Flight Experts Weigh In on Traveling During Covid: Here’s How to Stay Safe
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Whether you’re planning an essential trip or a post-pandemic getaway, one thing’s for certain: traveling will change because of the coronavirus. After months of sheltering in place, Americans are treating their cabin fever with local staycations and long-distance road trips in record numbers. And as perceptions that the threat of Covid-19 is easing up (fact check: it’s not), travelers are likely going to feel safer taking to the skies.
“The world as we knew it is never going to be the same,” says Dr. Robert Quigley, an infectious disease expert and Senior Vice President and Global Medical Director at International SOS and its subsidiary, MedAire. “Regardless of what happens in the next six, nine, or 12 months, or two years, we are always going to be much more aware of personal hygiene, infection control spreading of common colds. The coronavirus has created a whole new heightened awareness that is never going to go away.”
But is it really safe to board a plane right now? It all depends on how well you prepare, says the former immunologist and thoracic surgeon. He tells Rolling Stone that he hasn’t flown in four months; for comparison, his pre-pandemic schedule involved weekly flights around the world, including to his company’s headquarters in London and Singapore.
International travel is “hovering well below 50%, and domestic is a little less than that, but it’s rising,” says Quigley. That’s concerning because the best way to curb the spread of the virus is by limiting exposure, such as by traveling, he says.
Is Flying Safe During the Coronavirus?
Travelers need to remember that social distancing and “universal precautions” (such as washing your hands with soap and water and wearing a face mask) are effective in preventing exposure to airborne droplets that cause Covid-19, Quigley explains. “If you’re going to travel through airports, you want to try to adhere to those two best practices as best as possible. The social distancing is going to be a challenge on airplanes, as you are putting yourself at risk” being in close proximity to others, he explains.
Once you’ve boarded your flight, you’ll want to keep your masks on as long as possible, he continues. Airplanes are equipped with HEPA filters that catch 99.9% of particles as small as 0.1 to 0.3 microns, so they are effective in filtering the Covid-19 particle, which is about 0.1 microns but usually binds to something larger. “What we can rely on is the good air movement, which is almost more important than the air filter themselves,” says Quigley. So even if someone on the flight is infected, “you’re very unlikely to inhale a load of virus that’s enough to affect you,” he notes.
One former frequent flier who has put those precautions to the test is Carlye Wisel, a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who covers theme parks and travel. Before March, Wisel was on a plane about every 10 days for personal and professional trips. Even before the coronavirus, she already adhered to a rigorous cleaning routine that involved wiping down her plane seat and other surfaces with disinfectant wipes.
Wisel’s first mid-pandemic flight brought her to Orlando to report on the reopening of Walt Disney World and its effect on employees and the local economy. The journey to the Magic Kingdom is a route she knows well, considering she has a preferred airline and departure and arrival days and times. “I changed everything I did with that flight,” she says, including switching from her go-to airline to one that had stricter safety protocols. “This was the first time when someone didn’t snicker when I wiped my seat down,” she adds.
What Do You Need to Travel During Covid-19?
If possible, Quigley recommends wearing an N95 mask instead of just a cloth face covering, which is good for “protecting other people from me in case I’m an asymptomatic carrier” of Covid-19. Also called an N95 respirator, “[it’s] a mask that we know will prevent inhalation of the virus, assuming they’re worn properly. I’d wear a face shield as well,” he adds. “Avoid touching your eyes and mouth too,” he says.
Related: Shop N95 and KN95 Masks Online Here
For her work trip, Wisel says she wore a KN95 mask (which is certified differently than N95) underneath a cloth face covering at the airport and during her flight, and made a conscious decision to sit in an empty area of the terminal. She avoided removing her masks while at the airport except for during check-in (when identification is needed), and didn’t eat or drink until she left her arrival airport.
Although studies show that the coronavirus doesn’t survive well on soft surfaces and shoes, Wisel says she took extra precautions at her hotel room and created a “decontamination area” for all germs at the front door where she left any items (such as clothing and bags) that were exposed to benches and other public surfaces. While her measures seem “extreme,” she says, she points out that visiting a theme park — albeit for work — during a pandemic was a major risk, and her precautions helped her feel “in control of what’s happening.”
Quigley also strongly suggests preparing for the worst. That means bringing enough clothing, medicine, and any other essential supplies for at least 14 days in the event you need to be quarantined. “Lots of people who are dependent on medications may need an extra two-week supply,” he says. Think heart medication, insulin, antidepressants, inhalers, and other prescriptions or over-the-counter medicine that may be hard to get when traveling, or that require special storage. “Nothing worst than being somewhere that may not have the drug that you need, or it may be illegal [in some countries].”
