How I Roll: TPG Senior Cruise & Travel Reporter Gene Sloan

Dec 12, 2020

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Welcome to a special COVID-19 edition of How I Roll, an airport routine series with a focus on health and safety while traveling. Today, we’re asking TPG Senior Cruise & Travel Reporter Gene Sloan a shortlist of questions about how he travels during the pandemic, covering everything from how he preps for a trip to what he wears on the plane. Here’s what he had to say. Safe travels!

The itinerary:

TPG: What is the last flight you caught?

GS: Philadelphia to Barbados, through Miami, on American Airlines.

TPG: Was the trip for business or pleasure?

GS: Business. I went to Barbados to report on the first cruise in the Caribbean since the coronavirus pandemic began, a SeaDream Yacht Club voyage that famously did not go well.

TPG: With whom were you traveling? If you had a travel companion, what conversions did you have to align on safety precautions? Did you need to reassure them?

GS: I was alone. I sometimes take my wife or one of my three daughters along on work trips, but until COVID case counts come down, I won’t be doing that. Our family is avoiding unnecessary air travel for now. I took what I felt was a modest risk of COVID exposure during flying on this trip because I felt it was an important story. But it’s a different calculus for a family member that doesn’t have the same pressing reason to fly.

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TPG: Did you plan this trip pre-pandemic, or were these new travel plans?

GS: New travel plans. I booked it with just four days notice, after confirming that I could get access to the SeaDream vessel that was starting up operations.

TPG: What’s a trip you’re hoping to take in the future, that’s been put on hold?

GS: I will preface my answer by saying that I am in the midst of an extreme quest to visit every country of the world, and I’ve already been to nearly 100 of them. So my travel focus these days is on some seemingly random destinations. When COVID blew up earlier this year, I was about to book a trip to Moldova, in Eastern Europe, that I was thinking of extending into an exploration of Belarus, Poland and Lithuania. Along with Andorra, Liechtenstein and North Macedonia, those are the only European countries that I haven’t visited — out of 44 on the continent.

Related: A country-by-country guide to Caribbean reopenings

Pre-departure prep:

TPG: What does your pre-travel to-do list entail?

GS: I always pack the day before flying and make sure everything I am taking with a battery is fully charged. I never assume that I can charge upon landing. I also download lots of podcasts, in case I find myself somewhere without internet access (some of the smaller ships that I write about have limited or expensive WiFi access, and limited entertainment options).

Related: Face shields and sanitizer: 5 things we’re packing for flights during the pandemic

TPG: Are you getting a COVID test? If so, what kind?

GS: Yes, I got a PCR test three days before departing for the Barbados trip. This was required by both the cruise line, SeaDream Yacht Club, and Barbados. SeaDream Yacht Club also tested me (and all other passengers) at the pier on the day I boarded its ship, SeaDream 1, using a rapid test. Because there subsequently was an outbreak on the ship, I then was tested several more times in the following days — always with negative results. Barbados health authorities deemed me COVID-free when I left the ship (after an onboard quarantine). But since I could have been exposed to COVID in transit home, I quarantined myself at home for two weeks after returning. As a rule, everyone in our family is quarantining after any trip that involves a flight until COVID case counts come down — no matter what the state regulations are.

SeaDream Yacht Club’s 112-passenger SeaDream 1 docked in Barbados. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

Packing strategy:

TPG: What items are you packing to protect yourself from coronavirus?

GS: I always travel with a small bottle of hand sanitizer, but I’ve added an N95 mask and a face shield to my travel kit.

TPG: Is there anything you are leaving at home that you would normally take?

GS: No.

TPG: What are your carry-on essentials?

GS: The key thing in my carry-on bag for flights is my Bose noise-canceling headphones, which I put on the moment I board. They are permanently packed in my carry-on bag along with a tightly edited emergency supply of over-the-counter medicines like aspirin, ibuprofen and phenylephrine; a printout of my Medjet emergency evacuation insurance policy; and my passport. I use a LowePro camera gear backpack as my carry-on bag that is just small enough to fit under an airline seat but just big enough to fit all the above items plus the big Nikon D850 that I use to shoot cruise ship interiors along with accessories, my computer, a portable charger for my iPhone and my liquids bag.

