How to Protect Yourself From The Coronavirus (COVID-19) While Traveling

For every one person infected with COVID-19, the new coronavirus, three more people get sick. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic. People who plan to travel may want to keep themselves healthy at all costs.

Yes, you can still travel during the virus’s spread, but experts recommend taking certain precautions. From buying the right hand sanitizer to keeping clean in public restrooms, you have many opportunities to lower your risk of contracting the virus. Fortunately, all the advice you need to travel during the coronavirus outbreak is right here.

Is The Trip Worth The Risk?

A school in Spain is closed because of COVID-19.
David Benito/ Getty Images
David Benito/ Getty Images

The most foolproof method to avoid coronavirus is not traveling to countries with large outbreaks. As of March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have advised people not to travel to China, Italy, Venezuela, South Korea, and Iran. If you have to go to these countries, consider your personal risk.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, considers the risk of coronavirus outside of these countries to be “pretty darn low.” If you have an upcoming trip to any high-risk area, consider rescheduling it.

Book A Plane, Not A Cruise

Southwest Airlines plane lands next to a United Airlines plane at San Francisco International Airport.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Because so many people are in close contact on one boat, cruise ships are notorious for spreading disease. Recently, nearly 700 people were infected on the ship Diamond Princess during a quarantine off the coast of Japan. As of March 9th, 2020, the American government is debating banning all international cruise ships.

The U.S. Department of State advises people not to travel via cruise ship until the outbreak has died down. If you’re still going, the CDC recommends talking to your healthcare provider before taking off.

Avoid Touching Surfaces In Public Restrooms

A public restroom is seen in a Boston High School.
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, the toilet isn’t the most germ-infested surface in a public restroom. In 2011, a study in PLoS ONE found that the dirtiest spots are those that are frequently touched: toilet handles, doors, stalls, faucets, and paper towel dispensers. To avoid touching these surfaces, use a paper towel instead.

Grab a paper towel when using the stall, door, sink handle, or soap dispenser. And don’t place your belongings on the floor, says microbiologist Charles Gerba. Keep purses on the hanger or yourself.

The CDC Does Not Recommend Face Masks

A woman wears a face mask while walking around London.
Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

There’s a time and place where a mask can help, but it isn’t all the time. The CDC doesn’t recommend masks because “the scientific basis showing that people in the community wearing masks actually has any benefit is very thin and questionable.”

Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams has urged people to stop buying masks because the risk of infection may increase when they aren’t worn properly. These masks are not the same as fitted respiratory masks that surgeons wear, and they aren’t as effective as washing your hands properly.

Wash Your Hands The Right Way

A person washes his hands with soap.
Pablo Cuadra/Getty Images

A quick hand wash isn’t enough to protect you from diseases. According to the CDC, you should wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Remember to scrub in between your fingers and nails. To time it, you can recite the “happy birthday” song to yourself twice or the alphabet song, experts say.

While using public restrooms, dry your hands with a paper towel, says the World Health Organization. If the sink has handles, use the same paper towel to turn the sink off. Doing so will significantly lower the number of germs on your hands.

Clean Cans Before Drinking

Cans of soda are displayed in a cooler.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you buy a canned drink from a gas station or vending machine, you may want to pause before drinking. In 2013, researchers tested the tops of cans, and they found types of several bacteria. Since coronavirus can thrive on metal, you may want to wipe down your beverage before drinking.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Cedric Spak recommends rinsing your can under a faucet before drinking. If you don’t have a sink nearby, use a tissue or clean, dry cloth. Always check for any stains or breaks in the can before digging in.

Buy The Right Hand Sanitizer

A woman receives hand sanitizer from a medical station.
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Although hand sanitizers are flying off the shelves, many aren’t buying the right kind. According to the CDC, hand sanitizers need an alcohol content of at least 60% to be effective. “Alcohol-free” products are not recommended. Like handwashing, you need to rub the sanitizer for at least 20 seconds for the best results.

Do not try to DIY your own hand sanitizer from Pinterest recipes; most vodka doesn’t have enough alcohol content anyway. And remember that hand sanitizer is never as effective as washing your hands, but it’s better than nothing.

