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Fluenz Language Program Review (for travel!)

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Repeat the words exercise

Gaining conversational skills in the foreign language of the country you’re traveling to, or at least the proficiency to order in a restaurant, check into a hotel, and ask for directions, greatly enhances the travel experience. Natives are often pleasantly surprised when tourists make the effort, and, I have found, sometimes they’re even thrilled. In addition to that, knowing some of the language makes it less intimidating to be in a foreign country. And, perhaps best of all, you can better interact with the locals and feel more immersed in the culture. My favorite language learning program for travel is Fluenz. (Note: this blog post is NOT sponsored.)

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Write the word you hear exercise

Fluenz is the most effective language learning system I’ve ever used, and I’ve tried a lot of them, including classroom instruction at the college level of four different languages. The first benefit to Fluenz is the relevance of the material taught. By the third lesson you are making complete sentences and placing orders in a restaurant. You really feel as though you’re making progress when the material is truly useful. In contrast, some systems encourage rote memorization of single words and not constructing your own sentences, or teach you words like classroom vocabulary that are completely useless in a tourism context. Fluenz is clearly geared specifically towards people interested in travel. And if you want to go beyond travel, the series of lessons is comprehensive enough to reach at least an intermediate level.

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Phrase matching exercise

The second benefit of Fluenz is the variety of different exercises that keep you from getting bored. The activities are fun and engaging. In contrast a lot of other programs have you repeating the same boring task over an over – a guaranteed recipe for failure. The photos I’ve supplied here show some, but not all, of the exercises available. A microphone session is included, with which you can compare your pronunciation to that of native speakers.

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Choose the right image exercise

The third benefit of Fluenz is the beautiful photos of the countries in which the language you are studying is spoken. Some other systems offer generic visuals, the same for every language, or, worse, no visuals. The more of your senses you’re stimulating during the lesson, the more engaged you are, and I believe it’s helpful for memory. It’s truly inspiring and motivating to see these images, as it makes you long to visit, and be immersed in the culture. The visuals are the biggest factor that has me looking forward to my daily lessons. In addition to the amazing photography, the interface is sleek and polished, reminiscent of an Adobe or Apple product.

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Write the phrase you hear exercise

Of course, there are some downsides to Fluenz. For one, it’s expensive – however once I paid one time for the product I had lifetime access. No monthly fees or end to access if I stopped paying. Second, the selection of languages is limited to Spanish (Latin America or Spain versions), French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Mandarin Chinese. The Chinese teaches pinyin only, no characters, so if you want to learn those you’ll need to supplement the program with a character textbook or other source. The limited selection of languages is particularly disappointing for anyone whose goal it is to visit other areas of the world not represented by these languages, or anyone whose dream it is (like mine!) to achieve polyglotism. Fluenz, if you’re reading this, please add more languages!

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Choose the right answer exercise

Fluenz gets my highest recommendation as a language learning program, particularly for travelers, but also for anyone learning for another reason. It keeps me motivated and engaged in language learning like no other system I’ve ever used!

For my full video review, as well as video footage of a lesson in action, click here!

 

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Radiant Rome, Italy

 

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The Colosseum

Rome is a delightfully diverse city. Whether you’re seeking painstakingly preserved ancient ruins, beautifully boisterous baroque buildings, or significantly spiritual structures, Rome is the city for you! I spent four amazing days in Rome, which turned out to be just enough time to get a small sample of all this incredible world-class city has to offer. Geographically, Rome is a sprawling expanse best toured by double-decker tour bus or public transportation. Even if long walking distances don’t bother you, there’s so much to see in so little time (no matter how much time you have…!)

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Colosseum Interior

The Colosseum is often considered the symbol of Rome, and for very good reason. Brilliantly restored, it’s a step back in time to death-defying gladiator fights, bouts with wild animals, massive sea battles (yes – they filled the stage area with water and brought in boats…), and more. Touching the timeworn stones and imagining the pageantry, I could almost feel the ancient energy of the place.

 

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The Forum

The Forum, where the ancient Roman government conducted their political business in a system which inspired scores of modern political systems, is another amazing place to reflect on our collective past. The might of the Roman Empire is apparent in these monoliths still standing centuries later – both physically and symbolically.

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St. Peter’s Basilica

A trip to the Vatican lets you explore a tiny independent country, and seat of spiritual superstar the Pope. You can check online for days and times when the Pope will make an appearance, and reservations are highly, highly urged for the sites of the Vatican to avoid long lines. The Vatican is a wonderful area in which to ponder the beautiful brilliance of baroque, and the magnificent works of Michelangelo and other renaissance masters.

Rome. Cityscape image of Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy during sunrise.

