NerdWallet: Ask an expert: Is any travel safe?

Social distancing is still key for pandemic safety, especially while traveling. (Source: Getty Images, NerdWallet)
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(NerdWallet/Gray News) - Many households are beginning to show symptoms of acute cabin fever. With summer approaching and global air travel still restricted, would-be travelers are considering alternative vacation plans, including RV rentals, road trips, and hotel staycations. But is it any safer to hit the road than it is to hit the skies? Are hotels OK? Do airline safety measures make any difference?

To help get to the bottom of these questions, we asked Molly Hyde, a board-certified expert and infection control practitioner who manages the spread of infectious diseases within health care systems. Keep in mind that these answers don’t constitute individual health advice — consult your physician for specific guidance.

Some key takeaways:

-- The most important safety consideration for any travel is maintaining a social distance.

-- For this reason, hotels with safety precautions are reasonably safe, while airplanes — even with social distancing and face mask policies in place — remain problematic.

Sam Kemmis: Many airlines have introduced sanitization, social distancing and screening policies to help reduce exposure for passengers. What’s your take on how effective these policies will be? Which policies will have the greatest impact?

Molly Hyde: All of the policies that airlines have enacted will help reduce the spread of COVID-19, but there will still be a risk of transmission in an environment like an airplane where a large number of people are packed into a small space for an extended period of time. There is no way to completely eliminate that risk.

We know that COVID-19 is primarily spread person-to-person by respiratory droplets. Because of this, I feel the most effective methods to prevent transmission will be physical distancing of the passengers and universal masking. Ideally, you want to space passengers six feet apart, as we know that the droplets can only travel about six feet before falling to the floor.

Universal masking will be extremely important to prevent people who are infected, especially those who don’t know it, from spreading the disease to others. It will be essential that the airlines enforce not just wearing a mask, but wearing it correctly by covering the mouth and nose. Enhanced cleaning is certainly necessary and important (and should absolutely be done) because COVID-19 can live on surfaces and can be transmitted that way. But this is a less-likely means of transmission than directly person-to-person, especially in a small confined space like an airplane.

Kemmis: What can passengers do to reduce their risks when flying?

Hyde: Passengers should do their best to stay as far apart from others as possible when flying. That’s obviously difficult to do on the airplane, but passengers should be thinking about their behavior in the airport as well. Be aware of the people around you when you are in the terminal waiting to get on the plane or in line at security and do your best to keep six feet away from others. Hand hygiene is also critical for staying healthy. You should always travel with hand sanitizer, use it regularly, and avoid touching your face.

Make sure you are wearing your mask correctly and don’t pull it down below your nose or chin. Not only will this completely defeat the purpose of the mask in preventing the spread of germs to others, it will put you at greater risk of getting infected. Pulling your mask down will put the outside of the mask directly under your nose/mouth, so you will just be breathing in all those germs that are on the outside of your mask.

Kemmis: Similarly, many hotels have introduced expanded cleaning policies, including leaving rooms unoccupied for several days between guests. How relatively safe or dangerous is it to stay in a hotel?

Hyde: As long as the hotel rooms are cleaned thoroughly between guests, and physical distancing measures/masking are enforced in common areas, there should be a fairly low risk of transmission when staying in a hotel. This risk decreases further when the rooms are left unoccupied for several days between guests. Studies have shown that the virus can live on surfaces for up to three days, so if a room is empty for more than three days, you can pretty safely assume any COVID virus that might have been there is dead (not that this should take the place of cleaning the room; the room still needs to be cleaned).

You can increase your personal safety by avoiding any prolonged close contact with other guests or staff and practicing good hand hygiene. It also can’t hurt to bring your own disinfectant wipes and wipe down the high-touch surfaces in your room, like the light switch or remote, as an extra precaution.

Kemmis: Many travelers are considering summer travel to national parks and other nature areas. Outdoor activities are deemed safer than indoor ones, but these road trips will still include many stops (for gas, restrooms, etc.) What are the risks and other considerations for road trips?

Hyde: When taking a road trip, your biggest risk is going to be directly or indirectly interacting with others at rest stops, restaurants, etc. People traveling through multiple states should remember that different states have different rules and regulations regarding COVID-19. For example, you may be traveling through a state where it’s OK to have large group gatherings or shop at a store without a mask, while others may not allow these things.

You should be thoughtful about the stops you make and do your best to make sure that you are taking the appropriate measures to prevent getting sick. This would include limiting your interaction with others, avoiding large group gatherings or eat-in restaurants, and practicing good hand hygiene (especially after touching high-touch surfaces like gas pumps or the door to a convenience store).

Kemmis: Let’s say a traveler needs to get from Los Angeles to Seattle this summer and is weighing whether to fly or drive (staying in hotels along the way). Which is safer?

Hyde: I would recommend driving over flying until we start seeing a very sharp reduction in cases across the entire U.S. and/or a vaccine is available, which I don’t believe will happen this summer. COVID-19 is primarily transmitted when someone is in close contact with an infected person for a prolonged period of time. There is almost no way to avoid this on an airplane; you may well be seated within six feet of another person. As long as the hotels are taking the appropriate measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, you have a lower risk of infection driving and staying in hotels than flying.

The bottom line

If you’re experiencing “quarantine fatigue” and beginning to wonder whether and how you might travel this summer, keep these guidelines in mind:

-- Proximity to others remains the biggest risk. Whether on an airplane or crammed together at a rest stop, watch out for activities that require getting close to others.

-- For this reason, air travel remains relatively risky, while road trips can be less so.

Of course, all of these options are about risk management; the safest thing you can do is shelter in place. But if you need to get out of the house, take the proper precautions to do it wisely.

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Sam Kemmis is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: skemmis@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @samsambutdif.

The article Ask an Expert: Is Any Travel Safe? originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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