Six Experiences Traveling During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Delta plane boarding | Cayla Gallo

The ongoing pandemic is still very much a part of our daily lives now with 10.5 million cases in the United States and 242,000 deaths at the time of this writing. Even though we may be tired of it, the virus sure isn’t tired of us (yet).

Potential vaccines are on the horizon with recent analyses showing more than 90% effectiveness*, (a great sign!), but it’ll take a national effort to make that home stretch together.

And while major plans have been disrupted for everyone, there are still ways to take some trips depending on your comfort level. We speak with a handful of people on how they traveled during the pandemic.

Trip Story #1 – James D., New York, NY

Two photo collage of man in mask sitting in plane and an empty airport hallway
Left: James on the plane | Right: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport | James Duffy

In early October, my parents and I had to take a flight from New York to Texas. Flying is pretty normal for my family – both my parents have traveled for work over the years, and I’m used to a flight every one to two years. Of course, under the “new normal” of the coronavirus pandemic, the experience was stressful, foreign, and a bit confusing.

I hadn’t been on a plane since January, nor had I stayed in a hotel since last year. The whole process was anxiety-inducing but went more smoothly than I expected. Despite a lot of my nervousness, more often than not social distancing was enforced, everyone was masked, and things felt safe. While I’m not eager for my next mid-pandemic flight, my experience traveling during the coronavirus was pretty safe!

In some ways, this was the easiest trip I’ve ever taken. I flew out of JFK airport in New York, which is usually bustling and crowded. Typically my family will arrive around two hours before our flight to make time to wait in line at security. This time, we got to JFK an hour before our flight, and we got to our gate within 15 minutes. The airport was not just empty relative to a typical day at JFK, it was just flat out empty.

When we boarded, there were no clumps of people by the gate or long lines to check-in. Everyone stayed seated until the gate was clear, and the process was pretty orderly. On the flight itself (we flew Delta), every middle seat was empty and a handful of seats went unsold. Like the airport, it was far less crowded than usual, which was a relief. Deplaning was also easier than ever. Each row left one at a time, careful to social distance. Typically, getting off a plane is a bit of chaos as everyone scrambles to be the first out the door, but people were more patient and respectful than ever.

The same goes for the flight home. It took us about five minutes to get through the gate at Austin Airport, which too was desolate.

Every passenger wore a mask on both flights, and the airline actually followed through on leaving seats open. In addition, my mom ended up adjusting her flight and was charged nothing to change her itinerary. All in all, it was one of the smoothest airport-to-airport trips of my life.

When we landed in New York completing the round trip, we had to fill out forms for the state’s contact tracing program. I had to include information about my trip, as well as contact info in case someone on the flight turned up positive. Luckily, I haven’t heard back from the contact tracers and got a negative test of my own after getting home.

As with both airports, the Best Western we stayed in was almost entirely empty, which made it feel safer. I wasn’t sure if they had a policy of underbooking or were just not busy, but staying a week in Texas, I saw only a handful of other guests. The hotel had a pool and gym, both of which could be reserved in one-hour timeslots ahead of time.

The experience felt very normal, outside of the strict mask policy. I never felt unsafe while staying there, and spent most of my time at the hotel or at my brother’s apartment nearby.

Both the airline and hotel really exceeded my expectations in terms of safety and enforcing rules. While I was nervous before the trip, the policies and rules in place along the way made the experience much more comfortable. I’m not exactly looking forward to my next flight, but it’s reassuring to know that if I do need to travel, I can do so safely.

Trip Story #2 – Cayla G., Newark, NJ

Masked couple on plane
Cayla and her fiancee on Delta | Cayla Gallo

Cayla, the Director here at The Smart Wallet, actually traveled twice during the pandemic. One trip – to Arizona in July – was planned before the pandemic broke out. The other was a last-minute trip to Florida to see her family in October.

On the first trip, Cayla flew out of Newark Airport and into McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. Boarding and departing were like two different worlds.

“Newark was amazing; it was completely empty all times we’ve traveled. We traveled with our emotional support animal  – Charley – and it couldn’t have gone smoother,” she said. “Flying into LAS was a bit overwhelming, much busier than NWK. Things seemed much less strict and there were a ton of people roaming throughout not wearing masks.”

