While the rebound of travel has seen about 2 million daily passengers going through TSA checkpoints in recent weeks, it’s come with a disheartening side effect: busy, and at times chaotic, US airports. Headlines have ranged from bad behavior over mask mandates, delays stemming from staffing shortages, and an onslaught of weather delays. Many travelers have faced a number of smaller inconveniences, from a lack of open shops and restaurants to trouble finding an Uber to the airport. 

Despite the constant news of airport nightmares, I recently joined the masses and boarded my first flight in 16 months, traveling from Newark Liberty International Airport to El Paso International. Without any direct flight options, I gave myself ample time to transfer at what I knew was the nation’s busiest airport—Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International. During the outbound flight, I was able to navigate away from the (shockingly large) crowds for a breather—but the return flight was a different story. Though my transfer was at the prime dinner time of 7 pm, the only grab-and-go vendor open in the wing was McDonald’s—with a line snaking well into the terminal. I dodged into the only gift shop still open, just in time to grab a soda and bag of crackers before they closed for the night. Sure enough, days later, a story came out in the local paper that one-third of ATL’s restaurants remained shut down. 

If you haven't flown in a while and are getting ready to travel again, here’s what you need to know before you go. (Note: With the Delta variant quickly spreading in the US, always check the latest information before making travel decisions.)

What documentation do I need to board a plane?

If you’re traveling domestically, no additional documentation is currently needed in the US, just your normal government identification and boarding pass, which in most cases can be downloaded on your phone digitally. Vaccinated travelers are asked to self-monitor for symptoms after travel and unvaccinated ones are asked to get a viral test one to three days prior to travel and another three to five days after, as well as quarantine for seven full days (or 10 days if you don’t get tested), according to the CDC.

However, those traveling internationally do need to check specific requirements for their destination on the US State Department's site. Some counties may require vaccination records or recent test results, while others may also have a health declaration form. (The Delta Discover Map is a great tool to check what’s needed.) While there is no federal mandate to check COVID-19-related documentation at the time of departure, many airlines are doing so to make sure passengers don’t run into trouble upon arrival. For example, Delta is checking documentation at both check-in and the gate, while United passengers can pre-register their status via the Travel-Ready Center and American via VeriFLY, so check with your airline to find out how and when document checks will occur to best prepare.

A passport and COVID-19 vaccine card.
Always check what documents are required for your travels © Getty Images

Upon return from international travel, no matter where you’re coming from — including if you’re a US citizen and fully vaccinated — you will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 viral test taken no more than three days before the travel date, or recovery from COVID-19 in the past three months before boarding. Your particular state may also have additional requirements, so also check for the latest information.

To quickly navigate through the airport, make sure the necessary documentation, as well as your government ID and boarding pass are easily accessible—TSA will check the ID and pass, and the pass will be scanned again before boarding the plane. Keep those items handy by putting them in zipped pockets of a travel jacket—or have them in a pouch or wallet that you can quickly access at the top of your personal item.

As requirements can change, be sure to keep an eye on the airline and state department’s site to ensure no additional documentation is needed.

How do I check for specific airline requirements?

Without any global mandates overseeing the specific requirements, it’s wise to check the fine print of your specific airline before boarding. For example, some airlines have their own guidelines for freshening up masks. KLM says they must be switched out if they get dirty or moist—and that everyone must switch to a new one every three hours, so bring enough for the journey. Alitalia requires a change every four hours, while British Airways and Air France simply recommend changing one every four hours, but Air France doesn’t allow cloth masks.

Major airlines have a COVID-19 hub for information on all topics ranging from change fees to extended deadlines on travel certificates. (Check here for Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, and United.)

How early do I need to get to the airport?

Experts agree that travelers should generally arrive at the airport two hours before domestic flights and three hours ahead of international flights—with those times being padded during heavy travel periods, like weekends or holidays. 

“Despite many airports having invested in contactless technology, things may take a little longer than they did previously,” Airports Council International’s North American senior vice president of security, Christopher R. Bidwell, tells Lonely Planet. “There have been some longer lines at checkpoints with the increase in travelers, [but] TSA has hired and deployed additional staff.” He suggests checking the security check wait times on the MyTSA App, which can be downloaded for Apple or Google.