You should also clothing, accessories, and footwear for the weather at any layovers and your final destination. “We have to be very, very proactive and think through all of the elements of, ‘What would happen if I get stuck here?’,” says Quigley.
In addition to checking TSA and CDC‘s travel websites before you pack, Quigley says these are other key things to keep in mind:
- Know your destination’s rules and regulations: Read up on your arrival airport and city’s mandates on masks, and whether they have any special requirements, such as showing proof of a negative Covid-19 test.
- Bring extra masks, hand sanitizer, and sanitizing wipes: You won’t want to be stuck without them if they’re sold out at your destination (here’s where to find disinfectant wipes in stock)
- Be more aware of your surroundings: As many cities have instituted six-foot-distance rules, Quigley notes that should be more mindful of others as you’re waiting in lines at the airport and elsewhere.
- Minimize unnecessary items: It might be tempting to bring things such as no-touch tools (a.k.a. a “touchless door opener“), which may appear as weapons during screening. It’s also one more thing to account for, so avoid bringing those if it’s not essential.
- Consider packing your own food: Some airlines have limited their food and drink services or suspended them altogether for flights under a certain mileage.
Related: Where to Find Disinfectant Wipes Online
What are the Latest TSA Updates for Coronavirus?
To keep staff and travelers as safe as possible, the TSA has instituted new rules to its security guidelines. The latest TSA Covid-19 procedures as of this writing include:
- PPE for TSA officers: All agents will wear face masks, gloves, and eye protection or face shields. Officers will also change gloves after every pat-down and at the passenger’s request.
- Social distancing: There will be at least six feet of distance between employees and passengers at security checkpoints and during the screening process.
- Reduced physical contact: The agency is rolling out acrylic barriers at checkpoints, and travelers will place their boarding passes directly onto scanners instead of handing the documents to TSA officers (who will inspect items visually).
- Additional cleaning and disinfecting: Frequently touched surfaces at checkpoints and equipment such as security screening bins will be cleaned and disinfected more rigorously and frequently.
- Exemptions for the 3-1-1 rule: Passengers will be allowed to carry up to 12 ounces (instead of the usual 3.4 ounces) of liquid hand sanitizer on carry-on bags. Just note that because they exceed the standard liquid allowance, they’ll be screened separately which could take extra time (here’s where to find hand sanitizer in stock).
- Accepting expired driver’s licenses and REAL IDs: State-issued IDs or driver’s licenses that have expired on or after March 1, 2020 can be used as acceptable identification. The enforcement deadline for the REAL ID has been extended to October 1, 2021.
- Screening food: Unless you’re a TSA PreCheck member, food items on carry-on bags will be screened.
What are the Best Travel Accessories for Covid-19 Safety?
If it’s necessary for you to take a flight during the pandemic, you’ll want to follow all safety mandates and take extra precautions. We’ve rounded up some Covid-19 travel essentials as well as other handy accessories for making your trip stress-free — check out our top picks below.
1. Disposable KN95 Masks
These five-layer disposable KN95 masks come in a pack of 20. They feature an adjustable nose wire and elastic ear loops for comfort, too.
Daylead, the manufacturer of these particular non-medical face masks, are included on the FDA Emergency Use Authorization List, and the CDC’s test also found that efficiency was above 95%. The safest KN95 masks to use will meet both of these guidelines.
Disposable KN95 Face Masks (20-pack), $29.95, available at DMB Supply
2. iPanda Safety Face Shields
These full-length face shields are made of transparent, recyclable, and waterproof PET, which protects you effectively from droplets, saliva, and other liquids and sprays. The lightweight visors feature a wrap-around design so that the sides of your face are covered, and they won’t fog up, either.
An elastic band keeps the shields comfortable on your head. You can order them in quantities of 10, 50, or 100 here.
iPanda Safety Face Shields (10-pack), $34.95, available at DMB Supply
3. Public Goods Hand Sanitizer
This gentle, lightly scented hand sanitizer contains the FDA-recommended 62% ethyl alcohol for killing germs, while the glycerin and aloe vera keep your skin soft and moisturized. It’s free of harsh chemicals such as benzalkonium chloride and triclosan, so it’s safe for sensitive skin and kids. It’s also paraben-free and not tested on animals.
Hand Sanitizer (12 ounces), $7.50, available at Public Goods
4. Clorox Disinfecting Bleach-Free Wipes
These triple-layer disinfectant wipes come in a handy travel pack, so they’re easy to stash in your carry-on. They kill up to 99.99% of germs and 99% of allergens on a variety of surfaces, including wood, sealed granite, stainless steel, bathroom and kitchen counters, and more. You’ll get three 75-count packs of disposable wipes, which you can also order conveniently via Amazon Alexa.
