Places to Go and People to See: A Nurse’s Guide to Traveling during COVID
First things first: have you been vaccinated? All persons aged 16 and older in the United States are now eligible for vaccinations. Vaccination is key to keeping you and your family safe and healthy if you plan to travel. You are fully immune about two weeks after your second shot, so plan accordingly (second shot + 14 days).
Travel was essential for me during COVID, as I was working to open our Crossover Amazon Clinics in five different cities around the country. Along the way, I learned some smart travel tips that I want to share, along with some guidance to keep you well.
Getting Ready To Take A Flight
As vaccination rollouts continue, and the desire for things to return to “normal” heading into the summer months rises, the urge to travel is increasing. Travel recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on who, when, and how to travel is ever-changing but are currently based on immunization status for both domestic and international travel. The CDC recommends delaying travel for all persons who are not fully vaccinated. Regardless of immunization status, they also recommend that people continue to observe the “Stop the Spread” guidelines of masking, social distancing, and frequent handwashing. General travel guidelines for testing and monitoring include:
State, local, and tribal guidelines can be found via the CDC Travel Planner for specific location guidance on domestic travel throughout the United States. For international travel, check with the embassy or consulate website for the country to which you are traveling, and consult the CDC prohibited entry list for additional information on restrictions when returning to the United States. If you do get sick (with COVID or any illness) either domestically or internationally, travel insurance may help defray the costs associated with travel delays or cancellations, but be sure to check that your policy covers these costs during the pandemic.
Who Definitely Shouldn’t Travel?
Even when heeding all recommendations, some people simply should not travel for any reason including:
People who are sick. If you are sick or have signs of COVID at the time of your travel date, even if you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have recovered from COVID-19 in the past, you should not travel.
People who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Even if you are showing no symptoms but are suspected to have or diagnosed with COVID-19, you should not travel.
People who have been around others who may be infected. If you have been exposed to someone suspected of having or diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past 14 days, even if you do not have symptoms, you should not travel. If you have recovered from COVID-19 within the past three months, or are fully vaccinated, you do not need to self-quarantine and can travel after an exposure, unless you have symptoms of COVID-19.
Masks Required For Travel
It is required for all travelers to wear a face mask when they are in airports, bus and rail stations, on passenger aircraft, public transportation, passenger railroads, and/or buses. Passengers without a mask may be denied entry, boarding, or continued transportation, and failure to comply may result in civil penalties. Face masks must cover nose and mouth and fit snugly against the face without gaps. Masks can be manufactured or homemade and should be a solid piece of material without slits, exhalation valves, or punctures. Medical masks and N-95 respirators may be used, however face shields can not be used exclusively. For some airlines, gaiters, scarves, and bandanas are not considered acceptable face coverings, so check with your airline for any additional information on acceptable masking, or opt for a surgical mask instead to avoid any issues at the airport.
Rideshare To The Airport
During my travels, I typically used rideshare to get to the airport. Lyft and Uber require all passengers to be masked and for many of the trips a temporary partition or plastic sheeting was in place separating the driver from the back seat. I was typically traveling alone however, if traveling as a family, you may need to consider a larger vehicle as some drivers were not allowing people to ride in the front seat. While neither Lyft nor Uber have specific restrictions, drivers were far less likely to assist with loading or unloading of luggage as they were before the pandemic. Rideshare vehicles are less numerous now as well, so getting an on-demand ride took longer than in the past; pre-scheduling your ride may be a better option to ensure you arrive on time for your flight.
At The Airport
My COVID travels began late in 2020 and continued through March of 2021. While traffic in the terminals gradually increased over that time period, it has remained relatively low. Noticeable differences at the airport included many shops and restaurants either closed or with limited or no seating. Seating in the terminals was typically restricted to every other chair (or two). Due to precautions, longer lines were common and hot meals were hard to find in some airports. Seasoned travelers should be aware that many of your favorite snack and coffee shops may no longer be open, so plan accordingly and be flexible when trying to find that perfect cup of joe. The TSA PreCheck lines were extremely short in most cases; even the non-TSA PreCheck lines were noticeably shorter. New technology which only scanned the passenger’s ID (no need to show the boarding pass) was found at a number of airports, but the same requirements to remove shoes and belts for non-TSA PreCheck passengers remain in place.
On The Flight
Although a few of my flights were relatively empty, those which flew to an airline hub city (i.e., Atlanta, NY, Chicago, LA) were typically full (even during the slowest of travel times). Limited flight availability and fewer connections were noted when booking, but happily, delays and cancellations were fewer as well. Once onboard, the most noticeable change was the lack of a beverage or food service on most flights (even in first class), with available food items only served in disposable packaging. Prior to boarding, gate agents warned passengers of this change and encouraged them to get something to carry on but some simply didn’t hear (or listen) to the advice and were surprised once in flight. Pillows and blankets were not available. While some airlines were choosing to not fill middle seats, for the most part this trend has ended.
At The Hotel
Once in my hotel room, it was time to put down my bags, rip off my mask, and relax. Most hotels have done away with daily housekeeping service, and many have halted room service. Depending on the length of stay, housekeeping could be arranged, or could be specifically requested the day before service was needed (and could only be done if you were not present in the room). Daily hot breakfast as promoted by many hotels in the past has been replaced with grab-and-go bags; some hotels also no longer offer coffee in the morning. Other amenities such as the pool and/or gym were either closed or required a reservation for use (and was limited to one family at a time). Common sitting areas were closed and depending on the city, in-hotel dining was either restricted or not available.
Traveling during the pandemic has changed the industry short-term and which trends will outlast the pandemic are yet to be seen. Taking precautions to protect yourself and your family and making smart decisions about when and how to travel are necessary. Vaccinations are key to reopening travel, tourism, and hospitality industries. Taking additional time to plan your travel and ensure full vaccination is crucial to decreasing the spread of COVID-19. Get vaccinated today and you could be traveling in no time—well, about 45 days.
John is a Practice Lead for our Crossover Virtual practice and is a certified flight nurse. He has previously worked to train commercial flight attendants on emergency and infection control procedures.