(CNN) – The end of the year is creeping in, and people are piling up travel plans to join friends and family for the holidays – all against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic.
Being with others – perhaps the most universal holiday tradition – has never required so much careful thought.
Should you be traveling for the 2020 vacation? What precautions make it safer? Who will be there and how careful were they?
CNN spoke to medical experts about how to reduce the risks of vacation travel and when to really skip them altogether.
Should you go on vacation this year?
“Probably not if you are anxious or vulnerable,” says Dr. Richard Dawood, travel medicine specialist and director of Fleet Street Clinic in London.
But travel is okay if you are willing to be careful, follow the rules, and easily adapt to plan changes, he said.
There is a lot more to consider when planning vacation travel in 2020.
Daniel Slim / AFP / Getty Images
“I think the travel threshold should still be higher at this point than it was before the pandemic,” says Dr. Henry Wu, Director of the Emory TravelWell Center and Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
“If you decide to travel, try to keep gatherings small and take precautions,” Wu said, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing and good hand hygiene.
Who should skip it?
“Are you older, are you frail, do you have chronic underlying diseases?” are the questions that need to be asked, says Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
People considering meeting with vulnerable relatives or friends should really weigh the effects of an illness, Wu said.
“There are well-documented clusters of Covid-19 related to family reunions, including those that resulted in death,” he said.
Driving is not without risks, but it is easier to manage your interactions with others than with air travel.
Jason Connolly / AFP / Getty Images
Are some locations safer than others?
In areas around the world where infections remain low, gatherings are likely to be safer, although normal precautions continue to apply.
According to Dr. For example, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, may have a “relatively normal” Thanksgiving festival in parts of the United States where infections are very low.
“But in other parts of the country … you’d better hold back and maybe just have an immediate family,” Fauci told CNN’s Chris Cuomo. As always, wear masks and keep gatherings small to reduce the risk of infection.
“I want to say that everything will be great on Thanksgiving, but honestly … I’m not so sure if it is,” he said.
Does testing offer protection?
Tests can help detect coronavirus infections before you travel, Wu said, “but tests aren’t that easy.”
“It can be false negatives or just miss out on infections that you are still incubating,” he said. “You could certainly become infected during the trip and possibly infect others afterwards.”
Tests can “offer a certain level of security if the people present are negative at the time of the test,” said Schaffner. “You still have to be careful.”
Would a vaccine make travel safer?
Even if a vaccine becomes available in time for the holidays, it will likely offer partial protection, much like the flu vaccine, Schaffner says.
If it is 70% effective, three out of ten people will not be protected and a significant percentage of the population has not yet been vaccinated.
It’s not “armor,” he says, and the other usual precautions would still apply.
What’s the safest way to get there?
Driving generally gives travelers more control over their interactions with other people than flying or other forms of communal transportation, the experts say.
“Your own vehicle or a private jet!” is the safest way to travel, says Dawood.
Minimizing contact when getting out is key, says Schaffner. Mask yourself when outside the vehicle, make very few, very short stops, and opt to drive through groceries as you head into a restaurant.
With air travel “you are more at the mercy of what is happening around you,” said Schaffner. Even so, it’s important to wear masks, have good hand hygiene, and maintain as much social distance as possible.
Staying in a hotel can give guests more control over their surroundings than staying with friends or relatives.
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Should you stay with the family?
Schaffner sees better control of your surroundings in hotels than in a relative’s house, provided you avoid close encounters in elevators and other public areas and skip dining in the restaurant in favor of takeout or room service.
Whether you choose to stay with someone at home “has a lot to do with who the relative is and how careful they were,” Schaffner said.
Whenever you are in close contact with friends or relatives, it is important to discuss these things in detail beforehand: Is someone at increased risk of serious illness? What precautions and risks do guests and hosts take every day?
Schaffner knows people who, after careful quarantine, stayed in the homes of friends or relatives for a few weeks before visiting or receiving guests. This type of security measure should be checked and agreed in advance.
Wu does not have a strict answer on whether it is safer to stay with friends and family or in a hotel. A number of factors play a role, he says, including your ability to safely distance yourself. For stays with other people in the same house, “Think about whether the family you are visiting has been able to isolate themselves and take precautions,” he says.
Sitting together at a crowded holiday table is best skipped this year.
Can you safely meet people outside your household?
Even if you’re staying in a hotel, chances are good you’ll want to hang out with other households to celebrate the holiday season.
Schaffner was with relatives and they were with him during the pandemic, but they stayed wide apart and wore masks and only stayed together for a few hours, he says.
The food is served, but they sit at the other end of the dining table and take off their masks just to eat and drink.
“It is advisable to keep the mask on during a family gathering, especially if you are indoors and you (or others) have risk factors for serious illness,” Wu said.
In the UK, many areas have officially restricted the size of congregations to help control the spread of the virus.
“The ‘Rule of Six’ shows no sign of easing and limits gatherings to groups of six, but people are finding innovative ways to meet while following the rules, including ‘drive-by’ weddings and a range of events throughout the day “says Dawood.
“Large groups, especially if they come from different households or geographic regions, could increase the risk of infection,” said Wu.
The safest option? “Get a little turkey and stay home,” says Schaffner.