It won’t happen overnight, but travel is coming back. Yet travel and flying have also changed since you last stepped foot in an airport or boarded a plane.
From mandatory masks to social distancing markers to new boarding procedures and reduced in-flight service, COVID-19 has transformed the once-routine travel day into an almost unrecognizable experience. Your first flight in this new, strange world can feel daunting if you haven’t yet traveled. And some of these changes may stick around for months – if not for good.
Whether you’re getting on a plane for a spring break trip or not for another six months, use these tips to stay safe and travel (relatively) stress-free.
Check-In Online … and Carry-On Only
Even as more and more Americans return to the skies, there are still just a fraction of the usual travelers. And that means airports can feel empty.
But that doesn’t mean crowds don’t form, period. There are still issues with social distancing, especially at check-in kiosks, bag drop-offs, and baggage claims. We’ve seen massive, hour-long lines at baggage drop-off points in particular.
While unfortunate, it makes sense. Even with travel down across the board, there are only so many kiosks and airline agents available. Business travelers who travel with just a carry-on or briefcase are staying home, and the people who are traveling are more likely packing in bigger checked bags. Some crowding is bound to happen.
But there’s an easy way to avoid it all: Check-in for your flight online, and use an airline smartphone app to pull up your boarding pass so you can waltz right past the line to check in. And rather than checking a bag, pack in just a carry-on bag – trust us, it’s easier than you think.
These two small changes to your travel pattern can help you minimize contact with strangers and drastically speed up your trip through the airport.
Fly on Slower Days
Want to take it even farther? Just how many fellow travelers you’ll see will depend heavily on which day you’re actually flying.
Don’t just take it from me. Check out the graphic tracking the number of travelers passing through U.S. airports each day through 2020, and you’ll see just how much it changes day-by-day.
While the numbers are always changing, there’s a clear pattern. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are typically the slowest days with fewer travelers. Sundays, Mondays, and Fridays are usually the busiest.
That means your best bet for having more space at the airport (and more room on the plane) is by flying on an off-peak day. Bonus: Booking flights that depart on those days is almost always cheaper, too.
TSA PreCheck & CLEAR are Worth Their Weight in Gold
Everyone dreads spending long waits in line at TSA security checkpoints – perhaps now more than ever.
Just as with the crowds at the airport itself, just what awaits you in line will depend on what day you fly. In our experience, lines for even the standard security lines are typically quite short these days.
But if you want to ensure a quick trip through airport security with no backups, TSA PreCheck might be better than ever right now. The same goes for CLEAR, the privately run security program that allows you cut to the front of the line.
On every stop during our travels throughout the pandemic, lanes for both of these fast-pass programs were nearly empty, morning, afternoon, and night. The business travelers that are more likely to pay for these programs are staying home right now, and that makes them even faster.
The TSA is trying to go completely touchless in security lines: As of mid-June 2020, the agency says TSA agents will no longer grab boarding passes or IDs from travelers, who can instead scan them on their own. But reports are mixed on whether they’re truly doing so nationwide.
I’m normally quite skeptical of CLEAR and whether it’s worth the steep cost. But in this strange time, there’s no denying the value of walking up to a kiosk, scanning your eyes and boarding pass, then walking straight to put your bag on the conveyor belt.
Bring Masks (Yes, Plural)
You have to wear a mask on the plane and throughout the airport.
A few airlines may provide you a mask if you don’t have one, but that’s not something you should rely on. So do the world a solid and come prepared with your own. Just to be safe, pack a few masks – masks shouldn’t be reused constantly, and you never know when an elastic band may snap.
Oh, and a little tip? Bring some gum, too … unless you want to spend your flight smelling your own coffee breath.
At airports across the nation, shops, stores, and restaurants have limited their hours or closed altogether. Nearly a year into the pandemic, it can still be a challenge to get a bite to eat at the airport.
The same is true on planes, where airlines have drastically scaled back their in-flight service. At most, you’ll get a water and small bag of snacks. At the least, you may get nothing at all. And unless if you’re flying first class (or on a long-haul international flight) you won’t even be able to buy a drink. Some service is beginning to return, but it is slow.
And that means you need to be prepared. Some snack shops and newsstands remain open as usual, so buying a water for the flight shouldn’t be an issue. But a full meal? Don’t count on it.
Bringing your own snacks is a great idea. Just beware that the TSA is now asking travelers to put their food in a clear plastic bag to be scanned separately at security checkpoints. So plan ahead and pack wisely – or prepare to go hungry.
Pick Your Airline Wisely
COVID-19 has turned every airline in the world upside down. But when it comes to safety, cleaning, and service, they’re all responding differently.
In the U.S. and abroad, each airline has charted its own course through the crisis. So exactly what you get when it comes time to get on the plane will depend heavily on which airline you’re flying.
Want to make sure you’re not stuck sitting next to a stranger? For many months through the summer and into the fall and winter of 2020, several airlines blocked middle seats to give passengers more space onboard. But now there’s just one: Delta Air Lines.
Others like JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, and Southwest have backed away from blocking seats on flights. American stopped doing so months ago, while United and many budget airlines never did. Delta has pledged to block middle seats through at least April.
Dreading the thought of passing 100 other travelers as you board the plane? Many major U.S. airlines are now boarding planes from back to front to limit passenger contact – but not American.
Each of these small differences can add up to a drastically different flying experience from airline to airline. Study up on how each airline has changed its procedures and decide which one may give you the peace of mind you want.
Remember: You Won’t Lose Money if You Don’t Go
You don’t have to choose between your health and your wealth.
For years, airlines typically charged $200-plus to change or cancel a flight. But with coronavirus upending travel plans around the globe, they’ve given travelers some unprecedented flexibility to change or cancel flights for free.
These waivers vary by airline, but most major U.S. carriers will let you cancel any flight booked through at least March and get a voucher for the value of your ticket. You could also change the dates (or even the destination), paying only the difference in fare – not an additional fee.
Thrifty Tip: Want a refund, not a voucher? Instead of canceling now, it pays to wait.
If you’re not feeling up to traveling just yet, these policies mean you can cancel an upcoming flight without losing the money you paid for your ticket.
No matter when you travel again, it’s bound to be a much different experience. Be prepared, do your research, and follow these tips to make it a smooth process – or at least as smooth as it can be.