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- The CDC still urges Americans to avoid traveling in order to minimize the risk of contracting or spreading the disease.
- If you do travel, it’s crucial to take precautions and be vigilant about personal and communal safety.
- Pack three-ply masks, disinfectant wipes, and a travel safety kit with items that can clean your hands in a pinch.
- This article was medically reviewed by Dr. David Aronoff, the director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology, and Inflammation.
It’s natural to feel an increased temptation to travel as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to lock down much of the United States. But as cases surge throughout the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are urging Americans to stay home in order to continue to protect themselves and others.
Despite those warnings, many people still choose to travel either for vacation or to visit family and friends. The safest way to do this is to self-isolate for 14 days before and after traveling or getting together with other people, limit all social interactions to their own homes, and continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing.
Dr. Abe Malkin, and the founder and medical director of Concierge MD LA, told Insider that the most important precautions are keeping your hands clean, avoiding touching your face, and keeping a distance from people you don’t live with.
That last point is especially vital while traveling. It’s harder to catch COVID-19 from surfaces, so staying away from other people is a necessity. So is packing a travel safety kit with items like hand sanitizer, spare masks, storage bags, and disinfectant wipes – no matter if you plan on flying or driving.
If any of this feels too stressful to think about or prepare for, that’s a good sign it’s best to stay home and avoid traveling altogether. Dr. David Aronoff, our medical reviewer, agreed.
“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,” Aronoff, the director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology, and Inflammation, told Insider.
If you are traveling, he encourages checking your health-insurance information before you go to find out where and how to seek medical attention if you need it and what your policy covers. Aronoff 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.
For those who do plan to travel, we’ve compiled information and product recommendations to help make air and vehicle travel safer during the pandemic.
Here are the new essentials everyone should pack along before traveling:
- Standard adult face masks: Herschel Classic Fitted Face Mask
- A face mask with a removable filter: Halo Life Nanofilter Mask
- Face masks for kids: Onzie Mindful Masks (2-Pack)
- A face shield: Mada Reusable Face Shield
- A clean towel: Matador NanoDry Trek Towel
- A pack of antibacterial wipes: Oars + Alps Antibacterial Aloe Wipes
- Travel-sized disinfectant wipes: Clorox Disinfectant Wipes On the Go
- A smartphone sanitizer: PhoneSoap 3 Smartphone UV Sanitizer
- Packing cubes for easy organizing: eBags Hyperlite Packing Cubes
- Tape to secure your face mask: Cabeau Tape
- An attachment to keep mask cloth out of your mouth: HeartFormSF Mask Bracket (5-Count)
- A reusable bag to store safety gear: Stasher Reusable Silicone Bag
- A thermometer to keep track of your body temperature: Vicks ComfortFlex Thermometer
First and foremost, remember the basics: Keep your hands clean, and stay away from people outside your household as much as possible. The biggest challenge when traveling is maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and others.
You should also pack a portable safety kit — and the necessary items in this COVID-19 safety kit only slightly differ for flying versus driving.
Masks for adults
We all know wearing a mask all day isn’t exactly the height of comfort, but most people get used to it quite quickly.
Dr. Joyce Sanchez, the medical director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin, told Insider that even if it feels harder to breathe while wearing a mask, it doesn’t actually affect how much oxygen your body gets. Aside from people who are unable to put on and take off a mask themselves, such as people with cognitive difficulties, almost everyone can safely wear a mask, “including those with chronic lung and heart problems,” Sanchez said.
Wearing a mask helps compensate for the lack of distance that inevitably comes with standing in line, sitting on a plane, or walking by someone on the way to the bathroom.
COVID-19 is mainly transmitted via droplets and microscopic particles (aerosols) that come out of our noses and mouths when we cough, sneeze, laugh, talk, and breathe.
Wearing the right mask the right way helps to protect not only the people around you but the wearer too, the CDC says. And while wearing a disposable or a reusable mask is a personal choice, we’d encourage you to minimize waste whenever possible.
