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“On a plane for the first time in over 15 months,” I wrote on Instagram on May 1, 2021. “A little bizarre, but man, did I miss traveling.” Along with the caption, I posted a selfie of myself from the San Antonio, Texas airport, wearing a mask aboard a full Aeromexico flight bound for Mexico City.
It sure was a little scary to be out in the wild again, surrounded by crowds of masked travelers. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is keeping many former fellow travelers grounded – despite a wave of leisure travel compared to a year ago, it is still below pre-pandemic levels, according to AAA – and wondering when they will be able to travel safely again.
But I was so ready to go through all the tribulations that come with flying during the COVID-19 era to see my loved ones again. I wasn’t alone. According to the U.S. government’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. passenger numbers increased by more than 600% in May from May 2020.
Even if you can sidestep the concerns about COVID, travel has changed dramatically. Gone are the days when you could hop on a plane on a whim. Traveling now requires a strenuous series of additional calculations to stay safe, ensure you can get home as planned and don’t break the bank.
This includes getting the correct COVID test, finding a place at the airport where you can keep a safe distance from other passengers, booking airline tickets that should be both affordable and refundable in case your plans change, and really, really temper your expectations about what it is. means finding happiness while traveling.
Oh, and make sure you don’t get infected with the coronavirus during your trip. With the unpredictable surges of recent months — thanks, delta and ommicron — potential travelers have been forced to make tough choices with constantly changing risk levels and guidelines.
Is it worth it though? With my 75-year-old mother living in Mexico and my two sons recently moving out of the house – one to New York and the other to Spain – the pandemic was never an option indefinitely. Since last year, I’ve traveled to Mexico City and Madrid twice each, first in early summer and then around the holidays.
During those four trips, my top priority was to make sure I didn’t test positive for COVID-19 and put my loved ones at risk. Here’s how I managed it.
1. Getting a boost
As soon as vaccines became available, I went out of my way to find a time slot to get vaccinated. In early April I had received my second dose of the Moderna vaccine. But that was only half the equation. Vaccination campaigns have been slower in Mexico, but by the end of April my mother had received both shots of the Pfizer vaccine. Only then did I feel comfortable booking my flight.
By the fall, the delta variant was already everywhere, so getting a Moderna booster shot for my second round of travel was a must. Boosters had just become available, so finding a clearing took time. Fortunately, two days before my departure, I found a clinic an hour’s drive from home.
When I went to the airport, I felt a renewed sense of security. Recent data shows that a third dose of the vaccine increases antibody production and increases its effectiveness against infection to about 75%, according to CNET sister site Healthline.
2. Get priority access through airport security
The basic safety rules to avoid exposure to the coronavirus have not changed since the start of the pandemic. The CDC recommends getting vaccinated (check), wearing a mask (check), keeping two meters away from others, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated areas.
Those last two recommendations can be difficult to follow at airports. Fortunately, TSA Pre, Global Entry, and Clear all helped me get through airport security faster, reducing the time I spent in line surrounded by crowds. The good news is that some of my credit cards offer TSA Pre, Global Entry, and Clear credits, so I didn’t have to pay for it.
Thanks to TSA Pre, I don’t have to take off my shoes or take my laptop out of my bag during security checks. Global Entry gives me access to an express line through customs and immigration on my way back to the US.
If you sign up for Global Entry ($100 for five years), you also get access to TSA Pre. If you’re only traveling domestically, TSA Pre costs $85 for five years. I travel internationally as often as I do across the country, so signing up for Global Entry and having both was a no-brainer. To pay for it, I used the credits offered by my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card.
Clear uses biometrics to jump you to the front of the main security line or TSA Pre-line. At $179 a year it’s not worth it if you only travel occasionally. I would never pay for Clear out of pocket, but last year my Platinum Card from American Express added Clear to its list of travel benefits. I signed up right away and have enjoyed it on all my travels ever since.
3. Waiting for flights in airport lounges
Airport lounges usually give you free access to strong Wi-Fi, great food, and other amenities. But during the pandemic I mainly visit them to avoid crowds.
