I flew for the first time since the lockdown — here are 5 tips to make your experience less stressful

Jun 9, 2020

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I’m a traveler and extrovert at heart and at the start of lockdown, I was apprehensive about having to endure months of not being able to do some of the things I love most.

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However, it ended up being a good thing for me: I was able to focus on important things in life like my personal health and well-being as well as spend more time with my family who I got to quarantine with.

I appreciated the downtime, and it gave me a perspective that I likely wouldn’t have been able to gain if the pace of life had continued like it was.

However, at around the three-month mark of quarantine at my home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, I started to get antsy about getting back up in the air.

After receiving two antibody blood tests with positive results as well as talking it over with my doctor, I made the decision that my risk of contracting and spreading the virus remains low and decided it was time to get back on the road.

Originally, I was scheduled to travel to the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, but in the days leading up to the country’s reopening, official information was scant regarding how it would handle the issue of testing. And, when I learned that I would have had to stay on my resort — unable to do things I would really want to do — like scuba diving — I decided to put that trip on hold.

I’m hoping to reschedule the Antigua trip for the near future but in the meantime, I was still eager for a change of scenery, which is why I didn’t hesitate when two of my longtime friends asked me to visit them at their beautiful home in Palm Springs. I hadn’t seen them since March 5, and they’re practically family to me, so I immediately accepted their invitation and got to planning how I’d get there.

And, this trip would be my first foray into the “new normal” of life after the coronavirus. Restaurants and even casinos had been open in Palm Springs, so I was eager to see what doing those kinds of things — that were so normal before the pandemic — would be like.

I ultimately settled on flying United from Newark (EWR), as it’s the easiest to get to from where I quarantined in Pennsylvania, and the airline was offering a solid price on round-trip business-class tickets between EWR and Los Angeles (LAX).

My ticket cost just over $1,300 round-trip (that’s about half of what tickets usually sell for on these routes), and I paid using 65,000 American Express Membership Rewards points, since I can redeem those at  2 cents per point since I hold the Business Centurion Card.

Thanks to United’s reduced elite-status requirements, this flight pushed me over the threshold for Platinum Premier status, and I plan to go after top-tier 1K status through the rest of this year.

I decided to drive myself to the airport — something I haven’t done in many years — to save money and minimize my exposure to others.

If you’re flying in the coming weeks — especially for a short trip — driving yourself to the airport could be advantageous, saving you both time and from exposing yourself to others unnecessarily.

I left my house at around 3:30 p.m. on a Friday — typically a very busy time of the day — but had no traffic and got to Newark airport in just one hour and 15 minutes.

Parking was a breeze, too. I used my EZ Pass to enter the garage and found a spot right away on the first level. I checked to see if valet parking was available but, unsurprisingly, it’s not right now because of the pandemic. But, with so few people traveling, it’s not even necessary.

Empty airports

I hopped on the practically empty AirTrain and arrived at Terminal C, which felt like a ghost town. Really, though, it was sort of surreal arriving at a little after 4:30 p.m. on a Friday to see an almost-deserted terminal.

(Photo by Brian Kelly/The Points Guy)

I headed right to the security line, and while Clear was indeed open, I didn’t need to use it since I was one of the very few passengers who were being screened in the PreCheck line.

I was asked to pull down my mask (don’t forget to bring your own mask as most airlines are requiring them) while the TSA agent checked my ID, and the automatic bin stations were spaced out for social distancing, but overall the process felt remarkably normal.

(Photo by Brian Kelly/The Points Guy)

I was given a card that allowed me to keep my shoes on but was asked to remove my laptop. And, in another sign of normality, my bag was pulled aside — twice — for further inspection, even though I didn’t have much in it at all.

There were Purell stations placed around the terminal and they were stocked, which was a good sign for me.

(Photo by Brian Kelly/The Points Guy)

After security, the ghost-town vibes continued. Most of the shops were closed, and while I assumed more restaurants would be open, only Pat LaFrieda steaks at the Global Bazaar was serving food.

(Photo by Brian Kelly/The Points Guy)

United’s lounges at Newark remain closed, though the one located near Gate C74 at Newark is open for customer-service functions only.

That didn’t bother me, as I wanted to have a more substantial meal anyway. I walked around the terminal for a little while, still marveling at the fact that I was inside an airport terminal again after so long.

