If you purchase an independently reviewed product or service through a link on our website, SPY.com may receive an affiliate commission.
The holiday season is nearly upon us, and for many in the US, in a non-2020 year, that means travel. With the COVID-19 health crisis surging nearly everywhere in the country many are aborting plans to see family or questioning how safe it is to travel and then stay with older family members who are more vulnerable to the virus. If you’re considering bailing on your parents or have a grandma who simply won’t take no for an answer — you should know, it’s a risk, but there are ways to make the journey safer for you and them than you may think.
In this piece I’m going to walk you through the state of the travel industry at the moment and how to keep yourself safe when traveling to loved ones this holiday season.
The COVID-19 health pandemic gave a swift gut punch to the travel industry this past year, with many airlines reporting losses in the tens of billions of dollars. It makes sense — with a potentially deadly viral upper respiratory infection going around who would want to be crammed in a flying sardine can with strangers? Even though the travel industry has incorporated numerous health and safety precautions including sanitizing planes between flights, requiring masks in airports and on flights, and leaving certain seats empty to aid in social distancing efforts, some are still wary. What does a flight in COVID times mean for your health and the health of those you’re visiting? The reviews are mixed, but health experts agree that it’s safer than you think.
I have taken numerous flights during the past year and have yet to contract COVID-19. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen on my next one, but there are ways to protect yourself and details of the plane’s air filtration system that are important to know about when making your decision about whether to fly or not.
COVID-19 Risk on Airplanes
While I’m no medical expert, it seems like the petri-dish classification of an airplane that was universally held early on in the pandemic is far from accurate. Planes, for the most part, are relatively safe when it comes to COVID-19, especially if everyone on the plane is wearing a mask. I’ve exclusively flown Delta, an airline that’s strictly upheld their mask policy and even turned planes around due to passengers refusing to wear them. This is not true of every airline, so do your research beforehand to see what your chosen airline’s policies are.
A 2018 study examined the transmission of droplets of respiratory illnesses across passengers on a flight and found that it was highly unlikely that an infected passenger would infect passengers seated beyond two seats on either side or one row to the front and back. That study was also done without masks. So, that means that airlines that are leaving the middle seat open are having an impact on the likelihood of infection for their passengers and that if everyone is wearing a mask, your risk goes down even more.
Air on planes is also circulated through high-efficiency particulate air filters or HEPA filters that reduce infection risk even more. The air circulation is done top to bottom in the cabin, so the air moves from your head to your feet and is filtered every 2-4 minutes. This makes plane safer air-wise than your average bar or restaurant, however passengers moving about the cabin could disrupt this airflow, raising the risk.
There also remains the risk present in airports from touching high-touch surfaces at gates and security, as well as waiting in the jetway and other areas where the ability to social distance is limited. Most medical professionals are still recommending individuals postpone non-essential travel, but if you must — there are ways to do it informed and mindfully.
If you’re planning on traveling this upcoming holiday season, keep reading. I’ve outlined what my travel experiences have been thus far and include recommended products for keeping yourself as healthy and safe as possible during your journey.
What Is Flying Like During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
Given the fact that holiday-related travel bookings have been high despite recent COVID-19 surges across the country, I would expect a fuller flight than at the beginning of March 2020 if I were you.
The new safety regulations are obvious from the moment you walk into the concourse. Masks are everywhere — the airline employees, TSA agents and pretty much every fellow passenger you see has one on. Many airline check-in desks are closed down and empty, so on the whole the airport is much emptier than you’re used to.
I was worried there would be passengers who tried to flout the mask mandate, and I was right to be worried. As we queued up for boarding, a woman walked up to the gate loudly complaining to someone on speakerphone that she had just been kicked off a flight for not wearing a mask. She was not wearing a mask. To Delta’s credit, they weren’t messing around. She was required to put on her mask and keep it on the whole flight.
