Holiday travel down this year, but millions still hit roads, airports

Like airports across the country, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has seen traffic drop sharply this year because of COVID-19, and the number of holiday travelers is expected to be half of what it was last year. But millions across the country will still be traveling for Thanksgiving week. (Photo by Allie Barton/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Thanksgiving travel is expected to be down sharply this year because of COVID-19, but as many as 50 million Americans are still expected to travel this week despite pleas from health experts to stay home.

And those people who do travel could run into a bewildering array of restrictions when they reach their destinations, experts say.

“It is important to know the risks involved and ways to keep yourself and others safe,” the AAA said in its annual Thanksgiving travel outlook. “In addition to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance, travelers should also be aware of local and state travel restrictions, including testing requirements and quarantine orders.”

The AAA forecast predicts an overall decline of at least 10% in holiday travelers, from 55 million last year to just over 50 million this year.

But that’s still a lot of people and officials are making changes to accommodate safe travel in a time of COVID-19.

“We have encouraged our business partners to establish touchless applications where possible and we encourage travelers to use mobile boarding passes wherever possible,” said Greg Roybal, a spokesman for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Sky Harbor announced a partnership Monday with XpresSpa Group Inc., a health and wellness company, that has set up a COVID-19 testing facility in a former urgent care clinic in Terminal 4. The six testing rooms should be able to handle more than 400 travelers per day.

“These services will help restore a bit of normalcy and convenience to the airline industry by providing an extra layer of security and comfort,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said at the unveiling of the service Monday.

Most people will still travel by car, motivated by low gas prices and COVID-19 fears. But the 47.8 million who are expected to hit the road is down 4.3% from last year.

Despite the drop, Thanksgiving will still be a busy time on the highways and “drivers should plan alternate routes and departure times to avoid traffic jams,” said Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX.

The biggest drops this year are expected to be in air travel, down 47.5% to an estimated 2.4 million for this Thanksgiving holiday, and among bus, train and cruise travel, which are expected to drop 76.2%, to 353,000 travelers.

Transportation Security Administration data showed the number of people going through its checkpoints over the weekend was down by more than half. Officials at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport also said they expect traffic this year to be about 50% less than last year’s daily high of 150,000 travelers at the airport.

“This year is unusual though due to the pandemic, and there could be last-minute bookings or cancelations,” said Heather Shelbrack, spokesperson for Phoenix Aviation Department.

AAA officials cited that uncertainty in their report, saying a surge in COVID-19 cases or new travel restrictions could drive travel down even further than they expect.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story gave the wrong town, in graf 22, for Susan’s Travel Services. The business is in Cave Creek. The story here has been corrected, but clients who used earlier versions are asked to run the correction found here.

“The wait-and-see travel trend continues to impact final travel decisions, especially for the Thanksgiving holiday,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president for AAA Travel, in a statement earlier this month. “The decision to travel is a personal one.”

It’s a choice that CDC officials wish people would opt against.

“Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19,” according to the CDC website. “Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.”

The CDC also recommended smaller, shorter holiday gatherings to help stem the spread of COVID-19. Those recommendations were echoed by the Arizona Department of Health Services, which added a suggestion possible only in a state with Arizona’s climate – outdoor get-togethers.

“Arizona, and our nation, remain in a public health emergency,” Gov. Doug Ducey said during an update last week on COVID-19 in the state. “This has been a long haul – but we need to redouble our efforts.”

Arizona was one of just 14 states that did not have a statewide mask mandate in place as of Monday, according to AAA, although the state’s largest counties do require masks. But Arizona enforces other restrictions, such as social distancing and reduced indoor dining capacity, like many states.

Arizona does not impose a quarantine on travelers from other states. But many states – including California, Oregon and Washington – have recommended that out-of-state travelers quarantine for 14 days after arrival. Experts say travelers need to plan ahead this year more than ever.

Susan Green, owner of Susan’s Travel Services in Cave Creek, made an unabashed pitch for her industry at this time, saying travel agents stay up to date on the constantly changing COVID-19 protocols that different states and countries have in place.

She also said professionals are more likely to steer travelers toward adding some type of “cancel for any reason” insurance to their trips to avoid losing thousands of dollars on a trip because of a positive COVID-19 test.

“There’s different types of insurance you can buy, but 95% of travel insurance does not cover COVID,” she said.

Green said that even for people who are not planning to travel for the holidays, now is the time to plan for next year with reputable travel resources.

“Don’t be afraid, we are going to get out again, and we’re not going to make anyone go any place that they don’t want to go,” she said. “But take this time to learn and educate yourself well.”

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Josh Ortega is a California native and Army veteran who expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree. He serves as the business editor for the Downtown Devil in Phoenix.

News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Allie Barton is a master’s student who expects to graduate in December 2020. As a News21 fellow, she wrote, filmed and produced multimedia stories about natural disaster recovery in the U.S. Barton also worked as a producer for “Catalyst” at Arizona PBS.