What to Expect While Traveling in the COVID-19 Era

New social distancing and cleaning measures have changed the current travel experience.
Sep 28, 2020
What to expect while traveling in the COVID era

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Cities, states and even some countries are opening to tourists again. But the old “normal” is still a long way away. From the hotel check-in counter and airport boarding gate to city bus tours and the restaurant on the corner, the way that we travel has changed dramatically.

Beyond well-known changes like hand sanitizing, here are some less-expected ways that travel will be different for the foreseeable future.

Keyless entry, gym appointments and other changes at hotels

You’re traveling, so you’ve got to sleep. Expect the experience to be slightly different on your next hotel stay. Many chains now offer check-in via their mobile app, and some, depending on the property, might even allow a keyless check-in via the app.

The TWA hotel at New York-John F. Kennedy airport offers a self check-in, where you don’t have to interact with anyone at all. You can even choose a room upgrade and print your own keys.

If you like to work out when you travel, you’ll find that some hotel gyms and fitness centers are open, but you must make an appointment to get in. Tell the front desk what time you’d like to work out and they’ll schedule it for you.

Typically, there is a one-hour slot booked for you, and then there will be a certain time afterward when staff can clean the facility for the next guest. Many hotels will try to limit the number of people working out at the same time.

The same goes for the spa, where treatments may be available. But high-touch places such as the sauna or steam rooms should remain closed for awhile.

Rear-to-front boarding, fewer snacks on flights

Airlines are trying out new ways to keep people distanced. Some airlines are using a “rear-to-front” boarding. Passengers in business class seats at the front of the plane may no longer be among the first to board. Elite members accustomed to priority boarding may see that perk suspended, though some airlines, like Delta, are allowing premium passengers to board at their leisure.

When the plane lands and you hear the infamous “ding” signaling that you’ve reached the gate, normally you stand up, grab your belongings and exit the plane.

Not so fast. Airlines are now requesting that all passengers remain seated when the plane reaches the gate, and you should not stand to remove your belongings until the passengers in the row ahead of you have left.

Service onboard might be limited as well, as airlines are changing their food service. Expect prepackaged snacks and small bottles of water in economy class. Depending on the airline, first class service might be plated on dishes, or it might come in a box. The number of soft drink choices could shrink as well.

Check your airline’s website or call before you fly. You can always bring your own food or nonalcoholic beverages aboard the plane.

Fewer services, more elbow room at the airport

Expect a lot more elbow room at the airport: Passenger counts in recent weeks are only about 30% of what they were this time last year, according to the Transportation Security Administration. In some cases, it’s even less: Orlando’s airport processed more people in an hour last year than they did in an entire day in June of this year.

So don't expect all airport restaurants to be open. Check your airport’s website for specific information and updates if you’re counting on having someplace to eat or other services.

Reservations at the airport restaurant?

Some restaurants, of course, are open. But that doesn’t mean you can step off your plane, walk in and sit down. Many restaurants are recommending reservations to limit the number of people inside. Walk-ins may be possible, but you might have a longer wait.

Many other countries require restaurants to implement contact tracing. You’ll be asked to fill out a form with your name, address, email and phone number, along with the time that you arrived and departed. This way, if someone comes down with COVID-19, the government will be able to contact you to advise on getting tested.

The information will be stored, usually for 30 days, and then disposed of.

Don’t be surprised to see QR codes instead of paper menus. Open your phone’s camera app and scan. The menu will appear on your device — no menu sharing needed.

Finally, don’t expect to be able to pay in cash. A contactless payment option like Samsung Pay, Apple Pay or Google Pay, along with the tap-to-pay feature on many major credit cards, may be your best or only choice. If you use a travel rewards credit card, you’ll earn miles or points.

Book tours early — and don’t expect to find a bathroom

Some local ordinances limit the number of people allowed to gather in one place, which could affect bus tours, walking tours and other activities. Make reservations ahead of time.

For example, free walking tours in Europe are back, but local governments will still require your information for contact tracing, so reserve your spot on the tour in advance. No walk-ups allowed.

Though washing your hands is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of disease, finding an open bathroom might be a challenge, with many restaurants offering takeout or delivery service only.

Some highway rest areas are opening back up, so those may be an option on a road trip.

If you’re traveling internationally, some places offer pay-per-use bathrooms. Have some change handy in case you need one of these facilities.

Travel is still possible, but …

In the short term, you can’t just hop on a plane or in your car and travel like you’re accustomed to. But by following safety precautions, we can get back to the “before times” sooner rather than later.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2022, including those best for:

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