Pandemic travel -- navigating the airline process and returning to the skies

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ConsumerAffairs’ Gary Guthrie recently got back to flying and is ready to share his pandemic-related travel experiences

This time a year ago, I was planning to enjoy one of my best friend’s weddings before driving from Los Angeles to Utah to go canyon tripping. But no -- an unexpected little virus shut my wanderlust down. No wedding, no canyon, no driving to see the grandkids, no return trip to Mexico City to show my girlfriend what I discovered only the year before. Nothing. 

Binge-watching and carry-out have their limits, and after the COVID-19 pandemic cooped me up for 477 days straight, my cabin fever had reached an unbearable limit. I had my vaccinations, I was starting to feel comfortable in public, and I was feeling more secure after seeing many of my fellow Americans mask up and socially distance.

Then came May – Mental Health Month – and I decided that I should throw myself a “Take That, COVID!” party, cash in a bunch of airline miles, and hit the road again.

Coming out of the pandemic and being able to travel again was a big deal for me. I had four trips planned for 2020, and all of them were wiped out. But being fully vaccinated and confident that most of the world’s citizens were on the same page about being cautious and respectful, I decided to put together a personal COVID-19 revenge tour.

Of all the places I’ve been in the U.S., one patch of land I’d never set foot on was northern California. I’d been to San Francisco many times and Napa once, but seeing the redwoods and Yosemite was a particular attraction that I wanted to check off my bucket list.

For the throng of wanderlusters who are anxious to get out and go somewhere -- anywhere -- I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences. Going to attractions, sporting events, flying, car rentals, hotel reservations, the whole shooting match.

Let’s start with...

Getting a flight

Booking the trip online was super simple. Making changes wasn’t. For some unknown reason, I wasn’t able to modify a portion of my trip online and had to contact Delta directly. The airline’s preference was for me to do it on my phone or tablet and use their artificial intelligence (AI) platform to guide me through the changes via text. 

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person making changes, and the airline’s systems had to be overloaded. But going the AI direction wasn’t as effective as the airline might have liked it to be. So, my next bet was calling directly. However, the hold time was so long -- I think I stopped counting at four hours -- that I finally gave up, went to bed, and woke up early to try it again.

As they say, the early bird gets the worm, and calling before the rest of the traveling world woke up the next morning got me to someone quickly. From there, a live person made the flight changes a snap. Situation solved.

Coach, first, cash, or miles?

There are lots of good airfare deals to be had, and there are lots of destinations anxious for fresh faces. As for me, I opted for a gift from-me-to-me for making it through the pandemic and indulged myself by cashing in enough Delta Air Lines frequent flyer miles to fly first class. 

Doing that would pretty much deplete my account, but I figured it would be worth it. I’d save several hundred dollars, and going first class might be a well-earned treat -- at least it was pre-pandemic when I cashed in a bunch of United miles to fly first class to Mexico City.

At the airport and onboard

Getting through the airport took a tad longer because there are a few added hoops to jump through -- proof of vaccination and extra precautions in security check, for example -- but Delta’s phone app was flawless and check-in and boarding were both a breeze. I wasn’t alone in wanting to go somewhere either. The flights I found myself on were close to capacity.

Onboard, I was impressed with Delta’s buttoned-up approach. The representatives and flight crew were patient, thorough, health-conscious, and firm. Masks on, no nonsense.

No disrespect meant, but past that, cashing in 96,000 miles to fly first class proved a disheartening return on investment. Yes, the seats were larger and the legroom more spacious, but I thought there would at least be something special about sitting up front. Many of the typical amenities that I expected from flying in first class just weren’t there. No hot towels, no welcome glass of champagne, no pre-take-off snack, none of the typical polish and style.

The meal was another buzzkill. I was given a choice of two snack boxes which, by all standards, were plentiful and tasty. But at the end of the day, they were still snack boxes.

Afterward, I asked Delta’s media relations department if typical first class amenities would be returning, and there’s good news for travelers in the near future. Delta said they are bringing back onboard services in a “measured way to ensure the safety and wellbeing of [its] passengers.” As far as hot food options go, the airline said customers can expect them on “select domestic coast-to-coast flights.” Fliers in first class on other key U.S. routes should expect fresh boxed meals beginning in early July. 

The leave behind

If you plan on flying somewhere, I have a few suggestions based on my experience:

Be considerate. Airlines have been in a pickle for nearly a year and a half thanks to the pandemic, and they’ve been forced to take on devastating losses. Because of that, they’re taking calculated, judicious steps to make sure every precaution is taken and every passenger is kept healthy and safe.

No mask, no fly. Despite differing mask protocols at stores or in public, wearing a mask on any form of public transportation is still a federal requirement. The airlines are enforcing it and expecting every passenger to show mutual respect for their fellow travelers.

Be flexible on dates. Airfares are based on inventory, and there are lots of people besides yourself who want to take a break from the pandemic. Giving your calendar some wiggle room could save you hundreds of dollars.

Cheapest is not always best. One thing I’ve learned over time is that the cheapest fares are painfully restrictive. Not only do you have to pay extra for baggage and aren’t allowed to make a seat selection in advance (which could force families to be split up), but you’ll be looking at hefty fees if you need to change your ticket. 

Basic economy fares are final, meaning changes and refunds are out of the question. My advice is to pay a little extra for regular coach. For as little as $30, it’s worth the cost of avoiding hassles and getting some flexibility.

Get to the airport early.Flights are running full, and with extra precautions being taken going through security, every extra minute can make a difference.

Think about getting a new credit card tied to an airline or perks. There are plenty of great credit card deals coming down the pike right now. Finding one that can offer bonus miles or access to amenities like airport lounges, free checked bags, and early boarding could be worth it if you’re looking to really get back to traveling.

Prepare for minimal food service. If you think you’ll be hungry, save yourself the price of onboard snacks. TSA allows passengers to bring on almost every kind of food they can think of -- sandwiches, fruits, veggies, even a thermos of coffee.

“Beyond in-flight meals, it's tough to get food at all in some airports, too,” Daniel Burnham, Scott’s Cheap Flights Senior Member Operations Specialist, reminded me in an email. “Many restaurants and shops in airport terminals are still closed or operating limited hours, and for business class passengers, many flagship lounges in the United States have yet to reopen.”

Ask questions. While my sole experience was on Delta, other airlines have different levels of service depending on routes, length of the flight, and whether a flight is considered “select.” For fliers hoping to pamper themselves, it would be smart to ask in advance what special perks are included so you know exactly what your expectations should be.

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