What Happened When I Tried Flying From Mexico to the U.S. During the Pandemic

Of course, traveling is anything but normal right now. Here’s what you need to know before attempting to make your way back home.

After two months of living in Mexico as a digital nomad, and despite plans to travel to Amsterdam, I now find myself hunkered down in Miami Beach, Florida, during this coronavirus pandemic.

In this post, I’ll explain why I changed my plans, how I booked my last-minute travel, my flight experience and how life appears in my new city of shelter-in-place. I will also share tips on how to navigate last-minute travel arrangements in case you find yourself in a similar situation.

Why did I leave?

Airplane at airport.Marija Jovovic/Getty Images

I decided to leave Mexico because within a span of a few days, the global situation changed dramatically:

  1. On March 11, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a Level 3 advisory for Americans to “avoid nonessential travel” to most of Europe.
  2. Then, President Donald Trump announced a 30-day ban on travel from Europe that was scheduled to go into effect on March 13.
  3. Borders between countries were beginning to close.
  4. Airlines were reducing flights, and I did not want to find myself in a situation where I would not be able to fly out.
  5. I did not feel that Mexico was taking appropriate social distancing measures.

I had originally planned to travel to Amsterdam from Mexico; once the CDC issued the Level 3 warning, I had to cancel the trip. My travel insurance provider, SafetyWing, does not offer medical coverage for coronavirus if you travel to a country with a Level 3 warning.

At first, I thought I would just stay in Mexico for another month, but as the days went by I started to see exponential growth in coronavirus cases all over the world. The pandemic was always on the news, all over social media, and events were getting canceled on a daily basis.

Friends and acquaintances were talking about the loss of jobs, clients and revenue all while the stock market was becoming increasingly volatile. The severity of the situation became glaringly apparent.

While many countries began implementing steps to combat the spread of the virus, I felt uneasy about the lack of social distancing in Mexico and I suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to come back to the U.S. Although I am from New York City, I didn’t want to go home because New York had the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country. I decided I would be better off isolating myself in Miami, where I would be only a two-hour flight from New York if necessary.

Booking process

Overhead view of a woman using a computerJGalione/Getty Images

I searched flights from Cancun to Miami and noticed that the only direct flights were on American Airlines. Although there were still several flights each day, I knew I had to act quickly. President Trump was discussing closing the border with Canada, so I figured a border closure with Mexico wouldn’t be far off. There were also rumors that the State Department would issue a Level 4: Do Not Travel advisory. I felt that if I didn’t leave soon and flights to Mexico were suspended, I would have a long (if not impossible) trip home.

Despite worrying that flights would be expensive, I found a nonstop flight on American Airlines from Cancun to Miami for $79 in basic economy. I booked the flight via the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal for 5,240 Chase Ultimate Rewards® points. Since I have a Chase Sapphire Reserve® card, my points are worth 50 percent more when redeemed through the Ultimate Rewards® portal.

I knew that my Airbnb rental in Miami would be more expensive than my apartment in Mexico, so I felt extra grateful that I was able to use Ultimate Rewards® points to book my flight.

For this Airbnb rental, I prioritized several amenities:

  • Strong WiFi.
  • A coffee machine.
  • A work desk with an office chair, since I planned to work from home rather than from a coworking space.
  • A Netflix account, because I knew I wouldn’t be leaving the house.

After a long day of emailing back and forth with many Airbnb hosts, I happily found an apartment that met my requirements and a host who was willing to negotiate the price. The host was also kind enough to bring a spare office chair to the apartment for me. My main reason for negotiating the price was because Airbnb shockingly adds over $300 in various fees on rentals in Miami (but that is a rant for another day).

With my Airbnb secured, I felt ready for my departure the next day.

Nerd Tip: Don’t be afraid to contact an Airbnb host to ask for a discount or specific convenience you may need. A host may have the amenity you are looking for, and some may be willing to negotiate, especially in times like this, so it never hurts to ask.

If you find yourself in need of a place to stay but don’t have a lot of disposable cash right now, check out these top Airbnb rentals under $100 in all 50 states.

