Holiday travel and safety: 5 things we know
By Elaine Glusac
To travel, or not to travel? That is the holiday question.
With the approach of Thanksgiving and the December holidays during a surge in coronavirus cases nationwide, the increased risks presented by travel — either contracting or spreading the virus — are challenging the industry during what is normally one of its busiest seasons.
Market research firm Destination Analysts found in a recent Coronavirus Travel Sentiment Index Study, a weekly survey of 1,200 Americans, that only 28% expected to travel for the holidays, including both Thanksgiving and Christmas. In the same survey, 53% said they had traveled for the holidays last year.
Little is certain in travel today, other than the necessity of wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, whenever possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “strongly recommends” that masks be worn on any public conveyance, including subways, buses, taxis, ride shares and airplanes.
Here are five more things we know about holiday travel.
Fewer fliers, potentially fuller planes
Last Thanksgiving, Airlines for America, the industry trade group, expected 31.6 million travelers over the 12-day holiday period. This year, the group declined to provide an estimate.
The airline business continues to be depressed, with searches for Thanksgiving flights down 60% year over year, according to travel-planning site Kayak. Hopper, the airline booking app, said the average domestic round-trip ticket for Thanksgiving travel is $173, down 41% compared with last year. FlightAware, which tracks flight traffic, said commercial aviation remains at about half of 2019 volume. Those planes that are flying are filled to just 61% of capacity on average.
Still, scoring a seat without a neighbor sharing your armrest is getting harder, and travelers should prepare for more crowded planes. Southwest Airlines, which has held middle seats open during the pandemic, recently announced it would make all seats available for flights beginning Dec. 1.
“To date, demand has been so weak that blocking the middle seat hasn’t hurt us,” said Gary Kelly, the chief executive of the airline, in a recorded statement in October. He added that going into the holiday season, “the value of selling the middle seats is significant and will provide additional key revenue for us.”
Among the four largest carriers in the United States, including American, Southwest and United, that leaves only Delta Air Lines committed to leaving its middle seats open during the holidays, now through Jan. 6.
In a third-quarter earnings call, Edward Bastian, Delta’s chief executive, said the airline expects business in December to be about a third of what it was in December 2019.
Many medical experts credit the airlines for using HEPA filters to scrub the air of germs on planes. A recent study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found little evidence of in-flight transmission since mask mandates were implemented in spring and rated the risk of disease transmission on planes below that of grocery shopping or eating out.
But the risks of flying are not just at cruising altitude.
“You have to take into account all the steps of travel, getting to the airport, security lines, layovers,” said Dr. Henry Wu, the director of Emory TravelWell Center and an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine. “All of these things add to the potential exposure list.”
In addition to vigilant mask-wearing, he advises carrying hand sanitizer, choosing a window seat to avoid others passing in the aisles, wearing a face shield and avoiding eating or drinking, which requires you to lower your mask, if possible.
Outside of the plane, he added, “I want folks to internalize what is 6 feet, whether they’re walking to the gates or getting into elevators or on escalators.”
COVID-19 testing as a safe-travel passport
Increasingly, airlines are touting testing for COVID-19 as a way to reassure travelers that flying is safe.
In a pilot program running Nov. 6 to Dec. 11, United Airlines will offer free rapid testing to passengers on select flights from Newark, New Jersey, to London, ensuring that everyone on board (except children under age 2) have tested negative before takeoff.
In October, United began offering COVID-19 testing at San Francisco International Airport to fliers bound for Hawaii, which requires negative test results in order to avoid quarantining for 14 days. American Airlines is also offering testing to Hawaii-bound travelers either in person or through an at-home kit.
Both the International Air Transport Association and Airlines for America are calling for preflight COVID-19 testing as an alternative to quarantine restrictions.
For destinations that require testing, such as Hawaii and Jamaica, the type of tests may vary along with the grace period for getting it before arrival, requiring travelers to research testing requirements carefully.
“When we can have some international agreement on the best strategy to test and when to test and which test to use, that will make the whole process easier for travelers, airlines and destinations,” said Lin Chen, the president of the International Society of Travel Medicine and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “Right now, we don’t have that standard.”
