While the COVID-19 pandemic upended the travel industry, new vaccines and declining cases mean you may be starting to plan your next getaway. The good news is that while you’ve been stuck at home, the travel industry has been evolving to help keep you safe when you travel. But before you head to the airport for the first time in a while, here are some of the biggest changes you should expect.
Even seasoned travelers will have to adjust how they pack their bags for post-COVID travel. There aren’t many big changes, but below are a few tips for carry-on essentials for your next trip:
- Hand sanitizer: TSA now allows you to bring a 12-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer in your carry-on. Take advantage and bring the big bottle.
- Extra masks: Masking is mandatory throughout the entire travel process. If you have a long journey, you’ll be grateful to swap out a mask you used all day for a fresh one. Be sure to bring masks that aren’t too tight around your ears, or use an ear protector or Cabeau Tape to avoid that sore back-of-ear feeling we all know too well. I learned my lesson the hard way during an international flight in 2020. After a few hours in the airport, I realized my favorite mask wasn’t all that comfortable for long periods of time. Luckily, my travel companion packed an extra mask with adjustable straps and saved the day.
- Snacks: The number of operating restaurants, cafes, and shops in the airport are reduced and those that are open for business have shortened hours. If you’re arriving late at night or early in the morning, you might be out of luck for a meal or a cup of coffee. Bring plenty of your own snacks to get you through the journey. During my last trip, I wasn’t able to get a cup of coffee until I was on the plane.
Frequent travelers know the better you prepare for your trip, the smoother the journey will go. This is especially true these days since the rules and regulations of air travel have changed so much. Ensure a stress-free start to the trip by following these tips before you get to the airport:
- Provide a negative COVID-19 test: The CDC recommends all U.S. domestic and international travelers get a COVID test 1-3 days before they fly. The CDC requires that anyone boarding a flight to the U.S., including U.S. citizens, must possess a negative COVID test. International travelers should keep this in mind for their return journey to the U.S. Some airlines, like American, make it easy to upload your negative test on the secure VeriFLY app, which also allows travelers to check the requirements at their destination.
- Check your airline’s policies: Some airlines, like United, ask you to fill out a Pre-Health survey before you fly. Make sure you look into the requirements of the specific airline you’re flying with so you arrive at the airport with all the documents you need in hand.
- Arrive early: Earlier than usual, that is. New airport protocols and reduced staff means there’s more potential for delays. Avoid rushing through security and running to your gate by arriving at the airport well ahead of schedule.
- Be aware of new change and cancellation policies: Many major airlines like Delta, United, and Alaska Airlines are waiving change and cancelation fees. If you feel sick or need to cancel your flight due to COVID, you may be able to do so without losing out financially. Just check with your airline for the latest policies.
At the Airport
Once you’re at the airport, you’ll notice plenty of new protocols and procedures that strive to keep travelers and airport employees safe. Check out some of the changes and how to navigate them:
- Mandatory masking: You are required to wear a mask when you enter the airport, throughout the check-in and security processes, at your gate, and on the airplane.
- Barriers: Plexiglass barriers separate you from the check-in and TSA agents. These partitions can make it hard to hear and understand each other, so try to be as patient and clear as possible in conversation.
- Mind the floor stickers and seat spacers: Some airports have social distancing stickers on the floor to remind passengers to keep 6 feet between each other and airport employees. Stick to your stickers. At the gate, every other seat is marked off with tape to prevent passengers from sitting next to each other.
- Give your passport, hold your boarding pass: When you pass through security, TSA agents take your passport. They may ask you to pull your mask down for a moment to identify you. You scan your own boarding pass instead of handing it to the agent, which helps reduce contact.
- Follow TSA guidelines: Agents are following a “hands off” policy. If you have any questionable carry-on items, you’ll be sent to the back of the line to sort out your own bag. TSA will not hold up the line or make contact with your belongings to go through your stuff.
- Fill up at home: Food options could be few and far between when you’re at the gate. Don’t count on a hearty meal before your flight. Better yet, research the airport ahead of time to find out what’s open.
In the Air
The actual experience of flying hasn’t changed too much, but here are few small tweaks in service that you can expect:
- Boarding and deplaning. Getting on and off the plane is more structured than it was before. Planes are boarded from back to front to avoid crowding in the aisles. When it’s time to deplane, you’ll be called by rows.
- Masking. Masks are mandatory throughout the entire flight. Eating and drinking is the only exception.
- Reduced food and drink service. Travelers in the main cabin on domestic flights typically receive pre-packaged snack bags and canned drinks. Most airlines only serve alcohol to business class passengers. Meals are served on long haul international flights with airlines such as Delta, United, and American. I received a factory-sealed meal on my flight to the U.K. I was glad I stocked up on water and snacks though, since the food cart didn’t come by with refreshments as frequently as it normally would.
- Air filtration system. This isn’t something you’ll see, but it’s comforting to know it’s there. Most airlines are using HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters which remove 99.99% of airborne particles, including viruses like COVID-19. American, Delta, United, and Southwest all note their use of this state-of-the-art system.
- Frequent sanitation. Airlines conduct a sanitation process after each flight which disinfects the airplane and focuses on high-touch surfaces. Delta is a great example of how seriously airlines take sanitation.
Most of what’s outlined in Pre-Travel Prep and At the Airport applies when you land as well. Here’s what you should be prepared for:
- Have your documents ready for officials. That includes a pre-flight health survey, negative COVID test, and anything else your airline or destination requires.
- Temperature screening. Several airports in the U.S. are currently conducting temperature checks, so you might be checked after you deplane. I had my temperature checked when I arrived at Logan Airport (Boston, MA) after deplaning an international flight from the U.K. However, I did not pass through the screening at Logan during my departure, nor was my temperature taken when I entered the U.K. Whether or not you go through these screenings will depend on individual airport policies.
- Business as usual. Collect your baggage as usual (while being sure to maintain social distance) and pass through Customs if applicable.
While travel has undergone modifications that sometimes means delays and small inconveniences, thankfully these new protocols make it possible to explore again. Safe travels!
Top photo by People Image Studio