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Change of plans: How the pandemic disrupts holiday travel

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Posted at 6:55 PM, Dec 15, 2020

The holiday season is here, but it’s likely that your traditions won’t be quite so traditional this year. The coronavirus pandemic has impacted many facets of our lives, and the holidays are no exception: More than two-thirds (68%) of Americans who had December holiday travel plans say these plans have been affected by the pandemic, according to a new NerdWallet survey. Another 22% say they aren’t sure yet if their plans will be impacted.

In the NerdWallet survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults conducted online by The Harris Poll, we asked how their December holiday travel plans have been affected by the pandemic. Of those still traveling for the holidays in December — referred to as “holiday travelers” throughout — we also asked about planned primary lodging and transportation.

Key findings

  • COVID-19 will keep many from loved ones: Among Americans who say their December holiday travel plans have been impacted by the pandemic, 2 in 5 (40%) say they usually travel with or visit friends and family, but this year they won’t. Additionally, 27% usually drive out of town but won’t this year, and 17% say the same about flying somewhere during the holiday season.
  • Far fewer Americans plan to travel this year: Just 24% of Americans plan to travel out of town for the December holiday season in 2020, compared with 75% who did so in 2019. An additional 17% aren’t sure yet if they’ll travel for the holidays this year.
  • Travelers opt to stay closer to home: Of those planning to travel out of town this year for the December holidays, more than half (56%) say their plans were impacted by COVID-19. A quarter of those affected (25%) say while they usually travel farther from home, this year they’ll stay closer.
  • Most holiday travelers plan to drive: Driving is the most popular primary mode of transportation (68%) for 2020 holiday travelers. This is down from 81% for 2019 holiday travel.
  • Staying with loved ones is still the most popular lodging option: About 2 in 5 holiday travelers (38%) plan to primarily stay at the home of a family member or friend this year. This was true of about the same proportion (37%) of 2019 holiday travelers.

COVID-19 alters holiday travel plans

No matter what holidays you observe in December, celebrations may look different this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of Americans who say their holiday travel plans were impacted by the pandemic, 2 in 5 (40%) say that while they usually travel with or visit friends and family members, this year they won’t. More than a quarter (27%) usually drive somewhere out of town but won’t this year, and 17% usually fly somewhere but won’t this year.

What you can do: Avoiding travel altogether is the safest course of action as COVID-19 cases surge across the country. It’s been a difficult year, and not being able to spend time with friends and family is a big part of that, but the best way to protect yourself and the people you care about most is staying home this holiday season.

“This holiday season looks very different from years before. It’s hard to not travel, but staying home helps keep you and your loved ones safe,” says NerdWallet travel expert Sara Rathner. “If we each do our part, maybe Christmas in July will become a real way to celebrate belatedly in person.”

Large drop in number of holiday travelers this year

According to our survey, three-quarters of Americans (75%) traveled out of town for the December 2019 holiday season. In 2020, just 24% of Americans are planning December holiday travel, and another 17% were unsure when asked in the first week of November.

More than half of holiday travelers (56%) say their plans were impacted by COVID-19. Almost a third (31%) say their plans weren’t impacted, and 13% weren’t sure at the time we asked. Of those travelers who say their plans have been impacted, some of the biggest changes are traveling closer to home than usual (25%), driving their personal vehicle when they usually fly (23%) and spending less time away from home than they normally would (23%).

Parents of children under 18 are more likely to plan on out-of-town December holiday travel this year than Americans without minor children (37% vs. 18%). Most (68%) of these parents’ travel plans were affected by COVID-19, with 27% saying they usually travel farther from home, but this year they’ll stay closer.

What travelers can do: If you’re traveling out of town this December, make sure you’re up to date on the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, for traveling safely. These guidelines can change rapidly, so stay abreast of any new developments through the dates you’re planning to travel.

“A number of states increased restrictions before Thanksgiving, so if you’re traveling to another state, it may look very different there than it does at home. Plan ahead so you can follow the rules,” Rathner says. “Pack enough masks and find out which local businesses may be operating on limited hours. If you plan to get a COVID test, availability is limited in some areas. You don’t want to leave these arrangements for the last minute.”

Most holiday travelers will drive and stay with friends or family

Most holiday travelers (68%) plan to primarily drive to their destinations this year, which was also the case in 2019, when 81% say they drove as their primary transportation. The percentage of holiday travelers flying as their primary mode of transportation is up this year (24% vs. 12% in 2019), but that doesn’t mean more Americans are flying. Since fewer U.S. adults are traveling overall, that’s less than 15 million Americans flying, compared with last year’s almost 23 million flyers. [1]

Primary lodging plans mirror last year’s: For 2020, 38% of holiday travelers plan to primarily stay at the home of a friend or family member. In 2019, 37% of holiday travelers say they primarily stayed at a loved one’s home. The second most popular primary lodging choice in both years was a hotel or motel (28% in 2020, 25% in 2019).

What travelers can do: Keep your travel plans as flexible as possible, in case the pandemic upends them in the eleventh hour. Don’t worry about booking early to get the best price. 2020 is an unconventional year, and if you do opt to travel, you’ll probably find that costs are lower than in holiday seasons past.

“You need a Plan A, B, C and D for holiday travel this year,” Rathner says. “When you book anything, know what the airline, hotel or car rental companies’ policies are for cancellations. It’s not so much about finding deals now, it’s about being able to back out of your plans if necessary.”


This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Nov. 4-6, 2020, among 2,055 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 1,537 traveled out of town for the December 2019 holiday season and 508 plan to travel out of town for the 2020 holiday season. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, contact Brittany Benson at

[1] Calculated using U.S. Census Bureau population estimates from July 2019 and NerdWallet survey data on December 2019 holiday travelers who primarily flew and December 2020 holiday travelers who plan to primarily fly.

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Erin El Issa writes for NerdWallet. Email: