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Is it Safe to Travel for the Holidays During the Pandemic?

Is it safe to travel for the holidays this year? And perhaps even more critical, should I travel during COVID, even if I technically can? There are plenty of reasons to want to get on the road, whether to celebrate the holidays with family or to simply take a vacation during COVID. In many states, restrictions have become loose enough to make either happen.

But we all bear responsibility, not just to ourselves to and our loved ones, but to the larger community still suffering under the ongoing health threat and economic fallout of the pandemic. Which doesn’t make addressing that travel dilemma any easier.

If you’re struggling with these questions, we spoke to several experts to help guide decisions about holiday travel during the novel coronavirus. We asked three doctors, a microbiologist, and a travel pro for their assessments on the risks, the best choices to make in search of safer travel, and how to protect yourself and others if you do decide to get on the road. Just remember, this is an evolving situation.

It’s crucial to follow guidelines and advice set forth by organizations such as the CDC and WHO, and practice safety measures no matter where you go, including wearing a mask, washing your hands, and maintaining social distancing. You should also consider whether you’re leaving or traveling to a hotspot, so as not to contribute to infection spikes. Keep reading for what medical experts think you should know, plus our tips on safe vacations during COVID.

  1. Is holiday travel safe during COVID?

With apologies to binary thinkers, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Indeed, travel carries inherent risk, which we’ve detailed extensively. But individual travelers who plan responsibly and intentionally may decide that the risks they face are minimal, manageable, and worth it in their personal analyses.

“There will always be some risk of exposure to infections when traveling over the holidays, but there are simple things people can do to make it as safe as possible,” says Dr. Roy Benaroch, who specializes in pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine. “Families will have to weigh their own personal risks.” Others consider this level of risk exposure unnecessary and best avoided altogether if possible. “If it’s possible to defer or avoid taking a trip, that is still the safest option,” says Dr. Nate Favini, medical lead of the preventative primary care practice Forward, which combines virtual and in-person care with offices around the country. “I would expect that many people are going to want to travel for the holidays and it’s likely that coronavirus transmission and cases will pick up again.” In short, he says: “The best advice is still going to be avoiding travel if possible.”

  1. Should I travel this holiday season?

While that may be the case, many people are averse to the idea, unwilling to sacrifice, or just plain bummed out by the prospect of canceling plans all year as the pandemic wears on. Some haven’t seen family members in close to a year. Others’ mental health is suffering under isolation.

These are among the considerations that might lead to some aggressive — even desperate — decisions. Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, told Business Insider, “If you’re going to put yourself in situations where you’re going to increase your risk, you should choose wisely. What are those activities that are most necessary and most important to you?” Maybe a generic holiday vacation wouldn’t fall into that category this year, but a chance to gather with aging or long-isolated family members might. “If it’s a trip that is important and necessary, I feel relatively safe using the proper protective measures like wearing a mask, distancing, disinfecting, and hand hygiene,” Dr. Russo says. Dr. Favini agrees. “I would only travel this holiday season if it’s really necessary, particularly if you’re traveling by air or any other form of public transportation,” he said.

  1. How can I protect myself if I decide to travel?

If you might encounter crowds — such as in the airport — you’re going to want to double down on the CDC-recommended safeguards: Always wear a mask, wear it properly over your nose and mouth, and review which types work best to make sure yours falls into the category. Social distance whenever possible, and wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.

You might also consider a face shield for extra eye protection, though the CDC does not recommend them as a substitute for masks. Also consider your own vulnerabilities, and any risk categories for people in your traveling party, or those you intend to see at your destination. “If you have to travel, I would urge you to plan your travels in a COVID-safe way.

Before making any travel decisions, assess your own risk and the risk of the people that you are traveling to see, such as your social pod,” Dr. Favini says. “Additionally, be sure to understand the COVID-19 levels in the area you are traveling to in advance. The best way to travel safely is to plan it out and think about where you are going in relation to the virus.”

