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- This year, the holiday travel period overlaps with a possible second wave of COVID-19, as well as cold and flu season.
- Many will be left wondering: is it safe to travel for the holidays? Or perhaps more importantly, should I travel?
- If you’re considering visiting family or taking an end of year vacation, there are key risks to consider before you hit book.
- We asked three doctors, a microbiologist, and a travel pro for their expert assessments of holiday travel risks, safer choices, and how to protect yourself and others when traveling.
- Read more: Is travel safe? We interviewed experts on risks associated with flying, booking hotels or Airbnbs, renting cars, and more, plus ideas on safe vacations during COVID-19.
After months of quarantine, both mandated and self-imposed, most people are bored, weary, lonesome, and cooped up. For many, a significant period of time has passed since they’ve seen family and loved ones.
As such, the upcoming holiday season poses a complex set of questions, especially when it comes to travel. Important among them is: Is it safe to travel for the holidays this year? And perhaps even more critical, should I travel during COVID, even if I technically can?
There are plenty of reasons to want to get on the road, whether to celebrate the holidays with family or to simply take a vacation during COVID. In many states, restrictions have become loose enough to make either happen.
But we all bear responsibility, not just to ourselves to and our loved ones, but to the larger community still suffering under the ongoing health threat and economic fallout of the pandemic.
Which doesn’t make addressing that travel dilemma any easier.
If you’re struggling with these questions, we spoke to several experts to help guide decisions about holiday travel during the novel coronavirus. We asked three doctors, a microbiologist, and a travel pro for their assessments on the risks, the best choices to make in search of safer travel, and how to protect yourself and others if you do decide to get on the road.
Just remember, this is an evolving situation. It’s crucial to follow guidelines and advice set forth by organizations such as the CDC and WHO, and practice safety measures no matter where you go, including wearing a mask, washing your hands, and maintaining social distancing. You should also consider whether you’re leaving or traveling to a hotspot, so as not to contribute to infection spikes.
Keep reading for what medical experts think you should know, plus our tips on safe vacations during COVID.
With apologies to binary thinkers, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
Indeed, travel carries inherent risk, which we’ve detailed extensively.
But individual travelers who plan responsibly and intentionally may decide that the risks they face are minimal, manageable, and worth it in their personal analyses.
“There will always be some risk of exposure to infections when traveling over the holidays, but there are simple things people can do to make it as safe as possible,” says Dr. Roy Benaroch, who specializes in pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine. “Families will have to weigh their own personal risks.”
Others consider this level of risk exposure unnecessary and best avoided altogether if possible.
“If it’s possible to defer or avoid taking a trip, that is still the safest option,” says Dr. Nate Favini, medical lead of the preventative primary care practice Forward, which combines virtual and in-person care with offices around the country. “I would expect that many people are going to want to travel for the holidays and it’s likely that coronavirus transmission and cases will pick up again.”
In short, he says: “The best advice is still going to be avoiding travel if possible.”
While that may be the case, many people are averse to the idea, unwilling to sacrifice, or just plain bummed out by the prospect of canceling plans all year as the pandemic wears on. Some haven’t seen family members in close to a year. Others’ mental health is suffering under isolation. These are among the considerations that might lead to some aggressive — even desperate — decisions.
Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, told Business Insider, “If you’re going to put yourself in situations where you’re going to increase your risk, you should choose wisely. What are those activities that are most necessary and most important to you?”
Maybe a generic holiday vacation wouldn’t fall into that category this year, but a chance to gather with aging or long-isolated family members might.
“If it’s a trip that is important and necessary, I feel relatively safe using the proper protective measures like wearing a mask, distancing, disinfecting, and hand hygiene,” Dr. Russo says.
Dr. Favini agrees. “I would only travel this holiday season if it’s really necessary, particularly if you’re traveling by air or any other form of public transportation,” he said.