The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps are best visited in the evening, where you’ll encounter many locals out for their evening walk – and after the day tourists are gone. Otherwise you can expect to encounter large crowds. These massive stairs are a great way to work off the gelato you’re going to enjoy later…

Trevi Fountain by night, Rome, Italy

Trevi Fountain

The best way to cap off a day of endless marvels in Rome is to enjoy the Trevi Fountain by night, delectable gelato in hand. The lights enhance the allure of the fountain, and the surrounding traditional architecture. Sit under the stars and soak in the ambience! Relaxed and refreshed, you’ll be ready for sound sleep and an exciting day full of inspiring sightseeing tomorrow!

There’s so much more to Rome! You can see a lot more of the city and my time there by clicking the links below:

View my full tour of Rome on YouTube here

And read my Rome Hotel blog post here

I took a flight during the pandemic. Here’s how it went.

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Tampa International Airport 2 Hours Before Flight

Seriously, the United States Government needs to tell airlines: no stimulus money unless you reduce capacity on planes during the COVID-19 pandemic. (And they should specify that capacity limit.) Without that incentive, they’re not doing it, despite the fact that getting on a plane is one of the most dangerous things you can do right now in the context of coronavirus.

Getting on a plane during the Coronavirus pandemic was the absolute last thing I wanted to do. I would have felt safer taking ANY other method of transportation on my journey from Tampa to Toronto. In fact, I’ve been questioning why flights weren’t grounded at the outset of the outbreak of COVID-19, given the fact that people are packed in like sardines in a can on a plane. I can’t think of any situation where social distancing is more impossible than on a plane. I was in a must-travel situation, to be reunited with my husband after Prime Minister Trudeau’s exemption for spouses and children to the border closure. My first choice would have been a road trip, but, alas, my car was stranded in Canada, making that an impossibility. I considered taking the train, but Amtrak is not currently crossing the border, so my only option to get across would have been to take the train to Buffalo and walk across the Peace Bridge. And there would have been a transfer in the New York City epicenter. I’d also heard the land border closure was more challenging to traverse than coming in through the airport. So I did something I never thought I’d agree to do and booked a flight. Prices were lower than usual – an indicator of low demand…? I would soon find out.

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Tampa International Airport 1 Hour Before Flight

When I first arrived at the airport in Tampa security was a breeze. No waiting in line, although, Tampa is one of the better airports in that regard with or without a pandemic in progress. When I got to the gate, very early, there was no one there. The seating was staggered with social distancing signs. Masks were not required, and only a handful of people were wearing them. Social distancing was easy. About an hour before the flight more passengers began showing up, and right before boarding it was standing room only at the gate. This was concerning… how full was this flight…?

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My Packed Flight Tampa to Charlotte

I flew on American Airlines, which claimed to be reducing capacity by only filling 50% of the middle seats. This is interesting, because according to the airline’s app this flight had a waiting list, and once onboard I realized the plane was filled to 100% capacity. Luckily, I had managed to pre-reserve a window seat, which, according to doctors, is the safest seat on flights right now to protect yourself against COVID-19. I was appalled that the airline had no qualms about filling every seat on the plane at this time. Masks were required on the flight, and there was no beverage or food service. I was flying to Charlotte because it is a hub for American Airlines, and would be transferring to another flight to Toronto there. Apparently a lot of other people were also catching transfer flights in Charlotte or flying there for other reasons.

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Rainy Day in Charlotte from Plane

It was a rainy day but I had a nice view of Charlotte from the plane. The airport was very crowded – so much so that even though I hate wearing a mask and they weren’t required, I was tempted to keep it on. Social distancing was very difficult. About a third of the people in the airport were wearing a mask. I proceeded to the gate for Toronto and was presented a form to fill out for Canadian customs and asked about my reason for travel by the staff. This was due to the border closure. I was cleared and good to board.

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Busy Charlotte Airport

The flight to Toronto was less full – at my guess about 75% full. I felt a lot more comfortable. It was enough to have to worry about the more stringent customs I would be facing. Again, masks were required on the flight and no beverage or food service. I had purchased some over-priced snacks at the airport.

Masks were required everywhere at the Toronto airport. Customs and immigration in Canada was definitely more involved than I’m used to. I had to fill out a declaration form at a kiosk, as usual. Then I was given quarantine information by two agents, and had to present evidence of my reasons for coming to Canada and quarantine plan to two more agents. Usually I only need to talk to one agent, and don’t need documentary evidence. Canada requires a 14 day quarantine for anyone, citizens or not, coming into the country. No big deal considering Canada’s barely entered Phase 2 of coming out of lockdown restrictions and there’s not many places to go anyway.

Happily, I made it into Canada and have survived one out of two weeks of my quarantine, and miraculously I seem to have not gotten sick on the plane – or in the airport. Still – airlines need to be held more accountable for the safety of passengers during this health crisis. The complete disregard of passenger health was truly appalling.

Would you fly right now? How do you feel about how the airlines are handling capacity during the pandemic? Please leave your comments!

Rome, Italy Hotel Review!

