As someone who loves to travel, this year-long quarantine has given me (among other things) a mad case of wanderlust. The good news is that the more people who get vaccinated and COVID rates go down, the more travel opportunities will start to pop up. We had a chance to fly from Philly to Colorado recently with the boys because they had a ski/snowboard training sesh out there. Not gonna lie…it was weird…and slightly scary (especially because our boys are not yet vaccinated). That said, we learned a ton about getting through the airports (and flights) safely and comfortably.
Note: The CDC does not actually recommend traveling yet until you’re fully vaccinated. While Mike and I are both fully vaccinated, our kids are not. That said…we decided to take our chances (and reduced risk as much as possible with the tips below). Lastly, at the time of our travel, there were no state travel restrictions between Pennsylvania and Colorado.
Flying With Kids During The Coronavirus Pandemic: Our Safety Tips & Lessons Learned
Oddly enough, once we were on the plane, I was able to relax a little bit. The worst parts of the entire experience were actually in the airport itself, and boarding the plane. We also found that rental car shuttles (and pick-up areas) were shockingly full, and the wait times to pick up the car were the longest we’ve ever experienced. That said, we found a few tricks that made this whole process easier.
Pre-Airport: Tips For Flying With Kids During Coronavirus
While paper masks and hand sanitizer did seem to be available for purchase at the airport, I was surprised to find that other forms of PPE (protective eyewear, face shields) were not. So. I strongly suggest bringing (or wearing) the following items to the airport, or packing them in your carry-on:
What To Pack For The Plane (Including PPE)
- A face mask that’s comfortable and won’t fog up protective eyewear — Face masks are required both in the airport and on the plane, so you won’t get very far without one. That said, there are strategies that are improve safety — especially with the new variants, especially if anyone in your party isn’t yet vaccinated. Here’s what we’ve learned about masks while flying:
- A mask that fits well is still your best bet. While there’s guidance out there about possibly doubling up on masks, the most effective mask is the one that fits well, and the one your kids won’t fuss with constantly. (Linzi’s little guy will only wear this Athleta kids mask, for example.)
- Our family fav: this triple-layered cloth mask with a nose wire. For long flights, cloth masks are easily the most comfortable. Our hands-down favorite is Slip’s 100% silk mask. This mask has two layers of silk, plus a 100% cotton lining in the middle. It also has a nose wire which helps to keep glasses from fogging up.
- A KN95 — this is one of the most protective masks available to the general public…but it turns out that KN95 masks should never be layered (oops). My kids found these masks too scratchy to wear right next to their skin, however, so they layered them over their cloth masks. Not recommended.
- A cloth mask over a disposable mask (but not an N95 or KN95). Studies have shown that layering cloth masks over medical-grade disposable masks help to block out particles in part by making the disposable mask fit better around the edges. But there’s not yet data on layering surgical masks over cloth masks, nor is there any data on layering two surgical masks or two cloth masks. (Here’s the article I’m using as reference.)
- Protective Eyewear — According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, you can get COVID through your eyes. And in a situation like airports, planes or rental car shuttles, one can’t really avoid the tight quarters, so protective eyewear is a must (especially for the unvaccinated). Raines (13yr) wore this pair of protective eyewear (works for adults, too), and Pax (10) wore this pair (according to the reviews, they’ll fit kids as young as 3). Also, buy multiple pairs and stash a few in your carry-on. If your kiddo loses them en route, they’re (shockingly) not being sold at airports.
- Face shield — You don’t need to wear protective eyewear AND a face shield…but if you have a picky/active/sensitive or young-ish kid….then I recommend having both a face shield AND protective eyewear on hand. Pax spent the majority of the flight switching between the two because he couldn’t stand one for long. (Obviously, you must wear a mask with the face shield or protective eyewear.) This is the face shield Pax used (it was a little big), but others have recommended this face shield if you don’t want it messing with your hair.
- Hand sanitizer that smells good — the plane will likely be sanitized before you get on, but using hand sanitizer before eating, drinking or touching your face is a good idea. That said, smells really linger on the plane, so I suggest bringing a hand sanitizer that doesn’t make you gag (we learned this one the hard way). On the return flight, I came better prepared with Whole Food’s orange-scented hand sanitizer and we were all much happier. (This hand sanitizer is my favorite, and this one is Linzi’s. Both come with refills.)
- Advil (for both kids and adults) — Not only had the plane just been sanitized, but United was handing out sanitizing wipes as we boarded. Here’s the thing: they have a REALLY strong smell. So much so that both Pax and I started to get headaches. And since we were already slightly uncomfortable with the masks and eyewear…keeping a headache at bay made for a much more pleasant flight.
- Snacks that can be eaten quickly — The airport food courts were packed, I wish we had brought our own snacks. And since you want to minimize the amount of time you’re maskless on the plane…snacks that can be eaten quickly are key.
- Gum — Gum makes wearing a mask for hours on end more pleasant.
Tips For Getting Through the Airport During Coronavirus
OK, so you’re there, at the airport with masks on, eyewear (or face shields) in place, ready to go! Now what?
Well, first of all, it’s important to know that there’s very little social distancing happening in an airport. While there might be signs advocating to ‘stay 6ft apart!’ almost no one is actually doing that. Security lines wind around each other just as they always have, and boarding the plane looks very much like it did in the pre-pandemic days (except for the required masks, thank goodness). Also, we did not see any airport personnel asking anyone to fix their mask when it slipped below their nose/mouth. Frankly, the ski hill this winter had tighter mask security than the airport. With all of that in mind, here are a few strategies that made our life easier:
- Before you go, become a trusted traveler with TSA Pre-Check or Clear — The regular security line was insanely long, with everyone packed in like sardines. If you have TSA Pre-check or Clear, you can reduce the amount of time in these security lines by quite a bit.
