Whenever you travel, even prior to the coronavirus, you run the risk of encountering new infections. Right now, that risk is heightened since there’s active transmission of COVID-19 in every state of Mexico, as well as most countries around the world. It’s far from ideal to travel during a pandemic. Doctors aren’t going to give you the green light to do it, and neither are any of the world’s leading health organizations.
But wanderlust and obligations can exert powerful lures. If you’ve really got to go somewhere now—to check in on distant family, to attend an important (socially distanced) event, or just to spring yourself and your stir-crazy kids from the house—there are ways to decrease your risks while taking a trip. Whether you’re setting off by plane or car, here’s what you should focus on.
Here are some of the top considerations
First things first: you need to determine who should travel, and if the trip is even necessary. The World Health Organization provides detailed advice on “essential travel;” it lists those who should postpone or cancel trips including older travelers and those with chronic illnesses, underlying health conditions, and confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control’s Considerations for Travelers—Coronavirus in the U.S. page states: “Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. People at higher risk for severe illness need to take extra precautions.”
The pros and cons of air travel
Risk of contracting the virus when traveling by air starts at the airport. Air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces. Once on board the plane, social distancing could be difficult, depending on the airline’s policy. On crowded flights, where you might have to sit within less than six feet for hours, your chances for risk of exposure could go up (Centers for Disease Control, 2020).
But there’s also good news. Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily through the air on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes (Centers for Disease Control, 2020). That’s because the majority of aircraft in airline fleets have high-grade HEPA filters (high-efficiency particulate air) that can remove up to 99.999 percent of airborne particles. This provides extremely effective, but not perfect, protection against airborne viruses. Close contact between those on board in the aisles or while boarding—especially if some fliers aren’t wearing masks—can mean exposure to the virus when passengers exhale.
Compounding these concerns is that many countries have failed to mandate any regulations for commercial air travel; instead, they provide unenforceable suggestions. The nation’s airports, airlines, and passengers are left with a patchwork of different, and ineffective opt-in rules. Consider how you get to and from the airport, as public transportation and ride-sharing can increase your chances of being exposed to the virus.
The pros and cons of bus or train travel
Trains and buses offer health advantages that airlines can’t. Many stations are outdoors, there are fewer bottlenecks for check-in, and no security screening. Even so, traveling on buses and trains for any length of time can involve sitting or standing within six feet of others, riding with those without masks, and being in confined spaces without proper ventilation all of which may increase your risk of getting COVID-19.
The pros and cons of car travel
When it comes to driving, the obvious advantage is that you can control who gets into the vehicle with you and where you stop and go. The risk? If it’s a rental car, you should consider how it was cleaned and who was in it before you. In either your own car or a rental, making stops along the way for gas, food, or bathroom breaks can put you and your traveling companions in close contact with other people and frequently-touched surfaces (Centers for Disease Control, 2020). That said, your own car can provide much more protection than public forms of transportation, assuming you are traveling with family members or others who have been screened or vetted.
Tips to avoid getting and spreading COVID-19 in common travel situations
- Wear a quality mask in public settings.
- Stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) from anyone who is not from your household.
- At bathrooms and rest stops, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom and after you have been in a public place. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.
- Use disinfecting wipes (if available) on handles and buttons at the gas pumps before you touch them.
- After fueling, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. When you get to your destination, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
Hotels and Accommodations
- Check the hotel’s COVID-19 prevention practices before you go and ensure all staff are wearing masks.
- Use options for online reservation and check-in, mobile room key, and contact-free payment.
- Look for any extra prevention practices being implemented by the hotel, such as plexiglass barriers at check-in counters, and physical distancing signs in the lobby.
- Ask if the hotel has updated policies about cleaning and disinfecting or removing frequently touched surfaces and items (such as pens, room keys, tables, phones, doorknobs, light switches, elevator buttons, water fountains, ATMs/card payment stations, business center computers and printers, ice/vending machines, and remote controls).
- If you are considering cleaning your travel lodgings, see CDC’s guidance on how to clean and disinfect.
- The safest option is to bring your own food. If you don’t bring your own food, use drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curb-side pick-up options.
Other tips to consider
- If you’re traveling on any form of public transportation, the earliest departures of the day are best, since airplanes, trains, and buses are more likely to be heavily disinfected overnight.
- Carry extra masks/face coverings, disinfectant wipes, and hand sanitizer (with at least 60 percent alcohol).
- On an airplane or train, wipe down your immediate area, including armrests, seat backs, tray tables, seat belts, air vents, window shades, light controls, etc.
- In a rental car, wipe down “touch points” such as steering wheel, gear shift, door/window/seat handles and controls, seat belts, mirrors, radio and control knobs, visors, etc.
If your trip is essential and if you’re committed to social distancing and mask-wearing, it’s possible to mitigate (but not eliminate) COVID-19 risks during travel. The safest trips are ones where you avoid other people as much as possible.