ALTHOUGH MANY RESTRICTIONS are still in place, travel is slowly starting up again. People locked down for months want to stretch their legs, see something other than a screen, and boost the economy. Restaurants and some tourist attractions (Florida’s Universal Orlando Resort, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) are opening for local and domestic travel. A few countries (Greece, Italy) are starting to welcome international travelers.
But how can you safely explore a world of potentially deadly encounters with friendly people who might infect you (or who you might expose to the virus)? Is the airplane really a soaring petri dish? Is visiting a national park possible while social distancing? And if you choose a seemingly safer road trip, can you stop to use a public restroom?
A poll by National Geographic and Morning Consult finds that just 2 percent of 2,200 Americans said they’d jump on a plane now, and only another 8 percent would consider it later this summer. That’s wise with travel advisories still in place, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warnings against international travel and cautions about travel within the U.S., and with many countries and states (Maine, Hawaii) still requiring 14 days of post-travel self-isolation regardless of symptoms.
As we recently report, travel planning is good for your mental health. Knowing more about real and perceived COVID-19 risks might help you feel better about getting out as roadblocks lift. Here are best practices for travelers.
Should I get on an airplane?
Challenge: Being crammed next to strangers in a flying metal tube
Best practice: It’s reassuring to know that “data to date suggest only rare possible occurrences of in-flight transmission” of COVID-19, says Dr. Lin H. Chen, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and director of Cambridge’s Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn. She explains that if everyone follows the World Health Organization’s guidelines, the risk of transmission aboard planes, and anywhere else, is significantly reduced.
“Many people think they get sick on an airplane, but the reality is that the air quality on an airplane is actually really good—high amounts of clean outdoor air and all recirculated air passes through a HEPA filter,” says Joe Allen. An assistant professor and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Allen explains that you’re more likely to pick up a bug standing in line at airport security, at the boarding gate, or on the subway.
Airports and airlines are trying to minimize the risks of contagions in their often-crowded environments. Intensive cleaning is now the norm; planes are now being fogged with electrostatic disinfectant that sticks to surfaces like seatbelts. Some airlines give you wipes and the Transportation Security Administration has upped the size of hand sanitizer bottles you can bring on board from 3.4 ounces to 12.
Face coverings are required to board most flights. Airlines are trying to seat people so they have more space. But that doesn’t necessarily mean middle seats are remaining empty, especially with reductions in numbers of flights. There’s no national U.S. policy yet, but several airlines are checking for fevers. They won’t let you fly with a temperature above 100.4℉ (though testing is far from foolproof).
Internationally, some destinations require proof of a negative COVID-19 test; other destinations test passengers on arrival. Many have mandatory 14-day quarantines, sometimes requiring you to submit a quarantine plan for approval, download an app, or get a tracking bracelet to ensure you follow the rules. Vaccination certification may eventually be needed for travel, but so far the science doesn’t support “immunity passports” or proof that a person has had COVID-19 and is, in theory, immune.
Should I head to a national park?
Challenge: Avoiding big crowds in the great outdoors
Best practice: “There are many health benefits to being outside in nature, and the risks are low and manageable,” says Allen. The key is keeping a six-foot distance. A good practice at a park is to pretend that other people are grizzly bears and stay away from them.
Check the National Park Service’s find-a-park website to see if the park is closed or partially closed (restrooms and food services, in particular), for limits on numbers of visitors, and other rules like mask-wearing. Avoid group activities that involve close contact and practice social distancing at camp sites. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease specialist and medical director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin, reminds us that “summer is tick and mosquito season,” so don’t forget your bug spray and sunscreen (though perhaps a face-mask tan will become a badge of honor that you’re doing your part to protect others).
Should I rent a cottage by the sea?
Challenge: Assessing the safety of beaches and vacation rentals
Best practice: Like park trips, seaside vacations are great if you can stay away from others and obey beach closure rules. There’s no evidence you can catch COVID-19 from the water (it’s other people you should be concerned about). Remember to bring your two best beach friends: reef-safe sunscreen free of oxybenzone and hand sanitizer.
Regarding rentals, ask whether properties are cleaned according to public health guidelines, such as the WHO’s accommodation sector advice. Airbnb’s Enhanced Cleaning Initiative includes a 24- to 72-hour vacancy period between guests (though cleaners may visit during that window), but it’s likely unnecessary given evidence that the coronavirus floats in the air only up to three hours. Since it’s possible for the virus to live on surfaces for two or three days, you could give high-touch surfaces an extra clean. As Chen says, “good hand washing should overcome potentially contaminated touching.” If anxiety outweighs the benefits of a vacation, it’s a sign you’re not ready to venture out yet.
Should I stay in a hotel?
Challenge: Distancing safely and trusting housekeeping
Best practice: Hotels that take better care of their employees (by providing them with personal protective equipment and paid sick leave) are more likely to take better care of you. Check the website of any hotel you’re considering to determine how they’re responding to COVID-19. Many U.S. hotels are following the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s new Safe Stay guidelines.
Choose properties that base their protocols on science, rather than things that sound good but have little effect or take focus away from areas that really matter. Look for hotels that have installed plexiglass at reception and that require staff to wear masks, or where you can check-in online and use your phone as your room key.
Avoid elevators and, if able, “take the opportunity to exercise and use the stairs,” advises Sanchez. Room service may be safer than the restaurant. Go for a swim if the pool isn’t crowded: Standard pool cleaning kills viruses, so the pool is probably safe; it’s the people you need to worry about. While clean rooms are important, what’s more important is staying six feet away from others. And, of course, wash your hands when you arrive in your room and again before you leave.
At the end of the day try to make the best decision for yourself and try to stay healthy.