  1. What should I know about traveling during peak cold/flu season?

“During the winter, many more infections circulate, including influenza, common cold viruses, strep throat, and many other infections,” Dr. Benaroch notes. “Fortunately, the same steps that help prevent COVID-19 transmission also help prevent these other infections, like social distancing, wearing masks, and washing your hands frequently. It’s a great idea to get the flu vaccine for added protection.” Dr. Favini underscores that traveling during the pandemic is higher-risk than during a typical cold and flu season. “If your travels put you into close contact with other people, for example at airports or on airplanes, that does increase your risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus. If you can travel by private vehicle, this is obviously much safer.”

If you are traveling long distances by car, you will likely need to make stops along the way. But you can minimize the risks involved with such stops by avoiding crowds, wearing your mask (and only stopping where others are also in masks if other people are present), and washing your hands thoroughly and frequently. If you have to eat on the road, do so outside whenever possible. Even safer: Bring everything you need in the car for picnic pit stops.

  1. How much does the mode of transportation matter?

For those wondering, “is air travel safe during COVID,” the answer is, it really depends. And while we previously broke down many of the risks based on expert input, holiday air travel introduces a whole new set of concerns. It’s when airports see peak crowds and delayed flights that often lead to overcrowding, all within an enclosed space. And that’s all before you even board the plane.

Given that airlines have taken vastly different approaches to coronavirus safety, research your carrier and choose wisely if you’re going to fly. “Delta has taken safety precautions above and beyond most of the others. I would have a preference for flying Delta if you can,” Dr. Favini says. Indeed, Delta has committed to requiring masks, blocking the selection of middle seats, and limiting the number of customers on board through January 6, 2021, among other reassuring restrictions. Among the list of airlines on the other side of the spectrum — those with less sterling COVID reputations — is Frontier. Rather than reducing capacity on flights, it briefly tried to charge guests for a guarantee of some distancing — a policy it was forced to reverse amid backlash.

Dr. Favini also advises avoiding layovers, flying upper-class cabins with more space between passengers if possible, and considering eye protection. “Bring hand sanitizer and use it often and sanitizing wipes for your tray on the airplane,” he adds. “Try to avoid sitting near a bathroom where people tend to congregate during a flight.” Thankfully, air on planes is changed over quite frequently. “Air is brought in from outside of the plane and recycled air is passed through HEPA filters,” Dr. Favini notes. “If this is done well, you have fresh air on the flight about every three minutes.” But there are other risks associated with flying to consider, such as the proximity of people both in the airport and on the plane. “The risk really comes from the people sitting closest to you, within three to four rows,” Dr. Favini explains. “The less crowded a flight is, the safer it will be.

One study from MIT estimated the risk of catching COVID-19 on a flight in the US to be about 1 in 8,000.” Driving in a private vehicle is certainly safer, whether it’s a personal vehicle or a rental car. “Though think through your plans for stops,” Dr. Favini advises, in line with our tips noted in the section above. Similarly, he suggests that if you’re traveling by train, booking a private train car is preferable. Traveling by train poses more risk than cars because of other passengers, and because, “it does not seem that trains are generally ventilated as well as airplanes.” It is worth noting, though, that Amtrak has promoted several stringent new policies.

  1. How can we protect each other if we’re traveling?

So much of this year has been difficult and the last thing you’ll want to do is put your loved ones in any sort of health danger. As such, Dr. Favini advises wearing masks, even when you’re just with the family you’re visiting, and that COVID-19 testing and self-imposed quarantine periods can help make holiday gatherings much safer. “If you are asymptomatic and test negative for COVID-19, your likelihood of carrying the virus is low,” he says. “If everyone traveling to the gathering gets tested a few days before and self isolates while waiting for their test results, this could substantially lower the risk of COVID-19 spread.” Dr. Benaroch underscores the importance of taking personal responsibility. “To protect each other, do not travel if you’re at all sick, or if you’ve been exposed to someone who either knows or suspects they might have COVID,” he says. “In that case, you should quarantine for 14 days. When you do visit together, avoid hugging and staying close to each other — especially avoid kissing.”

The overall takeaway from all of our experts, however, is resounding: Be flexible, be responsible, be informed — and be intentional about holiday travel this year, whatever decisions you make in the end.