Is travel safe? We interviewed experts on risks associated with flying, booking hotels or Airbnbs, renting cars, and more, plus ideas on safe vacations during COVID-19
As states lift restrictions around the novel coronavirus, many of us are eagerly wondering: is it safe to travel right now?
The answer depends on many variables, namely, how you plan to do so, where you want to go, the rates of infection in your chosen destination, and your anticipated behavior once you arrive.
For example, driving your own car and renting a house where you're the only inhabitant is quite different from entering a crowded airport, boarding a plane, and checking-in to a large resort.
Ultimately, resuming travel without a vaccine will come down to the level of risk that makes you feel comfortable. And it's sure going to look a lot different.
Insider Reviews reached out to experts including infectious disease and ER doctors, cleaning specialists, travel industry professionals, and representatives from major rental cars, hotels, Airbnb, and transportation organizations, to reveal both the risks and best practices associated with various forms of travel and lodging during an ongoing pandemic.
We also interviewed travel agents and tour operators, to find out how they're advising and planning travel for clients later this year and in 2021. And if you do book a trip that is ultimately postponed or canceled, it's important to understand your cancellation policies and consider options for the best travel insurance.
Of course, this is an evolving situation and it's crucial to follow guidelines and advice set forth by organizations such as the CDC and WHO, and practice safety measures no matter where you go, including wearing a mask, washing your hands, and maintaining social distancing.
Below, our experts address popular questions and concerns around each mode of travel, and major brands share their updated cleaning policies, so you may make fully informed decisions about where to go. And if you need ideas on socially-distant locations, we've got some inspiration for that, too.
Are rental cars safe?
If you're among the many urban dwellers without a car of your own, you might be wondering if rental cars are safe to drive in a pandemic. For guidance, we talked to several experts, including Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo.
"Remember that most of the transmission of the coronavirus is respiratory — it's not through inanimate objects," says Dr. Russo. "When you're in a rental car, the greatest risk is if you happen to be in the car with someone else and they could be infected."
When it comes to the car itself, the risk is reasonably low. "Even if there's an area you touch that wasn't properly wiped down and might have been contaminated, as long as you don't touch your mouth, nose, and face, and have good hand hygiene in between, you should still be protected," Dr. Russo says.
Additionally, rental car companies are taking rigorous new cleaning measures under recommendations from various health authorities to sanitize key high-touch areas.
Are hotels safe?
Many regular travelers are long-time hotel devotees who adore a beautiful property or sprawling resort filled with high-end amenities and services. But even these frequent hotel guests are likely concerned that staying in one risks exposure to the virus.
After all, checking-into a hotel means mingling with other guests and staff in common spaces like the lobby, elevators, pool decks, spas, and golf courses. When it's time to eat, there are busy restaurants to consider, and that's all assuming your own guest room is clean and sanitized.
In the latter, objects and furnishings are shared and reused by visitors, sometimes with only hours in between. So, is it safe to stay in a hotel right now?
Dr. Russo says the answer is highly individual. "If it's a trip that is important and necessary, I feel relatively safe using the proper protective measures like wearing a mask, distancing, disinfecting, and hand hygiene."
We also asked him about the worst-case scenario, in which an infected person stayed in your room hours before you. If the housekeeping crew cleaned and sanitized according to guidelines, would you escape risk?
"The answer is probably yes," Dr. Russo says. But, "that's not an ideal scenario." You'd be better off specifically requesting a room no one has stayed in for a day or two."
He also adds, "Wear a mask during the check-in process, going in the elevator up to your room, or even the stairwell. I'm a big fan of mask use because this magical six-foot zone is based on probability. The closer you are to someone, and the longer you're close to someone that's infectious, the more likely you are to get infected."
What are hotels' new cleaning policies?
Most major hotel chains have announced wide-reaching new cleaning policies made in combination with health experts. These policies also focus on social-distancing and contact-free transactions such as virtual check-in and out, digital keys, limited dining, and more.
Dr. Robert Quigley, who serves as the senior vice president and regional medical director of global medical travel risk management company International SOS, spent four days and four nights transforming an Upper East Side hotel into a utilitarian home base for health care workers on the front lines.
"We came in and converted what was a very high end, very luxurious hotel into a laboratory with the objective to protect the health and safety of the employees that were willing to come in and work."
Now, that work is being replicated in hotels for regular guests, placing technology at the forefront. In addition to adhering to strict CDC guidelines on health and safety, some brands including InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG), Loews, and Best Western are adopting American Hotel & Lodging Association's (AHLA) StaySafe campaign to help facilitate everything from how to conduct a contactless check-in to a new set of cleaning standards and protocols.
Additionally, Marriott Bonvoy hotels rolled out the Marriott Global Cleanliness Council, focusing on treating high-touch surface areas with hospital-grade disinfectants, providing disinfecting wipes in each guest room, and reducing person-to-person contact by removing furniture and installing hand-sanitizing stations. More than 3,200 Marriott hotels will now allow guests to use their phones to check-in, access their rooms, make requests, and order room service without contact.
Similarly, Four Seasons worked with experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine International on its new Lead With Care program for cleanliness and safety. The program promises that restaurants and bars will operate with reduced capacity to allow for social distancing, and the hotel will leverage technology for safety, by way of its Four Seasons app and chat.