Sanchez said the real key is to “choose a face mask that fully covers your mouth and nose and has two or more layers of fabric.” She also suggested choosing masks made of nonstretch fabrics because they “better block the passage of droplets.”
The very best nonmedical masks have three layers. The layer next to your face and the outer layer should be a tightly woven fabric like cotton or linen.
The layer in the middle should be a filter fabric, ideally made from a water-repellent fabric like nonwoven polypropylene. Some masks have this filter built in, but you can add your own to a two-layer mask with a pocket. A folded paper towel or nonwoven polypropylene fabric (like what’s typically used in reusable shopping bags) also works well.
It’s important to have a snug-fitting mask, Malkin said. This means the air you breathe in and out will be pushed through your mask’s fabric layers so that virus particles are more likely to get trapped in the mask rather than inhaled.
What about N95 masks?
N95 masks are preferred for medical staff. The key reason they’re effective is that they’re specially fitted to create a seal that ensures that all expelled air is forced out through the filters of the mask and doesn’t leak from the edges. N95 masks are more uncomfortable than nonmedical masks and, unless fitted properly, are unlikely to provide any additional benefit. The CDC doesn’t recommend most people wear them.
Skip valved masks, bandanas, and neck gaiters, which don’t provide a tight seal and allow too much air to escape. “Valved masks are not recommended as they allow larger droplets to spread when breathing or speaking,” Sanchez said.
While reports this summer that neck gaiters are worse than no mask at all were likely overblown, researchers don’t know exactly how well they work. They do know that other masks are effective, so skip the neck gaiters and bandanas. (Many airlines don’t allow them anyway.)
Masks for kids
Since the fit of a mask is the most important factor, kids should use masks made for kids, Malkin said. “Adult masks are too big for them,” he said.
With both kids and adults, masks aren’t effective unless you wear them properly — and this can be more difficult with resistant children. Malkin advised opting for a mask with a character or design your child likes to increase the chance that they’ll want to wear it (and will keep it on when you’re not looking). Consider letting your child pick out their masks to ensure they’re happy wearing it.
Airlines and stores have different age requirements for kids who must wear a mask. Masks are generally required for kids 5 and older, but sometimes the limit is 2 years old. The CDC does not recommend masks for children under 2. Aronoff said all kids over 2 years old should wear one unless they physically can’t.
How important are face shields? “While studies show that additional eye protection in the form of face shields or goggles (not eyeglasses) decreases transmission in hospital settings, we do not know exactly how much additional protection a face shield offers in the community setting,” Sanchez said.
She said 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 people near you from aerosols and droplets coming out of your mouth.
Face shields can also be useful as a reminder not to touch your face or your mask.
Hand soap, sanitizer, and wipes
Clean hands are important not just before and after you eat but anytime you touch your face or your mask. Washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and drying them on a clean towel is the best way to get them clean, the CDC says.
There’s no need to use antibacterial soap. Antibacterial products have no additional effect on viruses, and they often contain harmful chemicals.
Washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap is the most effective way to clean, but hand sanitizer is a close second (and often more convenient). Make sure your hand sanitizer is alcohol-based and made with at least 60% alcohol, Sanchez said, and spread it in the nooks and crannies of your hands. Be sure to rub it all over your hands until it evaporates.
Hand wipes are a last resort but are certainly better than having unclean hands in your mouth. Keep in mind that most are formulated for objects and not for skin. “Wipes that are not safe for hand use are required to be labeled by the manufacturer,” so read labels carefully, Malkin said. As with hand sanitizer, a hand-wipe formula needs to be at least 60% alcohol to kill viruses.
Since washing with soap and water isn’t always possible and restrooms might not be available, you should always have hand sanitizer with you. It’s wise to open restroom doors and turn off taps using a paper towel so you don’t immediately dirty your clean hands.
