How COVID Will Affect Holiday Travel

Thanks to the pandemic, holiday travel will look different this year. Here’s the skinny on the best time to book flights, and what airfares and safety measures will be like during the 2020 holiday season.

How COVID Will Affect Holiday Travel

Airfares will be in your favor this holiday season.

Photo by Shutterstock

For many Americans, the 2020 holiday season will be the first time they take a trip away from home in months. According to a recent survey conducted by travel booking site Hopper, 55 percent of respondents said the holidays will be their first time traveling since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Just don’t expect to see the typically crowded airport terminals this season. While the number of airline passengers has been steadily rising since U.S. travel came to a near screeching halt in March at the start of the pandemic, fewer than half the travelers who would normally fly this time of year are boarding planes right now. The U.S. Transportation Administration (TSA) reports that nearly 1 million travelers (984,000) passed through TSA checkpoints on October 11, 2020—the highest numbers of flyers since the onset of the pandemic—but that’s way down from to more than 2.5 million one year prior.

TSA issued a notice to travelers ahead of the busy Labor Day weekend in September addressing the safety measures that have been put in place for air travel across the country.

“For travelers who have not flown since the beginning of the pandemic, the TSA checkpoint experience will be noticeably different as compared to last year,” TSA administrator David Pekoske said in a statement.

To help reduce the spread of COVID-19, TSA officers wear face masks and gloves at all airports, as well as face shields at some airports. Plexiglass shields have been installed at security checkpoints, social-distancing signs reminds travelers to maintain a safe six feet from one another, and checkpoint surfaces and equipment are being cleaned and sanitized regularly, TSA reports.

Passengers should expect shorter wait times in security lines—up to half the time compared to last year. TSA recommends arriving at the airport between one to two hours prior to departure as “total time in the screening process will be shorter,” the agency reports. In the days of yore, TSA recommended arriving at the airport two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international departure.

Travelers are asked to wear a mask at the airport, but may need to temporarily remove the mask briefly to verify their identity while going through security.

If some space to social distance while in the air is a priority for you, five U.S. carriers are still blocking middle seats. Delta is blocking the selection of middle seats and limiting the number of customers per flight through at least January 6, 2021. Alaska is blocking middle seats through at least November 30, 2020. Southwest has an open seating policy and is limiting the number of seats sold. JetBlue has a blocked seat policy in place until October 15, 2020, and hasn’t yet announced if that will be extended into the holidays. Hawaiian is blocking middle seats, too, and has not put an end date on its policy.

All of the major U.S. airlines—including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and Southwest Airlines—have mandatory mask policies in place with strict enforcement rules.

For up-to-date health and seat blocking policies, Expedia’s booking tool has a built-in safety feature that allows users to hover over each airline when searching for flights to see which is blocking seats, regularly disinfecting aircraft, requiring masks, conducting preflight temperature checks, and limiting passenger capacity.

Will holiday flights be cheaper this year? When to book and what to expect

For those eager to be with friends or family this holiday season, the good news is that ticket prices are down considerably. Domestic Thanksgiving airfares have dropped 41 percent this year, compared to 2019, to an average of $173 round-trip, according to Hopper. Domestic airfares for Christmastime are down 40 percent this year, compared to last year, to an average of $222 round-trip.

As for when is the best time to book, we are about to enter the sweet spot, according to flight and hotel booking site Kayak. Based on 2019 holiday travel search trends, Kayak found that prices actually started to decline about 40 days in advance of the holidays (around mid-October) and remained low until two weeks prior to the departure, so through early November for Thanksgiving and through early December for Christmas. Hopper concurs that the best deals for the holidays are now and recommends booking Thanksgiving and Christmas flights by Halloween.

“Domestic airfare prices for Thanksgiving and Christmas are historically low compared to previous holiday seasons. With prices this low, [we recommend] tracking holiday prices now and buying as soon as you see a good deal,” Hopper says in its 2020 Holiday Guidance Report.

For those who want to book but also want the option to back out if they get cold feet, remember that the majority of U.S. airlines have ditched their change fees. As of last month, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, and Alaska Airlines all permanently eliminated their flight change fees. And their more lenient coronavirus-related change fee waiver policies, which apply to all flights, domestic and international, and all classes of travel, have been extended through the end of the year. Southwest has a long-standing policy of no change fees.

>> Next: CDC Issues Coronavirus Holiday Travel Advice

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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