How to Protect Yourself From Coronavirus During Your Travels

F. Bruna Ferreira

Published on
How to Protect Yourself From Coronavirus During Your Travels

As most people worldwide grapple with their country’s quarantine requirements, others find themselves worried about having to perform the so-called “essential travel.” If our regular routines already put us at risk of contracting COVID-19, it’s easy to imagine how travel maximizes that risk. Travel involves being in crowded places, touching money, using public transportation, and being in confined settings, just to mention a few. It also implies taking you out of your comfort zone. This might make you feel less prepared for atypical situations.

Here are tips on how to properly use protective personal equipment (PPE) and other measures you should be mindful of at the airport, during your flight and at your destination to travel safely. 

Each traveler’s situation is unique. Following our tips doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your own homework. Are you feeling sick? Do you really need to travel? What are the regulations in your destination? Assess your individual situation and use common sense before moving forward with any of the measures below.

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But first...What do we know about how coronavirus is transmitted?

To protect ourselves and others it’s important to first understand how the virus is spread. COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets that are passed on from infected people to others. The CDC explains that respiratory droplets, or aerosols, are produced when a person coughs, sneezes, and even talks. These can land in the mouths, noses, or eyes of people who are in close contact (within 6 feet) of an infected person and be inhaled into their lungs. You can also get coronavirus by touching contaminated surfaces and subsequently touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. 

Empty airport waiting lounge and woman with mask

Wear face coverings

There’s been a lot of debate about the effectiveness of masks and concern over the short supply of surgical masks and N95 respirators. Unless you’re a medical professional, as of now, the CDC recommends that people use simple cloth face coverings when out in public to slow the transmission of the virus. Covering your face aims to protect other people in case you’re infected and asymptomatic. As a bonus point, masks also unintentionally stop you from touching your face.  

Many American airports and airlines have already made the use of face coverings mandatory at check-in, gate areas and on-board. Some of the carriers that have applied this regime are American Airlines, Delta and United Airlines and even some of our low-cost friends like Frontier. 

Surgical masks & N95 respirators

If properly worn, surgical masks are meant to block large particles containing viruses and bacteria from reaching your mouth and nose. Surgical masks don’t filter smaller particles that may spread via coughs or sneezes, especially once the mask gets moist. Because of this, its loose fit and its inability to cover your eyes, surgical masks don’t provide complete protection against COVID-19. The more advanced N95 respirator, is designed to have a very close facial fit and highly efficient filtration of airborne particles. 

Face coverings

Face coverings are reusable masks made from cloth and are used as an alternative to surgical masks and N95 respirators. Some people are skeptical about the use of non-disposable masks as they aren’t certified and don’t have the same filtration material as the medical ones. As mentioned, the CDC does encourage the use of cloth face coverings and says that they can be made at home from common materials. 

Here’s CDC’s video on how to make a DIY mask at home:

Best practices on how to use a mask (whatever kind it is 😉):

You must be thinking that it’s no easy feat wearing a mask at the airport. Depending on your trip, you may spend a whole day traveling. Which means many meals and maybe going through border control a few times. Unfortunately, there will be moments where there’s no way around it, you’ll have to remove your mask for those situations. If you only have to take it off for a few seconds, like when using facial recognition machines, then you can carefully remove it as suggested above. Put it back on while only touching the ear ties. While you’re eating, place it cautiously in a small bag that you’re certain has been kept disinfected. If your flight is long or if you have a lengthy layover it can be smart to take an extra mask in case yours gets moist or is unintentionally contaminated.

Use gloves

As of today, the CDC doesn’t deem necessary the use of gloves unless you’re taking care of a sick person. However, they might come in handy at the airport when you aren’t able to wash your hands. If you do decide to wear gloves while traveling here are a few tips: 

Using your gloves correctly might seem harder than it looks. To effectively make use of them, you can’t touch anything that you’ll later touch with your bare hands. For example, if you use a self-service kiosk at the airport, don't go reaching for your phone right away as it might get dirty too. If you do, don’t forget to disinfect it! When using gloves, you should still avoid touching your face and cover your coughs and sneezes.

When you’re in-flight or simply don’t have a trash can around, carry a small lined plastic bag with you so you can throw away your gloves. Once available, you can safely and properly dispose of them.

