I normally travel a lot and not doing so has certainly left life with a little less color, so when the opportunity arose to travel cheaply to wine country with my mom, we leapt at the opportunity. While the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is still being felt, many states have begun to loosen restrictions on travel - Sonoma County in California just recently began reopening for leisure travel days before we departed. We both felt rather comfortable with the idea of flying, particularly on Southwest where the focus certainly appears to be on passenger safety versus the experience on American and United where social distancing is no longer in place. We still, however, were not sold on spending our time in an urban area - so a socially distant wine country visit it would be!
We booked our stay at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma - Wine Country, found a great rate with National Car Rental and scored some cheap award flights with Southwest Airlines - we were on our way to enjoying virtually empty wineries and spending time in the great outdoors of Northern California!
UPDATE - JULY 20TH, 2020: We've also updated this piece to reflect a visit taken to Colorado Springs, Colorado which includes updates on the rental car front, and the addition of the airbnb experience during COVID-19. You can find these updates in Italics in the article below.
At the Airport
Our journey begins at Chicago Midway International Airport, where traffic was much higher than expected - I’ve since learned from a friend at Southwest that Midway is currently their busiest station. On the landside, social distancing is in place at the check in desk and plexiglass shields have been installed at every employee station. Over at TSA, the same is true. You now must place your own boarding pass on the scanner, which was always the case for mobile ones, and once received, an agent reviews your ID as normal and asks you to quickly remove your mask for verification.
With the exceptions of the requirement to wear masks and the lack of open businesses in the airport, it felt surprisingly normal - in fact, the amount of crowding and lack of social distancing, despite clear markings, was a bit alarming at times. I was also shocked by the lack of hand sanitizing locations in Midway.
Once we arrived in San Francisco, deplaning happened just the same as it normally would, although with a bit less cramming and urgency, and we were soon out into a terminal that felt like a complete ghost town. Back at Oakland, the experience on the ground was nearly identical to that of Midway, but with many more concessions and shopping options in operation. Upon arrival back to Chicago-Midway, social distancing was also in place at the Baggage Claim, although it was non-existent out on the curbside.
On the Plane
Southwest’s signature boarding process has also changed during these times. While other airlines are boarding front to back, Southwest is boarding in groups of ten using only one side of their boarding posts - care also appears to be considered in the intervals between groups so as not to cluster passengers on the jet bridge. Once onboard the aircraft, as with inside the airport, masks are required to be worn at all times except when eating or drinking. All non-essential materials have been removed from the seat back pocket - meaning there is no more inflight magazine or menu.
This deserves it’s own line: both of these aircraft were without a doubt the cleanest I’ve ever been on. Out of an abundance of caution, I still wiped down my entire row, overhead panel and windows and I am not exaggerating when I tell you that each wipe was still sparkling white when I was finished - it wasn't until I wiped down my MacBook that it was soiled.
In addition, all aircraft capacity at Southwest Airlines is capped to ensure that all middle seats are left open, this means that on the 737-800 capacity is now 142 Passengers from 175 and on the smaller 737-700, which took me from Oakland back to Chicago, it is 79 down from 102 Passengers; while social distancing onboard is still a challenge on any aircraft, this added peace of mind is an excellent customer minded move. Additionally, a row at the front, and back on the larger 737-800, are blocked off for crew use to allow for social distancing.
Southwest has also reduced inflight service to include only ice water and prepackaged snack mix. While this was decently substantial, I would recommend packing snacks, or picking something up in the airport if you’re traveling during meal times.
The Rental Car
On the rental car lot not much has changed, especially if you’re enrolled in a company’s loyalty program - which we highlight in our Beginner’s Guide to Car Rental. In the rental car center, you’ll see similar plexiglass shields that we mentioned at the airport check in counter, and notice some counters/agencies entirely closed with directions to head directly to the lot (see Alamo in the photos below).
At National, I proceeded to the lot as usual, was directed to the Executive Aisle which is afforded by my elite status and was on my way in my selected vehicle. It was mostly business as usual save the added literature around the mirror explaining the cleaning precautions being taken; however, there did seem to be a greatly reduced selection of vehicles. Once at the exit booth, I was still required to present my credit card and driver’s license to the agent as well as temporarily lowering my mask to confirm my identity.
Upon returning the car, Drop & Go was encouraged and there was not a paper receipt, but a friendly employee was available to confirm our told and assure us that'd I'd receive an emailed one as usual. The shuttle to the terminal was disinfected after dropping off passengers and before reloading to take us back to the terminal.
