The Thanksgiving holiday travel period, like so many other things in 2020, is shaping up to be among the strangest ever.
National travel organizations that are in the business of forecasting the extent to which the nation’s airports, highways, train stations, bus depots and gas stations will be crowded with holiday travelers were already forecasting a drop in holiday travel this year.
Then the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday said that Americans should avoid traveling altogether for Thanksgiving to try to slow the spread of COVID-19, cases of which have been skyrocketing across Wisconsin and the nation.
That includes avoiding family gatherings. It’s a life and death situation, according to the CDC.
“The tragedy that could happen is that one of your family members is coming to this family gathering and they could end up severely ill, hospitalized or dying. And we don’t want that to happen,” said Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC’s COVID-19 incident manager.
He continued: “We understand that people want to see their family and relatives and do it as they’ve always done it. But this year we’re asking them to limit their travel.”
“We’re alarmed,” Walke added. Previous holidays have led to increased spread of the virus. The nation saw increases in cases after Labor Day and Memorial Day.
On buses and planes, Walke said, “people tend to crowd together and can’t maintain their distance.”
If people do choose to travel for Thanksgiving, CDC recommends they wear masks in public at all times, including inside the house if they are visiting with friends and family they have not been living with for the 14 days leading up to Thanksgiving. CDC also recommended that if visitors do come, activities be held outdoors as much as possible.
All of this has left folks on the travel side of things scratching their heads as to what will happen in the coming week, typically one of the busiest travel times of the year.
“Obviously it’s going to be nowhere near what it has been in past years,” said Stephanie Staudinger, a spokeswoman for Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport.
“We were expecting a little bit of a bump in travel (for Thanksgiving) maybe comparable to what we saw for Labor Day, which was the last holiday that people really traveled for.
“But again, what it will look like, we don’t know,” Staudinger added. “It’s hard to predict this year. Things are always changing, even day to day.”
If there is a bump in passengers for Thanksgiving, “We’re ready,” Staudinger said.
Cleaning crews will be out in the public areas of the airport, especially at peak travel times, cleaning and sanitizing seating areas among other areas, she said.
Travel organization AAA said in a statement that it expects Thanksgiving air travel volume will be down by nearly half of prior years – to 2.4 million travelers. This would be the largest one-year decrease on record.
AAA says holiday airfares are the lowest in three years.
If flying, AAA said that as a precaution, wipe down your seat, armrest, belt buckle and tray table using disinfecting wipes.
AAA said it is anticipating at least a 10% drop in overall travel — the largest one-year decrease since the Great Recession in 2008.
AAA would have expected up to 50 million Americans to travel for Thanksgiving — a drop from 55 million in 2019. But that was based on mid-October forecast models.
Since then, with rising case numbers and the travel health advisories, “AAA expects the actual number of holiday travelers will be even lower,” according to the statement.
Travel forecasters say decisions on whether to travel will likely be made at the last minute.
“The wait-and-see travel trend continues to impact final travel decisions, especially for the Thanksgiving holiday,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel. “For those who are considering making a trip, the majority will go by car, which provides the flexibility to modify holiday travel plans up until the day of departure.”
Travel by automobile is projected to fall 4.3%, to 47.8 million travelers and account for 95% of all holiday travel, according to AAA.
GasBuddy, the travel and navigation app, said its 2020 Annual Thanksgiving Travel Survey found that only 35% of Americans will be taking to the roads this year.
That’s a decrease from 65% last year, even with “some of the lowest Thanksgiving gas prices the country has seen in years,” according to a statement from GasBuddy announcing the results.
Nearly half of respondents in the GasBuddy survey said that their travel plans are being affected by coronavirus.
“When asked in what ways they were affected, 71% said they are staying home instead of traveling this year. Five percent said they are not celebrating Thanksgiving this year due to the coronavirus,” GasBuddy said.
Those who are traveling are taking shorter trips than in years past, with survey results seeing a 75% increase in those who are traveling less than one hour to their Thanksgiving destination compared with 2019, according to GasBuddy.
Air travel expected to be way down
As recently as a few weeks ago, airlines said holiday bookings are relatively strong despite the spike in cases. Last week, though, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines have warned about a falloff in bookings and an increase in cancellations.
United Airlines warned Thursday that bookings have slowed and cancellations have increased as coronavirus infections spike across the country.
Southwest Airlines has also seen more cancellations.
Southwest is the leader in market share at Mitchell International. United ranks fourth in market share at the airport.
The number of people flying in the United States is down about 65% from a year ago, and airlines were hoping that the upcoming holidays would mean an increase in leisure travel.
United said however that it continues to see the virus hurting travel.
In the past week, “there has been a deceleration in system bookings and an uptick in cancellations as a result of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases,” United said in a regulatory filing.
Chicago-based United expects to operate no more than 45% of its normal schedule in the fourth quarter, and it continues to forecast a 67% decline in revenue compared with last year’s fourth quarter.
Southwest officials said bookings are rising for the holidays but so are cancellations.
Travel by other modes, including buses, trains and cruises, is expected to decline 76%, to 353,000 travelers, as cruise ships remain docked and more travelers opt for car trips instead of taking buses or trains.
Mark Johnson of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report. USA TODAY and the Associated Press also contributed. Contact Joe Taschler at (414) 224-2554 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTaschler or Facebook at facebook.com/joe.taschler.1.