BOISE – Many Idahoans are planning on giving their loved ones a virtual hug this holiday season.  AAA projects that holiday travel volumes will drop by at least 29 percent from a year ago as COVID-19 restrictions motivate three-quarters of Americans to celebrate at home.  That means nearly 35 million fewer travelers will hit the road or head to the airport this year.

AAA Holiday Travel Forecast 2020

AAA says that while some will make the very personal decision to travel, the best way to prevent the spread of sickness is to avoid gathering with people outside your own household.

According to AAA’s latest projection, as many as 84.5 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from home over the holiday travel period, which begins December 23 and ends January 3, 2021.  About 457,000 Idahoans will take part, down from 614,000 a year ago.  But the roads could get busy at times, with 96 percent of them traveling by car.

“We all would have liked some holiday cheer to cap off a very challenging year, but unfortunately, the pandemic has handed us a collective lump of coal,” says AAA Idaho public affairs director Matthew Conde.  “Our holiday prediction is really a continuation of what we saw at Thanksgiving, with a smaller number of travelers making last-minute plans for family gatherings and many ultimately deciding to put those plans on hold.”

While the economy has partially rebounded since the spring, consumer confidence has leveled off amid the uncertainty associated with the pandemic.  Efforts to contain the disease have limited the number of travel destinations, and financial concerns have prompted many to hang onto disposable income until conditions improve.

AAA initially projected that Thanksgiving travel volumes would be down by at least 10 percent, but likely much lower.  While the final numbers have not been tabulated, it now appears that travel for turkey day decreased by anywhere from 15 to 20 percent.

Virtual holiday advice

Because many Americans will take safety precautions and refrain from gathering, AAA offers the following tips to make the season a little merrier and brighter:

  • Organize a virtual sing-along or holiday movie watch party
  • Swap holiday recipes and share photos in a virtual cook-off
  • Shop online and send presents to family and friends
  • Host a virtual meeting and take turns unwrapping presents

Holiday travel by mode of transportation

Travelers have adopted a ‘wait-and-see’ mentality this year, with most preferring the flexibility of a road trip.  As many as 81 million Americans are predicted to travel by car, including up to 439,000 Idahoans.  That’s at least 25 percent fewer than last year.  Many people have Christmas Eve off, so AAA projects Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon to be the busiest times on the road.

Air travel is expected to decline by nearly 60 percent.  As many as three million Americans will take to the air for a holiday getaway, including 15,000 Idahoans.  Due to limited seat capacity, many of these travelers could be smaller groups, or college students heading home for the holidays.  But screening and boarding processes have expanded during the pandemic, so travelers should still build in plenty of extra time to catch their flight.

Up to 480,000 Americans will travel by other modes, an 87 percent decline from a year ago.  The cruise industry remains shuttered, and many train or bus trips will shift to car travel or be cancelled.

With many traditional destinations closed, holiday travelers are left with fewer options than usual.  While most will visit family, some will seek outdoor recreation and physical distancing at ski areas and National Parks, while others will head for warmer weather in the Southwest and Florida.

“Another thing that could change this year is the length of the holiday travel period.  With more people working and studying remotely, some may be able to prolong their stay,” Conde explained.  “That means that return trips might be a little more spread out than usual.”

Roadside reminders

AAA plans to rescue as many as 821,000 motorists over the holiday break, including 1,600 Idahoans.  Flat tires, dead batteries, and engine problems are some of the most common issues this time of year.  Those who choose to travel should complete a pre-trip inspection of tires, batteries, and engine fluids, and bring along an emergency kit with basic tools, first aid supplies, flares or reflectors, food and water, and extra warm clothing.

Health and safety advice for holiday travelers

Whether you jump in a car, board a plane, or stop off at a hotel or restaurant, AAA reminds travelers to take extra precautions during the pandemic.  Wear a mask, maintain physical distancing, and use disinfectant wipes to sanitize high-touch surfaces like airplane armrests and tray tables and hotel light switches, door knobs, remote controls, and faucets.

“Keep in mind that hotels and restaurants have very different rules these days.  Check before you leave to make sure they’re open, and ask what amenities they’re providing, including housekeeping services,” Conde said.  “And of course, if you or a member of your household aren’t feeling well, please stay home.”

Drivers can review the AAA COVID-19 Travel Restrictions map for the latest information and check with local authorities for further details.

Motorists should keep their gas tanks at least half-full at all times.  Make sure headlights and brake lights are in good working order and avoid using cruise control when driving on any slippery surface, including ice and snow.

Drivers should also check traffic and weather conditions before they head out.  If you encounter a road that doesn’t look properly maintained, please turn around.

“Avoid aggressive driving by increasing your following distance and using polite gestures only,” Conde said.  “The holidays can be stressful enough, especially for those who can’t be with their loved ones.  There’s no better present than being courteous to other drivers and helping keep everyone safe.”