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Flying this Summer? Tips for a Very Volatile Summer 2021 Air Travel Season

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Air travel is quickly roaring back to life in the summer of 2021 within the United States. My family just returned from some pretty extensive air travel adventures (and a few misadventures) all over the country. We flew on 5 different days from mid-June to the first of July, passing through 7 different airports along the way and taking 8 flight segments. As a result, we got a pretty good taste of what it’s like to fly right now. And I’ll be honest – it’s a little nuts.

If you are flying this summer as demand is booming again, you need to be prepared for the travel volatility we witnessed first hand. You’ve probably seen the headlines – American Airlines has canceled a number of flights and Southwest Airlines offered many of its employees double pay around the Independence Day holiday to deal with a continued staff shortage. Other airlines have had challenges and hiccups of their own.

Here are the essentials you need to know about for summer 2021 air travel, along with tips for dealing with the occasional madness many travelers will experience.

Inside Southwest 737-800 airplane in summer 2021

Unexpected Things to Expect for Summer 2021 Air Travel

1. Flight Schedule Changes are Likely

If you booked flights several months ago for summer travel, you may have already gotten a flight schedule change notification. Airlines have been making massive adjustments to their overall flights schedules to accommodate rapidly shifting demand and crew availability. They are making these changes much more often, and much closer to the time you are set to fly.

Southwest Airlines Flight Schedule Change Email
Every single flight we booked for this summer has resulted in at least one flight schedule change email like this!

This means a non-stop flight you may have booked may not exist anymore. The airline might move you to a connecting itinerary. Or you may find flight times changed, necessitating an earlier or later departure or arrival time that may not fit in with your travel plans.

Most airlines are pretty good about accommodating travelers on another flight of their choosing – even a day earlier or later or out of an alternate airport. They’ll also usually let you cancel outright and refund the fare if you can’t find a new routing that works. Be sure to check out my post about why you shouldn’t necessarily accept a flight schedule change right away to know how to use this situation to your fullest advantage.

2. Flights Will be Extremely Full

If you flew even just a couple of weeks ago in the late spring, you may have experienced partially empty flights in your travels. I know I did when I went to Disneyland’s reopening on April 30 and May 1, 2021.

No more. Empty seats on airplanes are a thing of the past. Kids are out of school and travelers are ready to get back out there, but airlines not yet flying as many flights as they did back in early 2020. This means the planes that are in the sky are very, very full. If that makes you uncomfortable or concerned, you may want to rethink air travel this summer. At the very least, you may want to come prepared with whatever PPE will help you personally get through the experience and make you more comfortable.

3. TSA Lines are Epic

TSA Lines in Charlotte Airport Summer 2021
One of the regular TSA checkpoints at CLT in late June 2021 (with TSA Pre-check, we bypassed this entirely).

With all those full flights, you can probably guess that means lines elsewhere in the air travel process. The biggest choke point of all right now is at airport security. TSA has had trouble filling positions at many airports, meaning lines can be incredibly long.

Use every method at your disposal not to get stuck in the regular line: TSA Pre-Check, CLEAR, family lanes, elite traveler lines, etc. If an airport has more than one checkpoint that allows you to get to your airline’s gate (like at my home airport of Oakland where both terminals are connected post-security), detour to the shortest checkpoint. Get to the airport extra early if you have heard that your departing airport has particular TSA troubles (Charlotte, NC is one, for example, that has been in the news as especially bad and I witnessed that myself in our trip).

Check out my guide to speeding through airport security for more tips and tricks.

4. Avoid Checking Bags

Speaking of lines, another place you are likely to see really long ones in airports this summer is to check bags. With many airlines experiencing staff shortages, ticket counter queues can back up considerably. If you can get by with just a carry on bag, you’ll be able to skip this problem entirely.

Bag Check Lines in Nashville Airport in Summer 2021 Air travel
Bag check lines at 5:30am at Nashville airport were very bad on July 1, 2021.

Although my family carried on for a 3 day trip to Disneyland last month, we weren’t quite able to take a 2 week cross country jaunt without a couple of checked bags. We devised a strategy to tackle long bag check lines. My husband usually would drop the kids and me off at each airport we visited. I’d stand in the bag check line while he returned our rental car, which takes plenty of time of its own. Think about ways you can divide and conquer like this to avoid getting hit by every long line and choke point one after the other.

If you have to check bags, look for ways to shortcut those lines. Consider using curbside Skycap services when available (tip generously) for shorter lines, and look for self-check bag tag kiosks that many airlines have added at some airports (those are sometimes a bit hidden).

5. Airport Restaurants and Services are Limited

Even though demand for air travel is booming again, a lot of airports are not yet up to speed to handle the volume of travelers passing through. It’s not just TSA and bag check lines – it’s everything from shops to restaurants to lounges. Many are still closed or have limited hours.

In my own travels, my family arrived at the Charlotte Airport expecting to grab a hot meal before we boarded an evening flight. The lines for most of the restaurants in the center concourse there were 50 people deep! We thought we could smartly dodge the situation by heading down to our gate and going to restaurants we’ve frequented there before. When we arrived, we found all but one restaurant in the entirety of Concourse A closed! Thankfully we snagged some burgers at the lone Shake Shack before it closed just minutes later – at 6pm. All the other travelers who arrived right at peak dinner hour had no choices at all.

It’s essential in these times to bring snacks and pack your own food – especially when traveling with kids. You may also just have to settle for a pre-made sandwich in the sundries shop rather than the usual meals you’ve been able to buy before.

6. Mask Compliance Varies Widely

Child on Airplane with Mask in Summer 2021
Masking like a pro! But not everyone else will be.

