Image: CDC poster
Center for Disease Control
Over Thanksgiving, the CDC launched an aggressive public awareness campaign informing travelers how to stay safe from illness.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/3/2009 1:14:23 PM ET 2009-12-03T18:14:23

While the rest of us were preparing for Thanksgiving, the CDC was kicking off its largest-ever public awareness campaign about staying healthy while traveling.

And not a moment too soon.

Peak flu season coincides with the busiest weeks of the winter travel season. This year, with both the seasonal flu and H1N1 in full swing, CDC is especially worried about how easy it is for illnesses to spread when people are in close contact at work and family get-togethers, on trains, ships and especially on planes.

The danger is real. Each year the seasonal flu sends thousands of people to the hospital and kills nearly 36,000. Since April, H1N1 alone has killed at least 4,000 people and sickened about 22 million others.

Although CDC reported this week that flu-related hospitalizations and deaths are on the drop, an agency spokesperson notes that flu cases “are still very high nation-wide compared to what is expected for this time of year.”

So, well-mannered travelers, as we all gear up for the next big wave of holiday travel, here are some tips for germ-free air travel and an update from airlines about change fees should illness strike.

Travel well
Ideally, you’ll travel when healthy, and you’ll stay that way on the road.

To do that, begin your trip well-rested and head for the airport early. You won’t be pressed for time, and the stress of traffic and long security lines will roll off your back.

To help ward off illness, experts suggest boosting immunity with exercise, healthy foods and vitamins. Dr. Margaret Lewin, Medical Director at Cinergy Health, suggests taking a daily dose of Vitamin D. “If you are sitting next to a passenger who is obviously ill, try to change your seat,” Lewin said. If that’s not possible, she suggests you to give the ill passenger beside you a packet of tissues and then turn your air duct toward the person.

“Ill passengers in front of and behind you do not offer as much infectious exposure,” she said. And incase you should begin to feel ill, be sure to pack a supply of prescriptions and cold medications to save yourself the hassle of searching for a pharmacy at an airport or in an unfamiliar city.

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A sink in every suitcase
Frequent hand washing remains the best way to avoid germs while traveling, so that kitchen sink in your seatmate’s carry-on bag may actually come in handy.

CDC says alcohol-based hand sanitizers are fine too, but when you pass through security, those small bottles of sanitizing solution must go in your quart-sized plastic bag. Fishing out the bottles after screening can be a hassle, so keep a supply of individual packets of sanitizing wipes in your pocket. That way you can clean up after touching the plastic bins that have held dirty shoes and other germ-laden items and wipe down the tray table, armrests and lavatory door handles when you’re on the plane.

Grocery stores and drugstores sell boxes of wipes and you can order them online from sites such as Minimus.biz, which specializes in travel-sized items.

Interactive: Is it a cold, the swine flu — or something else?

If you like snuggling up on the plane, bring a pillow or blanket from home or  stop by a Bijoux Terner store (they are in 21 U.S. airports) and pick up an inexpensive neck pillow ($10) or travel blanket to use for a few germ-free trips.

Vaccination on vacation
This year, CDC wants everyone to get vaccinated against the flu, but a shortage of seasonal flu shots and delays in delivery of H1N1 vaccines have caused some travelers to fly into the holidays unprotected.

That was Erin Lyons’ concern when her family flew from Chicago to Boston last week for Thanksgiving. Her husband was out of the office the day they gave seasonal flu shots at work and her children’s mid-October appointments for H1N1 vaccines were canceled because the pediatrician’s office didn’t receive its supply. So when the family returned to O’Hare Airport last Friday and spied the “H1N1 Vaccines Available” sign on a kiosk by the gate, Lyons and her husband looked at each other and said “Let’s do this!”

Swine flu events

If the kiosk had been open before Thanksgiving, Lyons’ family would have lined up then. But in October, the vaccine shortage forced Jeff Butler to shut down the 32 flu shot kiosks his company, FLU*Ease, was contracted to operate at 10 airports, including O’Hare and Midway in Chicago. Butler was able to reopen the kiosks at both airports last weekend only because the health clinic at O’Hare, operated by the University of Illinois at Chicago, shared some of a recently delivered vaccine shipment.

Those vaccines “are flying off the shelves,” said Dr. John Zautcke, clinic director at O’Hare. “So if you find an airport clinic or kiosk anywhere in the country with flu shots in stock, get one while you can.”

Flying with the flu
Of course, even if you get your flu shots and wash your hands frequently, you may still acquire H1N1. If you do, CDC suggests you change your plans and stay home.

Many travelers will ignore that advice because of hefty change fees levied by most airlines.

Flu activity around the country

To encourage sick people to stay home, Dr. Lewin and others in the medical community would like all airlines to waive cancellation and change fees for ill passengers. Some already do, but you can get dizzy trying to wade through some airline Web sites trying to locate the relevant policy.

To confuse matters even more, some airlines said policies regarding change fees for ill passengers were “under review.”

So it’s sort of a moving target. But for now:

  • JetBlue, Northwest and Delta deal with ill passengers seeking changes “on a case-by-case basis.”
  • If you’ve got a non-refundable ticket on American or US Airways, changes to accommodate illness will still cost $150, plus the difference between the old and new fares.
  • AirTran Airways will waive cancellation and rescheduling fees for any passenger with a doctor's note documenting that they have H1N1, but the policy does not apply to seasonal flu or other illnesses.
  • Virgin America, Continental and United have ongoing policies to waive change fees for customers who can provide documentation of illness from their doctor.
  • And, whether you’re sick, or just sick of flying on airplanes seated next to sneezing, wheezing people, Southwest doesn’t charge for changing or canceling a flight.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, and a columnist for USATODAY.com.You can follow her on Twitter.

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