Travel in a Coronavirus world: Reminders of 9/11

I overheard someone comparing the coronavirus travel experience to traveling after 9/11, and I don’t quite agree. I took a Phx to San Fran to London flight a week after 9/11, and I remember standing room only in one of the bars, where people stopped to watch a live feed of the President.

DFW was empty for a weekday afternoon. Like taking a red eye and your flight is the only thing scheduled.

We spent our layover in the AA Flagship lounge. Have you ever been to an AA lounge at a major hub in the middle of a weekday during spring break? It should have been jam packed, but it was… empty. So empty, most of it was closed, and we were funneled into the First Class lounge.

There were maybe a dozen people there.

Let me tell you, Coronavirus was no joke to the airport staff. They were cleaning tables constantly, bathrooms were cleaned before they got dirty, the woman cleaning the ladies reassured us that she had just wiped down the door handles and we could touch them. The smell of disinfectant was heavy.

This is where we had our final “go or no go” discussion. We went.

At the gate, we finally saw people wearing gloves and masks.

We boarded a Qatar Airlines A350 and thoroughly wiped down every nook and cranny of our seats. Buttons, TVs, controllers, cubbies, latches, levers.

The curtains kept us from seeing the rest of the plane, but if our cabin was any indicator, the rest of the plane was only half full.

Qatar Airlines flight attendants were vigilant with their safety measures. Attendants wore masks when serving food, used napkins to open and close doors in the galley, and wiped down bathrooms after every use. Maybe these were measures they always practiced and I didn’t notice it before. I noticed it now.

And I have to admit. Knowing the flight attendants were being so careful made me feel more relaxed.

I get the comparison to travel now versus travel after 9/11. It’s the only event we can relate to, but the enemy is far more powerful.

Travel in a Coronavirus world: Should we stay or should we go?

Go or no go.

Hubs and I discussed this on and off for days before leaving on our scheduled trip to Africa. Our scheduled route: PHX to DFW to Doha to Johannesburg to Livingston, and a few days later traveling to Cape Town.

Last night, we had a final go or no go discussion and decided to go, at least to DFW. We’d continue to keep an eye on things and make our next “go or no go” decision at DFW.

We planned with caution in mind, packing disposable gloves, disinfecting wipes, vogmasks, and hand sanitizer. We also packed extra clothes and electronics, journals, books in case we have trouble getting home.

Having said that, we still packed light, each taking one carry-on suitcase and a backpack–all calculated to reduce the number of hands that we come into contact with.

Early this morning, we caught a ride to Sky Harbor. The airport was busy, maybe busier than expected, considering. However, not at all busy compared to the activity we usually see at the airport during spring break.

The AA lounge, usually packed, was not.

We reminded the girls (7 and 10 now) not to touch anything and especially not to touch their faces, and you could see in the reflecting mirrors of their eyes all the surfaces they weren’t thinking about touching but now wanted more than anything in the world to touch. They kept their hands to themselves.

There were a couple of people wearing masks, but not many.

We boarded our plane, which was full, and wiped down seats, trays, and windows with our disinfecting wipes. The first leg was uneventful.

So you want to go to the Maldives

Staying in an over water villa in the Maldives was one of my husband’s bucket list items, and this year, he decided we were going. He booked the flights and left it up to me to do the research on where to stay.

I started my search by looking up the best resorts for kids. Although I came up with a list of resorts to look at, I wish I’d found more blog posts that walked me through booking a trip to the Maldives (hence me writing this post). It wasn’t as straightforward as I thought it would be, but thank goodness for the Maldives TripAdvisor forum. With all the information I gleaned from reading the forum topics and questions, I felt well equipped to move forward on booking a trip, but there was a lot I needed to learn before I did.

Because you can look through that forum yourself, starting with the Top Questions About the Maldives, I won’t go into all the details you’ll need, but I will tell you how we decided on–and booked–our resort. It took a leap of faith, but it all worked out.

The first thing you need to know is that to get the best deals, you go through one of the recommended travel agents. Yes, it’s contrary to everything I thought – who uses travel agents these days when you can do it yourself? But the experts on the forum were right, the travel agents often got better deals, including lots of extras that I’ll talk about later. Do yourself a favor and look up the recommended travel agents on the TripAdvisor forum, I won’t list them here in case they change over time.

The next thing you need to know is that the most highly recommended agents came from the UK. That has its own set of issues for people booking from the U.S. I’ll go into more detail later.

I started with an email to four of the recommended Maldives travel agents. I listed what we were looking for and our budget. I tend to be fairly detailed
(over water villa, kid friendly, all inclusive), so when one of the agents replied back with a resort suggestion that had NO over water villas, I ticked them off the list. At least read the email to find out what someone is looking for.

Two of the other three agents responded. One called me from the UK, and after asking questions about how we like to travel, recommended Ayada Maldives. He also suggested looking at Outrigger Konotta but told me he thought I’d get more out of Ayada.

I looked up the two resorts and shared them with my husband and our friends who were also booking a trip. According to the agents, Ayada is somewhat overlooked because it’s so hard to get to. Once you finally get to Male, it takes a one hour domestic flight to Kaadedhdhoo, followed by a one hour speed boat ride to Ayada. It may take a little longer to get to, but Ayada is quickly garnering a name for itself. It’s listed as one of the top 25 hotels in the world on TripAdvisor, and it was recognized as one of the best hotels in the Maldives by Conde Nast. Don’t trust me, go ahead and look it up for yourself.

