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I just took a couple of flights on United Airlines for the first time since the global pandemic outbreak.
It was a unique and at times a little surreal experience but I thought I would share how the flights went and give you some pointers on things to avoid.
If your flight is going to be full or near full with United, you will receive a notification letting you know that ahead of time and offering you a chance to reschedule your flight or to take a travel voucher.
I did not really care that my flight was pretty full because I had booked a first class seat in an Embraer 175 which has a 1-2 configuration.
This allowed me to sit by myself on my flight out to Texas and on the way back, Brad and I flew together so we simply swapped seats with someone else so that we were sitting together.
Many times first class on domestic flights won’t be that much more expensive than economy so right now you might want to consider flying first class just to avoid sitting closer to other people.
There was no designated TSA Pre-Check line open at TUS and instead I was issued a card that allowed me to get Pre-Check benefits when going through the main security line (which was very short).
I made sure to put all of my small belongings into my backpack so that I did not have to use one of the little bowls for things like my wallet, phone, and sunglasses.
I brought a 12 ounce pack of hand sanitizer which is now allowed under the modified liquids rule just to see if I had any issues but they let it go through no problem.
On the way back, I had picked up some supplements which included some glutamine powder.
This triggered a close inspection of my bag along with a swab for explosives.
The TSA agent went through all my belongings and touched almost everything in my luggage which was not the best feeling.
So I would suggest not traveling with any substances like powders that could trigger a close inspection of your bags.
You might also ask the TSA agent to put on a fresh pair of gloves before your inspection as this is a new policy that should be allowed.
Immediately after security screening, I applied hand sanitizer and rubbed my hands thoroughly. (I currently plan on wiping down any hard items sitting in my luggage bag.)
Most of the stores and restaurants were closed, although I did spot a restaurant here and there open with a few occupants spaced out. If you are hoping to visit an airport lounge like a Centurion Lounge, those will likely all be closed for the time being.
Most of the small kiosk-like stores were closed and covered up but several of the news/convenience stores remained open. In those stores, you could find essentials you may need like hand sanitizer, masks, etc.
Most people were wearing masks when walking through the terminal areas. (Some airports like PHX require this.)
Personally, I chose to wear my mask in the terminal when going through it or when sitting in an area near others.
But initially, before light crowds developed, I would find a spot about 30 feet away from other people and relax there with my mask off while enjoying a snack before the flight.
For the most part, the terminals were pretty empty but when I arrived in Houston at around 5pm, there were a lot of other arrivals and the terminal looked almost like a normal airport would in the late afternoon.
One thing I will see about the terminal experience is that it does feel less “happy.” You can kind of sense that coronavirus is on the minds of many people.
Boarding is very different for airlines right now.
Airlines like United are boarding starting from the back of the plane.
Initially, they will still follow the normal United boarding order and call pre-boarding and allow folks like military members and those with disabilities to board first. They will also call up elite members like Global Services.
During the boarding process, social distancing was definitely not taking place although there were some signs calling for it.
Interestingly, United did not call boarding group one (first class) before they started to board from the back even though group one can board first if they want.
Once we entered the plane, we were given a small pack of sanitizing wipes. These wipes were very strong as far as the scent goes so I assume they are probably pretty good at sanitizing.
I wiped down my arm rest areas, seat belt handle, coaster, and also the handle to the window shade since those were really the only things I would be touching.
You may want to ask for a second wipe if you will be using the tray table later.
First class meal service (covid)
On this short two hour and 15 minute flight, we were not given the usual first class meal service and instead were issued a snack pack.
There are three different types of snack packs United will offer with each one having a slightly different focus.
For example, you can get one with more sugary treats inside or go with something like the cheese spread and crackers like we did.
We were offered drinks at the time of meal service and at least once after that.
I kept my mask on throughout the flight except for when I was eating and when I was finishing up my beverage.
At times, the mask felt warm and uncomfortable so it is not something I would want to wear for several hours or on a long-haul international flight. (I was wearing a surgical mask.)
Your flight attendants should be wearing masks the entire time. Sometimes they spoke through the mask but a couple of times I saw some pull their mask out to talk which was slightly disappointing.
What it felt like
The overall vibe of the flight is a bit weird.
On our first flight, I honestly felt like the flight attendant felt scared to be working just based on her facial expressions. On the flight back out to Tucson, things felt a bit more normal.
We avoided checked baggage as we often do but in the time of coronavirus it is just one less thing to have to worry about when it comes to exposure.
Overall, I did not feel super comfortable traveling during what looks like a second peak of coronavirus cases especially because I was flying between Arizona and Texas which are two states having massive surges.
But seeing so many people wearing masks felt slightly comforting because it made me feel like if they did have something, they would not be dispersing those germs as widely due to the mask coverings.
Also, once I sanitized the seat it felt a little bit better and with the constant hand sanitization, I felt like I was doing a pretty good job of helping to keep myself safe.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.