Ahh, the holidays are upon us once again. The smell of candy canes, the aroma of hot cocoa, the savory sounds of Christmas carols, and the pure bliss of time spent with loved ones… at least, that’s how the holidays used to be. Unless you live completely off the grid (which is sounding better and better by the day), you know that the holidays will definitely look a lot different this year than any year before. The regulations are constantly changing, especially in the travel community, and preparing for anything outside the house feels more stressful than ever. So wherever you are on the spectrum from “This thing is a hoax” to “Wash your hands, wear your mask, and stay home,” I hope to enlighten what the world of commercial aviation looks like right now so the only surprises you experience this year are the ones sitting underneath a glistening tree and wrapped in a bright red bow.
Masks are required onboard all aircraft for the duration of the flight. Check with your airline for age restrictions and medical exemptions, which may or may not be applicable. No matter what side of the mask-wearing-argument you’re on, I’m here to tell you that airlines are the most strict when it comes to enforcing these rules. Who can blame them; the industry lost $84 billion (yes, billion) in 2020 and they’re trying to recover from these losses by keeping safety of all passengers a number one priority.
Again, I don’t care if you are pro- or anti-mask, just know this rule is very much enforced. Don’t be rude about it, but especially don’t be rude about it to airline personnel. If you are truly against wearing a mask and will completely refuse to wear one, I highly suggest driving to your holiday destination or staying home altogether.
If you have a medical exemption, a sensory disorder, or some other ailment that prevents you from being able to wear a mask, I recommend calling your preferred airline directly before booking a ticket. Typically these exemptions are handled on a case-by-case basis and you may need to provide paperwork from your doctor prior to your departure date.
Story time: on our return trip from Yosemite, my son, who was freshly two years old at the time, wasn’t allowed to board until he was wearing a face covering properly. I was certainly annoyed because, of course, we happened to be traveling during the transition from “children five and older wearing masks” to “children two and older wearing masks” and I was very ill-prepared. Airlines will provide a mask for you free of charge, but they don’t have children’s sizes. Gavin made it down the jet bridge with the (adult) mask barely hanging on his ears, but the rest of the flight was a nightmare. I immediately bought child-size face masks when we made it back home. We love to fly and if we have to wear masks to make that happen, so be it.
Traveling with kids? Practice mask-wearing at home ahead of time. I have heard many horror stories about families being removed from flights because children won’t wear their masks. As if travel with children wasn’t stressful enough, right? I completely understand that kids are kids. Forcing them to wear a mask can be challenging and intimidating, especially when you may not agree with being forced to wear your own mask in the first place.
Steps to Help Make Mask-Wearing Easier for Your Child:
- Let your child pick out their own mask(s)
- Practice wearing the mask at home – wear your own mask during these practice sessions too
- Start in small increments with gradual increases of time
- Reward with a favorite snack or toy (M&Ms are my son’s love language)
- Breathe. Be calm. Be patient. Remember your child is their own human. If/when they struggle, be patient and meet them where they are and let them know you struggle with it sometimes too. We have had many airport terminal heart-to-hearts while waiting to board. Our conversation usually goes like this: “I know you don’t want to wear your mask right now. I’m very sorry. I have a hard time wearing my mask too. But we don’t want to make our friends sick and this is what we need to do right now.”
The first step in practicing mask-wearing is to let your child pick out their own mask. Many retailers sell children’s sizes in store, but you can also check online for the perfect print. We found a blue Cat & Jack dinosaur print and a solid bright green print at Target that Gavin adores. Then simply practice wearing the mask around the house in small increments. We started with 60 seconds and worked our way up to five minutes. While Gavin watched TV or had tablet time, he practiced with his mask and was rewarded with M&Ms when the time was up. The good news in our case was that Gavin loves to fly, so I used that leverage to my advantage. I told him if he wanted to sit on the airplane, he needed to wear his mask. Case closed. That’s honestly all it takes to keep him cooperating when we board.
Of importance to note here is that airlines require children aged two and up to wear masks, while most airports require children aged five and up to wear masks. So do some quick research as your departure date approaches and confirm the mask policies for the airports you’ll be traveling through during your journey. Anywhere we go where masks aren’t required for his age, then off it goes for him.