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View from Window

When I had a cruise leaving from Rome, Italy last winter I stayed in Rome a few days to explore. I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Claridge in downtown Rome, and can provide a review here.

Location

The location is in downtown Rome, but in a quiet residential neighborhood, not in the immediate vicinity of the tourist sites. But it’s still fairly convenient, about a 20 to 25 minute walk to the nearest double-decker bus stop. The walk to the stop is confusing – a problem I easily resolved by using Google Directions and choosing the “walk” option. My phone carrier did not charge me, as they considered this activity “low-data” usage. There is a delectable restaurant right next door servicing delicious authentic Italian specialties, including pasta dishes, pizza, tiramisu, and more. Because this hotel is downtown, it is easy to find a shuttle service that will pick you up in the hotel lobby to go to the airport or cruise port.

The Staff

The staff was extremely courteous and friendly, and while I enjoyed having the opportunity to practice my broken traveler’s Italian, I also appreciated their fluency in English. I also appreciated their fluency in Italian when my shuttle van to the cruise port was late, and I asked them to call the company on my behalf! They were happy to do so, and shortly after my van appeared outside the lobby. Maid service was also professionally accomplished, and the servers in the dining room also polite and pleasant. (Breakfast comes at an additional charge if you are not Hilton Honors Gold or higher, but the spread was delicious and diverse, so I recommend it either way.)

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The Guest Room

The Guest Room

The decor in the room consisted of beautiful wood paneling and modern design. The room was very spacious, especially by European standards. There were separate bedroom and living room areas. The living room included a leather couch and table with coffee and tea maker, as well as a large closet. The bedroom had a television, desk, and window that wasn’t sealed shut. I greatly enjoyed both the view and the fresh air. The bathroom included one sink/mirror section and another section with a toilet, bidet, full-size tub, and Jacuzzi shower. You read that right – the shower was made by Jacuzzi and had jets to surround your entire body as well as a radio. It was very refreshing!

Conclusion

A big thumbs-up on the Hilton Garden Inn Claridge as a great place to stay during a visit to Rome, Italy!

Click here to watch a full tour in video format!

 

 

Necessary Travel in a time of COVID-19

International Travel

Airline Passengers in an International Airport

At long last, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that he will finally exempt spouses, children, and parents of citizens and permanent residents from the COVID-19 border closure with the U.S. Since my husband is Canadian and in Ontario right now, and I’m American and in Florida right now, this is news we have been anticipating in agonizing fashion. Immediate family is no longer “non-essential,” (note to government officials – THEY NEVER WERE.) So now that I have necessary travel to embark on the question is, in this time of Coronoavirus, how can I traverse across a continent safely? My car is stranded in Canada, so a road trip, which would be my first, and the safest choice, is not an option. One bit of good news is that ALL of the below options have ramped up deep cleaning measures on their modes of transportation.

Option 1: Air Travel

Air travel is the type of travel I’m most leery of right now from a health standpoint. Airlines originally promised to leave middle seats empty, but have proceeded to fill those seats and pack the limited number of planes they have running as full as possible to help recoup their losses – despite the danger they’re placing on their customers. I’ve never been one for flying, unless I was crossing an ocean and had no choice. Being crammed in a tightly cramped space with random strangers, some of whose behavior and hygiene left something to be desired, and dealing with endless lines at security checkpoints, was never my idea of a “good time.” And now, with the news being inundated with reminders of social distancing, staying six feet apart, and even laws requiring the aforementioned, it has made me wonder for a while now why airports are not closed all together. It is the single type of business still open where it is literally impossible to social distance. Do I really want to place serious risk on my health, and that of my husband, getting on a plane? Or risk denial of entry into the country because I’m “showing symptoms?” According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and you may have to sit near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for hours. This may increase your risk for exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.” (cdc.gov) Airlines scoff at the idea that it isn’t safe – but it doesn’t take a PhD in rocket science to see the risk factors. Masks are required, but if people are allowed to take them off during food and beverage service, what’s the point?

PROS: Air is well ventilated and circulated. Travel between destinations is fast, reducing your exposure time-wise. The only option (besides car) that is currently crossing the U.S./Canada border.

CONS: Extremely close quarters, zero control over social distancing for the passenger, zero control over what other passengers are in near proximity (if you’re seated next to someone coughing, you’re out of luck!) Least amount of personal space and freedom to move about. The aggravation of dealing with airport security checkpoints.

Electric passenger train drives at high speed among urban landscape.

