How to make the most of your family holiday this year

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For families that have been stuck at home for the better part of the year, a holiday season without a holiday trip wasn’t on the wish list.

Holiday trips during the coronavirus pandemic come with precautions like mask wearing. Many families are evaluating risks and deciding not to travel at all this season.

On the heels of post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 surges, the CDC has renewed its advice against unnecessary travel and gatherings—meaning that, for many, holiday trips to islands and ski slopes will be on hold.

Making a travel wish list, perhaps one that includes a visit to Canyonlands National Park in Utah, can help families weather pandemic lockdowns.

But that doesn’t mean global adventures are off limits. To experts who research the emotional well-being of families, opportunity and a sense of optimism are the best gifts a parent can give this holiday season.

“While we can’t always control our situation, we can always control our attitude about our situation,” says family counselor Alyson Schafer. “The best thing a parent can do is set a tone of positivity. Optimism is contagious. It tells kids that happiness comes more from within and less from external circumstances.”

Seeking out online vendors who partner with local retailers, such as spice sellers in Marrakech, can help tourism-dependent businesses.

(How to keep kids engaged over the holiday break.)

Where do you find that optimism? Just reach into your dusty backpack and pull out some of your travel tricks. Here are secrets from the travel world that will help you navigate the holidays.

Make optimistic travel resolutions

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will present Testament for online audiences this month.

Not only should we think positively, experts say we must. Studies suggest Americans’ happiness levels are at their lowest point in 50 years.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of Your Turn: How to Be an Adult, says that helping young people find the light at the end of the tunnel is important: “It’s vital to face the feelings that are bringing us down, and equally vital to try to look ahead and reframe them. The days are lengthening. A vaccine is coming. The economy will improve. Our ancestors survived far worse than this. We, too, shall make it through.”

Samantha Brown, host of PBS travel show Places to Love, plans to make travel resolutions and suspects she won’t be the only one. “[This] will be the year everyone puts travel as a priority. We have missed it—not just travel itself, but the memories travel creates,” says Brown. “I forget all weight resolutions by February; no one is going to lose sight of travel.” With the Let’s Go There initiative, the U.S. tourism industry is working hard to support a safe return to travel.

When planning future travel, book early (especially for popular spots such as national parks and RV sites), pay attention to cancellation/rebooking policies, and investigate destination health regulations (and how rule breakers are handled). And look for booking options that are flexible, such as Dateless 1st Departures vouchers that allow you to pay now and go when you’re ready.

Adhering to social distancing guidelines, hand washing, and getting a series of coronavirus tests—like this woman in New Orleans—can minimize risk if travel is essential over the holidays.

Be intentional about who you support when you travel (smaller operations will need your help) and don’t hesitate to use a travel advisor. “Professionals, who have kept up with all the heavy navigating through this pandemic, will be able to help you decide the best place to go and be your advocate if or when things change,” says Brown.

  • Slide 1 of 18: Young eagle hunters prepare to compete in the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ölgii, Mongolia. “While I will always be an outsider, coming back to a place often has felt the most satisfying way to travel for me, instead of seeing a new country all the time,” says photographer Hannah Reyes Morales. “Coming back again and again has meant that I can make deeper connections and [have] more understanding.” (Related: Learn about life among Mongolia’s nomadic herders.)

  • Slide 2 of 18: “My first trip to the desert was with a group of Saudis that I’d never met before. Although I’m a local to the country with the second largest desert in the world, I never actually spent a whole night in the desert before,” says photographer Tasneem Alsultan. “A friend suggested that I hang out with a group of his friends and sit by a fire and just enjoy the stars and nature. I loved every minute.” (Related: How Saudi Arabia has changed over time.)

  • Slide 3 of 18: “On the surface, Fiordland is a shadowy, Lord of the Rings–like landscape with rugged mountains and tranquil fjords. Underwater is like visiting alien worlds,” says photographer Brian Skerry. “The freshwater rivers flowing into the sea here are stained with tannins, which create a permanent, dark layer that sits on top of the seawater, blocking out much of the sunlight from reaching below. Exploring here was like swimming through the pages of a storybook, with exquisite creatures and dreamlike seascapes on every dive.” (Related: New Zealand has ‘effectively eliminated’ coronavirus. Here’s what they did right.)