Clean Your Phone Frequently

A tourist takes a selfie in Bangkok.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The Journal of Hospital Infection has recently reported that coronavirus can live on glass and metal for up to nine days. Unfortunately, that includes your phone. Washing your hands won’t help much if your phone is dirty, and according to the University of Arizona, cellphones have more germs than a toilet seat.

Try to clean your phone daily, if possible. Apple and Samsung recommend using a microfiber cloth with light water and soap. Unplug the phone and remove the case before cleaning. Don’t use a microfiber cloth, as it may damage the screen.

Try Not To Touch Your Face

A woman rubs her eye.
Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images

On average, a person touches their face 23 times per hour. Still, our hands carry viruses and bacteria that could infect you, says the Association for Professionals in Infection Control. Your mouth, nose, and eyes are all portals for the coronavirus.

Vanessa Raabe, assistant professor in the department of medicine at NYU, recommends a couple of tricks to stop touching your face. Carry tissues around in case you need to scratch an itch and keep a stress ball if you need to fiddle with your hands.

Carry Sanitizer Wipes

A person carries disinfectant wipes in a car.

Airplane and train seats are occupied by many people daily. As a quick clean-up, carry sanitizing wipes while you travel, says Dr. Robert Segal, founder of Medical Offices of Manhattan. Wipe down the airplane seat, seatbelt, tray table, armrests, and touch screen to lower your risk of illness.

If you’re staying in a hotel, bring enough wipes to clean the surfaces. According to a 2012 study, 81% of hotel room surfaces contain fecal matter. Disinfect door handles, faucets, countertops, toilet handles, remotes, and bedside tables when you get in your room.

Keep Tissues Around

A woman blows her nose with a tissue.
Christina Sabrowsky/picture alliance via Getty Images
Christina Sabrowsky/picture alliance via Getty Images

Travel packs of tissues are invaluable while walking around. By sneezing or coughing into tissues, you prevent nasal spray from landing on others around you, says the CDC. Only use a tissue once before replacing it. Bacteria and viruses remain active on the cloth, explains Professor Jack Gwaltney of the University of Virginia Medical School.

After using a tissue, wash your hands as soon as possible to remove the germs, according to The Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters. If you don’t have a tissue on you, sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow.

Clip Your Nails

Nail clippers rest against a light blue background.

While packing, make sure to include a nail clipper. According to dermatology researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, thousands of bacteria live in the dirt beneath the fingernails. The nails can even carry viruses like corona, says Dr. Aaron Glatt, a spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America.

“Nails should be kept at the shortest size that is comfortable to you,” Glatt explained, “because dirt under fingernails can carry viruses.” While washing your hands, remember to scrub beneath the fingernails as well.

Keep Track Of Attractions That Cancel

A woman stands in front of the pyramid of the newly opened Louvre museum, which closed temporarily from coronavirus.

Because of the virus, major attractions are closing around the world. These include St. Patrick’s Day Parades and multiple festivals, including South by Southwest. Before going on your trip, learn which events have been canceled, so you don’t waste your time or money traveling there.

If these attractions and events are not canceled yet but could be, decide whether you want to take the risk. Is the trip worth rescheduling? Is your money better spent elsewhere? Weigh your options before the plane takes off.

Before You Leave, Visit A Travel Clinic

A woman types on a laptop with a stethoscope nearby.
Pinterest/Bri <3
Wodicka/ullstein bild via Getty Images

If you’re heading to a country you’ve never been to, visit a travel clinic at least six weeks before you leave. Travel clinics will ensure that you can get prescriptions, receive proper immunizations, and learn about the country. They will advise you on areas and foods to avoid on your trip.

To find a travel clinic near you, find The International Society of Travel Medicine (ISTM) online. These clinics are up-to-date on all the medical happenings worldwide, which is difficult even for a doctor to keep up with, says Emory professor of medicine and diseases Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky.

While On Planes, Wear A Mask

Passengers wear protective face masks on a plane.
NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images
NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

Many travelers are worried about the plane’s air filtration system spreading the virus. Fortunately, a plane’s air filter is far more effective than a cruise ship’s filter, according to Purdue University. To keep yourself extra safe, wear a face mask while sitting on the plane.

“Face masks can be considered for sick travelers to help reduce the spread of respiratory germs and for people sitting near sick travelers,” says travel medicine specialist Louis Morledge. If a sick passenger can tolerate wearing a mask, they should, too. Never reuse masks or borrow someone else’s.