Bullet Train

Option 2: Train Travel

I have another option – train travel on Amtrak. Although Amtrak has temporarily halted service to routes crossing the Canadian border due to the limited categories of people currently allowed passage, I could take the train to Buffalo, New York and cross the Peace Bridge on foot, where my husband would be waiting on the Canadian side in his car. (Service to Niagara Falls, with a shorter pedestrian bridge, is also suspended.) On a train, you have the most freedom to move around. Even if you’re seated near people in the main cabin, you can try to find a better spot in the Observation Lounge, or head for the cafe or restaurant. And even if you remain in your seat, your “personal space” is greater than on a plane or bus. You also avoid standing in potentially crowded security checkpoints. Masks, again, are required – but, again, people are allowed to take them off while eating and drinking. The downside? LONG travel times. According to Google Directions, my train trip from Tampa Bay to Buffalo would take two days, as compared with a couple of hours on a plane. The route would require going up the Eastern Seaboard rather than a more direct route. And the layover point is in the COVID-19 epicenter: New York City. While a train ticket would be cheaper than an airline ticket, I would expect to be exhausted upon arriving in Buffalo – and would definitely reserve a hotel room for that point in the trip. This would jack the cost up beyond the cost of an airline ticket.

PROS: More room in your seat. The freedom to move around, and go to a completely different area if you find yourself near someone you consider a health risk (or annoyance!) Avoiding long lines at customs security checkpoints potentially with no social distancing measures. Most appealing option for my work as a blogger and YouTube creator.

CONS: Increased potential exposure due to long travel times. Long travel time to arrive at destination. No ability to cross the border by train. Short layover in the Coronavirus epicenter.

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Greyhound Bus

Option 3: Bus Travel

Greyhound Bus has also suspended travel across the border, so just like in the aforementioned train option it would be necessary to ride to Buffalo and traverse the Peace Bridge on foot. Greyhound is “encouraging” physical distancing on the bus, and requiring masks (again, while not eating or drinking…) But of all of these options, the bus is the most likely to experience delays, and long layovers, which they are notorious for. The bus takes a more direct route than the train, because there are many more interstates in the U.S. than train tracks. But there are other potential risks in taking the bus. The low cost of the bus can attract some individuals who may pose a threat to you or your belongings, and many bus stations are in more dangerous neighborhoods of town – a place you can be stuck for hours waiting on a late transfer. You do have more room than on the plane, but less room than on a train. It does not have the freedom to get up and move to a different area that the train offers. As with the train option, I would most likely get a hotel for the night upon arrival in Buffalo.

PROS: Lowest cost (besides car travel), more personal space than on a plane. Avoidance of airport security checkpoint lines.

CONS: Less freedom of movement than on the train, long travel times. Other potential hazards unrelated to health.

Conclusion

I was hoping that by the time I reached the conclusion, I would have made up my own mind! Alas, I have not. I am leaning in favor of train or plane, because the bus’ biggest advantage is price and that isn’t my highest priority right now. And while all three options involve a customs security checkpoint for crossing the border, the land crossing is likely to be far less congested, since very few people are allowed to cross, and there’s only one, compared with two at the airports. I plan to buy a ticket on one of the above five days from the date of this post – please leave your comments with suggestions below! What would you do? How has your experience been on these different modes of transportation? Remember, my car is stranded in Canada and “road trip” is not an option. Obviously, that would be the most convenient and safest way to travel, with unlimited personal space, total social distancing, and the ability to cross the border. Thanks for your suggestions!

 

Cruises and COVID-19: Update

 

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Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas

Cruises have been put on hold since mid-March due to COVID-19. Since then, I’ve had two cruises cancel – and two more are imminent to cancel due to new restrictions. Is there an end in sight? In this post, I’ll give you the latest news on government restrictions on cruise travel and cruise line plans for sailing once again, as well as my theories on what I expect going forward.

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Norwegian Bliss

Government Restrictions

On May 29, Canada extended their ban on cruise ship travel involving their country until November, 2020. The ban applies to ships with more than 100 people aboard and overnight accommodations. Meanwhile, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s no-sail recommendation is due to expire on July 24. Currently there is no update on whether that deadline may be extended or not. And any cruises scheduled to visit Europe, Asia, and other continents will need to comply with local regulations in those areas.

The good news is that many states in the U.S., from which a large percentage of cruise ships embark, are rapidly easing out of lockdown. Florida, with some of the most popular embarkation ports in the world for cruise ships, has already opened up the economy to restaurants, retail, salons, and even gyms with social distancing measures. Governor Ron DeSantis has consistently demonstrated an open-minded attitude about easing lockdowns and restoring the economy, and it is my belief and theory that Florida may be the first state to allow cruise travel. Texas has also progressed quickly towards easing lockdowns and may be one of the first to resume cruising as well. Other places like New York and Los Angeles have been slower to ease restrictions and it could be a lot longer before you can cruise again. New York City specifically has suspended cruises through the end of the year.

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Norwegian Jade Lido Deck

What about the stops?

On May 29th, the Bahamas announced a tentative July 1 reopening date for international tourism, and have indicated previously that they look forward to welcoming cruise ships back into port. Most of the Caribbean islands rely heavily on tourism, and in particular cruise tourism, to keep their economies going. I have no doubt many of these islands will open either before, or very shortly after, cruise ships begin sailing again.

