Flying provides the easiest, fastest way to reach most vacation destinations, but the COVID-19 outbreak put a damper on air travel last spring. Since then, travelers have been wondering how to return to the skies safely.

Health experts say that while flying does incur risk, adopting certain precautions lowers the chances of exposure to the virus. “It will take some homework to decide the safe ways to fly,” says William Greenough III, MD, professor emeritus of medicine at Johns Hopkins. “The biggest risks are actually going into and out of the airport, not in the airplane cabin itself.”

Use these tips to reduce risks when flying during the pandemic.

Overhead View Of Young Woman Using a laptop
Refer to airlines' safety measures and determine your comfort levels ©Guerilla Images/500px

1. Book the flight with the right airline

With COVID-friendly cabin design still evolving, choose airlines based on their safety measures. When booking a flight, ask if the airline is leaving middle seats vacant to facilitate social distancing. According to Greenough, airlines such as JetBlue and United have been diligent about this; others have not.

“Safety precautions really vary by airline. You want to choose an airline that’s not cramming the cabins full, trying to fill the seats,” Greenough says. He suggests consulting a travel agent, who can identify airlines taking more precautions. Also inquire about the airline’s cleaning habits.

2.  Choose the best time for the flight

Consider flying early in the morning or late at night, when airports are less crowded. This decreases the likelihood of long lines at security, baggage check and baggage claim, which make social distancing difficult.

Woman taking a COVID-19 test
Dr Smith recommends getting a COVID-19 test before traveling © Paul Biris / Getty Images

3.  Get a COVID-19 test

The most important thing to do before leaving is to get a COVID-19 test, says M. Kumi Smith, PhD, MPIA, assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at University of Minnesota Twin Cities.

“The more of us crisscrossing the planet, the more we are introducing potential cases into new areas that have not had as much infection, so getting a negative test is part of taking the right precautions,” Smith says.

4. Drive to the airport

Travel guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend driving your car to the airport vs. taking public transportation, reducing exposure to others. Build in extra time for walking to the terminal from the parking area, skipping crowded shuttles.

Vnukovo International Airport amid COVID-19 lockdown relief
Wearing a mask can help slow the spread of COVID-19 when combined with other safety precautions © Sergei Karpukhin/TASS

5. Wear a mask at all times

Nearly all airlines require people age 2 and over to wear masks at their gates and on flights. Travelers can briefly remove masks to eat and drink.

“Airports were pretty empty for a while, but there are a lot more people crowded together now, sharing the same space and same facilities. It’s a good time to be particularly vigilant about mask wearing, distancing from other folks and hygiene,” says Smith.

Bring a minimum of two masks. Wear one and store the backup in a clean, disposable brown paper bag to discourage microbial growth.

Read the airline’s policy on face coverings. Some ban face shields and exhaust valves on masks, and others offer exemptions for specific medical conditions.

Man Puts Mobile Phone Into Tray For Airport Security Check
New TSA rules allow travelers to keep personal items inside carry-on luggage ©monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

6. Follow the rules at security checkpoints

New guidelines minimize person-to-person contact at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints. Personal items like keys, phones and wallets can remain in a carry-on instead of going in bins. Screening agents no longer handle boarding passes. Transport snacks in clear plastic bags for easy inspection.

After the security check, travelers should wash their hands for at least 60 seconds with soap.

7. Pack the right gear

Pandemic-related must-haves include:

  • A bottle of hand sanitizer (up to 12 ounces) containing at least 60 percent alcohol: Use the hand sanitizer after paging through the in-flight magazine or touching the overhead bin.
  • Sanitizing wipes: Wipe down tray tables and seatbelts with the wipes upon boarding the plane.
  • Light blanket and pillow: Many airlines have stopped providing this traditional in-flight offering, for obvious hygiene reasons.
  • Water bottle: Most public water fountains are currently inaccessible, and a lot of airlines no longer serve in-flight drinks.
  • Tissues: Open restroom doors and overhead bins with tissues, and cover coughs or sneezes with them.
Inside of a long distance new airplane with passengers sitting and resting during a long flight with picture taken from the back of the airplane.
While on the plane, employ these precautions ©Artur Debat/Getty Images

8. Take precautions on the plane

Staying 6ft away from other passengers is the most critical precaution during a flight. “A lot of folks are fixated on what happens on the plane in terms of germ spread in the air, but with the recycled air on planes, that’s actually less of a concern than being within close proximity to other people,” says Smith. Also remember to:

  • Wash your hands after using the restroom.
  • Keep hands away from the eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Avoid high-contact surfaces such as buttons, kiosks or handrails.

Keep your mask on and sanitizer close. “Masks and hand sanitizers are the only real protection you have right now if you’re forced to be in a crowded plane or airport, and you can’t social distance,” Greenough says.

9. Avoid postflight public transportation

Upon landing, some passengers head to the car rental counter, then pile on buses to reach the lot with their car. Or they might take a shuttle to their hotel or hop on a nearby subway.

These transportation options all involve risk. While airlines have overhauled planes’ filtration systems to circulate air during flights, most ground transportation lacks updated filters. Social distancing is nearly impossible in these small spaces.

“The rental cars themselves are probably pretty safe, but the question is how to get from the terminal to the rental car site. Going on a crowded bus is not safe, so there are those logistics to consider,” Greenough says.

Find workarounds. For example, in smaller cities, rental car sites often sit within walking distance of the airport.

10.   Stay home if you feel sick

It may sound obvious, but it bears repeating: Never board a plane with a fever or other symptoms of COVID-19.

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From rental cars to roadside stops - these are the new pandemic road trip essentials
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