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Here are 6 tips to know before you book your flight during the COVID-19 pandemic.

USA TODAY

Like many families this year, the Rivers clan will be throwing out its normal holiday travel tradition to make sure the coronavirus doesn’t make an appearance at the Thanksgiving feast.

Gene Rivers of Tallahassee, Florida, says the normal routine of gathering the family at a ski resort northwest of Montreal both for Thanksgiving and mid-December to mid-January won’t work because  Canada and the U.S. have shut the border on both sides to non-essential travel.

Plan B – trying to draw his three grown-up kids to join him and his wife to New York City – isn’t practical either because it’s in one of the states imposing a two-week quarantine on those coming from places with high rates of COVID-19 infections. And even if that weren’t the case, their youngest son, a college student in Connecticut, was instructed to steer clear of family gatherings until the year-end break to avoid bringing the virus back to campus.

“Seems the forces are all against us getting back together,” Rivers says.

Normally, the start of autumn is about the time when would-be revelers map holiday plans and make travel reservations. This year, bringing families together indoors for Thanksgiving or the year-end holidays could be downright dangerous,the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, depending on who’s invited to a gathering, how close celebrants are to each other and locations where they are held.

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More Americans are expected to cancel their holiday travel plans this year, eating separately, watching football games on TV being played in empty stadiums and opening gifts sent by delivery trucks.

A survey by research firm Morning Consult found that 47% of families say they will be canceling holiday get-togethers. Almost half said they will shift from in-person celebrations to virtual.

Every family will have to make its own decision, weighing the risks against the opportunity to see loved ones.

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One element that could entice them to go ahead with their trips: relatively cheap airfares. A round-trip ticket on American Airlines from Los Angeles to New York, leaving Tuesday and returning Sunday during the peak Thanksgiving travel window, was offered at $418 round trip this week. Flying from Minneapolis to Atlanta on Southwest Airlines, leaving Tuesday and returning Saturday, was $267.

All major U.S. airlines require passengers and crew to wear face masks. (Photo: Brycia James, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The percentage of seats airlines fill on an aircraft has beenrunning in the low 30% range, according to Airlines for America, the industry’s trade group. Those percentages are considered so unprofitable that digital models that look to past customer behavior to set fares are being thrown out of whack, said Peter Greenberg, host of The Travel Detective series on PBS stations and a syndicated radio show.

Not only are airfares a relative bargain for a holiday period, but airlines have been offering amazing discounts on tickets purchased with frequent flyer miles, as well to fill otherwise empty seats on flights.

“For the moment, if you book ahead, … you’re going to find some great deals,” he said.

The larger question: Is it safe to go?

Greenberg said he’s convinced that airline travel is safe as long as you keep your mask in place and you set the air nozzles above your seat to full blast. Social distance at the airport, and if you stay at a hotel, have housekeeping drop off extra towels and pillowcases and keep cleaners and any other hotel staff out of your room during the stay.

Is it safe to fly? Precautions to take when flying during the coronavirus pandemic

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The airline industry says planes are entirely safe for travelers. Besides the mask requirements in force on all major U.S. airlines, there are also enhanced cleaning procedures on aircraft. Air circulates 30 times an hour through HEPA filters on most planes said, Nicholas Calio, CEO of trade group Airlines for America, so there’s little risk of catching COVID-19 on a plane trip.

A pair of new studies out this week, however, raised new questions about how easily COVID-19 can spread on long flights. Both pointed to possible spread from an infected person to other passengers close by, although the studies were based on flights in March before the shutdowns in the U.S. and at a time before widespread adoption of mask-wearing.

If the distance to a family celebration is short enough, there’s always the option to drive instead of fly. But that comes with its own hazards, such as possibly coming into contact with the virus at gas stations, restrooms or restaurants along the way.

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Now, with more time having passed and more known about preventing the spread of the virus, medical experts urge extreme caution over the holidays but aren’t ruling out family gatherings.

Family members who don’t normally live together should adhere to guidelinesregarding wearing masks and social distancing, said Dr. M. Kit Delgado, assistant professor of emergency medicine and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania.

But he readily admits that he fears families won’t heed the advice.

“I don’t have great confidence that everyone will adhere to these precautions at all times, especially when drinking alcohol and seeing loved ones you haven’t seen forever,” he said. 

He considers large indoor gatherings to be medium- to high-risk for transmitting COVID-19. Celebrating the holidays outdoors, as weather permits, is better.

Another expert, Dr. Otto Yang, a professor and associate chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, said families with elderly members or those with compromised immune systems should skip the festivities. 

“It’s kind of a case-by-case process. It depends on how much risk each of the family members has,” Yang said.

The CDC, in the guidance it issued this week for holidays urged people to stick to household gatherings and, if guests are invited, keep a distance. 

Travelers still trying to find solutions

Rivers has been forced to try to assess the risk. He and his wife want to meet up with their grown children and are working to find a way, even if it’s looking a little grim at the moment.

“We have hope. So we are planning on something happening so we can be going as usual,” Rivers said. “And if we can’t, we will be having a Zoom holiday.”

Steve Kaufman of St. Louis finds himself in the same position, with his grown offspring laying down the law. 

“This year, our kids in Houston and Minneapolis have told us they won’t fly home nor will they allow us to visit because of COVID,” he said.

Others are feeling more confident. John Nehls is planning to fly from home in Knoxville, Tennessee, to Los Angeles to see his daughter. That’s a turnabout. After decades as a frequent business traveler, he said he usually stayed home for the holidays. 

“Booking now, I can fly round trip for $119 on American. How can you beat that?” he wrote in an email last week.

He said he is “quite confident” that flying is a low-risk proposition at this point, especially given the stepped-up cleaning protocols and other precautions on airlines.

Then there’s Kit Loudin of Grayslake, Illinois, who is pondering where he can go to try to follow the usual holiday regimen, a scuba diving trip in the Caribbean. 

“Yes, I have my fears, but my lust for travel assuages them,” Loudin said. “Once the snow starts to fly, so do I.”

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