What We Don’t Miss About Pre-Pandemic Travel
As we might have mentioned a few dozen times lately, the pandemic has changed travel dramatically. And in many ways, that’s sad (remember when Americans were allowed to enter Europe? Those were the days).
But let’s face it: Much of the travel experience back in the germy, overcrowded pre-pandemic era was, well, germy and overcrowded. Not all of the measures enacted in response to the coronavirus will last forever—when it comes to filling planes, for instance, some airlines are back to modeling their practices on a sardine cannery when they should be finding inspiration in the roomy interiors of potato chip bags.
It’s safe to say, though, that some pandemic changes will become permanent, and—dare we admit it?—a lot of them are improvements. Here are the travel indignities, inefficiencies, and unhygienic hot messes we won’t miss.
Buffets are like the U.S. government or the second Sex and the City movie: intriguing in theory but deeply flawed in practice. The smorgasbords that all-inclusive resorts and cruise ships set out under plastic sneeze guards may have promised endless variety—chicken tikka masala and make-your-own waffles on the same plate? Don’t mind if I do! But after sitting out for a while, everything always ends up looking and tasting beige. Do you really want that iceberg lettuce and waxy cheese pizza that have been picked over by Lord only knows how many people for Lord only knows how many hours? And how much do you trust that sneeze guard anyway? Because of well-founded hygiene fears, buffets were one of the first things to go when the hospitality industry began reopening after Covid-19. Let’s not go back for seconds.
At theme parks around the world, guests must now sanitize their hands before every ride or show—no exceptions. And that makes sense. Theme parks are the perfect vectors for sharing germs: A popular ride can cycle through more than 2,000 passengers per hour, and each one of those sweaty creatures grips safety bars, yanks seat belts, and touches smeary barriers. Frankly, the uptick in sanitation was long overdue, and if the change remains in place, it’ll knock the legs out from under flu spreading, too.
To minimize passengers’ chances of exchanging clouds of pathogens with one another, several airlines have streamlined the boarding process, with some planes now being filled back to front. That’s clearly the sanest way to get people to their seats. But the airlines have previously preferred to let flyers who paid more for their tickets go first—which wouldn’t be so bad, except that the airlines have a knack for devising elaborate pay structures with more gradations of rank than the Hapsburg Monarchy. That’s how we ended up with a proliferation of boarding group numbers and categories causing stress and confusion at airport gates across the land. “Wait a second, if they’re only boarding Gold Medallion First Rank Super-Deluxe Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’ from the House of Slytherin, why are the plebes in steerage group #37 already lined up?”—are words we never want to have to speak again.
Because no one wants to paw cash or pass credit cards around, the use of contactless credit card payments has finally broken through. In April 2020, a survey found that 51% of Americans had tapped a phone or a credit card to pay for something, and half of those polled had tried it for the first time because of Covid-19. Also good: clerks and waiters who carry wireless credit card reader terminals so you don't have to watch your credit card get carried off elsewhere when you pay for something. In Europe, it's nearly unheard of for a server to take a customer's credit card out of sight—you can simply tap, enter a PIN, and go. That's useful for combating fraud, limiting hand-to-hand contact, and speeding up transactions. Let's hope the trend grows. And let's hope that fewer American banks require signatures with tap transactions (again, as Europe has done for years) because handling pens defeats the purpose of a no-contact payment.
To paraphrase Dante, Abandon all hope, ye who reach down here. The seatback pockets on airplanes are rarely disinfected receptacles for crumbs, used tissues, and other infernal detritus you definitely don’t want touching your earbuds. Airlines have made it standard pandemic policy to pull in-flight magazines, menus, and other materials from seatback pockets in order to reduce travelers’ reasons for extending delicate hands into those demonic maws. While we’d hate to see airline magazines disappear entirely because we support a robust travel media landscape, we wouldn’t be too upset at all to see those pockets to perdition sewed shut for keeps.
Social distancing has brought order and sanity to queues. We have to admit that lines are better now. Somehow when you space people 6 feet apart, line cutters lose their mojo and stick to the rules. Also, lines feel like they move faster when you advance in mighty, 6-foot leaps. We don't miss the jumbled football huddles that once passed for civilized waiting.
Most of the in-flight policies adopted by airlines in response to the coronavirus are short-term solutions. You won’t always have to wear a mask on planes and you will have to sit scrunched up next to strangers again (sooner rather than later, depending on the airline you use). But there’s one positive pandemic-induced change that could stick: the ability to alter your flight plans without having to pay sizable fees. As JetBlue executive Robin Hayes put it to the Washington Post: “It’s not ever really going to be acceptable, I don’t think, for someone who is unwell to feel that they’re being made to fly.” And that’s exactly what those change fees did—encourage flyers to bring along their sneezes and coughs as carry-on luggage in order to avoid financial penalties. Come to think of it, why was that ever acceptable?
You no longer have to wait in line for food at theme parks. Even before the pandemic, the big names in amusement parkery were phasing in mobile ordering, which allows guests to order and pay for drinks and meals using their smartphones, spending only enough time at the restaurant to pick up their meals and go. In February 2020, it felt like a secret that only you and your friends knew. Now it's standard for counter service.
Have you noticed that your city's streets are suddenly devoid of the thickets of discarded e-scooter rentals that used to clutter public spaces willy-nilly? Isn't it nice not to be tripping over those things? When Covid-19 rode into town, e-scooters rode out. It's not just that people don't want to touch communal objects at a time like this. It's also that at the very moment these economically wobbly startups needed wider adoption to stay afloat, social isolation killed transactions. Some of the biggest contenders, including Lime, Bird, and JUMP, have shrunk their presence and their ankle-breaking scooters are no longer uglifying your neighborhoods. We should be supporting improved public transit anyway.
Though having a minibar in a hotel room may be convenient—and those tiny bottles of booze are undeniably adorable—the prices for minibar snacks are so ludicrously expensive they’d make a movie theater concessions vendor blush. Now that hotels are removing nonessential items handled by persons unknown, minibars are being taken away, and with them the siren call of that $14 Toblerone. As it happens, in-room arrays of marked-up refreshments were already on the way out before the coronavirus came along, owing to how little profit they brought in. Turns out few vacationers jumped at the chance to bust their budgets on candy that could be purchased for less literally anywhere else.
And speaking of in-room eats . . .
Lots of hotels have replaced traditional room service with no-contact food drop-offs or grab-and-go options. Fine with us! There are only two places where people get away with charging $35 for lukewarm cheeseburgers with rubbery fries: a hotel room or Switzerland. Awkward interactions with the staff make the shame of room service even worse. Yes, tip-expecting stranger, we have so little self-control that we're paying $28 for an omelet at midnight. Yes, we only put on pants because you knocked. Yes, we’ll make some major life changes tomorrow. Who needs the guilt and temptation? Sitting on the bed and eating an entire bag of Doritos from the corner store does the trick.