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Is It Safe to Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

A young woman with a mask in an airport traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the weather heating up and states and counties beginning the process of reopening, it's natural for people to wonder if it's safe to travel. While the number of Americans passing through airport security checkpoints is climbing, scientists maintain that caution is key to prevent the spread of COVID-19

"Whenever you travel, even prior to the coronavirus, you run the risk of encountering new infections," says Dr. Michael Ben-Aderet, an infectious disease specialist at Cedars-Sinai. "Right now that risk is heightened since we know that there's active transmission of COVID-19 in every state, as well as most countries."

"Whenever you travel, even prior to coronavirus, you run the risk of encountering new infections."

Travel Considerations

There's no doubt that going on a vacation can have a positive impact on your health and wellbeing. But with the pandemic, travel becomes much more challenging.

Here are some of the top considerations.

Where you're traveling

When you travel, you're more likely to have greater exposure to shared spaces, such as restaurants, hotels and public restrooms, which increases your chances of being exposed to the illness. While the infection rate in some areas may be lower than that in Los Angeles, increased exposure to the public means that the risk is still there. If you're traveling from Los Angeles to an area currently experiencing an increase in cases, your chances of contacting the virus will be even higher. 

Which mode of transportation you're using

Not all types of travel are equally risky. Traveling by air, for example, is riskier than crossing the country in an RV. 

"Airports are a high-risk area because you have a lot of people from different areas moving through a central location," Dr. Ben-Aderet says. 

So it makes sense that airports, particularly big city airports, are a hot zone for infectious diseases and novel pathogens. Once you're seated on the plane, assuming passengers and flight staff are required to wear a mask, surfaces are cleaned regularly and people are spaced greater than 6 feet apart, your risk is probably reduced. 

Most viruses do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Where you'll be staying

You're less likely to encounter the virus camping in the woods than in a busy hotel in a big city. 

"A hotel is a shared environment so it comes with its own risk factors," Dr. Ben-Aderet says. 

Several hotels have implemented risk-reduction protocols, such as requiring guests and staff to wear masks in public areas, shutting down common areas and only cleaning rooms between guests. Still, your best bet is to select lodging options that expose you to the fewest number of people to keep your risk as low as possible.

What you'll be doing

Activities that put you within 6 feet of someone you are not traveling with are inherently risky. There are plenty of things you can do while traveling that allow you to maintain a safe distance from other people. 

Hiking, camping, even dining in a restaurant that has implemented appropriate safety protocols can afford you sufficient physical distance to stay safe. 

"Crowded or enclosed spaces like museums, concerts and other public events are much higher risk," says Dr. Ben-Aderet. "In these areas it is critical for everyone to be masked, though that does not eliminate the risk of transmission."

Strategies for Staying Safe While Traveling

Travel, by definition, increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. Before you get out of town, make sure to check state and local travel restrictions and do some research to learn whether COVID-19 is spreading in your area or where you're traveling. Some states require out-of-state visitors to self-quarantine.

"If you decide to travel, it's important to remember that the coronavirus is a respiratory virus," Dr. Ben-Aderet says. "When you understand that, the recommended guidelines to protect yourself from the virus make more sense." 

What to do: 

  • Practice good hand-washing hygiene: Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after visiting a public place or touching potentially contaminated surfaces. No access to soap and water? Use hand sanitizer until you're able to get to a sink. 
  • Avoid touching your face: Your nose and mouth are primary routes of transmission. Keeping your hands away from your face will help prevent contaminated droplets from reaching your mucus membranes. 
  • Wear a mask: Covering your nose and mouth with a mask ensures germs stay put. "It's a lot harder for a respiratory droplet to hit you or contaminate a surface you might come into contact with if everyone is masked," Dr. Ben-Aderet says.
  • Practice physical distancing: Virus-containing droplets can travel through the air. If you keep your distance from the people around you, you're more likely to avoid infection. 

Most importantly, recognize that as a traveler, you have a responsibility to protect not just yourself, but also the people around you. If you're exposed to COVID-19 while you're traveling, you can spread the virus to loved ones when you return, even if you are symptom-free. 

People who are over age 60, or who have underlying medical conditions, are especially vulnerable to developing serious illness from COVID-19. 

"We're dealing with a new virus which acts differently than anything we've seen previously," Dr. Ben-Aderet says. "But there are ways to travel safely. The key is to take the threat of the coronavirus seriously and to follow the guidelines laid out by the CDC and state and local health officials."