Flying over the holidays? Here are 12 things you need to know before taking off

Dec 20, 2021

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Editors’ note: This post has been updated with new information. 


This is not your typical annual holiday travel guide with recommendations to get to the airport extra early, prebook that airport parking spot and skip wrapping any presents you plan to bring through security, because 2021 is … unusual, to say the least.

But you already know that.

No, with COVID-19 cases still surging across the country, the new omicron variant spreading and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging people not to travel unless they are fully vaccinated, this is the real-life version of a 2021 holiday travel guide, with 12 days of not-so-heartwarming things you absolutely need to know and expect before heading home (or going away) for the holidays.

At this point, some people in the U.S. still haven’t flown or seen their relatives for almost two years, and that’s an eternity in the fast-paced, ever-changing world we live in. The new variant has some countries reimposing border restrictions. Some people who’ve been traveling have had to go back to canceling or postponing trips.

So buckle up, heat up your eggnog, put your required face mask on and let’s get to it.

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In This Post

Planes are full

(Photo by Eleonore Sens/AFP/Getty Images)

There was a time in the spring of 2020 when most planes in the sky were relatively empty. Then came summer, when most airlines were blocking middle seats and limiting capacity.

But that era is over now. In fact, domestic travel is at 90% of pre-pandemic capacity, and that’s with fewer flights and fewer planes flying.

That means the flights that are operating are going to be full, especially on popular holiday travel dates. You can expect your holiday flights to be as full (or fuller) as they were any other year.

Related: 4 ways to make sure you’re not boarding a crowded flight

To know what to expect for your particular flight, you can research available seats using ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures), call the airline and ask about the level to which your flight is booked and then leverage the airline’s flexible change or rebooking policy to change your plans if necessary. Just be aware, you are not likely to find a flight that’s empty … no matter how much you search.

Airports are busier — but still not fully open

(Photo by Visionkick/Getty Images)

While most United States airports have filled back up with travelers, and it’s entirely possible the terminal you are in will feel relatively normal in terms of crowd levels, it’s still likely not all of the retailers and concessioners will have reopened.

And, even if the one or two quick-service venues nearest your gate have reopened, they may have long lines, limited hours and limited menus.

For travelers who used to be airport lounge regulars, know that the lounges have been reopening at a steady rate, but some are still closed. Research if the lounge you want to visit is open before heading to that part of the airport, and come with tempered expectations as service and offerings have been reduced due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns.

In other words, unless you are certain a particular airport amenity or retailer has fully reopened, expect to be surprised at how much remains shuttered and prepare accordingly.

You may need to take a COVID-19 test — or three

Travelers are increasingly being asked to take COVID-19 tests before, during and after travel. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they are always easy to access with quick-turnaround results, so you’ll need to do advance research on where to test and how long results are taking.

Hawaii’s pre-travel testing requirements are largely well known at this point (though the details keep changing), but other states, cities or venues may have vaccine or vaccine passport requirements that could surprise you. 

Increasingly, some hotel resorts, such as Baha Mar in the Bahamas, also may now require rapid testing upon arrival and a certain number of days into your stay. Or they could provide on-site testing so you can return to the United States.

Related: Traveling internationally? Have a backup plan, and a backup to your backup

Checking testing and vaccine requirements and making appointments may be a significant part of the holiday travel experience, depending on your origin or destination. It’s especially onerous for international travel right now.

And don’t be surprised if you have to pay a premium to get timely, accurate results.

Related: Where to get a COVID-19 PCR test for travel

Be prepared to quarantine

These days, all of us are at risk of being quarantined, but the odds of it happening to you are likely to increase as you cross international borders, take COVID-19 tests during your trip and interact with more people, among other factors.

Related: Country-by-country guide to reopenings

If you take a COVID-19 test to enter a state or country, or perhaps take one on the third day of your stay as required in some locations, you may end up having to quarantine in a hotel away from home for two weeks if you get surprised by a positive result. (And, trust us, since there are asymptomatic carriers out there, that is a thing that absolutely happens.)

