Like many of you, I had my travel plans for the year upended by the pandemic. Vacationing outside the United States remains difficult as of this writing, but I recently discovered that domestic travel can be rewarding and even relaxing, in spite of the state of things. Many Andrew Harper members seem to agree, judging by the increase in calls to our Travel Office.
While I am not qualified to judge whether travel is “safe” or not — it always involves at least some minor risk even in the best of times — I can at least tell you what I observed and experienced during my first editorial trip after the pandemic began in earnest.
The start of my journey to the West felt positively delightful, as we zipped to the airport in minimal traffic, getting to O’Hare in half the usual time. We pulled up to Terminal 1, usually a melee of cars competing for curb space, to find just a handful of vehicles calmly unloading passengers. Had we needed to print a boarding pass or check luggage, no line would have impeded us. TSA Precheck security was also queue-free. The man checking IDs asked us to remove our masks for “two seconds” so that he could compare our faces with our licenses, and then he waved us through.
It was about 7:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, and the terminal, ordinarily bustling with travelers in summer high season, was quiet. Since we had extra time before our flight, we decamped to the United lounge. It proved to be busier than expected, but there was ample space to socially distance. I procured coffees from the bartender — self-serve coffee is a thing of the past — and went to check out the breakfast buffet. The food in airline lounges has been on a downward trajectory for years, but this spread was truly dire. Yogurt, bagged hard-boiled eggs, granola bars … the virus required the removal of anything not prepackaged, alas. I felt a twinge of nostalgia for a bacon-filled chafing dish.
The food in airline lounges has been on a downward trajectory for years, but this spread was truly dire.
By 8:30 a.m., the terminal had begun to fill with travelers, almost all of whom wore masks. As we headed to our gate, I saw only a few people wearing them improperly or not at all. They stood out. We walked past a Starbucks, the line leading to which appeared as lengthy as ever.
At our gate, we had little trouble distancing ourselves from other passengers, but I suppose our efforts were pointless, considering that we were about to be confined with them inside a compact metal tube. Boarding began with active-duty military personnel and business class passengers, as usual, but then things changed. Rather than board by group number, as was United’s custom, the airline went back to the old system of boarding from the back of the plane forward. The middle seats were not left empty; it was a full flight.
Inside, the plane looked immaculate, free from the smears, smudges and crumbs one had been accustomed to find all too often. United, like its competitors, has stepped up its airplane-cleaning regimen. In between flights, crews disinfect high-touch areas like seatbelt buckles, armrests and tray tables, and they go over the entire interior with an electrostatic spray gun, which binds disinfectant to areas hard to clean efficiently by hand, such as air vents and overhead luggage bins. During the flight, HEPA filters “remove at least 99.97% of airborne particles,” and masks are required unless one is eating or drinking.
As in the United lounge, the food on board the flight has not improved with the virus. In business class, we received some uninspiring prepackaged cheese and crackers. Gone were the warm towel, warm nuts and warm meal. Beverages were also prepackaged rather than poured: cans of juice and soda, and mini bottles of wine and water. We tried premium economy seats on the return flight, and it didn’t feel like that much of a step down from business class. Instead of cheese and crackers, we received a plastic bag containing a bottle of water, pretzels and a stroopwafel.
I thought wearing a mask for around four hours between arrival at O’Hare and our exit from the airport in Salt Lake City would be borderline intolerable, but it didn’t take long for me to almost forget I was wearing it. We chose KN95 masks made from “electrostatic melt-blown cloth composite ES hot air cotton.” The masks felt sturdy, but they were lighter weight than standard cloth masks and provided a little more room inside, making it easy to breathe. Although I can’t attest to their effectiveness, I can at least say that they were comfortable to wear for a long period.
Of course, the flights are only a few hours of a days-long trip. How hotels and restaurants handle matters of safety is also consequential. I was pleased to find that everywhere we stayed, all staff and almost all guests wore masks indoors. (Look for full reviews of the hotels in an upcoming issue of the Hideaway Report.) In fact, the counties we visited required people to wear masks inside of businesses. An exception was made for restaurants, where diners must remove a mask to eat. That’s why we never once ate or drank inside a restaurant or bar. It seemed unwise, even with well-spaced tables, and unfair to the staff working in such an environment. Fortunately, the warm and sunny weather made dining outdoors a pleasure, and when eating outside was inconvenient, we had a welcome excuse to indulge in room service.
Hotels all assured us that their enhanced cleaning standards were extraordinarily high. Our accommodations did all look spotless, but we could only take the property’s word that surfaces we were likely to touch had been disinfected. Some hotels didn’t expect us to trust them in every respect. For example, rather than tell us that a soft throw blanket had been dry-cleaned in between guests, one property placed a card next to it encouraging us to take the brand-new blanket home. Other hotels made turndown service optional, and all hotels ensured that cleaning staff did not enter rooms while guests were inside.
It was still a great pleasure to stay in a luxury resort, even considering the masks and other virus-related rigmarole.
While I am not qualified to address whether all these situations were “safe” or not, I can say that in only one instance — while attempting to visit Utah’s Homestead Crater, where no one wore masks — did I really feel unsafe. (I extricated myself from the situation immediately.) Otherwise, we had a splendid time back on the road. It was a joy to hike in the clean mountain air and take in the stupendous scenery of the West, far removed from the troubles of our urban home. It was still a great pleasure to stay in a luxury resort, even considering the masks and other virus-related rigmarole. And most important, we were able to relax. In spite of everything, our trip out West felt like an escape from the cares of the world, and that was just what the doctor ordered.