Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Jul 20, 2020

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

Hi all, and welcome to Talk About Travel! This week, Andrea journeyed to Chicago to see how much of the traditional tourist experience is within reach in summer 2020. Have you traveled for pleasure this summer -- or tried? Tell us how it went. Most compelling answer gets a handsome Washington Post mug. 

As always, here's the link to 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!

Short version: We intended to travel to England in August for a three-week vacation. Instead of canceling because we would have to quarantine for most of our "vacation," we have decided to extend our stay for three months, staying with my husband's family. I'm confused, though, about whether we qualify for a no-fee flight change for our return flight. Currently, United HAS changed the flight time to five hours, 40 minutes past its original time. (I assume this is to avoid the six-hour change that triggers the mandatory refund.) We also want to change our return date from August to November. How would you handle this situation? Do I have any rights, per se, or am I am the mercy of hopefully friendly United customer service representative? The internet hasn't been much help. Thanks for yours!

If United makes a significant change to your schedule, it would have to refund the ticket. That might be your best option. Just take the refund and buy a new ticket with your desired dates. 

We hope to travel by car from the Washington area to California in August. How can we find the safest hotels to stay in, considering risks of coronavirus transmission?

I'd familiarize myself with the various protocols being followed by the major chains. Overall, the American Hotel & Lodging Association has launched a Stay Safe program that most bigger hotel companies -- Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Choice, etc. -- were involved in creating. I'd look for low-rise major chain motels that offer contactless mobile check-in. And make sure you check the situation at your destination before you go: California, especially Southern Cal,  is seeing a surge in covid cases. 

Have you heard about the free Virtual Travel Parties coming out of Northern Virginia? Hosted by Eileen Curtis and Pat Williams, co-authors of Roam: Mindful Adventuring Across the Globe.

I haven't, drop us a link so we can share please! Sounds cool

Hey all, and thanks for chatting. My passport expires in March 2021, but I know it's common to need 6 months of eligibility before traveling anywhere (I know we can't go anywhere right now). I want to renew ASAP just to get it done, but am very confused about the information on the State Dept. website. Has anyone had to do this recently, and can I get it renewed pretty soon? I'm honestly a little worried about sending my passport away through mail and not having it handy.

I don't think you have much choice, unfortunately. The sooner you send your passport, the better your chance it will be done by the time you travel. Just before the pandemic, the State Department was very fast. In October, I got a renewal in a few weeks. Chatters, what are your experiences with passport renewal now?

I had a trip to Turkey planned and Turkish Airlines canceled my flights a couple weeks ago (was supposed to leave July 11). I was initially told I couldn't get a refund, but they recently offered me one. My fare was $1,500, but I am only getting about $1,100 back because there is a $400 non-refundable fee. Is that standard or should I expect the full $1,500 back? Should I push to try to recover that, or cut my losses?

No, you should get a full refund. I would send a complaint to the Transportation Department about this.

My family lives in Richmond. Our daughter is moving to Nashville next month to attend law school at Vanderbilt. It's about a 9 hour drive from Richmond, not including any breaks. Do you recommend that we bite the bullet and go the whole way in one drive. I know it's not the best idea to spend the night part way, but I'm not sure I can stand a drive of 10 hours in one day. I also worry about all the stuff we will have packed in two cars sitting in a hotel parking lot overnight.

I'd do it in one day, especially if you have two drivers. Two hours on, two hours off, frequent leg stretch breaks. 

In early Feb., I booked a European river cruise for this October, paying a $400 deposit, with the balance due June 1. Then the pandemic hit, and the cruise firm began a rolling wave of cruise cancellations, first through June 30, then July 31, August 31 and just last week extending cancellations through Sept. 15. My cruise is still scheduled to depart the first week in October, but I frankly can't imagine that will happen--the cruise stops in four countries, all of which are currently banning incoming travelers from the U.S. Here's my problem: as cancellations rolled on, the cruise line twice extended the due date for my final payment. But recently it sent me an email reminding me that my $6000+ final payment is due in early August. They have my credit card info, which I gave them for the Feb. deposit payment. I'm convinced this cruise will also be canceled, so I don't want to pay the balance and then have to fight for a refund when that happens. Can the cruise line just go ahead and charge my card if I don't cooperate and authorize the payment? Its website says they will issue a "future cruise credit" if a paid-for cruise is canceled, but I don't want to pay in the first place, now. What are my options?