  • Slide 4 of 18: An Inupiat hunter patiently waits on the edge of the ice in Utqiagvik, Alaska for a whale—a custom that’s at least 1,000 years old. Photographer Kiliii Yüyan is a descendant of the Hezhe (Nanai in Russian) hunters and fishermen of northern China and southeast Siberia. Over five years, Yüyan spent a total of 10 months camping a crew on the sea ice to watch for whales. “I started this project searching for the feeling of community I lost when my family was displaced from its homeland,” says Yüyan. “I left it with an invisible Inupiat sensibility deeply embedded, and a new community to call my home.” (Related: Meet the bowhead whale hunters of northern Alaska.)

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  • Slide 5 of 18: Photographer Camilla Ferrari captures her sister walking along the main street in the trendy Sanlitun neighborhood in Beijing, China. “I remember meditating on the stillness of the lake waters of Houhai and being mesmerized and confused by the rhythm of people walking and running in the streets and subways,” says Ferrari. “I remember the sounds of a language I didn’t understand and my failed attempts to decode the gestures. That feeling is something that I yearn to deepen as soon as we [are] able to travel again.”

  • Slide 6 of 18: Yaks crest a ridge in the valley of Chu-tang in Dolpo, Nepal. “The villages and monasteries in this remote region seemed timeless,” says photographer Beth Wald. “Buddhist shrines and massive piles of carved mani or prayer stones—often fluttering with prayer flags strung above—line the entrance to most villages, so that the entire landscape seemed to resonate with sacred meaning.”

  • Slide 7 of 18: Traditionally dressed tiliche (men dressed in junk) escort the queen of Carnaval Putleco through the streets of Putla to welcome the festival season. “In Mexico, there is always a good reason to get together and celebrate,” says Luján Agusti. (Related: Here are five spectacular places to celebrate Carnival.)

  • Slide 8 of 18: A double rainbow shines over Mount Tantalus near Honolulu, Hawaii. “My brother is a pilot in the Air Force and was stationed in Hawaii for several years. He met his wife there, and on the year anniversary of meeting her, he planned an elaborate proposal. After my now sister-in-law said yes, her parents, who my brother had flown in from New York, walked up and surprised her and both of our families got to celebrate together,” recounts photographer Maddie McGarvey. “My dad passed away earlier this year, and this memory of pure happiness experienced by my family will always be so special to me.” (Related: This Hawaiian national park was once an isolated quarantine zone.)

  • Slide 9 of 18: Hohensalzburg Fortress, the largest fully preserved castle in central Europe, offers a 360-degree view of the Salzburg. “Since the pandemic, my partner and I hadn’t seen each other for over six months. When Germany allowed couples to visit, we were able to see each other, and during this time, we drove to Austria,” says photographer Ester Ruth Mbabazi. “[We were] stopped in Salzburg because of the COVID-19 restrictions, but we wished to go to Vienna.” (Related: 25 epic castles where you can spend the night.)

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  • Slide 10 of 18: “This is a place charged with the art spirit—haunted, suspended in time,” says photographer Lynn Johnson. “The way the light moves in the landscape and radiates from the walls to the vaulted ceiling keeps these spaces alive.” Today, Saint Paul de Mausole Monastery—the inspiration of Vincent van Gogh’s collection of paintings of Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy—is still a sanctuary, a creative space for women struggling with mental health challenges. “Their paintings vibrate with meaning known only to them and are as addictive as the light that inhabits this realm in southern France,” says Johnson.

  • Slide 11 of 18: Lahaji Lasiddiq works as a nutmeg farmer on Ay Island, one of the 11 isles making up the Banda archipelago in Indonesia. Banda Islands is part of what was historically known as the Spice Islands, and the place where nutmeg originated. “Getting there is not easy but always remarkably enjoyable,” says photographer Muhammad Fadli. “A friend of mine once said, ‘it’s a quiet place with a busy history.’”

