For Jim Jacobs, deciding to travel during the holidays has always been easy. Normally, he and his wife would fly from Tampa to Los Angeles, where they would enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with their daughter, son-in-law, and extended family.
But last year, with COVID cases soaring during the holidays, Jacobs canceled his holiday travel plans. The family connected on Zoom, “but it was far from being the real thing,” says Jacobs, a retired salesman.
“This year,” he adds, “we were looking forward to the trip.”
And that’s how it is for lots of Americans considering their holiday travel plans. The lingering delta variant is holding them back, but the need to see family and friends – and to uphold tradition – is pulling them toward the airports and highways. Whether to make a trip is a difficult decision, say travelers and experts.
Some say it’s still too risky. But others – many others – are tired of waiting. Vaccinated or not, they’re hitting the road for the holiday travel season, COVID or not.
“Although the demand for travel is high, winter holiday travel in the coming year will remain unpredictable,” says Rajeev Shrivastava, CEO of VisitorsCoverage.
More people are traveling during the holidays
Booking data for the holiday travel season suggests it could be busier than the last pre-pandemic year.
That’s particularly true of vacation rentals. Thanksgiving reservation volume is up by 302% compared to 2020 and 93% higher compared to pre-COVID 2019 volume, according to Guesty, a vacation rental platform. And Christmas reservation volume across the US is up 469% compared to 2020, and is currently 157% higher than pre-COVID 2019 volume.
“This holiday season is likely to see a surge of demand and a lack of supply,” says Jeff Galak, associate professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
He says many travelers find themselves in Jacobs’ situation: They haven’t seen family in a year or more – or they just want to get away.
“The result is very high demand for travel,” he adds.
In other words, if you’re headed out there, prepare for crowds.
Holiday travelers are taking precautions
Most travelers who are going somewhere for the holidays say they’re taking precautions. Erin Contour and her husband, both of whom are vaccinated, are heading to a small hotel on Oregon’s rugged Pacific Coast.
“We plan a quiet holiday of hiking and enjoying an ocean-view room,” says Contour, a retired systems engineer from Happy Valley, Oregon.
What about meals and other activities? Contour says she’ll be watching the pandemic situation to decide how they’ll handle meals.
“We may resort to takeout,” she says.
But how do you get there?
Even for people who have decided to travel, the path isn’t always clear. Barbara Tibbetts, a children’s book author from Nantucket, Massachusetts, has firm plans to visit her adult children in St. Augustine, Florida.
“I don’t know if I should drive or fly,” she says. Last year, her kids got COVID just before Christmas and they had to turn back and drive home. She’s keeping a close eye on the cases and remaining flexible.
“I’m watching and waiting,” she says.
What will you do about holiday travel?
I have no choice in the matter. The travel columnist has to travel, right? It’s his job. So I’m headed back to Europe and the Middle East, which will hopefully allow this vaccinated American to cross the border. We’ll see.
But you do have a choice. You can play it safe again this year and stay home, which makes sense if you’re unvaccinated or immunocompromised (see box). Or you can join what is sure to be a crowd of other Americans, trying to make up for last Thanksgiving.
Jacobs, the retired salesman from Tampa, weighed the pros and cons and then considered his health.
“I have a rare blood condition which is treated by a drug that weakens my immune system and diminishes the effectiveness of the vaccine,” he explains. “I just don’t believe that getting together to eat a lengthy meal in a crowded room is worth the risk.”
But he’s already making plans for Thanksgiving – in 2022.
Ask these questions before making holiday travel plans
Are you vaccinated? Historically, the Centers for Disease Control has urged unvaccinated Americans to limit or avoid travel. With the pandemic not going quietly or quickly, it’s likely that the CDC will continue to advise unvaccinated people to reconsider their travel plans. Also, more countries and travel companies are limiting unvaccinated visitors. The vaccine record card is your new passport. “If you have chronic medical conditions or are immunocompromised due to any medications or for any other reason, it may be a good idea to remain at home,” says Jim Evans, an emergency medicine physician and senior medical consultant, Allianz Partners.
Is the place you’re visiting safe? Check before you leave. The Mayo Clinic’s hotspot map also has a 14-day forecast that will show you if infection rates are likely to be high. The CDC’s data also breaks down to the county level, so you can see community transmission rates in greater detail. “Countries are constantly evaluating and changing their COVID protocols,” warns Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion Travel Group.
Do you have insurance? Here’s the bottom line: If you’re flying and staying in a hotel, you should definitely consider a reliable travel insurance policy that covers COVID. If you’re driving and staying with family, you probably don’t need a policy – but it’s still worth looking into. “No matter where travelers go for the holidays, there is the existing threat of falling ill, getting injured, or needing to cancel or interrupt a trip without warning,” says Jeremy Murchland, president of Seven Corners.
► ‘There’s always some amount of uncertainty or risk’: How travel insurance could protect your next trip