If you're planning a summer vacation, how do you know if the places you want to visit are open?
Since the pandemic, many attractions have closed temporarily – or permanently. Restaurants may limit hours because of staff shortages. Museums have limited visitors through a timed-entry admission system. If you tried to visit a museum in Washington, D.C., this spring, you know what I mean.
It could happen on your next trip. And you're probably going somewhere this summer. A new survey by Country Financial, an insurance and financial services company, finds 48% of Americans have made vacation plans.
"It makes sense that people are eager to have some fun after a difficult year," notes Troy Frerichs, the company's vice president of investment services.
The Country Financial study finds that surprisingly, Americans' financial security is at a five-year high, meaning that a lot of visitors will be planning special events like weekends at a theme park, eating a special restaurant meal, or visiting a favorite museum.
It turns out there are ways to find out if an attraction is open this summer, from consulting a reliable website and social media to calling an expert to calling the place yourself (yes, that still works).
But my favorite tourist attraction is open – right?
When it comes to your summer travel plans, assume nothing. My family learned that lesson a few weeks ago when we planned a trip to Orlando, Florida. We wanted to do two things: See Walt Disney World and have lunch in our favorite restaurant, Dandelion Community Cafe, better known to locals as Dandy's.
We found plenty of information on Disney, which was half-open at the time. And fortunately, I had some reliable contacts on the ground who could help, including a few in-the-know travel agents.
But I didn't even think about checking on Dandy's because it was a popular restaurant. One of my kids decided to have a look, anyway. That's when we discovered that the owner had shut down the restaurant permanently.
How to find out online if a tourist attraction is open
One tried-and-true method: Check an official website. An organization's official online presence or a convention and visitors bureau or official tourism organization will usually have the most up-to-date information.
"Since COVID-19 hit, I update a page on our website with the latest information," says Julie Roller Weeks, director of the convention and visitors bureau in Abilene, Kansas. On the Abilene site, she always lists the date of the last update. And it's important to note that date if you're using a site as a reference.
An official city site may also list helpful information. For example, Virginia Beach, Virginia, recently opened a resort management office that you can call or visit during your trip. "If you can’t get through by calling directly, try social media," says Taylor Adams, director of Virginia Beach Economic Development. Virginia Beach is particularly responsive to social media questions.
If the attraction is still posting on its Twitter or Facebook account, chances are it's still open. Bonus points if it answers your tweet or Facebook message about opening hours.
Call someone who knows
Another way to find out is to call someone who knows.
"All the overworked hotel concierges in the industry will hate me for saying this," says Kim Greulich, founder of KG Travel Club, a luxury travel agency. "But call the concierge at a luxury hotel close to the tourist attraction and ask. It’s the concierge’s job to be up to date on hours, restrictions, and opening dates for local attractions."
Speaking of travel agencies, it goes without saying that your travel adviser should also know – or know someone who knows. Over the years, travel advisers have been some of my best sources for finding out if an attraction is open. If you work with a travel agent, I think it's absolutely fine to ask your adviser if an attraction is open, even if you're not booking your vacation through that agent. Most agents I know are happy to help, and they know you'll be back to book another vacation soon.
Even your travel insurance can help. For example, an insurance company like Allianz offers a 24/7 assistance hotline. "We can help with questions about the reopening status of a museum, park or other tourist attraction," says LaShanta Sullivan, who manages Allianz Partners USA travel assistance department.
This method still works, too
There's always the direct method.
"If you’re in doubt about whether a place is open or not, the solution to your problem is likely already in your hand," says Shylar Bredewold, owner of Odyssean Travel, a tour operator. "You have to stop texting, emailing, posting on social media and actually call another human being on the phone."
If the business doesn't answer the phone, that's usually a bad sign. Two more telltale signs of trouble: if no one answers the phone during business hours, and if you get a "mailbox full" message. And if you do get an answering message, don't rely on it for accurate opening hours. If you're trying to find out if something is open for an international trip, Bredewold recommends learning a few key phrases in that language, such as, "Do you speak English?"
What if a tourist attraction isn't open?
So what do you do if a theme park, museum or restaurant is closed? Don't despair. You know what Helen Keller said: when one door of happiness closes, another one opens. You can always find another attraction, and it might even be better than the one that shut down.
We were sad about Dandy's closing, but we quickly discovered Dharma's Fine Vittles in Orlando's Milk District, which serves generous vegan entrees. It also houses Valhalla Bakery, which sells tasty pastries. Both have the same vibe we loved about the defunct Dandy's. And now we have another reason to go back to Orlando.
Insider tips for visiting a tourist attraction this summer
Have a plan B. That's the advice of Barry Ivan Silber, co-owner of Adventure DC Tricycle Tours. He's had to switch things around on his tours several times during the pandemic, as museums and galleries opened and closed. His go-to resource for finding an alternate that's open?
"I start with my local tourism site that has a page about what has been open throughout the pandemic," he says. For him, that's the What's Open page on the Washington, D.C., website that tracks real time and upcoming openings as announced.
► Summer travel: Why you need a Plan B
Online is more reliable than print. As a former newspaper guy, it hurts me to say this. But when it comes to attraction openings, don't trust what's printed. This spring, when I visited Alexandria, Virginia, I had a brochure that listed opening hours. The pandemic had turned everything upside down. Fortunately, Alexandria has a page with updated information and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. That's where to look for the latest info. "We regularly check the websites of local attractions to find their current opening and closing status and make sure we put all the latest information on one page," says Patricia Washington, CEO of Visit Alexandria.
As a last resort, look for reviews. If an attraction isn't answering the phone and you can't really tell if it's operating, there's one last place you can look. "Check for recent reviews," says Steve Schneiter, founder of Denver Microbrew Tour. "If there are new reviews of the attraction from a couple of days or weeks ago, you can likely assume that the activity is operating."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Summer travel: Here's how to find out if a tourist attraction is open