Face masks will be provided if you don’t have one or if yours breaks. While it is your responsibility to provide your own face mask, life is unpredictable. Airlines provide masks if you find yourself without one or if yours happens to break. You can ask for one from the ticket counter or the gate. As a reminder, face masks must be worn over your nose and mouth.
A face shield is not an acceptable face covering on its own. If you wish to wear one, you must also wear a cloth face covering over your nose and mouth. This is pretty self-explanatory, so I’m not going to dive any deeper into this one.
Expect abbreviated food and beverage service. Pack extra snacks. The pandemic seems to have changed every little detail about everything, and the food and beverage service onboard aircraft is no exception. I recommend checking with your airline to confirm what services are offered (here’s the links for Alaska, American, Delta, and United), and then pack extra snacks and water for yourself. As a reminder per TSA, peanut butters, jellies, yogurts, and any other liquids cannot exceed 3.4 ounces in your carry-on bag. For that reason, I recommend traveling with a reusable water bottle, like a Nalgene or HydroFlask. Bottle refill stations are common in airports and are contactless, unlike their “old school” water fountain counterpart. Most airports have restricted the use of water fountains due to the pandemic, so make sure to plan ahead and stay hydrated. Of course you can always pay $5 for a bottle of water, but there’s nothing I hate more than buying water aside from buying water with a top-shelf price tag.
With that in mind, don’t forget to pack extra snacks for the kids too. If you’re actively eating and drinking, obviously you can’t wear a mask… Good thing kids love to eat and drink! If your child is acting a little antsy with the mask or you feel that they need some reprieve, break out the snacks and water! When we reach altitude, I set out snacks and a drink on Gavin’s tray table next to the toy cars and tablet. He eats the snacks off and on throughout the flight and is able to remove his mask on his own when he’s ready to eat or drink. You can practice at home during your child’s regular snack time so it feels less scary and restrictive to them.
Most airlines provide sanitizer wipes onboard. Maybe you don’t trust the cleaning crews, or maybe you need some extra peace of mind and prefer to wipe down your seat before getting comfortable. Regardless, most airlines provide passengers with complimentary sanitizer wipes upon boarding or during beverage service so you can clean your tray table, armrests, and other high-touch surfaces in your seating area. If you want to take this a step further, you can purchase hand sanitizer wipes from just about every retailer right now which makes washing your hands before eating a breeze, especially if you’re traveling with children.
Some airlines are setting passenger capacities onboard to promote social distancing. Some are not. For those passengers who are at-risk or concerned about contracting COVID-19, rest assured that Alaska and JetBlue are reducing flight capacities through January 2021, and Delta is blocking middle seats through March 2021. American and United haven’t currently reduced any of their seating capacities, but agents are working diligently to promote social distancing onboard when they can since not every flight goes out full. I recommend checking for seat upgrades at check-in (premium economy seats are typically anywhere from $23-$100 per seat), or ask if there’s a row available with an extra seat if you’d like some extra space, but just know there’s no guarantee here. If you definitely want space between you and your flight neighbors, book with Alaska, Delta, or JetBlue.
Some destinations, even in the US, require a negative COVID test at check-in. I recommend doing some research before you commit to booking flights to any destination, especially with the rapid rate of changes. Travel restrictions in Hawaii have undoubtedly been the most strict, but other destinations like Alaska and the U.S. Virgin Islands have also implemented rules for arrival. So read and do your research from reputable travel sources as you plan your trip. I recommend looking up your destination’s official government website for the most up-to-date travel information.
As an airline ground handler who helps to clean and disinfect aircraft, I can tell you that air travel is actually incredibly safe right now. One positive outcome from the string of letdowns this year is the enhanced cleaning standard in the aviation industry. From top-notch air filters to static surface sprayers, I’m willing to bet that airplanes these days are cleaner than your grocery story. Honest. So in case you’re on the fence about holiday travel plans, or maybe you’ve already booked your dream vacation for Christmas, I hope this helps you to feel more prepared for your decision or journey.
Have you traveled during the pandemic? Still have questions about what to expect? Leave a comment below!