It’s been nearly three months since we were vaccinated, and in that time, we’ve slowly started to dip our toe back into the world of air travel. And after 389 days of not being on a plane, what we found was a bit astounding. So if you’re looking book a trip by plane this summer, I wanted to give you a rundown of what it’s like to travel right now.
The above feature image was an iPhone photo I snapped in Nashville’s airport BNA this Sunday night.
But before I go any further, let me just say that I know the pandemic is by no means over. I feel so deeply for everyone in India right now, and I know the frustrations of my friends in Europe and Canada who are unable to get vaccinated. SVV and I said we would not travel by plane until we had both shots and were well past the period when is safe for us to be out and about. We still never leave our houses without masks, and we only pick places that are taking safety seriously.
That said, as our livelihood is in tourism, we’re testing the waters right now, and I’m hoping the United States can help distribute the vaccine to countries who need it and that we’re able to reach a point this year when it’s safe for all vaccinated travelers and children to get on a plane again.
The airports are packed
On our first flight out in March in over a year, I was shocked to find the airports far from empty. In fact, they were Christmas holiday level packed, particularly when we connected in Dallas at DFW en route to California. It’s great that wearing a mask is a federal mandate from the time you enter your departure airport until you step foot out of your arrival destination, but it’s still a bit jarring to be around so many people.
How to get around this? Traveling in off-peak times, namely Monday afternoon through Wednesday, should result in fewer people. This past weekend, we went to Philadelphia, and flying out on a Thursday and back on a Sunday night meant we were traveling at peak times. In both airports going both directions, we were absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of people, particularly after not being in crowds for over a year.
If you are someone for whom crowds or pandemic anxiety is real—and I totally get it if so—then perhaps traveling by plane is something you should hold off doing until next year.
In-flight services is minimal at best
Flying across country? You’ll want to sufficiently stock up on beverages and snacks before you depart, particularly if you’re traveling with kiddos who need constant sustenance.
When we flew American Airlines last month, there was zero in-flight service. Flying Southwest Airlines this past weekend, they did hand out pretzels and minimal beverage service (four options of soda or water); however, due to the eastern storms right now, they canceled all beverage service in the end.
For years, SVV and I have flown with metal water canisters (to cut back on single-use plastic) and RX Bars (to have a healthy snack on hand always), and this is no big change for us, but if you’re a casual flier at best, you may not have a routine down, so be sure and stock up in the airport if you think you might get hungry or thirsty on your flight.
Flights are completely full
I couldn’t help but laugh at SVV when he assumed we’d show up and have the middle seat blocked. Most airlines did away with that earlier this year, with only Delta extending it through the end of April. Now, every airline is booking out middle seats.
The flights are at full capacity. We’ve been on six flights in the past six weeks, and all but one had nearly every seat taken. Again, if you’re someone who is going to be stressed out by sitting in such close proximity to a stranger—even a masked stranger at that as you are not allowed to take your mask off unless you’re taking a sip of a drink—then stick to traveling by car for the near future.
Rental cars are hard to come by
Before going to Palm Springs in March, I tried to book a car one week out. Everything—and I mean everything—was booked. I found this odd at the time but chalked it up to a small airport and limited services. We wound up taking a smoke-infested taxi that day and then getting around by foot until we found a car at an off-site rental car location.
Then, last week I read this story about the huge rental car shortage right now as many of the companies sold off their fleet throughout the past year, and suddenly so many things made sense. The 24 hours we didn’t have a car was tough as ride share companies are also in demand in certain cities where they laid off a bulk of their contractors during the pandemic.
Speaking of which, ride-share prices have shot up
In Palm Springs during that 24 hours we were car-less, we found ourselves waiting up to 45 minutes for a Lyft or Uber when we were staying centrally and just looking to go a mile or less. And even then, drivers would cancel on us. Depending on where you’re traveling, it might be hard to rely on Lyft or Uber right now—both of which require drivers and riders to be masked up, it bears noting—and with the rental car shortage, you might find yourself in a pickle.
In Philadelphia this weekend, we never had to wait more than 10 minutes for a Lyft in central areas, but boy have prices risen. Even with my 15 percent Chase Sapphire discount on Lyft, I found myself averaging about $15 a ride to just go a mile or so (and then obviously I’d tip 20 to 25 percent on top of that). I’m grateful that Philly has an abundance of Lyfts, but transportation was definitely a big line item of our budget over our four-day trip.
Many attractions are timed entry or limited capacity
If you’re not a planner type, now is the time when you’re going to need to be if you intend to travel this year. Planning a trip to a city full of museums? You’ll want to book your tickets at least a week or two out as capacity is limited and almost everywhere is still doing timed entry, many by advanced reservation only.
Visiting a special exhibit like Picasso at the Frist that’s only there for a limited run? You’ll need to plan even further out. The great news is, Frist aside (which was packed when we went midday on a Thursday), most museums are really spacing out entry, and you’ll have many rooms to yourself. It’s glorious if you’re crowd-averse like us!
Restaurants require reservations (or have limited hours)
We learned the hard way in California that you can only really dine in if you have a reservation, so we wound up doing a lot of takeout. We were staying in a spacious Airbnb, so this wasn’t a problem for us. But if you’re looking to really experience the local restaurant scene, you’ll need to plan in advance.
In Philly, we made reservations for most dinners and brunches, getting takeout for the others. In Nashville week before last, I was shocked when two friends and I went for a post-vax dinner celebration on a Thursday night only to find many restaurants were still closed or closing early, like 7pm on a prime dining night.
All that to say, do your research before you arrive in a place and don’t plan to paint the town red (or eat at all the restaurants you’d planned on).
But there are some good things that have come from this
Is that to say you shouldn’t travel right now? Absolutely not. I love that there aren’t crowds everywhere (well, other than the airport), that timed entry to attractions means I can enjoy museums and such without competing for space with others. Having dining reservations and a guaranteed table outdoors is a luxury. Being able to travel, to move freely at all right now is a privilege when many countries cannot.
People seem to be a bit more tolerant of others. For example, I saw a mother struggling with toddler twins who held up the entire Southwest boarding line on our return flight Sunday because she couldn’t find her pass and then had to mask both kiddos up in their strollers before boarding the plane.
In normal times, I feel people would have been eye-rolling and huffing, but I saw none of that. I feel that people are genuinely grateful to be out of the house after so long that they’re far more patient than others. Will this trend of kindness and understanding stick around? I sure hope, though it remains to be seen.
Have you traveled this year? How have you found the experience has changed?