbnb surprisingly difficult for the one we booked with them -- required weird and ridiculous documentation even though the owner was a friend of a friend who had already agreed to cancel. But in the end they too were accommodating. Altfraenkische Weinstube in Rothenburg, Germany, and Hotel Monastery in Budapest were really gracious, particularly since they are small establishments, so if any readers are able to travel in the Shengen Zone right now, I'd highly recommend them. The real sleeper surprise was the Amba Hotel Grosvenor in London. Their website said only vouchers for non-refundable travel, and since UK wasn't barring us (only imposing a quarantine five times longer than our booked stay), I was worried about this one too. I wrote an email acknowledging that they didn't have to do anything but noting that since the hotel chain doesn't exist over here it would be nearly impossible to use the voucher, and throwing ourselves on their mercy, and by the time they emailed back they had already processed the refund. So, huge kudos to them as well. Sorry to be so long-winded, but there's so much negative stuff going on as people try to cancel their trips that I really wanted to acknowledge these folks for being so understanding.

Thank you for sharing this with us.

In April you asked what trip would people do first after the confinement and I won with the suggestion that I would go back home to hug my parents and my family who were all living in a place that was at the time one of the hot spots of the pandemic. I'm happy to say that we were able to go two weeks ago for a day and it was so nice to be finally able to see all of them (my nephews changed so much since Christmas) and see that we were all alright. It was stressful to drive there, it's a four hour drive so we rent a car and didn't stopped on the way there besides for putting gas, but I'm glad we were able to do it while the pandemic is relatively under control in both of our areas.

What a wonderful trip --- family is the best destination in the world. So glad you finally saw your loved ones!

That does it for us today. Thank you for your readership and your thoughtful questions. We appreciate the community we've built here and hope everyone has a safe week. Antarctica traveler, please email travel@washpost.com with your shipping address so we can get your mug mailed to you (it will take us some time, so please be patient!). Have a wonderful week everyone, and see you next Monday for more Talk About Travel.

In This Chat
Nicole Arthur
Nicole Arthur is the Travel editor.
Andrea Sachs
Andrea Sachs is a staff writer for Travel.
Christopher Elliott
Christopher Elliott writes The Navigator column. He is also National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate.
Carol Sottili
Carol Sottili is a former Washington Post travel writer, specializing in travel deals.
Helen Carefoot
Helen Carefoot is Travel's editorial assistant.
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