It’s far from ideal to travel during a pandemic. Doctors aren’t going to give you the green light to do it, and neither is the U.S. State Department or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But wanderlust and obligations can exert powerful lures. If you’ve really got to go somewhere now—to check in on distant family, to attend an important (socially distanced) event, or just to spring yourself and your stir-crazy kids from the house—there are ways to decrease your risks while taking a trip. So whether you’re setting off by plane or car, here’s what you should focus on, and a few things you don’t need to fret about as much.
How to get there
If your trip is essential and if you’re committed to social distancing and mask-wearing, it’s possible to mitigate (but not eliminate) COVID-19 risks during travel. The safest trips are ones where you avoid other people as much as possible. If solitude and getting through your stack of classic Russian novels is your idea of a perfect vacation, summer 2020 is for you.
One of the easiest ways to keep far from fellow, potentially infected humans is avoiding public transportation. Drive directly to your destination, with minimal stops.
If you must fly, do it more safely: Flying, as with any activity that brings you close to other people, does carry more risk than driving in a car. But crowded security and boarding areas are likely more of a concern than the planes themselves, given HEPA filters that capture 99 percent of microbes and the new electrostatic disinfection. While everyone aboard a plane should wear a mask, your energies are better spent keeping six feet from others in airport lines than stressing out because you’re stuck in the middle seat.
“Choose a window seat as far from the restroom as possible,” says Dr. Farley Cleghorn, the global health practice head at Palladium, an international impact consultancy firm. “Keep the overhead vent open and toward your face—continuous airflow creates a small, invisible ‘wall’ that restricts (at least slightly) the exhaled air from other passengers,” he says. Disinfect your hands after you’ve settled into your seat, and again before and after you touch your face, such as when you remove your mask to eat.
While airlines boast of their enhanced cleaning these days, recent investigations suggest that janitorial staffers are still often rushed and undersupplied. So treat every surface you touch (seat arm, table tray, etc.) as if it’s radioactive, and wipe it with a disinfecting wipe before plopping down.
The pandemic travel toolkit
You’ll need to pack a sunhat and comfy shoes for a summer trip. But in 2020, you’ll also need some basic COVID-19 knowledge.
When you leave home, “wear a face mask, avoid crowded areas, stay six feet from others, wash hands/use hand sanitizer frequently, [and] avoid touching public surfaces,” says Dr. Lin H. Chen, president of the International Society of Travel Medicine and director of the Harvard-affiliated Mount Auburn Hospital Travel Medicine Center. Once these become habits, it’s not so hard.
Use that mask correctly. “I see many well-meaning people wearing masks or face coverings improperly, with the nose exposed,” says Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease specialist and medical director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin. “Since droplets are spread by both the mouth and nose, they should both be covered.”
The science is simple. “Wearing masks drastically drops the distance that droplets travel, thereby protecting individuals that come close to us,” says Sanchez, adding “the overwhelming majority of people, including those with chronic lung and heart problems, can safely wear them. Their use does not affect the body’s oxygen or carbon dioxide levels.”
You don’t need to glove up to pump gas or shop for groceries. As soon as you touch something, gloves are just as dirty as your hands would be. Just disinfect your hands afterward (washing with soap and water is more effective than hand sanitizer). Sanchez explains that “while keeping high-touch surfaces clean is important, obsession or worry over disinfecting every surface you come into contact with is unlikely to make a meaningful impact on your risk.”
Similarly, there’s no need to shun public restrooms in favor of the side of the road (which is not only illegal in all 50 states, but could also lead to rises in cholera, salmonella, E.coli, typhoid, and other diseases we prevent by treating sewage). Your bigger public restroom danger is not the theoretical virus aerosolization by a flushing toilet, but congregating with other people in poorly ventilated spaces. Use a public loo when you must, but wait outside until it’s free, wear your trusty mask, wash and dry your hands well, and, if you can, put the lid down when you flush.
It’s being close to other people, not the act of moving from place to place, that is the most dangerous. “Of all the precautions you can take while out in public or traveling, maintaining physical distance from others outside of your household is still the most important to curtail the spread of COVID-19,” says Sanchez. So imagine you’re in a zombie movie, but refrain from running away from others and screaming.
Where to sleep safely
Accommodations where you can minimize interactions with other people are best, but hotel lovers need not despair. Dr. Joel Kammeyer, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor at the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences says “a traveler committed to masks and remaining six feet from others is likely to be fine, regardless of the accommodation.”
