Flying For Thanksgiving? How to Stay Safe During COVID-19 Travel

Key Takeaways

  • If you can avoid it, experts warn not to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday.
  • Traveling by plane can be risky, but there are certain actions you can take before, during, and after a flight that may lower your risk of transmitting or contracting COVID-19.
  • Be sure to check quarantine regulations for your destinations, and monitor any symptoms before and after your flight.

Planning on flying over the Thanksgiving holiday? This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, traveling in a busy airport may be even more hectic and stress-inducing than usual. Many are asking: is it safe to fly at all? There isn’t one clear cut answer. But the good news is, if getting that much-needed family time requires boarding a plane, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself and those around you.

“Ideally, people should not be traveling this year. However, people have different responsibilities and needs,” Kunjana Mavunda, MD, a pulmonologist from Florida who also runs an international travel clinic, tells Verywell. “This year has been difficult. Mental stress levels have increased. Domestic violence, elder abuse, alcohol, and drug use are increasing. So, a person may need to travel.”

The holidays will force us all to make difficult decisions regarding our travel plans and gatherings. Ultimately, the decision to travel is a personal one, and should be based on an assessment of the benefits and possible risks, Timothy F. Brewer, MD, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles tells Verywell. “There will not be one right answer for everyone, as people weigh risks and benefits differently,” he says.

If you have the option, driving may be safer than flying in some situations, since you’ll interact with fewer people. But not everyone can opt for a road trip—especially someone with a disability.

Hugo Lin / Verywell

But something to keep in mind: There will be fewer flights in the coming months. Southwest Airlines announced a reduction of 38,000 (36%) of flights in November with about 55,000 flights cut in December. American Airlines is removing 86,000 flights—about 50% of its normal load. The flights that remain may be more in-demand.

What This Means For You

If you can avoid holiday travel this year, staying put may be your safest course of action. But if you travel by plane, bring plenty of masks and disinfecting wipes, and keep distance in the airport. Make sure you decrease your close interaction with others where possible, and consider a quarantine once you’ve arrived at your destination.

Before You Fly

Before booking a flight, you should consider the risks unique to your living situation.

“If you are older, have young children, or live with people with risk, do not travel,” Marilyn C. Roberts, PhD, a professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health, tells Verywell.

If, after evaluating your risks, you decide to book a flight, factors like flight time and which airline you choose can mitigate risk. Mavunda suggests opting for the first flight of the morning, which tends to be emptier. Consumers should look for airlines that keep middle seats empty and don’t overbook flights.

Some of the airlines blocking seats due to COVID-19 include:

When choosing your seat, sitting toward the front of the plane is a good idea because it lets you board and exit first, decreasing exposure to others. Seating toward the back of the plane can also help you avoid crowds, but try not to book areas near the bathroom, which will attract a steady stream of people throughout the flight. Some research suggests a window seat is safest because it reduces the number of people you will come into contact with, and protects you from interaction with people moving bags in the overhead compartments, or walking down the aisles.

Before heading out for your trip, make sure you’re up to date on your vaccinations, and consider getting the flu shot before the holidays. Mavunda emphasizes the importance of immunizations for travelers, especially vaccines against respiratory infections such as influenza, pertussis, and pneumonia.

Should You Test Before You Go?

Some airlines are offering COVID-19 testing, but they’re only being offered to travelers headed to a limited number of places like Hawaii, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. American Airlines, United, and JetBlue are a few carriers that are now offering this testing. If you’re not traveling to any of the partnered locations, consider seeking a COVID-19 test outside of your airline.

Airports are working to introduce testing centers on-site. Tampa International Airport (TPA) recently announced one of the most comprehensive airport testing programs to date: Starting October 1, all passengers can take a COVID-19 test. But this isn’t the norm, so make sure to check your airport’s test offerings.

Otherwise, it may be good to have testing done prior to leaving for the airport. Roberts says to get tested before you leave and be sure you have a result prior to the trip.

“Do not use the antibody test or other tests that may be fast but less specific,” she says. “Make sure you get the results back just a few days before you go. If you know you have been exposed, do not travel for 14 days.”

Mavunda says testing isn’t a surefire way to guarantee safety, noting that test results may not be reliable.

