Traveling During COVID, If You Must

Like many of you, I traveled extensively for both business and pleasure prior to the pandemic. I’ve spent several years in the hospitality industry throughout my career, and am a collector of loyalty programs, perks, points, and miles. Also like many people, I felt a tremendous sense of loss when it became impossible to see the world in the same ways. I was supposed to go to Spain in April and Chicago in May this year, neither of which occurred; the Spain flights were actually cancelled by the airline, and I got ahead of that by requesting a refund as soon as the US restricted travel to Europe toward the beginning of the pandemic.

At this point, I am fully part of the “I can’t not travel” club, having participated in airline, hotel, and rental car business during the pandemic, as well as entering an airport lounge. The point of this post is not necessarily to encourage this behavior, but to prepare you, if, like me, you have made a risk vs. reward calculation that ends up with you back in the air.

I researched extensively prior to making the decision to travel again, even though my trips have themselves been executed last-minute. I have people in my life with higher-risk conditions, and didn’t want to put them or any of my friends at risk with my behavior. My procedures are informed by science, the experiences of others who have traveled, and a friend who is a nurse. They generally follow the CDC travel guidelines and are told from my perspective. I have used these procedures myself and recommended them to others who have successfully traveled without getting sick or getting others sick. The usual disclaimers apply: I am not a doctor, and everything you do is at your own risk.

Regions to Travel To

I review trends in the areas I consider traveling to over time for the region and the city/county, depending on the level of detail available. I consider this against the level of interaction I’m likely to have to have in the area – how many public places will I have to encounter? How much indoor vs. outdoor activity will there be? If the trends are headed in the wrong direction AND I’d have to spend a lot of time indoors and/or around crowds, that’s grounds for reconsideration.

People You Are Seeing

If visiting others is part of your trip, how have they been behaving during the pandemic? How many public places do they regularly go to, particularly indoor areas? Have they been wearing masks? Are there family members in and out of the home whose behavior they can’t account for? Do they follow/take seriously scientific findings? Do you generally trust them to be honest? (If not, why are you seeing them?)

At the Airport Before Departure

For domestic flights, which is the only type of flight I’d recommend taking if at all possible, limit your time at the airport. No need for 2 hours before the flight; 30 minutes to an hour if you have pre-check, at most. Most stores are closed anyway, so the time you’d spend looking around on a normal trip doesn’t look the same as it did last year.

Prior to entering the airport, you want to limit the exposure of your face, your clothes, and your belongings to the unknown sea of germs. To do so, you can use a disposable painting suit that zips over your clothes (which you will dispose of on arrival, plus another in your luggage for the return trip), a face shield WITH a mask underneath (plus multiple masks for your destination), and gloves (multiple pairs). You’ll want to have a plastic bag easily accessible on the plane that contains antibacterial wipes, antibacterial lotion, and potentially a hydrating nasal spray. You may also wish to bring a nasal irrigation kit such as the NeilMed Sinus Rinse kit to your destination. This isn’t a glamorous thing to discuss, but studies such as this one indicate that saline nasal irrigation can be a good adjunct to other measures to combat viruses. It is also a good practice for allergy sufferers. It should always be undertaken with distilled water (which can be purchased/delivered at your destination), not tap water, and with a sanitized container. There are also pre-mixed saline rinse kits available if you are not sure of the availability of distilled water for delivery where you are going.

Face shields alone, worn without masks, are insufficient. There are many articles to this effect, such as this one.

For the gloves, it can be easy to accidentally touch multiple items, then touch your skin or face if you are not careful. I use gloves for specific tasks, such as if it’s necessary to hold onto a railing or post while on transportation within the airport, or if it’s necessary to open a frequently touched surface, such as an overhead compartment or a restroom door. I immediately dispose of the gloves afterwards, then sanitize my hands.

In general, in the days leading up to airline travel, it is ideal to eat healthfully and hydrate more than usual to go into the trip feeling your best. Being in a pressurized cabin can be dehydrating, and even in normal times, that’s less than ideal.

