Earlier this month, I traveled home to South Carolina after a year of being away from family and friends.
Initially, it was a trip I had no intention of taking, because, even as someone who makes a living writing about travel, I’ve personally maintained the stance that it’s best to be safe rather than sorry when considering a vacation this year.
But after an unexpected death in the family, both my boyfriend and I decided that it was time to get back on the proverbial horse after these past five months of uncertainty.
We had spent those months taking care to protect our physical wellbeing, all the while not realizing that we were neglecting our mental health. The death put life into perspective for us, and we knew that we needed a dose of family time after going so long without it.
We decided that flying was our best option for a 1,500-mile trip. Of course, road trips are all the rage for travelers at the moment, but nearly five days of driving roundtrip was not in the cards for us.
I booked our trip through American Airlines, under the assumption that there would be social distancing between passengers on the flight. I knew the company had a face covering policy, and I had read that most large airlines were also blocking middle seats to ensure adequate space between passengers.
When we got to Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, it was noticeably less busy than usual, so checking in for our flight and going through security felt like a breeze. Nearly everyone wore masks, but at the time, it was not an airport requirement.
Prior to boarding, an announcement was made that beverage service would not be included on our flight, and the airline recommended that folks make necessary snack and drink purchases in the terminal.
However, as we boarded the plane, flight attendants were at the ready with pre-packaged bags filled with water bottles, snacks and sanitizing wipes.
I immediately noticed as we walked our way down the aisle -- as did others who verbalized their surprise -- that social distancing was not a thing. Unfortunately, I had failed on the research front because American Airlines, which had been blocking half the middle seats in economy since April, ended the practice on July 1 -- just a week before our trip.
As I already mentioned, the airline does have a face covering policy, but there are loopholes that some passengers take advantage of.
Masks can be taken off while eating or drinking, and I saw that some folks kept a drink in hand or a snack nearby for the duration of the flight to ensure they wouldn’t be scolded by flight attendants for their lack of face covering.
Boarding the plane took a bit longer than usual, as some people blocked the aisle to first sanitize their seat and window before sitting down. However, deboarding the plane seemed a bit smoother than usual because the airline now actively encouraged passengers to deboard by row.
I didn’t know what to expect when we arrived in South Carolina. My parents’ county was -- and still is -- a COVID-19 hotspot, so I wasn’t sure if we would be walking into a war zone or a ghost town.
But what I found was that things were... normal-ish: most people (that I saw) wore their masks as daily life continued on.
Yet our trip was family oriented, so we had no real plans to venture out in public much. For the duration of our trip, we mostly visited loved ones, and if we did choose to go out, we made sure to wear our masks and social distance.
For example, we chose activities, like tubing a nearby river, to avoid crowds yet enjoy each other’s company.
Upon returning, we noticed that face covering requirements in airports and on flights had been heightened. Masks were now required in Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport as well as in other airports where we had layovers.
American Airlines continued to not social distance passengers, but a new statement was added to the flight attendant speech at the beginning of flights. It said that if passengers refused to wear a face covering, they may be removed from the flight and possibly banned from future flights with the airline.
Something to keep in mind if you are thinking of flying, however, is that planes can be a bit toasty in the summertime. Add a mask into the equation and the overall experience can feel pretty claustrophobic. (It didn’t help that we were packed together like everyone’s favorite canned fish, either.)
So I'd recommend that people do some airline research before booking flights since companies' policies appear to be ever-changing. Once you're ready to go, I’d also recommend bringing along a portable hand-held fan and a cold drink from the terminal because sometimes the plane's air conditioning and the warm mini bottles of water on your flight won’t do the trick.
Additionally, folks who experience airsickness or a flying phobia like me should consider discussing their options with a doctor before the flight. I typically rely on a breathing technique to calm my fears and my stomach, but, in my experience, I found it to be ineffective with a mask.
Both my boyfriend and I are now home safe and sound, serving our self-enforced two-week quarantine. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, we're not required to do this, but we felt it was more of a civic responsibility to do so.
We did our best to keep ourselves and others safe throughout the experience, and I believe a responsible and cautious mindset should be adopted by anyone who is choosing to travel during this time.