The safest way to travel during the pandemic

Other travelers are the biggest risk.
Woman waiting for airplane with coronavirus mask.
Think about how many people you'll bump into, and how long you'll be in transit, before booking those tickets. Pexels

Summer is in full swing, and nobody would blame you if a trip to the beach or your favorite city is tempting you. But even if you are itching for a vacation outside of your living room, there’s a few things to consider—namely where you’re going and how exactly you’re going to get there.

Travel advisories are changing constantly, not to mention how several countries have also issued travel bans against Americans. It’s important to keep all that in mind to avoid being stranded in a foreign country, or being sent home before you even pass through customs. Even if you’re just hoping to hop state lines to visit family, certain states like Alaska and Rhode Island, among others, have issued domestic travel restrictions.

Whatever new locale you journey to, there’s also the challenge of all the random people you might bump shoulders with. Planes, buses, and other shared spaces all come with different anxiety-inducing factors, like breathing the same air, whether anyone is a COVID carrier or if all surfaces are sanitized. But if you’re going on an adventure, be it in a car on your own or a train with loads of strangers, there are still plenty of ways to protect yourself, your travel companions, and your loved ones you hope to see when you arrive.

Riskiest: Any kind of shared travel

“Buses, trains, and airplanes—kinds of transportation where you’re with lots of people for a long time—are all risky,” says Prashant Kumar, the founding Director of the Global Centre for Clean Air Research at the University of Surrey. The big issue with shared travel comes down to how much space people get, cleaning protocols, how filtered the air is, and who you’re traveling with.

It’s really tough to differentiate the risk between a flight, bus ride, or train trip because they all share a mix of these highly variable factors, Kumar says. Even between two different planes, you might see different levels of cleanliness, social distancing, mask requirements, and so on. It’s kind of like going out to a restaurant, where each place is on its own to decide what protective measures are being taken. Two different planes from the same airline, or trains from the same company, might still be slightly different.

Air flow is the most crucial factor in these vehicles, says Lisa Lee, an epidemiologist and public health ethicist at Virginia Tech University. Whether you’re traveling on a train, bus, or plane, you really want to be out of range of people’s exhalations. Ideally, the vehicle you are in will have a lot of air exchange with the outside, and minimal stale air circulation. For travel modes like airplanes, it isn’t so easy to pop open a window to get a bit of fresh air if the person next to you is breathing too much in your direction. Luckily, airplanes these days actually have quite good technology that can bring outside air in to circulate inside the cabin, Lee says. When it comes to a bus or train, you might have a little more leeway in taking circulation into your own hands.

“The more outside air you can bring in and exchange with inside air the better,” Lee explains.

But the bottom line, says Lee, is that out of these options, the safest mode of transportation is the one where you spend the least amount of time with the fewest number of people. So if you had to choose between a less crowded airplane flight for two hours versus a squished bus for eight, maybe go ahead and get those air miles.

Risky: Cars

Road tripping is a tempting alternative to a flight or Greyhound ride, and for the most part it is much safer than any sort of public transportation. If you’re traveling with people from your household or quarantine “pod,” then riding in a car is much safer than other types of transportation in terms of COVID-related risks, says Lee.

“Even with things like having to stop for gas, having to stop for restroom breaks, or picking up snacks, your risk of exposure is similar to everyday life events like getting groceries,” she says.

What’s important to consider when traveling by car, however, is that the more stops you make, the riskier it gets. Every time you exit the car and interact in shared spaces with shared surfaces, you increase your risk, Lee explains. And while you can control who is in your car, you don’t have any control over how people conduct themselves in gas stations or fast-food restaurants.

So, a one shot drive on one tank of gas is much safer than a multi-day road trip, especially considering if you’re staying at hotels or other accommodations overnight, which opens a whole new can of worms in terms of risks for you and whoever else is in the hotel. Just as in planes, buses, or trains, being in hotels adds a handful of variables that you can’t necessarily control. If your road trip will entail four motel stays through multiple COVID hot-spots, maybe save that escapade for a future date where you won’t have to be so stressed about carrying along or catching a virus.

And keep in mind: location, location, location. A drive down from New York to Florida will take you through Virginia, Maryland and Georgia, among others—all states with increasing rates of new COVID-19 cases. Driving to a state with high case counts is definitely not advisable, but neither is driving from a state with high case numbers. If you’ve been living in Texas, it’s probably not a great idea to drive through the country without some sort of quarantine plan.

Not risky: Staying home

Unfortunately, the safest way to do any sort of exploration is still through the worldwide web on your couch at home. With new cases around the US still growing, traveling regardless of mode of transportation confers risk not only to yourselves but those you come in contact with. Try satiating your travel bug with travel documentaries, books, or even a whirl on good old Google Earth.

2020 is the year of the staycation. Try an indoor or backyard camping trip. In fact, backyards are the perfect arena for all kinds of kid-friendly shenanigans like mini-Olympic yard games or a movie screening on a projector. If you’re short on outdoor space, treat yourself to a DIY spa day. You could even spruce up and redecorate your living situation to make it feel like a whole new environment.

Of course, the pandemic does not mean we need to halt our lives completely, says Kumar, but we all need to make informed decisions and know what it takes to stay safe. And sometimes that means creating your own vacation at home, and saving up for an even more special trip next year.

Bonus round: Boats

For a ventilated, well-spaced trip, it might seem like going seaside would be the ideal answer. Unfortunately, it just isn’t so simple. Boats do have some advantages. For instance, many ferries have a good amount of space where you can be in the open air on deck, Lee says. That access to fresh air is super valuable.

But on the other hand, boats often have people milling about free range, which can make social distancing difficult. Giant boats where hordes of people are crammed into cabins, like cruise ships, are an infectious disease nightmare and are to be avoided at all costs. But so long as your boat of choice is not super packed, and has ample space for distancing, you may be in luck.

If you’re fortunate enough to have access to a small, private boat, that could be a great way to get to the beach for some water time. Just make sure you’re either with your quaranteam, again, or have enough square footage for safe distancing.

So is the only good option for getting to Europe a slow boat across the Atlantic? Not really. “If I were going on a trip to London, I’d rather not be on a boat for a week. I’d much rather be on a plane where I’m only on there for a few hours,” Lee says. Being stuck with a bunch of people, even with ideal ventilation, is quite literally the stuff of coronavirus nightmares.

But, for a short day trip on a boat with just your pod, the journey would kind of be like taking a car trip, but with more airflow and sunshine. So if you go this route, take the same precautions as you would for a road trip, and certainly don’t forget your sunscreen.