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How do you know if your hotel room is really clean amid coronavirus?


It’s almost impossible to find a hotel that hasn’t introduced a new sanitation program, promising its rooms are squeaky clean and will be coronavirus-free. How do you know if your hotel room is really clean?



a person standing next to a sink: Janitor cleaning sink in hotel room


© Make sure to wipe down frequently-touched surfaces like the bathroom sink and toilet, desks, etc.
Janitor cleaning sink in hotel room


“It’s difficult to distinguish between legitimate cleaning efforts and public relations,” says Sheryl Kline, a professor at the University of Delaware who has researched hotel hygiene. “Anyone can do a visual inspection, and it can look clean. Just because it looks clean does not necessarily mean that it is clean.”  

Hotels have standard room-cleaning practices, which have been upgraded since the pandemic. But there is no universally accepted way to clean a hotel guest room, says Kline.


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    How antibodies in recovered COVID-19 patients could treat others with coronavirus
    How antibodies in recovered COVID-19 patients could treat others with coronavirus

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    Midwest states to partner on reopening economies
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How to explore the world from the comfort of your home

The Armchair Traveller reveals how to explore the world from home: See the sights of Europe on Kirsten Dunst’s grand tour and recreate a luxury spa experience

  • Kirsten Dunst tours Europe in movie thriller The Two Faces Of January
  • MarBella Collection hotels in Greece has launched online beauty tutorials 
  • Head to VisitFinland.com for glorious photos and inspiration for a future trip

From travelogues to films and even webcams, Neil Simpson reveals how you can still explore the world from your own home during the lockdown.

Seeing the sights of Europe was a far more glamorous affair in the early 1960s, so take a step back into that golden age in the sun-drenched movie thriller The Two Faces Of January. A couple of wealthy American tourists, played by Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst, drift from one glorious setting to another, including the Acropolis in Athens, clifftop ruins in Crete, and the minarets and markets of Istanbul.

The 2014 film is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, so there’s darkness amid the sun. But like the adaptation of her better-known The Talented Mr Ripley, starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, the real stars here are the scenery and the sparkling sea.

Golden age: Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst tour Europe in The Two Faces Of January

For a travelogue with a much lighter touch, turn to a very different American author: Bill Bryson. His classic book Notes From A Big Country from the 1990s (first published as columns in The Mail on Sunday) still paints a perfect picture of his homeland.

His description of cheap American motels, where he says that it feels perfectly normal to be woken at 3am by a female voice screaming ‘Honey, put down the gun and give me the baby’, is a joy. It’s now available as a paperback, e-book or audiobook.

Keep smiling as you explore the stunning landscapes and wide- open spaces of Finland online. The country’s tourist board sprinkles plenty of humour amid the glorious photographs that are on display at visitfinland.com.

The ‘Find The Finn In You’ section generates your Finnish name (I’m now Sampo Sammalkorpi) and tells you what the words mean. Scroll on to read all about Santa Claus, saunas and the ‘six steps to be happy like a Finn’ before researching the perfect igloo, ice-hotel, treehouse or cottage for a future trip.

A desert island might feel like the ideal place to ride out the storm of lockdown – and the BBC Sounds app offers The Food Programme: Stranded! How To Eat On A Desert Island.

Research the perfect igloo, ice-hotel, treehouse or cottage to stay in for a future trip to Finland at VisitFinland.com 

It reveals that we needn’t go hungry while we’re there. From seaweed (‘nature’s original multi-vitamin’) to sea kale, the show explains ‘the restaurant is always open on the beach’.

Apparently, there are just three ingredients are needed to recreate the spa experience of a five-star hotel at home. The group of MarBella Collection hotels in Greece has put together a series of simple (if potentially rather messy) face-mask recipes using some honey, bananas and orange juice. Find the recipes, alongside many other Mediterranean-inspired activities, by searching #Athomewithmarbella online.

If those beauty treatments have got you ready for a Zoom close-up with friends, you need to dress the part to stay in the holiday mood. Click on the fashion section of travel gift shop airportag.com for ideas. It’s an American site but products can be priced in pounds and sent to the UK. Favourite slogans on T-shirts include Do I Look Like I Fly Economy? and Jet Lag Made Me Do It. Alternatively, pick a shirt that says what most travel-fans are thinking this spring: I’d Rather Be Flying.

