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Travel News Flying in 2020: A step-by-step journey through airports

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Flying in 2020: A step-by-step journey through airports

We know that travel is especially difficult right now. But alongside the latest COVID-19 travel advice and updates, we want to continue to inspire you with new travel content so that when the world opens its doors again, you'll be ready.

It used to feel exhilarating to walk into a bustling airport. Part freedom, part adventure, the airport marked the start of your journey. Now, with so much uncertainty, airports leave us feeling more anxious than excited. We don’t know what to expect anymore. Are masks mandatory? Will my temperature be checked? Do I need to show up even earlier for my flight? Travelers across the states are wondering how to navigate airports during the coronavirus pandemic. 

If you want to know how things are different nowadays, read on. From arrival to departure, we provide travel tips that will get you through the airport step-by-step so you feel prepared for your next trip.  

Keep in mind that not all airports have implemented the same rules and guidelines. Be sure to look up official information about the airports you’re flying to and from, so you are thoroughly prepared for your trip.

woman in mask sitting on her luggage in airport

Step-by-step traveling through an airport: from arrival to departure

There’s no doubt that travel is just plain different now. But airports during the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps surprisingly, don’t look as different as other public spaces these days. They are less crowded and have also adjusted to the “new normal” that we’ve all become accustomed to. You’ll find signs encouraging social distancing, placards mandating mask-wearing, and plenty of hand sanitizing stations throughout the terminals. 

Let’s walk through exactly what the airport experience looks like right now so you know what to expect during your next trip. 

Step 1: Packing and prep

Before you start packing, consider whether you want to take just a carry-on or check a bag. It’s recommended to do the former to help reduce the number of people who handle your luggage as well as your time in public spaces (i.e. waiting at baggage claim). 

Our deep dive of the 12 most important things to pack tells you what to consider bringing as an add-on to your usual travel checklist. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is warning passengers to strictly adhere to its packing specifications. Otherwise, you may be required to exit the security line to remove prohibited items, and then wait to re-enter for a second screening. This helps TSA reduce the number of times its officers need to touch passengers’ belongings.

Leading up to your departure, check airport websites for details regarding process changes or COVID-19 requirements. This includes your departure, connecting and arrival airports. 

person packing luggage

Step 2: Check-in 

Airports and airlines alike are working to make the travel experience as contactless as possible. In some cases, face-to-face contact at check-in desks is very limited, so you should plan to digitize the experience on your end as much as possible. That means checking in online, installing the airline’s app, and then downloading the e-pass to your smartphone. If you’re unable to save a digital version, then print your boarding pass at home. 

phone with e-ticket display

Step 3: Airport arrival

To get to the airport, it’s best to drive yourself or have someone you’ve been isolating with drop you off, if possible. While hourly and daily parking is still open, some airports have reduced or closed long-term parking facilities. Be sure to check the details for your departure airport.

How early should you arrive at the airport during coronavirus? TSA is seeing nowhere near the number of travelers that it did at the same time last year. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected TSA and airline staffing and, therefore, operations. That in itself may add time to your pre-flight experience. 

In general, you should arrive at the airport at least 2 hours before a domestic flight and at least 3 hours prior to departure for an international flight. These guidelines vary by airport. Larger, busier airports may suggest arriving even earlier. 

exit and enter lanes at the airport check-in counters

Step 4: At the airport

There hasn’t been a coordinated response to implementing or enforcing safety and hygienic measures across US airports. In general, travelers are required to wear a mask and asked to maintain physical distancing of at least 6 feet from others. These protocols begin from the time you enter the airport and continue at the check-in desk, as you go through security, wait at the gate and board the plane. 

How will you know if these are mandates? Airports are promoting mask-wearing and social distancing measures in a variety of ways, such as on placards, digital displays, floor markings, and notices on chairs saying that they are closed off for seating.

seating at the airport during coronavirus

Some airports installed hand sanitizer dispensers for public use. It’s recommended to bring your own bottle, too. TSA amended its list of prohibited items so that travelers can bring personal hand sanitizer in their carry-on bag. Per TSA:  

“In response to COVID-19, TSA is allowing one liquid hand sanitizer container, up to 12 ounces per passenger, in carry-on bags. Passengers are required to remove the hand sanitizer from the carry-on bag before being submitted for X-ray screening.”

Hand sanitizer station at the airport

Step 5: Airport security

The overall volume of travelers has greatly diminished. As a result, TSA staffing has been reduced and fewer baggage screeners and body scanners are in operation. These changes sometimes equate to longer wait times at airport security. Though, depending on when you travel and which airport you use, the overall reduced volume of passengers may make your journey through the security line quicker than expected.

