15 Striking Ways Holiday Travel Will Be Different This Year

The travel industry is reeling from the pandemic. Here’s how your holiday travels may change forever.

Mom and child traveling in car
Updated June 12, 2024
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The end of the year is here, which means it’s time to get everything in place for your festive celebrations and possible gatherings with friends and family. Now’s the perfect time to set aside some extra money for holiday shopping and travel. Of course, travel is probably going to look a little different this holiday season than it did in previous years.

The pandemic has had far-reaching effects across the world, so we should be prepared to adjust and adapt our travels as needed. If you’re planning a trip this holiday season, be sure to ready yourself for the variations in your typical routine. Here are 15 ways COVID-19 has changed the way we’re likely to travel during the holidays.

15 ways the pandemic will change holiday travel

Pre-travel quarantines

Even if your travel destination doesn’t require a pre-travel quarantine, you may still decide to do one to be on the safe side. If you’re following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, you’d likely want to quarantine yourself for a 14-day period before starting your travels. This can help to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus to your friends and family if you’re concerned you may have been exposed to it.

Although a 14-day quarantine is feasible for many remote workers, it may not be possible if you have responsibilities that require you to leave your home. This can make it difficult to do a pre-travel quarantine, and it may affect your willingness or ability to travel at all.

COVID-19 testing before, during, or after travel

Many places require COVID-19 testing at some point during your travels, whether it’s before, during, or after. Some places may require you to get multiple COVID-19 tests, including one before you take a flight and one when you arrive at your destination. If you don’t comply with these testing measures, you may need to quarantine at your destination for a full two weeks.

The requirements are different in certain U.S. states and in countries around the world. To see what kind of requirements are in place for travelers to your holiday destination, be sure to check the applicable government page well before you travel.

More road trips

Road trips have become more popular because many people are still wary of flying. With a road trip, there’s less chance to be in close proximity to people outside your family except when you stop for gas or food. And even in these situations, you wouldn’t necessarily be around as many people as you would in a crowded airport terminal.

If you’re planning on doing a holiday road trip, be prepared to cut costs by using one of the best credit cards for gas. A card like the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express can help you fuel up and earn you some valuable cashback rewards at the same time.

Quieter airports

If you’re flying over the holidays, you may notice how quiet the airport is compared to the last time you took a flight. Fewer travelers taking flights means fewer people in the airports. You may also see public guidelines to follow while you’re in the airport and on your flight, like wearing masks and staying a safe distance away from other people. Remember to follow the guidelines closely, or there may be some negative consequences, such as being banned from an airline for not wearing a mask.

If you’d like to avoid the possibility of a crowded terminal, consider checking into an airport lounge. Some of the best travel credit cards offer complimentary lounge access, typically to either the Priority Pass network or Amex Centurion Lounges. These lounges can provide a comfortable and less crowded area to relax before getting on your flight. Certain lounges may still be closed because of the pandemic, so check ahead to see what’s open.

Less international travel

International destinations have been slow in loosening restrictions for foreign visitors to try and reduce the spread of the coronavirus. In many countries, you’ll have to quarantine for a minimum of two weeks upon arrival, which can completely take away from any activities you were planning to do.

In addition, many Americans aren’t planning on being very far from home at all during the holidays this year. A recent FinanceBuzz survey on holiday travel shows that 61% of Americans are planning to take a staycation before the end of this year, which could result in a lot less international travel.

Virtual family gatherings

Virtual meetings have largely replaced the need for any in-person meetings for employees throughout the country as people have shifted to working remotely. Using a tool like Zoom, it’s easy to jump on a video call with someone that could be across the country or the world from you. In the same way, many families and friends have used modern technology to host virtual gatherings where they can chat and have fun, even when they’re far away from each other.

Virtual family gatherings will likely be a big deal during the holidays. Not everyone will be able to get together in person, so it makes sense to jump on a Zoom call for at least a few minutes to see how everyone’s doing and give your best wishes to each other.

More outdoor gatherings

Indoor gatherings can tend to push people into close proximity to each other, which goes against the recommended CDC guidelines of leaving at least 6 feet of space between yourself and people who don’t live in your household. With this in mind, it could make a lot of sense to hold outdoor gatherings instead.