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How Amtrak Hopes to Give Riders 'Confidence in Their Journey' After Coronavirus


Looking to the future, when coronavirus quarantines no longer restrict us from relaxing on a long train ride, Amtrak is preparing for their customers to return with the help of an enhanced mobile app and cleaning protocols.

a group of people standing next to a train: Amtrak's goal is "less interaction, more control, and a better overall experience" for its customers, reps say.

“There’s a whole fleet of technology that we’ve been working on, that I think in general provides customers with more information, more control, [and] easier transactions,” Amtrak chairman Tony Coscia said on a conference call on Thursday. “In response to the crisis we’re in now, and the changing expectations of customers, we’re just looking to see how can we accelerate that where we create less contact and easier use for our passengers.”

Specifically, Coscia mentioned relying more on their app for tickets, and their text messaging system that provides passengers with boarding information “so that folks know right away where to head [and] they don’t have to spend time walking around or engaging in more idle time in the station than necessary.”

When it comes to meals on board, he said the company envisions purchases being made in advance or on the app to ensure efficient and reduced contact during transactions.

“Rather than go and wait in the café, we can receive your order in advance and process that order and you can come and pick it up  and have less interaction, and more control, and a better overall experience,” he said.

As the coronavirus pandemic initially swept the U.S. over a month ago, Amtrak quickly accommodated customers by waiving change fees and amping up its cleaning protocol. Currently it’s operating at 50 percent capacity and a 95 percent decrease in ridership. The popular Acela route that runs from Washington D.C. to Boston has been temporarily suspended.

CEO Bill Flynn said the increased cleaning routine — which includes having a cleaning crew on board — will be continued when the virus subsides.

“We think this is what our customers will value as they come back,” he said.

Describing overcoming coronavirus as an “enormous challenge,” Coscia ensured the protocols they’re looking to implement will improve riders’ experience and give customers “a level of confidence about their journey.”


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How Australian airline Qantas is taking care of its grounded planes amid Covid-19


While millions of people around the world are cutting their own hair and inventing new recipes amid the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of the world’s commercial airplanes are also getting much-needed rest.

a large passenger jet sitting on top of a building

Qantas has shared a video revealing how its planes are being maintained and cared for while grounded during Australia’s lockdown measures.

John Walker, the airline’s Melbourne-based Head of Line and Intermediate Maintenance Operations, shared that the planes are getting plenty of TLC while they sit in hangars waiting for global travel to resume.

“When you park an airplane, it’s not just like parking a car,” Walker explains. “You don’t just switch it off and lock the doors.”

The planes are towed periodically around so that their wheels can rotate, and service members clean the inside and outside of the aircraft. Depending on the model of the plane, its engine must be turned on either every 15 or 30 days, and the cockpit window is covered in tinfoil so the front of the aircraft won’t get too hot.  

Parking planes can be a challenge even at the best of times. Airplanes only earn money when they’re in the sky, and it can cost hundreds of dollars per hour to pay for storage of a single plane. Fees are often determined by the weight of the plane, with huge passenger aircraft being understandably more expensive to store.

It’s also preferable to store planes in warm areas, as dry air is less likely to corrode a plane’s metal parts.

Qantas, of course, isn’t the only airline in the world taking care of its grounded planes right now. 

Airlines like Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific and Germany’s Lufthansa have grounded some 90% of their fleets, with no idea how long it will take for travel numbers to reach their pre-virus peak again.

In the meantime, though, airplanes can “have their bath before bed,” as Walker puts it, presumably with bedtime story and glass of warm milk optional.


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    This is what the CDC 'no sail order' means for the cruise ship industry
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    How to get refunded when your flight is cancelled by the airline
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How empty are airports? TSA screened fewer than 100,000 passengers Tuesday, a record low




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How to explore the world from the comfort of your own home

The Armchair Traveller: Be dazzled by Italy and delve into Paris’s secret maze of tunnels – how to explore the world from the comfort of your home

  • The Secret Catacombs Of Paris podcast explores the city’s underground tunnels 
  • Remind yourself of famous sights with the World Landmarks 1000-piece puzzle 
  • Film fans can fall in love with the Italian island of Pantelleria in A Bigger Splash

The first guidebook from Rough Guides was published about 40 years ago (it covered Greece) but the company has long since had a brilliant website too. Click on it to read, in reverse order, the result of its 2020 readers’ poll into The 20 Most Beautiful Countries In The World.

Fabulous photographs accompany each entry, with Nepal at No 20, followed by Spain, Chile and Argentina. With its fascinating mix of the ancient and modern, Japan makes it into the top ten, and your travel bucket list will get longer as you scroll to the No 1 spot occupied, naturally, by Italy.

As a major tourist destination, France also makes it into the Rough Guides poll but if you think you know its capital, think again. The Secret Catacombs Of Paris podcast on the BBC Sounds app springs surprises from the start, revealing that the City of Light has a dark side: it’s built on more than 175 miles of tunnels, most of which are supposed to be off-limits.

The Secret Catacombs Of Paris podcast explores the French city’s tunnels. Pictured is a section of the mostly abandoned belt railway known as La Petite Ceinture

Host Jonathan Glancey speaks to a secretive band of Parisians who search for hidden entrances in train stations, cellars and sewers, and to police officers who patrol the tunnels beneath sensitive sites such as banks and prisons. Along the way Glancey reveals how the network was created and why it’s full of old bones.

Paris, of course, is home to some of the world’s greatest landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower. And if travel lovers want to remind themselves of various gems around the globe, they could order the 1,000-piece World Landmarks puzzle from Ravensburger.

Online retailers expect to sell a year’s-worth of jigsaws in a month as simple pleasures come back to the fore. This one includes nearly 100 cleverly hidden sights, including Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Pyramids of Egypt, Rio’s epic Christ the Redeemer and Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid.

Meanwhile, maps of the world jump off the page amid scarcely believable stories of political incompetence in Prisoners Of Geography: Our World Explained In 12 Simple Maps, by Tim Marshall.

He races across the globe, bringing whole regions to life and showing why so many national borders have proved to be disastrous mistakes. It’s lightly told, with chapters headings such as How Do You Solve A Problem Like Korea?

And if you are home-schooling or compiling a family quiz, the book is a great way to catch up on geography and 20th Century history.

Film fans can fall in love with the Italian island of Pantelleria, pictured, in A Bigger Splash

If audiobooks are more your thing actress Julie Harris brings a very well-travelled Englishwoman to life as she reads West With The Night. It’s the memoir of Beryl Markham, who in 1936 became the first person to fly solo, non-stop, across the Atlantic from east to west. A genuine modesty pervades Beryl’s story as she roams the globe in the early days of air travel.

Film fans can fall in love with the sun-kissed but little-known Italian island of Pantelleria in A Bigger Splash, starring Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes.

In real life, the tiny volcanic island is where celebrities including Madonna, Sting and Giorgio Armani go on holiday.

This drama is an adult affair, with the stars behaving badly around the villa’s pool, but the scenes of slow-dancing in warm piazzas, alfresco meals by the water and a stunning, candle-lit restaurant in the hills are the stuff of holiday dreams.

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How to plan your travels in the era of coronavirus


These are challenging days for travelers. As countries enter into coronavirus lockdowns worthy of a Margaret Atwood novel, airline policies are ever-shifting. Meanwhile cruise companies are rapidly changing cancellation policies to better accommodate skittish travelers.

a group of toy people: Thin crowds at Logan Airport Terminal C.

To help clear up the confusion, we’ve gathered a partial list of refund and rebooking changes. Before you jump on the phone and demand a refund, or book a new flight or cruise, read the company’s policy very clearly. Depending on when you booked your trip, getting a refund or credit for a flight simply because you’re afraid to travel is not a given. If you buy travel insurance, make sure you purchase a “cancel for any reason” policy. Standard policies do not cover coronavirus-related cancellations.

If you are elderly, or have a compromised immune system, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you don’t travel, particularly on cruise ships. Also, if you plan to travel, you should build an additional two weeks into your schedule in the event you are quarantined or need to self-quarantine. Before you leave for your trip, make sure your home is stocked in the event a quarantine is necessary.

Can I get a refund?

For destinations the CDC has raised to Level 1, 2, or 3 warnings (China, Iran, Italy, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan), many airlines are offering full refunds, refunds in the form of future travel credit, or waived change fees. While you probably won’t pay a change fee, you will still pay the fare difference if your new date costs more. Most airlines have clearly laid out their policies on their websites. Here are a few:

American Airlines: American is offering free changes or cancellations, depending on destination, for flights to or from South Korea, Hong Kong, China, and select cities in Italy. In cases where flights have been canceled entirely, you’ll get a refund. In other cases, you can reschedule your trip to a later date. Whether you qualify depends on when you bought your ticket. For example, if you’re flying to South Korea, you’ll need to have booked your ticket by Feb. 24, 2020.

British Airways: Travelers booked to fly from London to Milan, Turin, Bologna, Venice, Bergamo, or Verona through March 15 can rebook with no change fee for travel up to April 3, 2020.