If a cruise line has your credit card information, it can charge you. If you're working with a travel agent, I would notify that person immediately to ensure the final payment doesn't get made. If you made a direct booking, you can contact the cruise line and ask about the protocol for charging you. You may be able to make a notation in your reservation to ask them to contact you before charging you for the rest of the cruise.

Delighted to see Chris's piece on doing laundry while traveling. Perhaps this week's contest could be "Obscure Laundromats You Have Visited." Like Chris and his family, we're nomads. So over the years we've used laundromats in Rockhampton, Queensland (Australia); Dusseldorf; Bangkok; and Surabaya (Indonesia). And before next week's chat we'll need a laundromat near Denver Airport: tips welcome!

I'm so glad you liked the story. I've received so many excellent tips on doing laundry on the road that I'll have to return to the topic again soon. On a separate note, it was nice to be able to write a story that didn't have a mention of covid-19 in it. I can't promise that for next week's Navigator.

Has Amtrak reviewed and improved their ventilation systems?

All of Amtrak's trains have onboard filtration systems with a fresh air exchange rate every four to five minutes. Here are the details.

Over the 4th of July weekend, we did. We had had to scrap a plane trip that would have put us in position to tour the National Parks in southern UT and northern AZ, but we were so restless... what can we do? Time for a low-key car trip to Green Bay, WI, knocking on the door of Lake Michigan! Very very low on the coronavirus hotspot scale. - We swam in Green Bay and Lake Winnebago by Oshkosh (uncrowded beaches) - We took a socially distanced sunset cruise on the Bay, and learned the history of the area. - We drove up on the peninsula dividing Green Bay and Lake Michigan to catch a fish boil for dinner - We spent a lot of time lounging around on the waterfront bordering the Fox River - premade, permanent wooden loungers, courtesy of the city! - Loaded up on our yearly beer run in Monroe and New Glarus Most relaxing, unrushed, low key vacation ever. And sorely needed! Thinking of a similar one in Arkansas at the end of August. We'll see.

It wasn't far, but my wife and I drove to Front Royal from Herndon and took a leisurely trip south on the first segment of Skyline Drive. We had an excellent home-made lunch at an open picnic area, and stopped at EVERY overlook. We got to see a few deer, but no bear made an appearance. Best of all, the temperature was only in the high 70s.

How can you keep yourself safe on long international flights ?

Don't take a long international flight. But if you have to, take all the usual precautions -- face masks, gloves, social distancing. Check with your airline to see if it will block the middle seat. And pray.

I'm hoping you can help me because, for some reason, I can't navigate the CDC site well enough to find the answer. A friend, who lives in MD, was recently involved in an accident and will soon need surgery to correct her damaged body. Her daughter, SIL and grandkids want to come up to visit and help her out, but they live in (and are citizens of) Mexico. They seem to think they can just come up for a week and then go back home but we aren't sure if that's possible. Upon flying into BWI, would they need to quarantine for 14 days before going to a hotel and, when going back to Mexico, would they need to again quarantine down there? We truly appreciate your help with this. Thank you so much for these very informative chats.

According to Customs and Border Protection: "Cross-border travel for the purpose of visiting family members in the United States generally is not permissible under the temporary restrictions on non-essential travel at U.S. land borders. Limited exceptions may be granted for individuals who serve as caretakers or who are providing transport to a medical appointment. CBP officers at the port of entry make the final determination of whether travelers are admissible to the United States, taking into account the totality of each traveler’s circumstances."

 I would have the family consult with the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to make sure they have the proper documents and don't get turned away at the border.

 

On July 2 my husband mailed his in for renewal (it expires in January) and my son, age 18, renewed his at the post office (his expires in March, bc the previous one was issued before he was 16 he had to appear in person, though not with parents as he's no longer a minor). The checks have already been cashed for both passports, which I guess is a good sign...