Whenever possible, take your necessary COVID-19 tests for travel before traveling so you can quarantine safely at home instead of on the road if you test positive. Also, ensure you have trip coverage or a backup plan to cover significant unexpected costs if you do end up having to cancel your trip or spend weeks quarantined in a hotel at the last minute. And that’s all assuming you don’t actually become sick.

Related: This travel insurance will fly you home if you test positive for COVID-19

Not everywhere is as clean as you think

Hand sanitizer aboard a Hawaiian Airlines flight. (Photo courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines)

While airlines, hotels and other travel providers have ramped up cleaning and disinfecting efforts, you still probably want to bring your own disinfecting wipes.

TPG’s former points and miles editor, Ariana Arghandewal, spent several weeks last year traveling in Turkey and observed a lot of inconsistencies.

“Not all airlines and hotels are taking the same measures when it comes to cleaning their planes,” she said. “I recently traveled on an airline that didn’t vacuum, let alone sanitize its planes.”

She added, “I walked into a hotel room where common touchpoints (light switches, phones, remotes) were clearly overlooked during the cleaning process.”

Her advice is to bring your own cleaning supplies and wipe down your surroundings frequently — you know, just in case.

You may not be able to return to work or school

If you leave your state, or potentially even the county, you may not be welcome back at school or work when you get home.

Should you return home from a winter holiday trip on Jan. 1, it may be Jan. 15 before your employer or school allows you to reenter those doors. And if you get sick, there are some situations where paid sick days won’t kick in if you left the area. Depending on where you live and where you travel, your state or local government may require a two-week quarantine, too.

The realities of how hard it is to complete that quarantine will depend on whether or not you’re attending school virtually or if you’re able to work from home.

The rules can change while you’re in the air

I don’t have to say that it’s hard to effectively plan this year as things continue to change so quickly but, well, it’s true.

In the days immediately leading up to Hawaii’s reopening last year, for example, the state announced that only testing providers from an approved list could be used to skip the otherwise mandatory quarantine. Some travelers arrived with negative COVID-19 tests and still had to quarantine as the tests were from the wrong providers.

And while we were abroad a few weeks ago, the rules to re-enter the U.S. and the U.K. started to quickly change, which could necessitate a change in plans, so stay attuned to news at least a little or risk being surprised by a rule change.

Related: Hawaii again welcoming visitors; here’s everything you need to know

While it’s normally great to unplug while you are away from home, in today’s world, you may need to stay in the loop in case getting home starts to become much more challenging while you’re away.

Your hotel situation has changed

There are many hotels that have announced a reopening date — or have even reopened — only to decide to prolong their closure or shut down a second time. This second closure happened to guests at the Four Seasons Lanai in Hawaii last year when Lanai entered a second lockdown as case counts surged just days after Hawaii reopened.

As another example from last year, TPG received emails from travelers who booked flights to a technically reopened Grand Cayman only to find out their hotel had decided to delay reopening until a more complete state of reopening has been achieved.

Keep in mind, too, that hotels haven’t always been able to keep up with demand and are selling out quickly or only partially opening. You may end up paying a lot more for your hotel or Airbnb stay this year.

Your packing list is longer

In the olden days of 2019, you might not have left home without your noise-canceling headphones or fancy travel pillow. But now, that all plays second fiddle.

You need to pack good face masks — and you may need more per day than you’d use at home, especially if you are on a long flight or are out and about a lot. Gone are the days when only cloth masks are available — you can now buy N95 and KN95 masks that offer more protection. If you want to minimize touchpoints, also pack your own pens so you are ready to complete forms, sign receipts and more without relying on others.

On top of that, there may be additional test results, vaccine cards and documentation you need to have at the ready, especially if you are traveling internationally or to a destination that requires testing or quarantine.

