College Students, Thanksgiving Break, and Traveling During the Pandemic

College Students, Thanksgiving Break, and Traveling During the Pandemic

If you’re a college student planning to travel for the Thanksgiving break, you should be aware that it’s not as easy as it used to be. And that’s saying something because it was never particularly easy. The Thanksgiving holiday marks the busiest travel week of the year for Americans, including the countless college kids who will leave campus for anywhere between a long weekend and two weeks of vacation. This travel experience has always been defined by crowds, delays, and unforeseen obstacles. But this year, as we continue our acclimation to pandemic life, student travel is even more challenging than usual.

Key Takeaways

  • Students traveling home on Thanksgiving have always faced busy airports and costly flights.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated student travel by adding various public health rules and regulations.

  • Get tips for navigating the old and new challenges of traveling home for Thanksgiving break.

As a college student anticipating travel, you’ll need to take extra steps to prepare for changing rules, transportation shortages and unpredictable travel restrictions. This is true whether you’re heading off campus for the Thanksgiving holiday, Winter Break, or Spring Break.

Regardless of the travel occasion, we’re living in a weird sort of limbo right now. The pandemic isn’t over yet, but we’re also no longer living in a state of quarantine and isolation. Moreover, vaccination status may be a factor as you determine how to travel and what safety precautions you must take when doing so. You will need to consider these factors as we prepare for another strange holiday season.

If you’ve already got your travel plans locked into place, the only thing you have to worry about is sitting across the table from your obnoxious, politically extreme uncle who just loves to bait you into a debate. Be prepared for whatever he throws at you this year with a look at the Biggest Controversies Today.

But once again, if your biggest concern is how you’ll actually get to the dinner table, read on for these Thanksgiving Travel Tips.

Book Your Flight Early

..but not too early. Two months out is generally the sweet spot when it comes to getting the best deals on holiday season flights. (If you’re already running late for Thanksgiving, fear not. The same advice applies to Winter Break travel). With respect to Thanksgiving, an article in the Washington Post notes that this is not the year to wait until the last minute. With flight prices at an all time high and staffing shortages continuing into the 2022 holiday season, desirable and cost-effective flights may be limited in number. Experts are encouraging students to get a flight booked a few months in advance to receive the best prices and most optimal travel dates.

While this year’s flight travel isn’t expected to rebound quite to pre-pandemic levels, you can expect tickets for preferred flight dates and times to sell out pretty fast. If you plan to fly any time during the week leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, get your seat booked as soon as possible. If you missed that two-month window, your best bet is to sign up for price alerts from a noteworthy booking site like Travelocity or Kayak.

Rent Your Car ASAP

If you think booking a flight for the holidays was tough, wait until you call the car rental place. If you haven’t rented a car yet in the COVID era, you’re in for a treat. During our pandemic-induced downturn in productivity, many car rental companies were forced to thin out their rental fleets. And a combination of shut-downs, staffing shortages, and supply chain hiccups have staggered the supply of new cars.

As the economy has gradually resumed activity, many rental companies have faced extreme shortages in their supply of vehicles. This means that prices for rentals are up significantly while availability is down severely. As these trends collide with the holiday travel season, renting a car in your hometown may be harder than avoiding Christmas music on Black Friday.

Kayak notes that The demand for car rentals in the U.S. this holiday season is already up 229 percent compared to 2019 and up 244 percent compared to 2020, an indicator that we could experience another car rental shortage this holiday season as we’re seeing an increase in those searching further in advance for car rentals than years prior. In other words, the sooner you can lock down that rental, the better.

Know the Airline Policies

At this point, many airlines have a vaccine and/or testing policy in place. Some international destinations may also require additional proof that you are not a high risk traveler including regular testing.

If you are anticipating commercial air travel, make sure you know what the rules are for your carrier and destination. Many airlines now require proof of COVID vaccination status, though some may accept a current negative test in advance of your flight. Some airlines may even require both. This is a new reality for all holiday travelers. Be sure that you are in compliance with your airline’s vaccine and testing policies in advance, and that you have all of your documentation on hand in both hard copy and in a backup digital format such as a smartphone screenshot.

