What It’s Like to Fly Premium Economy from Chicago to Boston on American Airlines in the Pandemic
Before the pandemic hit, I was a 2-3 flights a year kind of person and I usually like to fly American Economy (Basic Economy more often than not, to be honest).
I recently took a flight from Chicago (ORD) to Boston (BOS) and – because of the inexpensive prices – was able to upsell myself and purchase a Premium Economy ticket. Here’s my impressions from that flight experience, from booking to baggage check.
Book Your Ticket Like a Boss
As I mentioned, fares are unusually economical right now (and have been so all year), so I went ahead and treated myself to a Premium Economy ticket. The interface on Qtrip is really easy to see all of the various flight options, so I opted into the 737-800. I’ve flown a lot on the 737-800. If you fly domestically, you probably have too. They’re pretty much the classic, traditional plane that a lot of the airlines have (American, United, Southwest and Delta all have them in heavy rotation).
American has a couple of “versions” of the 737-800, all of which are comfortable, though the airline should have them all updated into a more modern version they call the “Oasis” by the end of March 2021. The Oasis version is the best experience overall, though it isn’t without its quirks. More on that later.
I should mention that as vaccinations become more widely available, and we start to see more folks return to travel, these low low fares will start to climb again. If you have a trip planned for later in the year and know your dates already, it wouldn’t hurt to buy your ticket now.
Also, American still has it’s liberal, pandemic-proof cancellation policy in place – so if you need to change or cancel you can without penalty. This policy is in place at least through March 31, 2021. Keep in mind that when you rebook (if you do), you’ll be required to pay the difference in the fare if the price goes up. One cool thing is that you can change both your origin and destination city under this policy.
What to Expect When You’re At the Airport
O-Hare was empty! Well, not empty but I’ll tell you there were no crowds at all. And even in the parking garage, there are signs to “mask up” and that they are required inside the building. From the time I stepped into the airport in Chicago until the time I stepped out of the airport in Boston, I never saw a single adult NOT wearing a mask.
In the airport itself, signs directing people to stay six feet apart, cover your mouth with an appropriate mask were everywhere.
The one area where it felt like social distancing was not being handled super well was at the touch-screen check-in kiosks. I had checked in before I got to the airport (I prefer to fly with a carry-on only when I can), but if you do have to check a bag they haven’t quite figured out how to keep people from crowding at the kiosks. Yikes.
Many restaurants and shops were still closed, and the places that were open like Hudson News are open with “strategic” times, so that they minimize crowds. Still, the places that are open do tend to be a bit more crowded than you might expect. Plan to bring your own snacks if you can.
Certain areas of the airport are still closed, like the yoga rooms and the play area. In addition, some airline lounges are operating on limited schedules as well.
Testing Centers and Home Testing Options
Though the federal government has not mandated a negative test or vaccine requirement for domestic air travel, a lot of states require a negative Covid test within 72 hours of arrival and Massachusetts is one of those states that do. If you don’t have proof of a negative test, you’ll have to self-quarantine for 10 days and that’s no fun.
To this end, airports are providing testing centers, and Chicago has one if you would like to get a test there on site.
If not, American actually partners with LetsGetChecked which is a home testing company that will turn test results around in 48 hours for $119.
Security and Boarding Fun
Security was pretty standard fare. A lot of the social distancing at the airport is really determined by the individual. There were very respectful people in line at security, and some who were less so.
You scan your own boarding pass (via phone or paper pass), but the TSA agent asked to hand over my identification, and I also had to pull down my mask so they could verify it was me. It’s a good idea to have some hand sanitizer on you, because I didn’t see anyone wiping down bins (maybe they were, but I didn’t see it).
Boarding was easily the hardest place in the airport to enforce social distancing. I’m never a “crowd the jetway” kind of a person, but plenty of people crowded in just like they always do – I guess the impulse to get there first is stronger than the impulse to social distance for some.
Stripped Down Experience On-Board
Ok where to start. First, I guess we should talk about the seats. I flew on the newly refurbished 737-800, so I got the new seat style. Some people complain about the lack of padding on these new seats, but I didn’t mind. The new seats are almost 6” wider and have about an inch more pitch thanks to those thinner cushions which is great, but the armrests are also thinner which would be a bummer on a longer flight. I’m not a tall person (just 5’4”), but I sat near a guy that was pretty tall and he seemed pretty comfy.
The plane bathroom was MINISCULE so I recommend using the airport bathrooms at O’Hare (spotless! Like everything these days), rather than trying to cram yourself into that tiny little space. Of course, on a longer flight, you’re going to have to brave it. Ick.
Overhead storage is much more spacious, so on a full flight this will be helpful, but my flight wasn’t full at all. Which leads to another quirk. Like most airlines, American has stepped back from the early pandemic policy whereby they promised to keep the middle seats empty. Not so, anymore. Even on my flight which, as I said was not full, plenty of people had a neighbor sitting next to them in a middle seat. If this doesn’t work for you, Delta is the only airline to commit to this policy (for the duration of the pandemic it seems).
Sadly for me, American has a very abbreviated dining service on flights shorter than 900 miles (Chicago to New York is just under), so all you get is water, canned drinks and juice on request. That means no one is coming around to take your order (this is to keep both you and the flight attendants safer), but it’s still a reminder to bring snacks. I found out the hard way you can’t buy booze either. Sigh.
Now for the good news. You’ll have a power port and USB at your seat on the new 737-800 configuration and excellent Wifi from gate to gate (for a fee). That means you don’t have to wait until you’re in the air to log on. I loved having seamless Internet from airport to airport. And if there’s anything we all need in this pandemic is to keep our minds occupied. I can report that I was sufficiently distracted and I didn’t even have to worry about my phone going dead. Sweet!
Bring your own smartphone, laptop or tablet for the best in-flight entertainment. American has an awesome in-flight streaming service with Apple TV, movies, music and original programming. And it’s all 100% free. I can’t recommend it enough.
The flight passed uneventfully enough and everyone kept their masks on that I could see. A bunch of good citizens on the Chicago to New York schedule these days.
Baggage Claim or “Fly” Right By?
I wouldn’t know, because like I said, I like to pack light and skip the baggage carousels (that’s always been my M.O.) But if there’s ever been a time to fly light it’s now. I have heard that baggage claim at Logan is still a bit of a free for all – so be careful if you have to bring a bunch of bags with you. American allows 2 free checked bags in Premium Economy, so that may be too much of a temptation for some, I know. Just keep them under 50 pounds a piece, please or you’ll get an upcharge and that’s really a nasty surprise.
That’s all for now. If you like this post, please let us know in the comments below so we can bring you more popular routes and what it’s like to fly these days. Stay safe out there and happy travels!
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