If you might encounter crowds — such as in the airport — you’re going to want to double down on the CDC-recommended safeguards: Always wear a mask, wear it properly over your nose and mouth, and review which types work best to make sure yours falls into the category. Social distance whenever possible, and wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. You might also consider a face shield for extra eye protection, though the CDC does not recommend them as a substitute for masks.
Also consider your own vulnerabilities, and any risk categories for people in your traveling party, or those you intend to see at your destination.
“If you have to travel, I would urge you to plan your travels in a COVID-safe way. Before making any travel decisions, assess your own risk and the risk of the people that you are traveling to see, such as your social pod,” Dr. Favini says. “Additionally, be sure to understand the COVID-19 levels in the area you are traveling to in advance. The best way to travel safely is to plan it out and think about where you are going in relation to the virus.”
“During the winter, many more infections circulate, including influenza, common cold viruses, strep throat, and many other infections,” Dr. Benaroch notes. “Fortunately, the same steps that help prevent COVID-19 transmission also help prevent these other infections, like social distancing, wearing masks, and washing your hands frequently. It’s a great idea to get the flu vaccine for added protection.”
Dr. Favini underscores that traveling during the pandemic is higher-risk than during a typical cold and flu season. “If your travels put you into close contact with other people, for example at airports or on airplanes, that does increase your risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus. If you can travel by private vehicle, this is obviously much safer.”
If you are traveling long distances by car, you will likely need to make stops along the way. But you can minimize the risks involved with such stops by avoiding crowds, wearing your mask (and only stopping where others are also in masks if other people are present), and washing your hands thoroughly and frequently.
If you have to eat on the road, do so outside whenever possible. Even safer: Bring everything you need in the car for picnic pit stops.
For those wondering, “is air travel safe during COVID,” the answer is, it really depends.
And while we previously broke down many of the risks based on expert input, holiday air travel introduces a whole new set of concerns. It’s when airports see peak crowds and delayed flights that often lead to overcrowding, all within an enclosed space. And that’s all before you even board the plane.
Given that airlines have taken vastly different approaches to coronavirus safety, research your carrier and choose wisely if you’re going to fly. “Delta has taken safety precautions above and beyond most of the others. I would have a preference for flying Delta if you can,” Dr. Favini says.
Indeed, Delta has committed to requiring masks, blocking the selection of middle seats, and limiting the number of customers on board through January 6, 2021, among other reassuring restrictions.
Among the list of airlines on the other side of the spectrum — those with less sterling COVID reputations — is Frontier. Rather than reducing capacity on flights, it briefly tried to charge guests for a guarantee of some distancing — a policy it was forced to reverse amid backlash.
Dr. Favini also advises avoiding layovers, flying upper-class cabins with more space between passengers if possible, and considering eye protection. “Bring hand sanitizer and use it often and sanitizing wipes for your tray on the airplane,” he adds. “Try to avoid sitting near a bathroom where people tend to congregate during a flight.”
Thankfully, air on planes is changed over quite frequently. “Air is brought in from outside of the plane and recycled air is passed through HEPA filters,” Dr. Favini notes. “If this is done well, you have fresh air on the flight about every three minutes.”
But there are other risks associated with flying to consider, such as the proximity of people both in the airport and on the plane. “The risk really comes from the people sitting closest to you, within three to four rows,” Dr. Favini explains. “The less crowded a flight is, the safer it will be. One study from MIT estimated the risk of catching COVID-19 on a flight in the US to be about 1 in 8,000.”
Driving in a private vehicle is certainly safer, whether it’s a personal vehicle or a rental car. “Though think through your plans for stops,” Dr. Favini advises, in line with our tips noted in the section above.
Similarly, he suggests that if you’re traveling by train, booking a private train car is preferable. Traveling by train poses more risk than cars because of other passengers, and because, “it does not seem that trains are generally ventilated as well as airplanes.”
It is worth noting, though, that Amtrak has promoted several stringent new policies.
“For a short visit, it will be best to book your own place,” Dr. Benaroch says. “During visits together, stay outside if possible and remain six feet apart.”