Airport Lounges

Do not arrive any earlier just to spend time in the lounge. Lounges are a smaller indoor area than the terminal, but potentially have fewer people in and out, more spaced-out seating, and fewer total people using the restroom. For this reason, lounges may potentially be a safer spot in some ways for short periods. Additionally, the food in most lounges these days is set up for individual portions rather than buffet-style as you may have been used to. If you need to very quickly grab some food without waiting in a crowded line, this can be a good option, especially as there is no more meal service on many shorter flights, even in first class. Some airlines have pre-bagged snacks, and for longer flights, sometimes first class will have boxed meals, depending on the airline. Food for purchase is not generally available; bringing your own snacks may be the safest bet. If you can avoid eating on the plane, that’s safer, as you won’t have to remove your mask. These details are changing very regularly and depend heavily on the airline, so check on these before you go.

On the Plane

The safest area to sit on a plane is a window seat in first class, if you can manage it. This is reflected in several articles, including this one. Try to take a short enough flight and plan your hydration to where you do not have to use the restroom on the plane.

On arrival to your seat, wipe down the seat back pocket, seat controls, screen, remotes, air vents, and any other surfaces with an antibacterial wipe that you immediately place in a bag whose only purpose is to be thrown away. You can bring an empty plastic bag for this purpose. The airlines are sanitizing the planes, but may not necessarily be getting every potential surface in detail between each flight. After touching any common areas apart from those at your seat, use hand sanitizer. If you receive anything from the flight attendant, wipe it down, then sanitize your hands after touching it.

Keep your luggage with you if possible so you do not have to go to baggage claim and spend additional time at the airport once you reach your destination.

Upon Arrival

Head directly out of the airport, avoiding stopping anywhere if at all possible. Take off the disposable suit, face shield, and any gloves, and immediately throw them in the trash in the nearest outdoor trash can. If you must use the restroom upon arrival, do so quickly, and as usual, throughly wash your hands. Maintain your mask while outside, especially in ground transportation areas where you may be in close proximity to others.

Rental Car

In general, rental cars are preferable to public transportation or ride share options, as they are used by fewer people, and sanitized between uses. It is ideal to use a Lysol wipe on the mirror controls, seat controls, radio, dashboard, and other frequently touched areas.

Hotel

The major hotel chains have detailed protocols in place for cleaning far in excess of pre-pandemic procedures. The CDC also has guidelines for hotels. My suggestion is to stay with a major chain either by yourself or with people from your own household that you have been quarantining with prior to travel. Upon arrival, use your saline nasal rinse. You may also wish to shower and change clothes for extra measure. Use Lysol wipes on door handles and other frequently touched areas. Most hotels are placing the remote in a bag these days and remembering how much of a germ magnet it is, a fact that was lost prior to the pandemic. When in common areas and upon leaving the hotel, wear a mask.

One unanticipated thing that happened to me was a middle-of-the-night fire alarm, resulting in an evacuation and fire department response. I made it outside without a mask, but was mostly able to keep my distance from others. While I hope this does not happen to you, it may be prudent to have a “go bag” with your critical items and a mask in the event you have to quickly evacuate, because you really never know with 2020.

While at Your Destination

Take all the same precautions, if not more, that you would if you were in your home city. Continue to wear masks in all public places and frequently wash your hands. Avoid spending extended time in indoor areas. If meeting others from outside of your household, favor outdoor activities where distance can be maintained.

Returning Home

Follow all the same procedures as with the departing flight. Quarantine for at least 2 weeks prior to traveling again. Immediately wash all your clothing, potentially using Lysol laundry additive. Wipe down your bags and frequently touched items, especially your phone, keys, etc.

Conclusion

Every action we take is a calculation, whether at home or while traveling. Articles like this one contextualize the odds of plane travel as not being particularly bad, and activities at one’s destination to be of greater importance. It’s best to avoid stacking multiple high-risk actions, such as both traveling on a plane AND attending a large event. This is how “super spreader” scenarios happen. I believe it is possible to travel relatively safely, but it requires significant effort, and nothing is a guarantee. If you must travel for whatever reason, take what you can from these tips. May you have the best of luck and avoid 5 AM fire alarms.

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