“While keeping high-touch surfaces clean is important, obsession or worry over disinfecting every surface you come into contact with outside of your home is unlikely to make a meaningful impact on your risk of acquiring COVID-19,” Sanchez told us.
Objects you should clean regularly are your phone, sunglasses, keys, and anything you touch and set on dirty surfaces; as soon as you pick them up off a restaurant table or reception counter, your hands are now contaminated too.
If you’re flying, you’ll want to wipe down any high-touch surfaces around your seat. Disinfectant wipes are ideal for quick and easy cleaning of objects of any shape.
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.)
To make pandemic travel as easy as possible, it’s important to have sanitizer and other essential items with you and to keep them organized. Ideally, your carry-on bag would have multiple pockets so you can keep things like food and extra masks separate from dirty items (also known as “hot” items). You’ll also want to be able to reach your hand sanitizer easily and not contaminate everything else while trying to get it.
We recommend having a few plastic bags available, like the ones you put produce in at the grocery store. They’re useful to safely keep used wipes, tissues, disposable masks, and other “hot” items until you can find a trash can. You’ll want one for your car, and flight attendants and aircraft cleaners will be especially grateful that you went the extra mile to protect their health as well as your own.
What you can skip: Gloves
You don’t need to bring gloves with you on your trip. “Gloves can spread the virus as well. The virus can live on the surface of a latex glove, the same as skin,” Malkin said. “Some people become too relaxed when they are wearing gloves. They do not realize they are at more risk for spreading COVID-19 because they are touching multiple personal items in between other things.”
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.
If you don’t want to sanitize your hands after touching every single door handle, consider using a cloth or a dish towel for opening doors. Then simply fold it “hot” side in and tuck it into a plastic bag or place where it can’t infect your other belongings.
Just don’t use your feet on door handles, elevators, or pedestrian crosswalk buttons — you don’t want to make them dirtier for others who might have no choice but to touch them with their hands, such as people who use wheelchairs.
What else to keep in mind
Set kids up for success
If kids can help choose their own supplies, it increases the chance they’ll use them. But it’s more important to “model safe practices,” Sanchez said. “If you’re wearing a mask, disinfecting your hands, maintaining that distance, and reinforcing those behaviors through what you say and do — children pick up on and mirror that.”
Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration says kids 6 and under shouldn’t use hand sanitizer unless supervised by an adult. This is to prevent them from ingesting it or getting it in their eyes. You just need to watch them until it dries. Once sanitizer evaporates, it’s safe for kids to eat with their hands and even stick their fingers in their mouths.
Make sure your mask fits correctly and is comfortable
The fit of your mask is crucial. Malkin said you want one that’s “not too big to where it’s falling off below your nose, and not too small to where it’s compromising your airflow.”
If a mask causes your glasses or sunglasses to fog up — a very common complaint — that’s actually a sign it doesn’t fit properly and allows respiratory droplets to escape out the top.
Special tape, like Cabeau Tape, can be placed over any gaps to create a better seal and can even be used across the sides of a mask to seal it to your face if ear loops irritate you. (The tape is reusable, but make sure you create a real seal every time you take it off and put it back on.)
Though masks don’t actually inhibit airflow, their tendency to suction to your mouth every time you breathe in can be annoying and increase moisture in the fabric. To prevent this, look for a mask with a more structured frame that keeps the fabric away from your lips, or insert a frame, like one from HeartFormSF, into a covering you already have.
Minimize how much you’re taking your mask on and off
Your mask is meant to trap the virus particles that could be in the air — not just yours but those from other people. That means it’s dirty, so you’ll want to avoid touching it for any reason.
If you do need to adjust it or take it off (to eat or drink, for example), hold it by the ear straps and avoid touching the parts that cover your nose and mouth. Remember to clean your hands before and after touching your mask.
If you plan to wear the mask again, like after you eat, keep it clean. Putting it on a table or around your arm is an easy way to spread your germs and pick up germs from other people. Sanchez advised storing it in a clean plastic or paper bag or on a clean, disinfected surface away from masks, hands, and breath to minimize contamination.