Don’t stress if your hotel doesn’t provide keyless entry. You’ll need to touch the door handle to get into your room anyhow. Just wash your hands (and your key card) once you’re inside. More important: avoiding packed elevators and being sure your hotel has a plexiglass barrier between you and reception staff and that guests don’t crowd each other during check in or check out.
Which sort of lodgings to choose? Well, an isolated cottage or villa is far better than Airbnbing a spare room in someone’s apartment. Having your own kitchen and laundry facilities gives you more control over cleanliness.
“Most accommodations have implemented extra precautions and cleaning services,” says Dr. Abe Malkin, founder and medical director of health care provider Concierge MD LA. Check websites for details or ask. It doesn’t matter whether a hotel is a chain motel or a boutique inn. It’s more important that the property has a good record and follows recommended guidelines. (Marriott and Hilton just announced they’ll require masks in public areas; Hyatt already requires them in the U.S. and Canada). Look for employers that provide employees pandemic supports—training, equipment, sick leave, fair pay, and other measures, which translate into a safer environment for everyone.
While it might be reassuring to give high-touch surfaces a wipedown when you arrive, it’s better to confirm your hotel’s cleaning protocols in advance.
What about visiting family and friends? It’s safest for you and for them if you maintain that six-foot distance. A backyard dinner might be OK, but sharing the same bathroom and doing meal prep together increases risks. Decide how much risk you and your loved ones are willing to take; booking yourself a hotel is safer for everyone.
How and where can you eat?
Preparing your own food or getting takeout is safest. But it’s still possible to eat in a restaurant. Key risk factors, says Sanchez, “include the setting (outdoors over indoors), the size and airflow of the space, the number of people sharing that space, and the amount of time you spend in that space.”
So, choose to eat on a patio where you’re at least six feet from other diners and where everyone (staff and customers) wears a face mask except when sipping or supping. When possible, Sanchez adds, avoid “peak times to minimize the number of people you share the space with,” and don’t linger.
Keep an eye on your server too: it’s easy to spread germs if they pick up a dirty dish from the table next to you and then bring your dinner without washing their hands. Restaurants that have separate server and busing jobs will have higher costs, though, as will those that provide sick leave and safety equipment to their staff. It’s worth it. Don’t forget to tip well—waitstaff, cooks, and dishwashers are putting their lives at risk to bring you that burger or lobster roll.
What if you get sick on the road?
Dr. William Lang, medical director at WorldClinic medical practice, adds that every traveler needs a plan. “Simply assuming you will not get COVID-19 is not a good plan. Who will you call if you get COVID-19?” he asks. “If you get it, how will you protect your loved ones? Do you have a plan to limit its spread? Is the plan informed by destination risk?” Be sure to find out if your healthcare plan or travel insurance even cover COVID 19-related costs. Traveling is no longer as simple as booking a hotel and a flight.
Fever checks and COVID-19 tests
Travel, by its very nature, has risks. If the stresses of travel outweigh the benefits, question whether you should do it. Similarly, don’t put all your faith in a negative COVID-19 test or fever checks. While they can help in preventing viral transmission on the road, they can also give you a false sense of security.
Temperature checks are becoming the norm not only in airports but also in theme parks and even some hotels and restaurants. But people with non-transmissible illnesses can run a temp, and many infectious COVID-19 patients don’t have a fever—or any symptoms—at all. “Relying on a fever as an indicator of COVID-19 in and of itself is not effective,” says Sanchez. Rather, fever checks are “one additional tool that can be used to protect symptomatic individuals from infecting others.”
Like fever checks, more and more destinations are requiring a negative COVID-19 test to visit, either before you leave or on arrival. There are several types of COVID-19 tests, with molecular ones like RT-PCR tests seen as most reliable. But inconclusive test results aren’t unusual and false negatives “may be as high as 30 percent,” says Kammeyer.
Even if we could be sure a negative test means you’re COVID-free, you could get infected while walking out of the testing center. Still, says Malkin, “getting tested close to your travel date can help to put your mind at ease and reduce the likelihood you are infected pre-travel.”
Johanna Read is a Canadian writer and photographer specializing in responsible tourism. A former Canadian government policy executive, she’s worked on issues ranging from pandemic influenza to refugee determination. Follow her on