Outdoor gatherings allow you to potentially have a lot more space to spread out without feeling like you’re too close to someone else. It’s an effective way to still gather with loved ones while also striving for safety.

Different indoor gatherings

Indoor holiday gatherings are still going to happen, but they might look a bit different than in past years. In-person gatherings may have to adapt in the same way many businesses had to adapt to welcome back customers: by cleaning more and possibly implementing protocols to better ventilate rooms.

Improved cleaning protocols and increased airflow can go a long way in helping people feel more comfortable at a gathering place. You may want to open windows and doors to increase ventilation within the home, which can help decrease the concentration of airborne contaminants. Having disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer available can also help by reducing the number of germs on surfaces.

Holiday celebrations on non-holidays

In certain areas and situations, you may consider celebrating a holiday on a non-holiday date. This could be because you want to gather with your family outside or in a venue other than someone’s home. Depending on where you live, it could be too cold to celebrate holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving outside on the actual date of the holiday, so it may make sense to choose a different date for your family gathering.

If you want a larger indoor space where everyone can gather together, you’ll have to work around the availability of the venue you’re renting. The date you end up getting can vary, so it may not end up being the date of the holiday.

Smaller family get-togethers

Inviting over every family member and friend may not be in the cards for this year’s holiday get-togethers. The greater the number of people gathering together, the greater the chances of potentially spreading the coronavirus between each other. This may mean you have smaller family get-togethers with only your immediate family instead of extended family and friends.

Social distancing

At this point in time, everyone knows how to follow social distancing guidelines, so it should be no surprise that any large gatherings would need to comply with local and state rules and regulations. Keep in mind that the greater number of people gathering together, the greater the risk of COVID-19 spreading between individuals. Maintaining recommended distances between people outside your household can help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Mask wearing

The CDC recommends that people wear masks in any public setting, as well as at events and gatherings. In short, if you’re going to be around people outside of your household, it’s recommended you wear a mask. This practice can help reduce the number of respiratory droplets you create in the air when you cough, sneeze, sing, talk, or breathe. These droplets are a common way for the coronavirus to spread from person to person.

Shorter celebrations

According to the CDC, if you have shorter celebrations and gatherings, you’re likely to have less risk of getting COVID-19. Of course, this may also depend on how many people are at the gathering and other factors, but overall, it’s a safer bet than a longer gathering.

This is because if there is someone with COVID-19 at the same party as you, a longer duration will increase the likelihood of you being in close contact with them. If you’re within 6 feet of this person for a total of 15 minutes, you have a greater chance of getting sick.

Fewer overnight visits

To decrease the risk of spreading the coronavirus, it could make a lot of sense to reduce the number of overnight visits happening during the holidays. This could mean fewer overall overnight visits or no overnight visits at all.

An overnight visit could mean an extended period of time where you’re in close contact with other people. If someone does have COVID-19 and doesn’t know about it, being around them for an extended duration could spread it to you or others in your family as well.

Gathering in a different location

Typical family gatherings could be much different from now on than during prior holiday seasons. If you want to get away from being around complete strangers and large crowds, you might decide to head to more rural areas, like a cabin in the mountains or something similar.

It could also make sense to travel to a location with fewer COVID-19 restrictions in place. Where you live might not allow for large gatherings in the first place, so if you want to get together with family and friends, a road trip somewhere else might be your best bet.

The bottom line

The pandemic has hit the travel industry hard, and it’s been a slow crawl for travel to get back to some semblance of normalcy. Still, we’re seeing airports recovering from COVID-19 around the country as more people decide it’s safe enough to fly. But is it happening quickly enough for holiday travel to resume as usual?

Most likely not. Expect a lot of changes to traveling this holiday season and for the foreseeable future. If you’re traveling before the end of the year or anytime soon, take the proper precautions and make sure you know all the requirements for wherever you’re headed.

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Ben Walker, CEPF, CFEI®

Ben Walker, CEPF, CFEI®, is credit cards specialist. For over a decade, he's leveraged credit card points and miles to travel the world. His expertise extends to other areas of personal finance — including loans, insurance, investing, and real estate — and you can find his insights on The Washington Post, Debt.com, Yahoo! Finance, and Fox Business.