After much back and forth, we decided to book Ayada.

Before I could get back to the agent, he left on a trip to the Maldives, and another agent picked up where he left off. I found her difficult to work with and was frustrated that it often took me asking multiple times to get the quotes and/or information I wanted. During this time frame, I was still corresponding with another agent, but the rates were not as good, and he kept pushing us to choose Outrigger Konotta.

Even though one of the original four agents had never responded to me, the reviews for her were so good on TripAdvisor that I gave her another try, and she got back to me immediately, with a better rate and better conditions than any of the others. Let me explain:

  • after landing in Male, you still have to get to the resort – once you fly into Male, you have to get a speed boat/sea plane to the resort–any resort, not just the one we picked, or you have to get a domestic flight to another airport and then a speed boat. Agents can often get the cost of the transfer INCLUDED with the rate. If we had not booked through an agent for our trip to Ayada, we would have spent thousands of extra dollars for the six of us to transfer to Ayada.
  • our agent got a great rate on the Ayada Diamond Package – because we stayed 7 nights, we were eligible for the Diamond Package, and it was much more affordable through the agent. The price difference between all inclusive and half board was so small that it made sense to upgrade to the all inclusive.
  • UK agents might have credit card charges – two of the other UK agents had a processing fee of 2.8 to 3% to use a credit card from the U.S. The one we used did NOT charge a processing fee.

So, the agent we booked with had the best rate, managed to get our transfers included with the rate, got us upgraded to the Diamond Package for a small fee, and did NOT charge us to use our U.S. credit card. The time we spent researching and talking to agents paid off.

There is a lot of information about all of this on the TripAdvisor Maldives forum, and I encourage you to research for yourself. The information I’ve listed here is about my experience to get you started, but it is not thorough. Booking through a UK agent took a leap of faith in that I had some anxiety about the whole thing being legit, but it was so well documented on TripAdvisor, and the agent was so good about explaining what kind of coverage she had as a travel agent, that I was able to leap. And everything worked out perfectly.

If you’re in the process of booking a trip to the Maldives, good luck and happy travels!

Belton House and Outdoor Adventure Playgrounds

With Belton House, things work a little differently than the other National Trust properties we’d been to. First, it’s so popular that visitors have to reserve spots for timed entry. We were going on a weekday, so we didn’t reserve online, but we were lucky to get timed entry for two hours after we got there. If we’d been going on a weekend or school holiday, the tickets to the house probably would have sold out before we got there. To make the most of our time, we booked the basement tour before the house entry, and it was free for National Trust members.

With the popularity of Downton Abbey, I could understand the compulsion to learn more about how the servant class lived, and the tour was eye opening. I loved the real life examples the tour guide gave us about people who’d actually lived and worked at Belton House, how much they got paid in comparison to today’s salaries, and how the family took care of the servants – even going so far as to pay for the treatment of one of the servants who had cancer. It painted a picture that was kinder than the one I’d had of how families treated servants (too many error-filled historical novels?). I left the tour with a much better understanding of the hierarchy and duties of the serving class. It was fascinating.

Like I said, entry to the house was timed, and we made sure not to miss our window. The girls loved the “tickets” that provided entry to the house — an old-fashioned key. We gave the keys to the woman at the door, and we entered to begin exploring the house.

I will say that navigating the house was sometimes confusing. While trying to catch up to my husband and the girls, I took a wrong turn and missed an entire level of the house, finished the tour, tried to figure out where my family was, returned to the entrance, asked for help, and finally realized that they had gone upstairs when I had gone across the landing.

The house itself was incredibly grand. I was fortunate to spend some time in a small room filled with paintings – just me and the room guide. I call it lucky because I may have missed the Frederick Leighton painting if she hadn’t pointed it out to me. Of all the famous painters, I love the Pre-Raphaelite painters the most, and the painting of Countess Brownlow by Frederick Leighton was stunning. Because of my interest in that painting, the room guide pointed out a few of the other more popular paintings. But my eye caught on one that reminded me of The Swing by Fragonard. It was called The Belton Conversation Piece by Philippe Mercier. When it caught my eye, the sun was shining on it in such a way that the woman in the swing was illuminated. Truly exquisite.

The other truly noteworthy aspect of Belton House is that it is also known as Rosings Park in the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice. I was so impressed, I even took photos of the Blue Bedroom, where Mr. Darcy stays during his visit to Rosings and where he writes his letter to Lizzie.

I toured the rest of Belton House by myself, having lost the family. It’s always nice to go at your own pace.

As a rewarding ending to the day, the girls played in the indoor play area for a while before we took them to the Outdoor Adventure Playground. It was extensive. We made it right before the cafe closed, so the girls got some ice cream, and I got tea with milk and sugar. It was perfect for the quickly cooling afternoon. We didn’t see the girls again until it was time to go, and of course, on their way back to the entrance, they tried all the outdoor adventure play things that they could. I also had a go at some of them! The area was so extensive, we could easily have stayed an entire day there without the girls getting bored.

To summarize, our trip to Belton House was great, and we’d go again with extra time for the Outdoor Adventure Playground.