  • Slide 12 of 18: Established as a national park in 1978, Badlands National Park in South Dakota offers spectacular views of red and orange rock formations jutting from the earth. “After driving 1,695 miles from New York City, I arrived in Badlands National Park,” says photographer Ismail Ferdous. “Camping there was an unforgettable moment of my life. America is beautiful!” (Discover how this writer found inspiration for the poem ‘America the Beautiful.’)

  • Slide 13 of 18: Amalia Suarez of Fort Lauderdale comforts her disappointed 18-month-old daughter, Aliah, at Delray Beach, Florida, after rough water conditions prevented them from enjoying a dip in the sea. “Somehow the magic of the sea is lost for me when there are people,” says photographer Maggie Steber. “We can’t hear the rush of the waves nor have a personal exchange with the womb of the Earth. But in my exploration, I rediscovered [places] that stretched out along the Atlantic I had not fully explored in my 20 years of living in Miami.” (Related: Soak up the sun at 20 of the world’s best beaches.)

  • Slide 14 of 18: Ceferino González and his son Licho take a moment of rest on their hike through the Sierra Madre Occidental, a massive system of mountain ranges that runs down the west coast of Mexico. “I really miss traveling to remote areas of my country and getting to know the people and their stories, their traditions, and their way of life,” says photographer César Rodríguez.

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  • Slide 15 of 18: A young girl sits by the fountain in Plaza Altamira during Venezeula’s Carnival. “I think back to this afternoon often, missing my community there, missing the afternoon light in Caracas, missing these last days of walking and breathing through crowds of people, without fear or thought of contagion,” says photographer Natalie Keyssar. “A couple of weeks after I took this photo, I flew home to the U.S. to be close to my family during the pandemic, but when I imagine life after the pandemic, I know the first place I’ll go back to is Caracas.”

  • Slide 16 of 18: Nestled in the Hindu Kush mountain range, Band-e-Amir is Afghanistan’s first national park. Its cerulean lakes, separated by natural dams made of travertine deposits, are a geological rarity, and the waters attract hundreds of thousands of Afghans from provinces across the country each year. “Afghans believe the [park’s] water is holy,” says photographer Newsha Tavakolian. “I saw a distressed soldier brought to the lake by his family; they put a rope around him and pushed him into the lake. The water would cure him, they said. I asked a woman to push me in. It was the coldest water ever.”

  • Slide 17 of 18: A commuter catches a breeze in the women-only car in Mumbai, India. “There is so much life and color in the streets [of Mumbai]—the population of that one city is nearly the same as my entire home country [Canada], and the energy of the city is contagious,” says photographer Amber Bracken.

  • Slide 18 of 18: Photographer Daniella Zalcman captures one of her cousins pruning his forest of bonsai trees on the roof of his home in Ho Chi Minh City. “I can't wait for life after the pandemic,” says Zalcman, “when I can return and explore Ho Chi Minh City, which in some districts is nearly unrecognizable to me now, and spend more time with my little cousins, who have somehow turned into full-grown adults.” (Related: See mesmerizing photos of Vietnam from above.)

Young eagle hunters prepare to compete in the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ölgii, Mongolia. “While I will always be an outsider, coming back to a place often has felt the most satisfying way to travel for me, instead of seeing a new country all the time,” says photographer Hannah Reyes Morales. “Coming back again and again has meant that I can make deeper connections and [have] more understanding.” (Related: Learn about life among Mongolia’s nomadic herders.)

“My first trip to the desert was with a group of Saudis that I’d never met before. Although I’m a local to the country with the second largest desert in the world, I never actually spent a whole night in the desert before,” says photographer Tasneem Alsultan. “A friend suggested that I hang out with a group of his friends and sit by a fire and just enjoy the stars and nature. I loved every minute.” (Related: How Saudi Arabia has changed over time.)

