Safety tips for traveling during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic

Medically reviewed by Rosanna Sutherby, PharmD on October 22, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


While it’s best to limit your personal travel as much as possible during this public health crisis to prevent the spread of COVID-19, this may not always be feasible. So if you find yourself needing to travel during the pandemic, here is what you need to know about coronavirus when traveling to help keep you and those around you safe.


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Planning on traveling soon? Here’s when to get tested for COVID-19

Testing for COVID-19 before and after you travel is a good way to help minimize the spread of the virus across different parts of the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends taking a viral test for COVID-19 one to three days before your travel begins. A viral test—also known as a diagnostic test, molecular test, or RT-PCR test—tells you if you have an active infection. If you test positive, do not travel; instead, begin self-isolation right away and take steps to help make sure the virus isn’t transmitted to other people.

In addition, the CDC suggests viral testing three to five days after your travel ends, and curbing any non-essential activities for a complete 7 days after the trip—even if you test negative.

Check travel restrictions and number of cases before your trip

Before going on your trip, be sure to research the travel restrictions associated with your destination. The CDC’s Travel Planner can help you find the right information. It’s also worth checking how many cases of COVID-19 are in your community and your destination before you travel; a higher case count comes with a higher risk of either getting or spreading the virus. See the number of COVID-19 cases for each state in the last 7 days here.

Basic safety during travel

Social distancing remains one of the most important means of reducing the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus, and that applies during travel as well. Social distancing keeps you from coming into contact with people who may have the virus and from spreading the virus to others if you are unknowingly infected.

This mainly involves avoiding crowded indoor spaces, avoiding large group gatherings, and maintaining a six-foot distance from other people. The first two may be impractical during travel, but do your best to create that six-foot buffer between you and others. That buffer helps to reduce the potential exposure to respiratory droplets that come from a fellow passenger coughing, sneezing, talking, or even just breathing.

In addition to social distancing, make sure you also wear a proper mask or face covering of some kind. Studies show that wearing a face mask can help block the transmission of respiratory droplets and reduce the risk of viral exposure.

In sum, practicing proper social distancing and wearing a mask is crucial to safety during the pandemic—whether you are at the airport or walking to the corner store.

What to know about different types of travel

Depending on your destination, you likely have several modes of travel to choose from. Generally, the more people involved and the longer you are around someone with the infection, the higher your chance of getting infected.

Air travel

Air travel is by far the quickest means of getting from point A to point B, but it also comes with comparatively greater risks. Spending time in security lines and airport terminals often means being in close contact with other people and frequently-touched surfaces. The plane itself may be safer based on how air circulates and gets filtered on airplanes. The main problem with planes is the difficulty with maintaining social distance between every passenger. Airline flights are crowded, and sitting more than six feet away from people is generally not feasible. Additionally, a flight might last several hours, increasing your risk of exposure.

Buses and trains

While buses and trains don’t usually involve security lines or extended periods waiting in a line indoors, they still require you to sit or stand within six feet of others. The ventilation systems within buses and trains may also be inferior in reducing the transmission of the virus compared to an aircraft’s ventilation.

Cars and RVs

Car travel is by far the safest option as it often leaves you with your own personal, enclosed space. However, you will likely have to make more stops for food, gas, and restroom breaks—all of which can put you in contact with people or infected surfaces.

RVs can cut down on food and bathroom breaks, but you still have to stop for gas and supplies, along with the possibility of having closer proximity to others during overnight RV park stays.

For shorter traveling distances, going by car may be your best option. Make sure you do continue to practice social distancing, wear a mask whenever you exit your car, and wash and disinfect your hands as often as possible.

How to fly safely during the coronavirus pandemic

Outside of shorter trips, you may take a flight as your main means of travel. Keep these tips in mind if you plan to fly soon.

1) Plan ahead

Before you even book a flight, do some research on your destination. Some city, state, and territorial governments also have different entry restrictions for travel. For example, you may be required to get tested or quarantine for up to 14 days after reaching your destination.

From there, make sure you plan every step of your trip so that you aren’t spending unnecessary time in public spaces.

2) Going through the security line

Along with cleaning and disinfecting equipment more frequently, the TSA has made some changes to the screening process to reduce contact between TSA officers and travelers. You are permitted to wear your mask during the security screening, though the TSA officers may ask you to adjust or remove the mask for easier identification.

Boarding passes should be placed directly on the scanner and then held up for inspection. Similarly, instead of placing personal items (keys, wallet, phone) in bins, put them inside your carry-on bag.

Last but not least, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before and after going through security at the airport.

3) Considering the middle seat

There are different points of view on the actual effectiveness of keeping middle seats open. While it is true that leaving a middle seat open won’t leave a six-foot space between travelers, it does inherently limit the number of passengers on the plane, thereby reducing the overall risk of exposure.

As of this writing, the FAA does not have any set requirements for leaving middle seats open on flights, so you can usually expect full flights. Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest have committed to either blocking middle seats or reducing the total number of tickets sold on flights for at least the next few months for public health precautions, but there’s still some risk of exposure.

If you experience a full flight, your options are fairly limited. If you otherwise do not feel comfortable boarding a full flight, ask for a flight change. Most airlines should accommodate, and you may end up on a flight that is less full.

4) Wipe down your seat

Most airlines now deep clean seats, seatbelts, tray tables, and seatback pockets between flights. Still, it doesn’t hurt to be extra careful. Use disinfectant wipes to clean your area, focusing particularly on armrests and tray tables.

5) Wash your hands

Wash or disinfect your hands frequently, especially before you eat your in-flight snack or drink your in-flight beverage. Make sure you also wash your hands after touching any surface on the plane, particularly bathroom handles and the tops of seats.

Conclusion

When it comes to coronavirus and travel, the best advice for right now is to stay flexible. For example, if you feel sick or are worried about getting sick, consider postponing your travel plans until later.


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References:

1. Domestic Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

2. Coronavirus Disease 2019 Testing Basics. US Food & Drug Administration. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

3. What to Do If You Are Sick. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

4. Still Confused About Masks? Here’s the Science Behind How Face Masks Prevent Coronavirus. University of California San Francisco. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

5. Coronavirus travel advice. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

6. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Information from the FAA. Federal Aviation Administration. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

7. The Arguments For Keeping Middle Seats Open On Flights. Forbes. URL. Accessed September 22, 2020.

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