Your guide to safer holiday travel

Crowded airports and gatherings are back this season. Our interactive guide will help you navigate them as safely as possible.

(Illustrations by Luisa Jung for The Washington Post)
(Illustrations by Luisa Jung for The Washington Post)

As we approach the second holiday season of the pandemic, the landscape is much different from last year. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked Americans to stay home for the holidays as we awaited the arrival of vaccines. Now, nearly 68 percent of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated, and kids as young as 5 can now join those ranks.

Travel has been roaring back to life, with the coming weeks expected to bring full flights, busy airports and packed roads. But despite a decline in new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths, the pandemic persists. And winter, when respiratory viruses tend to rise, could bring a renewed threat.

[Send us your holiday travel questions for our live chat on Nov. 11 ]

Holiday travelers this year should not be complacent. But they have more tools this year, including vaccinations, booster shots, rapid home tests and nearly two years of experience dealing with the virus. This guide, with expert advice, should be in that toolbox. Tell us your travel plans, and we’ll help you navigate the season as safely as possible.

Question 1 of 8

Are you vaccinated?

The CDC said in April that those who are fully vaccinated may travel once again. That came with new warnings amid the delta surge this summer, but health experts are optimistic about holiday travel if you’re vaccinated.

“I think both the combination of boosters and most children being able to have a vaccination by December certainly does make it safer,” said Joseph Khabbaza, a critical-care medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic.

[What 5 health experts say about holiday travel this year]

But not all vaccinated travelers are equal. Jonathan Baktari, a pulmonary and critical care expert and CEO of e7 Health, recommended that anyone at high risk for severe coronavirus, such as elderly or immunocompromised travelers, should avoid holiday travel this year unless they can get their vaccine booster ahead of their trip.

Long story short, don’t travel. The CDC says to delay travel until you are fully vaccinated. According to the CDC report, unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized from a coronavirus infection and 11 times more likely to die of covid-19 than vaccinated people.

“If you’re unvaccinated, my good faith advice is please stay at home for everyone’s sake,” said Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at University of California at Irvine.

Question 2 of 8

Are eligible for a booster shot?

If the CDC has said you’re in a group that is recommended for a third shot or booster, it is a good idea to get that shot regardless of your travel plans, said David Freedman, professor emeritus of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Travel indicates risk, so indicated people should get” the booster, he said in an email.

That population includes those who got the Pfizer or Moderna shot and are 65 and older, immunocompromised, reside in long-term-care settings, or live or work in high-risk settings. Eligibility for those who got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is broader: Anyone who was vaccinated more than two months ago can get a booster of any coronavirus shot.

If you haven’t been singled out as needing a booster by public health authorities, carry on with your fully vaccinated self. David Freedman, professor emeritus of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says immunity is holding up “very well” against severe disease, according to data in the United States.

This questionnaire will help you figure out if you’re eligible.

Question 3 of 8

What is the vaccination status of people you’re visiting?

You’re off to a great start. According to Joseph Khabbaza, a critical-care medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic, if you and the social circle you’re visiting is fully immunized, it’s “highly unlikely for any meaningful spread [of coronavirus] to occur within groups of vaccinated people,” he said.

Unless you’re immunocompromised, were exposed to the virus or someone in your household is at risk for severe infection, vaccinated people don’t need to mask indoors, per CDC guidance, although some local restrictions require it. Of course, regardless of official guidance, you can mask inside if it makes you feel comfortable.

Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the vaccination status of the people you’re visiting should factor into your travel planning. “Even one unvaccinated person can bring in the risk of covid and the transmission of covid,” she said. “Having half of your group unvaccinated, that’s an increased level of risk.”

If there will be unvaccinated people at your holiday celebrations, the CDC recommends wearing a mask indoors while in close contact. Althoff also encourages making modifications, like spending time outdoors together or maintaining social distance.

“The fact of the matter is that in order to have a holiday season that looks a little bit more like 2019 and not 2020 is really to get yourself vaccinated and to encourage the loved ones that you want to go see to do the same,” Althoff said.

Question 4 of 8

Who are you traveling with?

If they’re eligible, children should be vaccinated against covid-19 before traveling. The Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer vaccine for children 5 and older in late October, and kids started getting vaccinated in early November after the CDC signed off. But some kids are still too young, and even those who get their first shot right away won’t be fully vaccinated by Thanksgiving, meaning that extra precautions are in order. Also, don’t forget that flu season is happening. Doctors are warning of a possible “twindemic,” so make sure children get their flu shot as well.

