How to plan a trip for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s (or not)

plan a trip

Want to plan a trip for the holidays? Prepare yourself — because this holiday travel season will be like none other in recent memory.

Might as well throw out the rulebook for your Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s getaways, because you won’t need it.

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“The coming holidays will bring unprecedented challenges,” says Mahmood Khan, a professor at Virginia Tech who directs the business school’s program in hospitality and tourism management. “Be prepared for the unexpected.”

Travel will be down – way down – from past holiday seasons. So will most prices.

Travelers will make their booking decisions at the last minute, days, or even hours before their departure. And the risks will be a lot higher. If you’re older or have a medical condition, you might want to celebrate the holidays at home this year.

Fewer people want to plan a trip. Holiday-related journeys are “not a top priority” in 2020, according to Eugene Levin, the chief strategic officer for the analytics company SEMrush. That may be an understatement. This summer, online searches for “holiday travel” decreased by 43% from 2019. “Christmas travel” is down by 46%, and “Thanksgiving travel” is off 38%.

How to plan a trip this fall

Prices will be lower for the most part. The steepest declines are for air travel. Priceline analyzed recent flight booking data and found that the average price of nonstop round-trip flight tickets is down more than 30% for both Thanksgiving weekend and the December travel season compared to 2019. Hotel rates are down 10% for Thanksgiving weekend.

But not everything will be cheaper. For the December travel period, hotel rates are up 3%, suggesting that demand is about to pick up. Car rental rates are also up slightly (2.5% for Thanksgiving and 7% for December).

The average American will travel just 513 miles this Thanksgiving, a decrease of more than 50% from last year.

“Early data about holiday travel this year shows most people will likely travel by car,” says Jeremy Murchland, president of Seven Corners, a travel insurance company.

That continues a pattern that started last summer, where people stayed closer to home. And 41% of travelers say they’re making reservations with an eye toward isolation, according to reservation data from Booking.com.

“They plan to stay at a self-catered accommodation like an apartment, vacation rental or villa,” says Arjan Dijk, a senior vice president at Booking.com. “That makes it easier to social distance and take advantage of amenities such as a kitchen to cook family holiday meals.”

Want to plan a trip? You’ll book at the last minute

Another trend that will continue from the summer: Most bookings will happen at the last minute.

IHG Hotels & Resorts says since the outbreak, booking lead times have shortened compared to previous years. In 2020, 63% of bookings happened within two days of stay, compared to 39% during the same period last year.

“Spontaneity is key,” says Brian Hicks, a senior vice president at IHG Hotels & Resorts. So is flexibility. IHG is among the hotel chains that have introduced “book now, pay later” options, which allows guests to pay at the last minute or cancel without facing any penalties.

“Holiday travel in 2020 will be more last-minute, depending on Mother Nature, border reopenings, and quarantine requirements,” says Limor Decter, a travel adviser with Ovation Travel Group. “Those factors will affect holiday travel plans.”

Travel has its risks this year

But is travel safe? No one knows, but that isn’t stopping anyone from making an educated guess. If there’s a consensus, it’s that travel will continue to be risky – maybe too risky for you.

“We’ll likely continue to see a surge of cases in the fall and over the holidays,” says Karen Edwards, a professor and epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine. “If you must travel, be sure to follow all recommendations, including checking with destinations and events you plan to attend to be sure that travel to that destination or event is still possible. Cancel your trip if you have any symptoms of COVID-19 or concerns about risk of infection.”

Edwards isn’t planning a holiday trip this year. But if she did, she’d use her own car instead of mass transit, and wear a mask at all times, even outdoors. She’d also wash her hands with soap and water for 20 seconds “as often as possible.”

“Many people will probably opt to stay home,” she adds. “If they do travel, they may choose to have smaller gatherings with friends and family this year.”

That’s sound advice. I said it before – and I’ll say it again – this is not the time to travel. If you can avoid getting out there, maybe you should.

It’s time to book holiday trips: Is it safe to travel, or is this the year to skip a family get-together?


Even more tips for your holiday trip (if you take one)

Do your research. Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website to find the most up to date guidelines for COVID-19, says Lori Calavan, Allianz Partners’ senior medical consultant. “Be prepared.” And don’t take an airline or hotel’s word for it when they claim to be safe or clean. Sherry Orel, president of the certification, audit, and assurance division of Bureau Veritas, advises considering travel companies with hygiene excellence guidelines and operation procedures beyond physical distancing and personal protective equipment. “Ask about the products and technologies used to clean,” she says.

Prepare for a different kind of travel experience. “Travelers must be prepared for enhanced health screenings at the airport and different arrangements for holiday activities and events,” says Curt Carlson, a senior vice president at Trawick International, a travel insurance company. Some airlines are offering COVID-19 tests, and hotels have started scanning guests as they check in. Traveling will be a different experience.

Don’t be afraid to postpone. It’s still dangerous out there, so if you’re concerned about getting infected, it’s best to wait until 2021. There’s no shame in waiting.