As domestic air travel is picking up and airlines are seeing an increase in summer travel, many of us may be tempted to book a much deserved vacation. However, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are also surging in certain places, and the CDC is still advising against non-essential travel. So while it may not be wise to book a leisure trip just yet, there may be circumstances where you have no option but to fly—for work or for emergencies, to name a few. In these cases, you should know the proper precautions to protect yourself.
Most viruses don't spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on planes. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals, which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces”. This is why taking extra precautions before your flight is important. From booking your flight to boarding the plane, each part of your trip will require some extra planning. Beyond the CDC’s recommendations of wearing a face mask, regularly washing your hands, and social distancing, we’ve gathered advice from experts and suggestions from people who have already been flying amid the pandemic to help you every step of the way. Here are our COVID-19 travel tips for remaining as safe as possible before, during, and after your flight.
Booking Your Trip
If after assessing all other avenues you come to the decision that flying is absolutely necessary, the next step is selecting an airline - and for this, you’ll want to do your research. While your first instinct may be to choose an airline based on price, you should base your decision on the airline’s in-flight COVID-19 protocols. How are they cleaning the plane interior between flights? Are they screening temperatures before boarding? Are they capping capacity and blocking middle seats to enforce social distancing? Are face coverings required? These in-flight procedures should be easily accessible on each airline’s website. You may also want to look into an airline’s current change and cancellation policies. The Points Guy keeps an up-to-date list of major carrier’s policies here.
Once you decide on an airline, you’re ready to purchase your ticket. Below are a few expert-recommended tips to consider before you book:
1. Book an Early or Red-Eye Flight
The most effective way to reduce your risk of contracting the virus is to avoid in-person contact with people. While it’s nearly impossible to avoid people when flying, you can limit the number of people you’ll be in the air with by booking an emptier flight. With certain airlines beginning to book full capacity flights again, your best bet is to book your flight at the times no one wants to fly - early morning and red-eye flights.
2. Upgrade, if Possible
If your travel policy allows and you’re in a situation to do so, now is a good time to upgrade to business or first-class travel using your mileage points or cash. These areas of the airplane allow for more personal space and less contact with other passengers - and therefore, less risk.
3. Opt For a Window Seat
If your airline’s policy allows you to pick your seat while booking online, infection specialists suggest booking a window seat. Selecting the window offers you a bit more protection because it reduces the number of people sitting around you and is farther from the aisle where passengers and flight staff walk by.
Packing For Your Trip
The coronavirus has changed everything about air travel, down to our carry-on bag packing list. Our carry-on bags are typically filled with electronics, headphones, chargers, a book, an eye mask, neck pillow, and other items intended for our comfort, entertainment, and making the flight more enjoyable. Now, we're adding our health and safety to that list. We’ve rounded up 7 essential items for safe travel that you’ll want to make room for in your carry-on bag.
1. Extra Masks
Bring a face mask or face covering to wear at all times at the airport and on the plane. All major U.S. airlines are requiring passengers to wear them. Some airlines, including United, American, and Delta, are banning passengers who refuse to wear masks. For extra precaution, be sure to pack multiple masks as a backup in case your mask malfunctions.
2. Face Shield
While people are actively protecting their mouth, nose, and hands, many are overlooking protecting another key body part - the eyes. Like the nose and mouth, our eyes are also mucous membranes where germs can infect the body. Face shields are an effective way of protecting the eyes. If you don’t have a face shield, experts recommend goggles, glasses, or sunglasses. According to a recent study, wearing eye protection may make COVID-19 transmission about three times less likely.
3. Hand Sanitizer
Bring your own alcohol-based hand sanitizer and use it regularly. The TSA has relaxed its liquid rule for hand sanitizers and is now allowing travelers to pack a hand sanitizer bottle holding up to 12 ounces instead of the usual 3.4-ounce limit in their carry-on bag.
4. Disinfectant Wipes
Travelers are also permitted to bring individually-packaged alcohol or anti-bacterial wipes in both carry-on and checked luggage. Jumbo containers of hand wipes are also allowed in carry-on or checked luggage.
5. Portable UV Sterilizer
According to a recent study, we touch our phones alone about 100 times per hour. Instead of wiping down these items between each use, there is a much easier and effective way to sanitize our most often-touched items. Ultraviolet, or UV, sanitizers are reusable and a reliable way to clean any surface of germs that are spread by touching. Not only do UV sanitizers serve as sanitizers, but many also have an add-in bonus functionality to them like a charging station for electronic devices.