Thanks for the update! 

We're looking into travel insurance for an upcoming trip (August/September). I know some insurers are offering coronavirus-related coverage. But is there some "small print" we should be aware of when considering our options?

Yes. Make sure your policy overs covid-19 and any mutation of covid-19. If you get a "cancel for any reason" make sure that fear of infection is not listed as an exception. On some policies, they are. Also, some policies now completely exclude covid-19 from coverage, but will cover treatment if you get sick while you're traveling. You have to really read the fine print carefully now.

We like to take a 3 day trip to San Diego. Just visit uncle and aunt. Stay mostly home but to a hike or two if safe to do so. We are planning to fly on Southwest and will wear masks entire flight. Any other advice besides don't go? Have been obeying lock-down guidance and SD and masks but it is now difficult to stay home during the summer weather.

I'd think twice about visiting Southern California. Los Angeles is the hot spot, but San Diego has also seen rising numbers. And it's a very long trip to make for just three days. But, if you insist, I'd follow the guidelines issued by TSA. At least Southwest has pledged to keep middle seats open through at least Sept. 30. 

In May, cancellation (by WestJet) of our return flights for our planned June trip to the Canadian Rockies came with this message, "We are not processing refunds to original form of payment at this time. The full value of your flight will be refunded to a WestJet travel bank, which is valid for 24 months from date of issue." Based on your advice, we applied for a refund on their website and after no word for a couple of weeks, we also submitted a complaint to the US DOT. WestJet has just replied to our application with this message, "Based on the details of your itinerary, we are unable to approve your claim for compensation as your flight was impacted due to an operational issue and outside of WestJet’s control," along with the suggestion of complaining to the Canadian Transportation Agency. We are American citizens/residents and have updated the US DOT; is there any use in asking the CTA, or what would you recommend? There is about $800 at stake and we are not certain of using WestJet in the future, as this was to be our first experience with the airline.

If you live in the States and booked your ticket here, this one should be a slam dunk. Unless I'm missing something, the DOT should have helped you. Could you send me a few specifics, please? I'd like to assist.

Many credit cards allow you to lock, or freeze, your card. Worst case: cancel the card. $6,000 is a lot of money.

Yes, great tip. You could try that.

I am awaiting refunds from SAS and Icelandair as my flights in early June were canceled. Last week I got (unsolicited) email from both airlines assuring me that they had not forgotten me, and that they were experiencing delays in processing refunds. I'm heartened that I am apparently still on their radars, but it certainly is taking a while. Should I continue to be patient or is it worth starting to make some calls/sending some emails?

If they're still working on it, I  think it's OK to give them more time. But if they go into radio silence for more than a few weeks, consider a credit card dispute.

Can an African national with a B-1/B-2 visa enter the U.S.  now for a combination of business and tourism?

Unfortunately, our expertise is not visas for foreign travel in the U.S. You should contact the U.S. Embassy in your country/city.

You are probably fielding a lot of these....a couple of weeks ago I had a weekend booked at a cabin through AirBnB. I booked it some time last year. The day before we were to check in we found out that friends we had had in our home a few days prior were diagnosed with Covid. I called our state's hotline and were told we couldn't get tested yet because it was too soon after the exposure (we ultimately tested negative). I contacted our host to let her know of the situation...we would have been fine continuing with the reservation because it was a cabin in the woods only two hours from home, but the host understandably said that she was not comfortable hosting us. She told me to contact AirBnB and said she assumed I would get a full refund. I spoke to someone from AirBnB that night (after over an hour on hold) who said he would forward the issue to their "safety team." It has been two weeks and they haven't acted on our request for a refund (which under the terms of their Covid policy I think we should receive). I've called, emailed, messaged through the app, and messaged through Facebook. The reps I've spoken with have been unfailingly nice, but can't do anything with our request other than add notes to our ticket. I'm wondering if we'll ever get a response. How have others gotten AirBnB to respond to them?

