How to Plan Your Pandemic Holiday Air Travel


People wearing masks walk through an airport with their luggage.

Photo: 1000 Words (Shutterstock)

Holiday travel is definitely going to look different this year. Many people will opt to stay home instead of hopping on planes to visit family and friends far away. Some of us (hi!) are totally OK with that—but if you are thinking about flying this winter, there are a few things to know before you book.

First, and most importantly, expect the unexpected. The pandemic situation changes daily, so whether you start researching now or expect to catch a flight at the last minute, know that your trip may not play out as you hope. Delayed or canceled flights—even more than in an average holiday travel season—and shifting quarantine rules are just a few of the wrenches that could be thrown into your plans.

Here are a few other considerations for your holiday 2020 itinerary.

Choose an airline with flexible booking policies

In response to the change and cancellation chaos caused by the pandemic, most major airlines have adjusted their policies to allow for no-fee ticket changes. Policies do vary between airlines, and there’s some fine print to pay attention to—for example, you may be allowed a limited number of free changes, and some economy tickets and many international itineraries will still incur a fee.

Plus, while you may not pay an extra fee to change your ticket, you will still owe the fare difference if you hop onto a more expensive flight. Make sure you check your airline’s policy before you book.

It’s also important to note that “free change” does not mean “refund if you cancel.” Some airlines (Delta and Southwest, for example) are offering vouchers or credits for canceled flights, but most airlines probably aren’t going to refund you cash just because you decide not to fly.

Select the least risky itinerary

Holiday travel in a normal year is a nightmare of delays, missed connections, and weather-based cancellations. Passenger volume may not be as much of a concern this winter, but you should still plan ahead to minimize all of the same headaches.

  • Depart early in the day so you’re already gone before delays begin build up.
  • Choose itineraries with longer connection times.
  • Select smaller (and less crowded) connection airports and, if possible, those with less risk of severe winter weather.

Of course, these steps won’t prevent problems, since a snowstorm in Minneapolis could impact a flight connecting in Miami, but they may minimize your chances of getting completely stuck.

Wait it out

It’s hard to say how flight prices will fluctuate if you wait to book. In a normal year, tickets only get more expensive, but this year, prices could stay low or even drop the closer we get to the holidays. There’s also no guarantee that airlines won’t cancel itineraries. Use a ticket tracker like Google Flights to keep an eye on rates before you make any firm plans.

Follow all safety precautions

This should be common sense at this point, especially because airlines have been requiring passengers to wear masks for months. But be responsible: wear a mask, yes, and bring extra. Wash your hands, carry hand sanitizer, and stay away from other people as much as possible.

Finally, know the quarantine rules for your destination, and if you want or need to get tested before you fly, give yourself enough time to get your results (obviously this will vary greatly depending on where you live).



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