Return To Travel: What Travel Is Like In Summer 2021

August 8, 2021
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View of a city from the window of a plane - return to travel, what is it like?
What is it like to travel again? I share my travel experience.

People file into the plane and make their way down the narrow aisle. Two women chat and laugh as they find their seats. I don’t know the purpose of their trip, but their manner suggests the excited anticipation of vacation. It makes me smile. The two strangers behind me begin a conversation with each other. The hotel breakfast room is full of families. We wait for a table to free up.

The familiarity of this travel experience harkens to pre-pandemic days, but it was a recent trip, my first in seventeen months. Some things were different than pre-pandemic travel. Face masks, physical distancing, hand sanitizer everywhere, increased wariness between strangers. But, at the same time, it was very familiar and, dare I say it, almost normal.

My husband and I travelled one province over to visit our daughter and son-in-law, see our fifteen-month-old granddaughter in person for the first time, and meet our six-year-old step-grandson. We focused on family. We visited no museums or tourist sites. We didn’t frequent restaurants. I, therefore, cannot comment on what that aspect of travel is currently like, but I will share information about our air travel and hotel experience.

We travelled domestically within Canada between the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario. We did not need COVID-19 tests or proof of vaccination (although we are both fully vaccinated), or have to meet any other conditions that might be associated with international travel.

We also did not need to quarantine/self-isolate. Ontario has never required travellers from other provinces within Canada to self-isolate. Manitoba still requires Manitobans returning from visiting other provinces and visitors from other provinces to self-isolate for 14 days. That requirement is waived for individuals who are fully vaccinated.

Side Note: I was surprised we received no information about Manitoba’s self-isolation rules when we returned home. I believe there was at least one sign in the airport, but it is easily missed if you’re hurrying through the terminal to retrieve your bag and continue on to your destination. Those who fail to self-isolate could be subject to fines. It would be a shame to find yourself unknowingly in that situation. We all need to check into the rules and restrictions before we make travel plans.

At The Airport

Our travels took us through three Canadian airports: Winnipeg Richardson International Airport, Toronto Pearson International Airport, and London International Airport (in London, Ontario, Canada).

Changes to deal with the pandemic included increased presence of hand sanitization dispensers and more emphasis on “touchless,” both at self-service kiosks and at security screening where the screeners no longer handle your boarding pass. You must hold it while they peruse it. Water fountains in Toronto airport were taped over and couldn’t be used. Signs encouraged physical distancing. Some seats were marked off to facilitate that distancing.

Physical distancing sign at airport showing to stay 3 seats or one polar bear apart

Perhaps the most visible change was the presence of face masks on everyone. Transport Canada requires the wearing of face masks that cover the mouth and nose while inside the airport. They are to be removed only when eating or drinking or when airline personnel check your identity as you board the aircraft.

And, yet, even all those face masks didn’t seem that unusual. In my home province of Manitoba, face masks have been required in all indoor public spaces for months. (That mandate has just been lifted amid a great deal of controversy around the risks of that change. The wearing of masks is still recommended. A number of businesses are choosing to keep that requirement in place.)

Not all of the shops, kiosks, and restaurants were open, but it appeared at least half were, meaning it was possible to get something to eat and drink.

People are starting to travel again and there was more activity in the airports than I had expected. When we began our trip on July 21, Winnipeg and Toronto airports were relatively quiet but not dead. They did not feel eerie or unusual, simply less busy than usual. When we returned home on August 5, the level of activity in Toronto airport seemed closer to what we remembered from past travels. I even encountered a line-up in the women’s washroom. I should note that people were generally respectful of physical distancing.

Inside an airport terminal

The timing of our trip was in what would once have been the height of summer travel. In another year and under different circumstances, I suspect the airport would have been crowded. But airline traffic is definitely growing. There were more flights on the schedule to choose from for our return than were on the schedule for the beginning of our trip. When I look ahead to the September flight schedules, I see even more flights on them.

Winnipeg airport was almost dead when we arrived home, but that was due more to our later evening arrival than the pandemic.

On The Plane

All of our flights were nearly full with only a few empty seats.

Inside the passenger cabin of an airplane as passengers board
The empty seats were filled as more people boarded

When we boarded, attendants handed out plastic bags containing a couple of sanitizing wipes, a mini-bottle of hand sanitizer, and a single-use three-layer face mask.

Transport Canada requires the wearing of face masks that cover the mouth and nose at all times except when eating or drinking. Although I am used to wearing a face mask when in indoor public spaces, I am usually in and out of stores, etc. relatively quickly. I wasn’t used to wearing a mask for several hours on end (counting airport and in plane time). It was easier to become accustomed to than I expected.

Flight attendants served food and beverages as they would have pre-pandemic. Not many people purchased food.

The mad dash upon landing where passengers crowd the aisles to retrieve baggage from the overhead bins and wait impatiently to get off the plane still existed, but with modification. Flight attendants cautioned people not to congregate in the aisles. It still happened, but with less of a crush. More people waited in their seats until it was their turn to deplane. Many of those who stood turned their heads away from other people. Although physical distancing was nowhere near the recommended two metres, people kept a small amount of distance. There was none of the irritating bumping right up against other people.

With the exception of the masks, the overall flight experience was much like that of pre-pandemic times. I’ve read a few news stories about an increase in unruly passengers, but we saw none of that on our flights. Passengers were polite and respectful.

One thing that strikes me is how our definition of what makes an annoying fellow passenger may change. How they mask and respect one’s physical space may be the deciding factors.

I did not eat on any of my flights. On my first flight, I had only one sip of water from the water bottle I’d bought in the airport and brought on board. I sat in the window seat. I turned my head toward the window and away from the man sitting beside me when I took my sip. Still, I felt him tense and turn his head the other way when I briefly removed my mask.

On the return flight, a young man sat beside me. Before we’d even taken off, he’d spread out and removed his mask to eat a bag of chips. He didn’t put his mask back on when he finished eating. He replaced it only when the flight attendant told him to. I found myself leaning away from him closer to my husband, who sat on the other side of me. I felt uneasy about what the rest of the flight would be like. Fortunately, the flight attendant found other seats for my husband and me. We would up in a row of three by ourselves.

We each have to decide what our own level of comfort is and respect others who may have a lower level of comfort.

At The Hotel

We stayed at a Hampton Inn, which had enhanced cleaning protocols with the Hilton CleanStay program. The front desk staff were behind plexiglass. Tables were pushed in front of the desk to enforce physical distancing. As per the current Ontario regulations, face masks were required in all hotel spaces outside of our room.

Hotel room showing two beds, desk, and TV stand

The only differences inside the room were the lack of any informational booklets and the absence of daily maid service. We could request additional towels or supplies at any time. Because we were there for two weeks, arrangements were made for cleaning staff to come in once midway through our stay. I was more than comfortable with the lack of daily service. I liked knowing no one was coming into our room.

The hotel provided breakfast. We could make arrangements to pick up a bagged breakfast, but breakfast was also served in the lobby. If we’d been there a few weeks earlier, only the bagged breakfast would have been available given the restrictions in Ontario at that time.

Dining tables and buffet table at a hotel breakfast room

Modifications had been made to the normal self-serve breakfast buffet. Pastries, bread, cereal, fruit, and yogurt were available for self-serve on a long table. Each pastry, bagel, muffin, and slice of bread was individually wrapped. The self-serve juice was blocked off. Staff poured juice into cups for diners. A hot item (varied between scrambled eggs and sausage, omelet, or French toast) was available each morning. Staff dished it onto paper plates for those who wanted it. There was a station where guests could toast their bread and another station for self-serve coffee. As soon as someone finished eating and left a table, staff rushed over to clean and sanitize their table.

