Still planning to travel during the holidays? Here’s how to be savvy — and safe

Nov 24, 2020

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It’s nearly turkey time, and though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging Americans to avoid travel this Thanksgiving, many people are still determined to go home for the holidays. If you’re among those travelers who will be hitting the road (or the skies), it’s important to remember that travel is far from normal right now, and the pandemic is only worsening.

So, while you may have been concerned about crowded airport security checkpoints and congested roads during past Thanksgiving trips, there are entirely new concerns at play for travelers right now. If you’re leaving town, even if it’s just to get some fresh air and explore the outdoors at a destination near you, here’s what you need to know to have a safe, stress-free trip.

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Before you leave

Having a perfect holiday weekend starts long before you lock your front door for the next few days — so keep these best practices to keep in mind.

Know the busiest days for travel, and plan accordingly

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expects to screen more than 6 million travelers over the Thanksgiving week. It’s a fraction of the more than 26 million screened in 2019, but could still mean some of the busiest air travel days since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged.

As a result of the CDC warning, airlines are reporting a surge in cancellations — but travelers who expect to fly during the Thanksgiving holiday should still brace for crowds, at a time when steering clear of others remains incredibly important.

If you can, avoid travel the day before Thanksgiving, which is typically the busiest day of all. Monitor crowds carefully, and be prepared to make last-minute changes to your plans so you don’t have to deal with the worst of the crowds. All around, avoiding crowds is incredibly important for your physical and mental health.

Don’t let the bad guys know you’re not home

In this day and age, many people Instagram their every move as a way to keep friends and family posted during trips. But you know who else loves knowing when you’re eating-praying-loving your way through a Thanksgiving dinner out of town? Thieves.

In extreme cases, insurance companies have even been known to reject homeowner claims when there’s self-uploaded social media evidence they were away from home.

So, if you’re committed to leaving town during the holidays, be sure to keep quiet on social media. Plus, lock the doors and windows; arm your security system if you have one; let a responsible neighbor know to check in on your place every day or two; and turn on your “smart” lights. TPG’s senior travel editor Melanie Lieberman even asks a friend or a neighbor to park in the driveway when she’s driving out of town.

Make sure you have your travel documents

Sure, you want to make sure your passport or license have a valid expiration date — but these days, travelers might need an entirely different set of travel documents even when flying domestically.

Depending on where you’re going and how you’re getting there, you may need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within a certain period of time before arrival. These documents may be required by your airline, your destination or even your home state when you return — so keep track of all your testing information and keep printed documents on hand, even if they’re not explicitly required.

If you’re driving, tune up your car

The last thing you need is a flat tire or a coolant leak during a long road trip — and we know the vast majority of travelers will continue to choose cars over planes during the holiday season.

“I always leave the day before everyone else does, or early that morning,” travel writer Penny Sadler told TPG in 2019. “To prepare, I pack the night before [and] I fill the car with gas as many days before departure as possible to avoid waiting in lines. Also, any needed service or maintenance, [I] take care of that a couple of weeks in advance. Basically, I just try to have everything ready to roll early in the morning!”

Clean your house to make coming home more comfortable

Coming home from a trip is always a bummer, but returning to a mess is doubly so, especially if you’ve grown accustomed to turn-down service and freshly ironed sheets.

“I always like to leave my apartment clean before I travel,” Sasha Perez said last year. “It’s just nice to come back to a clean apartment [and] fresh sheets.”

George Gensler, a writer and columnist, also told TPG in 2019 that a frozen meal or can of soup already available makes coming home that much easier, especially for those late-night returns.”Before I leave for any travel … I make sure I have toilet paper, water and something quick and easy to prepare for food when I get home.”

Label your belongings

Last year, Darren Murph told TPG he prints out stickers with his contact information and labels everything he brings on his travels. “This has saved my AirPods, a water bottle (three times) and a hard drive with wedding photos,” he said. “I even put them on the little charging blocks that come with your iPod, since those blocks are so easy to forget in a hotel room or plane.”

Stay healthy

This might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s never been more important to remember that staying healthy — and keeping others healthy — should be your top priority right now. In addition to quarantining before and after any travel, make sure that you cancel your plans if you notice any symptoms whatsoever. Even if you test negative for the novel coronavirus, you don’t want to spread your germs if you’re under the weather. Plus, testing won’t catch every case of COVID-19.

Related: The 7 best starter credit cards

During your trip

Sometimes, even the best-laid travel plans can go awry, so savvy travelers don’t stop being proactive after take-off.

Keep valuables safe and accessible

Mitchell Stoutin, TPG’s director of engineering, sets himself up for success by clipping his car and house keys to a designated spot inside his carry-on bag. “I won’t be using them while away, and I don’t want them to get lost in the shuffle,” he said in 2019. He also leaves his airport parking ticket hidden inside the car so he doesn’t have to worry about losing it during his trip.

Take control of your comfort

Planes are notoriously cold, hot and generally uncomfortable by turns. There’s not much you can do about the central ventilation, but you can adapt by bringing your own comfort: Cozy socks, noise-canceling headphones, a sweater or travel blanket, even eye masks.

Of course, you’ll need to pack the essentials, too, because peace of mind goes a long way toward making the travel experience more enjoyable. Yes, you’ll need to wear a face mask over your nose and mouth for the duration of the trip. But you might also want to pack gloves; goggles or a face shield to keep you from touching your face; and extra hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.

Use apps to streamline your experience

Ruksana Hussain, a Los Angeles-based travel journalist, uses the GateGuru app to see what amenities are available near her terminal and gate. “It saves me time finding food or specific services,” she told TPG last year. This might be especially helpful now that so many concessions are closed or operating with limited hours. 

The TSA app is another good tool that will help you figure out how much earlier you need to arrive at the airport in order to make it to your gate on time.

Related: The worst part of Thanksgiving travel isn’t actually the airport

When you return

Do your laundry right away

Don’t get me wrong: I hate doing my chores at the best of times, let alone at the end of a long trip and travel day. But I’ve found the benefits of washing my clothes as soon as I get home far outweigh the fairly minimal discomfort of being responsible. I wake up the next morning feeling more prepared to return to my daily routine, and it’s always nice to be greeted with fresh piles of clean, folded clothing — rather than heaps of dirty laundry.

To make things a little easier, I separate my lights and darks in two separate laundry bags when I travel, so I just shake them out and start the machine as soon as I get home.

Back up your photos

If your phone and camera aren’t already synced to the cloud, it’s a great idea to download and back up your photos, videos and other digital souvenirs as soon as you return home. Mishaps do happen, and memories can be lost very easily with one accidental slip of the wrist or a device malfunction.

Stay put

Even if your home state allows you to test out of a quarantine period, the absolute best way to make sure you aren’t spreading germs is to stay home for 14 days and avoid interacting with other people. That might mean using Instacart or a similar app to order your groceries; taking advantage of food delivery; and splurging on streaming services to help you get through the quarantine period.

Additional reporting by Melanie Lieberman.

Featured photo by Getty Images.

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