After being cooped up for so long, you probably can’t wait to feed that travel bug. But as you make plans to hit the sky or the road, you’ll want to factor in how the spread of COVID-19 could affect your itinerary, especially now that the delta variant is surging across the country.
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Traveling during a pandemic requires a more detailed and cautious approach than before, but it can be done while minimizing risks to you. We spoke with pulmonary and critical care physician Joseph Khabbaza, MD, about how to approach travel right now. Keep reading to find out what he has to say and to discover tips that can help you stay safe whether you’re in the car, on a plane, in a cabin or at a hotel.
Things to consider when planning your trip
As you’re planning your trip, it’s good to be mindful of every possible scenario you could encounter. By taking a proactive approach, you can help keep yourself and those traveling with you safe.
Here are a few questions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to consider as you’re creating your itinerary.
- Is COVID-19 spreading where you’re headed?
- Is COVID-19 spreading in your community?
- Will you or the people who you are traveling with be within six feet of others during or after your trip?
- Are the people who are traveling with you at high risk for COVID-19?
- Do you live with someone who is at high risk?
- Will the state or local government where you live or at your destination require you to stay home for 14 days after traveling?
- If you get sick with COVID-19, will you have to miss work or other obligations?
“As long as we apply our everyday precautions to our travels, the risks can be minimized significantly,” Dr. Khabbaza says. “We can do this by maintaining distance and wearing a mask around those who are outside of our small circles, keeping our hands sanitized and not touching our eyes, nose, or mouth if our hands are not clean. Being in environments where mask compliance is strong is also important in minimizing risk and keeping occurrences of COVID-19 transmission low.”
How to protect yourself from COVID-19 while traveling in the car
Considering our vehicles are familiar and comfortable to us, it makes sense to embrace the road warrior approach for vacation. “We tend to take road trips with those in our immediate circles, so driving will be the safest route of travel during a pandemic,” Dr. Khabbaza adds.
But in order to avoid riding in style with germs, there are some precautions you should take before you hit the road.
Start by cleaning and disinfecting your vehicle thoroughly. Wipe down all high-touch surfaces and parts (windows, seat belts, the steering wheel, door handles, controls, etc.). And be sure to keep antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer in the car so you can wipe down everything and passengers can clean their hands after each stop.
Don’t bring too many people along for the ride
When it comes to passengers, the CDC recommends limiting the number of people in your vehicle if possible. And since you all can’t be six feet apart, it doesn’t hurt to wear masks in the car, especially if you’re traveling with someone who is at high risk for COVID-19. Dr. Khabbaza also recommends wearing a mask in the car especially if you’re traveling with someone who is outside of your immediate circle.
Before stopping for gas or food, designate a runner for travel-related tasks. Have one or two people who aren’t at high risk go in to grab snacks or buy gas if you don’t want to pay at the pump. Just make sure your designated runners mask up and clean their hands thoroughly before getting back in the car. And as you’re filling up, avoid scrolling through your phone while pumping gas to minimize the risk of any contamination.
As you’re cruising to your destination, keep the windows open if possible to let fresh air in and boost ventilation. If you’re headed to a warmer area and air conditioning is a must, set the air ventilation or air conditioning to non-recirculation mode.
How to stay safe in ride-share vehicles
Ride-share services have made it much easier for us to get around whether we’re at home or out of town. Before you hop into a ride-share vehicle, make sure you have hand sanitizer with you to use once you arrive at your destination. Also, it’s not advisable to accept complimentary drinks, magazines, candy or anything else that sometimes is offered to riders.
“When getting in a ride-share vehicle, it’s important that both you and the driver wear masks, especially since you’re in a small space with a stranger for a good amount of time,” Dr. Khabbaza says. “You can even wear eye protection in this setting to minimize the risk of infection or transmission.”
Pump the brakes on the carpool option
The carpool option with ride-share apps might allow you to save big during certain times of the day, but right now, it’s not worth it given the increased risk that comes with being in close proximity to a stranger.
So, keep rides limited to you and the people you’re traveling with. And when possible, ride in the back seat instead of the passenger’s seat to keep a little distance between you and the driver.
Dr. Khabbaza points out that some ride-share drivers have added a partition between the front and back in their vehicles. This minimizes risk of transmission significantly. He suggests doing a little research on each ride-share company beforehand so you’ll have a better idea of the safety features that are available in the area.
Is it safe to fly right now?
Those cheap flights are pretty darn tempting right now. If you decide to take to the skies, keep in mind that staying safe on a plane requires far more than just wearing a mask. Before you even get to the plane, you have to contend with check-in terminals and security lines. This means coming in contact with frequently touched surfaces and being around a lot of people. While your concern might be centered on staying safe on the plane, you should focus more on protecting yourself before boarding.
“The wild card with modes of travel like flying is that you have no idea who will be seated next to you,” Dr. Khabbaza explains. “If masking is enforced during the flight, hands are kept clean and you avoid touching your face, the risk to you is low.”
As of January 21, 2021, it is a violation of federal law not to wear masks on public transportation according to the CDC guidelines. So any commercial airline you fly should require all passengers to wear a face mask. This includes children age 2 and older.