The flight was scheduled to depart at 6:30 p.m., and boarding began about 45 minutes before that. It was an easy process and done from back-to-front.

With so few people traveling, what normally is a frenetic and sometimes stressful process felt downright relaxed.

(Photo by Brian Kelly/The Points Guy)

In fact, I was still waiting for my cheesesteak when I was supposed to board, but the gate agent told me they were in no rush and it was fine to continue waiting for the sandwich.

The gate agents also mentioned that it was smart I was grabbing dinner as there would be no meals served on board. This turned out to be false, but I’d recommend eating before you go to the airport, since most restaurants are likely to remain closed.

Stripped-down flying experience

Once I got on board, I noticed that business class (I was flying a reconfigured Boeing 767 with the “true” Polaris seats up front) was mostly full, while only about 20 people were sitting in coach.

The Polaris cabin on a United high-J 767. Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy.
The Polaris cabin on a United high-J 767. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

The flight attendants were very friendly and were all wearing masks. By and large, the passengers were wearing masks, though I did notice some of them pulling them up and down to eat and drink, and some passengers up front kept them off for periods of time. My friend’s mask actually fell off while he was asleep, though I had no issues with mine, which is a version that can be tied and adjusted in the back.

I made sure to wear sunglasses while in flight, in order to prevent unwanted face-touching.

(Photo by Brian Kelly/The Points Guy)

While this flight was just about empty in economy, American and United will sell flights to capacity, while other carriers like Alaska, Delta and Southwest are limiting the capacity of their airplanes to maintain some sort of social distancing on board.

An almost-empty coach cabin. (Photo by Brian Kelly / The Points Guy)
An almost-empty coach cabin. (Photo by Brian Kelly / The Points Guy)

People were not perfect about it, but the flight attendants explained that, for the most part, people have been understanding and compliant.

As planes are flying far fewer flights than they typically would and they’re spending more time on the ground, which means cleaning crews have much more time to do their jobs — and I could tell. The plane looked noticeably clean, but once on board, I was handed a few items, including a Purell wipe, for further cleaning and sanitization.

From a service perspective, things were noticeably different. For starters, there were no predeparture beverages served, though it looked like you could get water if you asked for it.

Contrary to what the gate agents told me, I was actually served a meal. There were two choices: buffalo chicken rice or vegetarian pasta, which was basically a creamy ravioli.

It came prepackaged and certainly didn’t look great, but boy did I miss plane food! I couldn’t resist, even though I’d eaten recently. It just felt so normal.

(Photo by Brian Kelly/The Points Guy)

Only beer and wine were available, and when I asked why, the flight attendants explained that it was likely because the airline didn’t want the flight attendants to be mixing up cocktails for passengers.

The only choices for beers were Stella Artois and Miller Lite. I chose a Miller Lite and when I asked for another one, I was told they had run out.

The alcohol situation felt to me like a cost-cutting measure — an understandable one, to be sure — but it seems that your experience in this department will vary based on the carrier you fly.

Because of the degree of variability, it’s always a good idea to bring your own snacks and cleaning supplies on your flight, even if you’re flying in first class.

(Photo by Brian Kelly/The Points Guy)

For example, my friends flew with American from New York-JFK to Los Angeles and told me that it felt more-or-less normal. And Delta will be serving individually prepackaged, nonperishable Flight Fuel boxes with two snack offerings, even in Delta One on flights over 900 miles.

The cuts in service are to be expected and understandable, and I have to commend the flight crew for doing such a good job, especially given the circumstances.

Bottom line

My flying experience was remarkably less stressful than I anticipated. The airports and planes themselves were the cleanest I’ve ever seen them.

And, with airlines focusing on measures to keep customers feeling safe and at a lower risk, I’m not concerned about getting on planes with frequency in the coming weeks. United did a really good job of managing the risks associated with flying and, to me, it seemed like the airline had things under control.

(Photo by Brian Kelly/The Points Guy)

Of course, we will all have to make personal risk assessments, and if you’re considering traveling in the near future, I highly recommend talking to your doctor before you hit the road.

It was great to be back up in the sky, and I’m interested to see if my flight home from Los Angeles will be as good as this one was.

Feel free to leave questions or stories from your own experiences below, and check out my Instagram for some more tips on how to navigate flying during a pandemic.

Featured image by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

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