This blog was updated December 29, 2021, to reflect new information from the CDC.
Traveling increases the chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. You may want to think twice before making those travel plans until you can be fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
You’re fully vaccinated if it’s been two weeks since you received your second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
If you are not fully vaccinated and must travel, the CDC recommends getting a viral test one to three days before your trip to test for COVID-19.
While staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others, according to the CDC, you should consider your underlying health conditions and those of others who will be part of your visit if you decide to travel and a test upon your return.
If you must travel, the CDC recommends doing your homework to understand the level of positive COVID-19 cases in the area you plan to visit and the reports of infection due to variants. The CDC provides a travel planner about COVID-19 travel restrictions, guidance and resources available at your destination.
Traveling by air
If you travel by air, there’s more to consider than just being on an airplane.
You’ll be spending time in security lines in airport terminals and possibly on airport shuttles, which can bring you in close contact with other people, frequently touched surfaces and public restrooms.
Physical distancing is difficult on crowded flights, so you may find yourself sitting near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for several hours. This may increase your risk for exposure to the virus.
The airplane ride
If you must fly, being on the actual airplane may be the least risky part of your trip.
A recent Department of Defense (DOD) study undertaken to assess the risks of transporting troops on commercial airlines, indicates that airplanes are well-ventilated spaces.
“The air that comes in, enters and exits at the ceiling and enters and exits at the floor. So if you’re a passenger and you’re doing normal breathing, the air currents carry it down and all the air is sent through a HEPA filter,” said Jolene Bowen, an infection prevention analyst for OSF HealthCare
The highly efficient filters can eliminate 99% of virus particles. Jolene also said high frequency air circulation systems help dilute tracer particles on large Boeing planes like the ones used for the DOD study.
“There are about 20 to 30 air changes per hour — kind of similar to in a hospital or an operating room where you have 12 to 15 air changes per hour. That’s why it feels almost breezy sometimes, or it feels chilly because of the air current,” Jolene said. “That provides a lot more safety than other forms of transportation.”
Precautions to take
The CDC recommends the following if you must travel:
- Delay travel until you are fully vaccinated.
- Check your destination’s COVID-19 situation before traveling. State, local, and territorial governments may have travel restrictions in place.
- Wear a mask over your nose and mouth in indoor areas of public transportation (including airplanes) and indoors in U.S. transportation hubs (including airports).
- Do not travel if you have been exposed to COVID-19, you are sick, or if you test positive for COVID-19.
- Avoid close contact by staying at least 6 feet apart (about two arms’ length) from anyone who is not from your household.
- Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid contact with anyone who is sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- If you are not fully vaccinated and must travel, get tested both before and after your trip.
While you’re on the plane
It’s important to avoid moving through the aircraft during the flight, Jolene said.
Also, pay attention to what your seatmate is doing. While most airlines have suspended in-flight meals and drink service, that won’t stop some passengers from eating what they carry on.
“So in particular, when you’re eating your meal, whether it is food you brought from the outside or your morning coffee or your water, be mindful. If your neighbor in their seat has their mask off and they’re exposed and they’re eating or drinking, that’s not a good time for you to be doing that,” she said.
When to fly
Booking a trip during off-peak hours and days may also be a good idea, Jolene said.
“That’ll reduce your exposure at the airport as well as when you’re landing and when you’re actually in the plane,” she said.
Not traveling offers the best protection against contracting COVID-19 from someone else. But, Jolene said, people have to balance the risk of contracting the virus with the need to, for instance, see an aging loved one.
Traveling by car under 500 miles offers the lowest risk. The risk increases beyond 500 miles because of required stops. But, even with that, Jolene said consider scheduling a more unconventional day for your trip.
“So even if you’re driving, you’re not on the road at the same time as a lot of other travelers,” she said. “That’ll decrease your exposure if you’re going to the gas station to pump gas or if you’re going in and getting a snack or using the restroom or even going to a rest area.”
Take a care kit
While you’re packing, make sure you have what Jolene calls a “self-sanitation kit.” This would include a package of antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer and an extra mask in a zipper top bag. The zipper top will prevent cross contamination once you’re ready to change masks.
After returning home
If you are fully vaccinated, after you return home from traveling, the CDC recommends self-monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms. If you develop symptoms, you should isolate and get tested.
You don’t need to get tested or self-quarantine if you are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 in the past three months. You should still follow all other travel recommendations.
If you are not vaccinated, after returning home you should take a viral test three to five days after travel AND stay home and self-quarantine for five days after travel.
If your test is positive, isolate yourself to protect others from getting infected.
If you don’t get tested, stay home and self-quarantine for five days after travel. Avoid being around people who are at increased risk for severe illness for at least 10 days, whether you get tested or not. And always wear a mask anytime you’re around others during this time following your travel.