If you’ve been cooped up at home all spring and summer, you’re probably bursting to get out. But is it smart to travel?
It can be, if you do it properly, says Aaron E. Glatt, MD, chairman of the department of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, New York, and a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
“People need to periodically take a vacation. It’s essential,” he says. But if you’re the type who usually wings it, this is not the time to be doing that. To travel well right now, you must carefully consider COVID-19 risk and plan every detail.
Follow these seven steps for a trip that will be enjoyable and won’t have you bringing back an unwanted souvenir.
1. Personally Assess Your Situation
No matter where you’re going and how many precautions you take, traveling when the novel coronavirus is still widely circulating is not risk-free. For example, recent upticks in cases in Europe, which had largely beaten back the virus, have been attributed to vacationers, according to an August 21 article in The Washington Post. (American travelers aren’t to blame, since many European countries have banned us from visiting at this time.)
So the first question to ask yourself is how risky would traveling be for you. “Everything with COVID-19 needs to be individualized. You need to view everything through your personal perspective,” says Dr. Glatt.
Are you, or is anyone you’re planning to travel with, at high risk for severe COVID-19 consequences? Older adults and people with underlying conditions, including type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, heart conditions, cancer, and obesity, are more likely to become seriously ill and require hospitalization if they catch the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If you fall into one of these categories, going to a crowded place with many other vacationers is likely too risky, Glatt says. But a more isolated spot away from crowds might be okay.
Also think about where you are going. Some locations, such as New York and Washington, DC, are requiring people arriving from high-infection states to quarantine for 14 days. If your state is on this long list, you might want to reconsider this trip. If you do go, you’ll need to prepare thoroughly, such as by bringing any needed groceries since you won’t be able to go to the store.
You should also assess the location you’re coming from. If you’re flying from an area with many COVID-19 cases, odds are higher that a passenger near you may have the disease, which would raise your infection risk, Glatt observes.
Wherever you’re going, consider taking a coronavirus test in the days or week before leaving. Getting a negative result will reduce the odds you’ll unknowingly bring the virus with you.
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2. Think Through Your Mode of Travel
Experts consider driving to be the safest mode of transportation now, especially if the destination can be reached within a day, because this substantially limits your interactions with others.
Flying can also be relatively safe, so long as proper precautions are taken. The airlines should ensure planes are thoroughly cleaned and maintain sufficient distance between passengers during the boarding process. As a passenger, you can look for an airline that does not fill all of its seats, remain in your seat as much as possible during the flight, and keep your mask on as much as possible, especially when others nearby remove theirs to eat or drink.
Buses likely require extra vigilance, as their ventilation systems may not be as good as those on planes, an important way microbes are removed from the air.
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3. Be Choosy About Where You Stay
Fortunately, a lot of hotel chains are paying special attention to sanitizing guest rooms and high-touch common areas. Some are also “buffering” rooms, keeping them unoccupied for a day or two between guests to allow any virus in the air sufficient time to diminish. If you decide to stay in a hotel, experts suggest calling beforehand to ask what procedures they are following.
Many travelers are instead choosing to rent an entire house from sites like VRBO or Airbnb so they won’t have to worry about passing people in the lobby or stepping into a crowded elevator. But because homes are owned by private individuals, the level of sanitation before your arrival will vary considerably.
No matter where you stay, as soon as you arrive at your lodging open the windows for a little while (if you can), to boost ventilation by bringing in fresh air. Even if the place looks spotless, disinfect all high-touch surfaces yourself, especially light switches, sink faucet handles, doorknobs, and remote controls, the Mayo Clinic advises. If there’s a kitchen, wash all plates, cups, and silverware before using.
4. Cook or Bring in Takeout
One of the risks of leaving home is what to do about all the meals you’ll be eating. “Getting takeout or cooking your own food while traveling is safest,” says Matthew Grant, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Yale Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.
Eating at an outdoor restaurant is considered relatively safe (although not as low risk as curbside pickup, according to the CDC), but it’s not a good idea to plan to eat all meals alfresco. “Things like thunderstorms or very hot conditions may make that uncomfortable or impossible,” Dr. Grant says. This may cause you to have to move indoors, which carries a much higher threat.
Be sure each outdoor restaurant is following proper protocol, such as ensuring that staff and wandering patrons are wearing masks and that tables are set far enough apart to allow for social distancing. One sign an establishment is taking the virus seriously is when it goes above and beyond, such as by ditching reusable menus for digital ones.
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5. Don’t Let Your Guard Down
While on vacation it’s easy to feel like the limitations of your regular life don’t apply. But there are no magical protections that keep the virus at bay just because you’re in Las Vegas or hiking Mount Rainier.
It’s important to follow general CDC guidance at all times, Grant says, including washing hands regularly, avoiding touching your face as much as possible, keeping 6 (or ideally more) feet of distance between yourself and others, and, crucially, wearing a mask in all public settings.
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6. Be Smart About Each Activity
There may be activities you always love to do on vacation, but it may not be wise to do them now. Bars, karaoke cafes, theme parks with inside rides, and other indoor activities will put you at increased risk of getting sick.
Instead, explore nature, perhaps going hiking, kayaking, apple picking, or engaging in other endeavors that keep you outside and distanced from others.
Look for venues offering creative ways to entertain safely. Drive-in concerts offered in some locales are fun and lower risk, Grant says.
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7. Reevaluate at Every Turn
Book lodging and activities that you can cancel, even at the last minute. Should you or someone you’re traveling with develop symptoms or come into contact with someone with COVID-19, nix the trip and stay home.
While traveling, you must constantly reevaluate, shifting plans when necessary. If you’re sitting at an outdoor restaurant and notice the waitstaff wearing masks around their necks instead of over their mouths and noses, for instance, get up and leave, Glatt advises.
“You have to be willing to say it’s not working out, even for something you’ve already paid for,” he says. “With a contagious virus around, safety has to take a higher priority than money.”
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