How to Stay Safe When Traveling and Gathering With Family This Holiday Season

Though COVID-19 is still an everyday reality, we’re in a far different (and better!) place than we were a year ago heading into the holidays. Widespread vaccination has led to a drop in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in most parts of the country, and families that decided not to gather last year are now able to come together much more safely.

The 2021 holiday season won’t be quite like what we were used to pre-COVID, since precautions are still recommended for traveling and gathering in groups from multiple households—but it can still be fun and festive. We’ve gathered some information and tips (including CDC guidelines for family gatherings in 2021) to help you with planning. We’ll start by covering how you can hold safer family events and then move on to how you can make the best travel decisions for your family. Read through the answers to frequently asked questions below for ideas and tips you can use!

What are the CDC guidelines for outdoor gatherings vs. indoor gatherings—and how do I reduce risk if we gather indoors?

As a rule, gatherings and activities held outdoors are still safer than indoor gatherings. But since hosting your holiday dinner outside isn’t realistic in most parts of the U.S. in December, there are precautions you can take to minimize risk. Avoiding crowded indoor spaces in the days before travel is a good idea, as is having every family member take a COVID test prior to getting together.

You may want to purchase several home collection kits and pass them out a few days in advance to family and friends who plan to come together; this way, everyone can collect their sample from the comfort of home rather than having to search for a testing location. (To purchase a home collection kit, click here.)

What are some fun ways to help keep guests safe at family gatherings?

  • Wine Glass Charms: You might have been seen as the family germaphobe if you tried to get people to use these prior to COVID-19, but it’s probably easier to get buy-in now. Choose from many different colors and themes to ensure no one drinks from anyone else’s glass by accident. You can also use the tag variety that affixes to stemless glasses to keep people’s hands off your cocktail or non-alcoholic beverage.
  • Outdoor Patio Heaters: You’re not going to want to have Christmas dinner outdoors in most parts of the U.S., even with one of these patio heaters blasting, but they’re a possibility for widening your social circle beyond your family group over the holidays. You can invite friends over for mulled wine or champagne and pretend you’re in an Indiana Jones movie, since the pyramid-style models where fire leaps inside a glass tube look like something out of the Temple of Doom.
  • Custom or Themed Face Masks: Since masks are still recommended in public indoor spaces even for the vaccinated, you can make it a bonding experience with your family group by ordering custom masks for grocery runs or other outings. The masks could have the logo of a sports team you all love or the words of an inside joke. It’s up to you!
  • Spread Joy, Not Germs: Whether you’re hosting or visiting, it’s a good idea to have sanitizing wipes for cleaning surfaces and hand sanitizer with you to keep your hands germ-free. (You can even find a holiday-themed brand of hand sanitizer to keep things festive.)

What supplies do I need to bring to a gathering or have in my home when hosting?

Per 2021 CDC guidelines for family gatherings during the holidays, people who have a condition or are taking medication that weakens their immune system should still behave as if they’re unvaccinated, even if they’ve received a booster shot of a vaccine. If you’re hosting, you might consider putting a window fan in open windows to improve ventilation (weather permitting) to protect immunocompromised or unvaccinated loved ones.

Save our checklist to keep handy when you're shopping and planning for your event:

Getting there: Am I at higher risk of catching COVID on an airplane?

Air travel in the COVID era is fairly safe, since most commercial aircraft are equipped with HEPA filters to clean the air. This basically means that instead of being at risk from every individual on the plane, your risk is limited to the people seated immediately around you, and to those you’re in close contact with. That said, passing through crowded terminals and waiting on security lines puts you at risk, so it’s best to minimize your time in the airport and avoid layovers if possible, according to the CDC. It’s also a good idea to wear an N95 or other high-quality mask and bring hand sanitizer or wipes for the plane (in case they aren’t provided by the airline).

Do I need to be vaccinated or take a COVID test to fly domestically?

For the latest guidance on travel requirements, please visit the CDC website.

Am I required to get a COVID test to fly back to the U.S. from abroad?

For the latest guidance on travel requirements, please visit the CDC website.

Am I at higher risk of catching COVID on a train or bus?

The CDC recommends avoiding long-distance bus or train trips if possible, since they involve close proximity to other people and have worse air circulation than on a plane.

How can I stay safe on a holiday road trip?

If you’re planning a multi-day road trip to your final destination, the CDC recommends staying in a home or vacation rental (think Airbnb) with people from your household only—or with fully vaccinated people. Staying in a hotel or with unvaccinated people would be less safe. If you do need to stay in a hotel, avoid common areas (e.g., the communal dining area of a B&B.)

If I need to get a COVID test, what are my options?

If you need a COVID-19 test, you can order a home collection kit online for ages 2+, pick one up at a store near you, visit a drive-thru, or contact your doctor or local hospital. Antigen (or “rapid”) self-tests that can be done at home or elsewhere and return results quickly (typically around 15 minutes), may be an option in some circumstances. But keep in mind that a PCR test is more accurate than an antigen test.

For information on a faster, new test option you can consider if you are asymptomatic and have not been exposed to COVID-19, click here.

As you start to finalize your travel plans, our travel checklist is also a great source of information; you can download it once and refer to it often!

There are more logistics to think through this holiday season than in past years, but doing a bit of planning ahead of time will help make the season as merry and bright as it should be.

Have a safe holiday!