An interactive guide to traveling safely for the holidays

Holiday travel looks different this year. Tell us your plans, and By The Way will give you tips and expert advice to keep you as safe as possible.

The holiday season is historically the busiest travel period in the United States. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, millions of Americans routinely board planes, hop on trains or hit the road to see family.

But what will the season look like in a pandemic year?

While travel numbers are slowly recovering from coronavirus lows — Transportation Security Administration records show that the number of people flying is climbing daily, although the rate is still below half of what it was in 2019 — many Americans remain unsure about their holiday travel plans.

Mark Crossey, the director of sales at travel search engine Skyscanner, says that with many states lifting restrictions and people longing to be reunited with family, searches and bookings for the holiday season are climbing.

At this time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to warn that travel increases your chance of getting and spreading the virus that causes covid-19, and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others. But for those who choose to travel during the holiday season, we have gathered advice from experts on how to do it as safely as possible.

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Question 1 of 5

Who are you traveling with?

If you’re traveling alone, you may still have to pass through crowded areas. Stay vigilant about keeping your distance and wearing masks while with others, whether that’s on the road or at a family gathering.

If you’re traveling with others outside of your household, there are precautions you can take to do so safely during the pandemic. Special pathogens expert Syra Madad, who was recently featured in the Netflix docuseries “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak,” says the safest way to travel with people from outside your household is to quarantine for 14 days before combining groups.

If you’re traveling with children, be aware of the latest CDC guidelines and travel company policies. The CDC recommends masks for children 2 years of age and older. The mask policies of major airlines follow this guidance, and recent incidents of children and their parents being removed from planes have illustrated how strictly they are being enforced.

The CDC also encourages regular hand-washing for kids. “Make sure your child washes their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. … If soap and water are not readily available, make sure your child uses a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol,” the website states.

Frequently touched surfaces should be disinfected, so pack wipes with at least 70 percent alcohol to wipe down touch points. Don’t forget about any personal objects, such as toys and electronics.

And according to Clarissa Simon, a health scientist in the Family and Child Health Innovations Program at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, having conversations with children about what to expect is important so they’re not surprised or overwhelmed.

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Question 2 of 5

How are you traveling?

If you’re getting behind the wheel for your trip, pack with the pandemic in mind. Stock your vehicle with face masks, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Don’t rely on picking up supplies during the trip since there is no guarantee they will be in stock wherever you’re headed or passing through. And if you’re renting a car for the trip, check out what the experts have to say about securing the best deal.

To keep interactions with others and touching common surfaces to a minimum, the fewer stops you can make on your road trip, the better. Pack an abundance of food and drinks for your trip to avoid needing to stop at stores or restaurants along the way.

Keep in mind that pandemic restrictions vary by state. Do your homework to make sure your destination is open, what rules are in place for visitors and residents, and what quarantine measures may be mandatory. The CDC recommends checking with state and local authorities in the state you are in and the states you are passing through.

Those traveling by train should know that Amtrak has made adjustments to its operations. In addition to modifying its cleaning procedures, the railroad service is limiting passenger bookings on its trains to promote social distancing. The company now allows customers to see how full trains are as they search for a reservation and up until their time of departure.

If you’re in for a long-haul trip and it’s in your budget, consider booking a private-room accommodation. While more expensive, private spaces may be more accessible than before the pandemic because of lower demand. Check out Amtrak’s fare deals and special roomette promotions.

Once you are on board, follow the same coronavirus safety measures you would in other parts of your life. That means practicing good hand hygiene, choosing a seat away from other passengers (if you don’t have a seat assignment) and wearing a mask throughout the trip, which is mandatory.

Pack hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes to sanitize your personal space on the train at your discretion. You can also minimize touching common surfaces by downloading your ticket on your phone instead of printing it out at the station.

Consider packing your own food and drinks as well. While food service has returned on most trains, dining options have changed in response to the coronavirus.

If you’re planning to travel by plane, don’t wait to book flights. Fares are lower this year, and major airlines have removed change fees for most domestic flights, so travelers have added flexibility. If you’re able, experts also advise using miles instead of cash.

Travelers by plane should be ready to gear up. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean at Emory University School of Medicine, recommends wearing an N95 face mask if possible as well as protective eyewear, such as goggles or a face shield. Keep in mind that face coverings are mandatory on every major U.S. airline, and airlines have been enforcing policies strictly.

He also recommends carrying hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes at all times. Hazmat suits are not necessary, however.

At the airport, you can expect to encounter new procedures. Face coverings are required. You are likely to interact with staff through glass shields, and depending on the airline, you may have your temperature checked. Until further notice, TSA is allowing passengers to carry on one container of liquid hand sanitizer, up to 12 ounces.

Whenever possible, travelers should practice social distancing when they are going through security, boarding, and using airport services and facilities.

How full your plane is will depend on the airline as well. These are the airlines still blocking middle seats on flights.

Some airlines have pared down onboard food and drink services, while others have eliminated them altogether. If you will need food or water during the trip, you should plan to pack your own.

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Question 3 of 5

Where are you staying?

Before agreeing to stay at a friend or family member’s home, Alvin Tran, an assistant professor of health at the University of New Haven School of Health Sciences, says to assess whether anyone in the household is at high risk for a severe covid-19 case. If you’re not sure, the CDC has a resource online that explains who may be particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

If someone in the house is elderly, has preexisting conditions or a compromised immune system, “I would probably try to avoid staying in that same household because I would not want to put that individual at risk of becoming infected,” Tran says. In that case, he advises travelers to book a hotel or home-share instead.

