Like so much else in 2020, the holiday season is going to feel different this year. Still, gathering with loved ones is on most people’s wish list. We’re all craving the comfort of family traditions and togetherness. But as COVID-19 cases rise in so many states, you may find yourself facing difficult decisions around holiday travel.
The safest decision is to stay home and limit gatherings to the people in your household and Zooming. But others may decide to go the distance to spend time with loved ones. So figuring out how to celebrate and travel safely is important.
“When it comes to holiday travel, you have to look at a few key factors: How you travel there and how far away it is; and activities when everyone gets there, including how much you interact,” says Darria Long Gillespie, an emergency physician and clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine. “There is no family get-together that is ‘zero’ risk, but think about how you can plan an event that reduces risk.”
Here, travel experts share their tips for making holiday travel as safe and stress-free as possible without sacrificing the spirit of the season.
Be realistic about the risks
Just like with everything else right now, you want to assess risk. With travel, especially during the holidays, it’s important to consider variables including:
- Length of your trip.
- General health of the people you’ll be traveling with and visiting.
- COVID-19 numbers for your origin location and destination.
- How long you need to quarantine upon arrival—and, possibly, after you return home.
- If there are high-risk or elderly relatives in the group, take extra precautions, like getting tested beforehand and wearing masks indoors and outside.
If you’re still unsure of what to do, remember that an extra layer of precaution never hurts—and that could include checking with your doctor for specific medical advice.
Also, take advantage of free resources like Buoy. This AI-powered tool allows you to learn more about your health symptoms—COVID and non-COVID alike—and find care if you need it. As long as you have internet access, you’re able to access Buoy.
Factor in flexibility
While “expect the unexpected” is always a good travel mantra, it’s especially relevant during a global health crisis, when obstacles like changing health regulations, flight cancellations, and infection rates are all suddenly in play.
Our tip? Create a contingency plan for each part of your journey. For the flight, bring snacks (most airlines have stopped in-flight food service) and a change of clothes. And be sure to pack extra essentials, including medications, in case you are delayed.
Consider flying during off-peak times for fewer crowds and better prices. “Like any holiday season, flexibility is key for getting the best airfares, which is even more important now with fewer flights than before the pandemic,” says Mark Chesnut, a New York-based travel writer and consultant. Chesnut also suggests checking with the airline ahead of time to learn about their policies around flight capacity and change fees (which most airlines have waived—a trend that’s hopefully here to stay).
Finally, be prepared to change plans—or even cancel—if someone gets sick. In the end, it’s most important that everyone stays healthy.
Invest in good travel insurance
Not only will travel insurance offer some much-needed peace of mind, it can also help you recoup cancellation fees and offset possible healthcare costs if you or someone you’re traveling with gets sick. If you’re traveling internationally to one of the few countries that currently allow Americans, travel insurance is likely required—just be sure to read the fine print on coverage policies.
Fly or drive?
Flying and driving each come with their own advantages and risks.
Driving helps you limit the number of people you interact with and allows you to control many aspects of your journey. Consider how far and how long you’ll be driving: Will you need to make multiple stops for rest breaks and food? Will you have to stay overnight at a hotel en route?
Flying is generally faster and makes a shorter visit more manageable. If you choose to fly, take into account whether you will be navigating multiple major airports. And if you’re traveling with kids, think about whether they’ll be able to handle keeping their masks on for the entire flight. (Major U.S. airlines require them for children ages two and up.)
Hotel or Airbnb?
Many chain hotels have implemented strict new protocols for cleaning and sanitizing. Still, common areas like lobbies and restaurants present some risk. If you’re looking forward to amenities like room service, gyms, and pools, keep in mind that they may not be available.
Rental properties like Airbnb can make it easier to social distance, since you can book the entire place for yourself. Before you commit, ask about things like shared entrances, and “do not be afraid to ask for the cleaning standards of the accommodation,” advises Katiana Jolimeau, owner of a Washington, D.C.-area boutique travel agency. “If the answers don’t work for you, don’t book it.”
In both cases, check about cancellation policies. You want as much freedom as possible to change plans, even last minute, without losing money.
Give everyone some space
As much as we may be looking forward to family togetherness, this isn’t the year to pile into Grandma’s house for a week. Instead, experts advise booking separate accommodations whenever possible. “Rent multiple places where you stay and then just convene for a meal for one or two hours,” suggests Gillespie.
Better yet, take the festivities outside. From meals (alfresco dinner, anyone?) to activities like hiking, sledding, and (socially distanced) bonfire s'mores, you can still celebrate together without sacrificing anyone’s safety.
Safety first—at home and on the road
No matter where you are, it’s crucial to continue following COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: washing hands, wearing masks, and social distancing. Also, remember to keep everyone in good spirits by eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep.
Whether or not travel will play a role in your holiday season, doing all you can to make sure you and your family stay healthy and safe is perhaps the greatest gift of all.
For more advice on how to minimize risk during the holiday, see the CDCs advice for safe get-togethers and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s guidance on air travel.