Consider Buying Travel Insurance

European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC) sit on a map.
Nick Ansell/PA Images via Getty Images
Nick Ansell/PA Images via Getty Images

Travel insurance can cover medical costs abroad, says travel insurance expert and CEO of Seven Corners, Justin Tysdal. If you want to cut the trip short and get money back, opt for a “cancel for any reason” policy. It’s more expensive, but it’ll refund 50% to 75% of your prepaid expenses if you decide to go home early.

Christopher Elliott, founder Elliott Advocacy, says that there’s no one-size-fits-all for travel insurance. Compare prices and coverages for a “worst-case scenario”–if you get sick or decide to rush home.

Always Hydrate

A tourist holds up a water bottle next to fountains in The Netherlands.
Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

With sites to see and places to go, many travelers don’t pause enough for water. But water removes toxins from the body, which makes it essential to fighting off disease. Sports medicine physician Dr. John Batson highly recommends hydrating while traveling, because “you might sweat differently if you’re in a different climate.”

Try to hydrate before you leave, and carry a water bottle with you. Avoid sugary drinks and caffeinated beverages, says internal medicine specialist Dr. Seema Marwaha. They actually cause you to lose more water than you gain,” she explains.

Sleep, Sleep, And More Sleep

A passenger sleeps on a plane.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Whether you’re sitting on a plane for 45 minutes or 19 hours, traveling is exhausting. When you lack sleep, your immune system doesn’t function as well. Sleep for seven to eight hours per night if you can. Stocking up on 30-minute naps could lower your chances of getting sick, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

You can prepare for a different sleeping schedule, says John Hopkins Medicine. Three days before your trip, move your bedtime one hour earlier each night. It may encourage your body to adjust to a different time zone.

Get Vaccines Before Leaving

A man receives a medical examination in a doctor's office.
Donat SorokinTASS via Getty Images
Donat SorokinTASS via Getty Images

As of March 2020, there is no vaccine for COVID-19. However, getting a flu shot before traveling could have a “very important indirect effect,” says Dr. Albert Ko of Yale University. If nothing else, fewer flu cases will relieve hospital staff who are already struggling with coronavirus patients.

People who are vaccinated also have the upper hand. According to Dr. Eric Cioe Peña, director of Global Health at Northwell Health, it’s “incredibly rare” to catch both the flu and the coronavirus around the same time. If you got a vaccine and receive symptoms, you’ll know to take the symptoms seriously.

Try To Eat Healthily

A woman eats dinner with chopsticks while traveling.

While it’s tempting to load up on treats and dessert on your vacation, that won’t help your immune system. According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a poor diet can compromise your immune system. Your chances of catching coronavirus could increase if you don’t watch your diet.

The Oregon Clinic recommends loading up on protein and antioxidants while traveling. Colorful fruits and vegetables, including blueberries, sweet potatoes, and bell pepper, usually have immune-improving antioxidants. If you can, try to cook meals at your hotel or Airbnb.

Limit Your Exposure To Sick People

Two women walk past a sign providing guidance information about novel coronavirus (COVID-19) at the entrance to University College Hospital.

If you feel unwell, don’t travel. Likewise, if someone else seems ill while traveling, try to limit your time with them. If you have to tend to a sick person, the CDC recommends avoiding close-contact actions such as hugging, kissing, or shaking hands.

Ask the patient to sneeze into the crook of their elbow, which is the most effective way of containing the virus. When they cough or sneeze, move away. And if you’re extra concerned, wear gloves or a face mask and disinfect objects that the patient touches frequently.

Take Breaks Frequently

A person relaxes on the beach during a vacation.

While traveling can be stressful, you need to not overpack your schedule. In 2012, a study in PLoS ONE noted that stress harms your immune system. When you’re busy, your body may not be strong enough to fight off viruses.

The Center of Anxiety and Mood Disorders recommends several techniques to stabilize your state of mind. Bring calming music, get plenty of sleep, and pause to breathe slowly and calm yourself. Exercise can also relieve stress while traveling.

Boost Your Immunity With Vitamins

Vitamins pour out of an open glass container.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Some vitamins can fortify your body if your vacation diet is lacking. A professor of immunology, Sheena Cruickshank recommends vitamin D. In winter, cloudy skies limit your vitamin D, which makes them prone to viruses.