Here's more information on Airbnb's extenuating circumstances policy. If that doesn't work, try reaching out to one of these Airbnb executives. I can also help. Here's how to contact me.

Just want to give a shout-out to American Airlines for their speedy refund process. I posed a question about a changed layover/cancellation here to confirm what I thought was true and then, armed with my knowledge, called up AA. When I spoke to the representative I said "There have been changes made to my flight that constitute a cancellation and I would like a refund." The rep looked up my flight and said "Yes, you are correct." She then cancelled my reservation in the system (a required step before requesting a refund online) and I submitted my refund request online. I got my refund about a week later with an email confirmation. Iberia on the other hand still has my money from a flight cancelled in March. I have repeatedly called and have since filed with DOT, which I also learned about from these chats. So some good and some bad. Thanks!

That's how it should be. Thank you for sharing your story, and bravo, American!

I am taking a 16 hour road trip to visit my my parents. It will just be me and my child. Because of scheduling, we will only be able to make about 5 hours the first day. On the second day, should I just buckle down and drive the rest of the 11 hours or I'm also debating driving 8 hours and stopping for the night and then driving 3 more hours. Note: I'm not worried about hotels and stopping along the way if that makes a difference.

Maybe I'm being obtuse, but wouldn't it make more sense to forego the five-hour day and instead drive eight hours, stay overnight at a motel and then drive eight hours the following day rather than stringing out the trip over three days? 

Check the weather report before you go. If you have flexibility, try to go mid-week in light traffic and in good weather. Many years ago, we drove from San Francisco to Salt Lake City in just one day with two drivers alternating, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks. It was nerve-wracking because we were in front of a blizzard. We would hear on the radio that snow chains were now required in areas we had just driven through (e.g., Donner Pass.) We didn’t want to stop and get trapped in place by the blizzard. When we finally arrived in SLC and I got out of the car, I fell over because my feet were numb with cold (even in the heated passenger seat!) I think it took 12 hours.

Yes, weather can make a big difference!

I would think that one adult would have a better chance of being admitted on a caretaker basis rather than having the whole family arrive in what looks like a vacation.

Excellent point, and do you really want to expose any entire family to the virus?

My CBP source clarified the rule:

"The temporary restrictions on non-essential travel at the land borders only include travel via land ports of entry. In other words, passenger vehicle, pedestrian, passenger rail, commercial truck and ferry arrivals. Mexican nationals can fly to the United States provided that they have not been physically present in Brazil, mainland China, Iran, Ireland, the United Kingdom, or the Schengen Area in the 14 days preceding their attempted entry to the United States. And that they overcome all other grounds of inadmissibility (e.g., health-related grounds, criminality, terrorism, etc.)."

Maybe just ask your credit card company to give you a new card/new number?

That's also an option. Thank you.

We ventured as far as a family house near Lewes for a few days, but didn't even go to the beach due to crowds and the recent increases of cases out there. Still, it was nice to have a change of scenery for a bit! Jealous of the WI traveler who was able to stock up on beer at New Glarus!

The State Dept. Covid information page has a chart describing what's coming in and going out. It looks like they are working down their backlog by issuing about 100,000 passports each week more than the number of new applications. Maybe 12 or 13 weeks to catch up?

Thanks for that information. Like I said, the sooner you send your passport in for renewal, the better.

My son was scheduled to fly one-way, MCO-RDU, on Sunday, 12JUL. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his trip was cancelled so he waited to see if the airlines would cancel the flight completely so he could get a refund. When Frontier changed the original departure time from around noon to 9p, he contacted them and asked for a refund due to DOT rules on "significant changes." The airlines told him that as long as the flight departs the same day, the rules for refunds don't apply and he could get a voucher if he wanted to cancel his ticket. He tried to research what time frame "significant" covered, but could find nothing. Then, a few days later, Frontier changed the departure time back to 1:50p, less than 2 hours later than the original time. They kept the same flight number throughout all these changes. He finally cancelled 1-2 days prior to the flight so he wouldn't lose out completely, and was given a voucher. Is this the only way this could have been handled? When they originally changed the departure time to 9 hours later, should he have been given a refund?