How do I maintain social distance when airports are busy?

“As the number of customers coming back to travel increases, maintaining social distance in the airport at all times might be a challenge,” Delta’s senior vice president of customer experience Ranjan Goswami tells Lonely Planet. “Even so, you can do your part by leaving space between the customers in line ahead of you. Many airports continue to feature floor markers and signage to remind customers to give extra space.”

A woman wearing a mask stands near a window in the airport.
Keep a distance from others by checking in online © Getty Images/EyeEm

Whether it’s at the check-in counter, security check, or boarding gate, the best way to truly  keep your distance is to get ahead of the issue. Bidwell suggests checking in online to skip that first step. Even if you’re checking baggage, many airlines now have kiosks to speed up the process. Downloading the airline’s app can also provide further shortcuts to better navigate the terminals. Delta also suggests booking on Saturdays, which is consistently the day of the week with the least travelers.

Have TSA checkpoints changed post-pandemic?

While lines have gotten longer, the process is pretty much the same. The major differences are that passengers may be asked to unmask briefly to confirm identity and that each passenger can have one liquid hand sanitizer container up to 12 ounces in their carry-on, in addition to the normal quart-sized bag of 3.4-ounce containers of other liquids. 

Many airports now also have Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) at the checkpoint. “To provide a contactless process, travelers may be asked to insert their driver’s license into the CAT unit,” Bidwell says. “TSA has also deployed scanners at all checkpoints to scan the barcode on the paper or electronic boarding passes [from their smartphones].”

Otherwise, Bidwell recommends putting everything from pockets, including metallic items like jewelry, in carry-on bags and to be ready to remove shoes and laptops and place them in the bin.

One surefire way to speed through is by joining TSA PreCheck, Bidwell also suggests, adding that 98 percent of PreCheck passengers in April 2021 waited less than five minutes. Once registered, you’ll receive a Known Traveler Number that should be entered in every booking. 

Depending on frequency of travel, Goswami also suggests considering CLEAR, which allows going through security through the touch of a finger or blink of an eye at select airports, or other expedited entry options like Global Entry and airline specific ones like SkyPriority.

How do I stay safe on my flights?

Many safety measures have been built into the flight protocols. For instance, upon boarding Delta flights, every passenger is handed a Purell wipe, and all onboard sales are done by contactless payment. But if any issue comes up on board, don’t hesitate to call attention to the problem. 

A woman with long blond hair wearing mask and white shirt inside airplane and cleaning her hands using wet wipes
Masks and disinfectant wipes are now a staple of travel © Getty Images

“Always feel empowered to speak with a flight attendant and raise any questions or concerns with your in-flight team,” Goswami tells Lonely Planet. 

Within the US, the CDC requires masks to be on at all times, even between bites of food and sips of drink. Also check to make sure the mask complies with federal requirements. Note that bandanas and masks with valves do not meet the standards.  

How do I ensure I get a ride to and from the airport?

One of the biggest surprises has been the shortage of private transportation options, be it the lack of car rentals or the long waits and surge pricing on rideshares

“Earlier this spring, as vaccines rolled out and people started moving again, we began to see the demand for rides outpace the number of available drivers,” a Lyft spokesperson tells Lonely Planet. “We’ve added thousands of drivers in the past few weeks and it’s already leading to a better rider experience with wait times down more than 15% nationwide, and down 35% in some major markets.” The company added a Wait & Save option for those who have more time, and recently revamped their shared ride options in Philly, Chicago, and Denver. 

Uber has also been working to increase the number of drivers on the road. A spokesperson recommends to Lonely Planet to book rides up to 30 days ahead with Uber Reserve or Schedule a Ride, as well as gauging live ETAs by looking at the app 20 minutes before you need to leave. They also suggest riding with friends by adding a pickup, as well as considering other options, like Uber Rent for car rentals.

What else?

As the pandemic continues, restrictions will continue to evolve, always with the travelers’ safety in mind. Unexpected situations may arise, but across the board, the experts all recommend one essential item to pack: patience. 

Still have questions? Visit the Department of Transportation’s complete guide to traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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