Editor’s Note: As the pandemic evolves, travel rules can shift at a moment's notice. Be sure to read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before you book, and again before you travel.
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 COVID-19 and emerging variants, holiday travel might look different this year. While many people have avoided travel since the outbreak began in early 2020, that’s changing as we approach another holiday season.
We prepared some tips for you to consider where to go and what to do toward 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 pros and cons of traveling right now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends being up to date on your COVID-19 vaccinations before traveling, so check to see if you’re eligible for a booster shot if it has been more than 6 months since your last vaccination. Large indoor gatherings (or those outdoors where social distancing isn’t possible) can still pose a threat, especially to those who are unable to get vaccinated, such as young children and the immunocompromised.
The CDC recommends that those who aren’t vaccinated wear well-fitting masks in public indoor settings. Even people who are vaccinated are encouraged to wear masks in locations with high transmission rates.
If you’re feeling sick or have come into close contact with someone who has COVID-19, get tested to make sure you aren’t infected, and consider staying home instead of traveling.
Decide where you should go
A few states such as Hawaii still require a quarantine period for unvaccinated visitors from other states. Check out local restrictions before you travel, as well as the number of cases in your destination at the state’s health department’s website. For instance, Maryland requires visitors from high-impact states to test for COVID-19 and quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.
If you’re traveling internationally, check your destination country’s guidelines carefully to determine if you need to be vaccinated, tested before arrival, and/or quarantine. Some international destinations still remain closed to tourists.
Let family and friends know that you may cancel your travel plans at the last minute if you are feeling sick, or if infection rates soar in your area or the location you plan to visit. Monitor conditions in the weeks leading up to your trip, and keep in mind that because of more lenient policies on some airlines, you may be able to cancel or change your plans with no financial penalty.
Consider alternate modes of transportation
Airplanes are a convenient way to get to your destination quicker, but driving could be a good alternative depending on distance or weather conditions. Amtrak has special protocols in place for safe travel, too. If you do fly, be aware that flights on Saturday and Sunday around a holiday are usually more crowded. Consider departing late on Friday instead.
When you do book a flight, keep checking the seat map to try and monitor the passenger load. You won’t be able to see the full picture of how many people have booked, but the map will give you some anecdotal info. During the holiday season, there might not be any other less-crowded flights when you want 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 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 or train, 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 for a few seconds as they look at your ID photo.
Face shields: Passengers may 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 high-touch areas such as the tray table, armrests, overhead light and vent controls.
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 keep your hands as clean as possible 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 (e.g., ticket windows, doorknobs and toilet handles), 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 for hand sanitizer. 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. However, they will need to be screened separately, so be prepared to remove them from your bag.
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, avoid doing so if possible to reduce your risk of exposure. Keep your mask on at all other times.
Dining indoors: It’s tempting to pull over and enjoy a meal at that Cracker Barrel on the way to Grandma’s, but consider the vaccination requirements of the state you’re in and your comfort level before dining in a restaurant. Some states, such as New York, require all indoor diners to show proof of vaccination with a matching photo ID. Dining indoors still presents risks, so you may want to bring food with you or purchase a meal via a drive-thru to enjoy outdoors at a rest stop or in your vehicle.
Restrooms: Stay away from high-touch surfaces, and try to pick the cleanest restrooms during your travels. Wear your mask while you’re in the restroom, and wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap before exiting.
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). Are they vaccinated? Have they had a booster shot? Will they get tested before the gathering? What precautions do they regularly take to avoid COVID-19?
If those safety measures align with yours, you may be comfortable with a small gathering indoors. If not, will the weather be conducive to an outdoor meetup? In mild climates, could you host dinner outdoors with a few heat lamps nearby?
If everyone agrees to be up-to-date on their vaccinations, get tested and/or wear masks, but then someone doesn’t follow through 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 get-together if certain precautions aren’t followed.
This holiday season, travel continues to be different but not impossible to navigate as people continue to become more comfortable with traveling. Make smart choices that feel right to you, avoid unnecessary risks, and celebrate the season safely.