- TSA Pre-Check: I’ve had my TSA Pre-check for years, and it was totally worthwhile even before the pandemic, now especially so. With TSA pre-check you can go into a smaller, faster line. You don’t have to take off your shoes or outerwear, nor do you have to take any electronics out of your bag. It’s roughly $85 for 5 years. My TSA Pre-Check now just covers me and the kids. Pre-Coronarvirus, Mike used to be included in my TSA Pre-Check (if I bought our tickets at the same time)…but we now learned that Mike can no longer piggyback onto my Pre-Check (and yes we sent him through the long security line by himself).
- Clear: On our return flight, as Mike was waiting in the long security line alone, he realized that Clear — a private company offering TSA Pre-Check-like services — was offering a two-week free trial period if he signed up right then. The Clear line was so much shorter that even when taking the time to sign-up, he was through security only a couple of minutes behind us. Clear is roughly $200 per year.
- Here’s an article on the differences between TSA Pre-Check and Clear.
- Bring your own food — As I mentioned, the airport food courts are packed…yet only some of the food vendors are open. Not only were we not able to get my kids’ beloved pretzels to-go…but I didn’t want them anywhere near the food courts.
- Find a spot on the floor — While waiting to board, almost every seat at the gate was taken. Social distancing wasn’t a thing. We found a spot by the windows on the floor, stuck the kids there, and then Mike or I would run to grab snacks or whatever from the packed food courts. Finding a spot on the floor was the only way to create some sort of six-foot distance from everyone else.
- Try to board first…or last — As I mentioned, boarding was the absolute worst. I was hoping they’d have some boarding strategy that reduced the amount of time we were packed in on the jetway but…nope. On the flight out, we just hung back and tried to board last, but on our return flight, I ended up purchasing priority boarding so we could get on early. Once on the plane, a ton of people walk past you, but at least you’re benefiting from filtration systems on board.
Tips For The Plane Ride During The Pandemic
Once on the plane, we expected to find that the airlines were — at least — leaving the middle seat unoccupied. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth — both flights were oversold, just like always. But the good news is that the transmission risk on an airplane — thanks to the air in the cabin is completely refreshed every 2-4 minutes — is really, really low. This article from MIT Medical does a good job of explaining how airline air filtration systems work. The NYT has seriously cool automation explaining how the overall airflow (as well as the filters) actually work.
While those articles made me feel so much better about flying, there were still a few things we did once on board:
- Turn on the air blasters full strength — this (I think) was helpful to keep air moving past us. Again, no study to reference here…but certainly help with my peace of mind (and to dissipate that terrible smell from the sanitizing wipes).
- Minimize (or time) your eating & drinking — I really wanted to reduce the amount of time my kids were unmasked, so I went with a few easy-to-eat snacks and made sure to wait to eat until later in the flight. Flight attendants are still handing out snacks and drinks, so there was a good 30-40 minutes when a huge portion of the plane was unmasked. On the return flight home, I let the boys have a snack — quickly — as soon as we sat down, and then waited until later in the flight to take our masks off and eat.
Tips On Getting A Rental Car During The Pandemic
Because of coronavirus restrictions, renting a car is…bizarre. Not only are rental companies having trouble keeping track of inventory (apparently, it’s become pretty common that your car reservation won’t guarantee you a car), but the wait times — if you are showing up at peak times — are terrible. We waited — with a fully pre-paid reservation — for over two hours. The people who showed up just behind us ended up waiting for almost four hours. Here are a few things we’re going to do differently next time:
- Be prepared to stand outside — Because the inside of the car rental agency was so ridiculously packed, we made the kids (unvaccinated) stand outside. Unfortunately, it started to snow and they were NOT dressed for it. So they would rotate in and out as long as they could stand it. As expected, two hours of this nonsense got old, fast.
- Join the car rental company’s preferred program — While standing in line, we realized that we could join the car rental company’s preferred program immediately and for free. This cut out our time at the rental place from four to two hours. Once I had a membership number, we were able to go into a ‘special’ line. This line wasn’t necessarily faster, just much, much shorter.
- Look for rental companies that have already figured out no-or-low touch rental processes. I’m actually not that concerned with getting COVID from a rental car. Not only can we wipe down most surfaces when we get in, but we can drive with the windows down for a few minutes. Next time I rent a car, I’m going to look for companies that have published data about how good they are at the touchless rental process (Avis, Enterprise), rather than companies that are making a big deal about their cleanliness inspections (Hertz, Thrifty). Those cleanliness inspections (we were told) were part of why people were waiting for 4+ hours.
- Maybe rent a car somewhere other than the airport. The car rental situation at the airport was so miserable that I wonder if we weren’t better off taking a shuttle to our hotel, and then just sending one of us (haha — it would always be Mike) to do curbside pickup at a different car rental location the next day. Something to consider, anyway.
So…that’s it! Was it a pain to fly? Yup — it was a pretty stressful experience, in part because we didn’t know what to expect, and in part, because sometimes our expectations were dashed (ex: the flight being sold to capacity). That said, would we do it again soon?
Uh…yeeaaas? I think we’re going to completely change the way we do car rentals (and who we rent from — we won’t do Hertz or Thrifty ever again), I’m going to make sure that Mike gets his TSA Pre-Check, and I’m definitely packing better snacks next time, but…once we were on the plane, it was fine. Landing in Colorado, getting to see (vaccinated) friends we haven’t seen in years, and having ourselves a little family adventure felt really, really good.
Anyway, I hope this helps. Best of luck to you guys when traveling — fingers crossed you get to squeeze a far-away loved one, soon.