Torn about traveling during COVID-19 Situation? Read This!

As you may be able to tell, given this travel blog, I am somewhat of an experienced traveler, especially domestically. Given this and given I am a positive “everything will work out” person; I did not even consider cancelling our vacation to Palm Springs this week. I can say now, 48-hours after saying “Yes, let’s go,” I regret the decision to go and I want to share our story in the hopes it could save you some of the stress we had and some of the stress we didn’t have—but easily could have.

Lots of what happened was simply bad luck but more importantly, I know now, just how bad it could have been. I am sharing our experience to hopefully encourage people to take a step back and ask themselves if traveling is really worth it given the current reality.

The background: Derek has a group of friends from high school and they are all turning 40 this year. We decided instead of celebrating 20+ people throughout the year we would use this opportunity to get away and celebrate everyone, all at the same time. We spent months researching the best location considering weather, lodging options, flight times and costs. After much research (and spreadsheets) we decided on Palm Springs.

We found a beautiful hotel that had a buy-out option; with 10 hotel rooms, a pool, hot tub, games, bikes…it looked perfect. It was more than what we wanted to spend, but it was perfect for what we wanted out of the trip; relaxation by the pool where we could connect with all our friends and just hang out.

This hotel was managed by AvantStay a company I had not heard of, but they were responsive with questions and the booking process was seamless. Little did we know how much we would regret choosing AvantStay in the end.

A couple weeks before our trip, COVID-19 reached Washington and concern was slowly growing. I never thought in a million years that it would affect our trip. Honestly (and embarrassingly) I was shocked when a week before our trip someone from the group reached out and asked if we were still planning to go. “Of course, we were still going, the hotel is nonrefundable, we are not eating the money!!”

Derek and I were scheduled to fly on Wednesday night, March 11th, which was a day earlier than all the other couples as the flight had been a couple hundred dollars cheaper and we found a cheap hotel by the airport. We planned to land around 11:00, crash at the cheap hotel and then be the first to check into the hotel on Thursday, March 12th.

Wednesday, March 11th started out normally but by 3:00 PM, things started to escalate fast. Within a matter of hours, the following happened in Seattle:

  • Social ban on gatherings over 250 people went into place
  • Public places, like museums, started to close for at least two-weeks
  • Seattle school systems began to shut down
  • Colleges started to close and move everything online
  • Trump announced the Europe travel ban
  • Tom Hanks and his wife were diagnosed with COVI-19
  • NBA canceled the remainder of the season

When the Seattle school system shut down and the Europe travel ban went into place, we were on our way to the airport and by this time two more couples were out as their daycare fell through with the uncertainty and the recommendation to self-isolate.

We were in line to check our bags when Derek looked at me and asked, “Should we cancel?” I didn’t think twice and just said, “No, we have a nonrefundable hotel buy-out, rental car, and flights.” I was also headed to Las Vegas after Palm Springs to meet my two best friends for a girl’s trip…more hotels, rental cars, entertainment and flights that were nonrefundable.

We checked our bags, went through security and were at our gate when we learned that all the couples had cancelled, understandably given the uncertainty and how fast things were escalating. At this time, we decided it was time to reach out to AvantStay to ask about the possibility of a refund or credit, given the sudden escalation and the increasing threat of a Washington state travel ban.

People were understandably concerned that they would get to Palm Springs and not be able to travel back to Washington or they would get sick and be quarantined and not be able to get home. Some did not have support at home so their kids would not have care takers.

It was these concerns that made it real…imagine being somewhere, being quarantined and not having anyone at home to care for your children. Imagine being somewhere and not being able to fly back to your home because of a travel ban.

I want to note how fast this escalated. In a matter of TWO HOURS it went from “no big deal” to travel bans to Europe, school closers, and the threat of a Washington travel ban.

We reached out to AvantStay and were assured someone would reply by Thursday morning at 9:00 AM. Here is how the next 48-hours unfolded….

Our flight was delayed out of Seattle and we did not arrive in Palm Springs until after 1:00 AM (including lost luggage).

Thursday morning at 10:00 AM we had still not heard back from AvantStay and were unsure if we were going to have a place to stay that night as if they refunded the money, we would have to find alternative lodging.

After numerous emails, calls, texts, Tweets, and LinkedIn messages we finally were able to get ahold of someone at AvantStay around 12:00 PM

We spent the next hour on the phone with a customer service manager at AvantStay. We explained numerous times the situation, that this was unprecedented, that our friends and families where at risk, that it was a health concern to travel, that there was no way to have known this would happen 60 days ago (when we needed to cancel to receive a substantial refund).

They refused to budge on anything. They said we had two options, cancel now and get the taxes and cleaning fee back or keep the reservation and pay in full. We asked about a credit – they refused. We talked about other companies “doing the right thing” and making exceptions – they refused.

Needless to say Avantstay was not willing to work with us during this incredibly challenging situation. They finally told us that there was not going to be any way AvantStay was going to refund or credit our money and that they decided as a company that they were holding strong to their 60-day cancellation policy during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Disappointed we decided to cancel the reservation (at least get the taxes and cleaning fee back which was better than nothing) and hopefully revisit this later to see if they might change their cancellation policy. We now were without a place to stay (and still without luggage) and there was the threat of flash flooding and some streets were closed.

My hotel chain is Marriott, so we went to the closest Marriott, Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel. Given we were out over $1000 for our part of the hotel that was not being refunded, we did not want to pay a lot for our hotel.

Fortunately, Marriott was an organization that was showing compassion during the nation-wide crisis. I walked in and the manager (I want to share his name was Adam Cantley because he was so awesome!) asked how he could help. I explained the situation with tears in my eyes…. AvantStay digging in and not refunding our money, out a thousand dollars, no luggage, basically paying twice, had nowhere to stay, needing to find somewhere so Derek and I could work, etc. Adam did not think twice and offered us 50% off what price was being listed on their website. He threw in breakfast, half-price parking and sympathy for our situation (which honestly was what we found the most touching). Adam offered all this before he knew I held top status at Marriott – this is what was so touching to me; he did the kind thing without thinking how he or his company was going to benefit.

That brings me to now, I am on the plane flying home to Seattle, with great appreciation for being able to get home, knowing just how much worse this trip could have been. Part of the stress of the last 48-hours was the uncertainly and knowing just how quickly things could escalate. Feeling completely helpless and not being able to be with our community and close to our loved ones.

Knowing that by the time I left my house on Wednesday to when I arrived at the airport policies had been put into place, travel bans had been implemented and so many closures had gone into effect.

If you are thinking about traveling over the next couple weeks, I suggest you reconsider, as things can change rapidly, travel infrastructure is strained dealing with this crisis and the risk is not worth the potential reward.

It sucks, I wanted a vacation. It sucks, being out money. It sucks, the stress we had. It sucks, to not be with our community. It sucks, to feel helpless. It sucks, the entire situation…but what will never suck is being at home, safe, healthy and with your loved ones.

-Rachel

3/19/2020 UPDATE: We were finally able to get the CEO from AvantStay on the phone after multiple emails, calls, DM messages, reviews, and social media posts. Like many of us, they are going through a very challenging time. We were unlucky that we were booked right when everything started to escalate; AvantStay could not have guessed how fast things would escalate and changed their policies many times over the week.. The CEO did offer us a full credit that we can use on a future stay. Fingers crossed that they are able to stay in business throughout this crisis, keep as many people employed as possible, and that we will be able to travel soon. Many lessons learned over the past week (has it really only been a week?!?!?!?!?!) Stay safe out there and PLEASE of you can #stayhome.


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