Temperature checks aren’t being widely conducted at security checkpoints in US airports during coronavirus. Travelers are asked to maintain social distancing in the security line, indicated by placards, digital signs, and stickers on the floor. TSA officers may ask passengers to scan their own boarding pass at the security desk to avoid contact. Some baggage screening areas have dividers along the conveyor belt to help encourage separation between travelers. 

man putting luggage through security in an airport

Step 6: Inside the terminal

We did a deep dive on what to expect on the plane and in the airport during coronavirus. The main takeaways are that many airport shops, restaurants, and facilities are temporarily closed or have reduced hours of operation. Others have limited offerings, such as takeaway food instead of sit-down dining. Travelers should consider bringing their own water bottle and snacks to hold them over during their journey. 

As for boarding the airplane, you can expect to maintain social distancing while you’re in the boarding queue, as well as on the jetway. Airline staff may ask you to scan your own boarding pass to reduce contact. Depending on your final destination, you may be required to show a recent negative COVID test to even board the airplane. Check your destination’s requirements as well as the airline’s website to ensure you bring the proper paperwork.

coronavirus advice banner in an airport

For those who want to travel with a pet, some airlines have implemented temporary restrictions. In general, passengers can bring their pet into the cabin. However, some pet cargo programs have been temporarily suspended since they cannot be conducted safely during the pandemic. Check with your specific airline to see what its current policies are.

Once you arrive at your destination, it’s possible that you may undergo a thermal scan or temperature screening. These are not widely in use in the United States, though some international airports abroad have employed the technology. Depending on your destination, you may need to show a recent negative COVID test to avoid a 14-day quarantine. This is destination-specific, so be sure to check the details of the local city, state, or country government website at least a week before you depart. Some require test results that are no older than 48 or 72 hours.

Read More: Your coronavirus travel questions answered

man sitting at an empty terminal

New York City airports (JFK, EWR and LGA): things to know 

The three airports serving the New York City area have implemented a number of measures in light of the pandemic. These include:

  • Enhanced cleaning and disinfecting
  • Installation of protective plexiglass shields
  • Physical distance reminders and sanitizing stations throughout terminals
  • Shops selling gloves, hand sanitizer, and face coverings
  • Mobile food options for contactless take-out and gate delivery

Only ticketed passengers are allowed entry into the three NYC airports during coronavirus. An exception is allowed for people accompanying passengers who require special assistance. Travelers are required to wear a face-covering in the airport and all associated facilities, such as Airport Buses and the AirTrain. TSA is not currently conducting temperature checks during the screening process.  

The tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut has implemented a mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers arriving from high-risk areas. You can find details and quarantine requirements in our Coronavirus Travel Advice article, updated daily.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): things to know 

Due to sanitizing schedules and safety protocols, LAX is limiting those who can enter the airport during coronavirus to ticketed airline passengers and people meeting, accompanying or assisting them. Airport personnel have added several hundred hand sanitizer stations throughout terminals. They are requiring everyone to wear face coverings and encouraging travelers to maintain physical distancing inside terminal areas.

Concessions are available inside every terminal, but offerings are limited. You can find hours of operations here. LAX is allowing travelers to bring their own food, but they must pack it in a clear plastic bag and remove the bag from their luggage during the security screening.

LAX is one of the US airports that has installed temperature screening stations and thermal cameras to detect elevated body temperatures in departing and arriving passengers. Participation is optional. Signs alert travelers to the cameras. Those who do not want to pass those checkpoints can take a different path. 

Chicago airports (ORD and MDW): things to know 

The city of Chicago implemented an emergency travel order, effective since July 6. It requires individuals arriving from specified states to self-quarantine for 14 days. 

The two airports serving the Chicago area are requiring travelers ages 2+ to wear a face-covering within the terminals at all times. Passengers are also asked to respect physical distancing guidelines of six feet or more. O’Hare installed more than 250 hand sanitizer stations in the airport. At Midway, there are more than 50 throughout the terminal. 

Concessions inside the terminal areas are limited. Those that are open have grab-and-go as well as sit-down options. Check the list of open facilities for O’Hare and Midway. If passengers want to purchase masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer inside the terminal, they can do so at several Hudson Store locations. Airport yoga rooms and the Fly With Butch O’Hare Play Area are currently closed. Both airports’ Mother’s Rooms are open.

Remember to travel responsibly by following airport and airline rules, such as physical distancing at least six feet from others, wearing a mask, practicing good hand hygiene, and not touching your face. Check official government advice before you travel, as well as airport websites for specific guidelines and details.

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