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- COVID cases are up with Delta and Omicron variants, but experts say you can still travel safely for the holidays — as long as you take precautions.
- The best precautions for travel are getting vaccinated with a booster and wearing a mask in public.
- Additional items like at-home COVID tests and hand sanitizer can also help you travel safer.
COVID cases are on the rise again with the contagious Delta and Omicron variant. Initial reports do indicate that while Omicron spreads quickly, it might be milder than the first COVID variants, at least for vaccinated people.
But taking precautions when you travel is still essential, whether or not you’re vaccinated. Everyone must wear a mask over their nose and mouth on planes, buses, trains, taxis, and other forms of public transportation. And all experts agree the best way to protect yourself and others is to get your vaccine, including the booster, if you’re eligible.
What’s more, if you’re traveling internationally, make sure you read up on your destination’s specific rules to visit, as most require proof of vaccination and certification that you’ve had a recent negative COVID test. Many experts also recommend taking a COVID test before and after you travel regardless of if it’s required.
While it’s relatively safe to travel, that’s only true if you take proper precautions. We’ve talked to three experts about everything you need to know to travel safely in the fall and winter of 2021, whether you’re flying or driving, vaccinated or not.
Here are the new essentials everyone should pack before traveling:
- Vaccine passport: CommonPass
- N95 mask: Kimberly-Clark N95 Respirator
- KN95 mask: Powecom KN95 masks, 10 pack
- Disposable mask: DemeTech DemeMask Surgical Mask
- Fabric face masks: Herschel Classic Fitted Face Mask
- Face masks with removable filter: Halo Life Nanofilter Mask
- Face masks for kids: Onzie Mindful Masks (2-Pack)
- At-home COVID test: EmpowerDX At-Home COVID-19 PCR Test
- Portable hand sanitizer: Touchland Power Mist Sanitizer Spray
- Travel-sized disinfectant wipes: Clorox Disinfectant Wipes To Go
- A smartphone sanitizer: PhoneSoap 3 Smartphone UV Sanitizer
- Packing cubes: eBags Hyperlite Packing Cubes
- Tape to help your face mask fit better: Cabeau Tape
- A mask bracket for added comfort: HeartFormSF Mask Bracket
- Reusable bags for safety gear: Stasher Reusable Silicone Bag
Vaccination against the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the most important and effective way we can reduce the spread and severity of COVID-19, David Aronoff, MD, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Insider during his medical review of this piece.
“While masks, reduced crowding, and social distancing are among the many things we can do to reduce the spread of COVID-19, vaccination has been shown to protect against getting infected, reduce the risk of symptoms or severe disease, and prevent death,” he said.
Be sure that anyone in your traveling party (or meeting you at your destination) is vaccinated if they are eligible and vaccines are available in their country, and that they’ve received their booster vaccine dose, which is now available for most people who’ve already been immunized.
Additionally, all travelers should ask themselves before they go: Can I afford to be trapped somewhere if I or one of my travel companions gets COVID and can’t travel home? “If the answer is no, stay home,” Dr. Aronoff added.
If you are traveling, Dr. Aronoff encourages checking your health insurance carefully to find out where and how to seek medical attention if you need it and exactly what your policy covers. Some countries require proof of travel health insurance that covers COVID to enter their borders. Dr. Aronoff also suggested having a plan for where you’d go to get care if you got sick and how you’d quarantine from the people you’re visiting.
Whether you’re vaccinated or not, driving or flying, remember the basics of COVID travel: Wear the best mask you can (ideally an N95-type mask), making sure it fits snuggly without gaps at the sides (layering two masks can help), and keep your distance from people outside your household as much as possible.
Then, pack a portable COVID-19 safety kit, whether flying or driving.
Proof of vaccination
Again, getting the COVID vaccine is the best thing you can do to stay safe and keep others safe while traveling during the pandemic. Many countries require proof of vaccination before entering their borders, and even if you’re traveling domestically, it’s a good idea to have proof with you just in case a public space or business upon arrival requires it.
If you want to travel with your physical vaccine card, we suggest putting it in a protective vinyl casing. But there are also a handful of apps, such as CommonPass and VeriFLY, that allow you to upload proof of vaccine and even connect PCR test results so you have proof of your low-risk all in one place.
Masks for adults
Masks are required on all airlines, regardless of your vaccination status or where you’re flying. They’re also recommended for any public place while driving, like public restrooms or service stations.