“On the surface, Fiordland is a shadowy, Lord of the Rings–like landscape with rugged mountains and tranquil fjords. Underwater is like visiting alien worlds,” says photographer Brian Skerry. “The freshwater rivers flowing into the sea here are stained with tannins, which create a permanent, dark layer that sits on top of the seawater, blocking out much of the sunlight from reaching below. Exploring here was like swimming through the pages of a storybook, with exquisite creatures and dreamlike seascapes on every dive.” (Related: New Zealand has ‘effectively eliminated’ coronavirus. Here’s what they did right.)

An Inupiat hunter patiently waits on the edge of the ice in Utqiagvik, Alaska for a whale—a custom that’s at least 1,000 years old. Photographer Kiliii Yüyan is a descendant of the Hezhe (Nanai in Russian) hunters and fishermen of northern China and southeast Siberia. Over five years, Yüyan spent a total of 10 months camping a crew on the sea ice to watch for whales. “I started this project searching for the feeling of community I lost when my family was displaced from its homeland,” says Yüyan. “I left it with an invisible Inupiat sensibility deeply embedded, and a new community to call my home.” (Related: Meet the bowhead whale hunters of northern Alaska.)

Photographer Camilla Ferrari captures her sister walking along the main street in the trendy Sanlitun neighborhood in Beijing, China. “I remember meditating on the stillness of the lake waters of Houhai and being mesmerized and confused by the rhythm of people walking and running in the streets and subways,” says Ferrari. “I remember the sounds of a language I didn’t understand and my failed attempts to decode the gestures. That feeling is something that I yearn to deepen as soon as we [are] able to travel again.”

Yaks crest a ridge in the valley of Chu-tang in Dolpo, Nepal. “The villages and monasteries in this remote region seemed timeless,” says photographer Beth Wald. “Buddhist shrines and massive piles of carved mani or prayer stones—often fluttering with prayer flags strung above—line the entrance to most villages, so that the entire landscape seemed to resonate with sacred meaning.”

Traditionally dressed tiliche (men dressed in junk) escort the queen of Carnaval Putleco through the streets of Putla to welcome the festival season. “In Mexico, there is always a good reason to get together and celebrate,” says Luján Agusti. (Related: Here are five spectacular places to celebrate Carnival.)

A double rainbow shines over Mount Tantalus near Honolulu, Hawaii. “My brother is a pilot in the Air Force and was stationed in Hawaii for several years. He met his wife there, and on the year anniversary of meeting her, he planned an elaborate proposal. After my now sister-in-law said yes, her parents, who my brother had flown in from New York, walked up and surprised her and both of our families got to celebrate together,” recounts photographer Maddie McGarvey. “My dad passed away earlier this year, and this memory of pure happiness experienced by my family will always be so special to me.” (Related: This Hawaiian national park was once an isolated quarantine zone.)

Hohensalzburg Fortress, the largest fully preserved castle in central Europe, offers a 360-degree view of the Salzburg. “Since the pandemic, my partner and I hadn’t seen each other for over six months. When Germany allowed couples to visit, we were able to see each other, and during this time, we drove to Austria,” says photographer Ester Ruth Mbabazi. “[We were] stopped in Salzburg because of the COVID-19 restrictions, but we wished to go to Vienna.” (Related: 25 epic castles where you can spend the night.)

“This is a place charged with the art spirit—haunted, suspended in time,” says photographer Lynn Johnson. “The way the light moves in the landscape and radiates from the walls to the vaulted ceiling keeps these spaces alive.” Today, Saint Paul de Mausole Monastery—the inspiration of Vincent van Gogh’s collection of paintings of Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy—is still a sanctuary, a creative space for women struggling with mental health challenges. “Their paintings vibrate with meaning known only to them and are as addictive as the light that inhabits this realm in southern France,” says Johnson.