The rest of the world is more questionable. I’ve already had the cruise line cancel the Asia cruise I had scheduled for Spring, 2021, and many countries’ economies are less reliant on cruise tourism and can afford to wait. These areas are likely to open later.

Unfortunately, it’s a big unknown right now who will open and when. With the COVID-19 case count and spread having been so unpredictable, jurisdictions around the world have been unwilling to confirm a concrete date for reopening their ports.

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Port St. Maarten: “Prepared for the Future in Cruises”

What about the cruise lines?

The cruise lines have been more willing to provide at least tentative dates. This is not an exhaustive list of every cruise line, but will give you an update for the major lines. Please keep in mind that cruise lines have been adjusting their policies, and scheduling and canceling, on an ongoing basis. So these dates may be extended and boarding requirements may change depending on the COVID-19 situation on land.

Please note – and this is important… It is possible to visit these cruise lines’ websites and book a cruise that is inconsistent with their policy on sailing dates. If you wish to reserve a cruise, it’s important to be vigilant and carefully assess whether the cruise you wish to book falls within the guidelines outlined below. Otherwise, you may be settling on future cruise credit after paying cash on a cruise available to book that the cruise line was already aware would not be sailing. My theory is that this is a “money grab” to help recoup losses that have been suffered as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, but I cannot declare that definitively.

AIDA has suspended cruises until July 31.

CARNIVAL has suspended cruises through July 31. Cruises will only embark from three ports: Galveston, Miami, and Port Canaveral, until September 1. Guests over 70 years of age will require doctor’s authorization to sail, and medical screening pre-boarding will be ramped-up.

CELEBRITY has suspended cruises until July 31. Guests who are at least 70 years of age will require doctor’s authorization to sail, and medical screening pre-boarding will be ramped-up.

DISNEY will resume cruises on July 31. Not all ships will resume sailing at the same time.

HOLLAND AMERICA has suspended cruises until Fall, 2020.

MSC will resume cruises on July 11. Guests 70 years of age or older will require a doctor’s authorization to sail, and medical screening pre-boarding will be ramped-up.

NORWEGIAN has suspended cruises until August 1. After that, ships will be put back into commission gradually over time, beginning with five.

PRINCESS has halted operations into the Fall season. The Alaska itinerary has been canceled for 2020.

ROYAL CARIBBEAN has suspended service until August 1. Guests age 70 or older will require a doctor’s authorization to sail. Guests with at least one serious medical condition, as outlined by the CDC, will be denied boarding all together.

To be honest, I anticipate lawsuits coming down the pipe. Age discrimination is a valid argument against the requirements of some of these cruise ship lines that will be singling out people 70 and over with additional restrictions, but it remains to be seen whether agencies like the AARP will get involved or class-action lawsuits will be filed. In my own personal opinion it is discrimination. I also believe it’s bad public relations for the cruise lines, because many of their most loyal customers fall within this age bracket.

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Carnival Sensation Lido Deck

Cruise Line Cancellation Policies

Most cruise lines have eased their cancellation restrictions through at least the fall. Below I’ve outlined some of the major lines’ new policies.

CARNIVAL says if your cruise is scheduled up to September, 2020, you’re allowed to cancel up to 30 days prior to the sail date in exchange for 100% future cruise credit that must be redeemed to book another cruise within a year of the original embarkation date.

CELEBRITY says customers may cancel up to 48 hours before the time their ship is scheduled to sail in exchange for 100% future cruise credit to be used by May 4, 2022. Only bookings made by August 1, 2020 qualify.

DISNEY says that if you’re booked on a cruise starting in Europe on or before July 25, 2020 you may cancel up to 24 hours ahead for 100% cruise credit to be redeemed within 15 months of original embarkation date.

HOLLAND AMERICA says if you have a cruise scheduled through October 15, 2020 you may cancel up to 30 days before sailing for 100% future cruise credit which must be used up until the end of 2021. Also, if you make a new reservation by August 31, 2020 on a cruise sailing by October 15, 2020, you may cancel up to 30 days before sailing for 100% future cruise credit and have all cancelation fees waived.

MSC says cruises booked to depart on or before September 30, 2020 may cancel as late as 48 hours before embarkation time and receive a full refund of the cruise fare only (no taxes, fees, or pre-paid orders.) The credit may be used up to December, 2021.

NORWEGIAN says all passengers who book a cruise scheduled through November 30, 2020 may cancel up to 48 hours in advance and receive 100% future cruise credit that must be redeemed by December 31, 2022.

PRINCESS is offering full refunds on amount paid plus 25% on cruises that are canceled by the cruise line in the form of future cruise credit. The credit must be used by May, 2022.

ROYAL CARIBBEAN says customers can cancel up to 48 hours in advance for 100% future cruise credit that must be redeemed by April, 2022. Additionally they will price match any price drop on the same sailing and reimburse the difference in the form of shipboard credit. Customers can also change their sailing to a similar sailing (as determined by RCL) in 2021 or 2022 up to a month prior to sailing. The cruise must be rescheduled by August 1, 2020.

