Thanksgiving, like so much else in 2020, won't be quite the same for many American families.

Turkey Day will look different this year for many Americans because of the pervasive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Three in 5 U.S. adults who had Thanksgiving travel plans (60%) say these plans have been affected by the pandemic, according to a new NerdWallet survey. Just 12% say their plans haven’t been impacted, and another 29% aren’t sure if they will be. And while some are still planning to travel, many are forgoing seeing loved ones in person this year.

In a NerdWallet survey of more than 2,000 Americans conducted online by The Harris Poll, we asked about how the pandemic is impacting 2020 Thanksgiving travel plans, including transportation and lodging.

Key findings

  • COVID-19 affects plans to see loved ones: Among Americans who say their Thanksgiving travel plans have been impacted by the pandemic, 42% say they usually travel with or visit friends and family, but this year they won’t. More than a quarter (28%) say they usually drive somewhere out of town, but they won’t this year.
  • Thanksgiving travelers pivot to shorter, closer trips: Around 1 in 5 Americans (21%) plan to travel out of town for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, but over half of them (52%) say their plans have been affected by COVID-19. More than a quarter of those travelers impacted (26%) say they’ll spend less time away from home than usual, and 25% plan to stay closer to home than in years past.
  • Travelers opt to drive to dinner destinations: Of those who are planning Thanksgiving travel, most (75%) plan to drive for some or all of their journey.
  • Staying with family or friends beats out hotels: Close to 3 in 5 Thanksgiving travelers (57%) plan to stay at the home of a family member or friend during their travel; about a third (31%) plan to stay in a hotel or motel.

Pandemic throws off Thanksgiving plans

Thanksgiving traditions, like everything else, won’t be quite the same in 2020 for many American households. Of U.S. adults who say their travel plans have been impacted by the pandemic, more than 2 in 5 (42%) say they usually travel with or visit their friends and family, but this year they won’t. Close to 3 in 10 Americans (28%) usually drive somewhere out of town but won’t this year, and 13% say the same about flying somewhere for the holiday.

Other Americans’ Thanksgiving plans may be affected by COVID-19, but that impact wasn’t yet certain when surveyed. Close to 1 in 5 Americans (18%) say they aren’t sure if their plans will be impacted by the pandemic.

What you can do: In this year of uncertainty, it may be frustrating to forgo your holiday traditions in order to lower the risk of COVID-19 exposure for you and your loved ones. But as the pandemic intensifies in many parts of the country, the safest choice is avoiding nonessential travel.

“We’re months into this pandemic, and it can feel like we’ve been robbed of so much. But the safest thing we can all do right now is stay home and keep the holiday small,” says NerdWallet travel expert Sara Rathner. “If you’re going to travel, keep your plans flexible in case you need to cancel. Book refundable accommodations if possible, and review airline policies for rescheduling your flight to a future date.”

Parents, millennials more likely to make travel plans

Even among the 21% of Americans who are planning to travel out of town for Thanksgiving, many have had to change tack this year. More than half of Thanksgiving travelers (52%) say their plans have been affected by COVID-19 — some will be spending less time away from home than usual (26%), and some will be driving a personal vehicle to their destination when they usually fly (25%).

Around 1 in 8 Americans (12%) still aren’t sure if they’re traveling out of town for Thanksgiving, but there are definitely trends in who’s planning travel. Namely, millennials (ages 24-39) and parents of minor children are both more likely to be Thanksgiving travelers this year than other groups.

Over a third of parents of children under 18 (36%) say they’re planning out-of-town travel for Thanksgiving. That’s compared with 13% of Americans who don’t have children under 18. Meanwhile, a third of millennials (33%) are planning out-of-town travel for Thanksgiving, compared with 24% of Gen Xers (ages 40-55) and just 8% of baby boomers (ages 56-74).

What travelers can do: If you’re traveling out of town this Thanksgiving, make sure you’re up to date on the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, for safe travel during the pandemic. Also familiarize yourself with any travel restrictions in the state you’re traveling to.

“If you decide to go out of town, be vigilant about taking the recommended precautions, like wearing a mask,” Rathner says. “Check the rules of the state you’re visiting, because it may require out-of-state visitors to isolate upon arrival.”

Most travelers driving to destinations, staying with loved ones

Last year, the Transportation Security Administration screened a record-breaking number of Thanksgiving flyers. But in 2020, driving is the transportation mode of choice.

Many Thanksgiving travelers who usually fly to their destination are hitting the road instead: Of those whose plans were impacted by the pandemic, 25% are driving their car and 22% are renting a car instead of flying. So it’s unsurprising that most Thanksgiving travelers (75%) plan to drive to their destination this year. Just over a quarter of those planning Thanksgiving travel (27%) say they’ll fly. (Travelers were allowed to pick more than one option when answering this question.)

As far as lodging goes, most travelers plan to stay with loved ones. Close to 3 in 5 Thanksgiving travelers (57%) plan to stay at the home of a family member or friend, while almost a third (31%) say they’ll stay in a hotel or motel. More than 1 in 5 Thanksgiving travelers (21%) plan to stay in a vacation rental property, like Airbnb.

What travelers can do: Try to stay flexible when making travel plans this holiday season. While it usually makes sense to book flights and lodging in advance, particularly during the travel-heavy end of the year, 2020 is anything but usual.

“Travel rates are still way down, so that means you can potentially book flights or hotel rooms at lower prices than you’d typically see over Thanksgiving weekend, depending on where you’re going. Still, health and safety are always more important than getting a good deal,” Rathner says. “There’s a reason vacation home rentals, RVs and motels are more popular now — they make it easier to avoid public spaces like hotel lobbies. You may want to alter your travel style to make social distancing easier.”

Methodology

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Oct. 14-16, 2020, among 2,070 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 485 plan to travel out of town for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, contact Brittany Benson at bbenson@nerdwallet.com.

“Thanksgiving travelers” are those who plan to travel out of town for the Thanksgiving holiday, at any point between Nov. 23-30, 2020.

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