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Because a lot of us are still a little rusty as we get back into the swing of traveling again. 

Magdalena O'Neal  – September 7, 2021

We’ve spent months keeping our eyes on the news, following new mandates, and only getting out of the house to places and getaways that involved little-to-no human interaction. While many continue to do so as the United States experiences another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, research shows that others are ready to travel. Nearly half of respondents to a recent Amex Trendex report from American Express said they planned to travel “more than usual” before the start of the 2021 school year.

But increased travel has led to a rise in passenger and guest frustrations, confusion, and anxiety around new mandates, policies, and, quite simply, new travel etiquette. While some of us can’t wait to stick our toes into soft white sand, or zipline through a tropical forest, there are a lot of changes we need to keep in mind when we travel, from the way we fly and dine to how we check in to hotels. 

While staying at a Hilton hotel in May, I collected my room key from a sanitization machine at check-in. At a hotel in San Francisco, I struggled to scan a room service QR code. These simple changes may be frustrating at times, but all signal how businesses are adapting to accommodate visitors and patrons. While new practices and protocols may seem inconvenient in the moment, they are put in place for the health and safety of ourselves as well as others. 

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“People are starting to embrace change rather than arguing about it,” said Brad Odo, director of restaurants for Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. “On the flip side, service professionals are also becoming more comfortable with the new protocols. We’ve gone through the learning curve already in order to have our standards in place to share with guests.” 

To paint a clear picture of some major changes in the hospitality and travel industries, we tracked down essential workers across the West. We spoke with hotel managers, business owners, a flight attendant, and the director of a state tourism board to help gather some tips to keep in mind before you get to your destination. 

As more people venture out, these are some things we can all keep in mind. Keep reading for a guide to pandemic-era travel etiquette (a.k.a. how not to be an awful patron on your first trip back out there). 

Be Kind to Essential Workers 

After a year of not having anything on the books, it makes sense to feel eager and excited, as well as a bit antsy and exhausted, if you are planning to travel. But that doesn’t mean you should take it out on essential workers. Make sure you’re treating them with kindness and respect. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, when I heard the term “essential workers,” my mind gravitated to those working in hospitals, or firefighters, social workers, public transit operators, et cetera. My idea of “essential” changed as I began to consider the restaurant manager who curates the floor plan of a dinner service to ensure social distancing, or the host who reminds diners of the time limit on their table. These folks are essential, too, and doing their part to make sure that everything goes as seamlessly as possible as we return to dining and travel. 

coffee stand with mask travel etiquette

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“As in any challenging environment, embracing and understanding the anxieties and how they potentially impact each guest is key,” said Jim Root, general manager of Mii Amo Spa in Sedona, Arizona. “A Mii Amo practice/reminder that is even more appropriate to personally embrace and share today is ‘To be Kinder than Necessary.’” 

While employees are trying their best to ensure high-quality service when possible, they are often functioning with less staff and higher demand—paired with consistently changing safety measures and protocols.

“Shortages in terms of labor are making it hard to operate,” said Anu Bhambri, the owner of ROOH, a progressive Indian restaurant in San Francisco. “Cost of labor available to work has gone up due to the high demand.” A report from the Federation of American Scientists found that while unemployment hit 5.4% last month—down from 14.8% last April—it was still higher than it was last February before the pandemic began. This shows that while we are starting to see employment go up across the country, we are in an uphill battle against a record high. 

If you plan to travel in the coming months, it’s important to remember many places are still short on staff. In Arizona, for example, “thousands of hospitality industry jobs are available right now of all types,” said Becky Blaine, deputy director at the Arizona Office of Tourism. “There are opportunities in management and sales positions to concierge, valet, front-desk managers, housekeeping, maintenance, and food prep positions.” 

If your meal takes a little longer or your latte is last in a queue of orders, be patient with the server or barista. And do some research ahead of time. With business closures, reopenings, and adjusted hours, the last thing you want is to take a taxi across town to wind up at a restaurant that’s closed. Try asking locals or the hotel concierge for their recommendations on where to eat and drink, or walk around the area to get familiar with what’s open and nearby. 

To avoid long lines and people hanging out in entryways of businesses, many restaurants have expanded to accept reservations, often waiving cancellation fees to encourage more folks to reserve in advance. If you’re running late or something comes up that means you’ll miss your reservation, call and let them know. “Guidelines have been put in for our own safety,” Bhambri said. “Be kind to staff working and putting in the effort to get back into rhythm.”

And cancellations are expected, especially now. You should cancel your plans if you suspect you’ve come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, or if you’re awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test. Reschedule, and let venues know as soon as you can. Most airlines and hotels also offer travel insurance while booking so you can cancel and change dates with ease.