Hotels have gone to great lengths to adapt to the pandemic. Changes have been made to housekeeping, food safety, and guest check-in and checkout.

Before checking in, see if your hotel chain has a phone app that you can download. Not only could the technology speed up your check-in process, some hotel apps feature “digital room keys” that help reduce a guest’s touch points.

Once you are in your room, there are additional sanitation steps you can take. Experts recommend cleaning touch points with disinfecting wipes with at least 70 percent alcohol. In addition to obvious objects to clean, such as remote controls, alarm clocks and the landline phone, there are the easily overlooked ones, like cabinet and drawer handles, doorknobs and door locks, light switches, desk surfaces, and information booklets and brochures.

Sanitize the surfaces in your bathroom as well, including faucets and handles. Keep toiletries inside of a toiletry bag instead of unpacking them onto a towel on the counter.

Airbnb responded to the pandemic by launching an Enhanced Cleaning Initiative for hosts, which includes new cleaning and sanitizing protocols. To earn an “Enhanced Clean” certification, hosts must follow a detailed five-step cleaning process, including providing guests with cleaning supplies. Look for the “Enhanced Clean” highlight on listings when deciding on a rental.

There are individual sanitation steps you can take as well. Nasia Safdar, the medical director of infection control at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, recommends wiping down common surfaces with disinfecting wipes. Consider cleaning the other items you have brought with you into the rental, too, such as phones, computers and luggage.

The pandemic has also prompted Airbnb to change its cancellation policy. The retooled extenuating circumstances policy accounts for coronavirus issues, and it applies to reservations made after March 14, 2020, through check-ins on or before Jan. 19, 2021. However, the company has more recently said that to be more fair to hosts, “guests with reservations of stays and Airbnb experiences with a check-in or start date on or after January 20, 2021, will no longer be eligible to cancel under the policy for a refund due to personal circumstances.”

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Question 4 of 5

What are you bringing?

(Select all that apply)

If you’re flying with luggage during the pandemic, health experts recommend carrying on instead of checking a bag. Not only are you able to better control who touches the bag, but you will bypass potentially crowded luggage carousels.

Consider mailing gifts ahead of time. Special pathogens expert Syra Madad says travelers should minimize what they carry so that they can prioritize health precautions: “You’re going to be so focused on wearing your mask, making sure that you’re keeping a distance. If you’re adding more items to bring with you, then it becomes a little bit more complex."

If you do choose to travel with gifts, it may be a good idea to sanitize any boxes or bags before presenting them to others. Alvin Tran, an assistant professor of health at the University of New Haven, says that even though research shows the coronavirus spreads more easily from person-to-person transmission than by touching contaminated surfaces, “it’s never a bad idea to wipe any objects down.”

'Tis the season of feasting, and travelers may be wondering if they can bring their famous sides or holiday cookies along with them.

If you need to travel with food this holiday season, special pathogens expert Syra Madad recommends “packing your food in a way where other people are not touching it and handling it.” Keep food wrapped securely or sealed in an airtight container to prevent any droplet contamination.

If possible, opt for cooking or baking at your destination, to minimize the number of people the food may come in contact with.

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Question 5 of 5

Are you getting a coronavirus test before going?

Coronavirus tests are at the top of pre-trip checklists these days, and they’re an advisable step toward traveling as safely as possible during the holidays.

Two kinds of tests exist to look for active infections. There are a variety of places offering coronavirus testing, including urgent care centers, travel clinics, fire stations, pop-up sites, pharmacies and most hospitals. Lin Chen, a doctor and director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., says potential travelers should check in with their primary care provider, who may know the best options for testing in their area. Other options include looking at city and state health department websites for testing resources.

While some people may have success walking into testing sites without an appointment, Chen advises against waiting until the last minute to arrange your test. Appointments in some areas may be limited, and because of a shortage of test supplies and manpower, testing sites may only allow high-priority, at-risk people and turn away travelers.

As for timing, travelers need to find a sweet spot for their test. Plan it too early, and you have more time to get the virus before your trip and nullify your test result. Plan your test too close to your departure date, and if there’s a delay getting your results back, you will risk spreading the virus or being denied entry to a destination.

Having a flexible travel schedule, or planning some buffer time between when your test results come in and the start of your trip, will help alleviate that timing anxiety.

And keep in mind that getting a test after returning from the trip is advisable too, and it may even be recommended by your state’s coronavirus task force.

Coronavirus tests are at the top of pre-trip checklists these days, and they’re an advisable step toward traveling as safely as possible during the holidays.

Consider that getting tested before a trip could help you avoid spreading the virus. According to a CDC spokesperson, “The pre-travel testing would reduce the risk of allowing covid-19 infected people on airplanes and other forms of public transportation, provided that the results of the testing are known and acted upon before travel begins.”

If you’re considering a test, here’s what you should know — from where to get a test to what kind of test you should expect.

Coronavirus tests are at the top of pre-trip checklists these days, and they’re an advisable step toward traveling as safely as possible during the holidays.

Consider that getting tested before a trip could help you avoid spreading the virus. According to a CDC spokesperson, “The pre-travel testing would reduce the risk of allowing covid-19 infected people on airplanes and other forms of public transportation, provided that the results of the testing are known and acted upon before travel begins.”

If you’re considering a test, here’s what you should know — from where to get a test to what kind of test you should expect.

About this story

Writing by Natalie B. Compton and Dayana Sarkisova. Art direction and design by Christine Ashack. Development by Christine Ashack, Lucio Villa and Jake Crump.