Airport boarding gate with man and golden retriever
Charley the golden retriever and dad reaching for snacks | Cayla Gallo

Although she was nervous to go, the trip was worth it: Cayla’s partner proposed to her while they were in Arizona!

“I had terrible anxiety about traveling during such a scary time. I almost canceled my flight to Arizona twice, but I am so happy I didn’t because the proposal was epic,” she said.

On her second trip, Cayla again left Newark – this time for Tampa, where she said things were much calmer. While the airport in Vegas was like its own world, Tampa was much more similar to Newark.

Airport security area
Airport security area at Tampa International Airport | Cayla Gallo

On her flights – a mix of American Airlines and Delta – Cayla noted that the passengers were respectful and the flight attendants were helpful. Despite some general tension and nervousness on the flights, she said that everything went basically as smoothly as possible.

“I feel more comfortable at the airport than I do grocery shopping, to be honest,” she said. “Once I went to the airport, I felt much more comfortable seeing the correct processes in place and being respected by all others.”

Trip Story #3 – Joanne L., Los Angeles

Masked woman wearing a face shield on a plane
The arrow points to the stranger next to Joanne on Alaska Air | Joanne Leung

Flying from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, and back in June was a challenge for Joanne Leung, an L.A. resident and wedding photographer traveling for work. Although she didn’t want to fly during the pandemic, she signed a contract last year and was still obligated to fulfill it.

She spent time researching airline safety protocols before choosing her flight, specifically making sure that her flight would not seat anyone in the middle of rows. She picked Alaska Airlines, and she was severely disappointed when she arrived at the airport.

“On the day of the flight, they sent an email early morning to let me know that they have downgraded my flight to a four-seat per row plane and suddenly my half-empty flight became a higher density flight,” she said. “Luckily I wasn’t seated with someone directly next to me, but there were passengers who were strangers who got seated together.”

“That’s not acceptable when they falsely advertised that our safety was their priority and they were committed to not put someone in the middle seat. Well, they don’t have a middle seat. It’s a bait and switch.”

On the return flight, it happened again. Joanne’s flight was downgraded from six-seats to four-seats per row, but this time she was stuck sitting next to a stranger, and safety policies were hardly enforced.

Left: Alaska policies | Right: Joanne’s email on the day of the flight | Provided by Joanne Leung

“This flight was FULLY packed. I was seated next to someone who did not care to cover his nostrils with the mask,” she said. “To add insult to injury, they STILL served beverages and pretzel snacks on the flight, and the passengers around me all took their masks off – pretty much for an hour. I was terrified.”

Joanne, who has a Ph.D. in Bioengineering, said her background in science contributed to her unease about the pandemic and fully understood that “it isn’t the regular flu and it has unknown long term consequences. Scientists everywhere had only started to realize how extensive the impacts are, not only in the respiratory system but the cardiovascular and the nervous system, along with many unknown reasons why it presents its symptoms in very unexpected ways that we can’t even begin to understand.”

As soon as she returned home, she quarantined on a different floor than her husband but faced a 12-day wait to get a test in L.A. as there was a shortage. The overall experience hasn’t made Joanne eager to fly again soon, even if work opportunities arise.

“I would travel again only when I drive,” she said. “Flying is risky.”

Trip Story #4 – Alice C., Southern CA

Packed flight during COVID-19 on American Airlines
Packed American Airlines flight during COVID-19 | Alice Chang

In September, Alice Chang from Southern California flew from LAX to Cabo for vacation. She flew American Airlines and was surprised to find a packed plane. Like Joanne, Alice’s flight was at full capacity, and middle seats were occupied.

“We were surprised that the middle seats were not left open for an attempt at social distancing,” she said. “It goes to show they don’t really care about the health and safety of passengers.”

The staff wore masks and were respectful of social distancing, and other passengers wore masks outside of when eating or drinking, for the most part. The flight was luckily short, and she was met with temperature checks and tracing questionnaires when she landed in Mexico.

“It felt reassuring Mexico was monitoring its borders,” she said. “Everyone we interacted with on our trip had a mask or gloves on at all times and worn correctly.”

