Public-health officials say that staying home is the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19. But if you must fly this holiday season, Consumer Reports has some tips to help keep you safe at 35,000 feet.
Although it’s likely more people will stay put this year than during a typical holiday season, if you do plan to fly in November or December, there’s always the possibility of a jam-packed flight.
During the current pandemic surge, how risky is it to travel during what is normally one of the busiest seasons? And how is the industry making it safer? Here’s what you need to know.
To travel, or not to travel? That is the holiday question.
With the approach of Thanksgiving and the December holidays during a surge in coronavirus cases nationwide, the increased risks presented by travel — either contracting or spreading the virus — are challenging the industry during what is normally one of its busiest seasons.
The market research firm Destination Analysts found in a recent Coronavirus Travel Sentiment Index Study, a weekly survey of 1,200 Americans, that only 28 percent expected to travel for the holidays, including both Thanksgiving and Christmas. In the same survey, 53 percent said they had traveled for the holidays last year.
Little is certain in travel today, other than the necessity of wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, whenever possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “strongly recommends” that masks be worn on any public conveyance, including subways, buses, taxis, ride shares and airplanes.
Fewer fliers, potentially fuller planes
Last Thanksgiving, Airlines for America, the industry trade group, expected 31.6 million travelers over the 12-day holiday period. This year, the group declined to provide an estimate.
The airline business continues to be depressed, with searches for Thanksgiving flights down 60 percent year over year, according to the travel-planning site Kayak. Hopper, the airline booking app, said the average domestic round-trip ticket for Thanksgiving travel is $173, down 41 percent compared to last year. FlightAware, which tracks flight traffic, said commercial aviation remains at about half of 2019 volume. Those planes that are flying are filled to just 61 percent of capacity on average.
Still, scoring a seat without a neighbor sharing your armrest is getting harder, and travelers should prepare for more crowded planes. Southwest Airlines, which has held middle seats open during the pandemic, recently announced it would make all seats available for flights beginning Dec. 1.
Among the four largest carriers in the United States, including American, Southwest and United, that leaves only Delta Air Lines committed to leaving its middle seats open during the holidays, now through Jan. 6.
In a third-quarter earnings call, Edward H. Bastian, Delta’s chief executive, said the airline expects business in December to be about a third of what it was in December 2019.
Many medical experts credit the airlines for using HEPA filters to scrub the air of germs on planes. A recent study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found little evidence of in-flight transmission since mask mandates were implemented in spring and rated the risk of disease transmission on planes below that of grocery shopping or eating out.
But the risks of flying are not just at cruising altitude.
“You have to take into account all the steps of travel, getting to the airport, security lines, layovers,” said Dr. Henry Wu, the director of Emory TravelWell Center and an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine. “All of these things add to the potential exposure list.”
In addition to vigilant mask-wearing, he advises carrying hand sanitizer, choosing a window seat to avoid others passing in the aisles, wearing a face shield and avoiding eating or drinking, which requires you to lower your mask, if possible.
Outside of the plane, he added, “I want folks to internalize what is six feet, whether they’re walking to the gates or getting into elevators or on escalators.”
Covid-19 testing as a safe-travel passport
Increasingly, airlines are touting testing for Covid-19 as a way to reassure travelers that flying is safe.
In a pilot program running Nov. 6 to Dec. 11, United Airlines will offer free rapid testing to passengers on select flights from Newark to London, ensuring that everyone on board (except children under age 2) have tested negative before takeoff.
In October, United began offering Covid-19 testing at San Francisco International Airport to fliers bound for Hawaii, which requires negative test results in order to avoid quarantining for 14 days. American Airlines is also offering testing to Hawaii-bound travelers either in person or through an at-home kit.
Both the International Air Transport Association and Airlines for America are calling for preflight Covid-19 testing as an alternative to quarantine restrictions.