As coronavirus is an airborne virus, wearing a mask is still one of the key ways to reduce spreading or getting COVID, especially in an indoor, crowded place like an airport or airplane, Joyce Sanchez, MD, medical director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin tells Insider.
Wearing the right mask the right way helps to protect not only the people around you but the wearer too.
Nearly everyone can safely wear a mask, other than those who can’t put on or take off a mask themselves. This includes those with chronic lung and heart problems, Dr. Sanchez says. “Even if it feels harder to breathe while wearing a mask, it doesn’t actually affect how much oxygen your body gets,” she assures.
Why are masks so important? Think of the COVID virus like cigarette smoke spreading indoors — it flows throughout the space (beyond 6 feet from the person who exhaled it and around plexiglass barriers) and can hang in the air for hours, even after the person is no longer in the room.
Considering its spreadability, and given how contagious the Delta variant is, it’s more important than ever to wear a well-fitting mask to both prevent spreading the virus to others and inhaling it yourself.
N95-type masks are best now that they’re no longer in short supply like early in the pandemic, followed by KN95 masks (both technically called respirators rather than masks). Both seal the sides of the face and top of the nose to minimize any gaps where air can leak, and offer additional filtration of air as you breathe, Dr. Sanchez explains.
However, counterfeits are common, so check the CDC’s list of approved masks and suppliers. A quick way to tell is that real N95s have straps around the back of the head instead of ear loops and a TC number (e.g., 84A-XXX for U.S.-approved N95s).
After N95s and KN95s, a three-layer cloth mask is your next best option. The outside two layers should be a tightly-woven fabric like cotton or linen and the middle a filter fabric, either built-in or added-in by you (a folded paper towel works great).
It’s important that your mask fits snugly to trap the potentially-infected air particles rather than leaking through the edges of the mask and being directly inhaled, Abe Malkin, MD, MBA, the founder and medical director of Concierge MD LA, tells Insider. Make sure there are no gaps around the edges of your mask — a detail of equal importance regardless of if you’re vaccinated or not.
If your mask has gaps on the top or sides or if you only have a single-ply mask, it’s smart to double up with a disposable surgical-type mask underneath and a tighter cloth mask over top. And if your mask slips down under your nose as you talk, it’s a sure sign you need a better-fitting mask.
Skip the neck gaiters and bandanas — early reports that they’re worse than no mask at all were likely overblown, but researchers do know real masks are more effective. Plus, many airlines don’t allow them anyway.
Masks for kids
A well-fitting mask is the most important factor for anyone, so children should use masks made for kids, Dr. Malkin says, adding “adult masks are too big for them.”
If kids can help choose their own supplies, it increases the chance they’ll use them. Dr. Malkin advises opting for a mask with a character or designs your child likes to increase the chance that they’ll keep it on when you’re not looking.
Masks are generally required on planes for kids 5 and older, though sometimes it’s 2 or older (check your airline’s requirements before you go). And Dr. Aranoff advises all kids over 2 years old should wear one in indoor, public places unless they physically can’t. The CDC does not recommend masks for children under 2.
Kids need multiple masks just like adults, so stash a few extras in their backpacks and in the car, Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University tells Insider.
At-home COVID-19 test
Most countries require you to have proof of a negative COVID test to enter. Taking one is a good idea even if you’re traveling domestically, especially if you’re unvaccinated, the CDC advises.
Even if your destination doesn’t require it and even if you’re vaccinated, it’s wise to get a COVID test both before you travel and after you arrive to minimize the chance of spreading the virus to vulnerable people. “If you are planning on visiting others, make sure to get tested to ensure everyone’s safety,” Dr. Malkin adds.
For international or domestic travel, the CDC recommends that people who aren’t vaccinated take a COVID test one to three days before you leave, keep your distance from others as much as possible while traveling, and once you return home, take another viral test and self-isolate for a full seven days. If you don’t get a viral test, you should isolate for 10 days. Either way, avoid being around high-risk folks for 14 days.
As for where to get a COVID test, many towns have free testing sites. But you can also snag an at-home rapid antigen test or, slightly less common, more accurate molecular tests (such as a PCR test). Just remember, the tests aren’t 100% foolproof.
Many at-home tests require you to mail in a nasal swab or spit tube to be processed in a lab. But newer tests (both antigen and molecular) available in some countries let you get your results online in as little as 45 minutes, with some antigen tests delivering results right in front of you, within 15 minutes. (Just be sure to follow the instructions closely and know that the tests can give a false negative.)
