Labor Day 2020 travel hit new pandemic peaks, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Road travel was only 5.1% lower than last year and air travel attained its highest number since the start of the pandemic, with TSA screenings reaching 969,000.

Increased Labor Day travel is a positive indicator for holiday travel. Families are looking for ways to escape the four walls of their home, take a break from remote learning and work from home schedules and spend time with loved ones.

Bookings for Thanksgiving, already the busiest travel weekend of the year, are up 38% from spring and summer bookings, according to Guesty, a short-term rental property management platform.

Although road trips will most likely remain the dominant mode of travel, families with relatives spread out across the United States will turn to the skies, leaving many to ask: Will it be safe to fly this Thanksgiving?

What Travelers Want

Travelers are used to wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and staying six feet apart. They’ve adapted to screening and testing protocols, both before and after arrival.

Now travelers have their own requirements. According to a survey by Virtuoso, 66% of travelers are willing to fly — but they want the middle seat open. And 73% would pay extra for a ticket if it meant the middle seat was empty.

MIT Professor Arnold Barnett, in a July study in peer review, found leaving the middle seat open is, in fact, safer. He calculated the odds of contracting COVID-19 at 1-4,300 if you take a two-hour flight and sit in a sold-out economy section. The odds drop 44%, to 1-7,700, if you take the same flight with the middle seat empty.

Holiday Travel Checklist

As airlines adjust and adapt during the pandemic, there are plenty of ways travelers can mitigate their risk this holiday season. Global Rescue experts recommend asking and answering the following nine questions before any trip.

1. Is everyone healthy?

Schedule time to talk to family members to check on everyone’s health. Be honest about any pre-existing conditions that might put a loved one at risk. Consider the ages and health risks of all family members.

“Check everyone’s temperature and ask how they are feeling. If anyone is running a temperature or feeling off, it would be a good idea to schedule a COVID-19 test prior to departure,” said Jeffrey Weinstein, Medical Operations Supervisor at Global Rescue. “By all means, please do not travel if you have any symptoms of illness whatsoever.”

2. Be prepared to take a test.

Airlines have been rolling out COVID-19 testing options prior to boarding.

United Air requires all passengers take a COVID-19 rapid test on the San Francisco/Hawaii route starting on Oct. 15. You can take the test on the day of the flight ($250 right at the airport) or mail in a test ($80).

JetBlue announced a similar at-home testing option, giving its travelers their results within 72 hours. The test, priced at $143, includes a video conference call to supervise the collection process.

If the pandemic turns into a twindemic with the flu season, you can expect many more airlines to request testing.

“While this is a great measure, some people are hesitant to rely on it because it is new and they aren’t sure what to expect,” said Kimberly Franke, a travel specialist with Kanna Travel Services, a full-service travel agency in Bozeman, Montana. “In an ideal world, airlines would have plenty of testing and staff to do the testing so passengers aren’t stressed out prior to boarding, however, it is a great option for those last-minute travelers who like to fly by the seat of their pants.” 

3. Is it a good time to travel?

Airports can be a busy place around the holidays, particularly the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Keep in mind many colleges have changed their schedules, ending the semester before Thanksgiving, so college students returning the home might crowd the airports, bus and train stations. If you can, pick a low-traffic time to travel, such as the Monday before or Thursday morning.

4. Is the destination safe?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends family and friends “should consider the number and rate of COVID-19 cases in their community and in the community where they plan to celebrate.” Global Rescue offers a free Coronavirus Report which details state-specific restrictions, outbreak locations and travel recommendations.

5. Is it okay to have a gathering?

A survey by Morning Consult found 53% of consumers will hold a family holiday get-together during the pandemic, but 74% note it will be a smaller gathering than usual.

Part of the reason for smaller celebrations is to mitigate risk of contagion, but it is also due to local restrictions or regulations for gathering limits. Many states have guidance for the number of people for indoor versus outdoor gatherings.

6. Can you minimize risk?

Instead of eating indoors, could the meal be held outdoors? If you are eating indoors, is it possible to increase ventilation? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, ensuring proper ventilation with outside air can help “reduce the concentration of airborne contaminants, including viruses, indoors.”

Other ways to minimize risk include: measuring the indoor space and inviting only enough to fit safely with social distancing, limiting the duration of the gathering, inviting only local family members and bringing supplies like extra masks and hand sanitizer.

7. Can everyone agree to boundaries before the event?

If you can’t cancel or postpone the holiday gathering, make sure family members are on the same page with coronavirus precautions. Everyone can decide the level of strictness needed. Boundary examples include quarantining as much as possible two weeks before the trip or testing negative before any travel.

“If individuals are going to be spending time with their distant families during the holidays, the wearing of masks and proper social distancing will likely be impractical,” Weinstein said. “Make sure you discuss the risks and hear out everyone’s opinions on what boundaries and safety practices should be implemented. Be prepared to make special accommodations for those at high risk who may be uncomfortable with unprotected exposures.”

8. Do you have travel protection services?

When you plan your route or book your flight, sign up for a Global Rescue travel services membership at the same time. You’ll be able to research domestic and international entry requirements, COVID-19 travel status and restrictions and detailed health and security assessments. If a medical emergency happens when you are 100 miles away from home, you’ll have access to medical advisory services as well as evacuation services.

9. Will you need to quarantine?

Many U.S. states have some level of quarantine rules for travelers or residents returning from other states. But rules vary widely and change with the COVID-19 numbers.

Alaska, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are among those who currently require 14-day quarantines for travelers from states with relatively high COVID-19 infection rates, but these requirements are constantly changing, often without notice. Before you travel, check Global Rescue’s Coronavirus Update for the latest information.

Whether you are a planner or a last-minute traveler, travel services memberships provide the baseline of security and safety today’s travelers need. Knowing you and your family have medical and security advisory services at the ready provides peace of mind before, during and after Thanksgiving travel.