FAA rules still require that masks must be worn at all times (except while actively eating and drinking) on all airplanes in the United States. Many states and localities have laws that treat airports as part of public transportation systems where masks are also required for everyone. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll see fellow travelers reliably following those mask mandates, so be prepared for that reality when deciding whether to travel.

We saw mask usage drop a little bit each day we flew, ostensibly as more and more people dropped their masks in ordinary life back home. Airports located in regions that have masked less this entire year generally had even less masking overall (Nashville, for example, had the most unmasked travelers of any airport we saw while mask usage was still pretty high in Hartford, CT. Surprisingly Dallas Love Field was quite well-masked, so your miles may vary!).

While it will definitely be concerning to some travelers to see so many people in airports and planes around you not masking as consistently, there is one silver lining to this for a lot of family travelers. I know a lot of parents of young toddlers have been really fearful of flying lately because of all the horror stories earlier this year of families being kicked off a plane when their 2 or 3 year olds wouldn’t reliably wear a mask. I don’t think we are likely to hear many of those stories any more. Many more flights and crew seem to be following a rule of reason for very young kids, especially on longer flights, based on what my family witnessed at least.

7. Prepare for the Rental Car Shortage (& High Rental Car Prices)

If you are flying somewhere and then renting a car, you may be in for some unwelcome surprises in 2021 on the rental car front. There are massive shortages in rental cars nationwide. The result is that cars can be extremely pricey – when you are able to find them. Sometimes, however, many destinations are simply sold out. Even worse, some will let you reserve a car but when you show up to get one, none are available.

Check out my comprehensive guide to renting cars with kids, which has a detailed section on strategies for the 2021 rental car shortage. And if you have a trip booked this summer and have not yet reserved a rental car, stop what you are doing right now and immediately make a reservation. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Hopefully you can still snag something.

And if you can go without a car, consider skipping it this year. We won’t be renting one in Hawaii later this summer and will instead rely on a local taxi service we have used before for airport transfers and maybe an excursion or two. With parking fees at so many destinations and resorts, you may just come out ahead and save money not getting a car!

8. Know Your Contingency Options

Flights are fuller than ever and airlines are still running substantially reduced schedules… you can probably see where this is going. When things go wrong, like weather or a mechanical delay, the situation can fall apart pretty quickly. That’s what happened to us on one leg of our travels: Southwest cancelled the first flight of our trip home, meaning we’d miss our connection. With flights being so full, the airline could not accommodate us on another set of flights for a full two days later.

Being a regular flyer and also a former Southwest brand ambassador (see my tips for flying Southwest with kids), I knew my airport alternatives and contingency plans better than just about anymore. We checked into them quickly. We were set to fly out of Hartford, CT (BDL) so we investigated flying out of all the airports in the New York and Boston regions that Southwest serves: LGA, PVD, ISP, and BOS. We then tried into every San Francisco Bay Area airport: OAK, SFO, SJC, and even SMF.

Usually that will result in a solution to a flight delay or cancellation, but flights were so full as the July 4 holiday approached and bad weather hit some regions of the country that we could find zero alternatives. Then, our new flight two days later was delayed so substantially that we missed our connection in Nashville (the last flight of the night to the San Francisco Bay Area). We had to unexpectedly overnight in Nashville. Yes, it took us 3 days to get from the NY Metro area home to the San Francisco Bay Area. And I’m not the only traveler these past few weeks who has this kind of story to tell.

Finally boarding for home after travel delays.

Bottom line? Work through all alternatives if you get stranded, but also be prepared for the reality that you may truly be stranded right now. If we had been in a truly dire situation where we had to fly, we could always have booked a walkup ticket on another airline which would have set our family of 4 back a few thousand dollars. Instead, we decided to grin and bear it and get more time with family we were visiting. Luckily, with so many people working remotely these days, my husband was mostly able to continue to do his job from afar while we were stuck.

9. Make Sure you Have Travel Coverage

If things do go wrong as they did for us, you want to make sure you have some travel protections as a last line of defense. A lot of credit cards offer protections like trip delay or cancellation insurances as long as you put some of the trip’s cost on the credit card. More comprehensive travel insurance is of course available as well, although a lot of travelers save that for international trips which many people aren’t taking at the moment.

We booked our flights for this trip on points, but I put the airfare taxes and fees as well as our rental car on our Chase Sapphire Reserve card (see my recommendations for the best credit cards for family travelers). We are just starting the reimbursement battle with the airline but I’m hopeful that Chase’s protections will cover some or all of the following if the airline won’t: meals, our unexpected overnight hotel in Nashville after missing our connection, and the extra rental car days we needed when our initial flight was delayed. Stay tuned. That’s probably another post!

The Final Word

The summer of 2021 is definitely going to go down in the history books as a volatile one for air travelers. Many travelers may find themselves inconvenienced or even stranded by choosing to fly this summer.

The best way to handle these challenges is by arming yourself with knowledge that helps you avoid the pitfalls that are more avoidable and then just packing your patience and hoping for the best. Things will normalize soon enough. After this extraordinary year, it’s just good to be able to travel again and reconnect with friends and family, so I advise keeping it all in perspective.

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James Walker

Friday 30th of July 2021

One more thing I would like to add, if you'll be traveling to Europe, note that in the EU you can get flight compensation if your flight is delayed or canceled. Rules are the same for EU citizens and for travelers from the US, etc. You just have to remember to make a compensation claim.

For example, if KLM flight is delayed, you can get up to ~700 USD per person - It applies also to domestic flights and to low cost airlines.