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40 Pandemic Airport Secrets Only Insiders Know

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If you’re a frequent flyer like I am, then you know that the worst part about traveling is dealing with the airport. Bumper-to-bumper traffic, long lines, extra baggage fees, delayed flights — trying to survive the airport can take the joy out of traveling. If you add a global pandemic on top of everything, it can feel downright impossible.

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So to help us all travel a little easier during this confusing time, I gathered some of my best tips and I spoke to frequent travelers and money-saving experts to find out their best advice for how to save money and time while making your way through terminals.

Last updated: Jan. 9, 2021

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1. Be Prepared To Social Distance

In the age of COVID, social distancing has become the norm. This is particularly important during travel, when large crowds tend to congregate in tight places. Whenever possible, try to maintain a 6-foot distance between yourself and other travelers. Many airports have implemented special seating arrangements and other mechanisms to help you keep your distance. One good tip is to check out the seat map of your flight before you board. That way, you can choose a seat that is as far away as possible from your fellow travelers to help stem the spread.

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2. Wear a Mask

The CDC recommends that travelers stay home until the pandemic plays out. However, if you must travel, be sure to bring your mask so you can keep your nose and mouth covered. Most airlines have eliminated exemptions to the mandatory mask rule while on board, so be prepared to wear your mask for the entire duration of your travel.

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3. Bring Hand Sanitizer, Up To 12 Ounces

For years, the TSA limited all liquids passing through checkpoints to 3.4 ounces. Due to the COVID pandemic, passengers are now allowed to carry up to 12 ounces of liquid hand sanitizer in their check-in bags. Bear in mind that the limitation for all other liquids remains at 3.4 ounces.

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4. Expect Testing

While testing before you travel is always a good idea, in some cases you won’t be allowed to fly or get into a country without evidence of one or more negative tests. For example, Germany, among many other countries, requires a COVID test upon arrival in the country.

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5. Expect More Touchless Technology

With the pandemic still raging, you’re likely to encounter more touchless technology as you move through an airport. Everything from baggage drop to check-in, security, and airport shopping is likely to be touchless in the near future, with some airports already moving in that direction.

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6. Disinfect Your Airline Seat

Disinfecting your living space on an airline is now more important than ever. Although airlines generally treat their planes between flights, some have announced they will only disinfect their armrests and seat belts overnight. In addition to your tray table and seat belt, disinfect all of the high-touch areas surrounding your seat.

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7. Avoid High-Touch Items Like In-Flight Magazines

Even before the pandemic struck, it was a good idea to avoid touching in-flight magazines. Although a diverting way to pass the time on a long voyage, magazines inherently invite touching from a number of different people and are rarely, if ever, sanitized. During COVID, many airlines have actually removed access to magazines for this very reason.

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8. Understand the Policies of the Airline You’ll Be Flying

Although many of the changes to travel during COVID are universal, policies of individual airlines may vary. For example, some airlines, including Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue and Southwest are blocking middle seats to help enforce social distancing. Others, however, are still cramming passengers in just like before the pandemic.

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9. Understand the Policies of Your Destination as Well

If you’re traveling abroad, you’ll have to be more aware than ever of the travel restrictions of your destination. Many European countries in particular still aren’t allowing U.S. tourists to disembark. Others may have mandatory 14-day quarantine restrictions, including the Bahamas and Ireland.

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10. Use the MyTSA App

Using the MyTSA app, you can get answers to your most pressing travel questions and assess what items you can and can’t bring on flights. Additionally, you can get updates on delays, find out about cancellations and check wait times in the security line.

Plan: How To Budget and Plan for a Vacation in 2021

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11. Park at a Nearby Hotel

Parking on-site at the airport can be pricey, but you can save money by parking at a hotel near the airport instead.

“AirportParkingReservations.com lists hotels near airports that allow you to park in their lot and use their free airport shuttles to and from the airport for rates as low as $5 a day,” said ultra-economical travel expert and founder of Break the Travel Barrier Russell Hannon. “You can search hotel parking lots by an airport, pay online, and upon arrival at the hotel, hand in your voucher at the check-in counter, then proceed to the airport shuttle pickup.”

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12. Take Advantage of Airport Lounges

Airport lounges aren’t just for the rich and famous. If you know how to work your perks, you can enjoy these other airport attractions.

“Many credit cards and airline loyalty programs provide free or discounted access to airport lounges,” said frequent traveler Lee Huffman, founder of Bald Thoughts, a travel website.

Not only do these lounges allow you to escape the hustle and bustle of the airport to relax before your flight, but you can also enjoy complimentary beverages and snacks. Call your credit card company ahead of time to see if you’re eligible for entrance.

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13. If You Can’t Access Lounges Through Your Credit Card, Check Groupon

Travel credit cards and frequent flyer programs aren’t the only ways to get access to airport lounges.

