We took a plane, train and (rental) automobile for the experience, not the journey

Travelers contemplating a domestic trip can’t help but wonder: What’s it like . . . to take a train? To fly in a plane? To rent a car? Are passengers abiding by the rules, and when they fail to do so, are staff members intervening? Is traveling with so many new restrictions stressful or comforting?

To fill in the blanks, I sampled all three forms of transportation the week before the Fourth of July. I hopped a train from Washington’s Union Station to Newark Liberty International Airport, caught a flight to Chicago O’Hare and rented a car. Before setting off, I contacted medical experts for safety advice and stocked up on masks and alcohol-based hand sanitizer, the latest travel essentials. Here is my report from the rails, sky and road.

Riding the train

Expert advice: David Dausey, an epidemiologist and provost of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, suggested I skip the ticket counter and procure my ticket from the kiosk or, even better, download an e-ticket on my phone. He said I should use my elbows or knuckles to open doors, such as the portals between cars. “Use a part of the body that you don’t touch your face with,” he said. He recommended assigning one hand the “door hand” and the other the “bag-carrying hand.” For the boarding process, I should walk on the outdoor platform instead of passing through the line of cars. I should bring my own food (easy enough) and avoid the bathroom (more challenging). If I must use the facility, I should flush with the seat cover down, to stop airborne particles that could spread the novel coronavirus.

The experience: Before my trip, I received an email from Amtrak outlining its protocols, such as mandatory face coverings in the stations and on the trains, with the exception of “private rooms” (i.e., roomettes and cabins on long-haul trains). To alleviate congestion, the company suggests passengers arrive no more than a half-hour before their departure time, or an hour if you are checking bags or need special assistance.

On a Tuesday morning, Union Station felt like a hollow shell, with empty halls and shuttered stores. Only a few food places were open, not that I was going to drink coffee after Dausey’s warning. In the waiting area, I stood away from the other passengers and loiterers, but noticed many people without masks. When I asked a MARC employee about the rule-flouters, he explained that some people simply refuse to follow orders. I countered with: If I showed up without pants on, wouldn’t security ask me to leave and not return until I was properly dressed? He responded to my analogy with a look of resignation.

Only a few dozen people were taking the Northeast Regional train, a consequence of the pandemic and Amtrak’s decision to reduce passenger capacity by 50 percent. Because I didn’t have to dodge a rush of passengers, I sauntered to one of the last cars. I found a seat sandwiched between empty rows. The conductor scanned the ticket on my phone and moved on. No contact, no chitchat. I left my seat only once to check out the cafe car, which was selling takeaway items. Yellow signs on the tables warned people to not sit down, and a notice by the takeout counter reminded passengers to cover their faces. On the return to my car, I walked straight through the ping-ponging conversation of two maskless friends occupying opposite aisle seats.

I asked the conductor whether masks were required at all times. He said the rule was “open for interpretation,” which in his opinion meant that we could lower our coverings while in our seats but should raise them when in “public” spaces, such as the bathroom. Would an employee intervene if someone was not obliging? “If you mean by enforcement, are we going to call the police? No,” he replied. A few days later, on the trip back to Washington, I sat in the quiet car. The conductor asked two friends bantering loudly to keep their voices down. He didn’t bother the woman one row up who was singing to herself without a mask on.

My assessment: The train ride was anxiety-free and — dare I say? — enjoyable. Yes, Amtrak should enforce its mask rule, but with so few passengers on board (for now), I could easily dodge the rogue travelers. (When I reached out to Amtrak post-trip, the company responded: “We are enforcing by politely reminding customers of the new policy and asking them to comply. As this new normal of travel evolves, Amtrak will continue to evaluate current practices and launch new initiatives to support personal safety.”)

Flying on a plane

Expert advice: Dausey advised me to sit in the front of the plane, so that I could be the last one on and the first one off. (Airlines are boarding back to front.) He told me to refrain from reclining my seat, to create a wider berth between seats. He said the best seat is in the emergency exit row: “You’re buying your social distancing.”

I was flying United, which will contact passengers if their flight is more than 70 percent full and, until July 31, allow them to rebook for free or accept a credit. I asked Dausey what I should do if my flight is full. “It depends on the plane,” he said. If it’s a small commuter plane, I should switch to an emptier flight. However, I can stick with my itinerary if the aircraft is wide-bodied with higher ceilings (translation: better air circulation).

The experience: When choosing my flight, I searched for a nonstop route, to limit my exposure to additional people, planes and places. My choices were American and United, neither of which were blocking seats. Twenty-four hours before my departure, United informed me that my flight was “fairly full,” with 155 out of 185 seats booked. The next flight with a lighter passenger load was leaving two days later. A United reservationist found me an aisle seat beside an empty middle seat. I asked whether a last-minute seatmate could plop down next to me. “The plane is closed to any new reservations,” he reassured me.

