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If you’re still uncertain about flying home for the holidays, it’s not too late to make up your mind. Even this close to Thanksgiving and Christmas, traditionally the busiest travel times of the year, domestic airfares haven’t seen their normal price spike.
A round-trip ticket from San Francisco to Seattle for Thanksgiving weekend ran $166 at press time. Oakland to Boston for Christmas: $255. New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas? $111.
“There’s still hope for getting a cheap ticket for the holidays,” said Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert at online booking tool Scott’s Cheap Flights.
In a normal year, the cheapest holiday airfares typically emerge three to six months ahead of a travel date. Not so this year. “I’d expect cheap flights for Christmas and Thanksgiving to keep popping up through the end of October — possibly even the first week of November,” Keyes said.
Credit the coronavirus pandemic with upending holiday travel season norms.
Far fewer people are venturing onto airplanes this fall. People are booking closer to their travel dates, prioritizing health and safety over ticket prices. Airlines, in appealing to apprehensive consumers, have blocked off middle seats and waived change fees that, pre-pandemic, could cost upward of several hundred dollars, affording travelers an unprecedented level of flexibility in trip planning.
Still, more people are flying now than earlier in the pandemic. Air travel cratered in the spring, but as facial coverings, social distancing and hand sanitizer become the norm in public life, and as airlines have stepped up touchless check-ins, limited flight capacity and managed the flow of passengers, air travel has begun rebounding.
In the past seven months, the nadir of air travel in the U.S. came on April 14, when 87,534 passengers moved through airport security — down from more than 2.2 million on the same day in 2019, according to the Transportation Security Administration. By comparison, TSA clocked 958,440 travelers on Oct. 13 — down from just over 2.6 million on the same day last year but a huge uptick from the early days of the pandemic.
The approaching holiday season coincides with rising optimism surrounding the perceived health risks of flying, even as public health officials warn about the risks of commingling among disparate households. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends hosting shorter, smaller holiday gatherings outdoors to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Despite the risks of sharing an enclosed space with dozens of strangers for an extended period of time, airplanes haven’t been linked to any superspreader events. This year, there have only been 44 cases of COVID-19 transmissions associated with air travel during a period in which 1.2 billion people flew on planes, according to an Oct. 8 report from the International Air Transport Association.
About 80% of American travelers have tentative trip plans right now, according to a recent survey of 1,202 people conducted by San Francisco market research firm Destinations Analysts. Of those who plan to travel, 36% say they’d take a trip in the last three months of this year.
“People feel more in control of the experience,” said Erin Francis-Cummings, president and CEO of Destinations Analysts.
Part of that is due to the widespread normalization of masks and distancing in public life. But it’s also a function of the steps airlines have taken to make people feel comfortable and assured on planes.
“One traveler I talked to said, ‘I’d be willing to pay for that empty middle seat from here on out,’” Francis-Cummings said.
Still, for some Americans, going home for the holidays is off the table this year. In a separate survey from Travelocity, 60% of 1,016 respondents said they would not be traveling to see family or friends this season. About two-thirds of respondents plan to travel within a 250-mile radius of home, a trend that has remained steady since the summer.
“That’s the sweet spot for a lot of people right now,” said Melissa Dohmen, senior manager of public relations and communications at Travelocity.
The ultimate reassurance, travel experts say, would be a widely available COVID-19 vaccine.
In advance of the holidays, Travelocity launched a new feature that tracks safety protocols across airlines: which ones require masks or temperature checks, or block off seats and limit flight capacity.
“That’s the big question,” Dohmen said. “How long will some of these new tools and policies stick around?”