Know the TSA Policies

Regardless of the specific policies outlined by your airline, there are certain air travel policies provided by public health experts that everybody must adhere to. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has enacted a number of rule changes in the wake of the pandemic. In particular, a mask mandate may apply in many contexts including security, your terminal, and while in flight. In addition to masking requirements, travelers may be asked to respect social distancing rules while in check-in, security, and vendor locations. If you anticipate a long travel day, be sure to pack extra masks. One other rule change of note–while there are still restrictions around carry-on liquids, there is an exception for passengers who wish to travel through security with hand sanitizer bottles of up to 12 ounces in volume.

Know the CDC Guidelines

In addition to the rules and regulations enforced by both your airline and the TSA, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have issued a number guidelines for travelers. This includes information on the most current set of best practices for preventing transmission of COVID-19. For instance, the CDC recommends that all travelers be fully vaccinated, provides detailed instruction for proper masking techniques, and includes tips for testing and self-imposed isolation for those who are not fully vaccinated.

Moreover, any prospective traveler who tests positive will typically be expected to self isolate for a set duration. The CDC may also issue travel advisories for areas with notable case surges in COVID-19. It’s a good idea to review the CDC’s travel guidelines both as you’re planning your trip and once again as you prepare for departure. Because the pandemic itself is highly fluid, the CDC’s guidelines are updated regularly. Check out the current CDC guidelines here.

...the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have issued a number guidelines for travelers.”

Prepare for Crowds

While a lot has changed in recent years, one thing remains constant. Thanksgiving is the busiest travel week of the year. If you’re heading to the airport, you’ll have a ton of company. I think we can all agree that this is one situation where “the more, the merrier” does not apply. Anticipate long lines at security, check-in, and baggage check. And be aware that vaccine requirements may mean added time for verification.

If you’re curious which days are likely to be the most congested this year, Priceline indicates that the single busiest day is usually the Monday that kicks off Thanksgiving week. The Wednesday just before Thanksgiving is usually the second worst. If you’re traveling on these days, it’s a good idea to arrive at the airport earlier than usual-two hours before boarding is generally advisable. And pack some extra patience because you may need it. That said, you may be able to save a ton of time by going through the TSA’s online precheck service, where you can gain security clearance before your arrival in order to avoid the long lines.

Know Your School Rules

Students leaving campus for the holidays are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. As students travel home, they face high risk from crowded airports, big family reunions and even small gatherings with old friends. These factors make student travel an inherent risk during the COVID-19 ear.

This is why many colleges and universities will actually have specific rules for students planning to leave campus over the holidays. Many universities will require returning students to test negative before coming back to campus. Students who test positive may be required to self isolate for anywhere between 5 days and two weeks.

Know the Cancellation Policies

If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s that we should expect the unexpected. You may have plans to board a flight and see your family for the holidays, but COVID-19 could have other plans. New variants continue to emerge and surge. Colleges and universities are still grappling with ways to prevent community spread without resorting to fully remote learning.

And on an individual level, many of us have had to learn how to manage the possibility of exposure. In light of these facts, you can’t overlook the unfortunate possibility that you may be forced to suddenly cancel your plans. While we certainly hope that doesn’t happen, it’s a good idea to understand your cancellation and rescheduling options ahead of time.

Many airlines are increasingly flexible in light of the unique challenges faced by travelers over the last 18 months. Some airlines may offer reduced or even waived flight cancellation or change fees. By contrast, many tickets purchased through third-party vendors include non-cancellation clauses. Be sure you understand exactly what your options are in the event of an unforeseen change in plans.

What About the Food?

Ok, so we’ve gotten all the critical rules and regulations out of the way. Now let’s get to the most important thing on all our minds-the food. Whether you’re prepping a dish before you travel or you’ve got your heart set on hauling a mother lode of leftovers back to your dorm mini-fridge, be sure that you know the TSA’s regulations on turkey transport. According to Travel and Leisure, the basic breakdown goes like this: if it’s a solid food like a string-bean casserole or sweet potato mash, you can bring it in your carry on, stow it safely in the overhead or, if you’re so inclined, buy it a ticket for the seat right next to you. On the other hand, if it’s a liquid of more than 3.4 ounces that can be sprayed, spilled, pumped or poured, you must place it in a checked bag. So if you’re heading home with an industrial-sized barrel of gravy, you’ll simply have to wait until baggage claim to be reunited.

And if you’re looking for ways to altogether avoid the hassle of traveling on Thanksgiving next year, you might consider completing your degree program online.

But for now, Happy Thanksgiving!

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