12 Things I Learned Traveling in Pandemic Times

Don’t forget to pack those extra masks. Photo Courtesy: nikkimeel/iStock

I’ve been writing quite a bit about the challenges of traveling during pandemic times for the last few months. I’ve told you about my first trip to see my family in Barcelona this summer after more than two years away — and why it wasn’t the best of ideas for everyone to brave a trip to Europe then. I’ve mused about taking weekend road trips and short getaways during late summer and early fall — although, in the end, I didn’t end up doing it myself. And I’ve also written about my first leisure trip since 2019 — I went to New York City the week of Thanksgiving and was reminded of the restorative power of traveling and breaking out of your daily routine.

But as the end of the year approaches and the holiday season is in full swing, the great debate over whether or not you should travel continues. Especially considering news about the spread of the Omicron variant keeps emerging — the first case identified in the U.S. was detected in California on December 1 — and there’s still not enough information regarding the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines against this new variant.

Whether you decide to stay home, end up flying to see family or friends, or just book a getaway for fun this December, let me tell you a few of the lessons I learned while traveling in pandemic times.

Lessons Learned for the New Reality of Air Travel in 2021

Plane taking off from the island of Maui. Photo Courtesy: Patricia Puentes/AMG

Before you decide to book a trip anywhere, take a peek at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest guidelines and travel recommendations by destination. The agency is still recommending you don’t travel to international destinations with very high levels (Level 4) of COVID-19 and advises you to be fully vaccinated before heading to countries with high levels (Level 3) of COVID-19 cases. You can check out the list of countries on the CDC’s site. For any kind of trip, even if you want to keep it within the U.S., the CDC advises delaying travel if you’re not fully vaccinated.

If you haven’t gotten your booster yet, schedule it. As of November 29, the CDC is saying everyone 18 years and older should get a booster shot. I got mine in mid-November since California made boosters available for all adults earlier that month. I scheduled it so that it would be six months after my second dose of Moderna, but still a week before my trip to New York to start boosting my immunity as soon as possible.

Remember that wearing a mask over your nose and mouth is required on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation. And yes, flying with a mask can be uncomfortable. I had the feeling that the long naps I tend to take on airplanes — I’m one of those annoying people who can sleep for almost the entirety of a six-hour flight — were a bit shorter due to my mask. But a bit more discomfort while flying shouldn’t come as a surprise. Little-to-no legroom and smelly restrooms still make for the worst part of taking to the skies.

Bear in mind that air travel increases the risk of getting COVID-19. Before getting my booster shot I flew double-masked with a cloth mask on top of a disposable one. I will probably return to the double-mask method this December depending on the increase in the number of cases — and once we have more concrete information about the efficacy of vaccines against the Omicron variant.

Besides double-masking, there have been other measures that have given me peace of mind. Because, let’s face it, flying and traveling mean taking more risks than staying home. I’ve used rapid tests at home like Lucira and Cue. None of them are cheap but they have put my mind at ease when I was seemingly feeling certain symptoms (for the most part the symptoms magically disappeared after getting a negative result).

Don’t be afraid to inquire about other people vaccination’s status. For my Thanksgiving dinner with a small group of friends in New York, it was a requirement that everyone would be vaccinated. Thinking about it now, perhaps it would have also been a good idea to have everyone take a test before the meal.

No matter if you need to check a 50lb suitcase full of clothes and shoes for a weekend getaway or you’re able to survive with just a backpack during a two-week trip, pack extra masks. Have more than one on hand and available during your flight and while at the airport, but also inside your suitcase for use during your trip. One of the straps of my FDA-approved KN95 mask broke while I was taking the mask off to have a sip of water at New York’s JFK airport and I sure was glad to have another one on hand to replace it. Stocking up on travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer is also a good habit.

These are not the early days of the pandemic. Expect a full flight with too many people trying to squeeze their overgrown carry-on bags into the packed overhead bins of the plane. And be aware that it’s a possibility that you’ll encounter the kind of passenger who’ll defiantly wear their mask under their nose or even on their chin. More than 3,900 cases of mask-related incidents have been reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) so far this year. And the agency has seen a steep spike in the number of investigations regarding unruly passengers.

It’s not too late to book your end-of-year trip. According to Expedia’sTravel Recovery Trend Report, nearly 70% of global searches fell within the 0- to 30-day search window during the third quarter of 2021. Meaning people are booking their trips closer to their desired departure dates. I’ve also followed that trend this year while, in pre-pandemic times, I tended to book my trips more in the 31- to 90-day range with the hopes of finding better deals and more options for flights and accommodations.

And, once again, I’m being extra careful while booking those trips. I’m planning a much-needed getaway to O’ahu at the end of the year but I made sure to choose a hotel that can be canceled free of charge. The flights are not cancelable but I can change them at no extra cost. And I’ll be monitoring the number of COVID cases, new variants and hospitalizations as well as travel advice up until the last minute. I know there’s a chance I’ll have to postpone my Hawaiian vacation this year depending on what turn the pandemic takes.

I’ve also been very aware of the regulations put in place at every destination I chose to travel to during 2021. I had my CDC vaccination card ready before boarding my flight to Europe. I had it on hand again in New York every time I went into a restaurant or a museum. And I know Hawai’i has implemented a safety program that requires all travelers to create an account and add information about their trip’s dates in addition to showing proof of vaccination or a negative antigen test.

But from all the other lessons learned at airport terminals and in planes and hotel lobbies during these last few unusual months, I think having patience and the ability to be flexible and change plans is probably the most important takeaway.