Granted, in many parts of the country, cold winter weather may render staying outside impossible, or at least not for very long. In those cases, and for longer vacations, he suggests that all parties self-quarantine for 14 days before sharing a home together. Once there, they should “stay only with each other.
Before making any plans, Dr. Favini urges a careful analysis of your family’s vulnerabilities, risk categories, and medical conditions, what he calls, “the exposure profile” of each person as well as the home where you’d be staying.
“If one of the guests is high risk for a severe case of COVID-19, and someone else has high exposure levels (for example, they’re an essential worker), and you’re all staying in a small home, that would be very risky,” he says. “On the other hand, if the guests have all been isolating themselves for weeks, no one has medical conditions or exposures, and you have a large space, that would be much safer. You really have to take the exact situation into account.”
Many experts consider a private Airbnb or vacation rental to be the safest option, especially when compared to hotels, because you avoid seeing any other guests. Airbnb also offers badges on listings that adhere to extra-stringent cleaning protocols (Enhanced Cleaning Initiative) or cushions of time between guests (Booking Buffer). In a private rental, you can also cook your own food in your own kitchen, and avoid interactions at restaurants.
But if there’s no avoiding a hotel, or it’s simply your preference, there are many precautions you can take.
Microbiologist Lisa Yakas with NSF International urges travelers to take as many extra precautions as possible. “Between the COVID-19 pandemic and cold and flu season, this winter will undoubtedly present its fair share of health safety risks,” she says. “If you are considering staying in a hotel during this time, take extra precaution and ask the hotel management about its COVID-19 risk mitigation controls before booking your stay. And when checking in to a hotel, take a look around and make sure the hotel has adequate processes in place to minimize COVID risk.”
That means avoiding crowds and social distancing, one-way traffic flow at the front desk, all staff in masks, enforcement of guest mask policy, and signage limiting elevator capacity.
If breakfast still feels too communal, she suggests, “You might want to avoid it and ask for a pre-bagged breakfast alternative.” And don’t only depend on housekeeping to safe-guard your room. “We recommend approaching each of these hot spots with caution and using a disinfectant wipe before use.”
So much of this year has been difficult and the last thing you’ll want to do is put your loved ones in any sort of health danger.
As such, Dr. Favini advises wearing masks, even when you’re just with the family you’re visiting, and that COVID-19 testing and self-imposed quarantine periods can help make holiday gatherings much safer.
“If you are asymptomatic and test negative for COVID-19, your likelihood of carrying the virus is low,” he says. “If everyone traveling to the gathering gets tested a few days before and self isolates while waiting for their test results, this could substantially lower the risk of COVID-19 spread.”
Dr. Benaroch underscores the importance of taking personal responsibility. “To protect each other, do not travel if you’re at all sick, or if you’ve been exposed to someone who either knows or suspects they might have COVID,” he says. “In that case, you should quarantine for 14 days. When you do visit together, avoid hugging and staying close to each other — especially avoid kissing.”
Some travelers may want to spend the holidays vacationing in a warm-weather destination. After all, there are plenty of appealing discounts and incentives being offered right now, and to some, it’s the perfect antidote to a long year spent at home.
“In normal years, the holidays are one of the most expensive times of year to travel. But this isn’t a normal year,” says Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes. “Because far fewer people are booking holiday flights this year, Christmas fares have precipitously dropped. In fact, we have found more cheap Christmas flights in 2020 than the past five years combined.”
But think about whether those discounted fares are worth the risk of flying — especially long haul. And once you arrive, you’ll still have to book lodging and face interactions with others and crowds. That puts you at higher risk based on everything shared by our experts above.
If you do decide to take advantage of such deals, consider applying for expedited security programs so you can minimize exposure to crowds in lines. Also, consider buying a travel insurance policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. And of course, follow all the safety recommendations, and quarantine upon arrival home so as to protect others in the event that you did bring back more than just souvenirs to your home.
The overall takeaway from all of our experts, however, is resounding: Be flexible, be responsible, be informed — and be intentional about holiday travel this year, whatever decisions you make in the end.