Flying during COVID-19 is…different than flying was before. Very different.
In some ways, it is actually far more pleasant. But in other ways it is much worse.
We flew on American Airlines in first class from Harrisburg to Chicago O’Hare to Las Vegas (MDT-ORD-LAS) during COVID-19. Here’s what that was like.
Why We Flew During COVID-19
Being digital nomads in the time of COVID-19 ain’t easy. Our lifestyle of full time affordable luxury travel ground to a screeching halt as borders and the world shut down to ‘flatten the curve’.
So instead of living on the east coast of Spain and the Greek island of Syros, we spent a couple months hunkered down in Hershey Pennsylvania near Lisa’s family.
And while that allowed us to help out and have socially distant interactions with Lisa’s parents and family, we constantly plotted and schemed to get back to our digital nomad life as soon as possible.
We desperately missed the adventure of seeing and living in new places. We missed the friends we made and would have made along the way.
Thanks to Facebook groups, Zoom, Whatsapp and Slack channels we kept in touch with our friends all over the world including other digital nomads in the time of COVID-19. And that’s how we plotted to get traveling aroundthe world again as soon as possible.
But then March rolled over into April. And April into May with no end to international travel restrictions in sight.
So a group of U.S. based nomads – all of us trapped in the U.S. but longing to travel – decided to create our own digital nomad co-living and co-working house right here in the good old US of A.
Our friends Nicole and Lauren that we met during our Hacker Paradise membership in Medellin Colombia led the charge and found a gorgeous 9-BR house (mansion, really) in Lake Tahoe, Nevada that we could rent at a deep discount thanks to COVID-19 destroying tourism there.
Things went sideways with our Tahoe house.
But nomads are by our very nature flexible when it comes to travel plans. So Tahoe turned into a summer month in the small ski town of Eden Utah instead.
It wasn’t the mansion we had booked in Tahoe, but it’s still a great place to spend a month!
We considered renting a car and driving from Hershey Pennsylvania to Eden Utah, but decided the risk of that long drive was far greater than the risk of flying during COVID-19.
So we flew during COVID-19.
Airport Transfer During COVID-19
Lisa’s sister-in-law and niece offered to drive us to the airport. We had been interacting with them more and more – using social distancing, of course. So were comfortable enough to accept their offer.
We got to know the Hershey Pennsylvania area quite well because of our DoorDash side hustle (it’s a great side hustle, check it out!). We had even delivered meals to the Harrisburg airport area.
So the drive was very familiar to us. But this time it was different. We were going to get on an airplane for the first time in 2.5 months. That may not seem long…but it was the longest either of us had gone without flying that either of us could remember!
As we caught sight of the airport a wave of emotions swept over us.
In a way, the past 2.5 months had already become a short blur of monotony and boredom punctuated with intense emotion. In another way, it felt like we had been grounded forever. Those competing perspectives made the moment feel surreal.
But the reality was more powerful than the surreality: our lives as digital nomads was finally going to resume!
So the overriding feeling was excitement.
Harrisburg Airport (MDT) is a fairly small and uncrowded airport even during normal times. It’s the sort of airport where you can show up 45 minutes before a flight with no checked luggage and be certain of being at the gate in time for baording.
But as we put on our face masks and entered the airport we quickly realized that flying during COVID-19 made MDT during normal times seem super-busy by comparison.
The entire check-in area was nearly deserted.
We usually only travel with one carry on bag (the best long-term travel bag in the world) and a laptop backpack.
But since we were going to be trapped in the US, we decided to bring along some golf clubs rather than renting them in Utah. So we decided to check our bags.
And approaching the check-in desk was almost eerie. We were the only passengers in sight.
This was one of the ways that flying during the Coronavirus was actually far more pleasant than during normal times. We had 4 American Airlines employees all to ourselves!
Needless to say, check-in was super quick and painless!
With that done we made our way to the airport security checks.
TSA Security During COVID-19
Once again, we were alone. The only passengers at the TSA security check.
Which is a really rather pleasant way to pass through TSA security checks!
Except, of course, this is TSA.
During COVID-19 TSA is allowing one liquid hand sanitizer container up to 12 ounces per passenger in carry-on bags. And we definitely took advantage of this as we planned to do everything in our power to avoid exposure to the Coronavirus during our travel.
The TSA agents were still figuring out how to deal with this policy and treated me and Lisa very differently. I was allowed to pass with a visual inspection of my bottle. Lisa was required to place her bottle in a separate bin and have it wiped and analyzed. This was accompanied by a stern lecture about how this was an exception just for now and wouldn’t last.
In any case, despite the delay, we were through security in only a few minutes.
Airport Terminals During COVID-19
We experienced three terminals during our trip: Harrisburg (MDT), Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Las Vegas (LAS).
Other than the number of passengers in them, our experiences at each were very similar.
There were very limited food and beverage options. In Harrisburg the Starbucks in one concorse was open and the Dunkin in the other. Only one pair of restrooms was open airside. Then again, there were very, very few passengers for them to serve.
At O’Hare airport the food court between the H and K concourses was open where several of the vendors were selling food. But social distancing in the area was not possible.
The airport bar near gate K9 was also open and serving alcohol in to-go cups as well as hot dogs.
There were more people in O’Hare than in Harrisburg, but far, far fewer passengers than during normal times.