[Should you travel with kids during the pandemic? Consider these 6 trip scenarios.]

The CDC ranks types of travel for families with unvaccinated kids by describing what is safer, less safe and what people should avoid.

If plans call for gathering with other households, getting together outside is better — even if everyone is vaccinated.

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, told The Washington Post earlier this year that if an outdoor gathering is not possible, everyone in the group should take extra precautions for three to five days in advance, including wearing a mask in public and not gathering indoors with unvaccinated people. Before the group get-together, everyone should take a coronavirus test. Unvaccinated adults should only be around young kids outdoors.

If flying, make sure kids are prepared to wear a mask for long periods of time. Practice with them in advance and provide activities on the plane to keep their hands busy, such as coloring, using stickers or screen time. It’s best not to remove the mask to eat or drink, but if necessary, do so briefly when everyone else is masked.

Anyone who is immunocompromised or otherwise at high risk of severe disease from the coronavirus should get a third shot or booster before traveling. The CDC says people in this group should talk to their health-care providers.

The public health agency says that if they do travel, immunocompromised people should take the precautions that are recommended for unvaccinated people, regardless of their vaccination status.

That includes wearing a well-fitting mask, keeping a distance of six feet from people outside their household, washing their hands and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces.

Make sure you are fully vaccinated before traveling; get the booster shot if you’re eligible.

Remember that masks are required on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation, and indoors at transportation centers. The CDC says that even people who are fully vaccinated should mask up indoors in areas with substantial or high transmission.

Question 5 of 8

Are you flying or driving?

If you haven’t booked tickets yet, put that on the top of your to-do list. Travel experts say fares for the holidays are expected to be more expensive than last year, and the sooner locked in the better. Look for direct flights to avoid the covid-19 risks associated with layovers, such as getting on and off the plane more than once and crowding at the gate multiple times.

[Flying during the pandemic? Don’t forget about the risks at the airport.]

Expect a lot of company in the sky. Airline executives have said they expect “tremendous pent-up demand” to lead to full flights. And those fellow travelers will be packed in tight. Unlike last year, when some carriers were keeping middle seats open, passengers will fill every seat.

The federal mask mandate for planes and airports, which didn’t even exist in 2020, has been extended through at least January 18, 2022. Some U.S. airlines aren’t selling alcoholic beverages to all or most 21-plus passengers while the mandate is in place.

Experts say passengers should avoid eating or drinking on a plane, which would require them to remove their masks, if possible.

And don’t forget about the risks at the airport, or while boarding or getting off the plane. Medical experts say travelers should avoid crowds at the gate and at baggage claim — or, better yet, carry a bag on — and only eat at the airport if it’s possible to do in an area far apart from other people.

If you’re renting a car, don’t wait to make reservations. A rental car shortage that has caused long lines, low availability and high prices since early this year is expected to be an issue this holiday season.

Just like any road trip since the beginning of the pandemic, pack protective gear, hand sanitizer and food, and try to minimize interaction during stops.

A long drive might take you through locations with safety measures that are much more strict — or lax — than you’re used to, so it’s best to know in advance what to expect. AAA produces a map of covid travel restrictions, and the CDC recommends checking for information with the health departments where you’re going and along the way. Don’t forget your vaccine card, as some cities or businesses may require proof of vaccination to dine or drink indoors.

Not sure if masks are required (or recommended)? The CDC says masks should be worn indoors in public places in areas where transmission is substantial or high. The agency publishes county-level data with that information.

Question 6 of 8

Where are you staying?

The risk of staying with family or friends depends on your vaccination status and theirs. “If you’re just staying with family and everyone’s up to date on their vaccine, that becomes a very far safer than just one year ago, where, unfortunately, many people got very ill during last holiday season,” said Joseph Khabbaza, a critical-care medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic.

Unvaccinated travelers should avoid staying with groups of people to reduce coronavirus risks. And remember, the CDC says you shouldn’t be traveling or gathering indoors if you’re unvaccinated. “If you’re unvaccinated, the more people you come into contact with, the more likely you are to catch the disease,” said Jonathan Baktari, a pulmonary and critical care expert and CEO of e7 Health. “So if you said ‘We’re going to stay alone in our own Airbnb,’ it’s going to be much better than if you’re staying in a house for 15 people.”