I checked in online, but before I could obtain my boarding pass, I had to fill out a health questionnaire, one of the airline industry’s most recent requirements. The form asked me whether I had experienced any coronavirus-related symptoms or been in contact with anyone who had tested positive within the past 14 days. It also reiterated its face covering policy, warning that the airline could ban noncompliant passengers.

In the Newark airport, the Transportation Security Administration agent took my ID and asked me to lower my mask. I smiled but didn’t speak. At the screening area, the TSA agents, who wore plastic face shields over surgical masks, discovered melting ice in my water bottle. Instead of touching my bags, they reversed the belt so that I could dump the contraband. En route to the gate, I passed bar stools and restaurant seating wrapped in plastic like mummified furniture. A screen overhead displayed a covid-19 travel advisory; red blooms covered the U.S. map.

Boarding felt familiar, but not in a good way. Passengers clumped together as they waited for the agent to call their section. I tried to keep my distance, but several people inserted their bodies into my six feet of space. On the plane, the flight attendant handed out antiseptic wipes. Over the PA, the flight crew described the onboard safety measures, such as disinfecting high-touch areas and cleaning the interior with an electrostatic spray. During the safety speech, the flight attendant apologized for not demonstrating how to put on the oxygen mask.

Halfway through the flight, the crew handed out snack packs containing a small bottle of water, pretzels and cookies. We were allowed to lower our masks to eat and drink, the sole exception to the rule. When it came time to disembark, the flight attendant called out five rows at a time. Even with the controlled deplaning, people rammed into one another like bumper cars.

For the return trip, I again received an email about my nearly full flight. An agent told me that 97 out of 127 seats were occupied; she assured me that the middle seat would remain empty. During boarding, a guy with a skateboard alerted a flight attendant to a passenger not wearing a mask. The barefaced man said he suffered from asthma. She asked skateboard guy if this situation made him feel uncomfortable. He said it did, and she moved him to a seat in the back. A few minutes later, another flight attendant asked the maskless man to comply with the rule. He started to mumble something about a medical condition but gave in and pulled a mask out of his pocket. One row up, the flight attendant asked a woman to adjust her mask to cover her nose.

Soon after we reached cruising altitude, the flight attendants appeared with a beverage cart and handed out cans of soda and bottled water. (Starting July 3, United reinstated its beverage service on flights of certain lengths or departure times.) Upon landing, a crew member said she would deplane the first 20 rows, followed by the next six and then the last section. Seeing the jumble of elbows and legs, I waited until everyone cleared out. I strolled down the empty aisle, with two flight attendants six feet behind me.

My assessment: The bookends of the flight were nerve-racking because of the crowding, but the flight itself was calm and orderly. I was heartened to see (nearly) everyone’s commitment to wearing a mask. However, similar to false claims regarding emotional support animals, I worry that some passengers might exploit the medical exemption rule for face coverings.

Renting a car

Expert advice: “The rental car is the safest,” said William Greenough, an infectious-disease specialist and professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. Even so, my advisers said I should take precautions. Dausey said I should wait for the first wave of arrivals to ebb before approaching the rental car counter and boarding the shuttle. He said the car itself is low-risk, unless I have a “trust issue” with the company’s cleaning procedures. If so, I should wipe down the steering wheel, directional and other high-touch points. Because the virus prefers the indoors to the outdoors, I should open all of the car windows, which is my usual driving style on a summer’s day.

The experience: The car rental counters at O’Hare are off-site, so I had to catch a shuttle. I let the first shuttle go, but the second one was equally packed. The door closest to the driver was off-limits, so we piled in through the back door. I stood in the wheelchair area, ready to move if necessary. A sign reminding passengers to keep their distance lay on the floor, between a man’s leather-shoe-clad feet. Inside the rental car facility, I approached an Avis agent who was standing behind plexiglass. She left the safety of the shield to take my driver’s license and credit card, grinning at me with an unmasked face. She handed me my contract and sent me to the garage. To exit, I had to show my ID and paperwork to an employee. I lowered my window, then stopped after noticing a sticky note on the windshield. It read: “Please show driver’s license to gate agent with your window closed.” I apologized for not following the rules. The man dismissed the policy. “I can’t read your driver’s license from that far away,” he said, sans mask. I drove off, with the Windy City breeze blowing through my windows and sunroof. Drop-off was seamless and contactless. I shared the shuttle with a family wearing matching masks.

My assessment: Avis needs to enforce the rules — including face coverings — that apply to its employees. I wish the shuttle had not been so crowded and the exchange of goods had been contactless. However, I was thrilled to escape reality in a Subaru Outback. (Back in Washington, I contacted Avis Budget Group about my findings. A representative replied: “We reviewed the videos related to your experience. . . . Rest assured we have taken the appropriate corrective action to ensure this does not happen again. Our highest objective is to keep our customers and employees safe.”)