Health

How to Make Traveling for the Holidays a Little Safer

The safest way to spend time with family this year is virtually. But if there's no other option but to travel home, take measures to minimize risk.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
October 30, 2020, 11:00am
Woman waiting in a long line for a flight wearing a N95 face mask during a global pandemic
AJ_Watt via Getty
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"Happy" "Holidays" 2020 is a series about feeling connected and vaguely festive during the coronavirus pandemic.

The best way to go about spending time with your family of origin this holiday season is to simply not do it at all. Small gatherings—especially those between relatives at someone’s home—have emerged as significant venues for spreading COVID-19, according to the CDC. While staying away from large events with strangers is now intuitive (for most of us), bringing cousins and grandparents around the dinner table these next few months could have equally devastating consequences. Maybe you already know this, and are in the process of figuring out how to gently tell your relentless boomer mom that there is no way you can make it home this year. 

Or maybe there’s no way you can get out of going home this year. Fine; you certainly won’t be alone. Plenty of others are staring down a potential entire month living under the same roof with relatives they haven’t seen in a year, as a way to avoid traveling to and from home in both November and December and trying to quarantine twice. 

If you must travel home—across whatever distance that entails—at least try and do it as safely as possible. 

Consider staying home for a month (or longer)

It’s a lot of family time, but staying home from November through mid-January eliminates excess traveling and gives you more time to actually hang out at home, post-quarantine. And if you have to fly, staying home longer gives you the opportunity to avoid traveling on the busiest days of the year. 

The only two major commercial airlines still blocking middle seats at this point are Southwest and Delta (Jet Blue will graciously allow you to simply purchase extra seats at full price, if you are rich and can afford to buy yourself a bubble of safety). Southwest just announced that they will stop blocking middle seats on December 1—just in time for the busiest travel days of the year—while Delta will continue through at least January 2021. Airlines are wont to do whatever they please, and airports during the holidays are terrible in normal times. Staying home longer helps you avoid a bit of all that, if you can manage it with work and your mental wellbeing. 

If you are going home, at least quarantine first

That means a proper quarantine, not whatever halfway thing you may have been enjoying all summer. We detailed what a proper quarantine for COVID-19 looks like recently, but the main takeaway is that quarantine means not going anywhere at all—not the grocery store, not the park down your street, not outside to walk your dog, nowhere. The idea, especially before traveling home to see elderly relatives, is that you’re eliminating all contact with others who may have coronavirus, and sealing yourself off in a little COVID-free bubble.

The only exception to this rule is going out for a COVID test. To avoid needlessly getting two tests—one before you leave, and another after you reach your destination—consider how you’ll be traveling home, and when it makes the most sense for you to get tested. 

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There’s a hierarchy of risk to any activity right now. For example, if you quarantine for a full two weeks (the length of a COVID-19 quarantine) where you currently live, and travel home by car with minimal to no stops along the way, your relative risk of becoming infected with and spreading COVID-19 is quite low, according to Peter Chin-Hong, a medical professor who specializes in infectious diseases at the University of California San Francisco. You can quarantine upon arriving and get tested five to seven days later, in order to decrease your odds of getting a false negative, which typically happens when people get tested too early after a potential exposure.

If you have to take public transit (including planes) to get home, consider quarantining BEFORE you board

Quarantining before flying is not only a precaution for your own family members, but the family members of everyone else in the airport and on board. TSA officers have been testing positive for COVID-19 more and more often over recent weeks, as case numbers in certain regions rise, and people become so fatigued by the pandemic that they start acting like it no longer exists. As with the rest of this pandemic, in public spaces, everyone is only as safe as the least cautious person in the room. 

Chin-Hong emphasized that the airport, rather than the airplane, is the area of most concern, in terms of spreading or becoming infected with COVID-19. People congregate in winding lines, disregard social distancing measures, and, in many airports around the county, dine inside without masks on. After taking a flight, you’re better off assuming you’ve been exposed to a known-positive case of COVID-19, even if you haven’t, even if you never heard anyone around you cough once. 

The safest and easiest way to quarantine after travel is in a hotel room or Airbnb, where you and anyone else you traveled with can stay alone for at least one week. (While two weeks is the quarantine period, most people display symptoms by day five, and the likelihood of returning a false negative after day five is extremely low, Chin-Hong said.) But that’s also the most expensive option, so if it’s not feasible, quarantine in your family home by wearing a mask in any shared spaces, wiping down high-touch surfaces after you use them, keeping windows open, and staying in your room. All of these protocols are outlined in more detail over here

Safely getting home this year isn’t impossible. But it is inconvenient, potentially expensive, and certainly risky. As Chin-Hong previously told VICE, there’s no way to completely avoid getting this virus. There is a way to completely avoid spreading it to family members, however, and you already know how to do that

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