Tips for flying safely during COVID

Illustration: Family walking in airport terminal

Over the past few weeks the COVID-19 case count has continued to decline and the demand for COVID testing has plummeted. However, risk levels are still high.

According to the CDC, the new COVID-19 variants spread easier and faster, and we don’t yet know how these variants will respond to existing tests, vaccines, and therapies. Plus, even if you’ve been vaccinated, you can still unwittingly spread the virus, which is why officials continue to advise against travel.

Nevertheless, we acknowledge essential travel and recognize that some are risk takers. But if you must travel, we want you to know how to do so safely. In this article, we will provide tips on how to fly as safely as possible in the time of COVID.

If you must travel in the time of COVID

  • Know the risks. While there are some concerns about the science, experts say that flying, in and of itself, is fairly low risk. Variables include the length of the flight, how closely people are packed, and your own in-flight COVID practices.
  • Do your research. Many states and countries have travel requirements requiring travelers to provide a negative COVID test report before departure. Non-compliance may result in being denied boarding or entry, or facing mandatory quarantine on arrival, so be sure to know the rules before you go.
  • Shift to an off-peak time. If you can be flexible, consider shifting to a week when there won’t be so many other people crowding into airports, planes, and other indoor spaces.
  • Drive instead of fly. Driving typically takes longer, but you’ll spend less time in close proximity to others. Pack food to minimize stops, and use good COVID hygiene at gas and rest stops. If you do have to stop for the night, either sleep in the car or look for a motel with rooms that open directly to the outdoors.
  • Pick your airline and your seat. If flying is the only way to go, book one of the airlines that is blocking middle seats for greater distance between passengers. Look for a seat towards the front of the plane, where you can get on and off the plane quickly, or a window seat, which gives you a little more distance from people moving up and down the aisle.
  • Skip the lines. Sign up for TSA PreCheck to avoid long security lines.
  • Isolate ahead of time. If you can’t get tested, one way to lower risk is to isolate for 10 days before your trip. This helps ensure that if you do have an asymptomatic infection, it will have passed the contagious stage by the time you leave.
    Remember, isolation means not leaving the house and having food and other necessities delivered. It means avoiding all proximity to others—including household members, unless they too are isolating.

Get tested for travel

  • Get the right test. Most destinations that require a pre-travel COVID test specify that it must be a qRT-PCR test from an approved laboratory, conducted within a specific time window, typically 72 hours. This type of test is highly accurate, with samples typically collected via throat or nasal swab.

    The faster but less accurate antigen tests or home test kits typically do not fulfill travel requirements. Neither do antibody tests, which show whether you’ve developed an immune response to COVID in the past.
  • Find out where to get tested. Look for a location that offers rapid, affordable COVID testing.
  • Check with your healthcare provider or your state / local public health department for locations where qRT-PCR testing is available.
  • Free public testing sites often have long wait times, which are incompatible with 72-hour testing requirements.
  • Doctors’ offices and urgent care clinics may offer faster results, but they may charge a hefty fee.
  • While insurance companies must cover COVID testing, they may require symptoms or an in-network referral. To make sure a test is covered, be sure to check with your health insurance provider first.
  • Get your timing right. The qRT-PCR test, which is highly accurate as a general rule, does have a higher rate of false negatives during the seven days right after infection.
  • If you were to get tested right after infection, you might get a false negative result because the virus hadn’t had time yet to reproduce to a detectable level. For more accurate results, we recommend that you isolate for three to five days before your test.
  • Be sure to get tested within the pre-departure time window specified by any travel requirements.
  • Remember that a test only reflects your status at the moment of testing. It’s possible to get infected five minutes after receiving a negative test result. For this reason, you should continue to isolate from the time you get tested until you leave on your trip.

Take precautions with air travel

  • Pack protective gear, enough for the entire trip. Be sure to bring multiple face masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes. You’ll want to wear a double mask, or better yet, an N95 mask, which protects better against aerosols than cloth. Be sure to keep your mask on at all times except when you’re eating or drinking.
  • Wash your hands. Take every opportunity while traveling to wash or sanitize your hands.
  • Bring your own provisions. To minimize contact, be sure to bring your own food and a water bottle to fill once you get through security. Either refrain from eating or drinking on the plane, or put your mask back on right away afterwards.  
  • Use airport restrooms if possible. The larger, better ventilated rest rooms in the airport are easier to navigate safely when you need to powder your nose or clean your hands than the tiny cramped ones on the plane.
  • Wipe down surfaces. Although the CDC says that surfaces are not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads, you may still want to wipe down surfaces that you can’t avoid touching, including seat controls, tray table, and bathroom knobs, just to be extra careful.  
  • Stay put. Avoid moving around on the plane to keep contact with other passengers to a minimum. 
  • Use your ventilation. Direct the overhead air vent nozzle towards your face to help keep air circulating around you. 
  • Be flexible. Traveling during COVID-19 can entail a few curveballs. Plan for delays and cancellations.  

Take precautions once you get there

  • Stay on your COVID game. Once you arrive at your location, continue to take standard precautions: wear masks, wash hands, keep your distance, and gather in large, well-ventilated spaces. 
  • Don’t forget about the return trip. If you’re away for more than a few days, you may need to go through testing and/or quarantine when you return. 

Conclusion

Forgoing travel plans is just one more sacrifice demanded by a pandemic that has already taken so much. Right now staying home is one of the biggest things we can do to protect both the ones we love and society as a whole. But if you must travel, keeping these tips in mind can help lessen the risk.

Carol Carmick

Carol Carmick (aka Stella Maris) is a strategic copywriter, cauldron technician, and community instigator in Portland, Oregon. www.carolcarmick.com

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