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What will holiday travel be like?
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What will holiday travel be like?

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Many Americans plan to travel for the holidays this year, but would-be travelers' feet may turn cold as the weather does.

Over the river and through the woods, to … a hotel near-ish Grandmother’s house we go?

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how and whether to book flights for the holidays. Since then, a few people have asked what I think holiday travel will be like this year. Will airports be packed? Or will caution prevail? Will airfare and hotel prices go up? Or will they remain at their current bargain-basement prices?

Only a fool would try to make predictions about the future at this point, so let’s call these “guesstimaybes.” I’ll use data and projections where possible, but even those can only perform so much better than a crystal ball these days.

Guesstimaybe #1: Airfare prices will go up, but not much

Based on research from the airfare search service Hopper, Yuletide airfare domestically is down 40% compared with 2019. And frankly, that doesn’t sound dramatic enough based on what I’m seeing. I remember talking to a friend last year about booking round-trip flights from Seattle to St. Louis in December for about $700. This year you can nab the same flight for $212 during the heart of the holiday season.

Yet the same report from Hopper found that 39% of survey respondents plan to travel for the holidays this year, three-quarters of whom plan to board a plane in December. And only 17% of these would-be holiday travelers have booked their flights yet.

In other words, there’s a lot of (potentially) pent-up demand. If those respondents who say they plan to travel but haven’t booked their tickets yet do so, we could see a big spike in prices, packed planes and long security lines. Unless you’re absolutely desperate for things to “return to normal,” that would be bad news.

My prediction: A lot of these plans are wishful thinking. Some COVID-19 models predict that things are due to get worse by December. But even if infection trends stay the same, visiting one’s relatives during the busiest travel season of the year will remain a relatively risky endeavor. I expect (and hope) many feet will turn cold as the weather does.

Guesstimaybe #2: Lodging in small cities will be pricey

Those with the desperate need for turkey or human companionship who are willing to fly this year will need somewhere to stay. Some, undoubtedly, will crash on the pullout sofa as usual. But many will want to find stand-alone lodging to protect themselves and their families. And that’s where things could get interesting.

I don’t expect hotel or vacation rental prices to go up much in large cities, which have plenty of rooms to accommodate business travelers (before they went extinct). Small and medium-sized cities, however, could see a supply crunch as more holiday travelers than usual seek their own rooms this year.

If I were planning to travel for the holidays and were visiting a small town, I’d book my room well in advance. And I’d make sure I could cancel it for free.

Guesstimaybe #3: Testing will be tight

“My family has it all planned out. We’re all going to get tested before we meet up, then form a contained ‘household’ together once everybody gets their negative results.”

That’s a great idea! The only problem is, everybody else has the same plan. Under normal circumstances I would say that those in charge of testing would predict this surge and plan accordingly, but … well … err … who knows?

Even if testing is available, it could get backlogged, meaning you wouldn’t receive results until you’re waiting for your flight home. I recommend making a plan that doesn't require last-minute, speedy test results.

Guesstimaybe #4: The holidays will be what we make them

The theme of 2020 seems to be “letting go,” and nowhere has this been hit over our collective heads more than trying to plan travel. Many of us are holding onto the idea that we can celebrate the holidays like we normally do: by flying home. But it might be time to let go of that notion.

Does that mean we have to sit in our homes alone and sadly pick at a microwaved turkey dinner? Not necessarily, though at least we wouldn’t have to listen to Uncle John rave about conspiracy theories.

Instead of holding onto how things were, we have the opportunity to forge new traditions this year. Traveling during the holidays has always been an expensive and stressful endeavor. Maybe it’s time we tried something else.

RELATED: Family travel five: New rules of the road for your packing list

Sam Kemmis is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: skemmis@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @samsambutdif.

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