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Crown Princess and Carnival Glory at Port

Conclusion

I know many of you are as eager as I am to set sail yet again, and I look forward to providing you with continuing news on the cruise shutdown. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel for further updates at: Ultimate Travel Adventures YouTube Channel!

I will also continue to provide cruise ship tours and reviews, and tours of ports-of-call both here on the blog and the YouTube channel, so I look forward to seeing you again here and there! Thanks for your support!

UPDATE: the accompanying video is UP! View it here!:

COVID-19 Cruise Update Video!

 

 

“Non-Essential” Spouses Separated by Borders During COVID-19

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Pointless Passports

Immediate Family is “Essential”

I’m compelled by personal tragedy to work to increase awareness about a significant story that is not getting the attention it deserves in the media, or from the governments, at this time of Coronavirus. As you may be aware, the Canada-U.S.-Mexico borders are closed to all but “essential travelers” at this time of COVID-19. You may agree or disagree with this decision. But whether or not the general public, including shoppers and tourists, should be allowed to cross the border is beyond the purview of this post. I want to talk specifically about a category that by all standards of common sense, ethics, and moral justice, should be considered “essential travelers.” The borders should open to them immediately. This category is immediate family, specifically the spouses and children of citizens of the U.S., Canada, or Mexico.

US/Canada Border, Peace Arch, Washington State, USA. Empty border lanes at crossing between US and Canada.

U.S.-Canada Border Crossing Closings

Spouses and Children: Separated by COVID-19

An untold but significant number of citizens of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have foreign national spouses who are citizens of a neighboring country, and these people are currently being denied border crossing, despite the wording in the regulations that “essential travelers” are allowed passage during the Coronavirus outbreak. There are also an unspeakable number of children who are being denied access to their foreign national parent across the border, despite court orders enforcing visitation. This is outrageous, unconscionable, and indescribably inexcusable.

I’m an American Citizen and my newlywed husband is Canadian. We’re stranded, separated – myself in Florida and he in Ontario. Neither he nor I can cross the border to reunite right now. According to the governments, our travel is “non-essential,” our relationship disposable and irrelevant. The worst part isn’t even the separation itself – it’s the fact that we have no idea when the border will re-open or we will see each other again. It’s an agonizing waiting game, and one where I’m glued to the news desperately hoping for an update that would be encouraging in light of our desperate desire to be reunited. While the border closure was extended to June 21, it’s already been extended twice, so there’s no indication it won’t be extended again – or how many more times the border closure will be extended. Keeping immediate family separated for months on end, and with no end in sight, is extremely misguided, and, I would argue, immoral.

I don’t mean to suggest that spouses and children from countries outside of North America shouldn’t be included in the “essential travelers” category – they should. I’m only focusing on the North American numbers because the number of Canadian, American, and Mexican citizens suffering through the border closing, and separated from their immediate family members, is especially staggering due to the proximity of these three countries.

Young woman communicating with man via video call application.

“Non-Essential” Spouses

Safety Precautions Against Coronavirus are Possible

I get that governments are concerned about the Coronavirus and that they may not be ready to open to a flood of border crossings by “anyone and everyone.” But I contend that NOTHING is more important than immediate family, especially at a time like this. An exception should be made to the border closure for spouses and children of citizens, effective immediately!

I have some suggestions to include in my plea to make the plan safer. Require a 2 week quarantine for the spouses and children crossing the border. And, if necessary, download of an app to track the person could be required, to assure compliance with the quarantine. A negative test in the past 48 hours could also help if a COVID-19 test would be readily available to both parties. Although I consider these measures intrusive and an invasion of privacy that I would reject utterly under ordinary circumstances, I would gladly temper my ethical standards and comply with any of these requirements if it meant being reunited with my beloved husband.

A bad situation is being made much, much worse, and unnecessarily. There are mitigating safety measures that can be taken to allow truly essential travelers: spouses and children of citizens, to be added to the border crossing exemption, not just truckers and health workers.

There’s Other Factors, Too

Another thing to consider is that when spouses are from different countries, and share two different residences, they are more likely to have urgent business and property matters that need attention across the border. My car is stranded in Canada, and I’m stuck in the U.S. without transportation, since my husband and I came to the U.S. in his car and he was forced to return to Canada. I also have other personal property in Canada right now that I need, and don’t have, access to. This is a very complex problem with a very simple solution!!!

A Plea to Our Governments

Due to the close friendship between our countries, many, many people have developed relationships and created multi-national families, and being separated indefinitely is an extreme emotional hardship for them. A plea to our governments: you brought us together; let us stay together. Please make an exception for immediate family members to be considered “essential” travelers, and grant us permission to cross the border.

