Here's what to expect whether you drive by road, fly by air, or opt for another means of transportation.
woman wearing a protective face mask arriving in hotel room
Credit: Valentin Russanov / Getty Images

The year 2020 has certainly been one for the books. In times of such uncertainty, family and friends coming together to eat, drink, and be merry is exactly what the world ordered. However, in the midst of a pandemic, the risks of transmission cannot be forgotten; older people and those with other medical co-morbidities are at particularly high risk, so gathering with loved ones—and traveling to do so—might not be the best course of action. If you do decide to travel, it's important to prepare. Thanksgiving is the first big travel date and, since it's only a month away, it's time to prepare with healthy protocols that will make for a safe, healthy, and festive feast.

Here's what to expect when traveling for Thanksgiving and beyond, as well as a few alternative options to consider should you deem travel to risky.

Boost your immune system before and during travel.

Craig H. Zalvan, MD, FACS, the medical director at the Institute for Voice and Swallowing Disorders and Chief of the Otolaryngology service at Phelps Hospital, encourages you to do everything you can to keep your immune system up prior to travel. "Long car rides and airplane trips can be taxing on the body, and take their toll with back pain, leg cramps, and even predispose to blood clots." To reduce these risks, Dr. Zalvan suggests drinking lots of water, and avoiding dehydrating drinks like caffeinated beverages, carbonated drinks, and alcohol. "Nutrition can optimize your health and boost your immune system, especially in these COVID times. A mostly Mediterranean style, plant-based diet can improve your immune defenses and help prevent reflux disease."

Get your flu shot.

"A key precaution you can take is to get your flu shot. Flu plus COVID has a worse outcome than either alone," advises Erica Ollmann Saphire, Ph.D., a professor of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. "Plus, this is not the year to have a fever for any reason. Multiple research studies suggest that in some people, a temporary immune boost from that vaccine could help fight off some other infections for a while as well."

Get a COVID-19 test.

"If you can, get a coronavirus test before the visit," suggests Dr. Saphire. "If you or a loved one do test positive, right away, look online and see if your city has a hospital or clinic running a clinical trial for the antibody therapies." These antibodies, as Dr. Saphire explains, are natural human immune molecules, which potently neutralize the virus. And they work best if given right away. "You wouldn't wait and see if you can ride out the rattlesnake bite," she adds. "Don't wait and see if you can ride out COVID-19."

Limit your interactions on the road.

Keeping your interactions and gatherings limited will lessen your chances of contracting the virus. "For necessary Thanksgiving travel, keep interactions and gatherings limited," says Dr. Saphire. "If you're driving, pack snacks and drinks to limit stops, and bring sanitizing wipes to clean your hands after high-touch surfaces like gas pumps. Or gas up the night before and wash your hands well when you get home. Even common cold viruses like rhinoviruses can be hardy and live a long time on shared surfaces. You will interact with fewer strangers driving than flying."

Fly wisely.

While driving ensures fewer interactions with strangers than flying, if the distance requires hopping on a plane, there are some important precautions you can take. Dr. Saphire suggests picking an airline where there is no one sitting in the middle seat. It's required to wear a mask during your flight on the plane, so be sure you're prepared.

"Bring extra masks, especially if you have kids," suggests Dr. Saphire, who notes that masks can easily get lost and dropped on the floor. "Bring some sanitizing wipes for high-touch surfaces like the seat belt and tray table. Flight attendants may hand them out as you board the plane as well. Importantly, be patient and give people space. The airlines are boarding and unboarding a few at a time instead of in a packed herd like before."

Keep your gatherings small.

In light of the pandemic, Dr. Saphire urges you to keep gatherings small, and meet up with friends and family outside when possible. "If you have extended family with many households, you should consider other ways to spend time with them just this Thanksgiving instead of joining a large, loud dinner gathering around the table."

Mask up.

No one wants to wear a mask, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't. "Community outbreaks of COVID-19 happen when multiple households are gathered together, especially if there is loud talking or singing and no masks," says Dr. Saphire. "Masks aren't perfect, but they make a big difference."

Meet in the outdoors.

Eating and drinking are only two of the best parts of Thanksgiving and the holidays in general. If you're planning to visit or host family, make it into a weekend and spend as much time in the great outdoors as possible. "Being indoors, poor ventilation, lack of mask wearing all create increased risk regardless of the size of the group of people," says Dr. Zalvan.

"Consider a Thanksgiving day or weekend outdoor hike with some of them," suggests Dr. Saphire. "Bring the leftover pie in a cooler and have a tailgate picnic together at the end of the trail."

Consider a virtual gathering.

If you'd rather not travel or take the risk of mingling, you can always connect by phone or Zoom, as Dr. Saphire suggests. "My coast-to-coast extended family had a reunion by Zoom where each family had a minute to update on what's new, then handed the discussion over next to the cousin they knew the least," she says. "The important thing about Thanksgiving is the human connection, not whether you're at the same large table as last year."


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