Immunity supplements contain fatty acids that could also improve your immunity, says Oregon State University. One nutrient that doesn’t help is vitamin C. “Vitamin C is water-soluble, it’s not one that your body stores,” Cruickshank told The Guardian. Between the two, vitamin D is a better choice.

Choose A Window Seat

A passenger looks out of a plane window.
Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images
Sergei BobylevTASS via Getty Images

If you can choose your plane seat, opt for the window. In 2008, research in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that people were less likely to contract norovirus in the window seat. Those in the aisle seat came into contact with more people, which made them more likely to get sick.

If you’re worried about the coronavirus, book a window seat. However, where you sit does not make a significant difference. The World Health Organization reported that the risk of illnesses transmitting through aircraft is low. A plane’s high-efficiency particulate filters are very effective.

Know Your Risk Factors

An illustration shows a virus.

According to experts, 80% of COVID-19 cases are mild, 14% are considered severe enough to send someone to a hospital, and 5% are critical, ending up in organ failure. Fatal cases happen to people over age 50 and those with underlying conditions, such as autoimmune disorders. Does that sound like you?

Before traveling, consider your risk factors. Those with chronic diseases have a higher risk of critical infection. If the coronavirus is unlikely to harm you seriously, you can visit more places. But if you get infected, try to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

Book Flights And Hotels That You Can Cancel

A passenger hands a ticket to the employee at the airport in Turkey.
Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Believe it or not, some flights won’t refund a cancellation. Airlines regard COVID-19 as an “extraordinary circumstance,” which exempts them from offering a full refund in some countries. Make sure that the flight you book will give you a refund if a new outbreak appears in your area.

The same goes for hotels. According to Business Traveller, the terms and conditions vary by hotel and country, so you may not receive money back if you decide to jump ship. Fortunately, travel insurance can help you make these decisions.

Skip Intensely Crowded Areas

People crowd the Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo.
Hristo Rusev/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Hristo Rusev/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Many organized events, such as marathons and festivals, have already canceled due to COVID-19. Helen Chu, an infectious-disease professor at the University of Washington, calls this “a wise choice.” In countries with a high risk of coronavirus, you may want to avoid very crowded places.

According to the CDC, the virus spreads through sneezes and coughs that extend six feet in the air. If you keep that distance from others, you should be fine. Where you go also depends on what Johns Hopkins University scholar Amesh Adalja calls “risk preference.” How worried are you about coronavirus, and how at-risk do you think you are?

Use Disinfectant Wipes, NOT Baby Wipes

Disinfectant Clorox wipes sit on a grocery store shelf.
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

Disinfectant wipes are essential for a healthy traveler, but many people think baby wipes will do the trick. They won’t. “You need something with chemicals,” says pathogens specialist Syra Madad. Dr. Neha Pathak, a WebMD medical editor, adds that disinfectant wipes are better at killing viruses than soap and water.

If you want to avoid coronavirus, experts recommend disinfecting “high touch” surfaces. These include train seats, doorknobs, and even office furniture. Buy wipes that are specifically designed for disinfecting, Madad recommends.

Can You Attend A Hospital Abroad?

A woman in a mask cleans a hospital in El Salvador.
Camilo Freedman/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images
Camilo Freedman/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images

If you’re traveling abroad, will you feel comfortable visiting a hospital if you get sick or run out of supplies? Beyond coronavirus, there are plenty of injuries and illnesses that arise while traveling. You’ll want to check with your insurance company to see which hospitals are available to you, says Daphne Hendsbee of the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT).

Always bring your insurance card while traveling. Print documents in the country’s native language, if they’re essential. If your trip gets delayed due to a virus outbreak, you’ll have access to medical supplies for treatment and prevention.

Don’t Read Too Much About The Virus

A person browses her iPad and computer.

On March 5th, 2020, infectious disease specialist Abdu Sharkawy tweeted that the panic about the coronavirus is possibly more dangerous than the disease itself. People are taking supplies from hospitals to stockpile them, although governments have warned that there is no reason to. In short, COVID-19 isn’t as bad as people are making it seem.

Remember how stress lowers your immune system? If you worry too much about the virus, you’ll not only ruin your vacation but possibly get sick. Only read reliable sources and remember to try and enjoy yourself.