Every year for the last 15 years, my husband Barry and I have spent the winter at our home in the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site of Guanajuato, Mexico.
This year, we were uneasy about air travel. But when we read on TravelAwaits and other media that flying was getting safer, we decided it was worth the risk. Ojala! (hopefully!). In this article, I’ll describe what transpired, from the first stages of planning the trip to arriving at our home in Guanajuato.
Which Airline Did We Fly?
We always fly United because it’s the only airline that flies out of our small town of Eureka on California’s North Coast. But it turned out that because of the pandemic, United had fewer flights to Guanajuato’s nearest airport, Leon, and it would take us over 24 hours to get there. After doing research, we learned we could fly partway on Mexico’s budget airline, Volaris, from Los Angeles to Leon, arriving in the usual amount of time. We decided to pay $17 extra each for an exit row on the Volaris flight, hoping to get an empty row. Though we booked only two weeks before traveling, we had our pick of seats.
While United has two flights that fly direct from Eureka to L.A., neither of them connected with the Volaris flight, which meant we’d have to fly from Eureka to San Francisco and change flights for L.A. A bit riskier, but ni modo. Oh well.
About Our Baggage
After realizing we’d have to switch terminals in L.A., we decided not to check bags so as to avoid standing close to other people in security lines twice. Normally we would check because we like to bring foods that are either unavailable in Mexico or are very expensive (like tahini and other condiments). We packed lighter than usual to avoid schlepping heavy suitcases around the airports.
Because we didn’t check, we went straight to security, with our boarding passes on our phones.
Why We Flew On Separate Dates
I say “we,” but Barry and I did not fly on the same day. Having spent the last eight months virtually embedded with each other, we agreed some solo time would be great for each of us. So I flew on November 12 by myself.
Before My First Flight
I exercised admirable self-restraint and drank only one cup of coffee before my first flight to avoid the additional risk of walking up and down the aisle to use the restroom.
Waiting And Boarding
“Maintain social distance” signs dotted the waiting areas. People sat spaced apart in the waiting area and for the most part maintained 6-feet of separation while boarding.
On both United flights, it was buena suerte! (good luck). No seatmates -- the row all to myself! And everyone -- ground staff, crew and, passengers alike -- was masked, as I discovered would be the case throughout all the flights and airports. No dissenters, complaining, or arguments; everyone was polite and compliant. The only time I saw passengers’ faces was when we were served liquids. No snacks were available on the short United flights and liquids were available only by request.
My San Francisco Airport (SFO) Experience
The gate for my L.A. flight was next to my arrival gate, so that was easy. The airport, usually a place full of buzz, chatter, and the beeping of airport chariots carrying passengers, was eerily empty -- as were the monitors showing departures. Usually, they’re four or five screens long, whereas that Thursday morning they were only one and a half.
On To The United Club At Los Angeles Airport (LAX)
My layover was 4 hours, but I had a United Club one-day pass, a benefit of a new Chase Visa credit card, along with 40,000 frequent flyer miles. Most United Clubs are closed during the pandemic, but happily, the only open one in the entire airport was right in Terminal 7, where I had landed.
During the pandemic, United has cut the price of one-time passes from $59 to $39, and you can buy them on eBay for even less. They offer no-cost healthy food, snacks, sodas, wine, and beer, along with a quiet, announcement-free atmosphere.
This time, though, the United Club was such a surreal ghost town that I missed the friendly background hum of fellow passengers chatting and eating. Así es. (So be it.)
I did enjoy a decadent glass of lunchtime wine and stocked up on salted almonds, which are very pricey in Mexico, as well as chips for the Volaris flight. I’m the frugal type and don’t want to pay extra for snacks on board.
At the United Club, on the departure monitors, I counted only twenty flights that afternoon -- some going to places I had never heard of, like Doha (turns out, it’s the capital of Qatar).
Editor’s Note: Want a more comfortable layover? Read up on eight incredible airport lounges and how to access them.
Changing Terminals At LAX
I thought I’d need to leave security to reach the Volaris terminal, but once again, buena suerte. By carefully avoiding the exits and walking down long corridors, I arrived at the Volaris terminal without leaving the airport.
Ironically, on the one flight where I’d paid for a seat on an exit row, I had a seatmate on the aisle, but fortunately no one in the middle. On the 3-hour Volaris flight, we were served water for free, but the sandwiches, turkey croissants, and other snacks came at a cost.
Arriving At Leon BJX, Mexico
I was impressed with the way we disembarked. A Volaris flight attendant blocked the aisle, allowing only one group off at a time. We walked single file to Migracion, stopping partway to be handed a form that required us to verify we had no symptoms of COVID. Then we stood in the usual citizen/visitor lines waiting to pass Migracion. Although almost no one standing in line practiced social distancing, this was less alarming since everyone was masked and facing each other’s backs.
When I cleared Customs, I walked out to the waiting area to look for Mario, our bilingual administrador, or house manager, who keeps an eye on our home when we’re away. He was holding a tissue over his nose and mouth (“I thought I had a mask in the car”), but I was prepared with extra masks for moments like this one. When he offered me the front passenger seat, I declined and sat in the back. After parking, he offered to help me with my bag, but I noticed his mask had dropped below his nose. Obviously Mario’s a man who takes the pandemic less seriously than I do.
Based on my experience, I recommend waiting a week or 10 days before flying to book, so you can see which rows are emptiest. (There’s very little competition right now, so you don’t face any risk of full flights). To avoid milling around with other passengers, don’t check baggage if you can help it. Limit liquids before your flight, and carry extra masks.
As for me, I said goodbye to Mario, unlocked my door, carried my bags in, and took off my mask. Home! A week later, it’s too early to tell if I’m sick, but I have no symptoms and am headed out on a hike with my neighbor this morning. We’ll wear masks, of course.