“Monitoring symptoms and choosing an airline that is strict about keeping people with fever, cough or congestion, or known exposure to COVID off the plane is safer,” she says.

There is no evidence that having a test before traveling is helpful in preventing COVID-19 transmission, but testing may identify some people with COVID-19. If they don’t travel, that should reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, Brewer says.

Theoretically, some combination of testing before or after flight could reduce the time of self-quarantine or isolation, Kris M. Belland, DO, an aviation medicine specialist in Texas, tells Verywell. “Again this is complicated, controversial, and potentially costly,” he says.

On The Day of Your Flight

On the day of your flight, make sure you’ve packed a stash of supplies. Roberts suggests keeping multiple masks on hand, as well as hand sanitizer. Mavunda suggests keeping antibacterial or bleach wipes handy for wiping down surfaces like public bathrooms or your seat tray on the flight.

Actually getting to the airport may be an issue depending on where you are located, Roberts says. Having a family member or friend to take you to the airport could mitigate some risk, allowing you to avoid public transportation or ride-sharing services.

Once at the airport or on the plane, try not to touch too many surfaces at the airport, and keep a distance from others at the airport, Mavunda says.

Kris M. Belland, DO

There is no risk-free travel. We can mitigate risk and do our best.

— Kris M. Belland, DO

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) notes that travelers may be asked to adjust their masks for identification purposes. They’ve also implemented a temporary medical exemption for hand sanitizer, now allowing one oversized liquid hand sanitizer container, up to 12 ounces per passenger, in carry-on bags.

You’ll be asked to place any belts and personal items from your pockets in your carry-on bag instead of bins. And any carry-on food should be placed in a clear plastic bag and removed from your luggage. Food items often trigger an alarm during the screening process, so separating the food from the carry-on bag lessens the likelihood that a TSA officer will need to open the carry-on bag and remove your food items for a closer inspection. 

Safety During Your Flight

There have been contradicting reports on whether the risk of contracting COVID-19 during air travel is low. But generally, experts agree there are actions you can take to mitigate risks.

Before getting on the plane, and once getting off, Roberts recommends avoiding crowding at the entrance to the aircraft. Once at your seat, try to stay put for the remainder of the flight to minimize contact with others. If you’re going to eat or drink on the flight, bring your own items, Mavunda says.

“If possible, do not eat on the flight, as that would require taking the mask off,” Roberts says.

Once You Arrive

Where you stay is an important factor in staying safe. Hotels are safe as long as they are being cautious about their cleaning practices, requiring guests to wear masks in public spaces, and allowing enough space for social distancing, Mavunda notes. Before making a hotel reservation, call ahead, and make sure they’re taking the proper COVID-19 safety measures.

Mavunda suggests that staying with family or friends may be safer overall, especially if you know they are healthy and following isolation guidelines.

Ideally, if you’re flying from an area with a high prevalence of COVID-19 cases, you should quarantine upon arrival. Quarantining with the family you are visiting may be necessary, Mavunda says.

“Despite all the precautions one takes, currently, in the U.S. and in many countries around the world, the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is there,” Mavunda says. “That is why quarantining may be necessary, both at the destination you are traveling to and after return.”

If you’re considering getting tested for COVID-19 once you’ve arrived, look to see if the area offers any tests with rapid results.

Returning From Your Trip

Once you return from your trip, it may be a good idea to quarantine in case you were exposed to the virus on your trip. You may not have symptoms, but could still be contagious, Roberts says.

Anyone who has a known exposure to someone with COVID-19 should definitely go into quarantine, Brewer says.

“If there is no history of COVID-19 exposure, going into quarantine is not always necessary just because of travel,” he says. “It depends on the risk for COVID-19 infection in the place the traveler is leaving from and arriving to.”

For example, Brewer says a person traveling from New Zealand to Los Angeles may not need to quarantine on arrival as there is little to no COVID-19 transmission currently happening in the country. However, a traveler from Los Angeles should quarantine upon arrival in New Zealand because Los Angeles has COVID-19 transmission.

Social distancing after any international travel is wise, Belland says. “Absolute quarantine is more effective, but not likely,” he says. “There is no risk-free travel. We can mitigate risk and do our best.”

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