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We know that now is not the time for grand adventures and pleasure tips, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends staying home if you can. But while fewer people are voluntarily hopping on a plane, many must continue to rely on airlines for travel.
According to the CDC, because of how planes circulate and filter air onboard, "most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights." But you should still take precautions because you are likely to be in close contact with passengers who might be infected but asymptomatic on crowded flights.
So if you absolutely must travel, here's what measures airlines are taking to help protect everyone onboard and what you should do to stay healthy at the airport and on the plane.
Airlines are taking precautions
If you do have to fly, know that many airlines are working to protect the health of their employees and customers.
Most airlines have reduced the number of flights to most domestic and international destinations. Many, including Delta, United, American, Southwest and JetBlue, now require all passengers and staff to wear masks or face-coverings onboard. American Airlines has begun distributing face masks and sanitizing wipes or gels to customers, and Frontier became the first U.S. carrier to implement temperature screenings last week.
Airlines are also ramping up cleaning procedures by increasing the frequency of full-plane sanitization and increasing social distancing onboard by leaving empty seats between customers when possible. While some airlines like Southwest have suspended snack and beverage service indefinitely, others like Alaska Airlines are reducing food and drink served onboard and changing the way they serve, like not refilling used plastic cups.
United employs a full-time medical director to help the company make decisions about how to keep everyone as safe as possible.
What precautions to take
If you do have to travel, there are certain things you can and should do to help protect yourself and those around you:
Pack your own personal protective equipment like cloth face coverings or masks.
Use hand sanitizer.
Wash your hands often.
Refrain from touching your face.
Cough or sneeze into an elbow or disposable tissue.
Maintain a 6-foot distance between yourself and others not living in your household.
If you’re sick, stay home.
Before you get on a plane, the CDC also recommends checking for travel or other restrictions in your departure city and anywhere you’ll stop along your route, especially your destination. City and state ordinances regarding what counts as “essential travel,” what businesses are open or what PPE is required when in public can differ from place to place and change quickly.
If you’re traveling internationally, be aware of which countries might pose a higher risk of transmission. Check the CDC map and the State Department website for updates, as you may encounter difficulties when returning to the U.S.
Currently, the CDC recommends staying home for 14 days after you return from overseas to monitor your health and keep from spreading the virus if you contracted it unknowingly while abroad.
Lastly, wherever you are traveling, consider getting travel insurance with medical coverage and emergency evacuation if your current health insurance plan doesn’t cover medical needs that arise while traveling. Keep in mind, however, that many companies won’t cover costs associated with known risks and travel advisories, so make sure to read the fine print carefully so you know exactly what is covered. If in doubt, call or email your insurance company to find out. Some insurers like Allianz are offering special accommodations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
» Learn more: NerdWallet’s guide to travel insurance
The bottom line
If you do have to travel during the pandemic, be it for work or family emergencies, know that airlines have made changes to help keep passengers safe. Personal precautions can help protect everyone's health, and a little planning goes a long way. Stay home if you can — but if you must hop on a plane, travel safely.
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