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Celebrity Cruises' Jet Set Sail Package
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Flying during the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)
Flying during the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)

Tips for Flying To A Cruise During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Flying during the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)
Flying during the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)
Aaron Saunders
Senior Editor, News and Features
Adam Coulter
U.K. Executive Editor

With no end in sight to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, a new world of air travel has emerged.

One in which masks are mandatory the moment you set foot in the airport (not to mention on the way there) -- and throughout your entire flight.

One in which signs on the ground in the airport encourage you to social distance, every other seat is taped over, there's a desk where if you've forgotten your mask they hand out free ones  -- and you have to say goodbye to your loved ones outside the terminal building.

Here is a look at what you could expect up in the skies during the time of COVID.

Your Experience Will Vary -- Wildly

Interior shot of an empty Air Canada A320 Airbus during the COVID-19 pandemic
Empty Air Canada A320 Airbus (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)

If there is one takeaway from flying during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is this: your experience will vary wildly from state to state, airline to airline, country to country.

Related: Cruise Quarantine 101: What You Need To Know Before You Sail During a COVID-19 Omicron or Delta Surge

Our Cruise Critic experience is based on two domestic flights in Canada and two international ones from the U.K. to Greece, and overall all were very positive.

On our Air Canada experience, one flight was half-full; the other only had 12 people out of a possible 78 onboard. Social distancing wasn't an issue, and the planes were both spotlessly clean.

On our UK experience, going out to Greece on British Airways, the flight was full and social distancing was not possible. On our return, the flight was almost empty and there was plenty of space between passengers.

All this can change depending on the day of the week you fly, the time your flight departs, and where you are going -- and on what airline. Policies vary from airline to airline in terms of onboard safety protocols and amenities, though all mandate mask wearing.

Researching which airline you fly with may come down to less about price in the future, and more about which carriers you feel most comfortable with.

It's All Up to You

Close-up shot of the contents of Air Canada's COVID-19 amenity kit, laid out on the plane tray table
Air Canada's COVID-19 amenity kit (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)

With a few exceptions, you'll check yourself in and tag your bags yourself. You'll drop them off yourself. You'll scan your boarding pass yourself. You will be in charge of ensuring you have enough food and beverages to last you the flight, as some flights are no longer offering meal or beverage service -- and what service there is can be dramatically scaled back on some carriers.

And you are also responsible for ensuring you have everything you need, from masks to hand sanitizer to snacks and drinks if necessary, if your airline is not providing those things.

Air Canada provided an amazing amenity kit that included gloves, a mask, hand sanitizer gel, a bottle of water, and two sani-wipes. British Airways by contrast offers just an anti-bacterial towel and hand sanitising gel.

On a side note, we spotted just one person deliberately not wearing a mask, every other person was following the rules. What we found odd, however, was that person was not told to do so -- despite the presence of security staff everywhere.

Things Might Take Longer…But They Might Not

Empty Heathrow Airport check in line during the COVID-19 pandemic
London's Heathrow Airport (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

In Canada, we took two flights and noticed that, while the airports and flights were less busy than normal, things like check-in and clearing security took extra time. Social distancing means you can't pack queues as full as before, and social distancing mandates a more sedate pace to security clearance.

We also noticed that check-in and customer service were decidedly understaffed. This is likely a result of airlines having fewer flights.

Our experience at London's Heathrow was the opposite -- a well-staffed and eerily quiet airport, where we sped through check in and security in minutes, finding ourselves in a terminal building with a number of shops shuttered. At the satellite terminal C our flight was the only one leaving and all the shops were closed.

You'll Probably Connect

Shot of an Air Canada plane parked at a terminal at the Vancouver Airport
Air Canada plane at the Vancouver Airport (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)

In the "old days", we could have taken one 90-minute flight to our final destination, but the the direct flight we would have normally taken in Canada was no longer available, necessitating a two-and-a-half-hour layover in Vancouver. Total in-transit time: four hours and 25 minutes.

