Here are 6 things to consider about holiday travel

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An airport employee checks a passenger’s temperature before they are allowed to board their flight at Washington-Dulles International Airport on November 10, 2020. | Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images

The first one is whether you should be traveling at all.

The “third wave” of coronavirus infections has arrived in America. Reported cases in a single day hit a record high of over 150,000 on November 13, and nationwide, we’re seeing a record number of hospitalizations, surpassing that of April.

Travel surveys suggest that with the upcoming holidays, a number of Americans are still planning to fly or drive to a destination, either to visit family or for vacation, despite the risks involved. Plus, some college campuses are wrapping up their in-person semesters by Thanksgiving, requiring many students to return home until the spring term.

The uptick in car and plane trips during previous holiday weekends this year, such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day, is a hint of what’s to come in November and December — two months in which millions of Americans traditionally congregate with their loved ones. For last year’s Thanksgiving holiday, airlines flew a record 31.6 million passengers, while it was estimated that nearly 50 million people drove to see family and friends.

The pandemic will certainly reduce the number of active travelers, but without clear directives from the government, people are still allowed to travel for leisure even as coronavirus cases surge nationwide. What’s especially concerning is that there’s no single hot spot or epicenter, and the rate of hospitalizations has been climbing steadily. Some states like New York and Connecticut are requiring out-of-state travelers to undergo a brief self-quarantine period upon arrival, but at this point, most public health decisions are being made at an individual or family level.

The pandemic has broken most people’s understanding of what to fear, argued Amanda Mull in the Atlantic. “When everyone is left to write their own version of Choose Your Own Pandemic Adventure, no one is safe.” Mull continued, writing: “Americans have no common conception of the pandemic, which means you can’t assume that someone you’ve trusted for years isn’t about to expose you to a deadly disease, or even that you live in the same plane of reality.”

This disparate understanding of safety means the holidays are even riskier, especially when it comes to family gatherings. We try to answer some questions you might have about end-of-year travel — whether you should even consider a vacation, the safest modes of transportation, and how to tell your family you’re not traveling to see them this year.

Should I travel during the holidays at all?

The most responsible, failsafe option is not to travel. A PNAS study found that a majority of coronavirus cases may be a result of asymptomatic or presymptomatic transmission, which means people who don’t know that they’ve been infected are driving the spread. The travel portion of your trip might not even be the most dangerous part: You should also consider the potential for exposure and spread at your destination.

Eight months into a pandemic with no end in sight, however, public health experts have acknowledged that it won’t be enough to tell Americans not to do something. Chances are, some people are going to go ahead with it anyway. If you’re adamant about traveling in the coming months, you should consider harm reduction strategies to mitigate risk when you leave your home. There are many variables to consider for each trip, including the mode of transportation, length of travel, and what you do at the destination.

If you’re traveling to a remote destination by yourself or with those in your household, for example, the best course of action would be to limit interactions with strangers. That can be achieved by taking a car, reducing the number of rest stops, and staying at a properly sanitized Airbnb or hotel with remote check-in.

If you’re going to see family, however, there are more factors out of your control, depending on how many relatives you plan to see. Have they been tested? Are they limiting their exposure to those outside the household? What are the infection rates in the area? Will you quarantine before you interact with them? These are all questions you and your family members should weigh before any plans are solidified.

In short, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here, meaning your safety and that of your loved ones — whether you travel or not — depends on the choices you make.

Which mode of transportation should I take?

As I reported this summer, there are risks that come with any mode of transportation, especially if it involves people in close proximity to one another. A crowded flight or a train ride, then, would likely carry more risks than a solo road trip.

As a result, many Americans have gravitated toward short-distance car trips, since that helps limit exposure to people outside their coronavirus “bubble,” a contained social pod that consists of your household or close friends. Public health experts have advised that in addition to reducing risks via transportation, travelers should be equally mindful of the destination and activities on their itinerary.

“What you want to do, if you have to travel, is consider how to limit contact with others during this trip as much as possible so you’re not contributing to accelerating the pandemic, even when you reach a rural or vacation area,” Jared Baeten, vice dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, told me in May.

However, there are instances in which a flight would save a person significant time on the road (say, if a trip would require multiple days of driving and consequent stops at hotels). In this scenario, a traveler would have to weigh whether they’d rather briefly sit masked in a plane cabin with dozens of other strangers, or spend days or weeks on a cross-country trip, with the potential of passing through coronavirus hot spots. Again, a person is not only at risk of contracting Covid-19; they could also expose others to it or introduce the virus to a contained community.

Experts think that travelers taking car trips can have more control over who they’ll encounter. “I think that there’s no better time than now to really do your homework,” Robert Quigley of the risk mitigation company International SOS told the Washington Post. “Where am I going, how many miles per gallon do I get, where do I stop, do I need gloves to go into that place, where can I eat?”

