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Travel During COVID-19: Is It Safer to Fly or Drive?

People are starting to venture out beyond their local communities again. If you’re thinking about traveling a significant distance, you might wonder whether flying or driving is safer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, you should know that any sort of travel increases your risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus. It’s best to avoid traveling, so that you don’t acquire or spread COVID-19.

If you must travel for essential purposes, you might be weighing your transportation options. While flying has its dangers, driving is not without risks. Read on to get answers about both types of travel during the pandemic.

Why Is Traveling Discouraged?

The novel coronavirus spreads from person to person. Any time you travel outside of your home, you’re around new people and their germs.

Your risk of acquiring an illness increases the more places you go. You also expose more people to your germs, which could make them sick. People can pass the novel coronavirus on to others even before they have symptoms. And many people show no symptoms at all, yet are still contagious.

Travel requires coming into contact with more people than usual – for instance, when you eat out, stay in hotels and use the bathroom at rest stops.

Can Flying Increase Your Risk of Getting COVID-19?

Any type of travel will put you at greater risk of being exposed to the coronavirus. But flying can be especially risky because it puts you in close contact with others and the surfaces they’ve touched.

Airports

Facial coverings limit the spread of germs into the environment, but as of late June, airports don’t have regulations in place to require people to wear masks. It’s a precaution, however, that the industry is pushing the federal government to mandate.

Airplanes

Once on board, your biggest concern may be the air circulating in the cabin. Modern jets use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which trap 99% of viruses and bacteria. These filters are similar to those that hospitals use to keep air in operating rooms free from germs.

Airlines are stepping up their sanitation routines too. High-touch points such as arm rests, tray tables and screens are getting extra attention when it comes to disinfection. Check with your airline to see exactly what measures they’re employing.

Cabin mates are another COVID-19 danger. Some airlines are making efforts to limit seating in order to leave space between passengers. But you may still be within six feet of other passengers – the distance experts recommend maintaining between yourself and others. Though most airlines recommend, or even require, passengers to wear face coverings, enforcement has been spotty. Sitting in close quarters with an infected passenger (someone who could be asymptomatic) for hours puts you at high risk of exposure.

Your risk doesn’t end once you land. You still have to get from the airport to your final destination. Whatever transportation you choose – public transportation, taxi or rental car – all come with additional germ exposure.

How Does Driving Increase Your Coronavirus Exposure?

Choosing to drive to your destination during the pandemic has many benefits, especially if it’s by yourself or with people you live with. You’re not coming into contact with strangers as you would through air travel, and once you reach your end point, you can use your own car to get around.

But if you’re driving a long distance, your potential virus exposures will add up. You’ll have touch points and interactions with people at gas stations, rest stops, eateries and lodging.

So Which Is Safer: Flying or Driving?

The bottom line is that any form of travel comes with risks of COVID-19 exposure. What transportation to choose depends on how far you’re traveling and how much control you’re willing to give up.

The distance factor

Driving lessens close interactions with others if it’s somewhere you can reach within one day. If a trip requires multiple days of driving, consider whether flying could reduce exposure points.

The control factor

You won’t be able to control how close you are to others and how many people you’re around while flying. In a car, you can avoid crowds.

How Can You Stay Safe While Traveling?

It’s crucial to stay home if you or someone in your household has had COVID-19 in the last two weeks. If you do go out, take these steps to cut down on coronavirus exposure no matter where you go:

  • Stay six feet away from others
  • Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth
  • Wash hands frequently
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Use hands-free check-in apps
  • Bring your own food and drink
  • Take hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes with you

Get more tips and stay in the know with the latest coronavirus information from UCLA Health.  


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