If you ask people what they look forward to in Retirement, travel is generally pretty high on their list. With COVID shutting down most travel plans, many are left wondering what awaits once they resume their adventures.
For the first time in eight months, we have resumed flying. You’ve heard a lot about how air travel is different now vs. before the pandemic; fewer flights, fewer passengers per plane, middle seats not sold. But there are still surprises that are only discovered when you actually go on a trip.
Here are 12 unreported surprises that we discovered on our 36 hour journey through three airports and four plane flights.
1. Airport Parking
The first surprise hit us before we ever entered the airport terminal. Since we were only spending one night at our destination, we decided to park at the terminal lot. A little pricier, but we wouldn’t have to wait for a shuttle bus at Midnight when we arrived back in town.
Well, if there even would be a shuttle bus.
The terminal parking was PACKED! The first two parking decks were full, so we went directly to the final deck. We still had to drive for 15 minutes before we were blessed by someone pulling out right as we turned down another row.
How was terminal parking full if airlines are operating at only 1/3rd of their normal passenger levels? Simple. Many of the off-site airport parking lots are still closed due to COVID.
2. TSA – Let’s see your face
Inside the airport and on planes, you are required to wear a mask. The exception – when you’re eating… or facing a TSA officer. Our first time through security, our officer said some muffled words through her mask and shield. She sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher. I literally had no idea what words were being used. Turns out, she wanted me to pull down my mask to see if my face matched my ID. For our return flight, we were ready and pulled down our masks as we showed our ID.
3. Concourse Ghostland
Yes, there are some places to eat on the concourses, but nothing like you’re used to. SOME restaurants are open, but not all of them. Most of the small kiosks and shops where you would purchase water or meals to take on the plane are shuttered. Be prepared for this. Either take a bottle that you can fill at one of the water fountains once you get past security, or be ready to walk a distance to find an open shop.
4. At the Gate
There are some benefits brought by COVID. One is that the ever-annoying CNN airport network is not blaring from monitors and appeared to be turned off at the three airports we visited. This makes waiting for your plane much quieter – you can actually hear some soothing music over the airport speakers.
Extra care is being taken to make sure planes are thoroughly cleaned before each flight. This lead to a delay on one of our four flights. It was our last flight of course, putting us home not at Midnight, but 1:30am.
But the main difference now, vs. pre-COVID is that (at least Delta), is scheduling a longer boarding time. If I recall, boarding would typically begin about 25 minutes before scheduled departure. For our flights it was 40 minutes. With the exception of passengers flying first class, or those with airline status, you no longer board by group. The rows in the back of the plane board first. How this was done depended on the gate agent. Some decided to board 10 rows at a time. On our very last flight, we boarded ONE. ROW. AT. A. TIME.
I kid you not.
5. Welcome Aboard…
…and here’s your Purell! As you board the airplane, a flight attendant cheerily greeted each passenger and handed them a package with a Purell wipe. I suppose this is to give additional comfort allowing you to wipe down your seat belt, arm rests, tray table, and video screen. I did feel a little better about that. When everyone was seated, flight attendants then made a special trash pickup just for the wipes.
6. Overhead Bins
You would think with planes only flying at 2/3rds capacity there would be no problem with finding overhead bin space.
The overhead seemed just as crowded as normal, and on flight #2, the bins in the rear of the plane were full and the crew was forced to gate check a number of bags.
Just a wild guess that many people may be making shorter duration trips, so they might be bringing carry ons when they would normally have checked baggage.
7. Newer Planes
Airlines are having to make tough choices as they ground their fleets, and many of them are retiring older planes that require more fuel and more costly maintenance. That means you may end up flying on a newer plane. Most previous flights I’ve had on Delta between Atlanta and Orlando, were on old model 757’s. This time a newer or at least recently refurbished 757 greeted us on the route.
8. Here’s your Snack
Forget the Food Cart with your choice of food or drink. Once we reach 10,000 feet, the cabin crew immediately makes the rounds with a snack bag for each passenger. Inside, a small water, a package of Cheez-it’s, a package of cookies, and a small liquid Purell to clean up afterward.
I’m Gluten intolerant, so the crackers and cookies went to my wife.
9. Is it getting Hot in here?
Normally I’m on the cool side. Yes, I’m a pretty cool guy, but I’m talking temperature. No matter what time of year I’m traveling, I wear long sleeves and slacks on board.
About an hour into our first flight I started to regret my wardrobe. It was HOT. It wasn’t the airplane temperature, it was because breathing through my mask kept my body temperature rising.
Since you need to wear your mask, you might want to keep this in mind and dress accordingly.
10. Clubbing It
One of the perks of our Credit Card is we have access to Delta’s Sky Club (when flying Delta) or the worldwide network of Priority Pass lounges. Every time we fly we are again convinced that the extra membership fee for our card is well worth this perk alone.
Not all lounges are open but we found one at each airport (there are multiple Sky Clubs open in Atlanta). Two things stand out here.
First is the spacing of seats. Each Club is different but all have socially distanced seating. So much so that it was actually difficult to find places where the two of us could sit together.
But the surprise is that there is no longer buffet food. All food is individually wrapped. I like this better! The individual wrapping makes it easy to grab a couple of items to put in your carry on for snacking on your flight. This would also be a great way for cruise ships to serve in their buffets after the COVID shut down.
I still wish Delta gave more consideration to gluten free options in their Sky Clubs. One can only eat so many cheese cubes and celery sticks.
Oh, note to other loungers. If you must make a phone call, PLEASE talk softly and use earbuds. And go to the area of the lounge designated for phone calls. The rest of us don’t care that you are a very important person discussing your Department of Defense contract, nor do we want to participate in your Facetime call with Aunt Marge.
11. Get out!
There is signage on all planes requesting that passengers social distance when deplaning. Guess what? No one cares. Like always they just want to get out. So just like always, the aisles are crowded with typical bumping and jostling. Perhaps, a reminder from the flight crew just before we reach the gate might make this a little more likely.
But probably not.
12. Taxi! Taxi???
This might be the biggest surprise of all. Cabs were available at our destination – Reagan National in Washington, D.C. Thinking back now, I should have realized that there actually weren’t that many cabs waiting for fares.
Then once we were in D.C., and for the remainder of our visit, we never saw a cab!
We had a particularly tight connection to catch our flight after our event ended. In the days preceding our visit I had talked with one of our hotel managers about taxi availability. I believe his words were “pretty hit and miss.” We couldn’t afford to not find a ride to the airport late Saturday afternoon, so I had the hotel book us a car service. It cost much more than a cab but we were able to relax and enjoy our event knowing that we’d make our plane without worry. It turns out that our driver Kenneth was excellent, arrived 15 minutes early and gave us tips for visiting the city in the future. He confirmed that cabs were indeed scarce due to COVID.
Flying after COVID
Airlines are still struggling, but hundreds of thousands of passengers are now flying in the U.S. each day. As more people start flying after COVID, some of the changes we noticed may disappear. But it’s also likely that a new normal has been established for things such as prepackaged snack bags instead of food carts.
If you’ve recently flown, we’d love for you to share some of your experiences in the comments section at the bottom of this page.