11 things you absolutely must know if you travel this holiday season

Nov 4, 2020

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This is not your typical annual holiday travel guide complete with recommendations to get to the airport extra early, pre-book that airport parking spot and skip wrapping any presents you plan to bring through security, because 2020 is … unusual, to say the least, and you know all that.

No, this is the real-life 2020 version of a holiday travel guide with the 11 not-so-heartwarming things you absolutely need to know and expect before heading home (or away) for the holidays.

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

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In This Post

Planes are full

There was a time in the spring of 2020 when most of the planes in the sky were relatively empty. Then came the summer months when most airlines were blocking middle seats and capping capacity. This was basically free for them to do at the time since demand still wasn’t filling many of the planes.

But save for a few notable exceptions, that era is over for now. If the airline you are flying this holiday season isn’t expressly committed to blocking middle seats, expect your holiday flight to be as full as it was any other year.

While there are still significantly fewer travellers in the sky this year than last, airlines have adjusted for that by scaling back flight schedules to meet reduced demand. For the most part, that means the flights that are operating are going to be full, especially on popular holiday travel dates.

To know what to expect for your particular flight, you can research available seats using Expert Flyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures), call the airline and ask about the level to which your flight is booked and then potentially leverage the airline’s flexible change or rebooking policy to change your plans if necessary.

Airports are busier, but still not fully open

Featured image by Visionkick/Getty Images

While some airports have filled back up with travellers faster than others, it’s entirely possible the terminal you are in will feel relatively normal in terms of crowd levels. However, while your origin or final destination airports may look and feel busy around the holidays, it’s likely that not all of the retailers and food options will have reopened.

And, even if the one or two fast-food options nearest your gate have reopened, they may have long lines or limited hours.

For those who used to be airport lounge regulars, know that the lounges have continued to reopen at a steady rate, but many 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 had to adjust due to 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 have to quarantine … in a hotel

These days, all of us are at risk of being quarantined for at least 14 days, but the odds of it happening to you likely increase as you international lines, take COVID tests, interact with more people, etc.

If you take a COVID-19 test to enter a 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 leaving home so you can quarantine safely at home instead of on the road if your result is positive. Also, ensure you have trip coverage or a back-up plan to cover significant unexpected costs if you do end up having to cancel your trip at the last minute or spend a few weeks quarantined in a hotel. And that’s all assuming you don’t actually become symptomatically sick.

Not everywhere is as clean as you think

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

While airlines, hotels and beyond have largely ramped up cleaning and disinfecting efforts, you still probably want to bring your own sanitizing wipes … just in case.

TPG’s Ariana Arghandewal recently spent several weeks travelling in Turkey and noted that, “Not all airlines and hotels are taking the same measures when it comes to cleaning their planes. I recently travelled on an airline that didn’t vacuum, let alone sanitize its planes.”

She went on to explain, “I walked into a hotel room where common touch points (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 … just in case.

You may not be able to return to work or school

If you leave, you may not be welcome back at school or work when you get home.

Should you return home from a winter holiday trip on 1 January, it may be 15 January before your employer or school allows you to re-enter 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 local government may require a two-week quarantine, too.

The realities of how hard it is to complete that quarantine will vary based on if you are able to go to school remotely or work from home versus having to miss work for that duration.

You may be travel shamed

In a normal holiday season, sharing that photo with the out-of-state grandparents or of your kids in front of the Christmas tree at Disney World is probably as must-do as a visit to Santa, but think twice this season. Even if you have followed every protocol, passed every test and taken every precaution, that probably won’t all be captured in a social media photo.

While widespread online travel shaming in the U.S. relaxed a bit in the last summer months, that’s not true everywhere, especially as COVID case counts increase. In some communities, especially ones with particularly low case counts, you may not be well received when you return home if word gets out that you travelled out of the area.

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 just change so quickly, but well, it’s true.

For example, in the days immediately leading up to Hawaii’s U.S. reopening, the state announced that only testing providers from an approved list could be utilised to skip the otherwise mandatory 14-day quarantine. Some travellers arrived with negative COVID-19 tests and still had to quarantine as the tests were from the wrong providers.

Additionally, many U.S. states are adding and deleting areas from the mandatory quarantine list as case counts rise or fall. Your destination may literally be added to a quarantine list while you are in the air. For example, after coming off New York State’s quarantine list for a number of weeks, California was added back to the list of 41 states you can’t originate from if you are entering New York without quarantine. And then — New York changed the rules and went to a testing protocol option.

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 are away.

Your hotel may close or cancel

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 when Lanai entered a second lockdown as case counts surged just days after Hawaii reopened.

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

Your packing list is longer

In the olden days of 2019, leading up to the holidays we looked at best carry-on bags and noise-cancelling headphones, but now that all takes second fiddle.

You need to bring good face masks — and you may need more per day than you rotate through at home, especially if you are on a long flight or are out and about a lot. If you want to minimise touchpoints, also pack your own pens so you are ready to complete forms, sign receipts, etc. If you are like me, throwing a face shield in your carry-on isn’t the worst idea either just in case you are in a situation with a whole lot of people in a small space.

(Photo by Andrea Bacle Photography for The Points Guy)

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

Quarantines mean quarantine

In the early months of the pandemic, most governments and health departments weren’t very experienced at managing large-scale lists of people in quarantine due to travel. However, technology and resourcing are now more aligned, so don’t expect to get by with just a quasi-quarantine if your travel triggers a need to quarantine … even if your brother’s friend’s cousin didn’t get busted for not following a strict quarantine back in June.

You may need to talk about testing and expectations

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Normally, around the holidays you probably divide up who is making pies and casseroles and turkey for Christmas. This year, on top of all that, you may need to have a different talk.

Unless you are 100% sure you know exactly how your friends and family are approaching safety and 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 “old normal” or keep socially distanced while together?
  • Are people going to test or quarantine before getting together?
  • Will the gatherings be done indoors or outdoors?
  • Will people wear masks while together?
  • Is there a set guest list or might others float in and out?

Regardless of what you decide, at a minimum, ensure the plan is clear to all involved so friends and family can opt-in or out as the situation warrants.

Bottom line

It is possible to take the current pandemic very seriously and still travel responsibly this holiday season. If you decide to travel over the holidays, just 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 image by Eleonore Sens/AFP via Getty Images

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