A resealable plastic bag is a good pick; bring a few on your trip so you always have a clean one to store your mask.
Always have extra clean masks
When you travel, you need to have enough masks to wear a fresh one each day, as well as extras on hand if you accidentally drop your mask or get it dirty. It’s important to wash reusable masks daily — a clean-looking mask can be covered with particles, which can spread to your hands every time you take it off or put it on.
Follow your mask’s washing instructions. The CDC says it’s fine to wash masks by hand and hang them to dry. Ideally, wash as you do your hands, with a minimum 20-second scrub with soapy water and a thorough rinse. Hand soap is fine — you don’t need to travel with a special fabric detergent.
Is it safer to fly or drive?
If you do need to travel, driving is generally safer than flying commercially, Sanchez said. If you drive, you have control over who shares the car with you, what measures are used for disinfecting surfaces, where you stop along the way, and when you return, she said.
However, driving isn’t realistic for every destination.
Just keep in mind that you’re most likely to transmit or catch the coronavirus just by being in close proximity to an infected person. 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.
Regardless of your mode of transportation, it’s important to be incredibly diligent with precautions.
Your driving safety plan
If you’re driving, you don’t need to wipe down your steering wheel and anything in your car, so long as you’re careful to clean your hands before getting in. That means you should have hand sanitizer at the ready for after you use a gas pump and a public restroom, for example.
Though it may be tempting to skip public restrooms and just pull over for a roadside bathroom break, don’t — it’s illegal throughout the US for many reasons, including that sewage needs to be treated properly to prevent the spread of diseases like cholera and bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.
Use public restrooms, but minimize your exposure: Don’t wait outside the bathroom close to other people, especially if they’re not wearing masks, but wait outside for a free stall. If the toilet has a lid, close it to flush. (There’s evidence that the coronavirus can be aerosolized by flushing.)
Additionally, Sanchez said to assume that public restrooms are not properly disinfected, so “treat surfaces as if they have a live virus on them.” That means wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and then use a paper towel to turn off the tap and open the door. If you do touch anything on your way out, use your minimum-60%-alcohol hand sanitizer.
Your airport safety plan
Airports — especially with lines at security or boarding gates — 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.
Since you’re much more likely to contract COVID-19 through the air than by touching something, don’t stress about taking your shoes off to get through security. But do wear socks. “When you take off shoes to go through security, thousands of dirty soles have touched that surface,” Malkin said. “Wear socks to protect your feet from a host of possible germs.”
It’s also wise to sanitize or wash your hands after you’ve touched security trays.
As for the plane itself, airlines have stepped up their disinfecting regimens. Many use electrostatic foggers nightly — sometimes between every flight. Those 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.
It’s still wise to wipe down everything in your seat area with a disinfecting wipe like Clorox Ultra Clean Disinfecting Wipes. Do look for “disinfecting” on the label — a cleaning wipe rids your tray table of that splash of Coke, but it won’t kill any 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 Transportation Security Administration increased the size limit for sanitizer during the pandemic, so you’re now 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 others may be breathing out. When a plane cruises, the cabin air refreshes every three to four minutes, using fresh air from outside and air that’s gone through HEPA filters that remove virtually all viruses.
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, and then sanitize your hands again if you’ve touched anything.
It’s smart to avoid crowds around the baggage carousel — wait until space clears before you grab your bag. Use a disinfectant wipe on the handle of your luggage, then stop in the restroom and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before you leave the airport.
You don’t need to completely change your clothes before hopping into someone’s car after your flight, but you certainly can if it makes you feel more comfortable. Aronoff said clothes won’t transmit the virus to another surface (like the car seat) to then be picked up by someone else.
You’ll also want to check your destination’s COVID-19 rules for arriving passengers. Some require you to have a negative COVID-19 test and to monitor your symptoms for up to two weeks, so you may need to pack a digital thermometer.