Practice social distancing 

Social distancing is a fancy way of saying you should limit the times you’re in close contact with other people in order to reduce the chance of spreading the virus. This can be especially hard when you’re traveling, as you come in contact with hundreds of people in an enclosed space for a prolonged amount of time. 

Whenever possible, stay at least 6 feet away from other people. Avoid crowded lounges or sitting next to too many people in waiting areas. In-flight, if you’re lucky, social distancing will be facilitated by your airline through seat distancing. JetBlue for example, just announced it will block middle seats on its Airbus aircraft and aisle seats on its smaller Embraer 190. If that’s not your case, you can ask your flight attendant to switch to a row with fewer passengers. As scary as it may feel to be trapped in an aircraft, the CDC states that because of how air circulates and is filtered on planes, most viruses and other germs don’t spread easily.

At your destination, you should respect the quarantine requirements of the location you’re visiting. Make sure to do your due diligence as each country and US state have different rules for travelers. As simple as social distancing seems, this is one of the most important measures from the list and shouldn’t be taken lightly. 

Cover coughs and sneezes & stop touching your face

Without even realizing we touch our faces countless times a day. Yeah, think 20+ times in an hour. This seemingly harmless habit makes it easy for viruses to enter our bodies via our mouth, nose and eyes. 

One way of preventing the spread of coronavirus is by covering your coughs and sneezes. If you have a tissue readily available, cover your mouth and nose with it when you cough or sneeze. Then immediately dispose of the used tissue. Otherwise, cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hands. That way, you prevent cross-contamination.

Just like with your used gloves, if there aren’t trash cans readily available, dispose of your tissues in a designated lined plastic bag.

Man covering cough to his elbow

Cough and sneeze into your elbow

Wash your hands & use hand sanitizer

Washing your hands with soap and water is the most effective way to eliminate the virus. Traveling means touching a lot of things that were touched by other people. At check-in, security, lounges, immigration, boarding, hotels, plane arm-rests, public transportation, and the list goes on. All of this to say, when in doubt, wash your hands. Wash your hands often, especially...

To really get rid of any traces of the virus from your hands, that quick rinse pre-pandemic won’t cut it. Your handwashing should last from 20-30 seconds. Here’s the step-by-step of how you should do it:

Alcohol-based sanitizers can also quickly reduce the number of microbes on your hands. Even though sanitizers aren’t as effective as soap and water in eliminating germs, a small bottle of hand sanitizer will definitely come in handy during a trip when washing your hands isn’t an option. Similar to handwashing, the process of applying sanitizer to your hands should last about 20-30 seconds. You should apply the product to the palm of one hand, put down the container, and rub your hands together reaching for all crevices until the product dries. To be effective, the sanitizer needs to be at least 60% alcohol and your hands can’t be visibly dirty. And don’t forget to pack a travel size container so it can make it through security. TSA is now allowing one liquid hand sanitizer container up to 12 ounces per passenger which will be screened separately from the rest of your carry-on contents.  

Disinfect shared surfaces & clean your clothes

Studies indicate that COVID-19 can survive anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days on different surfaces. That means that cleaning surfaces that are touched by others is also critical to prevent the spread of the virus. 

To avoid touching airport kiosks or self check-in machines opt for online check-in. Save your digital boarding pass on your phone to refrain from touching a printed version that’ll ultimately be touched by others. 

During your flight, use disinfectant wipes or a spray to clean your arm rest, tray table and in-flight entertainment screen. If you want to be extra safe, bring your own set of utensils (plastic or even better, bamboo ones—just not metal) in case your airline doesn’t provide disposable ones. 

At your destination and place of lodging, be it a hotel or an AirBnB, practice routine cleaning of surfaces that are frequently touched like doorknobs, light switches, toilets, faucets, sinks, etc. If possible, remove your footwear and leave it at the door. If you touch objects that were touched by others, like tourist pamphlets or shopping bags, also disinfect those surfaces. If you order room service at your hotel make sure to clean your utensils. Also, wash your clothes after every outing and most definitely after your plane ride. 

The CDC provides good guidelines on how to clean and disinfect different surfaces and fabrics. 

Making sure you check all these boxes can feel like a lot right now. But as you get used to the world's “new normal” these measures will come to you naturally. As seen, airports and airlines are already thinking of ways to protect their travelers. If we help out by doing our own parts, we can all contribute to making travel feel safe again.  

F. Bruna Ferreira
Lisbon, Portugal
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