Most passengers complied with the requirement to wear a mask or face covering. A few did not, earning dirty looks – looks that they likely could not recognize since they were made from behind masks or face coverings!
Flights During COVID-19
Choosing a Flight
We thought long and hard about what flights to take from Hershey Pennsylvania to our nomad house.
What really drove our decision was driving! We could rent a car in Las Vegas for a month for under $500. At that price it just made sense to fly there and then drive to the nomad house.
And in looking at flights into Vegas our top priority was safety. So rather than paying to buy coach tickets we decided to use airline points for first class tickets. That way we’d be assured of at least some social distancing and we’d be able to check our bags for free.
Looking at flight options, our connection choices in Chicago were 30 minutes or 4.5 hours. Ugh.
Based on our hundreds of connection experiences at O’Hare we went with the longer connection.
Flying During COVID is Efficient
But we hadn’t accounted for COVID!
COVID-19 significantly reduced the number of planes flying across the US.
As a result, flight times were incredibly short. There are few air traffic control delays due to crowding.
On the ground, our planes went straight to the runway and were number 1 for takeoff. And in the air planes can chart and take the most direct route possible without making compromises for air traffic.
As a result, our flights took off early or on time but landed 20 and 30 minutes early.
Flights During COVID-19
Our first flight from Harrisburg to O’Hare was on a regional jet.
Mask discipline on our first flight was strong among the passengers and flight attendants alike.
We started the flight, as did many passengers, with the ritual cleansing of the seat and area with Clorox Wipes that we have been traveling with ever since February.
There was absolutely no service on this flight other than a bottle of water for each first class passenger.
We went into the flight knowing this, so brought along our own coffee and snacks.
Overall, other than the masks, the flight was comfortable and, thanks to COVID, faster than scheduled.
And the flight load was reasonable…about 50% of the seats were occupied allowing for plenty of social distancing.
After landing so early in Chicago we hightailed it to the gate of the earlier connection to Las Vegas. After a conversation about the fact that our checked bags might or might not make the earlier connection, we were assigned the last two first class seats on the earlier flight.
So rather than spending 4+ hours in the airport we would land at 3pm instead of after 7pm. Viva Las Vegas!
The pre-COVID travelers in us rejoiced. Maybe too soon.
Boarding the plane we realized that getting the last 2 first class seats meant that the first class cabin was full. Which, while better than a full coach cabin social distancing, was not ideal.
In the end 97 out of 160 seats were occupied on our AA 737-800.
Still, mask discipline among all of the passengers remained strong so we tightend up our own masks and settled in.
I wish I could say the same for the flight attendants. Because while they wore masks during the boarding process, after that the masks were worn down on their chins for the rest of the flight.
Since there was no service on this flight that would probably have been less concening if the flight attendants hadn’t spent lots of time chatting with other off-duty flight attendants who were sitting in the front row of the cabin. While the traveling FA’s kept their masks on properly, the working flight attendants left their masks down over their chins.
American Airlines’ COVID-19 policy is that there is no food on flights other than a small bag of snacks handed out during boarding. Drinks, including alcohol, are available in first class upon request. And while the non-working flight attendants ordered Cokes, we were not comfortable asking for drinks from the working flight attendants given their lack of mask discipline. In any case, we had once again brought along our own drinks and snacks.
And to compensate for the flight attendants’ lack of mask discipline we obsessively cleaned our seats with Clorox Wipes and applied hand sanitizer every 20 minutes or so just for good measure!
The GOOD news was that when we checked the AA app, we saw that our checked bags (including golf clubs!) were loaded on the earlier plane along with us! Apparently another advantage of flying during Coronavirus is that bag handlers are more efficient too.
Wearing masks made the Chicago to Vegas flight feel long. And it really bothered Lisa to keep her mask on for so long.
To combat pangs of mask induced claustrophobia, she added an eye mask and tried – mostly unsuccessfully – to sleep.
But on approach to Vegas we were treated to some spectacular views!
Arrival in Vegas
We landed in Las Vegas about a half hour ahead of schedule.
And it was once again very eerie to walk through an empty airport terminal that has always in our experience been bustling with people. All the slot machines and video poker machines were roped off. Most of the vendors were closed as we made our way to the train to the baggage claim area.
We were shocked when we arrived at baggage claim to find our bags already on the belt. Fast checked bags…another advantage of flying during COVID-19!
Bottom Line – Flying During COVID-19
The advantages of flying during Coronavirus include fewer passengers, less crowded terminals, quicker TSA security checks, less full airplanes and more efficienct checked luggage delivery.
The drawbacks include limited options for food, drink and shopping in terminals, little to no service on airplanes and the discomfort of wearing a face mask for an extended period of time.
Of course, the biggest drawback to flying during COVID-19 is the risk of being exposed to the virus.
But by following tips you can minimize that risk:
- Wear a mask or face cover at all times unless eating or drinking.
- Maintain social distancing in the terminal as much as possible.
- If possible, fly in extra legroom or first class seats to maximize social distancing.
And be sure to check out the CDC COVID-19 travel recommendations before flying during COVID-19.
Our experience flying during COVID was mostly positive. And the best part was that we ended up in (mostly deserted) Las Vegas on our way to our Utah nomad house!