How You Can Help

First, I hope you will subscribe to my YouTube channel where I will be posting video on this issue shortly. You can find it at: Heather Anne Ultimate Travel Adventures.

Secondly, I hope you will consider signing these petitions. There is no cost, and I receive no benefit (unless it helps change the situation so I can see my husband!) There’s also an option to share the petition with others.

There’s an online petition to allow immediate family of citizens to cross the border here:

Canada: Allow Family Reunification During COVID 19

and there’s another one here:

Justin Trudeau: Love is Essential

What do you think? Do you think spouses and children of citizens should be allowed to cross the border? Please leave your comments below!

 

Tale of Two Hotels: New York City Edition

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Homewood Suites Lobby

On my last visit to New York I stayed at two hotels, one downtown (Hilton Garden Inn Times Square South in Manhattan), and one easily accessible to downtown in the suburbs (Homewood Suites Edgewater-NYC Area in New Jersey). Depending on your priorities, one or the other may be more suitable for you, but either one is a great choice!

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Hilton Garden Inn Guestroom

The Hilton Garden Inn Times Square South is a stone’s throw from the Port Authority, and very centrally located to all of the action. It’s a short walk to the nearest subway, double decker bus stop, Theater District, and heart of Times Square. The neighborhood is abundant with great restaurants in all price ranges, and felt safe to traverse by night or day. The staff was professional and friendly. The room was small, but comfortable.

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Hilton Garden Inn View from the Balcony

I was fortunate to get one of only two rooms in the hotel with a balcony, where I enjoyed soaking in the city sights and sounds bird-like from my high perch. The refrigerator was smaller than usual for a Hilton room – rather than “dormitory” size it was very narrow. Normal size water bottles or soda cans wouldn’t fit – but the mini size soda you can sometimes find in the store would have. Not a suitable fridge for dining leftovers, either. Fortunately (or unfortunately!) the weather was cold in March and I used the balcony as a fridge…

The bath was trendy, and shower provided good water pressure and temperature. There’s an ample closet, as well as a desk for working. I had a great nights’ sleep on the very cozy bed.

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Hilton Garden Inn Bed

Breakfast at the Garden Inn brand of Hilton is available but there is an extra charge if you are not gold level or higher in their rewards program. But if you are gold, or pay, it’s made to order fresh and delicious. The menu was not as extensive as I’m used to, but that may have been due to the timing (pre/early COVID in mid-March).

There’s no parking on-site, but there is a public parking garage across the street charging $50 per night. Room rates vary depending on your timing… but usually run relatively steep due to the incredible central location in Manhattan. If location is your top priority, I highly recommend this hotel. If price is your highest priority, I suggest another property…

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Homewood Suites Living Room

The Homewood Suites Edgewater-NYC Area in Edgewater, New Jersey may not be in Manhattan, but it’s extremely convenient to it for prices usually well below what you’ll pay in Manhattan. It’s also situated in a charming neighborhood of its own, next to lots of interesting shops and restaurants along a pedestrian boulevard.

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Homewood Suites Kitchen

Like other properties in the Homewood Suites brand, this hotel is all suites. Each room has a full kitchen (full size fridge, small stove, microwave, sink, dining table, and dishes and utensils). There are also separate lounge and bedroom areas, and an extra-spacious bathroom. There’s two televisions – one in the “living” room and another in the bedroom. Consistent with other hotels under the Hilton umbrella, the bed, furnishings, and showers are very accommodating here.

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Homewood Suites Bedroom

Some rooms have New York City views – in my opinion worth the splurge. Breakfast is free for all and consists of a small buffet. Socials are held in the evenings on some days of the week where snacks, beer, and wine are offered. Parking here is free for hotel guests. As for the location – if you want to get into downtown Manhattan it’s no problem. There’s a local bus that picks up across the street that goes straight to the Port Authority in the Times Square area. The ride takes about 10 minutes, and only costs a few dollars each way (seniors also get a discount). I suggest buying a roundtrip ticket when you board in New Jersey – it’s easier than waiting and buying a return ticket at the station when you’re ready to return.

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Homewood Suites View from the Room

Both of these hotels are great options if you visit New York City. For a full tour of each, view my YouTube video here:

My Post-56

Click here for more!

 

New York City Tour! (Pre/early COVID)

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Times Square at Night

These are tough times for all of us, no thanks to the COVID outbreak, and New York City in particular is facing challenges. I know a lot of us can’t wait until the “city that never sleeps” wakes up again. In the meantime, I can share some images with you from my visit in mid-March, when news was beginning to surface about COVID but the city wasn’t in full shutdown mode yet.

