Feb. 8, 2013 at 2:34 PM ET
From unsanitary conditions on airplanes to close quarters in hotels and on cruise ships to questionable food preparation, vacationers come in contact with a multitude of germs.
But don't worry -- there's no need to cancel your next trip. Here are some ways to sidestep germ-ridden travel hazards.
You might be tempted to snuggle up with one of those blankets provided by the airline. Before you get too cozy, consider how many others cuddled with the bedding before you.
"In all of my years of flying, I have received clean blankets in bags, but have never seen the blankets removed for the purpose of being washed," said Beth Blair, a travel writer and former flight attendant.
In other words, if it doesn't come in a sealed bag, your blanket may have been used previously. Blair recommends bringing your own travel pillow and small blanket or shawl for germ-free slumber instead.
You might think bathrooms are the filthiest spot on the airplane, but Blair disagrees. "The lavatories are cleaned regularly. In fact, most airlines have a cleaning crew that comes on between every flight. The bathroom is disinfected, mopped and restocked.” Still, she believes opening the bathroom door with a clean tissue is a good cautionary measure.
Where are you likely to find oodles of germs on an airplane? On tray tables and arm rests. “I can say that the tray tables are never cleaned between flights, at least in the U.S.," Blair said. "One airline I worked for did have the nightly cleaning crew disinfect the tables. As for the armrests, I’m going to guess they’re never cleaned.” Blair recommends sanitizing your tray table and arm rests with a disinfectant wipe brought from home or provided by a flight attendant.
Hotels and cruise ships
Cruise ships have a reputation for being the culprit of norovirus, or stomach flu. But, according to Cruise Critic, ”Norovirus spreads swiftly wherever there are many people in a small area, including nursing homes, restaurants, hotels, dormitories ... and cruise ships.”
There are some precautions you can take when cruising or staying in a hotel. "Use a (disinfectant) wipe to pat down your remote control, light switches and door knobs, as these places are often filled with germs," said Dr. Robert Wheeler, chief medical director for On Call International, a medical travel assistance program.
When traveling to a foreign destination where sanitary standards are questionable, travelers should buy food prepared in front of them, suggests Phil Sylvester, a travel safety specialist with WorldNomads.com, a travel insurance provider. "The most common claim made by our customers is for minor medical expenses incurred by treating stomach flu (or gastroenteritis)," he said.
"Choose street food stalls which are popular, especially with locals -- they always know the best ones. Busy vendors have a fast turnover of food, so you're less likely to get something that's been kept in unhygienic conditions," Sylvester added.”
He recommends traveling with hand sanitizer and using it often. “It’s also good idea to give any cutlery a wipe with hand sanitizer before use because cutlery is often washed in unclean water.”
There are a few things you can do to avoid germs, no matter where you travel or how you get there.
"Getting vaccinated (at least two weeks prior to traveling) is the single most important action to prevent the flu," said On Call International's Wheeler. Travelers should research flu activity in the location they plan to visit. "Staying up-to-date on your flu vaccine will keep your health in proper condition because flu seasons can vary by location.”
Wheeler also suggests keeping your distance from those who are visibly sick. “If someone around you is sneezing or coughing, turn your head away, or even protect yourself by covering your mouth and nose. This is especially critical in tight places such as airplanes, elevators and ground public transportation,” he said.
Lastly, he recommends packing a travel-sized health kit that includes tissues, pain or fever medicine, and hand sanitizer to ease symptoms and avoid the spread of illness.
Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor of TravelMamas.com, a site for anyone who wants to travel with children … and stay sane! Her book, “The Travel Mamas’ Guide,” will be available March 2013.