Clorox Disinfecting Bleach-Free Wipes, 75 count (3-pack), $11.95 available at Amazon (Note: If out of stock, we’ve found disinfectant wipes here)
5. Calpak 5-Piece Packing Cube Set
Traveling can already be a stressful endeavor, but organizing your belongings will be one less thing to worry about with these helpful set of packing cubes. The set includes two small cubes (12 inches by 8 3/4-inches by three inches), a medium cube (15 inches by 11 inches by three inches), a large cube (17 inches by 12 inches by three inches), and a waterproof wet/dry envelope pouch (13 inches by 10 inches).
They’re made of lightweight polyester that won’t add extra weight to your load, and they feature a breathable mesh front and ID tag so you can easily see and label what’s inside. It makes it easy if TSA needs to look through your stuff, keeping everything neatly compartmentalized and in one place. These organizing travel bags also come in a variety of stylish colors to match your luggage.
Calpak 5-Piece Packing Cube Set, $58, available at Nordstrom
6. Away Bigger Carry-On
Another one of our favorite must-haves for easy travel is Away’s light-as-a-feather hard shell rolling suitcases, which are made of durable polycarbonate that are easy to wipe clean with disinfectants. We love the Bigger Carry-On size, which measures 22.7 inches by 14.7 inches by 9.7 inches, and weighs only 8.4 pounds. Thanks to the interior compression system, you can really pack a lot into this luggage, which has a capacity of 47.9 liters.
This carry-on luggage fits in most plane overhead bins, and it’s also an ideal size for longer trips. What we really like about this suitcase — and the rest of travel company’s products — is the thoughtful, convenient design: think a removable laundry bag, an ejectable device charger, TSA-approved combination locks, smooth zippers, and 360-degree spinner wheels that are easy to push and pull on most surfaces.
Away The Bigger Carry-On, $245, available at Away
7. Medicine RX Safe Medication Travel Bag
This sturdy medication holder measures 10.2 inches long by 7.5 inches wide by 1.6 inches tall and can be used as a versatile travel organizer. The mesh pockets and elastic bands are great for holding different sizes of prescription medication bottles, while the large plastic zippered compartment can hold toiletries and other items. If security is a concern, this bag also has a TSA-friendly combination lock.
Medicine RX Safe Medication Travel Bag, $24.95, available at Amazon
8. PhoneSoap 3 UV Smartphone Sanitizer and Universal Charger
UV lamps should not be used to disinfect skin as the radiation can cause irritation or damage the eyes, however, they are effective for zapping away 99.99% of bacteria and germs. Per the FDA, UV-C radiation can potentially inactivate the virus that causes Covid-19, but the effective duration of exposure and dose is still unknown.
If you’re concerned about everyday germs, then this UV smartphone sanitizer can disinfect your smartphone, keys, headphones, credit cards, and any other items that can fit inside the 360-degree UV-C sanitizing compartment. The interior measures 3.74 inches long by 6.8 inches wide by .78 inches deep, so it can hold a range of phones including the iPhone 11 Pro Max, the Google Pixel 4 XL, or the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra.
It also has two charging ports (one USB and one USB-C), so you can clean your screen and make sure your battery has enough juice at the same time.
PhoneSoap3 UV Smartphone Sanitizer and Universal Charger, $79.99, available at Amazon
9. Heroclip Carabiner Clip and Hook
Pandemic or not, this travel-friendly hook clip comes in handy when you’ve got baggage that you prefer stays off the ground (say, in the airport bathroom). The medium-sized carabiner measures three inches by 3.75 inches, and it’s strong enough to hold heavy items up to 60 pounds, such as bikes and luggage.
We like that the convenient 360-degree swivel and two folding joints make it versatile for a range of activities (like hiking and camping) or in your garage or gym. It’s also available in smaller or larger sizes.
Heroclip Medium Carabiner Clip and Hook, $19.95, available at Amazon
10. Eagle Creek Undercover Money Belt DLX
It’s always a good idea to keep your ID, boarding pass, money, and other essentials easily accessible when traveling, and this lightweight money belt is a great way to keep those items organized on your person. The zippered compartments, slim design, and moisture-wicking fabric make it comfortable to wear (even in hot climates), and the front buckle makes this pouch easy for you (but not potential thieves) to undo when it’s time to go through airport screening checkpoints.
Eagle Creek Undercover Money Belt DLX, $20.95, available at Backcountry
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