Delta Air Lines: Travelers flying to any international or domestic destination through April 30, who have purchased their flight before March 30, can change their flight with no fees. Change fees also are waived through May 31 for travelers booked to fly to Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, and all locations in Italy. The airline has suspended flights to Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, and some flights to Japan and Italy and will offer refunds or waived change fees for passengers booked on those flights.

Qatar Airways: Travelers who have booked flights for travel up to June 30 can change their dates with no change fee, or exchange their ticket for a travel voucher valid for one year so long as they make the request at least 72 hours prior to departure.

United Airlines: United is waiving change fees and allowing refunds for travel to or from select cities, which include Wuhan, Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Hong Kong, Seoul, and many cities in northern Italy. For northern Italy, flights must be rescheduled by June 30, 2020, to avoid paying a fare difference. If you reschedule for a date after that, you’ll need to pay the difference in fare.

Should I book future air travel?

As the number of travelers purchasing airline tickets and cruise ship passage declines, travel deals are beginning to emerge, and experts who track bargains say this is the best time to travel. Search around on Google Flights and you’ll see that you can grab a round-trip flight on Delta from Boston to Honolulu for under $400 in April. JetBlue has fares as low as $42 one way from Boston to Orlando in March and April. There many, many other deals.

If you’re thinking of jumping on the bargain bandwagon, my advice is to do this sooner rather than later. As the number of passengers drops, airlines will begin trimming flights. It makes more financial sense for airlines to leave planes parked than flying them half-empty. Delta announced on Tuesday that it will begin cutting back routes. Other airlines will soon follow.

Another option is to seek out a travel adviser (that’s the fancy new way of saying travel agent) to work with you on planning a trip. Most good advisers can shuffle around plans for you.

To help travelers feel a bit more secure about booking now for future trips, some airlines are waiving change fees for new bookings made in the next few weeks. If you end up changing your flight under these policies, there are no change fees, but you’ll need to pay the fare differences if your new flight is more expensive. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and of course, always verify rules and requirements directly with the airline.

Air Canada: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 31, as long as you travel within 12 months of the date of your original ticket.

Alaska Airlines: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 12, 2020, for travel through June 1, 2020, so long as you rebook for travel by Dec. 31, 2020.

American Airlines: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 16, 2020.

British Airways: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 16, 2020, so long as you rebook to a date in the next 12 months.

Delta Air Lines: There’s no change fee for new international or domestic tickets booked through April 30, 2020.

Icelandair: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 16, so long as you travel by June 1, 2020.

JetBlue: There’s no change fee or cancellation fee for new tickets booked through March 11, 2020, so long as travel is completed by June 1, 2020.

Qatar Airways: There’s no change fee for tickets booked for travel up to June 30, 2020, so long as you make the request at least three days prior to departure. Qatar is also offering the option to cancel and get a travel credit with no fee.

Southwest Airlines: Southwest never charges a fee to change or cancel a flight, so long as you do it at least 10 minutes prior to the scheduled departure.

United: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 31 for travel during the next 12 months.

Virgin Atlantic: There’s no change fee for new tickets booked through March 30, 2020, so long as you rebook for travel by Sept. 30, 2020.

Should I book a cruise? 

On Sunday, the State Department said US citizens, specifically those with underlying health issues, should not go on cruises. Of all the travel sectors getting slammed by Covid-19, the $45 billion a year cruise industry could be the hardest hit of them all. Particularly with images of quarantined ships being denied entry into ports.

Travel advisers, who make a large percentage of their living from booking cruises, are bracing for the fallout.

“There are 365 cruise ships sailing today with nearly 700,000 passengers aboard,” said Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors. “Only two ships have a coronavirus problem. A targeted focus on cruising is a distraction from the real issue of community spread. Telling the traveling public to avoid cruising and painting the entire industry with a broad high-risk brush stroke is irresponsible.”

To lure cruisers back to the seas, cruise lines are responding with previously unheard of booking policies and onboard incentives and discounts. Here are a few offerings:

Carnival: For passengers who booked before March 6, 2020, Carnival will allow those booked on cruises between now and May 31, 2020, to move their booking to a new date and receive a future cruise credit in the amount of the nonrefundable cancellation fee.

Celebrity Cruises: Celebrity’s new “Cruise With Confidence” policy allows cruisers to cancel up to 48 hours before sailing. Those who cancel will receive a full credit for their fare, usable on any future sailing of their choice in 2020 or 2021. The policy applies to both new and existing cruise bookings for cruises with a sailing date on or before July 31, 2020.

