With the holiday season here, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly advising people to stay home amid a surge of coronavirus cases, many Americans are grappling with the question of whether to carry on with their scheduled travel plans.

Overall, holiday travel may be down from 2019 numbers. But AAA predicts tens of millions of Americans are still planning on taking road trips to see loved ones, and TSA reported pre-Christmas air travel surpassed 1 million daily passengers, setting a record for the busiest weekend of the pandemic.

For those who choose to travel for the holidays by plane, we spoke with Transportation Security Administration spokesperson Lisa Farbstein about ways to get through the airport as safely as possible this season.

Get to the airport early and prepared

Earlier in the year, photos of empty airports and flights went viral while travel numbers reached historic lows. But millions of people are flying again, and there is no guarantee you will have a quiet travel day over the holidays, especially given recent travel behavior.

“We saw a bump this year the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and in a week we might see another,” Farbstein says. “We saw the last three days in a row have been over a million passengers [each day] for three consecutive days. That’s the first time that’s happened since the pandemic.”

Farbstein says that while TSA has opened additional airport security lanes in anticipation of a holiday travel rush, you should still plan on arriving to the airport early (even you, #TeamJustInTime).

And to keep checkpoint lines moving, get to the airport not only early, but also prepared. That means wearing a mask (Farbstein recommends bringing a backup), having your photo ID ready and following liquid rules for your carry-on items, with one pandemic exception: You are allowed to bring one liquid hand sanitizer container, up to 12 ounces per passenger.

Get TSA PreCheck

By now the world is well versed in most coronavirus prevention basics, like keeping social distance from others and maintaining proper hand hygiene. Having TSA PreCheck helps support those two efforts.

First, PreCheck allows travelers to get through airport security faster (and thus get away from potential crowding sooner). “What we have seen is that wait times in general are in the neighborhood of five minutes or less, and PreCheck can go even quicker,” Farbstein says.

Second, it lets them avoid touching more items than necessary, as travelers can keep shoes and light outerwear on and keep more items inside their carry-on bag.

Travelers can apply for PreCheck online and expect to receive their Known Traveler Number in about a week.

Download the TSA app for packing tips

According to Farbstein, TSA is cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched checkpoint surfaces more often during the pandemic. Agents are supposed to wear masks and gloves at checkpoints and change those gloves after each pat-down (plus passengers may request agents do so ahead of their turn).

Still, it’s better to avoid necessary contact and more time in security, and you should pack carefully to ensure that.

“If you’re unsure whether something should go in your bag, there’s so many ways to reach out to TSA to find out,” Farbstein says.

One way to double-check whether the items in your carry-on are checkpoint-ready is by referencing TSA’s searchable “Can I Bring” database. The database is available online and on TSA’s free mobile app (which also shows flight delays and whether an airport has PreCheck lanes open).

“And then of course we’re on Twitter; we have a team of folks who answer questions all day long,” Farbstein says. “Or they can go on Facebook Messenger and ask us questions.”

Don’t get tripped up with holiday food

If you’re traveling with food for holiday celebrations, know that “most food items might need some extra screening,” Farbstein says. “That does not mean anyone’s going to eat your food, nobody’s really wanting to touch your food … but they’ll probably do a swab of the container.”

Traditional holiday items that are baked and cooked, such as stuffing, casseroles, turkey and pies, are allowed to pass through security checkpoints. Many sauces, sides and drinks, like eggnog and full-size alcohol bottles, are not.

Farbstein says one of the most commonly confiscated items at TSA checkpoints is peanut butter — which is not considered a solid since it can be spread. The agency’s golden rule is that if you can spray it, spread it, pump it or pour it, it should go in your checked bag.

Wait to wrap gifts until you land

You may want to arrive prepared, but TSA recommends travelers wait to wrap gifts until they reach their final destination.

“That’s because wrapped items are screened like any other items,” Farbstein says. “And if a wrapped item alarms a security screening technology — whether that’s at the checkpoint or in a checked bag — it’s going to need to be unwrapped to determine if it’s a security threat inside.”

She added: “We don’t want to be Grinches … . We want the recipients of the gift to be able to open it, not TSA officers.”

According to Jenny Albertini, a professional organizer and Washington’s first certified KonMari Method consultant, waiting to wrap your gifts (or better yet, using gift bags) until you land is a better packing method anyway.

“Gift bags are already folded,” she says. “You can just put those in the bottom of your suitcase.”

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