While trains and buses used to be budget-friendly travel alternatives to flying or driving, travelers might hesitate to consider them now. Traveling by train requires you to be in close contact with others, much like a flight, although Amtrak has reduced its passenger capacity and has private room offerings for longer routes.

A train’s ventilation system might not be as sophisticated as an airplane’s, which are equipped with hospital-grade air filters that extract about 99 percent of viruses. Ventilation is crucial to stop the spread of Covid-19, but being in proximity to others increases the risk of transmitting the virus.

Once again, there isn’t a simple answer here and the choice can vary depending on a person’s tolerance for risk and their destination.

I have to go home. Is there a safe time to travel?

There is no safe time to travel during a pandemic, especially not around the holidays when more people are going to be doing so. If you’re a college student or someone who absolutely needs to catch a flight home by Thanksgiving, data reported by the Washington Post from the flight search engines Kayak and Google Flights predict that Wednesday, November 25, and Sunday, November 29, might be the busiest days of the week and are therefore best avoided.

Flight searches are down compared to pre-pandemic holidays (which suggests that fewer people are interested in traveling), but while there might be fewer travelers, it’s possible that flights could be fuller overall. Since March, airlines have revised their flight routes as demand fluctuated, reducing service to smaller cities and the number of transcontinental domestic routes.

Given the unpredictability of this year’s holiday travel rush, you should steer clear of peak travel days and remain flexible with the timing of your flight. Travel patterns could change, since it’s likely people are trying to avoid the most crowded days.

Is it possible to enforce social distancing on a plane? And how safe is it to fly?

Vox’s Julia Belluz and Brian Resnick have a piece delving into the science of how risky air travel is and what steps you can take to minimize risk.

Even if you’re flying on a relatively full plane, sitting 6 feet apart from another passenger might not be feasible, even if middle seats are blocked off. American, Southwest, and United — three of the four major US airlines — are no longer blocking off their middle seats; only Delta is enforcing this policy through January 6.

In my colleagues’ reporting, they concluded: “Covid-19 definitely spreads on planes, seemingly mostly to passengers who are seated near index cases, though it’s not clear how often this happens. And there’s some good news: Masks seem to help.” Proximity to an infected person would increase your likelihood of catching Covid-19, but passengers on a plane are often subjected to other people’s behaviors that they can’t control.

As a traveler, you might need to go to the bathroom, where it’s harder to distance from others. Or a passenger on your flight could briefly take off their mask to have a sip of water. Belluz and Resnick have reported that while the risk of contracting the virus on a plane is low, it’s not zero. “Travel is a process that is more than just the flight itself. Passengers need to weigh their tolerance of risk in this context,” said David Freedman, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama Birmingham.

Health experts have advocated for a layered approach to protecting oneself. Travelers should be wearing masks at all times, wash their hands, and try to avoid crowds as much as possible. Airlines should do their part to ensure that aircraft are sanitized and that the cabin is properly ventilated, even while parked.

We got tested before the holidays. Should my family members and I still quarantine before we see each other?

Negative test results are not necessarily an indication that you or your family members are Covid-19-free. Resnick has a thorough explainer that debunks why a negative test is not an all-clear for engaging in risky activities. Testing can also be less accurate before the onset of a person’s symptoms.

“Scientists don’t yet understand exactly when a person who is infected with the coronavirus will start testing positive for the virus,” Resnick wrote. “There are situations when a person could test negative, actually be infected, and also be contagious. It’s also possible — since this virus multiplies itself exponentially in the body very, very quickly — that someone could test negative in the morning (and not be contagious), but by the afternoon test positive (and be very contagious).”

Some airports and airlines also now offer rapid Covid-19 tests to passengers, in which a negative test can exempt a traveler in certain states from quarantine requirements. Experts, though, are still recommending that people self-quarantine before heading home.

In a Boston Globe op-ed, two public health experts from Harvard and Yale advised colleges to institute a protocol that requires students to quarantine for 10 days before they depart for home, or to offer a shorter five- to seven-day quarantine period with a rigid Covid-19 testing schedule.

“Neither pre-departure temperature checks nor voluntary measures are adequate to detect disease and control outbreaks, even if both make for good theater,” they wrote. “Considering roughly 40 percent of cases are symptom-free, these approaches fail to detect the silent spreaders who may feel perfectly well now, but who may already be shedding large, transmissible quantities of virus.”

I’m not going to see friends or family this year. What should I do?

By not traveling anywhere, you’ve reduced the risk of transmitting the virus to others and contracting it. If your family has made holiday plans and expect you to be present, you should let them know your decision as soon as possible. Vice’s Rachel Miller has fantastic advice on how to break the news to your family that you’re not heading home; you should be firm and honest while still being kind and empathetic regarding their reactions.

There are also plenty of virtual ways to spend time with each other: Host a Thanksgiving dinner over Zoom, consider cooking together virtually, or stream a holiday movie together. It’s a heart-wrenching choice not to spend the holidays with your loved ones, especially after this whirlwind of a year, but unfortunately in pandemic times, the safest thing to do is stay apart.

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