Editor’s Note: NEA Member Benefits understands how much you love to travel and how much you’ve missed it. As states begin to relax their regulations with regard to COVID-19 and more Americans become vaccinated, travel is opening up more and more. Before planning a trip, read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before booking and again before traveling.
Many of us have a tradition of traveling home to visit family and friends for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Christmas, or going on vacation during the holidays. However, with the continued threat of the novel coronavirus, holiday travel will definitely look different this year. While many people have avoided travel since the outbreak began in early 2020, that's likely to change as we approach the holiday season. We prepared some tips for you to consider where to go and what to do towards the end of the year.
Determine if you should travel
Even if you are really craving mom’s turkey stuffing and pumpkin pie, weigh the options of traveling right now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends virtual Thanksgiving celebrations this year. Large indoor gatherings (or those outdoors where social distancing isn't possible) pose a threat to everybody, including the elderly and college students who might catch the virus and bring it back to campus.
Decide where you should go
Some states still require 14-day quarantine for folks visiting from other states. Check out local restrictions before you travel, as well as the number of cases in an area at the health department website. For instance, Maryland requires visitors from high-impact states to test for COVID-19 and quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.
Let family and friends know that you may cancel your travel plans at the last minute if infection rates soar in your area or the one you plan to visit. Monitor conditions in the weeks leading up to your trip and know that because of new, more lenient airline policies, you can usually cancel or change your plans with no financial penalty.
Consider modes of transportation
Airplanes are a convenient way to get to your destination quicker, but think about driving as an alternative depending on distance or weather conditions. Amtrak has special protocols in place for safe travel too. If you do fly, know that flights on Saturday and Sunday around a holiday are usually more crowded. Can you depart late on Friday instead?
When you do book a flight, keep checking the seat map to try and monitor the load. It won't show you the full picture of how many people have booked but it will give you some anecdotal info. Also know that some airlines, such as Delta and JetBlue, are blocking middle seats for sale right now. Other airlines, such as American, are selling out their flights if there is demand but they will let you change flights to a less crowded one if you have safety concerns. Just realize that there might not be a less crowded flight during the dates you wish to travel.
What to bring for a safe trip
To keep safe while traveling this holiday season, be sure to have these items readily available in your carry-on bag.
Face masks: U.S. airlines, Amtrak and most bus companies now require passengers older than 2 years old to wear a mask at all times during transit. The only time you can take it off on board an airplane, for example, is for a brief drink or snack. In most cases, you cannot wear a bandana or neck gaiter. Vented masks are also a no-go unless you cover the vent with a surgical or fabric mask. Check with your transportation company for any specific mask requirements.
Note: If you're traveling via air, be prepared to briefly lower your mask when going through the TSA security checkpoint. The Homeland Security agent will ask that you lower your mask as he/she looks at your ID photo. You only have to lower it for a few seconds and the agent will be masked at all times.
Face shields: Passengers may also wear a face shield in conjunction with, but not instead of, a face mask.
Sanitizing wipes: While many airlines are more vigorously cleaning their aircraft between flights and giving out sanitizing wipes as you board the aircraft, it never hurts to bring your own supplies. Once you board, wipe down your seating area and pay attention to high-touch areas, such as the tray table, armrests and overhead light and vent controls. Avoid wiping down the seat itself since the sanitizer can degrade the leather.
Hand sanitizer: While traveling, you may not always be able to get to a sink with hot water and soap. Take along hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol) so you can clean your hands during your travels.
Bring sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer along whether you're flying, traveling by train or bus, or driving. Wipe down any high-touch surfaces you come in contact with (i.e., ticket windows, doorknobs, toilet handles, etc.), and disinfect your hands often when it's not possible to wash them with hot water and soap.
Don't worry about TSA liquid limits. Right now, you can bring a pack of wipes and up to a 12-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer whenever you pass through airport screening.
What to avoid
Eating and drinking en route: We know it's nice to be able to drink and snack during a flight, train ride or bus trip. But, if you can avoid it, do so. Keep your mask on at all times.
Dining indoors: It's tempting to pull over and enjoy a meal at that Cracker Barrel on the way to grandma's, but don't do it. Dining indoors still presents risks, so your better bet is to bring food with you or purchase a meal via a drive-thru to enjoy outdoors at a rest stop or in the safety of your vehicle.
Restrooms: Staying away from high-touch surfaces is another good practice and that means picking the cleanest restrooms when nature calls during your transit. At the airport, walk to the farthest ends of the terminal to find any out-of-the-way bathrooms that might be used by fewer people. Wear your mask while you're in the restroom, and wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap before exiting back to the terminal.
If you're driving and visiting rest stops, download an app such as Charmin's Sit or Squat that will tell you the location of the nearest public restrooms and its cleanliness level (based on crowd-sourced input).
Set holiday expectations
Before making any travel plans for the holidays, have a frank discussion with the people you plan to visit (or welcome into your home). What precautions do they regularly take to avoid coronavirus? Do those safety measures align with yours? If so, you may be comfortable with a small gathering indoors, preferably with everyone wearing masks when not eating or drinking and keeping plenty of social distance. If not, will the weather be conducive to an outdoor meetup? In mild climates, could you get away with dinner outdoors with a few heat lamps?
If everyone agrees to wear masks, but then someone doesn't on the day of your gathering, will you leave (or ask the guest to leave)? Be open and honest about the type of gathering you're comfortable attending and be very clear if you'd pull the plug on the meeting if certain things happened.
This holiday season, travel will be different but not impossible to navigate. If you decide to take a flight or a car, train or bus ride, prepare your carry-on with everything you need for a safe trip. Then, make smart choices, avoid unnecessary risks and celebrate the season with the ones you love.