Most tests that are supervised by a health professional over video provide you with the certification you need for flights. Just make sure you know the precise time window to do your test and get the certification back before your flight.
When our team researched and tested the leading at-home COVID tests on the market throughout 2021, we found EmpowerDX Nasal to be the most accurate, covered by most insurance or the cheapest test available out of pocket and turns results around within two days of the lab receiving the sample. Dr. Sanchez also recommends the Abbott at-home antigen test kit, which offers six tests for $150.
Dr. Sanchez recommends each person bring at least two approved at-home test kits that meet the testing requirements when traveling internationally in case there’s a problem with one or you need to re-test. “You do not want to be stuck or delayed in returning home because you have not prepared for that required step,” she adds.
Hand soap, sanitizer, and wipes
Traveling exposes you to tons of germs — viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and fungi — outside of COVID that can cause illnesses. It’s super important to clean your hands before and after you eat, in particular. The best way: Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and then dry them thoroughly with a paper or cloth towel (rather than an air blower).
But since that’s not always possible, the second-best option is to use hand sanitizer. Always pack one with at least 60% alcohol in your carry-on, and rub it all over your hands, even the nooks and crannies, until it evaporates.
Antibacterial hand wipes are less ideal since they sometimes contain harmful chemicals and may contribute to antibiotic resistance. But in a pinch, they’re definitely better than having unclean hands. Keep in mind that most wipes are formulated for objects and not for skin, Dr. Malkin points out. As with hand sanitizer, the formula needs to be at least 60% alcohol to kill viruses.
Keeping high-touch surfaces clean is important, but don’t obsess over disinfecting every surface you come into contact with, Dr. Sanchez told us — you’re not at all likely to acquire COVID by touching an infected surface. This is especially true when driving; there’s no need to wipe down your car handles or steering wheel, for example.
That being said, high-touch surfaces on planes — armrests, tray tables, in-flight entertainment screens — can transmit germs, so it’s wise to wipe down surfaces around your seat with a disinfectant wipe.
Be sure to clean your phone too — you might be surprised by how dirty it actually is. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for how to clean it and try to use it only with clean hands. (But be careful: Some cleaners can ruin your screen.)
When flying, carry-on storage is essential to make it easy to access hand sanitizer and other essential items. Ideally, your carry-on bag has multiple pockets so you can keep things like food and extra masks separate from dirty items. You can also use a small pouch to keep these essentials right on top (we like these durable, zippered pouches from Baboon to the Moon).
We also recommend having a few plastic bags available to store dirty masks, in addition to things like used disinfectant wipes or tissues until you can find a trash can. You’ll want one for your car and in your carry-on.
It’s also helpful to have a designated clean storage bag where you can put your mask when you take it off to eat away from dirty surfaces or other people’s breath, Dr. Sanchez advises. Avoid placing your mask on a table or your arm to minimize germ contamination.
What you should leave at home
You don’t need to bring gloves with you traveling. First of all, COVID-19 is transmitted by breathing, not by touching things and then touching your face. Regardless, germs can live on the surface of a latex glove, the same as skin, Dr. Malkin says. Plus, “some people become too relaxed when they are wearing gloves. They do not realize they are at more risk for spreading [germs] because they are touching multiple personal items in between other things,” he adds.
Studies have suggested that people who wear gloves tend not to wash their hands as often or notice when gloves get dirty or damaged. It’s also easy to contaminate your hands when removing gloves. Plus, we don’t need any more COVID-19 waste than we already have.
How important are face shields? “As we do not have data to support the use of face shields in protecting individuals from acquiring COVID-19 in the community setting, they should not be used as a substitute for a well-fitting mask,” Dr. Sanchez says.
She added that while she saw no downside to adding a face shield to your travel safety kit, “they are not an equivalent substitute for face masks.” They might provide protection if someone sneezes in your direction, for example, but they don’t protect others from any virus you may be carrying.
If you do need to travel, driving is generally safer than flying commercially, Dr. Sanchez says. If you drive, you have control over who shares the car with you, where you stop along the way, and when you return.
If you’re fully vaccinated and wearing a well-fitting mask, it’s generally safe to fly from a COVID-19 transmission standpoint, she adds.
Just keep in mind that you’re most likely to transmit or catch the coronavirus when in close proximity to an infected person, especially in situations where people aren’t wearing masks at all or wearing them properly. That means airport lines are an issue (sitting on the plane much less so, as we’ll explain below), as is driving with anyone not already in your household bubble. Eating indoors — since people have no choice but to remove their masks — is high risk.
