The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against non-essential travel — even if you’re fully vaccinated — but sometimes travel is unavoidable. I’ve traveled back and forth between my university and hometown throughout the past year during holiday breaks. And after researching the best safety practices to abide by while traveling during the pandemic, I got over my fear, including having to sit very close to a stranger for over two hours on a plane.
I also drove from New York to Chicago in the fall before school started. I packed my own snacks and drinks in a cooler so I wouldn't have to purchase any along the way. Rest stops were generally empty, and anyone inside wore masks (I only traveled through states with mask mandates in place). I used hand sanitizer frequently, and bought an anti-touch door opener that’s also useful to press elevator buttons and punch numbers into a keypad.
Despite the success of my road trip, I couldn't drive across the country in the winter when ice and snow covered roads — I had to get on a plane for the first time in a year. As I began reading studies about air travel during the pandemic, I learned that physically being on the plane poses little risk to my health so long as proper safety procedures are followed — including wearing a mask. Research about Covid-19 and plane travel from Harvard University's Aviation Public Health Initiative (APHI) found that, with proper precautions, "the risk of transmission onboard an aircraft is below that of other routine activities during the pandemic, such as grocery shopping or eating out.”
If you have to travel during the pandemic, we compiled some of the best face masks to wear, as well as other items that might be useful to take with you on your journey. We also broke down the CDC’s guidance on precautions to take while traveling, and how safe it is to fly right now in the first place.
Best masks to wear while traveling
In January, the CDC issued an order requiring masks on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within or out of the U.S. Masks are also required in U.S. transportation hubs like airports, train stations and bus stations. Keeping in mind expert guidance we’ve previously reported on regarding double masking, KN95 masks and other types of face coverings, here are some of the best masks to wear on a plane.
WellBefore’s KN95 masks are registered with the Food and Drug Administration and underwent laboratory testing to ensure they filter 95 percent of particulate. They feature five layers of non-woven fabric, an adjustable nose clip and elastic ear loops. The masks are individually wrapped so you can put them in your bag without worrying about them getting dirty. In addition to this White KN95 mask, WellBefore also sells kids KN95 masks.
When I travel, I wear one of these disposable masks under a reusable face mask. They’re individually wrapped, made from three layers of non-woven fabric and feature elastic ear loops and an adjustable nose clip. Masks come in a pack of 50 and are available in a variety of colors and patterns. WeCare also sells kids disposable face masks.
Face masks and alternatives to wear on public transportation, according to the CDC
The CDC states that manufactured and homemade masks can both be worn on public transit and in public transportation hubs, as long as they fit properly. Reusable, disposable and medical-grade masks, as well as respirators like N95 and KN95 masks, are all permitted. Gaiters can be worn, too, as long as they are made from two layers of fabric or can be folded to make two layers. And while travelers can wear face shields or goggles while traveling, they cannot be used to supplement a mask. Scarves, ski masks, balaclavas and bandannas cannot be worn as mask substitutes. All travelers over 2 years old must adhere to these mask guidelines no matter how long or short they will be in transit for.
According to the CDC, masks you wear on public transportation should:
- Completely covers the nose and mouth
- Be made with two or more layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric
- Be secured to the head with ties, ear loops or elastic bands that go behind the head
- Fit tightly against the side of the face
- Be a solid piece of material without slits, exhalation valves or punctures
Other products to travel with during the pandemic
- Hand sanitizer: If you don’t have access to soap and water, the CDC recommends using hand sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol. In addition to bringing travel-sized containers on the plane, the TSA is allowing passengers to bring one oversized liquid hand sanitizer container up to 12 oz. per passenger in carry-on bags.
- Disinfectant wipes: While public transportation is cleaned frequently, I always wipe down my seat, seat belt and armrests for peace of mind.
- Water bottle: Pulling your mask down while eating or drinking is permitted on public transportation. I bring my own water bottle on the plane, train and subway, as well as bring an empty water bottle to the airport to fill up before I board. I like the Que collapsible water bottle since it doesn't take up a lot of room in my bag.
- Reusable straw: I take a reusable straw with me while traveling to put any cup or bottle I’m drinking out of. I can slip the straw under my mask to drink and thus don’t have to completely remove my mask from my face.
- Stasher Bags: Instead of buying snacks at the airport or at rest stops while on a road trip, I pack food in Stasher Bags beforehand.
- Thermometer: I got in the habit of taking my temperature every morning at school, and I always keep this no-touch infrared thermometer with me while traveling (just in case).
How safe is traveling by plane during the pandemic?
The U.S. has recently seen an uptick in air travel, despite cautions from the CDC. The TSA screened 1.357 million U.S. airport passengers on March 12, the highest number screened since March 15, 2020 — On March 21, it screened more than 1.5 million people. Experts say an increase in air travel specifically may stem from students across the country going on spring break, and people feeling safe to take public transportation again after being fully vaccinated.
Whatever the case may be, APHI’s study showed that traveling by plane is generally safe so long as travelers and airlines follow safety precautions. Travelers should physically distance, wear face coverings at all times (except while eating and drinking), avoid touching surfaces as much as possible and sanitize their hands. For airlines, consistent use of ventilation systems on planes while boarding, deplaning and in flight is essential. Disinfecting surfaces like tray tables and seats frequently is also important.
According to research by Boeing, as well as the military's U.S. Transportation Command, a plane’s cabin environment significantly reduces and removes cough particles from the air. This is because the air in a plane’s cabin primarily flows from ceiling to floor, not front to back. The air inside the cabin is exchanged every two to three minutes with outside air through HEPA filters, which are similar to those used in hospital operating rooms. Taking this into account, the research shows that the design of a plane’s cabin and its airflow system create the equivalent of more than 7 feet of physical distance between every passenger — even on a full flight.
APHI also conducted research about Covid-19 mitigation efforts at airports. It found the overall strategy to decrease transmission is similar to aircraft efforts: ventilation, disinfection and cleaning procedures, as well as traveler behavior like face mask wearing, hand-hygiene, and physical distancing.
CORRECTION (April 1, 2021, 3:55 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the certification status of masks made by Halolife. After consulting lab reports and experts, NBC News confirmed that the masks did not meet a new standard for reusable masks. As a result, mention of the masks has been removed from the article.