For destinations that require testing, such as Hawaii and Jamaica, the type of tests may vary along with the grace period for getting it before arrival, requiring travelers to research testing requirements carefully.
“When we can have some international agreement on the best strategy to test and when to test and which test to use, that will make the whole process easier for travelers, airlines and destinations,” said Lin H. Chen, the president of the International Society of Travel Medicine and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “Right now, we don’t have that standard.”
While roughly half of respondents with holiday travel plans told Destination Analysts that they would not undergo testing before their holiday travels, a third said they would.
“If you’re negative, that’s good news but it doesn’t mean you should relax your precautions,” Dr. Wu said. “The results could be false or you could be incubating infection. And you could get infected during the trip itself.”
Preserving your bubble away from home
Testing is one way families and friends might consider merging their bubbles for the holidays. But using them, like everything else travel-related these days, takes planning, including ensuring members of merging bubbles are following the same precautions leading up to the trip.
“You have to lower your risk, then test,” said Dr. Emily Landon, an associate professor of medicine and an infectious disease expert at the University of Chicago, who advises families to quarantine for up to 14 days before testing. “The tests are most sensitive five to eight days after exposure. And they’re not perfect. The faster they are, generally speaking, the least likely they are to be accurate.”
Molecular tests, also known as PCR tests, are considered most accurate and usually require at least a day or two to get the results, versus antigen tests, which are quick but less accurate.
Meeting at a neutral site, like a vacation home rental will decrease the chances of encountering other strangers while preserving your own bubble or your newly enlarged one. HomeToGo, a vacation rental search engine, said rental home bookings between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are up 70 percent nationally compared to last year.
Bringing your own food to last during your stay is another way to minimize contact with strangers. Where possible, experts recommend dining outdoors, or even dividing up an outdoor patio into areas assigned to each family bubble. The C.D.C.’s recommendations for holiday gatherings include keeping them small, socially distant, short and outside or well-ventilated.
When it comes to lodging, hotels are considered a safer option than staying at the home of a friend or relative. In addition to enhanced cleaning, hotels are relatively deserted. Across the country, average hotel occupancy is about half, with rates just shy of $100 a night, according to the hotel analysts STR, Inc.
Prepare to quarantine
From strict statewide policies in New York and Connecticut to local restrictions in Chicago, many destinations require visitors or returning residents to quarantine. The C.D.C. recommends checking state, territorial, tribal and local health websites for current restrictions.
Many of the quarantine mandates rely on self-monitoring. But breaking a quarantine order in New York can cost up to $10,000 in fines or up to 15 days in prison. As of Nov. 4, most out-of-state travelers may avoid New York’s 14-day quarantine requirement with negative Covid-19 results from a test taken within three days of arrival, a quarantine for three days after arrival, and receiving negative test results from another test taken on day four.
“You need to think about the entire trip,” said Jeremy Prout, the director of security solutions for the Americas at International SOS, a health and security services firm. “That includes the trip back, which might add a two-week quarantine.”
Be prepared for the risk of infection while traveling, which could result in a quarantine in the destination. Mr. Prout recommends travelers pack for a two-week trip, even if only a brief visit was planned.
Potential quarantines in a destination are another reason to ensure that, if you flew, your airline ticket has a flexible cancellation policy or waives change fees. Southwest does not charge fees for changing your ticket, and Delta is waiving change fees on most tickets purchased this year.
Avoid tickets like Basic Economy on American, which do not allow changes. United is allowing changes without penalty on Basic Economy tickets through Dec. 31.
Driving offers more control
In a survey of 16,000 Americans this summer, the consulting group Deloitte Digital found road trips and short-haul regional travel were preferred by 65 percent of respondents, a number it expects may increase during the holidays.
“The advantage of driving is the environment is much more controlled,” said Emory’s Dr. Wu. “Ideally, you’re driving with your immediate family you live with. If you’re picking up folks from other households, that increases the risk someone might be infected and you’re exposed. And it’s a small, tight environment.”