Lahaji Lasiddiq works as a nutmeg farmer on Ay Island, one of the 11 isles making up the Banda archipelago in Indonesia. Banda Islands is part of what was historically known as the Spice Islands, and the place where nutmeg originated. “Getting there is not easy but always remarkably enjoyable,” says photographer Muhammad Fadli. “A friend of mine once said, ‘it’s a quiet place with a busy history.’”

Established as a national park in 1978, Badlands National Park in South Dakota offers spectacular views of red and orange rock formations jutting from the earth. “After driving 1,695 miles from New York City, I arrived in Badlands National Park,” says photographer Ismail Ferdous. “Camping there was an unforgettable moment of my life. America is beautiful!” (Discover how this writer found inspiration for the poem ‘America the Beautiful.’)

Amalia Suarez of Fort Lauderdale comforts her disappointed 18-month-old daughter, Aliah, at Delray Beach, Florida, after rough water conditions prevented them from enjoying a dip in the sea. “Somehow the magic of the sea is lost for me when there are people,” says photographer Maggie Steber. “We can’t hear the rush of the waves nor have a personal exchange with the womb of the Earth. But in my exploration, I rediscovered [places] that stretched out along the Atlantic I had not fully explored in my 20 years of living in Miami.” (Related: Soak up the sun at 20 of the world’s best beaches.)

Ceferino González and his son Licho take a moment of rest on their hike through the Sierra Madre Occidental, a massive system of mountain ranges that runs down the west coast of Mexico. “I really miss traveling to remote areas of my country and getting to know the people and their stories, their traditions, and their way of life,” says photographer César Rodríguez.

A young girl sits by the fountain in Plaza Altamira during Venezeula’s Carnival. “I think back to this afternoon often, missing my community there, missing the afternoon light in Caracas, missing these last days of walking and breathing through crowds of people, without fear or thought of contagion,” says photographer Natalie Keyssar. “A couple of weeks after I took this photo, I flew home to the U.S. to be close to my family during the pandemic, but when I imagine life after the pandemic, I know the first place I’ll go back to is Caracas.”

Nestled in the Hindu Kush mountain range, Band-e-Amir is Afghanistan’s first national park. Its cerulean lakes, separated by natural dams made of travertine deposits, are a geological rarity, and the waters attract hundreds of thousands of Afghans from provinces across the country each year. “Afghans believe the [park’s] water is holy,” says photographer Newsha Tavakolian. “I saw a distressed soldier brought to the lake by his family; they put a rope around him and pushed him into the lake. The water would cure him, they said. I asked a woman to push me in. It was the coldest water ever.”

A commuter catches a breeze in the women-only car in Mumbai, India. “There is so much life and color in the streets [of Mumbai]—the population of that one city is nearly the same as my entire home country [Canada], and the energy of the city is contagious,” says photographer Amber Bracken.

Photographer Daniella Zalcman captures one of her cousins pruning his forest of bonsai trees on the roof of his home in Ho Chi Minh City. “I can’t wait for life after the pandemic,” says Zalcman, “when I can return and explore Ho Chi Minh City, which in some districts is nearly unrecognizable to me now, and spend more time with my little cousins, who have somehow turned into full-grown adults.” (Related: See mesmerizing photos of Vietnam from above.)

See the world from home

Even if you can’t show your family the world, you can still instill them with a sense of adventure and wonder. While virtual tours are popular, they often fail to support the destination’s vendors, who depend on tourism dollars. This year consider purchasing items through LocalPurse.com, a partnership with Intrepid Travel, which allows you to buy directly from guides, artisans, and local merchants in places like Marrakech (spices, skincare products, and Berber rugs).

The organization also leads private virtual tours with introductions to the merchants that give you a sense of the destination before you buy. All money earned goes directly to the NGOs, local guides, and artisans involved, and to AlNour, a social enterprise that offers artisan skills-training programs and childcare for disabled women.

You can also trot the globe in your own neighborhood. Support family-owned local restaurants highlighting places you’ve visited or hope to in the future, or connect via postcards with people around the world (teachers can sign up to have entire classrooms be penpals). Or view animals online at international conservation centers.

