Flying just isn’t what it used to be. Even for travelers who rarely feel uncertainty, fear or anxiety when flying, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact. But with vaccinations ahead of schedule, many travelers are starting to feel comfortable making spring and summer plans.
Statistics from the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) show pandemic air travel is already bouncing back, and recent guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that vaccinated people are at low risk when it comes to travel. Some research suggesting that airplanes aren’t the coronavirus hotbeds you might expect may also be helping fuel the desire for air travel. One US Department of Defense study found that the ventilation systems on planes filter air efficiently, effectively removing particles that could transmit viruses.
But none of this means you should forgo protections. At each step of your trip, from when to arrive at the airport to what to pack in your carry-on, it’s possible to stay safe, comfortable and at minimal risk for catching Covid-19 or any other virus when traveling by air.
“One of the most important things you can do is the preflight prep because what you do before you fly is as important as what you do once you’re on the plane,” says John Niser, Ph.D., director of the International School of Hospitality, Sports and Tourism Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “Completing the TSA PreCheck, for example, allows you to bypass crowded security lines, saving time and reducing the number of contact points.”
Accessing boarding passes and schedule updates using an airline app also minimizes the amount of contact you’ll have with TSA and airport employees. “Airplane cabins may have good air filtration and airflow, but you don’t have that same level of protection in the airport,” says travel expert Gary Leff, whose widely read travel blog, View From the Wing, is one of the industry’s most popular. “My preference is to spend as little time as possible in the airport environment itself, so anything pre-check that makes that faster and easier is great.”
Minimizing wait times on both the front and back end of your trip is key. A carry-on eliminates time spent at crowded baggage carousels — just make sure it’s small and light enough that you won’t need help if it needs to go inside the plane’s overhead compartment.
“Most airlines recommend bringing the smallest possible carry-on because flight attendants are no longer allowed to touch your baggage,” Dr. Niser says. “This is especially important for older people who may be relying on help once they’re on board.”
American Tourister 4 Kix Softside Luggage Underseater ($57.63, originally $74.99; amazon.com)
If your flight is long or you have a layover, you may want to pack a snack or sandwich, as many airport restaurants are still not open or operating at full capacity. Packing your own food will also reduce the amount of time you spend in line ordering within close proximity to others. Collapsible storage containers are perfect for keeping food fresh without taking up space.
Prepworks Collapsible Storage Bowls with Lids, Set of 3 ($14.99; bedbathandbeyond.com)
Masks are still required to fly on all airlines, but most people bring only one with them when they travel. “In reality, you should pack about four or five and change them out every four hours,” Leff says. Breathability is important, but for maximum safety, double up or use an N-95 mask, the kind that health care workers rely on for protection. “N-95 masks are no longer scarce, nor are they even that expensive. Find one that fits and make sure to wear it properly over your nose and mouth,” explains Leff.
SupplyAid KN95 Protective Masks, 5-Pack ($12.99, originally $17.99; amazon.com)
It’s also important to wash your hands — a lot. But when you can’t, sanitizer is a decent alternative. Look for one that has at least 60% alcohol, as they’re best at killing germs and viruses.
When choosing between washing your hands in the airplane bathroom and using sanitizer, however, go with the latter. “Staying in your seat helps minimize contact with people on the plane,” Dr. Niser says. “Also, skin dries out during air travel, so if you can find a sanitizer that also has moisturizing ingredients, even better.”
Purell Naturals Hand Sanitizer ($2.99; target.com)
Even though airlines claim to thoroughly clean their planes between flights, experts say it’s a good idea to wipe down the armrest, tray table and your general seat area when you first board. Alcohol wipes are perfect for this. Check labels and choose one that kills 99.9% of viruses and bacteria.
Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, 3-Pack ($11.97; amazon.com)
Most travelers will need to recharge their phones at some point, but public charging stations not only make you more vulnerable to hacking and malware, but they also require you to stand or sit close to other travelers who are also charging devices. A portable charger ensures you’re able to keep your phone juiced up without the risk. If you travel frequently, go for a charger capacity of at least 10,000mAh. If you’re taking a short, direct flight, a charger with an under-5,000mAh rating will work.
Anker PowerCore Slim 10000 Ultra-Slim Portable Charger ($18.99; amazon.com)
If there’s one surface you’re likely to touch most during a flight, it’s your phone. “It ends up in a bunch of places you probably don’t even realize,” says Dr. Niser. “That’s because when you travel, your phone is sort of like your home base.” A portable UV light sanitizer can keep it clean. Research shows that UV light can kill everything from bacteria and fungi to viruses themselves, though more research is needed to confirm whether that includes Covid-19.
Still, many experts say there’s no reason to think that UV light would kill all viruses except one. The benefits, they believe, are well worth it, especially when it comes to perpetually dirty surfaces, such as your phone. “UV light can really get into nooks and crannies and is 99% more effective than wipes,” Dr. Niser says.
PhoneSoap is a one-of-kind phone sanitizer that uses UV light to kill 99.9% of the bacteria on your phone. It works like a mini tanning bed for your smartphone.
Editor’s note: It’s still unknown whether or not UV sanitizers and UV-C can kill Covid-19, and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) released an advisory confirming this. They also note that direct contact with UV-C or looking into the light can cause injury. The UV sanitizers above feature lids with a locking mechanism or the light is only activated when the cover is confirmed to be closed. You can see the full advisory from the FDA here and further analysis from CNN Business here.
PhoneSoap Smartphone UV Sanitizer ($79.95; phonesoap.com)
When it comes time to zone out, you’re going to want a good pair of headphones or earbuds. Some airlines provide these, but they may not be as hygienic as bringing a comfortable pair from home, according to Dr. Nabeel Chaudhary of Manhattan Specialty Care. Larger, over-the-ear options will go over your mask’s ear loops, and small buds can pop right in, avoiding contact with any part of the mask.
If you want to watch movies on the seat-back screen, bring headphones that will plug into the screen, since no airlines offer Bluetooth technology (yet). Or, if you have a set of Bluetooth headphones you prefer, you can snag an adapter to plug into the audio jack so you can stay wireless.
Anker Soundcore Life Q20 (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)
Twelve South AirFly Pro Wireless Transmitter/Receiver ($45.99, originally $54.99; amazon.com)
UrBeats Wired Earphones ($59.99; walmart.com)
Finally, while a neck pillow isn’t going to protect you from Covid-19, it can help prop you up, minimizing the chances of getting eerily close to your seatmates. “Choose one with a removable, washable cover,” Dr. Niser says. Then, once you reach your destination, toss it in the wash, just in case.