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Times Square by Day

Times Square is arguably one of the most iconic locations in New York – and usually one of the most crowded, too. But auto and pedestrian traffic was a little lighter, and became even lighter day by day during my visit. The square was still alive with its signature bright neon lights and colorful characters, though…

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Views from Empire State Building

We managed to visit the Empire State Building observatory two days before it closed due to COVID. What a lucky break for us, not to miss these incredible views. Here is a view of downtown, including the towering One World Trade Center standing guard over the rest of the city, symbolically. In the background you can also see the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

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South Street Seaport Pier

South Street Seaport is one of my favorite neighborhoods in New York. Here you can inspect historic ships on the pier, or catch the New York Water Taxi for a tour of the harbor. Along cobbled streets stand the South Street Seaport Museum, and many opportunities for shopping.

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South Street Seaport Museum

I recommend an outing on the New York Water Taxi from South Street Seaport, which will grant you outstanding views of the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty, and which will take you to additional stops where you can disembark and explore, like Midtown and Brooklyn.

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Brooklyn Bridge

We managed to catch the very last Water Taxi running – as soon as our trip was over it was shut down due to COVID. We were relieved to have caught the last one, but sad to see it have to shut down. This is one of the best experiences for visitors to New York.

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Statue of Liberty

Ordinarily the Statue of Liberty would be swarmed with huge crowds, but not on this day… apparently it was already closed. And although the Water Taxi closed after this run, we were able to enjoy the double-decker bus for another day, which allowed us to explore downtown, midtown, uptown, Harlem, and Brooklyn, with the ability to hop on and hop off at various sights. It’s a very convenient way to get around the city, and with great views, that I highly recommend.

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M & M’s World

If you have a sweet tooth, no visit to New York is complete without a stop at M & M’s World in Times Square! Here you will find rows and rows of tubes of a rainbow of these delights, and samples are available! Many varieties are available here that you won’t find at your local grocery or pharmacy. You can also shop for an array of branded merchandise.

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Junior’s Cheesecake

I recommend trying out Junior’s restaurant in the Theater District. Here you can indulge in authentic New York specialties like a Brooklyn Egg Cream, Pastrami Sandwich, and world-renown New York Cheesecake! It’s a little pricey, but portions are huge – take a friend and share and you’ll both be satisfied!

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Central Park

What better way to stroll off those calories than a stroll through Central Park? It’s a relaxing oasis amid this bustling concrete jungle.

I realize that this post may be controversial – that there may be some who feel it was irresponsible of us to visit New York in mid-March, 2020. And I’m sure there are others who applaud our determination to keep living our lives. We were in New York anticipating a cruise on the 15th that ended up being canceled two days before embarkation, so we remained in the city a couple more days before departing. At that time, there was a lot of confusion, and news of the virus was newly surfacing. The extent of the danger was not yet clear. To those who may be distressed by this post, know that after our visit we returned straight home and quarantined for 14 days. And to anyone wondering, no, we didn’t get sick.

Please join us for our full New York City tour here:

Thank you for reading! A review of two New York City hotels is coming up next!

Michigan Cabin, Florida Condo… Snowbird?

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Michigan Cabin, April

After a month of being astounded by the spectacular scenery of Michigan last fall I was hooked. I knew I needed a place up here. It was the same feeling I had about Florida before I got the condo there. And despite extensive traveling, and having an incredible time in so many places, I never quite felt this way about anyplace else. I was home. Twice.

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Beach by Florida Condo, November

Since I got this cabin in Michigan people have constantly declared “Oh, so you’re a snowbird!” But it’s not that simple. Growing up in Boston, I realized winter can provide a powdery paradise… in moderation…! I suppose the origin of this assumption is that, perhaps, these people themselves would prefer year-round summer, so it makes sense to them? (Is this you? Please leave a comment!) After being in Florida for a year I actually missed the seasons, especially my favorite – autumn. Just so happens autumn is, at least in my opinion, the most spectacular time of year in Michigan. The trees are blazing with vibrant color, and the most succulent, delicious apples await your selection at the vast pick-your-own orchards across the state. A drive through the “tunnel of trees” and visit to the peak of Brockway Mountain in the Upper Peninsula provide the perfect immersion into this fall fiesta of firey shades.  Sometimes change is good…

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My Michigan Street

And then there’s the oft-shunned winter season. I get it – growing up in Boston the first snowfall was always welcome, but that welcome usually wore out fast. And by mid-January, true, I was so over it. But imagine my delight closing on this cabin in Michigan, in April, and experiencing the snowfall that had eluded me after spending most of the season in Florida. The dazzling sparkle of fresh, clean snow, the brilliant bounty of white trees, the powdery sift of snowflakes sprinkling through the sky, the pleasing crunching sound the snow makes when you step through it… This isn’t the warm, tropical, ocean-breeze paradise of Florida, but it’s paradise in its own way.

Diversity of experience makes life more interesting. I find this applies to the seasons as well. I admit – I doubt I’ll be spending the whole winter in Michigan, but I definitely won’t be following a snowbird schedule, either!

View my tour of the cabin, before and after, here!:

Michigan Vacation Cabin: Before & After Tour!