If you’re concerned about staying with loved ones for your own health risks or theirs, opt for staying in a hotel or separate accommodation. Since the pandemic began, many hotels have changed their cleaning and service protocols or upgraded air filtration. Travelers should treat shared spaces in hotels as they would other public places and take coronavirus precautions accordingly, such as masking in elevators and busy hotel lobbies.

For anyone with health concerns, getting your own accommodation may be wise, such as a house rental on Airbnb or another rental platform. The less people you come into contact with, the less coronavirus risks you’ll encounter this holiday season, said Jonathan Baktari, a pulmonary and critical care expert and CEO of e7 Health. If you’re renting a room in a shared place, you may be crossing paths with strangers during your stay. While indoors with others, consider keeping social distance and masking up, especially if you don’t know their vaccination status.

Because we know spread of the virus is more of a threat from human interaction than surfaces, Baktari says vaccinated travelers shouldn’t go overboard with sanitizing their travel accommodations.

Question 7 of 8

Are you traveling domestically or internationally?

Before your holiday trip, make sure you know the local restrictions of the place you’re visiting. For example, those traveling to Hawaii must be fully vaccinated or have a negative test result to enter. Those heading to cities such as New York or San Francisco should be prepared to show proof of vaccination to dine indoors at restaurants.

Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at University of California at Irvine said the number one precaution people can take before traveling for the holidays is getting vaccinated (and boosted if you’re eligible). The second-best practice is to be masked while on transit.

Additionally, Brian C. Castrucci, the president and CEO of public health charity de Beaumont Foundation, said travelers should find out the coronavirus situation in the place that they’re visiting, such as if local hospitals are full. “Should something happen, I want to know there’s a bed for me,” he said.

If you’re going abroad to the holidays, you should check the CDC’s travel advisories for countries with high levels of covid and know the requirements for your destination. Some countries, like many in Europe, now require testing in addition to proof of vaccination, or have essentially banned unvaccinated travelers. Other countries only require inoculation proof; some just require a test.

Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recommended other considerations beyond advisories and requirements: How is the county’s health-care system doing? Where can you get a coronavirus test if you think you’re infected or exposed?

[You asked: Where can I find a coronavirus test in a foreign country?]

Before you fly back to the United States, you’ll have to take a coronavirus test, regardless of your vaccination status. Unvaccinated people must get a test within 24 hours of their return, while vaccinated travelers have a 72-hour window.

If you test positive abroad, you will be denied entry to the United States until you can test negative. You may want to purchase travel insurance ahead of your trip in case you have to stay abroad longer or need medical care.

Question 8 of 8

Are you getting tested for travel?

Since the delta surge this summer, testing before or after travel has become commonplace again, even for vaccinated travelers. Because of the surge in demand, tests are harder to come by. If you’re going to be testing ahead of your holiday travel, don’t wait until the last minute to buy or schedule your test.

Unvaccinated people should get a coronavirus test one to three days ahead of their trip, and three to five days after their trip, according to CDC guidance.

[Your vacation is around the corner. But first: time to scramble for a coronavirus test.]

Vaccinated people who have no symptoms of illness can skip testing ahead of a trip. However, it’s still a good idea to pack some rapid tests, said Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. If you wake up one morning with a scratchy throat, “you can use that information from an antigen test to figure out what your next steps are that day,” Althoff said.

If you’re vaccinated and not showing any symptoms of illness, health experts say you don’t have to get tested ahead of or after travel. One exception is if you’re vaccinated but concerned about visiting someone at high risk for severe coronavirus, said Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at University of California at Irvine. You can be extra cautious and test ahead of your trip.

If you’re unvaccinated, you may want to rethink your plans and consider testing ahead of and after your trip, per CDC guidance.

About this story

Writing by Natalie B. Compton and Hannah Sampson. Illustrations by Luisa Jung for The Washington Post. Editing by Amanda Finnegan. Design and development by Christine Ashack. Design editing by Rachel Orr. Copy editing by Paola Ruano.

Natalie Compton is a staff writer for the Washington Post's new travel destination, By The Way.
Hannah Sampson is a staff writer at The Washington Post for By The Way, where she reports on travel news.