Planes, hotels and car rentals: A firsthand look at what's changed in the era of COVID-19 travel — and what hasn't
Earlier this week, I took a short-notice trip from Atlanta (ATL) to Orlando (MCO) to cover opening day of Universal's theme parks. I found out the morning before the parks were opening that I would be able to gain access to opening day if I stayed that night at a Universal Resorts Orlando hotel. This all meant I needed a last-minute flight down to Florida and would then be staying two nights in a hotel.
We've seen a plethora of literature put out in recent weeks detailing how airlines and hotels are going to do everything they can to ensure guest safety. Reading about it is one thing, getting to finally experience travel again in a COVID-19 world was going to be another. I was curious how the literature published would compare in reality on the ground and in the sky. Have the basic travel experiences of flying, staying in a hotel and renting a car really changed? Let's find out.
My 'Delta Clean' flight experience
A couple of weeks ago, I headed up to the Atlanta airport to see firsthand how Delta was preparing both the airport and airplanes for passengers in the COVID-19 era. The 'Delta Clean' process follows multiple procedures through the check-in, boarding and in-flight stages of your journey to keep staff and passengers as safe as possible. After seeing the prepared tour from my media trip, I was ready to experience the flight as any other passenger would and see if Delta was living up to the expectations they had set in my mind.
Spoiler: My flight experience ended up being almost exactly what I had seen on my tour of the Atlanta airport and the Delta plane.
I flew a Boeing 757 from Atlanta to Orlando and bought the ticket five hours before departure, paying $139 for the one-way flight. I wasn't checking a bag and had checked in on the Delta app, so I only quickly scanned the Delta check-in desks in the South Terminal of ATL. The area was largely empty and all the new safety precautions of acrylic shields at desks, social distancing floor markers, hand sanitizing stations and required masks at the desk appeared to be in effect.
I went through the CLEAR security line which was completely empty and was through the TSA screening in under two minutes. Delta agents are currently offering all airport passengers hand sanitizer right after security before you head down to the plane train.
I had a few minutes to check out the Delta Sky Club experience for the first time in the COVID-19 world and I was a bit surprised at how full it was, given how relatively empty the rest of the airport appeared.
I would estimate more than 50% of passengers in Sky Club did not have masks on — given you can't wear a mask when you are eating or drinking.
The buffet consisted of prepackaged or individually wrapped items and bar tenders only took drink orders behind acrylic shields. You can no longer serve yourself anything, including a cup of water. The Sky Club experience is overall pretty diminished in my opinion, not to any fault of the processes in place, but it obviously just isn't the same and was more crowded than the gate area.
At the gate, boarding was accomplished from the back of the plane to the front with gate agents boarding by row number. They consistently reminded people to stay six feet apart, including on the jet bridge - though I don't believe many fellow passengers heeded the warning.
This is still a curious exercise to me seeing as once on the plane, even with Delta limiting load factor to 60% on all flights, you're still going to likely be well within six feet of someone. At the boarding door, flight attendants were handing out single use Purell disinfectant wipes to each passenger.
The plane was indeed incredibly clean. To even the rare flyer, the plane would pass the eyeball test of cleanliness.
The lavatory was spotless and unsurprisingly, went largely unused for the flight.
With a passenger load of 60-70 people, we were done boarding relatively quickly. I chose to sit as far back as possible for a few reasons.
- I could board first and pass as few other passengers as possible.
- The rest of the passengers could board the front of the plane, limiting my exposure to additional passengers.
- Foot traffic throughout the flight would likely be limited in the back of the plane.
- Delta looked to be blocking the last few rows on each side of economy to keep passenger load at 60%, so I figured there'd be more space in the back if I needed to get further away from fellow passengers.
- During de-boarding, I'd go last and not pass by any further passengers.
My seat choice ended up being great as I had about eight rows in the back of the plane to myself.
The pilot came on and said with a light load factor and favorable flight plan, we'd have a quick take off and short one-hour flying time to Orlando.
I have an incredibly odd but fun game I play for each take off. I time every takeoff roll from engines at takeoff power to wheels up. This flight with a very light load had a 23-second takeoff roll, my shortest ever for a 757.
Shortly after takeoff the crew came around passing out a prepackaged snack and water bags.
There were single use packets of Purell hand sanitizer, the second opportunity since boarding a one-hour flight to sanitizer your hands.
Not long after we ascended, we landed at MCO to a very different sight than I am used to at the typically busy airport. The Delta pier is usually a packed space with all gates full and hardly any room to walk.
Most of the gates were empty and the long hallway with all the Delta gates also comparatively deserted.
Most vendors in the Orlando airport were closed and even lights turned off down many hallways and around unused baggage claim belts.
