5 things you need to do early this year for holiday travel

Oct 7, 2021

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As we approach the second year of pandemic-style holiday travel, the best advice I can give is to consider doing your travel-related tasks sooner rather than later, whether you will be flying abroad or staying stateside this holiday season.

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A traveler arrives at Cancun International Airport on Dec. 24, 2020. (Photo by Alberto Valdez/Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Book your flights and lodging ASAP

For starters, book your flights as soon as possible, or as TPG senior aviation reporter David Slotnick told me, “Book your flights yesterday.” Although flights are still widely available for holiday travel within the U.S. on most major airlines, including Southwest, American Airlines, United and Delta, some airlines have warned of potential disruptions to holiday travel schedules if a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate is implemented for airline employees. This could potentially result in “an exodus of pilots … causing mayhem during the holiday travel period,” wrote Slotnick. As we have seen with pandemic travel, last-minute flight changes have become common and even putting the pandemic aside, prices will likely continue to increase the longer you wait to book your flight.

Along the same lines, families are increasingly opting to stay at Airbnb and Vrbo homes over hotels, and both companies have seen families booking vacation homes for the holidays as early as this summer. As is the case with flights, lodging options will only be more limited and more expensive as we approach the holidays.

Read more: United says about 97% of employees met vaccine deadline; meanwhile, AA and Southwest pilots warn of travel chaos

Renew your passport early

If you are venturing abroad this Thanksgiving or Christmas, or cheers-ing to the end of 2021 outside of the U.S., hopefully, you have already ensured your passport is not approaching its expiration date.

Although passport service wait times have improved slightly since my seven-week saga this summer, the current processing time for routine service for both renewals and new passport applicants is 16 weeks, which if you applied today would not afford you a passport until mid-January 2022. Even with expedited service, which can take up to 12 weeks, you would only receive your passport by the last week in December, which would do little for holiday travel beyond potentially helping you make a last-minute trip for New Year’s Eve.

In cases of international travel within 72 hours or three business days, the U.S. Department of State is still offering very limited appointments for in-person expedited service, but based on my experience, I would not count on that being a guarantee. The State Department is facing an enormous backlog of outstanding applications waiting to be processed due to the pandemic — as high as 2 million earlier this year.

Lastly, many countries require passports to be valid for at least six more months at the time of travel, so be sure to check what the expiration rules are for your desired location.

Read more: Learn from my experience: How to avoid a 7-week passport renewal saga

Check COVID-19-specific requirements

While we are on the topic of international travel, it goes without saying that you should triple-check any COVID-19-related testing and or quarantine requirements of your destination, and note that such rules apply for each country you enter. Sometimes, there are restrictions even if you are just passing through on a connecting flight. If you are connecting through a country to get to your final destination, you are subject to the specific COVID-19-related protocols of each country you enter, so verify whether they restrict transiting passengers.

“This applies any time of year right now, but make sure you know the requirements for wherever you’re going,” says TPG writer Ashley Kosciolek. “In particular, make sure to order/schedule tests within the appropriate time frame.”

France, for example, requires travelers to obtain a digital health pass showing proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, cafes, bars, museums, cultural institutions and public transit and currently prohibits unvaccinated visitors with limited exceptions.

“If you need any printed COVID-19 documentation (test results, exemption letter from doctor, etc.), have several copies printed out,” advises TPG UK senior writer Benjamin Smithson. “Also, check registrations and insurances to make sure they are up to date.”

Read more: Los Angeles expands vaccination requirement for restaurants, bars and other indoor spaces

Rember that some countries, including popular holiday destination Turks and Caicos, are requiring proof of travel or health insurance covering COVID-19-related expenses. As always, the U.S. government does not provide medical insurance for U.S. citizens overseas.

And don’t forget, the U.S. still requires a negative COVID-19 test for all returning passengers entering the country over the age of 2. The test can be either a PCR or rapid antigen, taken within three days of your scheduled departure to the U.S.

It’s not just international travelers who should be verifying COVID-19-related protocols though, as a growing number of U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco, require proof of vaccination to access certain indoor spaces, such as restaurants, bars and hotels.

Read more: When are your negative test results checked when flying back to the US?

Prepare for road trips/think about packing

If you are planning on driving to your family’s holidays celebrations, “Now is the time to make sure your car is in good working order,” says Mitchell Stoutin, a senior director at TPG, and adds, “One of my best quarantine purchases was a roof rack and ‘bullet’ top box, which makes the car much roomier for road trips.”

Speaking of attempting to fit everything you need for one trip in a suitcase or a car, you can probably envision the moment where you’re cursing yourself for overpacking when you know very well that you’ll likely spend the majority of the trip in the same three outfits when chilling at home. Why are we dressing up to crowd around in your aunt’s kitchen?

Related: New study confirms families are flocking to vacation rentals

Nonetheless, your sweatpants, leggings and sweaters must be packed somewhere, and you may not be aware of this summer’s domestic luggage shortage due to raw material shortages, lack of truck drivers and skyrocketing travel demand. Kosciolek advises you to buy direct and plan ahead.

“If you have something specific in mind in terms of bag size, look or brand, you’ll have the best luck checking all the boxes if you go straight to the source and order directly from a luggage retailer,” she said. “Don’t expect to go to the store the day before your big trip and find exactly what you’re looking for and similarly, if you’re going the online ordering route, there could be delays.”

To make matters worse, the continuing “supply chain woes show no signs of letting up, in fact they’re getting much worse,” writes Bloomberg, which credits labor shortages and COVID-19 for a shortage of goods across the board, including in-demand holiday items.

Travelers wearing face masks arrive at Orlando International Airport on Dec. 24, 2020. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Ship your presents in advance

Although you can technically carry wrapped presents through security at airports, as TPG travel director Summer Hull wrote, it’s risky should Transportation Security Administration agents decide to inspect what’s under the hours and hours of wrapping effort. Instead, consider shipping your presents and other large items to your relatives’ home or wherever it is where you will be staying, but do so well before you leave. The U.S. Postal Service expects more mail delays this year as part of new delivery standards being issued by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, as reported by NBC News.

Read more: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

Bottom line

While 2021 holiday travel may be just as stressful as years past, the added element of year two of a global pandemic, ongoing USPS woes, labor and product shortages, increased global travel demand and the anticipation for some of making up for a missed holiday last year means travel this year is going be different than we’ve seen before, at the very least. At a minimum, plan in advance as much as possible and be sure to read the fine print when it comes to COVID-19-related formalities. Oh, and have a plan B. And C.

Read more: Unvaccinated? Think twice before booking trips to these 5 US cities

Featured photo of travelers waiting to go through security at Hannover Airport on Oct. 2 by Michael Matthey/picture alliance via Getty Images.

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