I just spent some quality time with Frontier's contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline. I couldn't find the time requirements either. That usually means there's a policy that isn't listed. But the Department of Transportation (DOT) should know. I would bring this to the DOT's attention. Here's how to file a complaint.

I wonder if there’s a safe way to implement masked and unmasked sections on transportation and in public spaces, similar to the way we used to have smoking and non-smoking sections? Let the unmasked be unmasked amongst their own kind, not taking a free ride among the masked. I wear a mask to protect others and resent those who want to be unmasked in a public space near me, benefiting from my mask but not reciprocating. I’m old enough to recall the bad old days when smoking was not banned in most places and encountering smokers who would smoke in YOUR car but not their own “to keep it nice.”

I think many places already have rules about wearing masks. For example, Metro mandates masks. But a good number of people don't follow the existing rules, so I'm not sure they'd agree to any new ones.  

Is Chris indicating that he doesn't wear clothes more than once while traveling without washing them? One doesn't normally get all that dirty while traveling--sweating yes--so clothes can be alternated. Let a top dry out. On Monday, wear one top, on Tuesday, another and switch back on Wednesday or Thursday. I do that with shoes. Also, does anyone know why bathroom sinks in motels/hotels rarely have stoppers that work or are nonexistent?

Oh, you're asking if I recycle? Why, that's a personal question. ;-) Yes, I do wear some clothes more than once when I'm on a longer trip. I try to keep that to a minimum. I travel with three teenagers and they are quick to let me know if I've crossed a line, if you know what I mean. Regarding your sink question, I don't know the answer, but if I had to guess I'd say hotels have had to clean more messes as the result of a plugged sink or bathtub -- so they just got rid of the plugs. 

We've vacationed on 35 Caribbean Islands and St. Lucia is our next destination. My husband loves to body surf. Is there a resort or a beach you recommend for him?

Not sure when you want to travel, but familiarize yourself with St. Lucia's Covid restrictions if it's not way in the future. I will leave the body surfing question to our chatters, although I believe Anse De Sables Beach has higher surf -- it's a favorite kiteboarding spot. 

Following up on my refund on an SAS round trip ticket to Copenhagen, booked in Oct 2019. Flight departure July 2020. You were right to wait for the airlines to cancel the flight. SAS finally emailed notification the flight was cancelled on June 15 and I followed SAS email instructions to "apply for a refund." As others have noted, you need to be very careful to read the fine print of notifications to correctly follow the airlines' instructions to request a refund. I did receive an immediate response from SAS confirming receipt of my request. I waited until the end of June, then filed a complaint with DOT, just to get in the queue. On July 10, I reached an SAS customer service rep who told me that it would take at least 10-12 weeks to receive a refund. I explained DOT's refund requirements and that I understood some delay was expected under the circumstances, but that time frame was totally unreasonable. I happened to mention that I did file a complaint with DOT. The next day, I received an email stating the SAS refund had been processed. It hit my credit card account on July 15. Seems as though playing the DOT card worked, at least in this case! Thanks for all your guidance and sharing others' experiences. Keep up the good work!

Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I'm glad you finally got your refund.

I'm struggling with whether to drive to our beach condo in Florida next month. I'd love to be able to quantify how much more COVID risk I'd be taking on making this trip. Have y'all done any research of how much more risk we take on, traveling vs. staying at home? How much more risk would hanging out on the beach or by the pool be? I know your article on planes, trains, and automobiles said driving was probably safer, but how much more am I taking on with stops for gas and bathroom breaks? Or is there no good research quantifying this risk yet?

You should first keep up with what's going on in Florida. It's not good right now.  It added more than 10,000 new cases today and the death toll is now more than 5,000. I don't think anyone can give you hard stats on your questions. But staying home, if you really are staying at home, poses very little risk. Traveling exposes you to other people and new places. Several charts are going around that try to give an idea of what activities are most dangerous, but I'm not a big fan of these, as they don't allow for different scenarios one can encounter in various situations. 