According to the CDC, most viruses don’t spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, many airlines have taken necessary precautions to keep their planes sanitized and safe for travelers.
Airplanes these days have HEPA filters and clean outdoor air as well as recirculated air passes through them. Many airlines are thoroughly cleaning and even fogging planes with an electrostatic disinfectant that clings to seatbelts and other high-touch surfaces. Some airlines have even adjusted seating arrangements to allow for more room between passengers.
As for personal protection, a number of airlines require face coverings to board flights. Some are even providing antibacterial wipes for passengers. The TSA is currently allowing one 12-ounce container of liquid hand sanitizer in carry-on bags until further notice. This is good news because you can always use your sanitizer or wipes to clean armrests, seats, light buttons and even the bathroom door handle for extra peace of mind.
Should you fly right now?
Ultimately, it’s up to you. Just keep the risks in mind when making the decision. If you’re sick or at higher risk for the coronavirus, it is probably best to stay on the ground. The same goes for any friends or family members who want to travel with you. “The decision on whether you should fly depends on your personal level of risk tolerance and being aware of the local rates of COVID-19 at both your starting and final destinations,” says Dr. Khabbaza. “If you do choose to fly, it can be done safely by sticking to the basics.”
How to protect yourself from the coronavirus when camping
Not being able to frequent public places that we were accustomed to pre-pandemic has caused many of us to turn to our local parks. This is not a bad thing as being in nature can help reduce stress and allow us to reconnect with ourselves.
If you’ve decided to indulge in some forest therapy, here are some camping do’s and don’ts from the CDC:
- Visit parks that are close to your home.
- Check with the park or recreation area in advance to prepare safely, to find out if the bathroom facilities are open and to get a better idea of what services are available.
- Stay at least six feet away from others you don’t live with and take the necessary precautions to prevent COVID-19.
- Carefully consider the use of playgrounds and help children follow guidelines.
- Play it safe around and in swimming pools, hot tubs, and water playgrounds by keeping space between yourself and others.
- Visit parks if you are sick with, tested positive for, or know you were recently exposed to COVID-19.
- Visit crowded parks.
And of course, stay on top of hand hygiene like you would if you were at home.
How to protect yourself from COVID-19 at a hotel or rental home
It is inevitable that if you head out of town, you’re going to need a place to rest your head. Some might opt for a hotel, while the privacy of a vacation rental home might appeal to others. Either can be safe if you’re cautious, following social distancing guidelines, and asking the right questions beforehand.
Before booking, look into the hotel’s or rental property’s cleaning protocol. In an effort to maintain transparency, a lot of places are disclosing how they are going above and beyond to keep guests safe. For instance, hotels are disinfecting more and offering online check-in and digital keys. Many have also implemented 24-hour vacancies for rooms in between guests. On the other hand, vacation rental companies like Airbnb have established new cleaning protocols.
These spaces should be thoroughly cleaned before your stay, but you can always bring cleaning supplies to sanitize surfaces for additional comfort. And similar to modes of transportation, your safety in a hotel room or vacation rental home ultimately comes down to wearing your mask in public spaces, washing your hands regularly, sanitizing high-touch surfaces upon arrival and not traveling if you’re sick. If you still have questions, check out the CDC’s recommendations for staying at hotels.
Updated travel guidelines for fully vaccinated people
The CDC says that fully vaccinated people can travel safely around the country. However, they strongly advise that fully vaccinated people wear masks on all forms of public transportation and in public transportation hubs like airports and bus or train stations. Fully vaccinated travelers aren’t required to wear masks on an open deck area of a ferry or the open-top deck of a bus. It’s also good to follow any state or local recommendations and requirements while traveling.
International travelers need to pay close attention to the situation at their international destinations before traveling due to the spread of new variants and because the burden of COVID-19 varies globally.
After traveling, watch for any symptoms of COVID-19 and to isolate and get tested if you develop any. The CDC also adds that you don’t need to get tested or self-quarantine if you are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 in the past 3 months. You should still follow all other travel recommendations.
Travel guidance for unvaccinated people
If you’re not vaccinated, the CDC recommends doing the following:
- Get tested with a viral test one to three days before your trip.
- Wear a mask on all forms of public transportation and in all indoor transportation hubs.
- Avoid crowds and stay six feet away from anyone who isn’t traveling with you.
- Wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol in it.
- Get tested with a viral test three to five days after travel and stay home and self-quarantine for a full seven days after travel. Even if you test negative, stay home and self-quarantine for the full seven days.
- If your test is positive, isolate yourself to protect others from getting infected.
- If you don’t get tested, stay home and self-quarantine for 10 days after travel.
- Avoid being around people who are at increased risk for severe illness for 14 days, whether you get tested or not.
- Self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms; isolate and get tested if you develop symptoms.
- Follow all state and local recommendations or requirements.
If you do travel during the pandemic, plan ahead to keep everyone safe
It’s OK if you want or need to travel, but we recommend being smart and developing a game plan beforehand to keep yourself and those you love safe.
“Despite still being in the midst of a pandemic, most of the things that we were doing before can still be done safely. It really is as simple as keeping our distance from others, keeping our hands clean and covering the parts of our body where respiratory droplets could enter or exit with a mask,” says Dr. Khabbaza.