“A great way to save money in airports is to check Groupon ahead of time for the city you’re flying into or out of,” said Leslie Price, creator of My Adventure Bucket. “You can [sometimes] buy an airport lounge priority pass for $7.”

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14. Save on Parking and Transportation With Groupon, Too

In addition to finding discounted lounge passes on Groupon, you might also be able to find discounts on parking and airport shuttles, said Price.

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15. Buy a Priority Pass Membership

If you fly frequently and you don’t get lounge access through a credit card for travel, it might be worth it to buy a Priority Pass membership. Membership gives you access to over 1,200 airport lounges, and a standard membership costs $89 for the first year and $99 for each year after. The pass is good for lounges around the world, so getting lounge access is both a good international travel tip and a long-flight tip to break up a multi-leg journey.

“It paid for itself in only a few months,” said Becca and Dan, the couple behind HalfHalfTravel. “Around the world, we’ve eaten buffet brunches in Hong Kong airport, taken naps in nap rooms in the Lisbon airport and had snacks on a deck of an airport in the Canary Islands, all with our Priority Pass membership. [You’ll] never have to buy overpriced airport food or Wi-Fi again.”

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16. Choose the Path of Least Resistance

The amount of traffic in arrivals and departures can vary, depending on the day. If there are too many travelers in the departures lane, consider changing it up and getting dropped off at arrivals.

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17. Mystery Shop at the Airport

If you’re willing to write up a review of your airport experience, you might be able to get free perks as a mystery shopper.

“When waiting at airports, I mystery shop airport restaurants to get a free meal before my flight,” said Jen, the author of the Smarty Pants Finance blog. “There are always mystery shops at airports including visiting airline lounges, parking, shopping at retail stores and dining.”

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18. Pack Only What You Need

Frequent fliers know that one of the best airport tips is to travel light — it can save you time and money. While it’s wise to pack a few extra socks for your trip, stop and ask yourself if all the items in your suitcase are truly necessary.

“When packing, think about [in] exactly what situation you’ll want a certain item of clothing,” said Gillian Morris, co-founder of Hitlist, a travel app that helps users find the best travel deals.

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19. Don’t Check Your Bags

One way to make sure your stuff arrives safely is to pack like a pro and take only carry-on bags when you travel. Typically, airlines allow for one carry-on bag and another small item, such as a purse or laptop. Still, checking your bags can mean waiting in long lines, and there’s a risk of your luggage getting lost or even stolen.

Instead, use carry-on bags to save time and ensure your stuff arrives when and where you do. If you must check your bags, make sure you know your airline’s baggage fees.

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20. If You Must Check Bags, Steer Clear of Checked Luggage Fees

If you want to avoid the typical $25 checked baggage fee, you have three options, said Sara Skirboll, shopping and trends expert at RetailMeNot.

“One, use your miles to check a bag for free; two, fly Southwest where your first two checked bags fly free and/or three, look to fly a different fare class, which sometimes won’t cost you an arm and a leg,” she said. “I’ve actually seen Comfort+ seats that are cheaper than economy.”

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21. Wear Your Luggage

If you truly want to avoid baggage fees, consider wearing your luggage. Some clever travelers have stuffed their jackets with items to save money. Companies like Bagket and Jaktogo are going a step further, however, by creating wearable luggage.

For example, Jaktogo sells a jacket that converts to a bag, so you can wear it through security and save money.

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22. Make Your Luggage Unique

At baggage claim, the sea of bags can look eerily similar. One of the best travel tricks is to make your luggage unique by tying a ribbon or tag to the handle. Not only does differentiating your bag from the rest save you time, but it also ensures someone else won’t walk off with your belongings.

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23. Four Wheels Are Better Than Two

The luggage you travel with matters, and having four wheels can be better than two. This way, you can avoid dragging your bag and push it in front of you instead.

Additionally, bags with four wheels allow you to navigate tight spaces and maintain better control over your luggage. The end result is that you can get through the airport faster. But if you have to buy a new suitcase to achieve this, just know when it’s the best time to buy luggage so you don’t lose money.

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24. Don’t Wrap Your Gifts

If you’re going home for the holidays or have a birthday present to bring someone, think twice about wrapping your gifts ahead of time. After all, airport security might decide to unwrap your items to get a look inside. Save yourself the hassle by putting your family’s gifts in reusable gift bags.

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25. Check In Ahead of Time

One travel tip that can limit the amount of time you spend waiting in line at the airport is to check in ahead of time. Many airlines allow travelers to check in early and print their own boarding passes. If you only bring a carry-on, you can head straight to security.

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26. Check Your Flight Status Online

Before heading to the airport, check your flight status online. Delays happen, and instead of waiting at the terminal for hours, you can get real-time updates before leaving the house.