TPG: What’s your go-to travel outfit, and has it changed at all during the pandemic?

GS: No changes. If I’m heading to Europe, it’s crisp jeans, a button-down shirt, a jacket and semi-dressy shoes — the European businessman’s “uniform” for casual travel. If I’m staying stateside, I often go more casual — swapping a pullover of some sort for the jacket and sneakers for the dress shoes. Americans don’t dress for travel anymore.

Before boarding:

TPG: Are you getting to the airport early or with just enough time to spare?

GS: I generally build in about 30 minutes of wiggle room. I was a “just in time” guy until I missed a flight to the Bahamas by five minutes playing it too close. The next available flight wasn’t for 24 hours. That’s a mistake I only needed to make once.

TPG: Has that changed at all?

GS: Nope.

TPG: How do you normally prefer to kill any extra time at the airport?

GS: When flying out of Philadelphia, my home town, I head straight to the American Express Centurion Lounge, to which I have access through my Platinum Card® from American Express. Ditto at other airports that have one. If they don’t, I’ll head to another lounge using the access provided by the American Express Platinum card.

TPG: What is your airport food strategy?

GS: I’ll eat at a lounge. The American Express Centurion Lounge in Philadelphia has wonderful food with menu items designed by local Philadelphia celebrity chef Michael Solomonov.

TPG: What differences have you noticed at the airport since the pandemic began?

GS: It’s quieter than usual. Which is great.

Inflight routine:

TPG: What is your strategy for choosing your seat on the plane?

GS: Always an aisle. If I’m in coach on United, my main airline, I’ll grab 21C or 21D if they’re  open. Those are the best two seats in coach on almost any United plane. If I’m flying United First on a narrow-body plane such as the 737, I’ll aim for 2B or 2E. I avoid row 1 since there’s no underseat storage, and it’s close to the lavatory. When flying United Business on United wide-body aircraft, my favorite seat depends on the configuration. My all-time favorite seat on United planes is 3D on United 767s heading to Europe.

Related: 7 tips for picking the perfect airplane seat every time

TPG: Were you able to work or relax during the flight?

GS: On daytime flights, I always buy internet access and work like it’s a regular day. This is where the Bose noise-canceling headphones are key. I go into a zone and forget I’m on a plane.

TPG: Do you eat or drink on the plane? Has that changed in any way?

GS:  I often did in the past. But not now due to COVID. On my Barbados flight, I was happy keeping my mask on at all times.

TPG: Have you noticed any changes in in-flight service?

GS: Yes, food and drink service was mostly dropped on my American flights to Barbados. Coach passengers got a small snack bag with water and cookies upon boarding.

Everything else:

TPG: Overall, did you still enjoy traveling during the pandemic?

GS: Absolutely! I love to travel, and the experience wasn’t all that different than before.

TPG: How much traveling have you done since the pandemic began?

GS: I have just done one trip since late February — the trip to Barbados. As noted above, my family has decided to be very cautious about COVID exposure.

First, sanitize your hands. The first thing The Points Guy cruise writer Gene Sloan encountered upon arriving at the port of Barbados for a SeaDream cruise was a hand sanitizer station. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

TPG: Any travel pearls of wisdom or hacks for flying right now?

GS: Eat before you get on the plane!

Rapid-fire questions:

Are you Team Ask or Not Ask when it comes to fellow travelers who aren’t wearing a mask? Team Depends. How big and menacing-looking is the person?

Latex gloves — yay or nay? Nay. But I wash my hands like crazy.

Favorite hand sanitizer brand? Whatever is on sale.

Favorite mask brand? This one is easy: The Morgan Sloan “Jersey Chicks” brand. My oldest daughter, Morgan, has been hand-making masks that she sells on Etsy at her Jersey Chicks store. She made me one with Hello Kitty fabric that I love wearing — just to see people’s reactions. That said, for a flight, I wouldn’t do anything but an N95 mask.

Favorite pandemic travel gear innovation? Face shields. Although it feels weird wearing them in public.

Feature image by Gene Sloan/TPG.

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