Gifts for now or later can inspire future trips. Children’s travel book series, such as The Great Canadian Adventure or The Amazing Adventures of Aya and Pete, combine geography and history. Keep the curiosity going with a travel subscription box: Little Passports offers age-specific games and activities. Eat2explore teaches kids how to cook the cuisines of the world, and Jurneazee Trip Activity Packs supply internationally inspired boredom busters perfect for road trip travel or a quiet morning at home. Get dreaming yourself with a travel-centric book subscription from The Wordy Traveler, or java drop-offs from the Atlas Coffee Club.

Keep family holiday traditions

“Examine what you’ve always done; whatever you can still do, do. Constancy, stability, and even tokens from the past are extra important this year,” says Lythcott-Haims. “So really lean into it. For the stuff you simply can’t do, see if you can figure out how to adapt it for the pandemic.”

(Kids need holiday traditions—no matter how untraditional this year is.)

At Hanukkah this year, Lythcott-Haims opted to set up a menorah and dine on the front porch of two family members quarantined inside. To make it more festive, they placed groups of large, white candles all around. “It really was a festival of lights,” she says.

Schaefer also believes this is an ideal opportunity to foster charity in children. “Reaching out to others in need also helps us appreciate our common humanity,” she says. “Taking time to reflect on the positives and to focus on the gratitude for what we have, or what has been good in our lives, takes the focus away from the many negatives.” While you may not be able to help sort inside the food bank this year, the need remains great. Encourage your family to shop for the food bank or organize a food drive with porch pick-up in your neighborhood instead.

If your family usually made a trip to see The Nutcracker, you can still get your dance fix by tuning into Alvin Ailey at home. The Radio City Rockettes performances are canceled, but you can learn a few of their moves yourself via their high-kicking Instagram workouts.

Another option: Consider embracing a quieter holiday at home. “We’re being compelled to enjoy quality time with our immediate families, focused on very simple pleasures like playing board games, watching holiday classics, and staying in pajamas all day,” says parenting columnist Brandie Weikle. “Normally we’re time-starved people. This winter we may get a chance to rest, something we dearly need after a difficult year.”

Connect from afar

Cookie exchanges might not happen in person, but you can still package the treats up for porch drop-offs. Similarly, festively decorated neighborhoods and holiday light shows can still be appreciated from the warmth of your car during a multi-family caravan.

Internet connectivity means you can organize a judged-on-Zoom gingerbread house competition, book an online AirBnB Experience, or set up a movie-sharing streaming site so that everyone can watch a classic at the same time.

But don’t underestimate video-chat fatigue as the end of year approaches—or how frustrating it may prove for less savvy computer users on the call. Lythcott-Haims suggests going old-school with personal greeting cards instead.

“Whether you make or buy them, take some time to craft three or four paragraphs for each person you would normally see in person. Your thoughtful updates and inquiries will let them know that they matter to you. There are few gifts greater than that.”

Stay safer, if you must travel

For some, travel will be either the choice they make or the situation they can’t avoid. There is no way to make travel entirely safe, but there are things you can do to reduce the risk to you, your loved ones, and the public at large. The methods and maxims we’re now used to—wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance, get outdoors—remain a big part of a safe holiday season.

(Here are 10 ways families can minimize holiday travel risk.)

In addition, National Geographic science editor Nsikan Akpan suggests using a scientist- recommended approach that involves a “a combination of testing, isolating, and extra precaution.” Two weeks of quarantine before you set out and planning for a series of three tests over a two-week period are a few of his suggestions. You’ll also want to understand the virus rates in the places you’re leaving, going to, and traveling through.

Drive rather than fly, overnight in a separate dwelling than your relatives, and extend your stay. Worried about the kids’ schooling? Many hotels now offer digital concierges to help with remote schooling as well as “work from away” concerns. Also, be prepared to change plans if the public health situation or regulations change.

The goal, after all, isn’t just for everyone to enjoy this holiday season, but many more to come.

Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based travel writer and National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram.

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