What do travelers want this holiday season? Safety, cheap flights and flexibility

Oct 29, 2020

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More than half a year has gone by since the coronavirus pandemic nearly shut down the travel industry. Yet with the holiday season fast approaching, we’re still far from anything close to normal.

In the past, travelers booking holiday trips worried about lengthy lines at the airport, inflated ticket prices and those winter squalls that caused a deluge of flight delays. You might have debated whether to pack or ship presents, and spent long nights hunting for award space at your favorite hotels.

But this year, travelers considering holiday trips have a very different set of concerns — and nearly 20% of travelers are avoiding their normal travel plans altogether.

And of the people who do expect to travel during the holiday season, 38% said this will be their first trip since the onset of the novel coronavirus, which sent people into lockdown in many parts of the world in March.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, young travelers will likely dominate airports and roads around Thanksgiving and the winter holidays: Millennials (ages 24 to 39) and travelers belonging to Generation Z (ages 18 to 23) are most likely to travel for the upcoming holiday season (24% and 30%, respectively).

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This month, The Points Guy commissioned YouGov to survey more than 1,400 U.S. adults about their holiday travel plans. And it’s clear the ongoing threat of the coronavirus pandemic is top of mind for travelers, many of whom are eager to still find some sense of normalcy during the holidays.

Consumer confidence in air travel is slowing rebounding, but the vast majority of people who are traveling for the holidays will likely stick with driving instead. Expected travelers are more than twice as likely to drive versus fly (90% of people are at least somewhat likely to drive, and only 42% are at least somewhat likely to fly).

But that won’t stop some people from flying.

Related: 7 mistakes you don’t want to make when booking holiday flights this year

Flying home for the holidays

Travelers said that, if they were to fly this holiday season, strict mask compliance on board airplanes would be the most important factor (31%) influencing their decision to travel. Travelers were equally concerned about airlines guaranteeing an empty middle seat (10%) and adhering to sanitation protocols and frequently cleaning aircraft (also 10%).

Some travelers said they wouldn’t travel for the holidays unless there was a “proven vaccine” available, while others said they wouldn’t fly until mask mandates were over. One person said they’d fly if the only other people on the airplane were family members — which might explain the skyrocketing interest in private jets.

Of course, some things never change. For many travelers (21%) ticket price is still the most important factor. And this year, 6% of travelers said flexible cancellation was their top concern.

Related: 8 ways to save money on holiday travel this year

Silver linings for holiday travelers

Though the coronavirus pandemic is expected to continue worsening, travelers who do fly may discover some unexpected advantages.

If you’ve ever flown during the holidays, you’re probably accustomed to the crush of airport crowds, packed planes and sky-high ticket prices. This year, however, COVID-19 could mean that travelers can book significantly cheaper flights on less-crowded planes. Even the airports will likely be less busy.

Finding cheap cash and award flights could be easier than ever, even for travelers considering a last-minute trip home for the holidays. Airfare this holiday season, according to the farecasting app Hopper, has hit historic lows, with domestic airfare for round-trip Thanksgiving and Christmas flights down about 40% compared to 2019.

And this holiday season, travelers will have unprecedented flexibility with their holiday travel plans, as most major U.S. carriers (Alaska, Hawaiian, American, Delta and United) have joined Southwest in allowing changes (to at least some tickets) without charging fees. And most airlines still have temporary coronavirus change fees and rebooking waivers in effect.

Related: Airline coronavirus change and cancellation policies: A complete list of major carriers

Check your list twice

For the travelers who have decided to travel for the first time since the onset of the pandemic during the holidays, the travel experience will be far from familiar. And even if you haven’t been completely grounded by COVID-19, things have changed a lot from those early days of the pandemic when 95% of air travelers stayed home and airplanes were flying with just a handful of passengers.

If safety is at the top of your travel priority list, for example, you’ll want to read up on everything the different airlines are doing to keep travelers safe during these unprecedented times.

Delta has committed to blocking middle seats through the holidays, though overall capacity allowances have already increased from 60% to 75%. JetBlue will keep its aircraft at under 70% capacity through at least Dec. 1 — though it’s no longer explicitly saying middle seats will be blocked.

Depending on where your travels are taking you, you’ll also need to be well-versed in the entry requirements for your destination. Even travel within the U.S. is hampered by strict quarantine and testing requirements. So, before you book a flight or hotel, make sure you have all the documentation you need to safely reach your destination.

And, of course, travelers need to pack for the occasion. In addition to your favorite holiday sweater and gifts for the family, you’ll need to travel with a face mask, hand sanitizer and plenty of disinfecting wipes. Because the greatest gift you can give yourself and your loved ones, at least, is peace of mind this holiday season.

Feature photo by EvgeniiAnd/Getty Images

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