How to stay safe while traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a federal mandate requiring people to wear masks on all forms of public transportation in the United States, as COVID-19 cases continue to surge. The new order—which goes into effect today, February 2, 2021—requires that every person over the age of two wears a cloth face mask while traveling or in transportation hubs, like airports or train stations.

“CDC recommends that non-essential travel be avoided; however, for those who must travel, additional measures are being put in place to help prevent the spread of the virus,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, explains. “Masks are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely and consistently used by all people in public settings.”

If you must travel, below is everything you need to know before you go, whether you’re traveling by car or plane. From how to sanitize a hotel room to what you should bring with you on your flight, these are the expert-approved tips for staying safe on the go. 

Is it safe to travel during COVID-19?

Whether or not you should travel right now depends on a few different factors, experts say. “Due to widespread COVID-19 in the US, traveling will have some inherent risks,” Henry Wu, MD, director of Emory’s TravelWell Center in Atlanta, says. “Travelers should weigh the importance of their travel against personal risk factors for severe illness (age, other medical problems, etc.), and their ability to practice preventative measures, including routine face coverings, social distancing, and hand hygiene.” The CDC recommends getting tested before and after your trip even if you don’t feel sick (you could be an asymptomatic carrier) and to never travel with someone who is sick or at an increased risk for COVID-19.

It’s also best to avoid states with higher incidences of COVID-19, like Arizona and New York, which have recently been dubbed coronavirus hotspots. It’s always smart to research travel advisories for your destination beforehand as some cities and states require visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

How to stay safe at a hotel or rental home

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many hotels and vacation rental companies have implemented new cleaning procedures in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus. Marriott now requires all rooms and spaces be cleaned with hospital-grade disinfectants, for instance, while Airbnb has established set of guidelines for cleaning and sanitization that hosts must follow.

If you’re staying in a hotel or rental home, experts recommend sanitizing the room as soon as you arrive by wiping down high-touch areas (like door handles, TV remotes, drawers, etc.) with disinfecting wipes. You can also bring your own blankets, linens, and towels (some places aren’t even providing these anymore, so check with the hotel or rental service first) and refuse housekeeping services to reduce how many people are coming in and out of your room. Avoid public areas like the hotel bar or gym and choose contactless options—like room service or online check-in—whenever possible.

Dr. Wu also suggests requesting a room that hasn’t been occupied for at least one or two days before you arrive. “Since the virus that causes COVID-19 remains viable on environmental surfaces for limited periods (one to two days), rooms that have been vacant longer will generally be safest,” he says. Airbnb also lets you do this by choosing the “Booking Buffer,” which means your rental has been vacant for at least 72 hours prior to your stay.

How to stay safe on a road trip

“Car travel is safest because you can control all aspects of your environment including who you are with, where you stop, and how well you and your travel party follow the 3 Ws (Wear, Wait, Wash),” Becky Smith, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C., says. If you’re planning a road trip, map out your route ahead of time so you’re aware of the specific rules in each city, county, or state that you’re traveling through (for example, toll booths and rest areas are closed in some places but not others). While you’re traveling, experts also advise paying with a credit card instead of cash. You can easily sanitize your card as opposed to a dollar bill, which you don’t know how many people have touched.

As for what to bring? Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol per the CDC’s recommendations and disinfecting wipes, both of which you should use to clean your hands and your car (steering wheel, door handle, etc) every time you stop at a public place. You can also use the wipes at the gas station or a public bathroom as a barrier between your hands and high-touch places like the pump handle or restroom door. Another smart idea is to pack your own snacks and drinks to avoid having to stop at convenience stores or restaurants, thus reducing your exposure to other people. Whenever you are in public—even if you’re just pulling up to a drive-thru—always wear a cloth face covering (like one of the best masks you can buy right now, which our experts reviewed and ranked).

How to stay safe while flying

While now masks are required in all airports, many airlines and airports already have implemented stricter rules and regulations surrounding both sanitation and social distancing. For instance, Transport Security Administration (TSA) officers are wearing plastic shields and gloves at checkpoints and some airlines are reducing the capacity of flights and blocking off middle seats.

However, even though airlines have heightened their cleaning procedures, experts recommend you thoroughly sanitize your area (your seat, armrest, tray table, etc.) with disinfecting wipes before sitting down and if you can choose your seat, opt for one away from other passengers. Keep your face mask (or masks—air travel might be a good time to double-mask) on for the duration of the flight or, if you want extra protection, Dr. Smith suggests using a face shield as you can leave it on to eat and drink. When you’re traveling through the airport, maintain the appropriate social distance (six feet), avoid crowded areas as much as possible, and try to limit how many public things you touch.

One final tip? Whether you’re flying or driving, continue to check for updates frequently as advisories and regulations are constantly changing. And remember that staying home is always your safest bet. “Although ‘COVID fatigue’ is at an all-time high and many yearn for a getaway, most non-essential travel should be avoided while case counts in the US continue to rise,” reminds Dr. Smith.

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