What to expect if you are flying for spring break

Mar 11, 2021

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For virtually anyone who had spring break last year from mid-March onward, there essentially wasn’t a spring break at all. There were lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, quarantines, cancellations and a growing fear of the unknown. Coronavirus had just taken hold in the U.S., and it wasn’t the time to jet off and hang with Mickey Mouse, ski or take to the beach.

It wasn’t even really a choice at the time — most of those places, including the beaches, were closed.

But it’s a new year and a new moment in this pandemic. And while it’s not true for everyone, in many places (for better or worse), spring break is a go for 2021. While it may not yet be the same as spring breaks of yesteryear, it’s certainly a far cry from the springtime lockdowns of 2020.

Here’s are some answers to some commonly asked questions to get you headed in the right direction if you are flying this spring break.

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How full are planes?

Well, it depends.

According to the most recent stats available from Airlines for America, in a recent week, domestic planes were flying just over 60% full, compared to 83.4% the same week in 2019. That number will likely tick up a bit as we enter the spring break timeframe. But whether or not your specific flight will be full is likely influenced by where you are headed.

For example, as of January 2021, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire are all still more than 70% down from normal in terms of passengers departing by air. However, places like Wyoming and the Virgin Islands are much closer to the old normal.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Those heading to some of this moment’s most popular spots — largely sun- and ski-oriented destinations that have more lax entry requirements — may well walk onto planes that are essentially full. If you’re heading to an off-the-beaten-path area with more stringent COVID entry requirements, the flights may be at or below that recent 60% capacity average.

Are middle seats still blocked?

With one primary exception, not really.

In the U.S., only Delta Air Lines continues to consistently block middle seats across its fleet. That’s currently set to run through April 30, 2021, which should safely get us through the spring break timeframe.

Outside of Delta, if you want to guarantee an empty middle, it may be possible, but it will cost you more. Some airlines will allow you to purchase the middle seat to keep it empty, so that’s a possible option if you or your kids really don’t want to sit shoulder to shoulder with a stranger quite yet.

Are masks still mandatory?

On planes and at the airport — yes.

While some places, such as Texas, have rolled back mask mandates, that doesn’t apply to all facets of travel.

Generally speaking, airports and aircraft are subject to federal regulations, which means that masks are expressly required in most situations per an executive order signed by President Biden. So if you are flying to or from Texas, you’re still going to need that face mask.

In addition to mask requirements for planes, trains, buses and other means of interstate travel, the executive order also mandates masks be worn in federal buildings and on federal land.

Additionally, even within states without masks mandates — such as Texas and Florida — businesses can still require them. That means a spring break trip to Disney World or Universal Orlando will still be subject to mask mandates, just as before.

And if you are used to wearing a neck gaiter or bandana as a mask, keep in mind that those don’t meet the mask definition everywhere anymore.

For example, Southwest Airlines specifically disallows bandanas, scarves, ski masks or balaclavas as face masks. At Disney World, similar rules apply and guests two and up must wear masks that can be secured with ties or ear loops. Neck gaiters, open-chin triangle bandanas and face coverings containing valves, mesh material or holes of any kind are not acceptable face coverings at Disney World.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Do I need to travel with my vaccine card?

Typically not yet, but it wouldn’t hurt.

While there is growing momentum for vaccine cards to be your “get out of quarantine” passes and such via a vaccine passport, for most trips that will be taken this spring break by Americans, a vaccine card won’t do much to change testing or quarantine rules as they pertain to travel.

For example, Hawaii’s Governor Ige has reportedly said that a vaccine passport program may be in place by around May. At that point, those who are vaccinated may possibly be able to enter under different rules than the state’s current Safe Travels program. However, it wouldn’t hurt to at least bring a copy of your vaccine card if you have one, as things change quickly sometimes and it doesn’t hurt to have that information readily available.

And if you are traveling internationally to countries that are developing different rules for vaccinated travelers, then the answer would be yes, absolutely bring it.

(Photo by ArtistGNDphotography/Getty Images)

Will a vaccine get me out of a travel-related quarantine?

Not as much as you’d hope — yet.

As mentioned, there is a small (but growing) list of countries that have different quarantine rules for those who have been fully vaccinated. However, in most cases, those rules either don’t apply to those from the U.S. or they haven’t fully kicked in quite yet. But, there are a few exceptions and this list is likely to only grow in the coming weeks and months, so do some research, especially if international travel is on your radar.

Do you have to take a COVID test to fly?

It’s always a good idea, but it is not always required.

While there were some murmurs about a potential mandatory testing requirement for even domestic flights shortly after President Biden took office, that talk fizzled almost as quickly as it appeared.

The CDC is technically still recommending against non-essential travel. But, if you do travel, the CDC recommends taking a viral test 1-3 days before you travel and again 3 – 5 days after you travel. If you are traveling internationally, you will need a test within 3 days before returning to the U.S.

Thankfully, many popular resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean have made that process easy with onsite testing available.

Doctors Hospital Baha Mar 1
(Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

States, countries and even some counties have their own testing rules, so you’ll need to do some research to learn exactly what is required for where you are going — and what is required when you return home.

For example, destinations such as Hawaii, the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands all have entry testing requirements. On the other end of the spectrum, Mexico, Florida and the Dominican Republic do not require U.S. tourists to arrive with a negative test in hand.

Related: Country by country reopening guide

Are meals and beverages back on planes yet?

It’s getting closer to “old normal” on many airlines but pack your own snack.

At the height of things in 2020, you were lucky to get water and pretzels on most domestic flights. And with some airlines, like Southwest, that’s still all there is.

On other airlines, some service has resumed, but it still isn’t what it was a year ago. Those shorter flights may still have a more limited selection than normal. For example, on United, flights under 2 hours and 20 minutes do not have snacks available in economy.

On Delta, alcohol is not available for those in economy on domestic flights or for those to places like Mexico or the Caribbean.

The bottom line on this one is in-flight service is resuming, but may be more limited than you remember, so plan accordingly.

Delta service items during COVID-19 / Laura Motta / The Points Guy
Delta service items during COVID-19. (Photo by Laura Motta/The Points Guy)

Air airports back to normal?

Some are — some aren’t quite. 

TPG’s Richard Kerr recently flew from Orlando (MCO) and reports that Orlando was as busy as he had ever seen it, with the security screening line stretching all the way to the pre-security food court area. TPG’s Ariana Arghandewal had similar observations for a recent March flight out of San Francisco (SFO), where she described the airport as “… bustling and looking back to normal this week.” She went on to say that most of the restaurants in the terminal she visited appeared to have reopened.

But as we’ve discussed, not all airports have rebounded at the same rates. Especially in the northeast, some airports are still well below normal passenger levels and in those cases, you are more likely to encounter more lounges and restaurants that are still shuttered than in locations like Florida, Colorado, and Texas.

Here’s a look at airport lounges that have reopened — which notably includes all of the Amex Centurion Lounge locations, albeit some with limited hours that close as early as 3 p.m. Know that food and beverage offerings are altered in most lounge locations to accommodate for safety precautions and any local stipulations on indoor dining.

Amex Centurion Lounge (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

If you are worried about potentially long security lines at your spring break airport of choice, this may be a good time to take the plunge and try Clear so you can bypass the regular security lines and clear using just your eye scan. You can sign-up at the airport, but it doesn’t hurt to start that process ahead of time.

Related: 3 parts of the airport I’m avoiding for now

Bottom line

We can see the light at the other side of this long, weird tunnel, but flying this spring is still a far throw from normal.

Not only that, travel and flying have changed a lot even from a few months ago — becoming easier in some regards and more restrictive in others.

Featured image by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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