There are ways to cut down your risk of developing COVID-19 if you get on a plane this holiday season. Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
  • In 2019, around 115 million Americans traveled during the holiday season. This year, that number is expected to drastically drop.
  • But some people are still traveling — even planning to fly home for the holidays.
  • We talked to experts about what you should know about traveling this holiday season.

The holidays are typically the busiest time of year for travel. According to AAA, a record 115.6 million Americans were expected to travel in the 2019 holiday season. 

But amid the threat of COVID-19, flight reservations on major U.S. carriers for this Thanksgiving are down by as much as 89 percent, according to research released in late September by travel data firm OAG. 

Airlines have been ramping up safety measures to try to convince passengers — many who haven’t seen their families all year — that it’s safe to fly. 

Here’s what to expect from holiday travel this year, along with guidance from experts on how to have the safest celebrations possible. 

Safer flying protocols

Without many COVID-19 health and safety mandates from the federal government, each airline has been developing its own strategies to help protect passengers from contracting the coronavirus.

You should plan to wear a mask if you’re traveling by air for the holidays. It’s a requirement for boarding and flying on every major carrier. 

Social distancing on flights varies quite a bit by airline, though, and you may want to think carefully about who you fly with.

Early research from the MIT Sloan School of Management suggests that a traveler has a 1 in 4,300 chance of contracting SARS-CoV-2 on full flights, compared with a 1 in 7,700 chance when middle seats are blocked. 

Delta Airlines is the only major airline that has promised to keep middle seats empty throughout the winter holidays. 

Middle seats will remain blocked through Nov. 30 on Southwest, and Oct. 31 on Alaska (with some exceptions), while JetBlue has vowed to sell fewer than 70 percent of seats on flights through Dec. 1. 

United and American airlines, however, have allowed flights to be booked to capacity, according to Travel + Leisure

COVID-19 testing is slowly becoming available ahead of select flights, mostly long-haul international routes or trips between the continental United States and Hawaii. 

The roll out has been extremely limited so far, and whether or not testing will become available on more routes by the holidays remains up in the air, said Dr. David Nash, internal medicine physician, founding dean emeritus of Thomas Jefferson University’s College of Population Health, and chief health advisor of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau. 

“I hope testing will be expanded. If we had widespread rapid turnaround antigen testing, we would be in a much better place,” Nash said. 

Should you travel for the holidays?

Many people are finding themselves questioning whether holiday travel will be safe enough for them to reconnect with family after spending most of the year apart. 

Unfortunately, there’s no cut-and-dry answer — it’s going to be a careful risk-benefit analyses for each individual, experts say. 

Staying home and celebrating the holidays with members of your household is the best way to reduce your risk of contracting or transmitting the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This is especially true if you or a relative are at a higher risk of getting a severe case of COVID-19 due to factors like age or an underlying condition. 

“Everyone has to consciously think through whether a trip is necessary and useful,” said Dr. Henry Raymond, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health in New Jersey. “Anything that brings people together in larger groups, whether it’s through the travel process or the gathering you’re going to, has a risk.”

If travel is part of your holiday plans, consider driving instead of flying to limit your potential exposure to other travelers, Raymond said. 

Reduce your risk of viral exposure on a road trip by wearing a mask when around others, packing your own food, and washing your hands properly after using the restroom or pumping gas. 

If flying is your only option? Nash said HEPA air filters on aircrafts bring fresh air into the cabin every few minutes, which helps make flying the “safest part of your journey.”

“The real issue with airplane travel is being sensible before and after getting on the plane,” he said. “Wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands frequently, and try not to check a bag because you don’t want to wait in a crowd to get your luggage.”

“If you want to go the extra mile, I recommend wearing a pair of goggles from the hardware store because respiratory droplets can get into your eyes,” he added. 

This week, a study conducted by the Department of Defense in partnership with United Airlines found that the risk of transmission on a flight was extremely low if people wear masks.

In the study, a mannequin was used along with an aerosol generator to see how particles moved in the aircraft.

United Airlines claims the risk of COVID-19 exposure on its aircrafts is “virtually nonexistent” according to the new research findings saying that with mask use, there’s only a 0.003 percent chance particles from one passenger can enter the breathing space of a passenger sitting beside them.

Reducing risk at holiday celebrations

Getting tested for COVID-19 before seeing family can give you some extra peace of mind.

Obviously you should isolate and cancel travel plans if you test positive. But a negative test doesn’t mean you’re in the clear, said Raymond.

“There’s a period of time where your body is not yet producing enough of the virus to be detected by tests, but you still have it,” he explained. “You can be tested today but have the virus show up tomorrow.”

Instead, focus on making your family gatherings as safe as possible. Self-isolate before you get together with family outside your immediate bubble if you can, Nash said.

If you’re traveling, consider staying at a hotel rather than with relatives, unless everyone in the group is very low risk and has plenty of space to spread out, said Dr. Andrés Henao, internal medicine physician, infectious disease specialist, and director of the UCHealth Travel Clinic at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

And keep your celebrations small, said Nash.

Talk with your family about all the details ahead of the celebrations, from who will be at the table and where you’ll gather, to whether you’ll wear masks and even bring your own individual meals from home to avoid sharing serving utensils.

“Between the cold weather, pandemic fatigue, and the holidays, it’s going to be a very difficult season to maintain vigilance,” Nash said. “If families make a plan and spend the time and energy to talk it through, they’ll feel better about it.”

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