Coronavirus and Travel: What You Should Know

Traveling during the pandemic can be nerve-racking, even intimidating. With TSA and airline regulations constantly changing, it can be difficult to know what the rules are or how to be properly prepared. Airline ticket fares …

Traveling during the pandemic can be nerve-racking, even intimidating. With TSA and airline regulations constantly changing, it can be difficult to know what the rules are or how to be properly prepared. Airline ticket fares are lower than ever, making it more tempting to travel despite the health risks. But if you decide to travel for pleasure, or you must do so for business or personal reasons, here is some information and advice to make your pandemic travel experience a more positive one.

The policies in place are designed to safeguard your health.

Some pandemic travel restrictions may seem inconvenient. On an airplane, the middle seat might be blocked. You may not be able to sit directly beside your companion or with every person in your party. The numbers of passengers permitted on a flight may be lower than usual, making it challenging when making ticket changes. This can vary airline to airline, or may also occur if you are using the train or other modes of public transportation. Food and beverage options may be limited, making the onboard dining experience less enjoyable. Wearing masks is required almost everywhere. Having one’s face covered for hours can be aggravating and uncomfortable. Transportation companies as a whole are doing their best to operate and provide services to the public while minimizing any threat to travelers’ health. Unfortunately in doing so, less options may be available than usual.

Touchless service is the new normal.

In an effort to prevent further spread of the pandemic, much of the travel experience has been changed to touchless transitions. Checking in, boarding, baggage assistance, and meal or beverage procurement are all things that are mostly touchfree for travel during pandemic. The best way to approach this is to ensure you have the proper technology needed for your trip. Most carriers have a smartphone app that can be used to self-service most ticketing needs.  They prefer those to be used, rather than have an agent make changes in person or print paper tickets, itineraries, or boarding passes during pandemic travel. Seat changes, flight/train status, baggage tracking, and airport or station maps are usually available in these apps. If you prefer to use a paper boarding pass or to keep a paper record of your itinerary and other essential information while you travel, it is best to either print those items at home or from a kiosk when you check in. When boarding, keep in mind that due to the pandemic less assistance will be available during the boarding process to minimize physical contact between passengers and crew. Travelers with disabilities will still receive accommodation, but there may not be a staff member available to help stow baggage or physically lead a passenger to the restroom. Unfortunately that puts more responsibility on the passenger. If you know you may need significant assistance, try to have someone to travel with you. Some carriers offer companion travel for disabled or special needs passengers at a discounted price. Keep carry-on baggage as light as possible. Try to carry bags that can easily fit under the seat, rather than in the overhead compartment. When purchasing food and beverage items, the person serving you may not be permitted to touch or be close to you in any way. When asking questions or ordering, be mindful to keep adequate distance between yourself and the staff member. Allow them to place your food or drink down and step away before leaning in to pick it up. Many items that would usually come open are now individually wrapped or sealed to keep them sanitary. When opening a container, if you need assistance let them know prior to taking it into your hands. Payment might be required to be contactless as well. Cash is often not accepted or not preferred. Use of credit and debit cards (especially those with the “tap to pay” capability), Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and Google Pay are commonly encouraged.

Bring your own supplies whenever possible.

Universal precautions such as gloves and masks are best to provide yourself. If you have your own with you, it is more likely they are sterile and lowers the risk of contamination as they will not have to change hands. Due to pandemic travel restrictions, these items are must for everyone. You can also bring other helpful items, like cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer, shoe covers, or a wrap or light blanket. Carriers often have these items stocked but supplies may be limited. Purchase them before you go to eliminate any worry should they be unavailable. Most of us already have a generous amount of pandemic supplies around the house. Be sure the amounts of liquids packed are in accordance with the current security regulations. Certain exceptions are made for hand sanitizer but not other items aside from prescribed medication. Take care when disposing of used cleaning items to prevent spreading germs. Airplanes and trains usually have a motion sickness bag available at every seat which can also double as a trash bag. If you have a disposable bag available from a purchase before boarding, it can also be used to hold any personal garbage until an appropriate place for trash disposal can be found. Flight changes, delays, and cancellations have increased in frequency. When packing carry-on bags, it is a good idea to add a change of clothes (and perhaps even some basic toiletries) just in case plans change unexpectedly. You may not be able to immediately access any luggage you originally checked. Wearing layers can be helpful in making it easier to adjust an outfit to meet whatever the conditions call for. Although beverages are not permitted through security, food items often are. Generally speaking, dry goods and solid foods are a safe bet. This includes easy grab-and-go snacks like popcorn, nuts, protein bars, or even sandwiches or fruit. (However, be careful when traveling internationally with these things. They are not always allowed through customs.) These items can be packed beforehand and eliminate the stress of having to find food in a place you may not be familiar with or have little time to look. You may prefer this option especially if you have dietary restrictions or allergies. For beverages, most cold drinks are served bottled or in cans. Ice typically has to be requested. If you would like to bring a beverage, the dry mixes for coffees and cold drinks, as well as teabags are acceptable. Do not pack water bottles with the intention of using them while traveling.  Anticipate needing to purchase bottled water. Water fountains and filling stations are not a sanitary choice right now. Due to the pandemic, many airports and stations have less restaurants and fast food places open, and their hours may be reduced from normal. 

If you are uncomfortable at any time, it is best to always let someone know.

Too often travelers do not report discomfort because they “don’t want to bother anyone”. Understandable, but there are times what may seem to be a small discomfort can actually be a big deal. If you observe another passenger behaving in a way that is unsafe or uncomfortable for you for any reason, let an employee know. Even if they cannot stop or correct it, they can get help or ensure it is reported to the proper authority. Furthermore if you feel any physical discomfort, do not hesitate to ask for help or accommodation. A mild pain can easily turn into a potential medical emergency. Be as honest as you can about any pre-existing conditions. The more information a crewmember has about your physical state, the better they can help you. Most carriers’ agents and attendants are highly trained safety professionals, not just smiling faces meant for giving greetings or instructions. Everyone’s wellness is a priority, whether physically, emotionally, or mentally. The pandemic only exacerbates this. Keeping yourself healthy and safe is also beneficial to everyone around you.

Do as much research as you can before your day of travel.

There are several resources available to travelers to help understand information such as new restrictions, carrier policies, and destination entry requirements. Check your carrier’s website and any material they may have sent you concerning your trip, or you can contact their customer service department with questions. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website is also an excellent source for information like what is and is not allowed to be carried, and what to expect when passing through security checkpoints. If you are traveling internationally, be sure you are informed of that country’s policy for entry from the United States and any other location you may visit during your journey. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website features a section that specifically addresses travel during pandemic. It includes quarantine and testing requirements, up-to-date information on the spread of the pandemic highlighting high risk areas, and tips for preparing for pandemic travel. The more you know before you depart, the better. No question is a silly question. Things are continuously evolving during this pandemic, we must all work together to ensure we are well informed.