After 389 days of not being on a plane, we took our first pandemic flight in March after we were both fully vaccinated. And what we found was a bit astounding. So if you’re looking book a trip by plane this year, I wanted to give you a rundown of what it’s like traveling in the pandemic.
This post was updated September 2021 following the 16 flights we’ve taken this year so far.
Note: SVV and I only opted to begin traveling by plane again as received both shots in February and will get our booster as soon as it’s authorized. We still never leave our houses without masks, and we only pick places that are taking safety seriously.
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.
Some countries are starting to require proof of vaccine
Not vaccinated? Now’s the time to change that—for many reasons, but pretty soon you’re not going to be able to visit many countries without proof of vaccine. Netherlands is not allowing unvaccinated. In France, you must show proof of vaccination to go into restaurants, cultural venues and more. Sweden is currently not open to non-essential travel, and Bulgaria has also restricted travel. And in many countries, you must have a negative PCR test before entering and also quarantine upon arrival if you are unvaccinated.
Creative Commons photo by Jernej Furman
I’ve stocked up on BinaxNOW antigen at-home self tests to test myself weekly just to make sure I haven’t caught the virus and am asymptomatic, especially now that I’m traveling again. The last thing I’d want to do is unknowingly pass on this awful thing. Most pharmacies are sold out of home tests right now, so I advise you stock up online so you have them available in a pinch.
Note: The above was accurate at the time of publication, but these restrictions are changing daily, so please check the state department website for any country-specific updates before you travel.
Flight cancellations are becoming increasingly more common
On our recent trip to California, Southwest canceled our outbound flight and our inbound flight—in both cases, we were already on our way to the airport. Now, they did go ahead and rebook us, but the flight times weren’t ideal. In the end, we booked out-of-pocket flights back for $770 total (oof) and just hoped Southwest would refund us (they’ve since told us they would). But it’s not fun to be an air traveler right now, and I’m just glad we’ve had a bit of flexibility during all these airline snafus.
And for our Iceland trip in November with our friend Emilie, we’ve each had two flight cancelations already on IcelandAir. My guess is that airlines are already starting to cancel non-full flights as they continue to tighten margins, and that our flights will continue to fluctuate as our departure time nears. So it’s probably a good time to invest in travel insurance and also to make sure you’re as flexible as possible—i.e. don’t book anything that’s nonrefundable for the first day or two of your trip.
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. I’ve yet to go on a flight where there’s meal service or the option to purchase a snack tray.
When we flew American Airlines earlier this year, there was zero in-flight service, period. Flying Southwest Airlines a few times this year, there now is minimal in-flight service (four options of soda or water) and pretzels; however, when it’s stormy, as it has been a lot lately, all beverage service is likely to be canceled. Delta is the only airline we’ve flown this year that is currently offering in-flight alcoholic beverages.
Flights are completely full
I couldn’t help but laugh at SVV on our flight back in March when he assumed we’d show up and have the middle seat blocked. Most airlines did away with that earlier at the beginning of the year, and at the time of publication, they were booking out every seat on the plane.
On pretty much every flight we’ve taken this year, the planes have been at full capacity or with just a handful of unbooked middle seats open; gone are the days of having your own row on a mid-week flight! 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.
Airport services are minimal
After going through quite the rigamarole to get to Oklahoma this summer—Southwest delayed our flight so significantly, we would have missed our connection and not gotten there until 24 hours later, so we booked a Delta ticket at the counter instead—we were stranded in Nashville’s Concourse B with zero dining options, only a beer stand open without food. When we connected in Atlanta, ditto: Everything in the international terminal was closed at prime dinner time, restaurants and newsstands, other than a lone McDonald’s with a line 50 people deep. By the time we arrived in Oklahoma City some 10 hours since leaving our house, we were properly starving.
Again, planning in advance is crucial right now. For years, SVV and I have flown with metal water canisters (to cut back on single-use plastic) and Kind or RX Bars (to have a healthy snack on hand always), but I was out of practice and totally forgot to top up my snacks on my carry on, so we were SOL—and our stomachs angry at this turn of events.
You can only remove masks between sips and bites
Earlier this year, flight attendants may have been a little bit more lenient in that, but no more. Now, they’ll ask you to immediately put your mask back on the second you take a sip until you take another. (I’m glad they’re doing this, so this is simply me stating a fact, not casting judgment.)
It’s wise to have not only the safest masks you can come by, but the most comfortable—particularly given you might be in it for anywhere from four to 12 hours without a break. These are our current favorite masks, and we bought another 10 before our last trip so we’d have at least one fresh mask for every day in public.
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, news of a huge rental car shortage started to trickle out; many of the companies sold off their fleet last year, and we’ve still not seen evidence that this is abating anytime soon. We tried to rent a car in my hometown just last week for a two-night trip to Alabama, and it was over $400 for a mid-sized car! Not even at an airport location either.
We opt for getting around by scooters when we can, but even then a lot of cities have outlawed them in the past year or two.
Mural by Dylan Bradway
And even if you do manage to snag a coveted rental reservation, be wary that things could always change. My friend Amanda reported back from her trip to Los Angeles last week, and she said despite booking an economy car, she arrived to the rental car agency trying to push an upgrade on her (with the price to match), to which she declined, then they told her, “oh, actually we have no economy cars right now, and it’s going to be extra—but we can give you this minivan instead.” Travel is an adventure, and it’s best to be prepared for all kinds of things to go wrong!
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.
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.
In Philadelphia in May, 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, many restaurants are still closed or closing early, like 7pm on a prime dining night. In California, we basically couldn’t get in anywhere—Catch-22: restaurants where we were didn’t take reservations but also wouldn’t add you to the waitlist past-5pm—and there’s indication of another restaurant lockdown looming in some cities. Many are closing in-dining options right now.
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.
Have you traveled this year? How have you found the experience has changed dramatically?