Quarantines aren’t a joke

While here in the U.S. you may be under quarantine if you test positive that is mostly managed on your own — aside from perhaps a call from a health department or track and trace agency, the situation may be different abroad. The length of time, where you can quarantine and how it is managed vary widely around the world, so know what to expect in the event you do test positive while traveling.

Talk about vaccines, testing and expectations

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Normal holiday conversations are usually about who is making pies and casseroles for the big family meal. This year, you may need to have a very different talk.

Unless you are 100% sure you know exactly how your friends and family are approaching safety during the pandemic, it’s good to talk about pandemic-related precautions in advance. Make sure you are all on the same page on issues such as:

  • Are you going to give hugs and interact like “the good old days” or keep socially distanced while together?
  • Is everyone vaccinated? Boosted? Will that be a rule in your family for gatherings?
  • Are people going to test or quarantine before getting together?
  • Will gatherings be indoors or outdoors?
  • Will people wear masks while together?
  • Is there a set guest list or might others float in and out?

The CDC also has some tips available if you are still deciding to gather. Regardless of what you decide, at a minimum, ensure the plan is clear to all involved so friends and family members can opt-in or pass as the situation warrants.

Remember the limits of a negative test

It’s incredibly important to keep in mind that receiving a negative test result does not mean you haven’t contracted COVID-19 since the test, or won’t become positive immediately after. In fact, you may still be contagious even after receiving a negative result.

Due to the incubation period — the time between exposure and when symptoms begin — it’s possible to contract COVID-19 and test negative for a period of time after you have been exposed but before your viral load is high enough to be detected.

So while testing just before gathering does likely reduce the risk of COVID-19 to family members or during your travels, it’s not foolproof.

It’s also possible to contract the disease after completing a test, so the safest option is to limit yourself to outdoor visits, and always wear a mask indoors when around individuals outside your household, and any other time you’re unable to maintain a safe distance.

Tips for safe airplane travel

If you are flying, make sure to keep these tips in mind to travel as safely as possible.

Fly shorter distances

The shorter the trip, the less likely your exposure, experts told TPG back in 2020. In fact, there’s a formula immunologist Erin Bromage put forward that’s gotten millions of views on his blog post: “Successful infection equals exposure to virus [multiplied by] time.”

Plan your transportation to the airport

Make sure if you use a ride-hailing app that you’re not “sharing” with strangers, though most apps are no longer allowing these types of rides. Wear a mask and keep the windows open. Or, if you can, drive yourself and use airport parking.

Get vaccinated

The single best thing you can do to keep yourself (and the rest of us) safe is to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Boosters are also now widely available.

Wear the right mask the whole time

Make sure you’re wearing the right mask that covers your nose and mouth completely. What’s the best mask?

Dr. Jake Deutsch, the founder and clinical director of Cure Urgent Care and a CNN contributor, told TPG, “There [are] three categories of masks: N95, basic surgical masks that people are using in between and cloth masks. N95 is best, surgical is accepted as the safest and most accessible and other options fall into the third category.”

While N95 masks were very hard to obtain early in the pandemic, they are easier to purchase now online or potentially even in some airport vending machines.

Related: TPG’s favorite face masks

Carry the essentials

Make sure you have disinfecting wipes and your own supply of antibacterial gel or spray. Planes are being cleaned more often, but not as much or as thoroughly as some of us may like. Sanitizers should have 60% to 70% alcohol to be truly effective.

Stay in your seat as much as possible

The more you stay in your seat, the less likely you are to be exposed to other people who might have COVID-19. Bathrooms are potentially the riskiest spot on the plane, but if you gotta go, you gotta go — so go prepared.

Bottom line

If you are going to travel this holiday season, there are things you can do to be prepared and reduce the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. Be certain you know what to expect from start to finish with extremely up-to-date and triple-checked information. And because curveballs are all but certain at some point along the way, have a Plan B (or even C) at the ready.

Featured photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images.

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