Norwegian Cruise Line: Norwegian is offering a short-term “Peace of Mind” policy, which gives anyone who books a Norwegian Cruise Line sailing through Sept. 30, 2020, the ability to cancel up to 48 hours prior to the departure date and receive a 100 percent future cruise credit for use on any sailings through Dec. 31, 2022. This new policy also applies to existing bookings for any voyages beginning March 10, 2020, or later.

Princess Cruises: Princess temporarily revised its cancellation policy for cruises and cruise tours departing up to May 31, 2020. The line is implementing a revised policy to assist guests making decisions regarding their cruise. The details vary by departure date. For cruises April 3 or earlier, cancel up to 72 hours before sailing to receive a future cruise credit for 100 percent of the cancellation fee. For cruises April 4 to May 31, cancel by March 31, 2020, and receive a credit for 100 percent of the cancellation fees.

Viking: Viking’s new temporary cancellation policy allows passengers to postpone their ocean or river cruise at any time, up to 24 hours prior to departure, without incurring any cancellation fees. Passengers will be issued a voucher good for future Viking travel that is valid for 24 months and can be transferred to any Viking cruise, either river or ocean. This temporary exemption applies to all guests with existing bookings made prior to March 2, 2020, and those with new reservations made departing through April 30, 2020.

WATCH: Coronavirus outbreak causes airlines to pivot, cut back on flights (provided by USA Today)


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How Coronavirus Is Impacting Disney World and Disneyland

With the busy spring break season upon us and COVID-19, aka novel coronavirus, today declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, families with plans to head to Walt Disney World and Disneyland have a lot of questions about how the virus could or should impact their travel plans.

Internationally, four Disney parks remain closed in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Shanghai, although Shanghai has begun reopening its shopping and dining district. A Disneyland Paris worker tested positive for coronavirus but that park remains open.

Domestically, Walt Disney World and Disneyland also remain open for business. Dr. Pamela Hymel, Chief Medical Officer, Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, said in a statement on the Disney Parks Blog that “Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort are open and welcoming guests and we continue to implement preventive measures in line with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as state and local health agencies.”

What Steps Is Disney Taking to Keep the Parks Safe?

In her statement, Hymel detailed the additional steps Disney is taking to prevent the spread of coronavirus and other diseases in the parks, including “frequent cleaning and disinfection of targeted areas,” “easy access to handwashing facilities and hand sanitizers,” and “frequent cleaning of outdoor locations, including walkways and queue.”

Hand sanitizer stations have been added throughout the parks, and today new portable handwashing stations began showing up at Walt Disney World. Disney has published the locations of many of the hand sanitizer stations at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Should Travelers Keep Their Plans to Visit Disney Parks and Resorts?

It’s well known by now that the CDC is recommending that high-risk individuals, mainly older adults and those with serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease, avoid crowds, cruise travel, and non-essential air travel.

But, for healthy individuals, it remains more of a personal choice. A statement by a coalition of 150 travel-related organizations issued by the U.S. Travel Association seeks to reassure healthy travelers:

“Though the headlines may be worrisome, experts continue to say the overall coronavirus risk in the U.S. remains low. At-risk groups are older individuals and those with underlying health conditions, who should take extra precautions. The latest expert guidance indicates that for the overwhelming majority, it’s OK to live, work, play and travel in the U.S.”

A Doctor’s Take

We asked Dr. Colleen Nash, Assistant Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Rush University Children’s Hospital and Medical Director of the Pediatrics Antimicrobial Stewardship Program for her advice on how families should decide whether to take a Disney vacation. She recommends families evaluate the potential outcomes.

“Visiting a theme park or partaking in any activity involving very large crowds always poses a risk of (any) infection transmission,” she says. She suggests those considering travel evaluate the health of those in their party as well as family members back home and how illness could potentially affect them.

Even for healthy individuals, she recommends considering “how coronavirus infection (if it were to happen) could impact your family and if that is a tolerable risk and potential time away from school, work, normal daily activities, say, if you had to undergo quarantine.”

For those comfortable with those possible outcomes, there aren’t currently any official recommendations that go against proceeding with travel plans.

What’s It Like to Be at Walt Disney World Right Now

I visited Walt Disney World last week and found almost no discernible difference in the experience from other times I’ve visited the parks. This week, aside from the noticeable uptick in hand-sanitizing stations and handwashing stations, it feels like business as usual for vacationing families. Meet-and-greets, buffet meals, and other higher-contact experiences haven’t been reduced.

