Plane, Train or Automobile: How to Get Home for the Holidays During a Pandemic

What you need to know about booking holiday travel

flying during pandemic
If you're expecting an empty airport during the holidays, think again.
Oskar Kadaksoo/Unsplash

If we’ve learned anything from Planes, Trains and Automobiles and I’ll Be Home for Christmas (the one with Jonathan Taylor Thomas), it’s that holiday travel can be a nightmare no matter the year. But now that we’re facing down a Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, those two transportation-roulette classics have become even more anxiety inducing. So has the prospect of booking holiday travel.

Let’s be clear: The CDC has outlined specific guidelines for holiday travel this year, the number-one recommendation being: “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others.” Additionally, the U.S. is currently breaking records in terms of new COVID-19 cases, and Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus coordinator, recently warned that the country is “entering the most concerning and most deadly phase of this pandemic.” Staying put, and setting up video-call get-togethers, is the safest and most responsible path.

Simultaneously, air travel, rail travel and car rentals have all shown significant growth in passenger numbers since the lowest points of the pandemic. Shy of another shutdown, it’s safe to assume some people will decide to travel this holiday season, some possibly for the first time since the pandemic was declared in March.

If you find yourself in that position, should you book an airplane ticket? Get a private Amtrak cabin? Or if you don’t own a car, should you rent one and put in the miles? Here’s what you need to know about the changes in each industry.

Train Travel

  • Where the industry is at: The most important change, according to Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, is that “coronavirus slowdowns have hit Amtrak just like they have hit airlines, with dramatic declines in ridership — and that, in turn, has led Amtrak just like the airlines to cut a lot of trains from their schedules.” Apart from fewer trains, Amtrak is limiting bookings to 50% capacity, which means “travelers are encountering sold-out trains on multiple dates,” he says.
  • How booking is different: Amtrak is waiving all change fees for reservations made by December 31 and there’s a chance that may extend into 2021. But because of the 50% capacity limit, and the fact that some people are traveling by train for the first time because they’re not comfortable flying, as Mathews notes, booking will likely be more difficult. “Scheduling a trip will be very, very confusing and travelers should call 1-800-USA-RAIL (Amtrak’s call center) to talk to an actual human if they’re trying to book a trip and aren’t familiar with the COVID-adjusted schedule,” Mathews says. 
  • How many people will be traveling: “In ‘normal’ years, Thanksgiving travel is Amtrak’s busiest time,” says Mathews. While ridership is trending upwards, it’s not clear yet whether there will be a similar holiday spike, but he’s confident private accommodations like their Bedrooms and Roomettes will sell out early. 

Car Rentals

  • Where the industry is at: “We’re actually seeing a rebound in rentals, let’s say, in the last quarter as people do begin to travel again … and rather than going by airplane or a cruise ship or something like that, they’re taking trips that can be reached by car,” says Gregory Scott, public affairs representative for the American Car Rental Association. He adds the caveat that airport rentals continue to be way down, but local rental shops are seeing upticks.
  • How booking is different: Scott explains that, since the beginning of the pandemic, most rental car companies have waived cancellation fees and even the extra charges for only traveling one way, so that gives people more flexibility (though he admits those policies may not be in place across the board). 
  • How many people will be traveling: Traffic in general across the country is creeping towards pre-pandemic levels, but looking to previous holidays this year offers a better sense of how Thanksgiving (already a car travel-heavy holiday) and December will play out. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, both the Fourth of July and Labor Day Weekend saw some actual increases in Americans taking long-distance road trips compared to 2019, and the same could play out over the coming holidays. People traveling are “using rental cars as, if you will, a bubble,” says Scott. “It’s a lot easier to create a bubble in a minivan for your family than it is in an airplane or a rail car.” 

Air Travel

  • Where the industry is at: Fewer people are flying, yes (U.S. domestic travel capacity is currently down 60% compared to 2019, according to Airlines for America), but airlines are also flying fewer routes. A new Harvard study that says flying is safer than grocery shopping has the industry optimistic, but those results are not conclusive yet. Plus, in terms of safety, “You have to take into account all the steps of travel, getting to the airport, security lines, layovers,” Dr. Henry Wu, director of Emory TravelWell Center and associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, recently told The New York Times.
  • How booking is different: Even if you have flown during the pandemic already, you should know that come the December holidays, Delta will be the only major U.S. airline keeping the middle seat open on its airplanes (American, Southwest and United will not). Prices continue to be depressed, but planes may continue to become fuller despite increasing COVID-19 cases. Also, double check what the new cancellation or rebooking policy is — while some airlines offered generous terms initially, they may have backtracked since the first months of the pandemic, especially on economy fares. 
  • How many people will be traveling: Christmas and Hanukkah are looking like the big targets for people interested in attempting to fly again. According to a holiday travel survey from Hopper, of the respondents who said they would travel over the holidays, 50% said they would fly for Thanksgiving and 75% said they would fly for December holidays. “Airline after airline has reported encouraging holiday booking signs in the past two weeks,” USA Today reported this week. That’s despite the rising coronavirus case numbers.

In short, a car rental (or your own car) is looking like the safest and least complicated travel option this holiday season, especially considering the unknown variable that is the ever-changing COVID-19 situation in the U.S. and holiday travel demand. That is, the safest besides staying put and shacking up with a heritage turkey, Steve Martin and John Candy.


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