Thinking about traveling for the holidays despite the pandemic? Airlines might make it harder for you

traveling for the holidays coronavirus
Photo via faungg's photos/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

As the U.S. enters the last few months of a year marred by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s natural to want out of self-isolation and to be around more familiar faces during the holidays. But is traveling for the holidays actually going to be worth your while—or possible at all? If you were hoping to travel to be with your loved ones for Thanksgiving or Christmas, it might involve exhaustive planning as major airlines appear to have massively cut down on flight schedules due to low demand.  

According to statistics analyzed by airline data firm OAG, American Airlines and United Airlines—two of the major carriers in the U.S.—are seeing about a 25% dip in bookings for November flights. Additionally, flight bookings for Delta Airlines are only 12% of what 2019’s numbers were for the holidays. 

These abysmal numbers could not have come at a worse time for the aviation industry, as news of the expiration of the CARES act—the federal COVID-19 aid package that afforded airlines with billions of dollars in grants and loans—became official. That reportedly caused massive layoffs among airline workers and prompted a number of airlines to suspend flights to a number of destinations.

If your family lives in a smaller town, chances will be slim that you can fly there directly if the aftermath of COVID-19 on the industry continues without a sufficient financial solution. “We can’t continue to wait. There will absolutely be discontinuation of service to small communities, and there will be much less service to larger communities,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told CNBC in October.

American Airlines has reportedly suspended its service to Greenville, South Carolina, where it was the only commercial airline service to cater to a population of 78,000. Compared to last year, the Piedmont Triad International Airport near Greensboro, North Carolina took a 57% dive in passenger numbers.

The nosedive in overall airline passenger numbers is not all bad news, though, especially for travelers who are itching to book a flight. While it’s true that airlines are operating at a reduced capacity right now, it also means flights are way cheaper—prices are reportedly down 25% in 2020, compared to the year before.

Before you go traveling for the holidays

If you lucked out and found a way to travel by air during the holidays, don’t forget that it will have to be under strict circumstances to keep yourself (and your travel companions) adequately safe from the virus. 

The CDC recommends that you check your destination’s coronavirus case numbers in the last seven days to ensure that it is not a hotspot. Make sure you aren’t traveling to a place where you will be spending time with someone who might be at increased risk for a severe version of COVID-19. Make sure to research quarantine protocols at your destination state and to extensively research local health guidelines being followed there ahead of your departure.

Booking your holiday flight

Before COVID-19, the best time to book great plane ticket deals was about three to six weeks before your travel date. Because of all the travel restrictions, unpredictable surges and dives in demand, and ultimately the loss of steady profit for the travel industry, that timeline for deals is no longer applicable. If you really want to make your holiday plans a sure thing, you need to book your flights by mid- to late-October at the latest. That’s basically right now. It’s also apparently the best time to use airline miles and credit card points.

“There are definitely deals out there right now, and if you decide to travel for the holidays, it may cost fewer miles than it has over the past few years,” Brian Kelly, founder U.S.-based travel site The Points Guy, told Fortune. “If you want to fly from Newark to Miami for Thanksgiving, it’ll cost you just 5,000 United miles to fly the Thursday before Thanksgiving or just 6,000 miles to fly on the Saturday before. Keep in mind that even though there isn’t currently a mandatory quarantine upon arrival in Florida, there will be one coming back to New Jersey. On American [Airlines] through much of November and December, you can fly from Houston to Jackson Hole [Wyoming] for just 10,000 miles each way.”

Because of cheaper airfare prices, expect flights to popular destinations to be at maximum capacity, which may limit your travel options if you’re headed in the same direction. Some airlines are blocking middle seats for safety reasons as well, so finding a seat on a flight that works for you may be challenging.

If you normally opt out of purchasing travel insurance for your flights, consider doing the opposite this year as the potential for becoming stranded due to a combination of extreme weather, limited flight availability, and social distancing requirements is significantly higher.

What it would be like at the airport

As for available passenger services at the airport, expect most of those conveniences to either be limited or completely shut down. As of Oct. 6, only 30 of the 106 restaurants at the Los Angeles International Airport were fully operational, 13 were partially open, and 63 were closed. Many airport lounges are also shuttered, so if you are a frequent flyer hoping to take advantage of the perk, you may need to call ahead and find out if yours is open.

What it would be like on the plane

Once you’ve boarded your flight, you’ll be required to wear your face mask throughout the duration of the trip. Refusing to do so may risk you getting removed from the flight or banned indefinitely from flying with the airline. Disembarking will also take longer because many airlines have modified their boarding procedures—several reportedly require people to remain seated until everyone in front of you has deplaned—to minimize prolonged close contact with other passengers along the walkways.

You may also need to bring your own snacks from home since some airlines currently have limited in-flight food options. Some shorter flights even have in-flight services suspended. 

Travel tips to lessen coronavirus exposure on your flight

Dr. Michael Chang, an infectious disease pediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Texas, and Dr. Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist, gave Newswise a list of recommendations to maximize safety on the plane and minimize potential exposure to the virus:

Try to book a direct flight, instead of one with a layover.

Choose an airline company that is requiring mask use, keeping middle seats open, and enforcing enhanced cleaning procedures.

Use online or contactless check-in.

Scope out the crowd at the gate. If it appears too crowded for your comfort level, consider changing your flight.

Delay getting on the plane as long as possible.

Sit near the back of the plane and avoid aisle seats, as those allow for more exposure to passengers and crew members walking through the aisle.

Wipe down your seat and tray table with a sanitizing wipe and let it air dry before sitting down.

Point the overhead air vent right at you, as the force of clean air will help keep out air that might contain infectious droplets.

Don’t eat or drink, unless you use a straw under your mask to stay hydrated.

Keep your mask on for the duration of the flight.

Try not to go to the bathroom unless it’s an emergency.

Bring plenty of hand sanitizer.

Consider wearing a face shield over your mask for extra protection. Note, face shields are not effective unless you also wear a mask underneath.

Other options for the holiday traveling

Depending on how close you are distance-wise, you can opt to travel by car to a loved one’s home, a safer travel option considering you are isolated from strangers. If you do decide to travel by car—distance be damned—make sure the places you spend the night en route are following proper COVID-19 prevention practices.

At this point of the ongoing pandemic, the CDC’s stance on travel is the safest option: “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” If you do cancel your travel plans for this upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas, there are other methods to keep in touch during special occasions. You can set up a virtual Thanksgiving or Christmas and have your extended family login to services like Zoom or Facebook Rooms so you can enjoy your respective holiday festivities simultaneously. 

Read more on traveling during the pandemic:

Sources: OAG, Metropolitan Airport News, The Points Guy, CNBC, Simple Flying, Forbes, CDC [1, 2], Fortune, Newswise

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