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How to Plan Pandemic Holiday Travel

One aspect of our lives affected by the initial spread of COVID-19 was traveling. We had no idea that our world and travel plans were about to be turned upside down. As the new virus spread, countries closed their borders. Cruise ships were docked. Airports became deserted.

As temperatures drop, doctors expect new coronavirus cases to rise. At the same time, this is the time of the year when many of us travel for the holidays. So, should you travel for the holidays in the midst of a pandemic?

Making the travel decision
The temptation to book a flight to see family is high, especially with rock bottom airline and gas prices, and the “almost” guarantee that there won’t be many other travelers.

Some of us will opt to stay home. Others will opt to go. Regardless of your decision, it’s worth noting that public-health guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that travel increases the chances of contracting and spreading COVID-19.

What’s your destination?
When you travel, you’re more likely to have greater exposure to shared spaces—which may increase your chances of being exposed to illness. If you’re traveling to an area currently experiencing an increase in cases, your chances of contacting the virus could be even higher. Local COVID-19 guidelines vary by state, county and even cities so it’s important to be fully aware of the differences.

What’s the safest way to get there?
If you decide to go, realize that not all types of travel are equally risky. Which method is safer? As with most things coronavirus, there’s no perfect answer. It depends on the trip, your behavior and your risk tolerance.

Traveling by air, for example, is riskier than by car. If you’re traveling a significant distance, you might wonder whether flying or driving is safer during the COVID-19 pandemic. Airports, bus stations, train stations, and rest stops are all places travelers can be exposed to the virus in the air and on surfaces. These are also places where it can be hard to social distance.

Driving is usually better for short distances. You have control over your interactions with other people.

If you do choose to fly, try to keep gatherings small and take precautions. According to the CDC, “Air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals, which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces. Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.”

If flying, look for flexible booking policies
Most carriers have adjusted their policies to allow for no-fee ticket changes. However, there still may be other fees, or you may have to pay the fare difference. U.S. airlines have differing policies on changes and cancelations due to COVID-19. Check with your carrier for the most up-to-date policies.

Things to do
Help minimize holiday travel headaches with these tips:

Be proactive:

  • Depart early in the day if flying. Flights with an early departure time are less likely to be affected by delays.
  • Choose itineraries with longer connection times.
  • Select smaller airports with fewer crowds and, if possible, those with less risk of severe winter weather.
  • Buy tickets on a plane that is leaving middle seats empty.
  • Direct individual air vents onto each family member to temper any virus particles.
  • Try to choose an airline that offers a refundable reservation in case you need to change plans.
  • Look up case counts and trajectories. If they’re particularly high in the place where you’re leaving or headed, consider rescheduling or canceling your trip.

Be cost-savvy:

  • In a normal year, booking a flight only gets more expensive as you near the end of December. But this year, prices could stay low or even drop the closer we get to the holidays. Google Flights is a site that gives a good way to keep an eye on rates before you make firm plans.

Be cautious:

  • People who are especially vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness are safest staying home. This includes older people, those that are frail, and those with underlying illnesses.
  • To protect vulnerable friends and family members, skip the trip if it could potentially introduce illness to them.

How to gather
Upon arrival, should you stay with family? Can you safely gather with people outside your household?

Think about your comfort level with traveling and your family’s risk level and then think about the others you’re traveling to see and their risks. The best answer is the fewer people from different households, the better.

You may want to have a smaller gathering than usual. Discuss this with relatives beforehand. It’s also safer to stay at your family’s place rather than a hotel, even for a longer visit.

Follow recommended COVID-19 safety precautions

  • Wear a mask to keep your nose and mouth covered when in public settings. Bring extra masks with you. You don’t need to purchase a special, heavy-duty mask—a comfortable, well-fitted cloth mask will do.
  • Stay at least 6 feet apart (about 2 arms’ length) from anyone who is not from your household.
  • Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol).
  • Watch your health: Look for symptoms of COVID-19, and take your temperature if you feel sick.
  • Follow state, territorial, and local recommendations or requirements.
  • Follow quarantine rules for your destination.
  • Get tested before you fly, as you and family members can catch coronavirus infections before you go. Give yourself enough time to get your results. Anyone with a positive result should skip the trip.

Resources: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services,, Cable News Network., The Seattle Times, Airlines for America, WFTS-TV, OAG Aviation

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