Photograph by Al Seib, Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
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Air travel presents risks for exposure to coronavirus. A traveling family receives temperature checks at Los Angeles International Airport.

Photograph by Al Seib, Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

10 ways families can minimize holiday travel risk

Here’s how to make travels safer if you’re determined to see relatives over the holidays.

Like it did with everything else this year, the pandemic is throwing a very 2020 wrinkle in traditional holiday plans. The family get-togethers that once felt unmissable now feel risky.

Families across the country are struggling to make responsible choices. In past years, travel expert Maryann Thompson has split the holiday season between time with her husband and kids and time with her extended family clan. This year the bigger gatherings are slipping off the calendar.

“My husband might realize his dream of spending Christmas morning in our living room,” says Thompson, editor in chief of Roam Family Travel. It would be a significant change from previous years. “We’ve road tripped through snowy Yellowstone, gone diving in Catalina, backpacked around Cambodia, and rung in oshogatsu [Japanese new year] with friends in Tokyo,” she says about past holidays.

COVID-19 cases are at an all-time high across the United States. Although vaccines with reportedly high efficacy rates are giving hope, widespread access to them is likely months away. Until then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising families to stay home for the holidays. But if family obligations necessitate travel, experts encourage minimizing the risk wherever possible. Here are 10 tips to help.

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A health care worker administers a test at a coronavirus testing site in Providence, Rhode Island.

1. Do your research

How high are virus rates where you are? What about places where you’re heading to or driving through? Check the latest COVID-19 rates nationally and by state and use that information to plan your route or help you decide whether the trip is worthwhile. You can sign up for alerts on your phone that will let you know if you’ve been exposed to someone with the virus.

2. Get tested

If you’ll be interacting indoors with people outside your immediate household for long periods of time, get a COVID-19 test (Polymerase Chain Reaction tests are the most accurate) a week before you travel. Then quarantine at home while waiting for the results, and only head off if tests are negative. Caveat: Due to the virus’s long incubation time, frequent false-negative test results, and the many asymptomatic carriers, that’s still no guarantee you won’t pass along the virus. You might even consider getting more than one test over a two-week period.

3. Boost your kids’ mask tolerance

Are your kids ready to wear their mask more often than usual? If not, you may need to practice before the trip. “Mine have been in school and wear a mask all day and have flown several times this summer with masks on, so I’m not worried about it,” says Kirsten Maxwell, founder of Kids Are a Trip. But she adds that kids need to understand the rules around when they can take masks off and that parents should be prepared with extras.

While babies can’t wear masks, says family travel writer and mom of three Natalie Preddie, you might consider keeping them covered while traveling or feeding. “If your baby is in a car seat, cover the car seat with a light blanket through the airport and in crowded places,” she suggests. “Use a nursing cover if possible, to limit exposure.”

4. Pack good habits and a first aid kit

In addition to the masks (remember that the CDC recommends multiple layers), proper, frequent handwashing (and hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol in a pinch), and social distancing should be enforced. Kids tend to balk at new rules, so set out your family guidelines while you’re at home and arm them with language for holding fast to family mantras if they’re challenged by others.

Add a thermometer (an oximeter may also help), gloves, and age-appropriate fever medication, to the normal staples in your travel first aid kit. And, if there are things you depend on to feel safe at home (Lysol wipes, for example), bring them with you so you can minimize the need to visit stores at your destination. Finally, Murphy’s law says the thermometer batteries will die the moment you leave home. Bring extra batteries for anything that might need them.

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One way to reduce exposure risk while traveling during the pandemic is to bring your own accommodations. Consider renting an RV, like this one in Red Rock Canyon State Park, California.

5. Book accommodations

Consider staying in an RV, home rental, or hotel, instead of the grandparents’ place this year. Age is a factor that might make them more susceptible to the virus. Make a list of the COVID-19 protocols (no maid service, food delivery options) that matter most to you and search accommodations accordingly. Pay attention to cancellation policies. If you change your mind about going or need to leave early, you’ll want to know if you’re eligible for a refund.

6. Make your flight safer

Most planes are equipped with HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters, making the air in flight much cleaner than in most other indoor spaces. Still, opt for non-stop routes or flights with shorter layover times to avoid spending time in airports. Risks are higher there due to the labyrinth of people throughout the space and grouped at check-in lines and boarding gates, some unmasked as they wait for their flights with food or drinks.

Encourage kids to eat and use the restroom before boarding, to minimize walking around or removing their masks while in the air. During the flight, open your overhead vent; the filtered gust of air coming out creates an invisible buffer between you and others.

Wiping down seat backs and tray tables with disinfectant may help with your peace of mind, but research has indicated that surface transmission of the virus is low. Avoiding particles and droplets from other people remains the best way to protect yourself.

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Embrace the staycation during coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions. State and local parks offer great family hike options for day trips.

7. Drive instead

While recent studies have suggested that, with proper precautions, air travel is safer than going to your grocery store, road trips allow you more control over minimizing contact with strangers en route. You’ll have even more control if you rent an RV or camper van that has your bathroom and kitchen on board.

Consider doing long drives at night, suggests Corinne McDermott of Have Baby Will Travel. “The main driver takes a nap in the afternoon and you leave at bedtime. The other adult passenger tries to sleep until the first driver needs a break. This method works well if both drivers promise to stop ASAP if they are too tired to continue,” she says. “When you arrive at your destination, you’ll have a tired day, but your child’s sleep routine should not be affected. And there would be almost zero contact with the outside world if you pay at the gas station pumps.”

8. Consider the ‘ins and outs’ of travel

Traveling with snacks is a given, but in pandemic times you’ll also want to avoid unnecessary roadside stops. Pack a portable cooler and double down on the snack options in the car, especially the ones that won’t tempt family members to lick their fingers.

You’ll also want to pack a bathroom bag. Little ones who are beyond diapers but not quite managing toilets would benefit from a portable potty. Older kids should have a personal bag with everything from toilet paper and soap to gloves and a mask in a plastic zip-top bag they can reach for when nature calls. For infants, Preddie suggests bringing a diaper-changing mat along. “Wipe both sides before you put it back in your diaper bag. If you can use a disposable diaper pad, even better.”

9. Keep out of the kitchen

If you are gathering with a bigger brood, minimize the number of cooks and servers in the kitchen. Single-use options, though less environmentally friendly, will also minimize inadvertent contact on things like cutlery and condiments. Skipping a family-style buffet option is probably a good idea too. When it’s time to eat, move the meal outside if weather permits and space out separate households. Once outside, why not stay out there? An after-dinner walk through your local park will likely mean less crowds and safer times together than if you’re gathered in the house.

10. Reconsider going at all

Already exhausted parents often see their will tested by family travel in the best of times, and these aren’t those. Managing whether your child is actually a full 6-feet away from his cousin is bound to get tiring. If you’re feeling family pressure, consider using language that centers on their health and well-being. “We’d love to be there, but we are worried we might make you sick…” Then settle in at home, confident in your bubble, and celebrate the true meaning of the holidays with a healthy brood.

Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based travel writer and National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram.