COVID-19 Travel Tips: How to Stay Safe in Airports and on Planes

Man going through airport with duffel bag
Man going through airport with duffel bagJim Arnot/Unsplash

We could all use COVID-19 travel tips. The country is slowly reopening (finally!), which means people who’ve been stuck in their houses for the last few months are itching to get out and travel again—even if that just means booking a flight to see family. With COVID-19 numbers still rising in certain cities, though, social distancing measures are firmly in place and travel companies—from rideshares to airlines—are continuing to up their sanitization protocol. And for good reason: 72 percent of travelers say health and safety are their top priority when deciding where and when to travel during and after COVID-19, according to a recent survey by Travelocity.

It can feel almost impossible to follow social distancing guidelines while flying, but you can still limit your exposure to other people. And a lot of it comes down to using common sense. Nex time you head to the airport, make sure you keep these tips from public health and infectious disease experts in mind.

Experts Answer the Most Common Questions About Travel in the Age of COVID-19

Experts Answer the Most Common Questions About Travel in the Age of COVID-19

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COVID-19 Travel Tips: How to Stay Safe When Flying

1. Get Someone to Drop You off at the Airport

“The safest transportation option is having someone you live with take you to the airport,” says Davidson Hamer, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor of Global Health and Medicine at the Boston University Schools of Public Health and Medicine and lead medical expert on Xenophon Strategies’ COVID-19 Crisis Response Team. If you have to take a rideshare, avoid carpooling options. And if you have to take public transportation, “sit in the back seat in larger vehicles, such as vans or buses, and ask the driver to open windows or put the air conditioning on non-recirculation mode—which pulls in fresh air from outside instead of recirculating potentially contaminated air—especially if they aren’t wearing a mask,” says Hamer.

2. Don’t Touch Anything You Don’t Have To

The nice thing about living in the digital age is that a lot of aspects of travel are already contactless, from check-in to payments. But “try to limit contact with frequently touched surfaces—such as kiosks, touchscreens and fingerprint scanners, ticket machines, turnstiles, handrails, restroom surfaces, elevator buttons, and benches as much as possible,” says Hamer. If touching these surfaces is unavoidable, use hand sanitizer as soon as possible afterward (TSA is currently allowing people to carry on a 12-ounce bottle instead of a measly 3.4 ounces.)

3. Choose Your Seat Wisely

“Try to avoid sitting next to someone in the plane,” says Hamer. “If your seat assignment is next to someone, ask the flight attendant if moving to another seat is possible.” Hopefully, flight attendants are being more flexible about seat changes given social distancing rules. If you have the choice, opt for the window over the aisle (no one wanted a middle seat before COVID-19, and that still stands). “Some people feel that a window seat is safer because there is less likelihood of air moving to you from others in the aisle, like flight attendants or passengers walking to and from the lavatory,” says Hamer. Most airlines are only seating people in window and aisle seats, leaving the middle rows empty, which helps mitigate this problem.

4. Yes, You Should Sanitize the Seat

Airlines should be taking extra sanitizing precautions, but play it extra safe by carrying antibacterial wipes with you (FYI: They’re approved by TSA). A recent review of the scientific literature found that coronaviruses can survive on surfaces for anywhere from two hours to nine days, so, when you get to your seat, “wipe down the armrests, the seat back, the seatbelts, the tray, even the air vents and light buttons—everything you’re going to put your hands on during a flight,” says Robert Amler, M.D., Dean of School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College and a former Chief Medical Officer of the CDC. Keep them on-hand, because if you get up for any reason and touch someone else’s seat, the bathroom door, or the water tray, you should clean off your hands before touching anything back at your seat.

5. Skip the Gloves

You may think you’re being proactive by covering your hands, but the issue with gloves is the same as with unwashed hands: “If you touch a surface with the glove, then touch your face with that same hand, you’ve now defeated the purpose of wearing them,” says Amler. And the longer you wear the gloves, the more likely they are to be contaminated. “Every time you touch a surface, clean your hands before touching your face or anything you own. “Soap with water is still the best, says Amler. If you have to use hand sanitizer, opt for an “alcohol-based one that has at least 60 percent alcohol,” says Hamer. Those are the only ones that have been shown to be effective in killing COVID-19 germs.

6. Keep Your Mask On

Whether or not airlines are enforcing the use of masks is still up in the air. New research shows that wearing a face covering reduces the risk of transmitting the virus to just 3.1 percent. Wear yours proudly from terminal to terminal. “Your seat may feel like a private space, but it’s really not—you’re sharing the air with the travelers around you,” says Amler. And in crowded terminals, the risk of exposure goes up, he adds. “You should remove a face covering only to drink or eat, and preferably when those near you are wearing their masks,” says Hamer.

7. Avoid Eating if You Can

Obviously, this won’t work for a long-haul flight, but try to limit how often you take your face mask off to drink and eat. The more often your mask is off, the higher your risk to exposure is, says Amler. Not only do you breathe in the droplets of the virus in the air, but your food can collect those droplets and when you take a bite, they’re going directly into your mouth, which can increase your exposure further. “Use common sense,” says Almer. “If you’re hungry, eat; but if you want to snack simply out of boredom, try to ignore that urge.” FYI: Some airlines have actually reduced or suspended their food and beverage services to avoid transmission of the virus.

8. Limit Your Bathroom Visits

If you can avoid the bathroom, too, that’s probably for the best. It’s one of the higher-risk places on a plane because not only are you in an enclosed space, but you’re in an enclosed space that sees a lot of foot traffic. “You should always wear a face covering in the lavatory and turn away from the toilet when flushing,” says Hamer. Flushing a toilet spews virus-laden aerosol droplets as high as three feet in the air, where it can linger for up to a minute, reports a recent study published in the journal Physics of Fluids.

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