If you plan to fly over the holiday season, let’s start with the good news: Your airplane ride may be the safest part of your trip.
To be frank, I'm not convinced that holiday travel is an altogether good idea in 2020; click here to read my article that gathers the current warnings against leaving home this year.
Still, if you're going to be in the air, studies have shown that—because of HEPA-grade air filters, vertical air flows in cabins, and the strict enforcement of mask regulations by all the U.S. carriers—airplane cabins are likely safer than grocery stores, gyms, and other enclosed places we visit in our daily lives.
That being said, you still need to be vigilant to keep your health, sanity, and budget intact. Here’s what you need to know about overcoming the challenges you’ll encounter in 2020.
You should assume that flights will be full. Yes, air travel is expected to be down 60% from last year (according to Kayak.com), but that's overall. Airlines are scheduling fewer flights than in 2019, and in some cases in smaller airplanes, so they're generally full.
If you aren’t able to book on a carrier that promises empty middle seats (click here for our rundown of the current policies), you may want to invest in one of those face shields to wear on top of your mask, just to be safe. Sitting in a row with an empty middle seat decreases your chances of getting the virus, according to one prominent study. Some people also swear by goggles that protect the eyes from microscopic airborne particles.
More good news here: Airfares are down 41% compared with 2019, according to pricing site Hopper.
And finding low prices doesn't necessarily require you to book well in advance, the way it usually does. Originally, the advice from many in the industry was to book before Halloween, but prices didn't increase after that holiday passed, and now they don't seem like they will. So if you’re not sure if you’re comfortable with traveling, don’t assume you’ll pay too much if you wait to decide.
If you're nervous about last-minute bookings, cancellation policies are lenient until the end of 2020. With a few exceptions (such as Basic Economy seats on some, but not all, carriers) you should be able to get a refund if you decide to cancel.
Timing Your Flight
Because late November and December are notorious for bad weather, it’s always smart to book the first flight of the day, if you can. Storms can cause rippling delays and cancellations throughout the system as the day goes on, including for connecting flights. If you fly first thing in the morning, your plane has probably been parked overnight at your hub, ready to go.
Also try to find a direct flight rather than a connecting one. That's not always possible right now, but the fewer times you take off and land, the better chance you have of getting to your destination on time.
Interestingly, you shouldn’t assume that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving will be the most expensive day to fly this year. It usually is, but according to a study by TripIt.com, travel patterns have changed. From some destinations, the Saturday before Thanksgiving will be more crowded than that Wednesday.
Navigating the Airport
Though planes will be packed, airports likely won’t be. So if you’re the type to arrive at the airport three hours before your flight, change that habit. You want to spend as little time in public as possible. This year, you’ll probably whisk through security quickly.
Spending less time at the airport will mean less temptation to get food and drinks, which can be important because, for safety’s sake, you want to keep your mask firmly in place throughout your journey.
If you must eat, find a large, well-ventilated area away from other people. If you decide to eat or drink on the plane, do so at a time when others aren’t—so if you’re on one of the rare flights with meal service, wait until others have finished eating to dig in. That way, your mask will be down while other passengers' masks are up.
Flying with Children
Anyone over the age of two is expected to wear a mask during flights, and airlines are enforcing that regulation. In fact, families with toddlers have even been kicked off flights for noncompliance.
Do your best to practice mask wearing with kids before you get to the airport. Try to make it fun for them, if you can. This might involve having them draw on paper masks or letting them pick out a fun design.