CORONAVIRUS

COVID-19 sends travelers to uncharted territory

Some turn to travel agents for help in changing scenario

Administrative assistant Angie Conrad (center) meets Tuesday with Vice President Sandy Cabalka (right) while at a desk a
Administrative assistant Angie Conrad (center) meets Tuesday with Vice President Sandy Cabalka (right) while at a desk at Destinations Unlimited in Cedar Rapids. “ ... I can’t tell you how many calls we’ve gotten from people in the last two weeks saying, ‘I didn’t book with you. Can you help me?’” Cabalka said. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Arthur Ihde’s bucket-list cruise through the Panama Canal will have to wait another year.

He and his family flew March 10 to Fort Lauderdale. But that evening in their hotel, they found out via text that their 10-day cruise on the Caribbean Princess was canceled. It had been slated to leave the next day.

“We were disappointed, and yet relieved,” said daughter Carolyn Ihde, 62, of Cedar Rapids.

Members of their party included her parents, Arthur, 83, and Vivian Ihde, 81, of West Union, and Carolyn’s sister and brother-in-law, Nancy, 53, and Brian Harvath, 58, of Prior Lake, Minn. The Harvaths had planned to renew their wedding vows on the trip to celebrate their 15th anniversary. But that will wait, too.

“We were praying and trusting the Lord in regard to going, considering our parents’ age,” Carolyn Ihde said. “I believe He canceled it to protect us.”

They received a full refund for their cruise, plus a voucher for another one. So while they do plan to reschedule the Panama trip next year, they also will get to revisit their mother’s bucket-list destination of Alaska, which they visited two years ago.

What they didn’t get back was their airfare. They spent a couple of days in Fort Lauderdale, sticking pretty close to the hotel, and the Harvaths did get in a little beach time before returning home March 12.

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The uncharted waters swirling around the spreading COVID-19 are creating challenges in the travel industry, especially in the midst of spring break trips.

Airport remains open

“It is not a typical spring break here at the airport,” said Pam Hinman, director of marketing and communications at The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids. “There are still folks flying, flights are still operating, we are open for business. And as long as airlines are flying and that includes cargo — we carry 50 percent of the state’s cargo — things are still operating.”

Passenger tallies for March won’t be available until April, and while January and February logged increases over 2019, March isn’t expected to follow suit.

“March won’t break a record, I’m sure,” Hinman said. “ ... There are a lot of rumors that the airport is closed. No, the airport is not closed.”

Flight changes have been minimal at this point, she noted.

For April and May, Delta is scaling back from three daily flights to Atlanta to two, and American is paring to three or four daily flights to Chicago from four to five daily flights.

“We anticipate there could be additional changes, but right now, minimal changes to the flight schedules,” Hinman said.

The Eastern Iowa Airport always has had a 24-hour cleaning maintenance crew, and it’s stepping up efforts to disinfect high-touch surfaces like railings, counters and vending machines. More hand sanitizer stations as being added.

Transportation Security Administration personnel always wear gloves, Hinman noted, and passengers can request the worker change gloves before a pat-down. TSA also is allowing passengers to bring up to 12 ounces of liquid hand sanitizer in carry-on bags, but all other liquids are restricted to the standard 3.4 ounces.

travel agencies help

Despite the ability for travelers to book plans themselves over the internet, travel advisers still help business and leisure travelers navigate the changing scenarios.

“The internet is a great thing. It has a lot of information. Most of our clients start their searches there,” said Sandy Cabalka, vice president of the business travel division at Destinations Unlimited in Cedar Rapids. The company also has an office in Coralville. “But I can’t tell you how many calls we’ve gotten from people in the last two weeks saying, ‘I didn’t book with you. Can you help me?’”

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The travelers aren’t getting through to the airlines and vendors they had used, or run into hourslong waits.

Some of those vendors also won’t allow travel agents to touch reservations they didn’t book, Cabalka said.

But one family that was driving through the area when they found out their cruise had been canceled stopped by the Coralville office.

They hadn’t book through that office, but still wanted to go somewhere, Cabalka said, so an agent helped them plan a different getaway.

“This entire situation brings to my mind what travel advisers do every day,” she said. “It isn’t necessarily about the reservation itself. It’s about the consultancy (aspect) — advising the traveler. Where are they going, what are they doing, what should they know, how do we help them, how do we advocate for them in these very situations. This is an extreme one, but this is what we do all day, every day.”

Travel agents do have access to different phone lines and pathways to vendors. They also can find out more easily about fee waivers for airline reservation changes and future cruise credits.

But if travel agents can’t intercede, she advises travelers to go back to the source by phone, social media or website. And if your trip isn’t imminent, wait, since fee waivers and policies could change again.

“Keep checking the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and World Health Organization websites to see what’s going on and inform yourself,” she said.

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She has been in the business for 26 years, and even with the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the floods of 2008 locally bringing everything to a halt for while, this is a new scenario in the travel industry.

“We’ll all get through this. An ounce of prevention can do a lot. Everybody just needs to take a deep breath, social distance themselves from folks,” she said.

“Travel will come back. People will start exploring. We are an inquisitive race, so we will be back out. And we’ll be here for those travelers when they need it.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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