One family's experience traveling during the age of coronavirus
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Dr. Joe Leader serves as APEX/IFSA CEO, one of the largest international airline associations in the world. Leader holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Emory University, an MBA in technology management, and conducted his business Ph.D. research on accelerating technology adoption in aviation.
Travel in the age of coronavirus
Careful. That one word best describes my first family air travel and vacation experience in a post COVID-19 world.
As an airline industry CEO my passion for travel beckoned strongly, but I wanted to make certain to travel safely.
My amazing wife, Dr. Jeanette Leader, works as a medical doctor and surgeon in Atlanta. As an OB/GYN, she has delivered multiple COVID-19 positive patients over the past weeks while keeping the newborn babies and herself COVID-19-negative. With fears for her patients and her family in mind, she very carefully approved our first family flight and vacation.
I have kept the closest pulse on COVID-19 developments as CEO of APEX/IFSA, one of the largest global airline associations in the world. By February, APEX provided guidance on safety to our airlines worldwide with a series of passenger-centric actions around COVID-19. In March, I testified before U.S. Congress on the subject of safety. At the end of April, we were the first global airline association to recommend face coverings for all airline team members and passengers worldwide. Within days, nearly every airline in the world had followed our guidance.
Booking a Memorial Day trip
For our first family air travel over Memorial Day weekend, flying as carefully as a doctor in a COVID-19 world proved to be a humbling experience.
In the spirit of TPG, I booked our travel using Jeanette’s rewards points since she is the proud holder of our Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card that enabled our Southwest Companion Pass privileges and over 125,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards Points in the process.
We paid for our four award ticket taxes using my The Platinum Card® from American Express as such small charges count against our annual up to $200 airline fee statement credit (enrollment required). In addition, the American Express Platinum Card provides excellent trip interruption with medical protections and lost baggage protection as of the start of this year.
Related reading: The Platinum card from American Express review
At the airport
Arriving to Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport (ATL) at the start of the Memorial Day weekend, the airport was busy, but probably not as busy as a typical Memorial Day weekend. Running later than planned, I dropped my family curbside in “masks on” mode with the baggage to check 40 minutes before our flight while I went to park the car.
As my wife walked in, she was impressed to see a Southwest employee actively cleaning a touchscreen while wearing a mask. She selected that freshly cleaned touchscreen for the baggage check, placed the tags on our four pieces of luggage, took them to a Southwest agent behind a plexiglass screen while wearing a face mask.
Meanwhile, I parked my car and was pleasantly surprised by some COVID-19 changes. The Atlanta airport no longer had passengers press a button for a ticket. It's been automated, so that it could be a “touch free” environment. I parked my car and arrived at TSA security at the same time as my family as they had taken a few minutes to check several bags.
For travelers, the TSA checkpoint is the point to be at your highest alert. The TSA has changed its procedures so that you scan your own boarding pass, but you must hand over your ID and briefly show your face with your mask off.
My wife says, “You need to concentrate on hand hygiene the second that you enter the TSA line. Masks help keep you from touching your face, but we also wore fog-free eye shields. They helped our 11-year-old remember not to touch her eyes and also provided extra safety in environments where there is tighter spacing with the possibility of an unexpected sneeze.”
Related reading: TSA may begin taking people's temperatures
The TSA had “blocked” two of the stations in the autoloading row of five so that individuals would maintain better distance. Signs throughout the Atlanta airport encouraged social distancing.
Even though we were TSA PreCheck, we had brought plastic garbage bags for the base of the bins in case they requested computers and electronics be removed from our bags. After security, there were ample hand-sanitizing stations that we used liberally after security.
Approximately 90% of the people at the Atlanta airport were wearing masks or face coverings. Even on elevators, passengers maintained their distance. On the Atlanta Airport Plane Train, social distance spots marked the floor. It appeared that the airport had set the train frequency to its maximum to encourage social distancing.
On the plane
At the Southwest gate, we were the last four passengers to board the aircraft. With only 30 passengers on an aircraft designed for 175, we were encouraged by the flight attendants to “spread out” and grab our own row. Every member of the flight crew and all passengers had face coverings. We picked the middle back of the aircraft with each of us having our own window seat. True to the Southwest promise, the aircraft had been meticulously cleaned and sanitized before our flight.
Upon boarding, my wife told the whole family, “Air vents on please.” With vertical circulation on all modern aircraft, HEPA filters remove 99.97% of viral particles taking air from each individual row and mixing with external air to further increase the purity. Air vents on and blowing downwards provide a small measure of added safety.
In flight, we were served cans of Southwest Airlines water along with the snack pack. When I finished my water, I was kindly offered a replacement. The Southwest in-flight entertainment had been recently updated and the Southwest in-flight Internet was at near streaming speed due to the light utilization. I rated the experience on TripIt as the data powers APEX’s Official Airline Ratings where Southwest has consistently received the highest ratings possible for a low-cost carrier.
Related reading: Which airlines have best WiFi
Arriving at the Denver International Airport (DEN), we passed in the jetway a team of masked aircraft cleaners ready with disinfectant products for the aircraft.
Inside the Denver airport, there were signs prominently placed indicating that masks and face coverings are required. Despite this mandate, we estimated that compliance was lower than the Atlanta airport with only around 80% of those in the Denver airport wearing face coverings of any kind.
The exception to this were employees working inside the airport where face mask utilization was near 100%.
The airplane train inside the Denver airport appeared to be running on its most frequent cadence as our train car only had a handful of passengers.
At the baggage claim, we were the only ones in sight since we had stopped for a quick bite at a spot on our own in the arrival concourse.