However, most passengers have no problem following social distancing and mask guidelines. In fact, checking in, checking bags, printing boarding passes and getting through TSA was much easier and less stressful than before. The whole process takes less time, and employees overall have been nicer and more accommodating despite the state of the world. There are social distancing guidelines on the floor wherever a line is present, and there are hand sanitizing stations everywhere. That brings us to our first product below — hand sanitizer and wipes.
Now, I opted to keep my mask on from when I got out of the car at arrivals to when I reached the car picking me up at the destination airport, except to take the occasional swig from my water bottle. However, it’s best to sanitize frequently to avoid the number of your own items you’re potentially contaminating, especially after going through and using the bins at TSA.
Germ-x Original Hand Sanitizer 2.0 Oz. Bottles
Hand sanitizer is a must when you’re traveling. Apply a squirt after you touch anything and hopefully before you touch your belongings. Sanitize your hands before eating, drinking and, honestly, as often as you need to to feel safe. This Germ-x pack of 2.0 fl. oz. travel size bottles is perfect for stocking up and making sure they don’t take your sanitizer away from you at the security checkpoint. It kills 99.99% of germs without water and contains Vitamin E for keeping your hands somewhat moisturized in the dry air on the plane. This pack also contains 48 bottles so you’ll have plenty for members of your family, friends you may be traveling with or for future journeys.
I do recommend having your hand sanitizer as easily accessible as possible so when you need it you’re not digging through your bag, touching your other belongings on your way to it. That brings us to another useful product for sanitizing your belongings, airline seat, seatbelt, armrests and screen navigation buttons — sanitizing wipes. These are super useful for wiping down anything you sit on or are going to need to touch during the flight. Many airlines are giving out one of these to each passenger as they board, after already having sanitized the plane, but it can’t hurt to have a few of your own.
I also noticed that, generally, airplanes are way cleaner than usual in these pandemic times. Everything is wiped down multiple times a day and it shows. Despite this, wiping down your seat and armrests yourself is definitely my recommendation for giving you some peace of mind as you settle in.
Purell Hand Sanitizing Travel Wipes
These Purell wipes are the perfect travel companion these days for sanitizing everything you touch, and everything your devices touch throughout your flight. This formula kills 99% of germs off of surfaces that can’t be washed with soap and water, and they’re made to be soft on your hands and free of parabens. This set of three packs has 20 wipes in each one, so you’ll have plenty to last you through your travel day and beyond.
Now, as I mentioned above, you will be wearing a mask the entire time. (You will be wearing a mask, right?) Nearly all airlines are requiring passengers to wear face masks during the entire flight and pre-boarding process. I was flying Delta, and they strictly enforced this rule. I would recommend making sure you wear a travel face mask that’s breathable, soft and comfortable since you’ll be wearing it for a while. If you forget a mask, they have plenty of extras at the gate as well as the check-in desks.
The shortages of disposable and KN95 PPE masks are not as dire as they were in the spring and summer, and now these masks are more readily available. I recommend going with either one of those, or something ultra-comfortable that you won’t mind spending hours in. Or both! Here are a few KN95 mask options.
SupplyAID KN95 Protective Mask
This pack contains five KN95 masks, enough to use on your flights to and from your destination, as well as a few extras. These masks and disposable and not washable, and should be worn tightly around your face to maximize their effectiveness.
Powecom KN95 Face Mask 10-Pack
This 10-pack includes KN95 masks designed to filter out 99.2% of particles and droplets in the air, as well as dust, pollen and other allergens. They have a compact design that sits snug on your face as well as flexible ear loops. There’s also an adjustable nose bridge so you can fasten easily with a pinch.
Here are a few cloth face masks that will work particularly well for travel.
Neck Gaiter Balaclava
This gaiter is perfect for a flight as it fits snuggly and is cooling to the touch so your face won’t get too hot. It’s made of 100% soft ice silk and has moisture-wicking fabric that absorbs sweat and transfers heat easily. The stretchy fabric is easy to pull on and off, and the garment’s versatility means you can wear it as a headband, neck bandana or armband once you reach your destination, and properly sanitize it. The breathability is what really makes this mask option great for flying, as you won’t feel suffocated even after wearing it for hours.
