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Planning a spring break trip during the pandemic? Here's what you need to know about flights

Southwest Airlines kicked off 2021 with a spring fare sale with tickets as low as $29 one way.

Spirit Airlines' website invites travelers to "Say hello to savings this spring,'' touting fares as low as $62 round trip.

And Las Vegas is readying the scaled-down reopening of select party pools and nightclubs and the resumption of full-time operations at resorts that have reduced hours this winter.

The second spring break season of the coronavirus pandemic is here, and with it hopes of a return to travel, at least for those who have been vaccinated or were already infected. Many travelers are encouraged by the trend in case counts and willing to take a risk or are simply suffering pandemic fatigue.

The winter storms walloping most of the country this month are sure to prompt even more Americans to start searching for flights.

Airlines and other travel businesses aren't expecting anything close to a return to 2019 travel levels this year, but executives say they are encouraged by early signs of an uptick in demand for spring break.

"Our survey data shows (customer) sentiment is at the highest level it’s been since we began tracking the data last spring,'' Matt Klein, chief commercial officer for Spirit Airlines, told investors in mid-February.

Travel so far in February supports the optimism. During the long Presidents Day/Valentine's Day weekend, passenger counts topped 1 million on Thursday and Friday and exceeded 900,000 on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, according to the Transportation Security Administration. And over the past weekend, more than 1 million passengers again were screened on Friday and Sunday. There have now been 21 days during the pandemic when traveler screenings exceeded 1 million, all but one since Thanksgiving. (In a typical year, daily passenger counts top 2 million.)

This despite the repeated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice to avoid travel.

"First and foremost, I would really encourage people to not travel,'' new CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a White House briefing earlier this month.

For those planning spring break trips by air, here are 9 things to keep in mind

1.Read the fine print on airline pandemic travel waivers before you book a flight. Yes, airlines have been more flexible than usual during the pandemic, waiving and then permanently eliminating onerous change fees on most tickets and relaxing other policies.

Most airlines still have policies in place, but many only currently cover tickets purchased by March 31. The policies have been extended several times as the pandemic drags on – and might be yet again – but there are signs airlines, buoyed by the vaccine, reduced coronavirus case counts and pent-up travel demand, are ready to tighten some booking restrictions. JetBlue Airways this week said beginning April 1, travelers buying basic economy tickets, which it calls Blue Basic fares, will have to pay a fee to change the ticket.

JetBlue and other airlines have even included those cheaper tickets, usually nonrefundable and non-changeable, in their pandemic waivers.

2. That travel credit from last year's canceled trip might be expired. Airlines offered more generous voucher redemption terms when travel collapsed at the outset of the pandemic a year ago. But they aren't extending expiration dates indefinitely as the coronavirus pandemic drags on. Some travelers are finding a nasty surprise when they go to redeem their credits and are pleading with airlines on social media to extend them. So check the status of yours in case the redemption deadline is approaching.

3. You can get there from here. Airlines have added a flurry of new flights to vacation spots given the lack of business travel, and not just to and from their hubs in major cities like Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and New York. Southwest Airlines alone has added or will add a dozen destinations, compared with one or two at most in a typical year. So shop around for flights and be sure to check discounters Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit, which continue to grow rapidly.

4. Your flight might be changed or canceled, so build some flexibility into your travel plans. If you're the type of traveler who squeezes every minute into a vacation, leaving on Friday afternoon and returning Sunday evening, this might be the year to leave a little wiggle room in your travel schedule. With travel demand fluctuating wildly based on COVID-19 case counts and headlines, airlines are regularly watching bookings and canceling flights to better match supply and demand. Travelers who already booked tickets are getting emails from airlines about schedule changes, some last minute, that cut their vacation short, extend it, or route them a different way.

5.You won't get a refund if you cancel your spring break trip due to COVID-19 concerns, a positive test or other reasons. Airlines only owe you a refund on a nonrefundable ticket if they cancel your flight or significantly change the schedule. Otherwise, you'll receive a travel credit or voucher for a future flight or can usually rebook the same trip to a later date, paying any applicable fare difference.

6. Empty middle seats are a thing of the pandemic past on most airlines. Delta Air Lines is the only carrier still limiting the number of seats for sale in economy class, giving passengers concerned about social distancing a little extra room. Delta's policy is slated to expire April 30. That doesn't mean every flight will be packed, of course, as air travel is still down sharply from 2019. But if you're worried about airport crowding and sitting next to a stranger on a plane for a few hours, this probably isn't the year for a spring break trip, by air at least.

7.Several popular beach vacation destinations, including Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean, have entry and/or exit requirements and other restrictions due to COVID-19. Study up on them before you book a trip. Hawaii's requirement of a negative COVID-19 test from a select list of health care companies to avoid a lengthy quarantine has tripped up plenty a passenger since it went into effect in October. A Minnesota couple headed to Hawaii was temporarily separated this month because they mistakenly assumed the husband's test from the vaunted Mayo Clinic was acceptable.

Travelers considering a trip to Mexico or the Caribbean need to make plans for a COVID-19 test during their vacation and have a plan B should they test positive. As of Jan. 26, all travelers boarding flights to the United States, including U.S. citizens, must show a negative COVID-19 test or proof they have recovered from the virus within the past three months. Those who don't will be denied boarding, the CDC says. U.S. territories including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are exempt. Travelers who have been vaccinated are not.

Confused by all the rules? Many U.S. airlines and online travel agencies list requirements and restrictions by destination on their websites, as do tourism organizations.

8. You won't need a negative COVID-19 test to board a flight within the United States. The idea was under consideration at the CDC, but it has been tabled, for now at least, following intense opposition from airlines, unions and travel industry groups. The CDC still recommendsgetting tests before and after any travel, among other guidelines.

9.Airlines still aren't serving much in the way of food and drinks, for free or for sale, at least in economy. In fact, you won't find alcoholic beverages served in regular economy class on any airline except Spirit, Allegiant and select United flights.

This article originally appeared on USA Today

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