As airlines pare down their route schedules and decrease flight frequencies in an effort to trim costs expect more circuitous routes -- which you should factor in when getting to your ship (see below: No More Day Of Flights). Direct flights from smaller markets are typically the first to go. Expect highly-changeable flight schedules until then that require more flexibility.

Snacks Will Be Essential

Shot of the closed up shops in London's Heathrow Airport
Closed shops in London's Heathrow Airport (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

While it varies from airport to airport, don't expect to find a full complement of dining venues, shops and bars open during your pandemic flight -- in Heathrow and Athens a lot of shops were closed (even Starbucks). Expect long lines for the ones that are open.

It's worth your while stocking up before you get to the airport, but there's a catch to this, at least for American fliers: the TSA

now wants you to scan your snacks and food items separately

, in their own bin. That means an average customer with travel-sized liquids, a laptop and snacks could use up to three separate bins.

Take a Stash of Masks

Hand sanitizer in the airport
Hand sanitizer in the airport (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)

Masks are mandatory on airplanes and in airports in many countries. In the United States, there

is no federal rule

requiring this, though individual air carriers are requiring that people wear masks while onboard -- something they are well within their rights to enforce. Regardless of your stance on masks, you can be denied boarding for not wearing one.

In Canada, masks are required the second you set foot in an airport. Unless you're eating or drinking, that mask has to stay on your face. That extends to the airplane, where masks have to be worn for the duration of the flight across all airlines.

A typical hospital-style masks lasts approximately four hours, after that it becomes ineffective, so pack accordingly. And if you're travelling with kids, make sure you take a stash as the elastic is prone to snap.

The fact is, masks are being required by more airlines, countries and territories each day. If you don't already own one and you plan to travel, a mask -- or several -- should be a part of your travel packing list for as long as COVID-19 is around.

Frequent Flyer Benefits Could Be on Pause

Temporary Closure sign in front of Air Canada's Maple Leaf Lounge in the Calgary airport, during COVID-19 pandemic
Air Canada's Maple Leaf Lounges were closed throughout our journey (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)

This will vary by airport and airline. On our flight to Greece the dedicated check in for frequent flyers was open; in Canada Priority Check-in was closed at the times we arrived.

Fast track at Heathrow was closed, but there were so few people it wasn't necessary.

Some of the BA lounges were open (mask wearing mandatory; food ordered from a QR code);  Air Canada's Maple Leaf Lounges however were also closed throughout our journey.

Say Goodbye to Arriving and Departing Day-of Cruise

Empty airport during the COVID-19 pandemic
Empty airport during the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)

While COVID-19 is with us, this is definitely the end of the line for folks who liked to push their luck by flying in on the day of their cruise, and departing mere hours after their ship docks.

Under COVID-19, joining a ship last-minute is going to be risky if not downright impossible for those thinking of flying day-of.

For example, with frequent flights to Greece from the U.K. it would be possible in theory for us to have gone straight to the ship from the airport on the same day. However, Greece requires all passengers to fill in a health declaration form pre-arrival which then generates a QR code which you present at the airport. This code pre-selects you for a random COVID test, which you'll know the results of in 24 hours. The upshot of this, is you cannot get straight on your ship, you have to spend a night in Athens in case you "get that call" and have to quarantine.


Blocked off seats for social distancing in London's Heathrow Airport during coronavirus pandemic
Public Health Notice in London's Heathrow Airport (Photo: Adam Coulter/Cruise Critic)

Unlike our cruise, which really was not all that different from pre-COVID cruises, air travel feels different. People seem warier, more on edge, looking out for anyone infringing the new rules.

It was bad enough being stuck in the middle seat pre-COVID, but now there's an added edge of worry, especially if that person removes their mask.

It may be that once cruising restarts, we see more passengers shun flying for driving to port in the safety of their own vehicle.

Updated July 31, 2020

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