Nowdays, when hotel maids only clean the room between guests instead of every day, but the cleaning process is more intense, what is an appropriate tip at a mid-range ($100-$200/night) hotel?

That is a great point. Plus housekeepers (not maids) have been suffering plenty because of the decrease in hotel guests. I would double whatever you typically give. (Between $2 and $4 a day is the norm.) However, medical experts suggest you decline housekeeping to avoid additional bodies in your room. So, you would be tipping more on less service.

I liked Andrea Sachs' recent article about the new pandemic-related safe touring of Chicago. If I were to suggest improvements, they would include: recommendations about hotels near Millennium Park, Robie House, Dearborn Station, and Navy Pier; recommendations about which restaurants offered outdoor dining near Millennium Park and Navy Pier; and an explanation about the significance of Dearborn Station: why is that building important? Thanks.

Hi. Glad your enjoyed the piece. I appreciate the suggestions but the piece was not a traditional travel destination piece. I was sharing the experience of visiting a city during the pandemic. Recommendations for hotels or restaurants and historic details about Chicago buildings did not belong in this kind of piece.

Have you heard anything about the status of the big NYC Holiday markets (Columbus Circle, Bryant Park, Union Square, usually mid November to the first weekend in January)? What's your gut feeling about whether or not the city will be open for Holiday shopping? I'm about to buy an Amtrak ticket, unless you think the cost of the ticket will drop in the next few weeks.

It is only July -- way too soon to know. The markets are outside, but they do draw crowds. You can always rebook your Amtrak ticket if the markets are canceled.

I have a reservation on Road Scholar to go to Cuba on October 1-5. Do you think this trip will happen? Do you think travel to Cuba will happen any time soon. BTW Road Scholar is slow to cancel trips and provide refunds.

It is impossible to say. Currently, the State Department is advising Americans to avoid all international travel. Some things to consider, based on information from the US Embassy in Cuba:

  • When Cuba does re-open, a mandatory quarantine in a government facility may be required for all incoming travelers.
  • Authorities may isolate individuals arriving from COVID-19 high risk countries, or those exhibiting symptoms similar to COVID-19, as well as require screening and evaluation at a local hospital or clinic.
  • Due to shortages of critical medications and supplies, travelers outside Havana may be escorted to more well-quipped facilities as directed by attending physicians.
  • Cuban authorities report those individuals who require quarantine will be transferred to select facilities to complete treatment in isolation for 14 days.
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    Is that a common practice? I haven't traveled as widely as you guys, but on the tours and packages I've taken, I've made deposits to register, then made additional payments as they came due. If the cruise company wants to charge $6,000 without notice, wouldn't the traveler have had to authorize that at the time they signed up? There's a big difference between saying "You must pay xx amount by xx date" vs. "We will charge your card xx amount on xx date."

    I don't now the specifics of the contract, but I've seen cards get charged without notice. And in this environment, nothing would surprise me.

    We will probably have to drive to Massachusetts this summer and I am dreading it. We will bring our food. Will have wipes when stopping for gas. The big problem is using the restroom at a reststop. If I could figure out how to do it discreetly I would use a disposal portable urinal rather than going in the building. My second thought is to get off the highway and use a restroom at a local supermarket. Any thoughts or suggestions? Are there better times and days to travel?

    Friends of mine just drove from Fairfax to Denver without stopping. They packed their own food, slept in their SUV and used a portable potty. Sounded pretty awful to me, but they managed. As for whether it makes sense to seek out off-the-beaten-path restrooms, that may make you feel better, but I think the ones along the highways may be cleaned more often.  As for when to travel, I'd leave at night in order to avoid rush hours. 

    for some of us, travel involves running or working out once a day, plus hiking or cross country skiing or other very athletic endeavors, so recycling clothes is not a an option. We always find out about laundry facilities prior to booking trips!

    Point taken!

    Looks like our hour is up -- thanks for chatting today, everyone. Wisconsin traveler, drop us a line at travel@washpost.com to claim your prize, which we will send as soon as we are able. And join us next week 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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