7 ways I've changed my flight routine to make pandemic travel easier
When I took my first mid-pandemic flight in August, everything felt different.
Whether it was the mask or the deserted departure hall, I felt like I was living in a whole different world. Since then, I've been adjusting my flight routine to adapt to the new reality.
Whether it's doubling down on previous practices or starting new ones, here's a look at how I've modified my flight routine due to the pandemic.
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Overhauled booking pattern
Before the pandemic, I booked travel anywhere from 330 days before the trip to hours before departure using both a mix of cash and points. Nowadays, I'm no longer comfortable purchasing nonrefundable airfare well ahead of the trip.
With ever-changing travel restrictions, I'm using miles for flights that I'm not 100% committed to taking. With free redeposits, there's little downside to booking speculative awards. (Though most major U.S. airlines have permanently dropped change fees for paid tickets, you'll only receive a future travel credit should you voluntarily cancel a nonrefundable reservation.)
For flights booked within a week or two of departure, I'll still use cash, or travel credits received from other canceled trips.
Another benefit to booking flights closer to departure is the ability to predict the odds of scoring an empty middle seat.
Related: Why I'm booking speculative awards as a top-tier elite
Driving instead of ride-sharing
Although data shows that flying is safe, I'm doing all that I can to minimize my person-to-person interactions throughout the travel journey, including how I get to and from the airport.
To that end, I've now parked a car at the airport for my three most recent trips, instead of taking a taxi or rideshare. The same is true at my destination — I've rented a car for every domestic mid-pandemic trip I've taken thus far.
Using the CLEAR security lanes
In 2019, I was using CLEAR to avoid a crowded TSA PreCheck security line. In 2021, I'm using it to avoid lowering my mask during the travel experience.
With CLEAR's facial recognition software, you can enjoy a fully touchless security identification process using just an iris scan. You'll then avoid interacting with a TSA agent who would otherwise ask you to take off your mask to match your face to the picture on your photo I.D.
Related: TSA PreCheck vs. CLEAR - Which one to get?
Skipping the lounge
I've long been a proponent of skipping the airport lounge before the run-of-the-mill domestic flight. That's especially true these days, as I'm trying to avoid indoor dining in crowded spaces.
I've stopped into a few lounges here and there during recent travels, but most of the top-notch amenities (like spas and stretching rooms) that differentiate the best outposts are closed due to the pandemic.
In many cases, even if wanted to spend time in the lounge, many are still closed. Except for the largest hubs, most lounges remain shuttered, including American's Flagship Lounges and United's Polaris Lounges.
Being the last to board for a new reason
Another new habit I'm developing is being one of the last on board. This way, I'll avoid overcrowding in the poorly ventilated jetway.
But even more importantly, this is a key step to snagging an empty middle seat. By being one of the last on board, I can monitor the real-time seat map to see which were assigned to standby travelers. I can then ask the gate agent to reassign my seat if necessary before boarding.
Once on the plane, it's significantly harder to play musical chairs, especially during the chaotic boarding process.
Related: 4 ways to make sure you’re not boarding a crowded flight
Strategically choosing seats
In addition to strategizing for an empty middle seat, I'm also now choosing flights based on seat availability, especially for those with unique, spacious configurations.
For instance, take a look at JetBlue's new Airbus A321neo. Seat 25A is one of the best on the plane. The window doesn't have a seat in front of it, and it's about as distanced as you'll get from others.
On longer transcon routes, I'm looking for flights operated by spacious twin-aisle jets in the hopes of scoring one of the private business-class pods.
Limiting in-flight eating or drinking
The inflight experience of 2021 doesn't look anything like 2019 (unless, of course, you're flying in the recently refreshed JetBlue Mint cabin).
Across the board, airlines have cut most inflight food offerings. Some continue to offer a snack pack, but don't expect more than a bottle of water or a can of soda and a one-ounce bag of pretzels on your next flight.
As such, I've stopped eating or drinking on most short domestic flights. If I'm adequately distanced from others in a business- or first-class seat, I'll consider taking a quick bite. But with the limited inflight offerings, there's less of a reason to eat in the air.