Renting a car
We proceeded outside to our rental car bus. We had booked a great deal for a minivan via Alamo paid via my Chase Sapphire Reserve as it provides primary rental car liability coverage in addition to three times points on the rental. Surprisingly, the driver of the Enterprise / National bus waved at us.
There was a small add-on sign for Alamo on his window. As we boarded, he said that Alamo was temporarily closed in Denver due to the reduced demand. Alamo is part of the Enterprise group, so they had National employees take care of us with our choice of vehicles. All of the rental car employees and drivers were wearing masks with hand sanitizer options available. As we entered our rental car, we saw a sign outlining the extensive cleaning steps taken for the vehicle.
Related coverage: Chase Sapphire Reserve card review
After reading it my wife felt quite safe with her mask off, and she sprayed everyone’s hands with a 75% alcohol hand sanitizer.
We had booked the Residence Inn by Marriott Denver Golden/Red Rocks as it had a two bedroom, two bathroom suite with kitchen booked on my Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card. I had first called asking if all staff wore masks and if they were COVID-19 safe. I got a definitive yes. The check-in area initially seemed to indicate that they were taking COVID-19 seriously.
As a Marriott Lifetime Titanium Elite, I can count my bad experiences at a Marriott on one hand. Unfortunately, this was one of them. Staff rarely wore masks. We flagged this with concern because this included the housekeeper on our floor. The front desk apologized and said they would fix this.
But it happened again. The front desk said they provided housekeepers masks, but it was entirely optional for them to wear them.
For our own masks, we brought a large UVC smartphone cleaner that serves as the ideal size to disinfect our masks. My wife said, “Close-range UVC is ideal, but there are other solutions when you travel. Place the mask over boiling water for 10 minutes or in an oven at 33C / 170F for 30 minutes. The downside to the heated methods is that you need to make certain that you do not overcook and melt the mask. The oven technique also leaves a bit of a cooked smell in the mask, but it works.”
Also to our surprise, there was no housekeeping available.
At first, they said they could not offer housekeeping because of COVID-19 regulations. Then, they said it was the hotel owner’s policy (Aimbridge Hospitality) for COVID-19 safety. Finally, the front desk manager much more plainly stated that there was no housekeeping for hotel cost savings during COVID-19. In other cost-cutting measures, the complimentary breakfast had been reduced to options like two half-slices of bread and an apple in a bag. We entirely understand that the option needed to be grab and go, but the hotel appeared to be focusing too much on reducing costs.
In Boulder, we did a series of outdoor activities and scenic drives. Years ago in Key West, my daughter befriended a girl her age. When we met the parents, we found a quick commonality with a love of aviation and travel. The dad was TPG’s Jason Steele and we have remained in close contact ever since that trip. They were our last friends of ours to return from a vacation abroad in March as captured by TPG. Our favorite outdoor activity with them was horseback riding for hours in the nearby Rockies.
Since we were only in the Boulder area for the Memorial Day weekend, my wife called our next hotel in Colorado Springs to make certain that it would meet her safety expectations. Her approach on the phone was unique as she asked for the answer that she did not want. When calling the Marriott Colorado Springs, she asked, “Since you’re a good distance from Denver, face masks aren’t required for your staff, are they?”
The front desk cheerfully replied that they were completely optional for all staff. She then asked what safety procedures there were for COVID-19 in room cleaning. The front desk answered that after a guest checked out, they waited 48 hours to clean the room to make certain their cleaning staff was safe. She then asked, “Since housekeepers do not have to wear masks, do you wait 48 hours after that before the room is used for the safety of your guests?”
They was a long silence before the front desk worker admitted that the rooms were immediately available for guests.
The other hotel
We then turned our attention to Hilton where I have Hilton HHonors Gold status and their Home2 Colorado Springs complete with adjoining rooms, kitchenette, and mini-suites. When asked if face masks were optional, the front desk worker sounded a bit horrified. “Absolutely not. All of our staff is required to wear masks.”
She then went into a detailed explanation of all of their COVID-19 safety policies including a limit of only two people on an elevator unless they are traveling as a family. We booked the rooms using my Citi Prestige® Card for three times points at any hotel. We got what I consider a great rate.
The information for the Citi Prestige Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Related reading: Citi Prestige card review
At Home2 by Hilton’s Check-In, the tables enforced social distancing with foaming hand sanitizer located in-between the tables. Staff religiously wore masks throughout our stay.
Home2 by Hilton Colorado Springs South even featured the cleaning products that they used at their front desk check-in.
In Colorado, restaurants remain closed for dine-inside. That worked out well as Dr. Leader still does not feel comfortable inside without masks. UberEats using The Business Platinum Card® from American Express bonus proved to be our go-to, but we also stopped by some restaurants to bring back food to our hotel. Even Baskin Robbins near our Home2 hotel had signage for no more than 10 people allowed in the store, six feet distance markers, and the entire staff in masks. We wore masks inside and then ate our ice cream outside the store.
Our trip to Colorado has been breathtaking for one extra reason: the wide open spaces have not been crowded. People without masks outdoors stop and give one another room to pass with six feet of distance. If there are people, then they put their masks on. The rare exception to this rule have been young adults on occasion, but we have felt safe at all times.
My desire as an airline industry CEO traveling with an amazing medical doctor wife intent on our COVID-19 safety is plain: to give hope. And when preparing for travel in a COVID-19 world, ask questions more like Dr. Jeanette Leader: where you're looking to get answers that you actually do not want to hear.
Airlines, hotels, and travel companies that go above-and-beyond for COVID-19 safety should be recognized. Those that fall short should be called out to step up. That has always been TPG’s philosophy on points and travel reviews, but now that mission should expand to travel safety so we can all enjoy more beautiful sunrises and sunsets in our travels again.