With the holiday season fast approaching and the pandemic still far from over—the U.S. recently recorded its third consecutive day of more than 50,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time since mid-August—folks are weighing the risks of reuniting with family and taking their usual winter trips. As Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force said in a media briefing, "It’s important for all of us to not let our guard down during Thanksgiving. We see that from the High Holy Days, people are just yearning to be together."
For those still considering winter travel, the key phrase will be "know before you go," according to Chris Linsmayer, public affairs director of Colorado Ski Country. "This is the year to do your research."
Now eight months into the pandemic, Americans have grown more comfortable traveling. According to MMGY Global Travel’s Domestic Travel Safety Barometer, traveler confidence rose to 52 out of a 100-point rating in October; for comparison, it was at 30 in April. The boost in confidence, however, doesn’t mean that seasonal travel will look the same as it did last year.
Travelocity’s 2020 Holiday Outlook survey reports that 60% of Americans won’t be traveling to see friends and family this holiday season, and nearly one in three have decided to skip celebrating the holidays altogether. That’s not to say, however, that folks will be hunkering down at home.
A quarter of respondents and 45% of family travelers with kids under the age of 18 have a vacation planned for later this year, and of those who will be traveling for Thanksgiving and December holidays, they’re planning ahead—almost two thirds have already booked transportation and lodging. The survey predicts that people won’t be straying far from home: two thirds of holiday-goers say that they’ll be traveling less than 250 miles, and much like with summer travel, they’ll be focused on rural and outdoor destinations.
This is exactly the case for Dallas-based couple Topacio Maddox and artist Molly Sydnor. Instead of heading to Florida for a Sydnor family get-together as they would most years, the pair has opted to visit Big Bend National Park in Marfa for the holidays.
"We don’t have enough vacation days to drive to Florida, so we decided camping in Big Bend will better suit our quarantine agenda," they explain. "There’s almost no risk, as we won’t come in contact with anyone, yet we still get to feel like we are utilizing a little holiday time—even if it’s a holiday spent away from family."
Understandably, Americans remain wary of air travel even as airlines enforce stricter face mask requirements, update cleaning protocols, and, in some cases, offer discounted at-home COVID-19 testing. Only one in five respondents to the Travelocity survey say they’ll be flying during the November and December holidays. Eighty percent of holiday travelers plan to drive, and most will be staying at hotels or vacation rentals instead of family homes.
"We are expecting to see the drive market expand a bit," confirms Linsmayer. "Most folks feel more comfortable getting in their car with a group of friends that they trust or their family versus getting on a flight."
That said, those who remain at home won’t necessarily be shut out from festivities thanks to the proliferation of Zoom hangouts and other virtual events. For example, in New York City—where residents will still be able to enjoy holiday markets, ice skating, window displays, and light shows—the hallmarks of the season will be going online.
"From afar, NYC’s large-scale events including the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting, and the Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball Drop will all be held virtually with exciting programming to be announced closer to the holidays," shares Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Company.
Those hoping to hit the slopes this year will also encounter changes that vary from resort to resort. Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, for instance, will operate at 50% of peak capacity for the 2020-2021 winter season, while Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows in California won’t be using a reservation system but plans to eliminate "walk-up" tickets in favor of advance purchases.
"Many ski areas have announced that they’re not going to be selling tickets at a lift ticket office; you just got to do it before you arrive," says Linsmayer, who reports that Colorado Ski Country resorts will be implementing mandatory mask-wearing indoors and outdoors, including at the base area, in lift lines, and on lifts.
With so much uncertainty swirling around the winter holidays, hotels, destinations, and airlines may be offering perks to incentivize travel—as it stands, prices for domestic flights are 41% lower on average compared to last year, according to Dollar Flight Club, and most companies are offering flexible cancellation policies.
This was a dangling carrot for Los Angeles-based Carolyn Owens, writer and founder of Family Fun Content Marketing. Instead of jetting to Houston for Thanksgiving and her grandmother’s birthday, she decided to book a trip to Hawaii since a family gathering would put the matriarch at risk.
"The flight and accommodations were half of what I’d usually pay to visit Kauai Island," says Owens. "I’ve always wanted to visit Hawaii during winter, but because it’s peak season, that was out of reach. Going solo now will be nice to experience for such a reasonable cost."
Ultimately, whether and how folks decide to travel this season will be a personal choice shaped by fluctuating COVID-19 numbers, health risks, and nearby options, but the travel and recreation industries will be ready to welcome them with open arms.
What’s certain, however, is that traveling responsibly necessitates following CDC guidelines, which includes social distancing, wearing a mask, and frequent hand washing as well as obeying safety policies in place at various destinations, whether it be a curfew or required COVID-19 testing.
As Dixon puts it, "While this year’s pandemic requires a shared responsibility to protect one another with mask-wearing and social distancing, we know the spirit of the season will nevertheless endure, and in many ways is more needed than ever."
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