On the return flight, there were no temperature checks or contact tracing efforts at LAX airport, to Alice’s surprise.

She still quarantined for 14 days after getting home and said some anxiety lingered until those two weeks were over. Although her flight was less COVID-safe than she anticipated, her overall experience was generally positive.

“I would [travel again] but would avoid flying American Airlines and fly with airlines that have middle seats open policy,” she said. “I think traveling by personal car will be preferred over air travel, but I don’t think I will be comfortable with long flight times.”

Trip Story #5 – Alice L., Orange County, CA

Left: Alice in mask enjoying the view | Right: Interior of Eco-Tent | Alice Ly

For the next story, Alice from The Smart Wallet will share her most recent experience.

My partner and I typically travel internationally each year but with COVID-19, we had to stay put. We were 100% not comfortable with getting on a plane, so we decided to each pick an AirBnB to help cure some “travel blues” we were experiencing.

We looked for descriptions that listed heightened pandemic cleanings and combed through reviews. Ultimately we settled on two locations about 20 minutes from each other and spent 5 nights in total. It was a short 1-hour drive from where we lived but the private and lush location made it seem further.

Our first location was an eco-tent in Bonsall, CA and it was designed to be African Safari inspired. With all the greenery and hilly landscapes, we felt “off-grid” for the most part even though we had Wi-Fi.

Upon arriving, we made sure to disinfect anything that we would touch – handles, knobs, switches, etc., and sprayed the air and the bed with our bottle of alcohol. We also opened all the points of entry for airflow for a good hour since there could’ve been previous guests earlier in the day. All the dishes/kitchenware were re-washed as well.

After the initial disinfecting phase, we were able to relax. Our host did come to greet us but we masked up and she kept more than 6 feet away. We also brought groceries so that we didn’t have to leave to get food.

Our second location was a cottage on a mini-farm in Fallbrook, CA. The same disinfecting process took over upon our arrival. You just never know how thorough the host could be in cleaning, and during this pandemic time, we weren’t taking chances, no matter how small.

Disinfecting the cottage with masks on | Alice Ly

The host had over 20 rescued farm animals ranging from mini donkeys, geese, fowl, a goat, a pot-bellied pig, a tortoise, and more. While we didn’t leave the premises much, being outside with the animals felt “freer” than staying back home and indoors.

And when we did leave to get local food, we didn’t feel comfortable to do it often, as you could tell smaller towns weren’t as strict with mask-wearing. However, for the most part, we felt safe in our AirBnB.

If you’re not comfortable with planes, I would suggest looking for unique stays with AirBnB or even hotel locations to help with the wanderlust!

Trip Story #6 – Sukhraj B., Los Angeles, CA

However, not all AirBnBs can be 100% positive though as Sukhraj (“Suki”) Beasla experienced when her brother booked a large 3-story home for their family over Columbus Day weekend at Pismo Beach. She said the listing mentioned, “Enhanced Cleaning Protocols” that were in compliance with state and CDC regulations but just in case, they brought their own cleaning supplies.

They also brought their own towels, spices, groceries, and cooking utensils. And the mindset to relax at the beach.

What they didn’t expect to do during that holiday weekend was battle ants.

“We found out that the AirBnB was infested with ants, and yes, it was disgusting. I turned on the toaster and suddenly a bunch of ants swarmed out,” Suki recounted. “We don’t stay at a lot of AirBnBs but we needed the escape.”

While they cleaned away the ants during their stay, the host was notified and he was apologetic. He partially blamed it on the major construction next door but also refunded her brother at the end.

These situations can happen during any time, not just COVID-19 of course, but any extra inconvenience seems magnified due to 2020 just being that year where everything bad happens.

The Bottom Line

No two airports, airlines, hotels, AirBnBs, or resorts have the exact same pandemic safety policies at this point. For the most part, we have seen companies get smarter and safer over time, which is a step in the right direction.

When traveling yourself, it’s important to gather as much information as you can ahead of time, to limit the chances you run into uncomfortable situations. As these stories show, those can still crop up, and you shouldn’t feel forced to fly or travel if you don’t feel safe. Remember that many major airlines have waived all cancellation and change fees, so you have flexibility!

Whatever you do, stay safe!