6. Plastic Ziplock Bags
Bring plastic zip bags for personal items that TSA may handle, such as your ID. Be sure to pack extra bags so you can put these items in a new bag after you get the chance to disinfect them.
7. Snacks and an Empty Water Bottle
In an attempt to limit interactions between passengers and flight attendants, several airlines have reduced or stopped food and beverage service on flights. While there are still open grab-and-go retailers and restaurants in airports, it’s better to skip them altogether and instead pack food and snacks from home in your carry-on bag. We recommend also packing an empty or reusable water bottle to fill up at airport water fountains once you clear security. Consider a water bottle with a straw. This will make it easier to drink without removing your mask.
At the Airport
Fortunately, TSA has made changes to its security procedures. Some changes you will notice include TSA officers wearing masks and gloves and changing gloves after each pat-down, plastic barriers, and fewer open screening lanes due to fewer travelers. Social distancing and face masks are also required for travelers. Once you enter the airport, your face mask should stay on at all times. The only exception should be if TSA asks for it to be removed or adjusted in order to verify your identity. Beyond the precautions TSA is enforcing, here are a few more steps you can take.
1. Check Your Luggage Curbside
If you can make the trip with just a carry-on, this will reduce the number of times your luggage is handled. However, if you have to check a bag, consider using the curbside service to avoid waiting in baggage lines with other travelers.
2. Use Touchless Check-in Options
Skip check-in kiosks and desks by checking into your flight via the airline’s app and downloading the boarding pass directly to your phone. This allows for fewer interactions and forgoes the need to hand over your ticket.
3. Avoid TSA Bins
Before going through security, avoid using the high-touch bins. TSA recommends travelers place personal items such as keys, wallets, and cell phones in carry-on bags to be screened through the X-ray system.
4. Eat Before Your Flight
We might all be used to packing snacks for on the plane, but we recommend eating them before or after your flight. When you reach your gate and find a spot where you can safely social distance and enjoy those snacks you packed in your carry-on. Eating before your flight will ensure you don’t remove your mask on the plane, minimizing your exposure
On the Plane
While it’s mainly up to the airline to minimize many of the risks associated with flying during COVID-19, there are steps passengers can take to decrease their chances of contracting the virus. Here are four tips we recommend:
1. Sanitize Your Seat and Other High-Touch Areas
Even though airlines are taking extra steps to sanitize the plane before flights, experts recommend playing it extra safe by wiping down all surfaces you may touch with disinfectant wipes (yes, they’re approved by TSA). These areas include the seat, armrests, seatbelt, tray table, air vent knob and light, and window covering(s).
2. Open Your Air Vent
Once in your seat, be sure to open the air vent. Almost all modern airplanes have HEPA (High-Efficiency Particle Arrester) filters which ensure the highest possible quality of cabin air. By opening your air vent, this creates an invisible air barrier around you that blocks any droplets that may have viruses within them.
3. Protect Your Eyes
Droplets can enter the body through your eyes, nose, and mouth, so it’s necessary to protect your eyes with a face shield, safety goggles, glasses, or sunglasses. This is an important protection measure for airplane passengers who will be in a small and closed cabin packed with people sitting close to each other for hours.
4. Avoid Leaving Your Seat
Once you reach your seat, stay put in order to limit the number of people and high-touch surfaces you come in contact with. With this in mind, make sure to use the restroom in the airport to avoid using the bathroom on the plane. If you are on a long flight and that isn’t possible, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly.
5. Limit the Number of Items You Use
Keep in mind that each item you take out of your carry on bag will need to be sanitized. To limit the number of items you use, it’s best to read and listen to music on one device, such as your cell phone rather than using a book, Kindle, or iPad. Make sure to sanitize your device between each use; consider packing a travel UV wand. Portable Ultraviolet wands and devices help mitigate some of the risks associated with touching objects that commonly transfer bacteria which can ultimately keep your hands cleaner from the get-go. For more information on UV sanitizers, checkout Differences in UV Sanitizers Explained.
While there is no way to make flying 100% safe during COVID-19, there are ways to make it safer. Before booking a flight, really consider your reason for flying. You should also take into account your destination. Are you traveling to a high-risk area? If you have to book a flight, be sure to stay up to date on travel advice, follow CDC recommendations, and the tips mentioned above to lessen your risk of infection.