Len Matela of Western Springs, Illinois, is currently at Walt Disney World with his wife and three sons and said the main difference their family noticed was that guests were utilizing personal hand sanitizer and hand-sanitizing stations more frequently.

“We’re not germaphobes so it’s not stressing us out,” Matela says. “If you didn’t watch the news or look at your phone and continuously see new information about the virus spreading, you wouldn’t notice any changes.”

Matela says concerns about the virus haven’t impacted their vacation at all. “We’re having a blast,” he says, noting that worries don’t seem to have had an effect on crowd levels yet. “Selfishly we were hoping for smaller lines and less of a crowd!!”

What If Disney Does Decide to Close Walt Disney World or Disneyland?

Should the spread of coronavirus or official government recommendations lead the domestic parks to make the decision to close, as was the case in Asia, it’s safe to assume Disney will offer refunds of park tickets and resort stays, as they’ve done in Asia. Should guests electively cancel a Disney vacation, standard resort cancellation terms will apply. Park tickets are changeable but non-refundable.

Now that most major airlines have issued waivers and have given travelers the flexibility and peace of mind to change their flights without fees, guests who are planning or looking forward to planned Disney vacations should feel reassured that any official park closures will likely see them fully reimbursed or able to change their vacation plans without fees.

How to Stay Healthy During Your Disney Vacation

We asked Dr. Nash what families can do to stay healthy during a Disney trip, and they are much the same as recommendations you’ve been hearing across the news media—mainly, wash your hands!

She recommends frequent, meticulous handwashing or hand sanitizing before and after meals and regularly at the parks, particularly after each ride.

“I cannot stress enough the importance of washing your hands (and doing it well, at least 20 seconds, with soap and water OR using alcohol-based hand sanitizer) and not touching your face (eyes, nose, mouth),” she says. “This provides so much protection against many infectious diseases and cannot be overstated.”

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How and why I cancelled our trip due to coronavirus concerns



a rainbow in the sky

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Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of Microsoft News or Microsoft. MSN Travel Voices features first-person essays and stories from diverse points of view. Click hereto see more Voices content from MSN Lifestyle, Health and Travel. 

As the old Kenny Rogers song goes, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” These words very accurately portray the scenario that ultimately led us to cancel our scheduled trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, due to the coronavirus and its real and potential implications.

While we acknowledge and respect that some people are still pushing forward with their travel plans, let me tell the other side of the story. I’ll share both some background information on the nature of our trip and the personal and societal factors that came into play that made this a wrong trip at the wrong time situation. While we were confident that Alaska was as safe a destination as any, it was largely the rapidly changing status of the situation and the travel process that elevated our concerns.

The trip that could have been



Artistic rendering of lights that we hoped to see. 


© Painting by C.L. Cope

Artistic rendering of lights that we hoped to see. 

We had considered Finland, Greenland, Norway and Canada as possible viewing destinations, but decided on Northern Alaska because of our familiarity with the area, the comfort of known commodities and name brands, the relative ease of access and good flight values using our American Airlines miles. We booked our MileSAAver round-trip airline travel for only 30,000 AAdvantage miles each on American’s partner, Alaska Airlines. The cash price would have been around $700 per person.

We did our due diligence in acquiring good information and viewing tips to increase our odds for a successful sighting. Dark skies are good, so we looked for new moon phases. Historically speaking, equinoxes are better than solstices for solar activity so we entered that into the equation. Allowing at least three nights statistically increases the chances, as does an area that is far enough north to be included in the preferred auroral zone.

Our personal computer, the Human Brain 2020, came up with Fairbanks, Alaska, for four nights with the dates of March 21–25. We were pleased with our decision and excited for the journey.

And then…

Enter, coronavirus

A new virus, coronavirus (COVID-19), was first reported in China and, well, you know the rest of the story. People are quarantined, travel is restricted, some cruises have waited off the coast with confirmed cases, virus has spread, deaths are sadly in the thousands, states of emergency are being enacted, countries are being locked down, big events are being canceled, unanswerable questions are being posed, uncertainty continues to grow and anxiety levels are rising by the day. We are now two months into this quandary and there are as many interrogative sentences as there are declarative ones.

We, like most others, had become concerned and proactive. We became professional hand washers and hand sanitizers.

We looked warily at those people sneezing or coughing. We avoided big crowds. We opened doors with our sleeves and pushed buttons with our knuckles. We have purchased face masks (here’s what you need to know about their effectiveness) and stocked up on basic foodstuff. You know, just in case. We followed the news and advisories — but all that by itself wasn’t enough to make the call on this trip.