Usually these places offer more space to rest, eat or work while you wait for your flight. On my recent travels, lounges allowed me to keep at least five feet away from other travelers, which gave me extra peace of mind, especially when I had to take off my mask to eat or drink.
However, access to airport lounges can be pricey – a Priority Pass membership, which gives you access to hundreds of lounges around the world, can cost as much as $429 per year. Fortunately, several travel credit cards offer free lounge access – including the two in my wallet I mentioned earlier, Chase Sapphire Reserve and Amex Platinum. And depending on the airport and credit card you have, you may have more than one lounge to choose from. Before any trip, I like to review my options in the Lounge Buddy app.
4. Book refundable airline tickets
Many airlines have made it easier to cancel or reschedule flights during the pandemic to lure travelers back. However, this remains a moving target, requiring travelers to abide by airline rules and read the fine print of that plane ticket before hitting the buy button.
Making sure you get your money back if your travel plans change has never been more important. Here are a few things I learned when I booked my flights to Mexico and Spain.
- Basic Economy Fares are a trap. Last summer I mistakenly bought an American Airlines flight from American Airlines to Madrid. When my plans changed and I had to extend my stay, I was unable to reschedule or cancel the flight. Basic Economy tickets may seem affordable at first, but they’re also the most restrictive — not to mention all the extra costs that come with them, from selecting a seat to taking carry-on luggage on board. Most importantly, very few airlines allow you to cancel or reschedule a Basic Economy ticket.
- Fully refundable rates offer great flexibility, but are more expensive. There are all kinds of economy fares, some more restrictive than others. If you anticipate you may have to cancel, consider paying a little more and purchasing a fully refundable rate.
- Travel voucher rates are in the sweet spot between affordability and convenience. So if you are planning to travel with the same airline again soon. If you cancel these tickets, you will receive a travel voucher for the full amount to use on another flight at a later date, usually until the end of next year.
- Miles and points usually unlock the most flexible and affordable rates. This also varies from airline to airline, but my experience is that airlines usually credit the miles back to your account if you cancel a flight. And you don’t have to travel constantly to accumulate enough miles for a trip. The best rewards credit cards allow you to earn points and miles on daily purchases.
5. Use CDC-approved COVID-19 testing at home to meet US return requirements
For most of the trips I made last year, a negative rapid antigen test, at least 72 hours before departure, was enough to get me back to the US. But with the rise of the ommicron variant, travel restrictions changed again in early December. Now the same test has to be taken a day before departure.
This would jeopardize my family’s holiday travel plans as my wife and eldest son had to fly home from Spain on January 2, their tests had to be taken on January 1, a holiday everywhere.
Fortunately, this guide to at-home COVID-19 testing for international travel on CNET sister site The Points Guy came to the rescue. It listed three tests approved by the CDC to meet US eligibility requirements, including Abbott’s BinaxNow COVID-19 Ag At-Home Test Kits.
I bought a $99 three-pack from Optum for our trip. The day before we flew back home, we did my mother-in-law’s tests in southern Spain. The process was simple and convenient – just make sure you have a good internet connection. You will be required to participate in a video session with a virtual assistant, who will guide you through the test and verify your results.
I will continue to use these home tests on my future travels, even if I have to pay for them out of pocket. The Biden administration just made home COVID-19 tests free, but they are not valid for travel. A pack of six of those BinaxNow travel test kits from Abbott’s costs $150 on eMed.com.
6. Settle for safety first versus fun first
Abroad, I chose to only engage in activities that felt safe. That meant I didn’t go to the movies with my mom when I was in Mexico in May, or skip dinner at restaurants in Spain in the fall when sitting outside wasn’t an option. I stayed safe instead of risking for fun. I have not traveled for leisure since March 2020. All these trips have been crucial for my mental and emotional health.
For me, the most important thing about traveling during the pandemic has been the chance to see my loved ones again. A vast majority of Americans live close to where they grew up – but that’s not my case. For a family of immigrants whose friends, parents, siblings and now even children are scattered all over the world, hopping on a plane to reunite with them has helped us through one of the most uncertain times of our lives.
The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare professional if you have any questions about a medical condition or health goals.