Flying experience

Economy Class seats for passengers on commercial aircraft.VICHAILAO/Getty Images

Cancun airport

During my taxi ride to the airport, I read that the State Department had officially issued a Level 4: Do Not Travel advisory. I was very happy with my decision to go back to the U.S.

I arrived at the airport two hours before my flight to find that at first glance everything seemed normal. There was no line at the ticket counter, and checking my bag and getting my boarding pass took about five minutes. To my dismay, my boarding pass had the dreaded “SSSS” printed on it, which meant I’d been selected for additional screening at the gate.

I proceeded to security and noticed someone wearing a face mask and what looked like a hazmat suit. Next to him sat a woman also in a face mask. This sight was pretty alarming because the coronavirus situation finally felt real in Mexico. I asked the agent checking my passport what was going on, but he did not seem to know.

After security, I went to the Mera Business Lounge, the only Priority Pass lounge in Terminal 3. At times like this, I feel really fortunate to have the Chase Sapphire Reserve® credit card because it offers a free Priority Pass membership. By going to the lounge, I probably saved $30 in food and drink given how expensive airports can be.

Flight and seat choice

When I arrived at the gate, I asked the gate agent if I could change my seat because I was assigned seat 34B, which is a middle seat in the rear of the plane. I was given the option to purchase window seat 10F for $43. This is one of the best seats in economy because there is no seat in front of it (since row nine has only two seats). Although I usually roll the dice and hope for a good seat at boarding, this time I happily paid for the upgrade. Airlines are suffering now, and I wanted to do my part to help.

After 10 minutes of additional security screening due to my “SSSS” stamp, I was done and boarded the plane. I had the whole row to myself, which was great because I was concerned about social distancing. The 90-minute flight was moderately full, relatively smooth and gave us a beautiful sunset view. However, it was bittersweet returning to the United States under such serious circumstances.

Miami Airport

Miami International Airport felt deserted. I wasn’t sure if this was the norm for Miami at 8 p.m. on a Thursday or due to the current situation. Since there was no line at Global Entry, immigration was a breeze.

My bag was circling on the belt by the time I arrived at the baggage claim. Overall, it took about 20 minutes from landing to leaving the airport. The quick airport experience was a huge relief, since less than a week ago enhanced screening delays had resulted in long airport lines.

First morning in Miami

Close-up view of hands in rubber gloves pushing shopping carts.Kerkez/Getty Images

I woke up early and headed to Whole Foods for a grocery run. Although the store was filled with people, everyone was doing their best to respect the social distancing norms we’ve come to expect. People were friendly and kind to one another, and there was a sense of community that was nice to witness. Overall, the store was well stocked. However, I saw items like pasta, soup and rice running low by 9 a.m.

I saw many people wearing face masks and rubber gloves, which prompted me to ask a few shoppers where I could find a mask. One woman said she was a nurse and got it from work. Another person said to try Walgreens across the street. Unfortunately, when I arrived, there were no masks in Walgreens, and the store employees said to try again tomorrow because another delivery was coming.

The bottom line

Wash your hands regularly to keep the germs awayJay Yuno/Getty Images

Although the number of coronavirus cases in the United States is rising, I am very happy with my decision to come back since I felt that Mexico wasn’t taking the right steps to mitigate coronavirus spread. Traveling during this time was strange; it was eerie seeing airports so empty. I washed my hands countless times in the lounge, at the airport and as soon as I arrived at my Airbnb. I also washed my hair and laundered the clothes I wore on the plane. Walking around Whole Foods and finding everyone in face masks and gloves illustrated the gravity of the situation. However, I am glad to see people taking appropriate precautions.

I feel fortunate to have used my Chase Ultimate Rewards® points to book my flight, because saving money now is paramount. I’m also glad to have found an Airbnb that offered the home office setup I was searching for so I can effectively practice social distancing. I hope our collective behavior to flatten the curve makes a dent in the pandemic’s spread.

For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

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Elina Geller is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: [email protected]

The article My Experience Flying from Mexico to the U.S. During the Coronavirus Pandemic originally appeared on NerdWallet.