As the outbreak continued to spread from its center of origin throughout our global community, we realized about a month ago that our trip to see the northern lights was in jeopardy.

The days came and went and we put our trip into a mental holding pattern. We wanted to take this adventure but, pardon the pun, we did have reservations.

We didn’t want to either overreact or dismiss the obvious — so, we waited. Sometimes patience is the best course of action. We very much hoped — for everyone’s sake — that the spread of the virus would somehow abate, that the crisis and its accompanying fear would lessen and that calm would follow the storm.

However, over the weekend, the equation continued to tilt toward scrubbing our own personal mission.

Age is a factor

As I’m sure you know, this novel virus strikes those in the most “experienced” age bracket the hardest. This is especially true if there are pre-existing health issues present. All in our travel party are 70+, or very close to it, and one has an underlying health issue. I am personally in my 72nd year on this fine planet, which lands me in the more concerning coronavirus statistics category.

Even with window seats and a game plan to wipe down all local surfaces, we still had doubts about flying for 18 total hours inside the very close quarters of an aircraft’s fuselage. There is no place to run, no place to hide inside the skin of a 737.

Oh, and I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that we had a long layover in Seattle, which unfortunately for all involved, is in an area that has thus far been one of the hardest-hit areas of the country.

Canceling the trip

We knew that if we decided to forego this trip that our hotel and car reservations would be easily cancellable with no financial repercussions. We had deliberately avoided making nonrefundable reservations for everything except the flights themselves.

While all major U.S. airlines are waiving change fees for the most recent flights purchased to encourage the flying public to continue to book travel, the same was not guaranteed for pre-outbreak reservations. We hoped a blanket policy to change all reservations would become a reality. However, we ran out of time to wait and see. (Note that since this writing, Delta has become the first major U.S. airline to formally announce that previously made reservations will be more flexible.)

Not knowing how the call would go, we dialed up American Airlines to discuss our options. We knew there could be a long wait as there often is even in periods of less volatility — and indeed, we were advised that there was an unusually high volume of calls and that all agents were busy helping others. However, instead of being placed on indefinite hold, we were advised we could get a call back when our place in line came up instead of holding an estimated 58 to 120 minutes. 

We got the call about an hour later and I was prepared to relay our story and our concerns. However, Katrina, the customer service rep, advised us that since we booked with miles, we could cancel the trip with no fees involved and the points would be credited as an unused flight.

To keep from losing the miles, we just had to book a trip by December of this year. That was it. Simple and straightforward.

Our traveling partner had booked her flights slightly differently than we had. She had used a mix of Chase Ultimate Rewards and cash to book the same Alaska Airlines-operated flights as us. She had to spend an afternoon listening to some slightly soul-crushing hold music, was hung up on after two hours and started again. Her journey to cancel started with Chase, where she made the reservation, but she was ultimately directed to Alaska Airlines where a supervisor became involved to approve canceling the current reservation without penalty. She will have one year from the date of booking to use the total value of the flight with Alaska Airlines. Getting points returned was not an option.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but she was told that the wait time is likely only expected to get longer in the days ahead as the number of coronavirus based cancellations increases.

Bottom line

We are both sad and relieved with our decision to unplug the lights on our Alaskan journey. We are very sad that the situation exists, but relieved that we may have lessened our exposure and vulnerability by hunkering down for a bit. We did not cancel out of knee-jerk panic, but rather with an abundance of caution and an ounce or three of prevention. Given all factors, for us, it was the right call.

We will put the northern lights back on our to-do list knowing that they will still be wafting ethereally long after this virus has taken its proper place in the medical history books. We will be thrilled and excited to stand in the cold, dark Alaskan night gazing at the heavens watching the dancing and darting lights waving at us from on high. It is going to be spectacular.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay tuned.

WATCH: Should coronavirus concerns keep you from traveling? (Provided by TODAY)


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How to Visit the Stunning English Locations Featured in 'Emma.'


When writing Emma, Jane Austen wanted to create “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” It may not have been successful, though, as Emma became one of Austen’s most successful books, spawning a flurry of remakes. 

a group of people sitting at a park: (L to R) Bill Nighy as "Mr. Woodhouse", Miranda Hart as "Miss Bates" and Myra McFadyen as "Mrs. Bates" in director Autumn de Wilde's EMMA, a Focus Features release.

In the latest adaptation of the novel, film director Autumn de Wilde created a vivid and colorful version of the story that simultaneously feels current and true to its history. A large part of that truth relied on filming locations that were perfectly preserved from the time Austen published her novel in 1815. 

