Holiday Travel Tips: How to Stay Safe During COVID-19

Can you really go home for the holidays this year? Dr. Michael Barnish weighs in on staying safe on planes, in hotels and on extended drives.

As the days grow longer and colder, many of us are starting to make plans for the holidays. Whether you’re visiting family members one state over or across the globe, travel makes up a huge part of the holiday season. There’s always a risk of getting sick while traveling because of the inherent stress of traveling, interacting with frequently-touched surfaces in public places, and changes in climate and environment. But this year feels especially risky because of the coronavirus pandemic.

We spoke with Dr. Michael Barnish, infectious diseases and travel medicine specialist, about what we can do to stay healthy while traveling this holiday season.

How do you think COVID-19 may impact traveling during this holiday season?

The number of people traveling this season will likely be considerably less than this time last year –maybe by about half. Travel has clearly increased in the last several months, but many people will feel more comfortable staying home this year. While people will take more precautions this year than in years past, these precautions are the same as we’ve been used to for the past few months.

Dr. Michael Barnish headshot

Dr. Michael Barnish

Now that the weather is getting colder, I think we should be most cautious about indoor gatherings. The holiday season is historically characterized by families gathering inside, which is not optimal right now, so we should think a little bit more about how to keep everyone safe in these situations.

For those who will be flying, what should they keep in mind before, during and after their trip?

A lot of people are concerned about catching COVID-19 on an airplane, but there really hasn’t been an established history of this happening. There’s a difference between catching it on a plane and simply carrying it to another destination, where it could spread to your family members and loved ones who may be at higher risk.

Airplanes have ventilation systems that help to recycle clean air, so the only risk that people have is if those sitting directly in the seats around them have tested positive for the coronavirus. Highly-publicized cases of the virus spreading in an airplane are mostly from March before everyone was wearing masks and taking other safety precautions that we have in place today.

I believe people should be more concerned about waiting in line to get on the plane, going through TSA screenings, sitting at boarding areas, using public restrooms and public transportation, or shuttles to and from airports. But as long as you practice social distancing, wear a mask and wash your hands after touching common surfaces, your risk of contracting the virus is low.

Are there precautions that people should take when traveling by car?

You should wear a mask outside of the car when you cannot achieve social distancing, like in a rest area or inside of a gas station. And of course, wash your hands after touching common surfaces like a gas pump and door handles.

What about those who are staying in hotels?

I’ve traveled to a few locations in other states and stayed at hotels, and in my experience hotels are very safe right now. They’ve created a touchless experience, including check-in and check-out. Housekeeping won’t come to your room while you’re staying, and there generally aren’t very many people around. If you’re concerned about using an elevator with others, you could get a room on a lower floor so you can take the stairs instead.

From a practical standpoint, you should check the restaurants and other sites around the hotel that you’re staying in to make sure they’re open. Even some restaurants attached to hotels remain closed for indoor seating, so it’s just good to check before you go.

Will family gatherings become an issue during the holidays?

It depends on the type of family gathering and who will be there. If you’re traveling with a small group of people to a private place for camping or another outdoor activity, you should be safe. You’re really most at risk when you’re spending time around people with less than six feet of distance for more than 10 minutes. So events like concerts or large weddings may be outside of the realm of possibility, especially if you’re at high risk of getting sick.

When planning your holiday gatherings, think about who may attend. Do you have family members or friends over 65, or anyone with an existing condition, like hypertension or diabetes? You should put limitations on your interactions with them if you can, or make sure that you get tested before going to see them. It’s also important to self-monitor for symptoms, especially when you come back from hotspots. And be sure to check with your employer about potential quarantine after traveling, so you’re aware if you need to take more time off after you travel.

If you feel sick at all, stay home from your family gatherings. It’s important to recognize who is at risk and be respectful about safety guidelines around those people.

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