Regardless of your mode of transportation, it’s important to be diligent with precautions.
Remember that COVID is spread by people breathing and talking, not by touching surfaces. If you’re driving, you don’t need to wipe down your steering wheel. But it can bring peace of mind to clean your hands before getting in; have hand sanitizer at the ready before and after you eat, and for after you use a gas pump and public restroom, for example.
Choose restaurants where staff are diligent about wearing masks. Keep your mask on unless you’re actively eating or drinking, and try to eat outdoors or in your car.
Use public restrooms for bathroom breaks. Pulling over for a roadside bathroom break is actually illegal throughout the U.S. Just wear a mask and try to wait outside in a well-ventilated space for a free stall. If the toilet has a lid, close it to flush. (There’s evidence that the coronavirus can spread by flushing.)
Dr. Sanchez adds that you should assume public restrooms are not properly disinfected and that surfaces could be covered in many kinds of germs aside from COVID. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and then use a paper towel to dry your hands and turn off the tap and open the door. If you do touch anything on your way out, use your 60%-plus alcohol hand sanitizer.
Airports — especially with lines at security, boarding gates, and within the plane itself — are risky because of the close proximity to other people. Wear your mask at all times and keep as much distance from others as you can.
When the TSA has you lower your mask for identity verification, touch it from the ear loops rather than the middle to avoid transferring any germs on the fabric onto your hands. It’s wise to sanitize or wash your hands after you’ve touched security trays, not so much because of the coronavirus, but to protect yourself from other germs.
As for the plane itself, airlines have stepped up their disinfecting regimens. Many use electrostatic foggers nightly — sometimes between every flight. They spray a fine mist of disinfectant throughout the plane, and the electrostatic charge causes it to stick to all surfaces, not just fall to the floor.
Though COVID isn’t transmitted by touching things, don’t assume your flight has been freshly fogged with disinfectant. Planes can be filthy. It’s still wise to wipe down everything in your seat area with a disinfecting wipe like Clorox Ultra Clean Disinfecting Wipes; many airlines now hand out disinfecting wipes as you board, too.
If you bring your own, look for “disinfecting” and at least 60% alcohol on the label — a cleaning wipe rids your tray table of that splash of Coke, but it won’t kill bacteria and viruses. Settle into your seat and wipe down everything you’re likely to touch: the seat belt, armrests, the tray table, the air vent, the window-shade handle, and all places you need to touch to operate the entertainment system.
Then, thoroughly clean your hands with sanitizer. The TSA increased the size limit for sanitizer during the pandemic, and until further notice, you’re allowed to bring one bottle that’s up to 12 ounces in your carry-on bag. If you’re flying internationally, note that some countries maintain the 3-ounce limit.
You might be worried about sitting in an enclosed space for hours, but the air on planes is cleaner than in many indoor places, and airlines’ mandatory mask policies help protect everyone from virus particles that anyone could be breathing out. A September 2021 peer-reviewed, real-world study showed that the risk of contracting COVID-19 on a plane is 0.1% thanks to mask policies, requiring negative COVID tests to fly, and planes’ hospital-grade air filtration systems.
When a plane cruises, the cabin air refreshes every three to four minutes, using both fresh air from outside and air that’s gone through HEPA filters that remove virtually all viruses.
However, if you need to eat or drink on a plane, it’s wise to wait a few minutes after the people around you have put their masks back on before you take yours off.
Minimize moving around on the plane, including wrestling carry-on luggage in and out of the overhead bin. If you need to use the restroom, be sure to close the toilet lid before you flush. After washing your hands for 20 seconds and drying them, use a paper towel to unlock and open the door. Avoid touching seatbacks as you return to your own, both to keep your hands clean (headrests are the dirtiest surfaces inside an airplane cabin) and so you don’t disturb other passengers.
After your flight, it’s smart to avoid crowds around the baggage carousel — wait until space clears before you grab your bag.
You’ll also want to check your destination’s latest COVID-19 rules for arriving passengers. Some countries require everyone, whether vaccinated or not, to have a negative COVID-19 test on arrival and self-isolate until it’s confirmed negative.
For this article, we deeply researched across leading health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). We also spoke with the following experts:
- Joyce Sanchez, MD, the medical director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin
- Dr. Abe Malkin, MD, MBA, the founder and medical director of Concierge MD LA
- Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University
This piece was also medically reviewed for accuracy before publishing by Dr. David Aronoff, MD, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
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