While roughly half of respondents with holiday travel plans told Destination Analysts that they would not undergo testing before their holiday travels, a third said they would.
“If you’re negative, that’s good news but it doesn’t mean you should relax your precautions,” Wu said. “The results could be false or you could be incubating infection. And you could get infected during the trip itself.”
Preserving your bubble away from home
Testing is one way families and friends might consider merging their bubbles for the holidays. But using them, like everything else travel-related these days, takes planning, including ensuring members of merging bubbles are following the same precautions leading up to the trip.
“You have to lower your risk, then test,” said Dr. Emily Landon, an associate professor of medicine and an infectious disease expert at the University of Chicago, who advises families to quarantine for up to 14 days before testing. “The tests are most sensitive five to eight days after exposure. And they’re not perfect. The faster they are, generally speaking, the least likely they are to be accurate.”
Molecular tests, also known as PCR tests, are considered most accurate and usually require at least a day or two to get the results, versus antigen tests, which are quick but less accurate.
Meeting at a neutral site, like a vacation home rental will decrease the chances of encountering other strangers while preserving your own bubble or your newly enlarged one. HomeToGo, a vacation rental search engine, said rental home bookings between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are up 70% nationally compared with last year.
Bringing your own food to last during your stay is another way to minimize contact with strangers. Where possible, experts recommend dining outdoors, or even dividing up an outdoor patio into areas assigned to each family bubble. The CDC’s recommendations for holiday gatherings include keeping them small, socially distant, short and outside or well-ventilated.
When it comes to lodging, hotels are considered a safer option than staying at the home of a friend or relative. In addition to enhanced cleaning, hotels are relatively deserted. Across the country, average hotel occupancy is about half, with rates just shy of $100 a night, according to the hotel analysts STR Inc.
Prepare to quarantine
From strict statewide policies in New York and Connecticut to local restrictions in Chicago, many destinations require visitors or returning residents to quarantine. The CDC recommends checking state, territorial, tribal and local health websites for current restrictions.
Many of the quarantine mandates rely on self-monitoring. But breaking a quarantine order in New York can cost up to $10,000 in fines or up to 15 days in prison. As of Nov. 4, most out-of-state travelers may avoid New York’s 14-day quarantine requirement with negative COVID-19 results from a test taken within three days of arrival, a quarantine for three days after arrival, and receiving negative test results from another test taken on day four.
“You need to think about the entire trip,” said Jeremy Prout, the director of security solutions for the Americas at International SOS, a health and security services firm. “That includes the trip back, which might add a two-week quarantine.”
Be prepared for the risk of infection while traveling, which could result in a quarantine in the destination. Prout recommends travelers pack for a two-week trip, even if only a brief visit was planned.
Potential quarantines in a destination are another reason to ensure that, if you flew, your airline ticket has a flexible cancellation policy or waives change fees. Southwest does not charge fees for changing your ticket, and Delta is waiving change fees on most tickets purchased this year.
Avoid tickets like Basic Economy on United and American, which do not allow changes.
Driving offers more control
In a survey of 16,000 Americans this summer, the consulting group Deloitte Digital found road trips and short-haul regional travel were preferred by 65% of respondents, a number it expects may increase during the holidays.
“The advantage of driving is the environment is much more controlled,” said Emory’s Wu. “Ideally, you’re driving with your immediate family you live with. If you’re picking up folks from other households, that increases the risk someone might be infected and you’re exposed.
And it’s a small, tight environment.”
This fall, the American Automobile Association said visits to its trip-mapping service TripTik has doubled since spring. Like Google Maps and other digital services, the free website allows users to enter their destination and get routing options. In addition to directions, users can elect to have hotels, restaurants, gas stations and campgrounds appear throughout the map to help you plan your stops.
The AAA service — available online or through its app to members and nonmembers — also links to a useful map of the United States, showing state, county and citywide restrictions on things like mask-wearing, gathering sizes, dining limits and quarantine requirements.
The CDC recommends motorists pump gas using a sanitary wipe, sanitize their hands afterward and bring their own food to avoid indoor areas.
“Journey management planning is a big thing,” Prout, of International SOS, said. “You need to have your rest stops planned, your vehicle in good order and limit the time driving at night.”