From extra research to travel restrictions to COVID-19 testing, traveling this holiday season will come with even more hassles than usual—but clever planning can help you pull it off. Here’s what to be aware of.

By Kelsey Ogletree
September 11, 2020
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In 2019, AAA reported that more than 115 million people traveled over the holiday season, an all-time high since the travel company began tracking in 2000. This year, to no surprise, things will look a lot different. Some experts report that people are eager to travel, yearning for a change of scenery and reunions with family; still, questions of safety and risk loom large. Here’s what to consider if you’re thinking about booking holiday travel this season, including alternatives to large family get-togethers, what trends experts are predicting, and how to stay safe should you decide to hit the road (or the skies) amid the ongoing pandemic.

Why holiday travel is different in 2020

Travel confidence is slowly rising: Heading into Labor Day, nearly half of American travelers surveyed reported feeling comfortable traveling outside their communities, according to a Longwoods International tracking study. But it’s still not all systems go.

“This is going to be the time of year when the most people are attempting to travel—but it’s also going to be a year like no other,” says Molly Fergus, general manager of travel information website TripSavvy. Fergus doesn’t expect we’ll see the same demand for holiday travel as in years past, as everyone has different comfort levels right now. In general, she expects people to opt to spend the holidays closer to home, but she’s still seeing a strong interest in travel—whether that be drivable destinations or spots a little farther-flung.

2020 holiday travel trends

There are two major points to consider when deciding whether it’s safe to travel this holiday season: Where you want to go and who you want to spend the holidays with.

“I think that when you make those two decisions, it determines everything,” says Sandra McLemore, a Los Angeles-based travel industry expert and TV host. With those decisions in mind, here’s what the holidays might look like.

1

Last year, McLemore and her husband’s extended families, totaling nearly 30 people, gathered together in a big holiday house outside of L.A., where they did festive activities like seeing holiday lights, going to church, and visiting Disneyland.

“This year, there’s no way we’re doing that,” McLemore says. “As much as [we love] our extended family, [people] are going to go for something more intimate.”

She predicts holidays this year will be spent with nuclear families or with your “bubble” (see below). A positive effect of this will, perhaps, be to bring back the true meaning of the holidays.

“There are so many things we won’t get this holiday—the malls won’t be crowded, people won’t be caroling door to door—but so many things to gain from the weird world we live in,” McLemore says. “I foresee it will return us back to the things that matter.”

2

People are forming pods, or bubbles, of family units to band together and enjoy safe socialization during quarantine. McLemore predicts there will be a trend toward spending the holidays with these bubbles, too, for those who opt to stay home and don’t live near family. There’s also interest in traveling with your own bubble—for instance, two or three families traveling together to stay in a house in the mountains or villas near the beach, says Christina Schlegel, travel advisor with Arlington, Va.–based Bluetail Travel.

3

Staying in place for the holidays—or doing a holiday staycation—doesn’t have to mean feeling woeful about missing out on travel. Instead, people will be making extra effort to make their homes beautiful, spending more money on food, table decor, wine, flowers, trees—you name it.

“Christmas decorations will be off the chain this year,” McLemore says. “If you’re turning your home into your destination, you want to get the Christmas magic on.”

4

McLemore says she’s already seeing a trend of people booking stays in their own cities or in destinations within a five-hour drive of their hometown. Then, the choice becomes about house rentals or hotels, and what’s right for you depends on how much work you want to put in.

“People who want to still put on a full holiday spread go for house rentals,” McLemore says. If you’re more of the arrive-and-enjoy type, a hotel (with an on-site, socially distanced restaurant) might be better for you.

The upside to either choice? “I don’t think there has ever been a time when hotels and home sharing accommodations have been cleaner,” says Anthony Melchiorri, CEO of Argeo Hospitality and host of Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible. He adds that the extensive safety measures that hotels are putting in place not only meet but exceed CDC guidelines, in many cases—part of the reason he feels it’s safe to travel this holiday season.

It’s worth noting that private home rentals, which are based on supply and demand, have gone up in price (in some locations, even doubled). Supply has slightly dropped, says McLemore, because not all owners are comfortable renting large houses (and also don’t want their homes in the news as the scene of large parties), while demand has increased. Homes were already booking up for the holidays this summer, too—so if you’re thinking of going this route, she recommends making reservations ASAP.

5

One silver lining of traveling this holiday season is the increased flexibility some are experiencing, Fergus says. For example, families with children engaged in virtual learning and parents working from home may have the option to be gone longer—and squeeze in more family time—without having to work around schedules. Fergus says families could take advantage of this flexibility to book a home near relatives and quarantine there for two weeks ahead of a holiday before getting everyone together.

“That way when you get to the Thanksgiving dinner table, you don’t have to worry you’re passing anything on to Grandma,” she says.

6

When you have family states away, you can get creative about getting together for the holidays. Fergus, who lives in New York, is planning to drive to meet her parents, based in Chicago, halfway and rent a cabin. Tara Jones, an independent travel advisor with Cupcake Castles Travel Company, says she’s booked five-bedroom homes for extended families who are meeting in the Smoky Mountains.

“[They’re] perfect for social distancing,” she says.

7

More than six months since the country was put on lockdown, air travel is still greatly reduced. On September 9, for example, TSA reported 616,923 travelers passing through security compared to more than 2 million the same day a year prior. Still, the number of travelers flying is on the rise, especially compared to April, which saw a low of only 87,534 travelers nationwide passing through security mid-month.

“Driving is going to be safer in general, as you’re in your own bubble and can take precautions on any stop you make,” Fergus says. Things are more out of your control when you’re on a flight, but many airlines are taking extreme precaution—such as Delta leaving middle seats open through early January—and creating greater flexibility (like permanently removing change fees), making flying a little less scary heading into the holidays. Pay attention to the best time to buy airline tickets and book when you can; this new flexibility means you can change your flights or use a flight credit later as needed.

Of course, on top of the pandemic, you can’t forget about the typical holiday travel woes, like snowstorms and delays. “Just remember, there aren’t as many planes in the sky right now,” McLemore says. “If we think that regular holiday travel was challenging, it could be more challenging this year.”