UPDATE - JULY 20TH, 2020:
Conversely to the experience with National Car Rental in San Francisco, we also gave Hertz Rent-A-Car a try on a recent family visit to Colorado. Let me lead right away with saying: WOW. The difference was absolutely incredible, in the worst ways possible. I should first provide a bit of context - both San Francisco and Oakland had consolidated rental car facilities meaning that the airport authority operates the shuttle systems - in Denver, each agency runs their own shuttles, and that is precisely where our problems began. We waited what seemed like forever for a Hertz shuttle (we counted 3 each for National and Avis in this time), and then once on the shuttle no masks were required - the severity of this escalated by the fact that this shuttle was packed due to the low frequency and its shared status with Dollar and Thrifty. To make matters worse, one gentleman from Florida refused to wear a mask and was coughing (luckily I tested negative for COVID after this trip). Once arriving to the lot, the entrance gates for the bus were stuck. This seemingly wasn't a huge issue as we went the back way, until.... THERE WERE CARS BLOCKING US IN AND THE DRIVER GOT OUT TO MOVE THEM BECAUSE NO STAFF WERE AVAILABLE TO HELP. My family and I grabbed our suitcases and trekked across the lot to the vehicle aisles to choose a car. Once there, the President's Circle lane was empty. When I went inside to inquire, an agent offered me a midsize SUV for $80/day, and once explaining the whole debacle, shrugged his shoulders and said "Okay, $60/day." I know, I know, this sounds full Karen, but the Presidents Circle promises Full-Size or better vehicles and here I was bartering an upgrade fee for ANYTHING - even after a clusterfuck of an arrival process. My family and I looked at each other and almost in unison said "let's walk to National" where once we arrived, we were offered a Land Rover and witnesses countless signs about masks and social distancing on the lot, buses and in their facilities - a much better option for us.
Now, I chock a lot of this up to Hertz's Bankruptcy. They were clearly low on staff and cutting corners, and it appeared many vehicles on the lot were actually being sold or returned to their lessors. It's unfortunate that the situation was so bad, but honestly even the simplest of social distancing and masking procedures would've improved the situation, let alone a bit of customer service. For their part, every vehicle that appeared to be rentable did have a "Hertz Clean" Seal on the door to signify no one had entered since cleaning, but we can debate the effectiveness since I could've easily opened the passenger door to peek in, and with no mask requirement, that wouldn't have helped anyone.
Long story short: Hertz wins for clusterfuck of the year and National has won my continued loyalty.
At the hotel, the entrance experience has greatly changed - at least at this property - with all front doors locked and masked staff attending to them as guests arrive. Once inside, the lobby had marked social distance spacing and the front desk was modified. The now commonplace plexiglass shields were present as well as the introduction of small folding tables to further space guests and staff. This table contained literature including a letter from the General Manager, a list of local restaurants and bars available for take-out and in person dining.
On the property, amenities were understandably reduced: all food and beverage was suspended, valet service was no longer offered and there temporarily was no housekeeping service - although amenities, towels and garbage removal was available by calling the front desk.
This particular property had also waived its Destination Fee (it was no longer able to provide a welcome glass of wine, evening s’mores, etc; however, complimentary bike rental was still available).
UPDATE - JULY 20TH, 2020:
For my recent family trip to Colorado Springs to visit my sister, my family and I opted to book an Airbnb as we knew we wouldn't be too keen on being out and about, and wanted to spend some quality time together. In general, and in normal circumstances, this would prove the be a great choice. We had plenty of room, our own beds, a hot tub, and a fire pit - which on paper were awesome amenities!
Before I go further, though, I must back track and talk about Airbnb's approach and response to COVID-19. Much like major hotel brands, they're offering extended waivers and refunds should one choose not to travel; however, in our experience cancelling an earlier trip to reschedule, there are considerably more hoops to jump through than with a hotel stay, and a portion of your payment is withheld as a credit for a future stay. In addition, airbnb has issued "Cleaning Guidelines" to their hosts, but as with most requirements, there's no proof that there is any enforcement or repercussions for not abiding by them - in addition to them being far less stringent in substance than what major hotel chains have developed.
Moving on to our place in particular, the first impressions were fabulous - it was as cute as it appeared online, if having a few flaws, and seemed like an ideal base for our trip. On closer look, however, we were locked out of the basement that we had also rented, the hot tub reeked of mildew, a plant coated in years of dust and the fire place in the backyard had had its glass surround shattered. If this wasn't evidence enough that the place hadn't been thoroughly inspected or cleaned prior to our arrival, the large amounts of hair and a stray bobby pin truly drove home that this was the case. It was now increasingly uncomfortable as we took to disinfecting virtually every surface in the home on our own (as opposed to high touch items that we'd already disinfected) in order to provide some semblance of peace of mind. For their part, our hosts were incredibly apologetic and did dispatch their management company to try and help - unfortunately, they showed up with bath mats and a new propane tank, so clearly something about the situation had been lost between host and staff...
All in all, this reaffirmed my reluctance of even the nicest airbnb's: you never know what you'll get. Airbnb is purely a marketing company to connect hosts to guests, and with no real standards this can create dangerous environments from lack of cleaning during COVID to fire code violations to poor security...
Overall, while the travel experience has certainly changed, almost every step of the way felt surprisingly comfortable. In addition, there was a certain level of conviviality between guests, and every employee we encountered - all were excited to see each other and share a moment of hospitality that we’ve all been missing these past few months. Both my mom and I are incredibly glad that we took this trip, especially given that things had just reopened for leisure travel in Sonoma and Napa County and we were able to be among the first to visit relatively empty wineries and socially distance ourselves while visiting California State Parks.
Would I rush to travel again? Personally yes, but there is still a good deal of risk that each individual will need to evaluate - it may still be too soon for a full return to leisure travel, but this trip was absolutely fantastic and great for the soul!
UPDATE - JULY 20TH, 2020:
Thinking back on these past few trips and asking myself the same question - would I travel again? My answer is still a reluctant yes, after a deep dive into the circumstances as both California and Colorado are flaring up. For the time being, I think I'll stay close to home, but when I am ready to venture out I certainly have a short list for the companies that I'll choose to do business with!
Originally Published: June 24th, 2020
Updated: July 20th, 2020