Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
In a time not so long ago, you could open your inbox to a price-drop alert for a flight you had your eye on, book it, and board the plane the next day. Unfortunately, there is far more turbulence these days when booking, preparing, and taking a flight in the middle of a pandemic. With travel restrictions and recommendations frequently changing without warning, airlines having to adjust to new protocols and procedures, and plenty of overall uncertainty, it’s essential to do your research before hopping on a plane. From assessing your personal risk tolerance to investigating how carriers and destinations are approaching COVID-19 precautions, experts share nine questions you should ask before taking to the friendly skies.
1. Am I comfortable with the airline’s COVID-19 practices?
This is truly the first time that airlines have had to navigate a health threat of mass-scale. Each has responded in different ways, creating various mandates and protocols, and travelers need to read the fine print before booking. Travel agent and founder of Uniglobe Travel Designers, Elizabeth Blount McCormick, recommends consulting airline websites, and if necessary, contacting a travel management company for clarification. While it’s important to know the latest news when booking, it’s also smart to check back a week before your flight to ensure nothing has changed. “People are more comfortable when they are aware and knowledgeable about processes and procedures,” she says. “Travel has changed so often that it can be overwhelming to try and keep up with the constant updates.”
2. Am I comfortable if the flight is full?
Generally speaking, travel volumes have decreased significantly compared to previous years. And while some airlines, like Delta, have committed to keeping the middle seat free, others have started to fill their flights to capacity. Travel agent and founder of Dynamite Travel, Dr. Terika L. Haynes, explains that part of this is due to maximizing efficiency and revenue, but it could also make at-risk travelers anxious. Before purchasing a ticket, it’s important to understand that there is the chance you will be seated next to strangers, which does pose a threat, even if you’re wearing a mask.
If you want to play it by ear, some airlines are offering alternative flight options if a passenger feels uneasy boarding, according to travel expert and founder of Eluxit, Bahar Schmidt. For example, United Airlines will allow travelers to change their plans, free of charge, if a flight is 70 percent booked. (However, it’s worth noting that United is currently booking their flights to 100-percent capacity, too.)
3. Will I have to quarantine once I arrive at my destination?
Depending on your arrival city, you may be required to quarantine for 14 days to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This will impact your travel dates, since you will need to book a return flight, too. McCormick suggests visiting the city or state’s official website to understand their recommendations and mandates, so you don’t put yourself or others at high risk of infection.
4. What is the airline’s cancellation and refund policy?
In addition to considering your health on a flight, you may also need to think critically about your wallet. As Dr. Haynes explains, some carriers are canceling flights if they are not full, which means travelers should have a backup plan. She recommends coming prepared with information on alternative flights on the same day or time, just in case you need to make a shift on the spot. “Nonstop flights are changing to flights with layovers, flight times are changing, and even airports are changing in major cities such as New York or Chicago,” she adds. “If travelers include too many meetings, activities, and events on their travel days, any airline changes could completely throw their schedule off.”
If you’re considering booking a wildly inexpensive flight in 2021, go for it. But remember there is a chance it may not happen, depending on border openings and other health precautions. Luxury travel advisor for Ovation Travel Group, Andrew Steinberg, recommends reading through the refund policy thoroughly. “While we are encouraging clients to book flights for 2021, we don't know what is around the corner and need that guarantee that they can switch, cancel, or rebook without penalties on a fully refundable ticket,” he adds. “Some carriers are slow to refund, if at all.”
5. Do I need to arrive at the airport earlier than usual?
The answer is simple: Yes, you do. While it’s true that airports are an unbelievable sight, with near-empty terminals, shuttered stores, and limited dining options, McCormick says it’s still important to arrive earlier than you usually would due to social distancing and cleaning measures. What you expect to take 30 minutes may take an hour or more, if you happen to arrive at a busy time. It’s better to pass the time at the gate than to miss your departure.
6. What is the cleaning protocol?
Though the cleanliness of planes (or lack thereof) has largely been discussed in the past, since there typically isn’t much time for scrubbing between flights, now, they may be cleaner than ever. Airlines have developed various measures to ensure passengers feel safe and protected on board. Schmidt suggests calling the airline or looking for information online about their specific protocols. You should answer the following questions:
- What filtration system does the airline use?
- How often do they spray the aircraft with disinfectant? What type of disinfectant do they use?
- How often do they run the filtration system during the flight?
In the best case scenario, Schmidt says an aircraft should use “True High-Efficiency Particle Filters” (True HEPA) or “High-Efficiency Particle Filters” (HEPA). “This would operate every two to four minutes and can make a complete air change approximately 15 to 30 minutes per hour,” she explains.
7. Can I travel internationally?
While many international destinations have been easing restrictions and welcoming back visitors, some countries have limitations in place that affect U.S. travelers, explains David McCown, Air Partner’s U.S. president. Before you decide to cross the pond or escape to somewhere tropical, consult the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to understand the restrictions in your anticipated destination.
Remember, even if your passport allows entry to a country, there may be further paperwork you need to provide to the customs agent. As McCown explains, many international destinations are requiring travelers to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. “Some destinations provide tests upon arrival, while others require a negative test to be performed two to seven days before departure from their country of origin,” he adds. “It’s important to factor in this additional requirement prior to booking a flight as many testing centers are by appointment only.”
8. How does the Cares Act coronavirus relief package impact my flight cost?
As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (Cares) Act, the airline industry has received some much-needed economic assistance. Why should this matter to you? McGown says that as of March 27, the 7.5 percent federal excise tax and the flight segment tax ($4.30 per segment) are waived through the end of 2020. This means your flight could be much cheaper than average, but it only applies to any flights purchased before Jan. 1, 2021. “As travel anxiety subsides with the advancement of new information, and airlines compete for travelers, there is an opportunity for even bigger savings as airlines are motivated to lower their base prices,” he adds.
9. What food and beverage options will be available on the flight?
Gone are the days of unlimited booze and dining options on international flights. While many airlines will still try to accommodate dietary restrictions, they have vastly reduced their food service to decrease exposure. Schmidt says it’s smart to figure out what you will be served (or, more importantly, won’t be served) before booking. “If a meal is served, it might be just a small snack box with a bottle of water, with no other beverages or meals available during the flight,” he adds. “Knowing exactly what you will be served on the plane can help you plan what to bring on board.”
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