In order to find locations perfect for Emma., de Wilde and her crew traveled around the south of England for months, searching for houses and villages that suit each of the characters and their tales.

“I believe that locations are a very important character,” de Wilde told Travel + Leisure. “They are like another actor in the film. And so, in a way, finding these places that weren’t quite right, I learned so much about the possibilities. It’s sort of like looking for the right man.” 

The location-scouting process was uniquely difficult in that de Wilde was looking for complete locations. Travelers who want to retrace the lives of their favorite characters won’t have to run from house to house, finding a bedroom in one and then dashing to another home to look at the grand ballroom. “I’m a nerd, so I did think about how fun it would be, if people did like the movie, for them to be able and go and find these places,” de Wilde said. “I liked the idea that if they went to see Mr. Knightley’s house, it’s all there.”

Firle Place

a large green field with trees in the background: Getty Images

The majestic Firle Place became Hartfield, home of Emma and her father, Mr. Woodhouse. The house in Sussex South Downs is owned by Lord and Lady Gage, who were enthusiastic about the film. “They really let us transform Firle into Hartfield,” de Wilde said. “Lord Gage is a painter, and I think he was really excited by the idea of so much color being brought into the house. In a way, we had a creative partnership with the owners.” 

Several scenes that would have taken place on the grounds of Hartfield were also filmed at Firle. The crew built a greenhouse on the grounds for the film, but a horse chestnut tree — the backdrop for the movie’s romantic ending — was already there and in full bloom at the time of filming. 

Wilton House

a large green field with trees in the background: David Goddard/Getty Images

Wilton House stands in for Donwell Abbey, the home of Mr. Knightley. In Austen’s tale, Knightley is the richest man and has the biggest house. However, he never feels quite at home at his estate. “I think there’s a grace and beauty to Wilton that wasn’t imposing, but it was overwhelming,” de Wilde explained. “It’s really incredible to be in there. It doesn’t feel homey. It’s like living in a museum.”

The rooms at Wilton are nothing if not grand. The apartments date back to the 1640s, and on their walls hang an impressive art collection: pieces by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, and Pieter Brueghel the Younger, among others. Viewers may also recognize some of the rooms from Barry Lyndon.

The grounds of the house feature in the film as well. All scenes that show Mr. Knightley or Emma on the grounds of Donwell Abbey were filmed outside Wilton. 

Lower Slaughter

a stone castle next to a body of water with Cotswolds in the background: Getty Images

This picturesque village in the Cotswolds stood in for the fictional village of Highbury. While there are many charming towns in the Cotswolds, what drew de Wilde to Lower Slaughter was its creek running through. “It created a divide in the town, and an obstacle for Mr. Knightley when he was running after Emma’s carriage,” she explained. “It created a little bit more of a feeling like you were being observed. You felt like the town was small and it was all in that one area.”  

Leith Hill

a castle surrounded by a body of water: Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery

One of the film’s most famous scenes is the picnic on Box Hill. Although Box Hill is a real place in Surrey, the view from the hill has become too modernized to feature in a period drama. As a replacement, location scouts found Leith Hill, one of the highest points in southeast England. Views of the surrounding hills and heathland are the perfect backdrop for a picnic — almost as memorable as Emma’s speech there. 

Ramster Hall

a car parked in front of a house: Tony Watson / Alamy Stock Photo

It wouldn’t be a Jane Austen story without a memorable ball scene. Ramster Hall hosted the film’s ball scenes in its original 17th-century hall, which was initially built as a barn. The room manages to feel grand, intimate, and historic all at the same time. 

St. Paul’s Walden

an old stone building: RDImages/Epics/Getty Images

In the time of Emma., church wasn’t just a religious experience, but a social one, too. St. Paul’s Walden in the town of Hitchin was an especially precious find for the film, as it was almost perfectly preserved in the Georgian style. “I started hating the Victorians because I couldn’t find a church that hadn’t been Victorianized,” de Wilde joked. All the film’s church scenes take place here, with only the pews changed to make it more ‘of the time.’” 

Kingston Bagpuize

a large brick building with grass and trees: James King-Holmes / Alamy Stock Photo

This impressive 16th-century house was used as Mrs. Goddard’s school, where Harriet Smith is in attendance. Kingston Bagpuize’s entrance hall, drawing room, and pink bedroom were used to portray where Harriet lives and studies. The house has an impressive film pedigree, also having been used in Downton Abbey as the home of Lord Merton. 

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