Photograph by Tang Ming Tung, Getty Images
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Holiday trips during the coronavirus pandemic come with precautions like mask wearing. Many families are evaluating risks and deciding not to travel at all this season.

Photograph by Tang Ming Tung, Getty Images

How to make the most of your family holiday this year

From planning future adventures to supporting local retailers, these tips will help make the season merry and bright.

For families that have been stuck at home for the better part of the year, a holiday season without a holiday trip wasn’t on the wish list.

On the heels of post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 surges, the CDC has renewed its advice against unnecessary travel and gatherings—meaning that, for many, holiday trips to islands and ski slopes will be on hold.

But that doesn’t mean global adventures are off limits. To experts who research the emotional well-being of families, opportunity and a sense of optimism are the best gifts a parent can give this holiday season.

“While we can’t always control our situation, we can always control our attitude about our situation,” says family counselor Alyson Schafer. “The best thing a parent can do is set a tone of positivity. Optimism is contagious. It tells kids that happiness comes more from within and less from external circumstances.”

Where do you find that optimism? Just reach into your dusty backpack and pull out some of your travel tricks. Here are secrets from the travel world that will help you navigate the holidays.

Make optimistic travel resolutions

Not only should we think positively, experts say we must. Studies suggest Americans’ happiness levels are at their lowest point in 50 years.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of Your Turn: How to Be an Adult, says that helping young people find the light at the end of the tunnel is important: “It’s vital to face the feelings that are bringing us down, and equally vital to try to look ahead and reframe them. The days are lengthening. A vaccine is coming. The economy will improve. Our ancestors survived far worse than this. We, too, shall make it through.”

Samantha Brown, host of PBS travel show Places to Love, plans to make travel resolutions and suspects she won’t be the only one. “[This] will be the year everyone puts travel as a priority. We have missed it—not just travel itself, but the memories travel creates,” says Brown. “I forget all weight resolutions by February; no one is going to lose sight of travel.” With the Let’s Go There initiative, the U.S. tourism industry is working hard to support a safe return to travel.

When planning future travel, book early (especially for popular spots such as national parks and RV sites), pay attention to cancellation/rebooking policies, and investigate destination health regulations (and how rule breakers are handled). And look for booking options that are flexible, such as Dateless 1st Departures vouchers that allow you to pay now and go when you’re ready.

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Making a travel wish list, perhaps one that includes a visit to Canyonlands National Park in Utah, can help families weather pandemic lockdowns.

Be intentional about who you support when you travel (smaller operations will need your help) and don’t hesitate to use a travel advisor. “Professionals, who have kept up with all the heavy navigating through this pandemic, will be able to help you decide the best place to go and be your advocate if or when things change,” says Brown.

See the world from home

Even if you can’t show your family the world, you can still instill them with a sense of adventure and wonder. While virtual tours are popular, they often fail to support the destination’s vendors, who depend on tourism dollars. This year consider purchasing items through LocalPurse.com, a partnership with Intrepid Travel, which allows you to buy directly from guides, artisans, and local merchants in places like Marrakech (spices, skincare products, and Berber rugs).

The organization also leads private virtual tours with introductions to the merchants that give you a sense of the destination before you buy. All money earned goes directly to the NGOs, local guides, and artisans involved, and to AlNour, a social enterprise that offers artisan skills-training programs and childcare for disabled women.

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Seeking out online vendors who partner with local retailers, such as spice sellers in Marrakech, can help tourism-dependent businesses.

You can also trot the globe in your own neighborhood. Support family-owned local restaurants highlighting places you’ve visited or hope to in the future, or connect via postcards with people around the world (teachers can sign up to have entire classrooms be penpals). Or view animals online at international conservation centers.

Gifts for now or later can inspire future trips. Children’s travel book series, such as The Great Canadian Adventure or The Amazing Adventures of Aya and Pete, combine geography and history. Keep the curiosity going with a travel subscription box: Little Passports offers age-specific games and activities. Eat2explore teaches kids how to cook the cuisines of the world, and Jurneazee Trip Activity Packs supply internationally inspired boredom busters perfect for road trip travel or a quiet morning at home. Get dreaming yourself with a travel-centric book subscription from The Wordy Traveler, or java drop-offs from the Atlas Coffee Club.

Keep family holiday traditions

“Examine what you’ve always done; whatever you can still do, do. Constancy, stability, and even tokens from the past are extra important this year,” says Lythcott-Haims. “So really lean into it. For the stuff you simply can’t do, see if you can figure out how to adapt it for the pandemic.”

At Hanukkah this year, Lythcott-Haims opted to set up a menorah and dine on the front porch of two family members quarantined inside. To make it more festive, they placed groups of large, white candles all around. “It really was a festival of lights,” she says.

Schaefer also believes this is an ideal opportunity to foster charity in children. “Reaching out to others in need also helps us appreciate our common humanity,” she says. “Taking time to reflect on the positives and to focus on the gratitude for what we have, or what has been good in our lives, takes the focus away from the many negatives.” While you may not be able to help sort inside the food bank this year, the need remains great. Encourage your family to shop for the food bank or organize a food drive with porch pick-up in your neighborhood instead.

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will present Testament for online audiences this month.

If your family usually made a trip to see The Nutcracker, you can still get your dance fix by tuning into Alvin Ailey at home. The Radio City Rockettes performances are canceled, but you can learn a few of their moves yourself via their high-kicking Instagram workouts.

Another option: Consider embracing a quieter holiday at home. “We’re being compelled to enjoy quality time with our immediate families, focused on very simple pleasures like playing board games, watching holiday classics, and staying in pajamas all day,” says parenting columnist Brandie Weikle. “Normally we’re time-starved people. This winter we may get a chance to rest, something we dearly need after a difficult year.”

Connect from afar

Cookie exchanges might not happen in person, but you can still package the treats up for porch drop-offs. Similarly, festively decorated neighborhoods and holiday light shows can still be appreciated from the warmth of your car during a multi-family caravan.

Internet connectivity means you can organize a judged-on-Zoom gingerbread house competition, book an online AirBnB Experience, or set up a movie-sharing streaming site so that everyone can watch a classic at the same time.

But don’t underestimate video-chat fatigue as the end of year approaches—or how frustrating it may prove for less savvy computer users on the call. Lythcott-Haims suggests going old-school with personal greeting cards instead.

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Adhering to social distancing guidelines, hand washing, and getting a series of coronavirus tests—like this woman in New Orleans—can minimize risk if travel is essential over the holidays.

“Whether you make or buy them, take some time to craft three or four paragraphs for each person you would normally see in person. Your thoughtful updates and inquiries will let them know that they matter to you. There are few gifts greater than that.”

Stay safer, if you must travel

For some, travel will be either the choice they make or the situation they can’t avoid. There is no way to make travel entirely safe, but there are things you can do to reduce the risk to you, your loved ones, and the public at large. The methods and maxims we’re now used to—wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance, get outdoors—remain a big part of a safe holiday season.

In addition, National Geographic science editor Nsikan Akpan suggests using a scientist- recommended approach that involves a “a combination of testing, isolating, and extra precaution.” Two weeks of quarantine before you set out and planning for a series of three tests over a two-week period are a few of his suggestions. You’ll also want to understand the virus rates in the places you’re leaving, going to, and traveling through.

Drive rather than fly, overnight in a separate dwelling than your relatives, and extend your stay. Worried about the kids’ schooling? Many hotels now offer digital concierges to help with remote schooling as well as “work from away” concerns. Also, be prepared to change plans if the public health situation or regulations change.

The goal, after all, isn’t just for everyone to enjoy this holiday season, but many more to come.

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