Back to Travel – Part II…Hotels and Resorts

Janet recently posted a video clip highlighting a vacation destination series she will be sharing over the next few weeks that focuses on domestic travel. She is calling it the Ameri-cation series, and if you want to be sure you see these, either “like” our Tidewater Cruise and Travel Facebook page if you haven’t already, or go to the “Contact Us” section of our website and ask to be added to our e-mail list. We realize that some of you have personal circumstances that limit your travel until there is an effective vaccine to protect against COVID-19, and this series is for you. Our tag line is “Creating Your Lifelong Vacation Memories” but we are here for you even when all you can muster are vacation dreams.

This article is the second of three that I’ve written about getting back to travel. I posted the first article last week addressing what to expect the next time you fly. Some of you responded positively, eager to throw caution to the wind and fly now. Others shared with us that you are taking a more reserved approach. If you contemplate travel in the coming months, regardless of your mode of travel, a stay in a hotel or resort may be in your future plans…if so this article will help you know what to expect.

The opportunities for social distancing are greater in a hotel than on an airplane, but so are the areas for risk. Hotel chains and resorts have established sanitization protocols that comply with, and in many cases exceed, CDC recommended best practices for reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19. On the surface that should give you confidence, but the reality may be a different matter. With that in mind, here are some things you can expect and some things you can do to reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 the next time your travels involve an overnight stay in a hotel:

1. Branded Properties. Janet and I plan to stick with nationally and internationally branded hotels and resort chains, for now. The experience may be a bit more boring than boutique properties, but with a chain the risks are more controlled. Chain hotels and resorts have greater access to industry best practices, and in many cases greater access to personal protective equipment (PPE) for their staff when compared with locally owned properties. Luxury hotel chains like the Fairmont or Conrad are ideal…they pay attention to detail and have done so long before COVID-19. If a luxury hotel is outside of your price point, international chains like the IHG group (Holiday Inn) and the Marriott brands have adopted fairly rigid COVID-19 sanitization protocols for their properties. One note of caution…our experience talking with friends and colleagues tells us compliance with nationally directed standards varies widely from state to state so we recommend contacting the property directly. Ask about how they implement CDC recommended enhanced sanitization, and ask about the use of PPE. At a minimum you should expect masks to be required for guests in public areas, with the exception of eating and drinking at the hotel’s restaurant or lounge areas. Staff should be required to wear masks at all times and throughout the property, and food service and cleaning staff should also be required to wear gloves.

2. Do Your Homework. Rather than waiting until you arrive on property to discover your dream vacation is at a nightmare hotel, hit the online review sites, chat boards and social media channels. We take things a step further for our clients by using a review site dedicated to travel agents only. The reviews on this site are written by travel professionals and are much less biased and more impartial than what you’ll find on consumer web sites. If you do want to research on your own, find several people that have stayed recently at any property you are considering and quiz them about things that are important to you based on your unique circumstances.

3. Cleaning. Find out the property’s policy for cleaning. All hotels should clean rooms between bookings using enhanced sanitization procedures as recommended by the CDC. Once you are checked in, cleaning services should be limited to once every 3-4 days in order to reduce the number of interactions with hotel staff. You can always ask for supplemental cleaning or fresh towels more frequently as needed. Also book a hotel that has suspended turndown service, again to cut back on the frequency of touchpoints with hotel staff.

4. Amenities. I’m comfortable with hotels that provide individually wrapped bars of soap and bottles of shampoo, though it is better if you bring your own. I would avoid using any in-room coffee or tea service. In-room coffee makers don’t heat water sufficiently to kill bacteria and viruses, and there’s no telling how long the coffee packs and tea bags have been lying around.

5. Food and Beverage Service. Pass on the free breakfast buffet or salad bar, if it is offered. Not only does it bring an increased risk of spreading COVID-19, buffets and salad bars carry an increased risk of spreading any number of foodborne illnesses like Norovirus. Most chain hotels have done away with buffets since COVID-19, limiting their food service to ala carte orders. Sit down service at a hotel restaurant or bar is no more or less risky than any other establishment. They should enforce social distancing, offer single use paper or digital menus, and require staff to use PPE. Room service or delivery services are better options if you prefer to avoid dining in a public space altogether.

6. Hotel vs Resort. If you are deciding between a hotel, resort, or an all-inclusive property, I recommend the latter two. Resort stays tend to be longer, which means less turnover and that lowers the pool of germs you’ll be exposed to during your stay. Standards are usually higher at properties labeled as resorts. All-inclusive properties are even less risky since they are closed environments, at least as long as you don’t venture off the property. There is only one true all-inclusive resort in the states and that is a Club Med property in Florida, but with Mexico and the Caribbean reopening to tourist travel all-inclusives are once again a popular vacation option.

7. Facilities. Many hotels offer a range of pool, spa and fitness facilities but this is another area of concern for me. At a minimum if you want to hit the gym or get that full body massage, ask for a tour of the facilities when you check in. Fitness equipment and spa stations should be sanitized between each guest. Pools are more challenging. The chlorine content of pool water is hostile to the COVID-19 virus, but pools also make social distancing more challenging. If the pool is filled with salt water then I would avoid it completely since salt water lacks the protection of chlorinated water.

8. Inspection. Thoroughly inspect your room before you unpack. Look for signs the cleaning crew did a less than thorough job…things like trash left in the can or any sign of dirt or grime. Pay particular attention to the bathroom since that is where you are most likely to come into contact with COVID-19. Something as simple as a toilet paper roll without the fancy folded end suggests a lack of attention to detail that may be representative of the overall cleaning process. If you have any complaints about your room take them to the check-in desk immediately and ask that your concerns be addressed. That may take the form of either a supplemental cleaning while you wait, or you might get a new room assignment. You don’t have to get nasty…this shouldn’t be about asking for compensation…just satisfaction. Take pictures of anything you find that gives you cause for concern. If you end up deciding not to stay at that property pictures can help you make the case to have any cancellation fee waived.

9. Expect Fees. As with air, you can expect hotels and resorts to pass along the added cost of extra cleaning and sanitization in the form of a COVID-19 surcharge. This may be added to a resort fee but more likely will be reflected as a stand-alone surcharge. That isn’t a reason to avoid a property, but it is good to establish up front how much, and specifically what any surcharge covers. Make sure whatever services are covered by the surcharge actually get done. If not, challenge the charge.

10. Location, Location, Location. The single most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 when traveling, aside from washing your hands, is to select a destination with a low incidence of infection to the extent that you have a choice. You’ll still have to deal with the risk of the virus being introduced from other travelers, but at least you have a lower risk of getting it from one of the hotel employees if you stay in an area with a low rate of local COVID-19 infections. You can get that information from the CDC’s website, as well as the government website for any country you are visiting if you travel internationally.

11. Check your Insurance. Be sure your medical insurance covers you wherever you travel. If you are leaving the country most health care policies, to include Medicare, don’t provide medical coverage. Travel insurance is usually the way to go, but be careful about the policy you purchase. Some travel insurance providers have declared COVID-19 to be a force majeure and don’t provide coverage in the event you need medical attention or emergency evacuation. Read the exclusions and fine print, and if COVID-19 isn’t specifically mentioned be sure to call the insurance provider and ask, and then ask for the representative you speak with to send you an e-mail documenting whatever they tell you.

There are inherent risks that you accept when you travel, but your hotel doesn’t have to be one of them. The next and final article in this Back to Travel series will address cruising. The cruise industry has been hit hardest of all the travel sectors, and they will be the last to recover. Spoiler alert…the cruise lines have gotten a bad rap. To find out more, be sure to look out for the next installment in this series.

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