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Traveling During a Pandemic – Part I

In the first of three parts, our intrepid Business Traveler adventurers head out cross country

Ed. Note: Everybody is curious about what it’s like to be traveling in the midst of the pandemic. Jerry Ruud is the Managing Director of Business Traveler and no stranger to life on the road. In this, the first of a three part story, Jerry shares his first-hand observations of recent trip he and his family took.

This trip is a combined family holiday as well as a business trip all in one. While some call me crazy, I view myself as a calculated risk-taker and in this instance, I believe the risks were relatively small.

July 30 Newark to Los Angeles – UA 410 8:30 – 11:14

The first part of our trip was supposed to be our family, which includes my wife and two college aged daughters, heading out to California where we’d planned to spend 10 days at the Marriott Newport Coast Villas, a place where we’ve spent a few weeks every year for the past 15-plus years.

Leading up to the trip, my daughters – both die hard adventurers, travelers and explorers – had some concerns based on all the coronavirus ‘bad news’ that is constantly making headlines. Traveling during a pandemic to California where the numbers are growing and in an airplane, through two large airports, also prompted questions from friends and co-workers which did not help ease their concerns.

To be fair, I have spoken with many people in all walks of life who are not ‘at ease’ with news of the virus, the job losses, the unknown. So from that standpoint, we seemed to be fairly typical.

We booked these tickets in late May after we cancelled our family vacation to St. Thomas, which had been schedule for early June, a decision motivated by the fact that we simply did not know what was going on. At the time we cancelled that trip, the island was off limits to visitors and we did not want to risk losing our vacation points (time share lingo).

We were fortunate to be able to get into Newport Coast so late; due to the pandemic, there were a lot of openings at that time. Our original flight got cancelled (we were on the 10:30 AM) so we got moved to an earlier flight at 8:30 AM which was OK for the parental units, even though the college-aged daughters like to sleep until noon!

The day before our trip, one of our daughters started getting really getting anxious. Things were starting to get out of control in her world. Her college, which was opening for classes in person for all, decided that they were going to stagger students coming back.

This is a small school (2,000 students) and she never thought she’d be affected in the same way as students in more densely populated colleges and universities. However, now she saw her Senior Year was not getting off to a good start. After a family discussion, we decided it was best for her to opt out of the trip and stay home.

Just as an aside, when I called United to change our tickets (and there were more changes I won’t go into now), the service representative based out of Tampa was wonderful to deal with and took care of the complicated request with patience, kindness and attention to detail.

Based on the new rules with the airlines, we now have a credit voucher that is transferable and available to use within the next 24 months – which is nice.

Departing Newark

The morning of our trip, we planned to arrive at Newark Liberty International Airport early for our 8:30 AM flight as we did not know what to expect. As a frequent flyer, I was prepared to get out at the Premier 1K drop-off on the top level, but that was closed and we went to the second level where all passengers were being dropped off. For the record, there was a Premier 1K section but we were closer to the general population section and just started our voyage there.

What is new is the way they queue passengers who have to check bags. First you go to a kiosk and check-in if you have not already. We had done this the night before – as well as listed how many bags we had per itinerary – but we needed to print off our luggage tags and apply them ourselves.

While I was at the kiosk printing, my wife and daughter were affixing them to the luggage. There was a United representative there to help but fortunately, we were able to do this without any assistance.

Then we needed to go to another queue and wait in line to drop off our bags. There were marks all over the floor to stay “six feet apart” and for the most part people kept some distance. This was a big difference than the last time I traveled when everyone crowds on top of everyone else all the time.

When we got to the agent to drop off our bags, the procedure was more normal, with the exception that there is now Plexiglas everywhere to give the employees another level of protection from germs.

When this process was done, we headed to the TSA for screening. While I have Clear, the rest of my family only has TSA Pre Check so we went through that queue. When we got there, now around 7:00 AM on a Thursday, there was no one in front of us – I mean no one! That’s different, too.

We proceeded to get screened and then departed for Starbucks prior to going to our gate. (Note: I did go to the United Club but was a bit early as they now have new hours due to the lower demand, so it was not going to be open in time for me to wait prior to our flight.)

My observations in the airport were that there a many fewer people traveling as of the end of July due to the pandemic. Most of the shops and restaurants in Newark Terminal C were closed. There were a few places to get something to eat, drink and grab some snacks for the plane but it was not business as usual at the moment – at least in Newark.

Also, throughout the airport, the vast majority of the passengers were being very compliant with policies regarding wearing masks. There were some with face shields over their masks but I only saw one or two people who did not have their masks on their faces.

As we went to board our plane, we were pleased to get upgraded from our extra-leg room seats all the way up to business class. For this flight, United 410, we were fortunate to travel on one of their newer planes, the Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner. 

Even better (for us not for United Airlines), the flight still had many, many seats available. In fact, this plane has four different “categories” of seats and in the regular class section, there were over 100 empty seats (about half) still available even after the airline had combined two flights into one.

Tomorrow: On to LA!