Know That Tech Is Evolving

While some of us might have thought QR codes were the bane of our existence as we first adjusted to zooming in on menus to view entrees and toggling between pages of drinks and apps, they have undeniably opened a lot of doors in the service industry. 

bartender wearing a mask taking payment
Contactless payments and QR codes are common in most restaurants and bars these days.

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“COVID has given us the opportunity to think outside the box of what we’ve done in the past, and then take the things that have worked well for us and continue to do them,” said Odo. “The new technologies we’ve implemented, such as QR codes for contactless menus, allow us to save paper or plastic and minimize waste. Online payments and reinvention of service allow for us to satisfy both customers dining in-house and customers ordering takeout.” 

This advancement allows businesses to minimize guest interaction with employees, while also offering fast (and handheld) service. “The way people consume services are all moving toward digital-like menus and information sharing,” Bhambri said. “Many people really like not having to share menus and (being) able to make payments using their watches or phones.”

It also allows for simple menu updates, menu sharing, and online ordering, all things that small restaurants may have struggled with prior to the pandemic. Though with futuristic changes come modern frustrations, whether it’s battling with a weak connection or a pixelated menu, remember that we are all evolving together.

Go with the Flow (Kind Of)

Going with the flow of new guidelines means you’ll want to plan to get to the airport as early as possible. While it might be a breeze through security with an extra hour at your gate, it could also take triple the time due to delays. 

“Our planes went from ghost ships to pretty much packed in about as much time as we’ve been hearing about the vaccine, and with the influx of passengers has come an influx of wait time at security checkpoints, and a bump in the number of guests who need us to do a little more for them,” said one flight attendant. (Sunset is not including their name so they could share their experience independent of their airline.)

So, how can we be better air travelers? “Basically, it comes down to being flexible, following basic rules, and seeing the dignity in everyone associated with your travel,” the flight attendant said. “Arrive with a bit of extra time so you can grab a snack or a drink before your flight. If you have specific needs, thinking about them before flying or allowing yourself more time at the airport allows you to take care of them.

“I heard a gal who’d been flying longer than I’ve been alive say, ‘We’re a 737, not a 7-Eleven,’” the flight attendant continued, “and while it’s funny to think about, it’s true!”

Throughout the pandemic, flight attendants and pilots are ensuring we can get from point A to point B for any essential travel, so give them a nod and a thank you for getting you to your vacation destination safely.

“Our favorite passengers are the guests who arrive with time to spare, have a full belly and a snack for the flight, and are flexible and ready to get to their destination without incident at the airport or on board,” the flight attendant said. 

Wear a Mask

Despite the fact that more businesses are opening up, varying rules may still be in place for the safety of guests and workers alike.

“Most reputable bars and restaurants require proof of vaccination and mask-wearing when not actively eating and drinking,” said Anu Apte, owner of Rob Roy, a cocktail bar in Seattle. “Although these mandates are temporary (hopefully), we expect them to be in place for quite some time.”

wearing mask at the airport

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For Bhambri, vaccination card requirements have actually led to a positive experience for some patrons. “We have been super impressed with how quickly people have adapted to changes like vaccine card requirements,” the ROOH owner said. “People bring their cards and IDs if they want to dine inside. And have been happily showing it. Some of them have also made comments like they feel much better dining inside with vaccination status checks and all.”

Peter Tulaney, of WEHO Sausage Co. in the Citizen Public Market in Los Angeles, shared a similar perspective. “The safety of our staff and our customers comes first, and everything else is a distant second. I think we can expect to have mask mandates for a long time,” Tulaney said. “I also think customers will be more inclined to dine in outdoor spaces than indoors if they can help it.” 

So, keep a mask or two in each of your travel bags, and don’t forget your proof of vaccination. (You can download it here and present it digitally on your phone). Don’t forget to wear layers so that you’re comfortable with outdoor dining when available. 

Stay Educated and Prepared

While your first trip may have a few bumps in the road, remember that we are all adjusting to new parameters around travel. Being a conscious tourist means remembering to feel a bit of gratitude that we’ve made it back to a societal point where we can travel again and be part of an economic ecosystem that supports one another. 

“The amount of gratitude we’ve been shown by guests for reopening, and for giving them the opportunity to travel again, has really been incredible,” said Odo of Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. 

Take every misstep you encounter on your trip as a note for next time, and keep in contact with the concierge or manager of wherever you’re staying to make sure you’re up to date on protocols and safety regulations. The front desk and website of wherever you’re staying also make for a great resource for your trip. Ask them what excursions they think are the safest in terms of social distancing, or if they can set you up with any private tours and activities. 

The more you stay positive and receptive to those working to ensure you are having a great trip, the more fun you’ll have. So travel responsibly, respectfully, and restfully on your next trip—and keep all of these tips in your back pocket.


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