Safe+Mate Cloth Face Mask 3-Pack
If you want to go the more traditional face mask route, these are designed for comfort with soft material and an under-chin design that takes some of the pressure off of your mouth and nose. They’re made of soft cotton and are machine-washable.
Another useful tool when traveling is latex or disposable gloves of some sort. Sanitizing every 10 minutes is certainly an option, but if you’d rather just throw away all of the germs at once at the end of your flight, gloves are the way to go. I personally wore gloves while going through security and when touching the bins and belt, and then I sanitized my backpack with wipes after it had gone through and touched the belt. Latex gloves can get a little warm when wearing them for a long time, so that might not be a perfect solution, but they can be useful for high-touch situations during your travel day.
Medpride Latex-Free Disposable Gloves
There are many brands of disposable gloves out there so I wouldn’t be too picky with your choice. Grab a pack like this and stuff a few pairs into a plastic bag in your backpack so you can toss dirty ones and have plenty of back-ups. These are latex and powder-free and have a thick construction for reliable protection. They also have numerous sizes available so you can find the fit you’re most comfortable with.
The boarding process might look a little different depending on which airline you’re using. My plane boarded back to front and encouraged social distancing while waiting to scan tickets, walking down the jetway and settling into your seat. I didn’t have anyone in the few rows in front of and behind me, which was nice.
They also no longer offer the usual beverage and snack services, and instead hand out ziplock bags with snacks and water inside. With that said, if you’re flying during mealtime, then I would recommend bringing your own food and sanitizing your hands and tray table before eating. I would also bring something that’s relatively quick and easy to eat, as to minimize time spent without a mask.
All in all, the actual flight experience is pretty standard, and after you’ve landed, the deplaning and baggage claim experiences are the same, except with more masks and less people. If you have to travel, it’s not something to be terrified of. Remember, the air circulation system on most airplanes works in your favor, as it makes it quite difficult for coronavirus-filled droplets to pass from passenger to passenger, especially when passengers wear masks. It’s a risk, but it can be done safely.
Here are a few more products that may be useful on your journey.
LinkIdea Portable Travel Hand Sanitizer Bottle
You’re going to want to keep your hand sanitizer as accessible as possible, and these travel bottles make it easy to do that. They’re equipped with an easy-to-attach belt clip and a large opening so dispensing and refilling is easy. They’re also the perfect TSA-approved size and have double leak protection so you don’t have to worry about an accidental spill and loss of precious sanitizing formula.
Seat Sitters Airplane Travel Kit
If you really want to take all of the precautions, this travel kit from Seat Sitters includes covers for everything — from your seat to your tray table and includes a face mask too. The seat cover has a universal fit that can go from the car to a train and plane seat easily. It’s easy and quick to take on and off and it packs down into a small baggie that’ll easily fit into your carry-on. The kit also includes two travel covers, hand sanitizer and a “no nuts” sticker so you can politely decline the provided in-flight snacks.
LARQ Insulated Self-Cleaning Water Bottle
One of the most important parts of flying safely and keeping yourself healthy while doing it? Hydration. This self-cleaning water bottle from LARQ will help you do just that and make sure that the water you’re drinking is free of bacteria. With UV-C LED technology built inside this water bottle automatically cleans your water every two hours and only takes 60 seconds to eradicate potentially harmful bacteria and viruses. The built-in battery lasts for up to a month on a full charge and the double-vacuum insulation will also keep your water cool and refreshing throughout your journey.
NiceSeats Airline Seat Covers
These seat covers from NiceSeats are super nice and worth a splurge if you’re scared of sitting in a shared seat at the moment. This cover works on all economy and business class seats and comes with its own pouch/seat storage pocket so you don’t have to use the communal one. It doesn’t interfere with video screens, so there’s no need to worry about disrupting the person behind you, and helps you avoid the dirtiest places on your average plane — the headrest and tray table.