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27. Know Your Airport Code

Before arriving at the airport, learn your airport code or the three letters that refer to your destination, such as LAX for Los Angeles International Airport. After all, some cities have multiple airports, and your luggage tags can get mixed up if you’re not sure where you’re headed.

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28. Use Global Entry and TSA PreCheck

While many travelers are enduring long waits to get through security these days, insiders are taking advantage of Global Entry ($100) and TSA PreCheck ($85), which offer five-year memberships for faster screening.

“Global Entry is a must for anyone who travels internationally,” said Huffman. “Because you are what’s known as a Trusted Traveler, you can skip security lines at the airport and don’t have to take off your shoes or remove your 3-1-1 liquids bag.”

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29. Avoid Wearing Jewelry

Security lines can be a pain, but you can make life easier by leaving the jewelry at home. In some cases, you can keep your jewelry on while going through security, but it might set off the metal detector. So, you might have to put your bling in the bin or get a pat-down from security.

For best results, avoid wearing jewelry altogether and pack it in your bag instead.

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30. Wear Slip-On Shoes

If you dread taking off your shoes in the security line, make your life a little easier and wear slip-on shoes. This simple travel hack keeps the line moving and makes getting through security a little less painful.

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31. Keep Your Laptop Easily Accessible

When you go through security, you typically have to take out your laptop for screening. To move through the line quickly, keep your laptop in an easily accessible location, so you’re not digging for it while in line.

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32. Bring Travel-Sized Toiletries

To ensure your toiletries aren’t thrown in the trash, make sure all liquids are stored in containers measuring no more than 3.4 ounces. Most people don’t have products of that size at home, so bring shampoo samples that you’ve received on other trips. Some stores also sell travel-sized shampoo, toothpaste and other items for your convenience. Or better yet, double check if your hotel or other lodging will be providing you with toiletries.

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33. Bring a Spare Plastic Bag for Toiletries

Your toiletries should be stored in a separate bag for screening. Still, those bags can break or get dirty during your travels. Bring a spare resealable plastic bag for toiletries for your next flight.

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34. Pack an Empty Water Bottle

“Bring an empty reusable water bottle in your carry-on bag,” said Kashlee Kucheran, a full-time traveler and travel blogger at Travel Off Path. “Once you are through security, fill it up from the free drinking fountains located around the gates. Most airports worldwide have safe and free drinking fountains, and some countries even have hot water dispensers for people who want to make their own tea. Instead of buying that $3 bottle of water that is likely going to end up in a landfill, you can save your money and the environment by bringing your own.”

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35. Freeze Your Liquids

Did you know this airport hack to get your drink on the plane? If you freeze your drink before arriving at the airport, you can get it through security — as long as the liquid stays frozen solid when you’re going through screening. If your drink seems partially melted or slushy, you’ll have to meet the 3-1-1 liquids requirement.

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36. Spend Money To Save Money

While airport shops have a reputation for jacking up prices, travelers can occasionally score good deals. Some states have no sales tax. If you’re thinking of shopping at the airport, compare prices online and check state tax laws before you travel.

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37. But Skip the Starbucks Line

While Starbucks might be calling your name on those early flights, skip the cup of joe and the line to save money.

Instead, you can score free coffee on your flight. If you’re flying Alaska Airlines or Delta, you can enjoy Starbucks coffee as part of the complimentary beverage service.

Or if you’re a tea drinker, bring your own tea bags. Most flights offer regular black tea, but you can bring your own and just ask for hot water on your flight if you prefer a different variety.

“Depending on the time of the flight, I’ll either bring caffeinated green tea to start my day, decaffeinated chamomile to end the day, or ginger tea in the middle of the day to calm my stomach from a crazy day,” said Skirboll.

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38. Check For Free Wi-Fi

If you have time to kill at the airport, you might start browsing on your phone to stay busy. Instead of eating up all your data, check the airport website ahead of time to see if it offers free Wi-Fi. If not, you might be able to browse for free while visiting one of the airport restaurants or bars.

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39. Bring a Portable Phone Charger

Your smartphone could be your No. 1 travel tool. After all, it lets you access directions, view your mobile boarding pass, answer emails and communicate with others before and after your flight.

While most airports have charging stations, they can often be crowded. Instead of fighting the crowd, bring your own portable phone charger so you’re never out of juice.

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40. Pack Your Own Food

Instead of picking up overpriced snacks in the airport, pack your own items ahead of time. Sandwiches, fruit, crackers and granola bars are all smart snack choices, but be sure to check with the TSA to make sure your menu follows security guidelines.

For an easy, healthy option, consider bringing oatmeal packets onto morning flights.

“I’ve started to bring my own oatmeal packets so I can have a semi-hearty and much healthier meal on the plane,” said Skirboll. “All I need is hot water from the flight attendant and I’m good to go.”

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Melanie LockertGabrielle Olya and John Csiszar contributed to the reporting for this article.