How to Stay Healthy This Holiday Travel Season

With a record number of travelers heading into the skies this holiday season and numerous viruses circulating, here’s how you can best protect yourself and others.

Illustration of passengers with luggage at airport wearing masks

Wearing a mask remains an effective way to reduce virus transmission risk.

Illlustration by Shutterstock

This winter is gearing to be the busiest holiday travel season on record, with the number of air travelers passing through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport screening checkpoints expected to reach—and surpass—prepandemic levels. And unfortunately, the busy holiday travel season coincides with cold, flu, COVID, and RSV season.

“There is a lot of sickness going around, and it will only increase in weeks to come,” writes Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist who serves as a scientific consultant to the White House and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the December 19 edition of her newsletter “Your Local Epidemiologist.”

Notes Dr. Jetelina, “To improve your odds of staying healthy for the holidays, this is the time to tighten up—wear a mask indoors, get that air moving, and certainly get vaccinated if you haven’t already. And please keep the holiday shopping online if you’re sick. We can minimize sickness in order to maximize family time coming up.”

Last week, the CDC issued a statement on the current state of respiratory diseases in the United States. The agency stated that “this season, illnesses have started later, returning to patterns typically seen before the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that the peak of respiratory illness activity is likely yet to come.”

The CDC notes that COVID-19 hospitalizations are currently on the rise in addition to an increase in multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), which is caused by COVID-19. Influenza and RSV activity are also gaining, the agency reports.

For those heading into the holiday travel fray, the uptick in virus activity brings about two sets of potential health concerns. First, there is the concern about getting sick before or during a trip. This could affect the journey on several levels, from forcing a cancellation to requiring a traveler to spend their vacation time stuck inside or not feeling well.

Second, there is the concern about getting others sick. The holidays are a time when many travelers reunite with friends and family and, just as during the pandemic-era holiday seasons, infectious disease experts remain most concerned about the risk to vulnerable populations, including the elderly and those who are immunocompromised.

The good news is, we have a lot of tools at our disposal to combat transmission, many of which we amassed during the pandemic. We can also set up our immune systems for success ahead of the holiday travel season. The CDC offers several tips for how to improve our bodies’ natural defenses.

How to enhance your immunity

  • Make healthy eating decisions: Limit saturated fats, cholesterol, salt, and sugars.
  • Exercise and reduce your stress: Physical activity has numerous health benefits and can also boost immunity by reducing stress and anxiety.
  • Get a good night’s sleep: The CDC reports that “sleep loss can negatively affect different parts of the immune system,” which can “lead to the development of a wide variety of disorders.”
  • Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption: Both of these activities can weaken the body’s ability to fight disease.
Closeup of a person's legs and feet walking in snow

Physical activity helps to reduce stress and boost immunity, according to the CDC.

Photo by Shutterstock

How to stay healthy this holiday season

In addition to helping our immune system do its job, here are the actions that travelers can take this holiday travel season to improve their chances of healthy getaways and gatherings.

Get your flu shot and COVID booster

The CDC is strongly encouraging that everyone get their flu, RSV, and updated COVID vaccines due to “increased respiratory disease activity in the United States for several respiratory pathogens, including influenza viruses, SARS-CoV-2, and RSV,” according to a December 14 health alert.

“Getting yourself and your loved ones vaccinated will help keep all of you healthy during the holiday season and into the new year. If more Americans are protected against severe respiratory illnesses, we will likely see fewer hospitalizations. Lives can be saved,” the CDC recently stated.

The agency added that “vaccination is especially important for people at higher risk of severe illness from respiratory diseases, including young children, older adults, people with underlying medical conditions, and pregnant people.”

 A white high-quality mask—Powecom KN95

Infectious disease experts recommend using a mask—like this Powecom KN95—when traveling.

Courtesy of Powecom

Mask up while traveling

While masks are no longer required on trains, airplanes, or in airports and other transport hubs, for those who want to protect themselves from viruses that might be circulating on the plane, at the airport, or in any common spaces, infectious disease experts recommend continuing to mask up.

“You don’t know who you are going to be sitting next to on a plane. You don’t know if that mild cough is allergies or if they are coming down with COVID, RSV, or influenza. You just don’t know. And then you’re going to be sitting next to them for a while,” says Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious disease at UC Davis Children’s Hospital.

“I don’t like to get sick,” adds Blumberg. “That’s why I think it’s more important than ever for people who really do want to stay healthy and decrease their risk—they should continue to mask.”

For its part, the CDC notes that “traveling can bring you in contact with people from many different places where viruses are spreading. Using public transportation and being in transportation hubs such as airports, can involve spending long periods of time in areas that may be crowded or poorly ventilated. This increases your chance of exposure to respiratory diseases.”

The CDC also advises that wearing a mask during travel can help protect others who might be more vulnerable, including babies under 6 months of age, those over age 65 years, and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Reduce your risks (and the risks you pose to others) prior to travel

If you want to improve your chances of getting out the door in good health and protecting vulnerable friends or family at your holiday gatherings, one way to do so is to be extra vigilant in the days and weeks leading up to departure.

Dr. Jetelina emphasizes that when it comes to holiday travel, she is “laser focused on those 65-plus. If we’re going to go see grandpa, we’re going to be extra careful that week before. Meaning we’re wearing masks everywhere, we will do cadence antigen testing, [we’re] trying to do anything to break that transmission chain for those older folks. And that’s not just [for] COVID. That’s flu, too, that’s RSV as well.”

Use those at-home COVID tests

The holidays are a good time to dig out those stockpiles of COVID home tests (but make sure they’re not expired). Epidemiologists advise using them before heading out and bringing some with you during your travels. While they are certainly not foolproof, they offer an added tool in our COVID detection toolbox. Dr. Jetelina recommends testing two days before departure and again on the morning of any event or gathering, such as Christmas dinner or New Year’s Eve.

A few people eating dinner at table outdoors, with red wine

Eating and gathering outside—if possible—is another way to reduce risk.

Photo by Shutterstock

Embrace the great outdoors

Fresh air and ventilation continue to be our friends when we are hoping to reduce transmission risk. Prior to travel, epidemiologists recommend either avoiding crowded indoor spaces altogether or masking up while inside, for instance when heading to the grocery store. If the weather is conducive to hosting meals or celebrations outdoors, this is another way to reduce risk.

Be flexible with your travel plans

Despite all our best efforts, there is the possibility that we will get sick before, during, or after our travels. That means we need to be prepared to cancel or alter our plans at the last minute. It’s better to make peace with this possibility and have built-in safeguards for it than to blindly hope for the best.

Have a contingency plan in place for whatever the fallout may be for any cancellation, as well as a plan for if you get stuck in your destination for several extra days with COVID or a nasty flu. Depending on the complexity of the trip, look into options like adding Cancel For Any Reason coverage to your travel insurance plan so that you can recoup some of your losses if you need to cancel at the last minute due to illness. All of the major U.S. airlines are still without flight change fees for all but their Basic Economy fares, so if you need to cancel, you can bank the money you spent on flights as future flight credits for a redo when you or the others in your crew are feeling better.

This story was originally published in November 2022, and was updated on December 19, 2023, to include current information.

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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