Consumer Reports: How to stay safe if you plan to fly during the holidays

Like many things in 2020, travel has become a pain point for millions of people who want or need to get away, but do not know how to do it safely. Now, experts say those difficulties could intensify as travelers board planes for the holidays.

Public health officials said staying home is the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19, but if you must fly this holiday season, Consumer Reports has tips to help keep you safe.

Fewer people will travel this winter, but if you do plan on flying, prepare for the possibility of a jam-packed flight.

"Knowing how the airlines operate, particularly this year where it's been so terrible for them financially, our concern is that they're going to be maximizing profits by packing aircrafts and not using as many crews. So, flights could be fuller," said Bill McGee, Consumer Reports aviation advisor.

The CDC and airlines maintain most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.

But Consumer Reports remains concerned about the lack of social distancing and mask policies on board and the situation at airports.

"There are a lot of chokepoints, particularly in smaller and older airports, where social distancing becomes very difficult," said McGee.

Some airports are implementing new technologies, like automatic electronic access points, also known as E-Gates that help reduce points of human contact and ease congestion bottlenecks.

And CR said there are steps you can take even before you book. Contact the airline and check if it guarantees empty middle seats and ask how strictly it enforces mask-wearing. Then check again right before you fly in case a change has been made.

Also, try to book a flight for earlier in the day. CR said that's when airplanes are cleanest.

"If you're on a 6:30 a.m. flight you're probably going to get on a plane that just received a heavy cleaning," he said.

CR also said to look for flexible bookings. Try to avoid non-refundable rates and restrictive airfares that prohibit changes. Also, look for "free cancellation" or "reserve now, pay later" on hotel bookings.
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