If you're taking to the skies to visit friends and family over the holidays, be prepared to jostle your way through crowded airports, packed planes and frenzied baggage queues with millions of fellow travelers.
"Everyone knows how close they're going to be with other people on a plane," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing flight attendants in the U.S. "But they may not be taking into account how full those airports will be as well. No space. No way to socially distance."
Some 4.2 million people were expected to fly for the Thanksgiving holiday, nearly twice as many as last year, according to the American Automobile Association.
The good news this year was that many flyers were be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus — including nearly all international travelers entering the United States.
The bad news is that many Americans were not fully vaccinated by Thanksgiving, including children under 12 and those who choose not to get a shot.
A good many people may also be "newbies" to the strict federal mask mandate implemented in February, said Nelson, who has been a United Airlines flight attendant since 1996.
"People need to understand that there's a federal mask policy in place," she said. "It starts at the airport door and continues throughout the entire process until you leave the airport at your destination."
Here are eight tips on how to keep you and your family safe — and reduce stress — while flying this holiday season.
1) Get your child over age 5 vaccinated and get a booster
Children in the U.S. who are ages 5 years and older are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, but like adults, are not fully protected until two weeks after the second dose. Because there has not been enough time between the vaccine's availability and Thanksgiving for children in this young age group to have received their second shot, none were fully vaccinated during the Thanksgiving travel period.
Parents should treat partially vaccinated children as if they are not vaccinated, said CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
Parents and children should continue using masks and social distancing during travel and consider taking a rapid COVID-19 test before gathering with family, Wen said.
If you're an adult who has not yet gotten your booster shot after being fully vaccinated earlier this year, please do so now, she added.
"We know that immunity to symptomatic infection wanes over time, so I would highly recommend for anyone eligible for a booster to get the shot at least two weeks before getting together with family for the holidays," Wen said.
2) Fly off-hours and on less busy days
If you can travel to and from your destination on less busy travel days, you and your family will encounter fewer people and may be more successful at social distancing, said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, who is a leading expert in aerosol transmission of viruses.
"That's especially important if you have children under two who cannot wear a mask," Marr said. "You can also try to book flights at off hours, later in the evening or very early in the morning, to try and avoid the crowds."
3) Book window seats
Experts suggest booking window seats for children (or adults) who are not vaccinated, partly due to the air vents along the inside panels of most planes.
"We think that the seat with the lowest risk is the window seat, as air circulation patterns may be better for the window seat," Marr said.
"That's where you've got fresh air pumping up, so most of the airflow is happening at a window," said Nelson.
Another additional benefit: "You don't have people passing by you in the aisle," Marr said.
4) Wear well-fitting, high quality filtration masks
Invest in a high-quality mask for travel, one that will trap around 95% of virus-size particles when fitted to the face properly, experts say.
"I certainly would recommend for travelers, including children, to all wear high-quality masks — ideally a N95 or KN95 or KF94," Wen said. "And there are a variety of sizes for these high-quality types of masks too, so you can get a good fit."
Fit is critical, Marr said, as is comfort. Look for a mask that fits each unique face and is comfortable enough that you or your child can wear it for hours, Marr said.
"If when you exhale you feel air leaking up past your eyes or leaking out of the sides, you'll know it's not a good fit," Marr said, adding that it's best to shop early "because you'll have to try a lot of different masks to see what's going to fit you best."
5) Arrive early
Don't expect to breeze through the airport. It takes more time to social distance during baggage drop off and security checks — if that's even possible. And the opening of the U.S. borders to international travelers, while good news for the American economy, may mean even more delays.
"It's really good news, and only vaccinated people can travel to the U.S. However, this influx brings travelers with more documents that have to be checked, which may indeed slow things down further," Nelson said.
"Plan to come an extra hour earlier than you normally would, to give yourself plenty of time so that you're not feeling the stress of not getting through the process and being to your flight on time."
6) Be prepared for security
Savvy travelers know how to minimize the time they spend in security. That includes having no loose change, no belts and no shoes with ties. Seasoned travelers take off watches and store overcoats or jackets in advance — and have their laptop and carry-on toiletries ready to pull out and place into the bins.
But even experienced travelers seem to have forgotten how to fly over this long, dry travel spell, Nelson said: "I see people who used to be frequent travelers, now coming back for the first time in a long time and every single person's bag was getting put off to the side because they had something in it that was a prohibited item, like a water bottle.
"It's like everyone just forgot how to travel! So that creates even more chaos," she said.
Each airline has links to a list of prohibited items on their website, Nelson added, "and it's a good idea to review those before you pack."
7) Delay your meal
Because federal guidelines require masks to be worn at all times, except when eating or drinking "for brief periods," Nelson recommends replacing the mask whenever you pause eating.
"If you're actively eating, taking bite after bite, we're not going to say that you have to lower and raise your mask every single time," Nelson said. "But if you are taking a bite of a sandwich, putting it down, looking at your phone, are taking a moment, then the idea is that you raise your mask while you're chewing until you're ready to take the next bite."
You can also protect yourself by eating when everyone else is masked, Marr suggested.
"When they come around and serve drinks and snacks, I'll take it but I don't eat them right away because that's when everyone else has their masks off," she said. "I wait to eat until people are done with their meals and have put their masks back on."
8) Stay in your seat if you can
Getting up and moving around puts you closer to others on the plane, who may or may not be vaccinated or following mask guidance. While the risk of COVID-19 from such exposures may be small, there are other concerns.
The airline industry has seen an explosion of unruly passenger incidents in 2021, including a recent case in which a female flight attendant was punched in the nose. While not all of those altercations have been due to masks, a good number have been, Nelson said.
"It may not just be COVID that is a risk," Nelson said. "It could be an outright brawl, and you could get smacked by someone who's flailing about."
Flight attendants suggest remaining in your seat if such an incident occurs.
"We are trained in deescalation, and also in how to direct other people to help," she said. "So unless there's an immediate threat of people getting hurt, we really advise passengers not to take action on their own because they may inadvertently make the situation worse."