When Will It Be Safe to Travel Again?

The answer isn't straightforward, but some clear guidance remains: Wear masks, adhere to social distancing best practices, and sanitize/wash frequently. Also...Read More

It's likely we'll see masks in public for a while. (Source: iStock / tampatra)

This year has been a doozy. While the complicated world of travel always has its ups and downs, 2020 has been one lingering down with no ups. We’re staying home and social-distancing for good reason, of course, but that doesn’t stop us jetsetters from asking: When will it be safe to travel again? While we’re not medical experts, we have been able to curate some helpful information from those who are – as well as other in-the-know travel gurus – to help you manage expectations in the months ahead. To make the information more accessible, we’ve styled it as an easy-to-navigate FAQ. Read on…

What does “safe” travel look like in the age of COVID-19?

This is a difficult question to answer unilaterally, but there are some basic things to keep in mind. Setting aside concerns about pickpocketing and the like – and focusing solely on avoiding the contraction of COVID-19 – here are a few things you can do:

  • Bring multiple means of sanitization with you wherever you go. Sanitizer (at least 60% ethyl alcohol) should be stored on your person for regular use, in your luggage, and in a carryon bag, purse, or backpack. Use sanitizer after touching any common surface (doorknobs, railings, windows) and be sure you rub it all over your hands until it evaporates entirely.
  • Train yourself not to touch your face while traveling. One of the more common ways to transmit and receive viruses and bacteria is via the nose and mouth. This is especially true of COVID-19. To avoid contracting the virus, wear plastic or latex gloves; simply having them on will discourage you from touching your face. They will also create an extra barrier between your hands and surfaces you need to touch. Finally, and most importantly, wear a face-covering whenever visiting public or highly-populated areas.
  • Keep contact with common areas to a minimum. Use your back or elbow to open doors, avoid opening or closing windows, don’t touch other people’s luggage or travel areas (seats, benches, tables, and so on), and keep at least six feet between you and others whenever possible. Additionally, avoid common serving stations or utensils, often found in coffee shops or family-style restaurants.

If you must travel and have the option to choose your activities and destinations, travel in your own vehicle and plan outdoor adventures – hiking, camping/glamping, climbing, and the like. You may get a little dirty, but it’s easier to distance yourself from others and avoid contaminated areas.

The safest way to travel, however, is not to travel at all. That’s not the answer most are looking for, but it’s our current reality.

(We strongly encourage you to discuss your travel plans with your doctor and confirm the above guidance is appropriate for you and your destination before embarking. Additionally, consult this guide from the Mayo Clinic for more in-depth guidance.)

What are the biggest health risks to traveling right now?

As with the question above, the answer depends heavily on your current medical condition, your circumstances/methods of travel, and your destination. However, COVID-19 remains a very real threat to travelers. Even in destinations that open to U.S. residents, infections are still a threat. The danger is amplified for those with underlying medical conditions, compromised immune systems, or are part of the high-risk demographic categories outlined by the CDC (see link below for more information).

It’s also important to note that COVID-19 transmission is still being researched. Originally, it was thought primary transmissions was via respiratory droplets (from coughs and sneezes), hence the many mandates to wear masks in public places. However, more recent studies have noted that the virus can live on surfaces or be airborne. All of these come in to play in densely-populated areas like airports, train/bus stations, and indoor public gathering spaces.

More information and a risk assessment from the CDC can be accessed here.

Some planes will continue to see reduced capacity, but more and more will be full. (Source: iStock / Joel Carillet)
Some planes will continue to see reduced capacity, but more and more will be full. (Source: iStock / Joel Carillet)

Will travel ever return to what it was in 2019? If so, what will need to be in place?

There’s hope that travel will return to “normal” – that is, what travel looked like before COVID-19. However, there will likely need to be some adjustments to ensure viral contagions don’t result in another pandemic – even after a vaccine for COVID-19 is widely disseminated (ETA unknown).

For instance, David Slotnick of Business Insider notes that we’ll see cleaning protocols in place for some time – plane wipe-downs, extra alcohol wipes onboard, mask-wearing everywhere, and social distancing whenever possible. Even as we move on from the worst of the pandemic, we may see some of those protocols remain to avoid future outbreaks. We may also see “immunity passports” used to gauge the health of passengers – especially during high-transmissions times like flu or cold season.

Let’s be clear, though: We don’t really know what travel will look like in six months or a year – and certainly not in 10 years. For now, though, planes, boats, and major transit channels will continue to clean facilities and, where appropriate, vet passengers to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Should I expect radically different travel processes and methods in the months/years ahead?

If you go flying today, you’ll notice that the process is more or less the same as it was in 2019 – with a few key differences. Airlines are rolling out “hands-free” check-in stations, sanitizer is everywhere, masks are required, and social distancing is urged. Once onboard, you’ll likely get an alcohol wipe to clean things down and will be required to wear your mask for the duration of the flight (unless you’re eating, drinking, or medically unable to do so).

While some airlines initially promised to limit passenger capacity to help stave off viral spread, the reality is most are back to full capacity. To mitigate the associated risk, many send out early notifications to passengers letting them know their flights will likely be full and giving them the chance to change their reservation at no cost. There’s no telling how long that will last, though.

Finally, a prediction from WWoT: Given the extra effort, materials, and time required to implement necessary cleaning practices, we may see transit tickets increase in price.

How does all of this compare to travel changes during other pandemics and outbreaks?

While there have been several bad flu seasons in recent memory (including the H1N1 outbreak in 2009), they don’t really compare to the impact of COVID-19. The closest thing to it is the Spanish flu of 1918, though the world was quite a bit different back then. For starters, there weren’t any commercial airlines – only boats and trains. Second, illiteracy was higher and information harder to disseminate, making warnings and prohibitions difficult to quickly share with large swaths of people. Also, the general public didn’t travel like they did today – it was something the rich did, mostly, with the rest of society remaining largely stationary in one city or region their entire lives.

That’s all by way of saying: What we’re facing today is unique. We have better access to information, are able to work without leaving home, and can utilize advancements in technology and medicine to mitigate the suffering and risk caused by COVID-19. That’s the good news. The bad news is, we’re also more mobile; infected travelers can easily spread the virus to populations outside their home. This is why mask-wearing, sanitization, social distancing, and avoidance of heavily-populated areas is the common refrain from the CDC and the other medical organizations.

Good rule of thumb: Sanitize after interacting with common touch surfaces. (Source: iStock / AnryMos)
Good rule of thumb: Sanitize after interacting with common touch surfaces. (Source: iStock / AnryMos)

What resources should I be looking at for ongoing travel health/safety advice?

In a health crisis, it’s easy to lean on the internet for the latest news and information. While finding information is easy, determining what information is reliable is not. Fortunately, there are several vetted organizations that have proffered their guidance on remaining healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are ones we lean on frequently:

For general medical questions about COVID-19: CDC (Centers for Disease Control)
For more in-depth guidelines around staying safe/healthy during COVID-19: Mayo Clinic
For domestic travel guidance and information: U.S. State Department
For international travelers: World Health Organization
For information on U.S. legislation related to COVID-19: National Conference of State Legislatures
For specific guidelines in your area: Local/state government websites

In sum – and to answer the question that prompted this article, “When will it be safe to travel again?” – we unfortunately don’t have a lot of concrete direction. It depends on your personal health, mode of transportation, destination, and ability to reduce risk en route. Consult the resources above for guidance, but when in doubt, play it safe and stay home.