Car Rental

Although the car rental experience was no different than our past car rental experiences, I found myself reacting to the vehicle’s licence plate. The car did not have an Ontario plate. It was licensed in Massachusetts.

It is not unusual for vehicles on a car rental company lot to have licence plates from different jurisdictions. We’ve rented vehicles in the past where the plate was from another province or state. But this time I remembered negative reactions, particularly last summer, to out-of-country or even out-of-province licence plates. People questioned why those vehicles were in their area at a time when travel was severely curtailed.

Summary

I admit I was a bit nervous before beginning this trip. I wondered how different it would be and how safe I’d feel. It was more familiar than I expected. While travel is certainly not risk-free, I’d feel comfortable taking another trip.

How the experience changes again as more people travel remains to be seen. Canada is opening up its international borders to non-essential travel for vaccinated people. More airports will be allowed to have international flights. Both domestic and international travel numbers will increase.

Man and woman wearing face masks inside airport terminal

It would be nice to see some of the respect for distance and space continue, but I fear that may go by the wayside as things get busy again. It’s hard to say how long face masks will be required. I’ve often returned from trips with a cold or sinus infection. Even before the pandemic, my doctor told me I should wear a face mask on flights. I’ve never felt comfortable doing that. Would I now even if it wasn’t mandated? I don’t know.

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Return to Travel: What is travel like in summer 2021? One traveller shares her experience of travelling within Canada for the first time in seventeen months.

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  • Reply
    Ken Dowell
    August 8, 2021 at 9:27 am

    In the U.S. airports are crowded and other than the requirement to wear masks in both the airport and on the plane, things didn’t seem very different. One thing that I have found to be different is the availability of ride sharing services and cabs. On trips to both Cleveland and Chicago, Uber and Lyft cars were hard to come by and their surge pricing made them more expensive than regular meter cabs. I recently traveled to Ecuador, which felt safer than it does here. You need proof of vaccination to get into the country and absolutely everyone everywhere in Ecuador wears a mask.

    • Reply
      Donna Janke
      August 9, 2021 at 9:44 am

      Ken, from what I’ve read the U.S. airports have been relatively busy for some time now. Air traffic is just starting to pick up in Canada. It’s nice to hear that you felt safe in Ecuador. I’m not sure when my next international trip might happen.

  • Reply
    Robert
    August 8, 2021 at 9:34 am

    What a great post Donna! Always anxious to hear how travel is right now. We are booked for a flight to the States in early November, but still feeling quite uneasy about traveling. Nice to hear your travels went well for you! 🙂

    • Reply
      Donna Janke
      August 9, 2021 at 9:45 am

      Thanks Robert. There will be a few more things to deal with flying outside of the country, but I hope all goes well with your November trip.

  • Reply
    Tag Along Deb
    August 9, 2021 at 8:59 am

    Good to read your post, Donna in advance of our first domestic flight later this week after so many months. We just bought some N95 masks for the airport and flight, which is likely overkill. I see you doubled up your masks. Did you find that cumbersome?

    • Reply
      Donna Janke
      August 9, 2021 at 9:42 am

      Deb, I didn’t find the double masking all that cumbersome, although it can be a nuisance if you need to remove and replace the mask a lot. My husband found it more cumbersome and went down to one mask for our last leg. The double masking may have been overkill, I didn’t see others do it, but I was still a bit nervous. I think the N95 mask is a good way to go. Hope all goes well with your trip and you have a great time.

  • Reply
    Eva Dueck
    August 14, 2021 at 8:49 am

    Great summary of your travel experience. One of my sisters and her husband recently flew to Alberta for a family funeral and her experience mirrored what you described.

    • Reply
      Donna Janke
      August 15, 2021 at 4:24 pm

      Thanks Eva. My sister-in-law travelled within this same time frame between Canada and the U.S. Her experience was a little busier and more chaotic than our domestic travel experiences. It will be interesting to see how the experience evolves as air traffic increases.

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