Up in the Air

Pandemic Travel: Navigating Plane Trips, One Sanitizing Wipe at a Time

Plan A was a cruise, so flying to Vegas felt like a safer Plan B. But Vegas is not built for our current reality.

By Ainslee Dicken November 24, 2020

Airplane interior with face mask

We all have our own risk tolerance level nowadays when it comes to leaving the house, whether it’s to exercise, get groceries, visit the dentist, see loved ones, or get to work. It’s no different when it comes to getting the heck out of town. Before “The Freeze,” some of us were weekending in Vegas. Others haven’t left their zip code since March. And a lot of us fall somewhere in between. Portland Monthly intern Ainslee Dicken lands closer to the Vegas end of this spectrum—actually, she landed in Vegas itself this summer, for the first of two airplane-enabled birthday celebrations.  


I’d like to make a few things clear. First, I am a waitress (at least I was before I got laid off in the current Freeze), so I have been in contact with strangers and their dirty silverware four times a week for much of 2020. Second, I have no family in Portland, so no one in my home who is at risk. Third, I have just turned 30 and still believe I am invincible. Lastly, the majority of 2019 was spent planning a six-week European summer getaway that has now been entirely refunded, amid bitter tears. You can understand that despite the condition of our infected world, I was not going to not have fun if opportunity arose.

It arose. It was August, and my 30th birthday was looming. I was supposed to ring it in on a Mediterranean cruise with my mother, so I couldn’t very well sit in my apartment with a dormant cruise credit eating cake and watching reruns of Gilmore Girls (which I do every day anyway). Instead, I made a Plan B.

Las Vegas, to any other person, would sound like party central. To me, it is a second home. I spent a good portion of my childhood there, and my family now lives a four-hour drive away in Phoenix. I don’t drink, but I love Vegas for what it is: a mecca of entertainment. Even with the new restrictions that came with the reopen (yes, Vegas was at one point closed—for the first time in its shiny history), there’s still so much to see, so much to do, and so much to eat.

That’s how my boyfriend and I found ourselves in the TSA line at PDX mid-August. The famous carpet had less tread of traveling shoes, faces were covered, and bodies spread apart, but it wasn’t the crazed virus ghost town I’d been expecting.

I am a self-professed germaphobe. I clean my phone with alcohol every night, I am hyperaware if my hands feel dirty, and I wash my pillowcase every three or four days. Airports have always been a high-risk zone for me, but being able to witness the tangible precautions the crew took during and after our flight made me feel the cabin was cleaner than it had ever been. No strangers were seated next to each other, snacks and beverages were completely done away with for shorter flights like this one, and as soon as the front half of the plane had deboarded, employees were maniacally scrubbing down row after row.

Being me, I had planned every meal and activity well before we stepped into the 111-degree oppression of desert air, so there was no question of “Are they open?” In fact, though masks were required in all public spaces and buffets were closed, restaurants were back in full force, many of them offering “Welcome Back” prix-fixe menus.

The only eyebrow-raising moment for me was learning how hotels were operating their pools. I can’t speak to how other resorts were operating, but at the Aria (also where I had my 21st, huzzah) we were given a rules briefing upon entering any guest-only pool. 

“Welcome to the Aria’s pool and lounge. Masks are required at all times except while walking directly to and from the pool, while in the pool, or while eating or drinking,” exclaimed the large security guard scanning room keys at the entry. (And I forgot smoking. While eating, drinking, or smoking. Because Vegas.)

Here’s the loophole: The “eating or drinking” part essentially meant if your hand was on a cup or holding a water bottle. Even if it was lazily held to the side while you sunbathed and napped, your mask could be off. People were holding cups with two sips left in them. If the liquid got too low, guards would walk by and give a verbal warning, prompting a friend to sacrifice the level of their own drink in order to bring the person’s two sips back up to seven or eight.

Despite the ridiculousness, I can empathize. Vegas is not built for our current reality. If they couldn’t find a small way to follow the rules without following the rules, they’d lose their guests. No guests = no money. Can you imagine the amount it takes to keep the Aria in business? It’s 4 million square feet, not including the pools. 

We survived the restaurants, pools, and flight home. Fast forward to October. We traveled again, for my boyfriend’s 30th this time, because I can’t expect him to put his life at risk for my day if I don’t do the same for him. This time we flew American, destination Chicago. 

I cannot tell you if the two months between our trips had allowed the air industry to get away with more, or if American just operated as a lone soldier. I think it was the latter. The airline seemed to throw caution to the wind with seating arrangements. I was tucked in the middle with my boyfriend on my right and a burly stranger on my left. The flight wasn’t full, and once everyone had found their assigned seat those traveling alone were told they could relocate to a seat with more space around it. Only, Mr. Burly Man on my left politely declined, letting the flight attendant know he was just fine where he was. Now, I wasn’t overly concerned with the proximity; it was more the principle. If you had the chance to give more space to yourself, and to others, in this world, with this pandemic, wouldn’t you do so? Not for Burly.

The flight to Chicago was much longer than the one to Vegas. Upon boarding, every passenger was handed a gallon zip-top bag holding a sanitizing wipe, a tiny plastic water bottle, and a Biscoff cookie. So much single-use plastic. Per customer. Per flight. Doing the math would hinder my sleep.

Chicago was great. Neither of us had ever been there. The weather was semi-warm and sunny, far from the lakeside city’s famous weather extremes. Having spent a few years in NYC, I can say Chicago seems a cleaner, less crowded Manhattan. It certainly has its garbage system figured out. We experienced a few closures, not many. The city had entered its version of Phase IV, but has since regressed. A lover of all things ancient, I would gladly wear a mask for hours upon hours if it meant getting lost in the Art Institute.

We followed all the protocols and enjoyed ourselves. I felt less at risk on the trip and in the airports than I had at work in Portland in a restaurant—where, despite signs on all the tables asking diners to please wear their masks when interacting with staff, most didn’t. The flight back was much the same. Another full row, another wasteful gift of plastic-on-plastic, and the entertainment screens weren’t working—which seems a complaint for 2019, but still.

The daughter of a military man, Ainslee Dicken attended 12 schools before high school graduation, so staying anywhere for too long makes her uneasy. Though she prefers to continent-hop, during the pandemic “constructive escapism” sees her lost in one fantasy novel after another.

This article is part of a series. Do you want to share your own pandemic travel story? Email [email protected]

Show Comments