The arrivals and departures board listed only three flights. I doubt I'll ever see this sight again in my lifetime — at least I hope I won't.
The rental car experience
I reserved an economy car through Avis to avoid ride shares and public transportation during my trip. I have President's Circle status through Avis which is the preferred rental car company of TPG's parent company, Red Ventures. After landing in Orlando, I wasn't sure whether to head to the A or B terminal rental car lots and for no reason decided to follow the Avis signs in Terminal A.
Perhaps I missed a sign somewhere, but I didn't see anything amiss until I walked through the underground tunnel to the parking garage and up the elevator to Avis' normal floor in Terminal A's garage before I saw the sign that the lot was closed and to proceed to the rental counters for Avis in Terminal B.
I headed back across the airport to find the rental counter closed in Terminal B. I then headed through the underground tunnel and up the elevator to Avis' floor in Terminal B where there did appear to be signs of life. I had a pre-assigned car and parking space in the Avis app which matched what the board said in the Terminal B garage.
Avis simply says they are enhancing their cleaning efforts for cars and focusing on high customer touch points. My assigned Jeep Wrangler (a nice upgrade from the economy car reserved) appeared to be well cleaned, but I still wiped everything down with my own sanitizing wipes.
Avis employees I saw all had masks on and the rest of the rental experience was typical except for how dead it was in the Orlando airport.
Universal Resort and Hyatt hotel nights
In order to be allowed into Universal theme parks on opening day, I had to be a Universal Orlando Resort hotel guest. I booked the Endless Summer Resort: Surfside Inn and Suites for one night in a base room at $158 plus tax. This was opening day for the resort after being closed since March, giving me an added layover of confidence no one had stayed in the room in at least 80 days.
Before even entering the property, I noticed how empty the parking garage was where I entered with my rental car. I wasn't sure what to expect with opening day knowing how die-hard theme park fans can be.
As soon as you enter the front door to the lobby, you are met with a temperature check and given a wristband (different colored each day) showing you passed with a temperature below 100.4 degrees. Masks are also required at all times on resort property unless swimming, eating, drinking or in your room.
The check-in line has social distancing markers and each check-in desk has new acrylic shields that the check-in agents actually stood behind.
I was about the fifth person in line and observed the new check-in process. Agents always had a mask on and never touched the ID or credit card of guests, instead observing them through a small slot in the shield. They then cleaned the entire check-in counter and shield with disinfectant in between each guest.
Hand sanitizers were abundant and only one family was encouraged in the elevator at a time.
The room appeared as clean as possible. Nothing exceptional stood out, good or bad.
It was a base room that hand't been used in two months with a view of nothing but the parking garage.
Everything was open on property with the exception of the arcade and restaurants had limited menus.
My only complaint about Surfside Inn & Suites are the bathroom towels, something I typically couldn't care less about. These towels however could substitute as 100 grit sandpaper for your next painting project. Otherwise, it's a great value resort which gives you early access to an Orlando theme park each day as well as complimentary shuttle service to and from the resort to the parks and CityWalk.
My night after a day at Universal was a quick stay at the Hyatt Place across from Universal Orlando Resort. I booked a base room for $98. The hotel seemed entirely empty and during my one-night stay, I never saw another guest.
At check in, the agent had a mask on and was behind a temporary acrylic shield. The property GM said their permanent shields had not yet arrived. I was upgraded to a one-bedroom suite with full kitchen. It ended up being a great space for me to write my Universal article. The room and property again seemed clean everywhere I checked, with nothing standing out.
The few noticeable differences for the property were a couple normal services not operating. The fitness center was only allowing one person at a time and needed to be scheduled. The staff would then go in and sanitize after each guests. The lobby bar wasn't open due to the low occupancy. Housekeeping was only servicing in between guests, though if you had a specific request the front desk said they would do everything they could to accommodate it. Finally, breakfast was a self-serve continental option with prepackaged cereal, yogurt, beverages and wrapped fruit available for selection
Prepackaged utensils and brown bags to make your breakfast to-go were also available.
Again at Hyatt, I had the perception the property was doing everything possible to keep guests safe. I thought going into the hotel stays I would have suggestions for the properties to make it more transparent something was clean or a procedure that needed to be put in place, but I honestly don't have any after my two nights.
Throughout my trip, Delta, the hotels and Avis gave me the perception of safety. As I've said a few times now, travel is never going to be a zero-risk game and there isn't going to be an all clear signal that we can all hit the road again. Right now, I wouldn't hesitate to fly Delta again given the 60% load limit (now extended through September) as well as seeing how clean the planes are. My concern with a trip is much more on the destination than the travel itself.
All images courtesy of author.