The ultimate COVID-19 holiday travel guide

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Every year people take to the roads and airways to visit friends and family for the holidays. But the onset of the COVID-19 has disrupted travel plans across the world. Should social distancing, wearing a mask and shelter-at-home squash your upcoming trips? Maybe not. 

To help stop the transmission of the coronavirus, the airline and travel industry have implemented measures to keep you and your family safe and well during the holidays. There’s no way to know if the pandemic will get worse (or better) in the next few months or if the travel industry will announce a new set of rules, but it’s never too early to prepare. 

This guide will give you insight on steps and precautions to take whether you’ve already booked your travel or if you’re still in the planning stages. It will also highlight how the best travel credit cards, and the rewards earned from them, can be used to save money on your travels during these financially unstable times.

Pandemic travel options 

When traveling by car, bus, train or plane, you risk being exposed to COVID-19. Germs on surfaces or in the air at a rest stop, bus or train station, or in the airport where it’s difficult to social distance can infect you or a family member making this holiday season memorable for all the wrong reasons. 

Airports and airplanes

Over the past several months since the onset of COVID-19, airlines have stepped up and introduced enhanced cleanliness and safety measures, processes and ideas to safeguard you and your family.  However, these policies are ever-changing, so it’s important to stay up-to-date on the airline’s current procedures.

AIRLINEMASK REQUIREDMASKS AVAILABLEMIDDLE SEAT SOLDCLEANING PROCEDURES PRIOR TO TAKING FLIGHT
Alaska AirlinesYesYesNoYes
AllegiantYesYes
Yes
Yes
American AirlinesYesYesYesYes
DeltaYesYesNoYes
FrontierYesYesYesYes
Hawaiian YesYesNoYes
Jet BlueYesYesNoYes
SouthwestYesYesNoYes
SpiritYesYesYesYes
Sun CountryYesYesYesYes
UnitedYesYesYesYes

If you’re traveling out of the country for the holidays, be sure to research airline policies prior to booking your trip – some countries are still on lock-down and do not allow travel from the U.S. Airlines are also constantly changing their middle-seat blocking policies to allow for more social distancing on airplanes.

If you can, try to fly with an airline that’s blocking middle seats. (Image by Zubada / Getty Images)

Traveling by bus

When traveling by bus, whether across the country or just downtown, it isn’t easy to social distance. Aisles are narrow and seats are usually close together. But bus companies are doing what they can to ensure your safety. 

Greyhound Bus Company – Face masks are required, and if you don’t have one, the driver will provide one for you. 

Megabus Bus Company  – Face masks are required. They keep one seat empty between travelers and clean and sanitize the bus after every trip.

RedCoach Bus Company – Face masks are required. One seat is empty between travelers and hand sanitizer is provided. They also clean the bus after each trip.

Jefferson Lines Bus Company – A face mask is recommended but not required. They do sanitize the busses and recommend social distancing. 

Peter Pan Bus Company – Face masks are required when boarding. Minors cannot travel without an adult and buses are sanitized. 

Trains

There are a number of scenic trains that travel to places like the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon. Many of these trains require face masks. They also sanitize seats and handrails during and after each trip, and recommend social distancing. However, they do not have restrictions on capacity.  Because most trains are closed-in and there’s less air circulation than an airplane, there is the potential for exposure to COVID-19. 

Amtrak – Amtrak has enhanced disinfecting and cleaning at stations and onboard trains. They suggest travelers social distance from each other and the train operators require face masks while on the train. They are also limiting bookings to allow for more social distancing. 

(Photo by Mark Liddell / Getty Images)

Car

Most everyone likes a road trip, especially when it means visiting relatives or friends during the holiday season. While traveling by car reduces the exposure to strangers, stopping at gas stations, rest stops, restaurants, hotels and other public places along the way can pose a challenge and risk of becoming infected. Becoming aware of the possible health issues from COVID-19 will likely make you much more attentive when around strangers.

Pre-travel considerations 

The holidays ring in good food and happy memories. The last thing you want to think about is getting sick from the coronavirus. So, when traveling this holiday season, no matter your mode of travel, there are a number of pre-travel considerations to keep in mind.

Where to stay: Hotels, bed & breakfasts, rental properties

Most everyone likes to stay in a hotel, bed or breakfast or some other property where the room is clean and fresh and you don’t have to make the bed. But when you stay, keep a couple of things in mind.

