In addition to the usual stressors that come with holiday travel, there’s a lot to consider while navigating it all through a global pandemic.
More than a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic and heading into the second holiday season living with the virus, it’s safe to say stress levels for Americans are still sky-high.
The latest data from the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America poll found that 1 in 3 survey respondents report feeling stressed about the coronavirus pandemic and that they have difficulty making even fundamental decisions, such as what to wear or what to eat.
Though the usual stressors come with the holidays and holiday travel, there’s a lot to consider while navigating it all through an ever-changing global pandemic.
“Thankfully, we’re in a better position now given the increased vaccination rates, so travel will more manageable and feasible,” said Paraskevi Noulas, PsyD, a psychologist at NYU Langone Health. “That said, we still have to exercise caution and be thoughtful about our travel plans.”
First, it’s essential to acknowledge what living on the edge for the past year and a half has meant for our stress and anxiety levels.
“Experiencing chronic stress has negative impacts on our overall health,” Noulas said. “As many have seen and experienced firsthand, routines are thrown off, activity levels drop, depressive and anxiety symptoms increase, and substance use increases. It’s a negative domino effect.”
Being hypervigilant for extended periods can also wreak havoc on our nervous system.
“It becomes increasingly difficult to shift into a calmer state physically and emotionally,” Noulas continued.
For many Americans, this year may bring unique stressors when considering holiday travel, particularly when it comes to visiting family members who have chosen not to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Travelers this holiday season will also have to contend with new rules and regulations around testing and vaccination status depending on their destination and longer wait times to allow for these checks and more thorough sanitizing protocols than in years past.
Below, we offer expert advice on how to deal with holiday travel stress during COVID-19 and what you can do to help make travel as smooth as possible.
Many people have chosen to travel by car since the beginning of the pandemic.
“It allows you to feel safe and comfortable in your own private space, to take your time getting to and from your destination, and to take as many breaks as needed or desired,” Noulas said.
She notes that traveling by train is another option that offers some control — you can hop on and off fairly easily, get up and stretch, and walk to other compartments.
If your destination requires you to travel by air, there are some steps you can take to ease stress and make the trip as comfortable as possible.
“Try to sit in a part of the plane that is least populated, wear your mask at all times unless eating or drinking, and generously use hand sanitizer,” Noulas advised.
This holiday season might be their first time in an airport since before the pandemic for many in the United States. Air travel will look a bit different compared to then.
“Give yourself a good chunk of additional time to what you allowed pre-COVID when traveling,” Fin McCarthy, editorial director at Lonely Planet, advised. “Security checks take a lot longer with COVID regulations, and expect long lines for anywhere selling food or drink in airport or train lounges.”
Depending on your destination, documentation confirming your COVID-19 vaccination status or a negative COVID-19 antigen or PCR test may be needed to enter a country or access indoor venues like museums and restaurants.
Do your research to know what documentation will be needed and have it ready before you travel.
“I would advise anyone traveling to bring multiple printouts of vaccination certificates with you,” McCarthy said. “Phones can get lost and lose battery life. Give everyone traveling in your group copies of relevant certs, and ensure everyone brings photo ID when out and about.”
Because you might need to spend extra time at the airport due to COVID-19 regulations, planning and packing everything you’ll need is essential.
“Bring snacks and food for the day in Tupperware so nothing gets squashed, and keep in mind the in-flight snack service on many routes is not the same level as what it was pre-COVID,” McCarthy said. “Take a book you know you will enjoy, a phone charger, and download several podcasts or audiobooks on your fully charged phone before leaving home.”
Make sure anything you’ll need in the following 24 hours, including a toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, hand cream, lip balm, and medication you regularly take, is in your carry-on.
“A warm shawl or scarf can be such an asset on a flight, and bring noise-canceling headphones if you have them,” McCarthy said. “Wear comfy shoes and cozy clothes. Dress as you would for a winter evening relaxing on your sofa at home.”
“Holidays are a time for people to come together and show warmth, love, and caring for one another,” Noulas said.
If you’re vaccinated and need to decide whether to see unvaccinated loved ones, there are steps you can take to do so safely.
“Consider ways to meet outside, perhaps in the backyard with a firepit or outdoor seating at a restaurant with heaters,” Noulas said. “If you believe the differences will be too great this year to allow for a peaceful holiday experience, consider spending time with loved ones who are vaccinated and connect with unvaccinated loved ones virtually.”
Suppose you do spend time with others who are still hesitant about getting vaccinated against COVID-19. In that case, Noulas recommends focusing on other topics that will bring you closer together rather than push you apart, such as updates with family members, past memorable events, and future travel plans.
If you’re feeling anxious and stressed while traveling, there are several strategies that may help calm you.
“If feeling anxious, try grounding yourself through different techniques, such as what colors, shapes or sizes you see around you; your favorite list of books or movies, rubbing lavender oil onto your wrists or neck, or listen to classical or instrumental music,” Noulas recommended.
Deep breathing is another strategy to calm anxiety. “Normal breath in, slow, long exhale out. Rinse and repeat for a few minutes until you feel physically calmer,” Noulas said.
Various apps and YouTube videos can guide you through deep breathing and related guided imagery and meditation practices, as well as progressive muscle relaxation — a simple process of tensing each muscle group for a few seconds and then releasing from head to toes.
“Finally, praying or reciting a favorite verse or lyrics can also be soothing and help you feel safer and calmer,” Noulas said.