  • Sanitize — Remember that you’re not the only one with access to your room during your stay. Hotels, motels and all other properties are implementing sanitizing protocols during and after each stay. Maids are required to wear masks and use sanitizer while in the room and after they leave. 
  • Discounts — Many hotels, bread and breakfasts, motels and rental properties lost money during the strict lockdowns at the beginning of the pandemic. In order to entice travelers, especially over the holidays, many properties are offering discounts, either for your current stay or for when you travel again in the future.
  • Wi-Fi connection — Because you need to stay connected, to either work, friends or family over the holidays, it’s important to choose accommodations that offer a strong Wi-Fi connection. That way, all your Zoom video chats will be lag-free and clear. 

Work Leave

Nearly 28% of workers will probably take off less time or push their vacation to later in the year due to the COVID-19, according to a survey by global staffing firm Robert Half. Even so, part of the fun of traveling over the holidays is time off work.  It’s important, however, to remember a few details when traveling during the pandemic, so your time off isn’t “hard work”.

  • Some places you travel to may require a 14-day quarantine period before arriving at your final destination. Some states, like Alaska, require you to be tested for COVID-19 when you arrive and stay in quarantine until you receive your results. Or, you can opt to self-quarantine for two weeks. If you’re traveling to Connecticut, and you’re from a state with high COVID-19 infection rates, you must self-quarantine for two weeks and fill out a travel health form.
  • If you’re traveling to a location that requires self-quarantine, you’ll want to be sure to find temporary accommodations that provide high-speed internet and Wi-Fi, so at least you can work while you wait.  
  • You may also want to think about disconnecting from the news and social media while on vacation and instead enjoy the company of friends and family. If you can’t completely unplug, at least try to spend less time dwelling on the news and more time having fun.

Get the best deals on holiday travel

The coronavirus pandemic has been a difficult time for many people. Maybe you lost your job or were laid off. Maybe you have student loans that have gone unpaid and you’re worried about how to pay for all of the holiday cheer. 

The quarantine has also restricted much social interaction. For many people, visiting family and friends over the holidays will be a needed break from months of isolation. Planning travel in a budget-friendly way can help make these reunions less stressful and less of a financial strain.

Be flexible — Being flexible with your travel plans can add up to big savings. You may get a better deal on an airline ticket or motel room if your plans aren’t set in stone. Use a tool like Google Flights to search for cheap flights around your preferred date — you can sometimes save hundreds of dollars just by adjusting your travel dates by one day.

Use points and miles — If your travel credit card gives you points or miles for every dollar you spend, your holiday vacation may be the right time to cash in on these rewards. Cash prices for travel are usually high around the holidays, so you can usually get more value from your hotel points and airline miles during the holiday season. Read our guide on when to use cash or points for travel.

Use the right credit card for travel expenses — If you need a flight, hotel or rental car, your travel credit card can earn you bonus points on those purchases. Plus, many of these cards offer travel insurance and car rental insurance, which has the potential to save you some serious cash along the way.

Monitor hotel and airline sales — The travel industry has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic and it’s pulling out all the stops to entice travelers to hit the road again. Because of this, we’re seeing a slew of sales and promotions — it would behoove you to keep your eyes out for deals around the holidays. For instance, Southwest airlines discounted all of its award flights by 20% and British Airways is offering 50% off all long-haul award flights through June 2021 (including the holidays)!

Bottom line

While your holiday travel plans may not be what you expected due to COVID-19, there are steps you can take to prepare ahead of time to reduce stress and enjoy the holidays with your loved ones. 

If you’re flying, make sure you understand the airline’s safety protocols before arriving at the airport. Terminals can be crowded, so wear a mask to protect yourself and others, wash your hands often and be aware of your surroundings.  If you’re traveling by bus, train, or by car, try to stay at least six feet away from strangers. 

And, if you think you may be sick with the coronavirus, seek medical attention before jumping on a plane, bus, train or traveling anywhere with your family. 

Along with all of the holiday cheer, there will be days of work, connecting with friends and family and shopping. Make sure you use a rewards credit card to get something back in return for all of your hard work during the year.

Featured image by Izusek / Getty Images.

Kathy Pomroy is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets, he covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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