Are Airbnbs safe?
Just as some people have always preferred hotels, others choose Airbnbs to enjoy more space in residential-style houses or apartments that are well-suited for longer vacations, or family and group stays.
These days, they may seem especially attractive given the fact that you are often booking an entire home that is protected from interaction with any others. However, cleaning practice vary by property, where everything from kitchen utensils to bed linens were used by previous guests.
Airbnb has, however, announced rigorous new procedures including a program known as the Cleaning Protocol, which includes guidelines on personal protective equipment for hosts or cleaners, as well as only using disinfectants approved by regulatory authorities. Additionally, these listings are required to maintain a 24-waiting period after a guest checks out before entering to clean, followed by another 48-hour waiting period before a guest may check-in.
As a second measure, hosts may instead opt into a new feature called Booking Buffer, which enforces a longer vacancy period of 72 hours between stays so guests may feel more secure knowing there has been no activity other than cleaning the property.
And third, hosts can also choose to do neither of those things.
Dr. Russo estimates that staying in a private Airbnb is likely to be safer than booking a hotel, given there is generally less direct person-to-person contact. But he also encourages taking extra preventative measures such as running "utensils and dishware through the dishwasher when you get there" and laundering bed linens and towels "so you have control of what you want to be washed and cleaned." He also suggests running a disinfecting wipe over all flat surfaces, phones, TV remotes, door handles, bathroom faucets, and toilet handles.
Of course, that also means you're now cleaning the home for which you already paid a lofty cleaning fee.
Hotels vs. Airbnbs: Which one is safer?
After breaking down the risks of both hotels and vacation rentals such as Airbnb, no matter the type of lodging you pick, the main factors to consider are the likelihood you'll encounter other people, the number and length of such encounters, and whether the location and region are experiencing high rates of infection.
"When booking any type of lodging, consider how many people you'll be surrounded by, when was the last time someone stayed in that accommodation, and how is the state or city doing in regards to flattening the curve," said Dr. Neil Brown, K Health's chief diagnosis officer.
With either choice, be aware of high-touch areas and flat surfaces that might facilitate virus transmission. If possible, book accommodations with a significant margin of time since the last guest stayed in the same space.
The doctors we spoke with agreed private Airbnbs, however, are likely safer than hotels because they come with fewer person-to-person interactions.
"While there is no question hotels are working diligently to keep their hotels clean and sanitized, Airbnb has a huge advantage given that the renter is generally the only one occupying the property," said Dr. Brown. "With Airbnb's new Enhanced Cleaning Initiative, the company provides a better option than public hotel spaces … Double-check to see if the host is participating in the program," he said.
Dr. Russo "absolutely agree[s]" that staying in a private Airbnb, especially one that allows no-contact check-in, such as through a lockbox, is the safer option.
But both doctors recommend seriously evaluating the risks versus rewards with either choice, with Dr. Brown noting, "Personally, I would do my best to avoid traveling altogether, but if it is necessary, I would feel more comfortable staying at an Airbnb after doing my own disinfecting upon arrival."
Is flying safe right now?
In comparison to renting a car or booking lodging, air travel seems like a larger gamble. Entering an airport, waiting in long lines, and sitting next to strangers of unknown backgrounds, for a prolonged period, in a closed setting, all seems about as high-risk as it can get right now.
To help determine is flying is safe, we turned to a diverse panel of experts including an infectious disease doctor, an ER doctor, a pilot, a medical advisor for an aviation trade association, and the founders of popular flight deal platforms to discuss the risks of flying during COVID-19, and precautions to mitigate those risks.
First the good news: airports are trying various tactics to minimize contact between people, promote social distancing, and conducting temperature checks. Additionally, airplanes are designed to clean and filter air quickly according to Dr. David Powell, a medical advisor for a trade group that represents most of the world's major passenger airlines and cargo carriers. "Customers sit facing forward and not toward each other, seatbacks provide a barrier, and the limited movement of passengers once seated adds to the onboard protection. Moreover, airflow is less conducive to droplet spread than other indoor environments: flow rates are high, directed in a controlled manner (from ceiling to floor), to limit mixing, and the use of High Efficiency Particulate Air filters ensures that the air supply is pure."
But while these features help reduce risks, they do not eliminate them. Commercial airplane travel still means flying in a confined space with other people. Another passenger's droplet can easily invade your personal space even with no one in the middle seat beside you.
Says Dr. Russo, "Once you're on the flight, you've been dealt a hand. Hopefully, everyone around you isn't infected, but you just don't know for sure. A longer flight is going to be a greater risk even though the air is handled pretty well because it's a close space, exposed to other individuals, and the time of exposure is longer."
If you must fly, wear your best mask, sanitize all surfaces, and try to avoid eating, drinking, or using the lavatory.
How travel agents and tour operators advise clients to book travel
While many travelers previously booked travel independently, some are returning to travel agents. These seasoned professionals have spent years in the business and are well-equipped to help clients identify viable locations with vetted, flexible policies. They may also have better insights into new practices at specific hotels to help determine how clean and safe they will be, and whether facilities and amenities may be impacted.
Their advice is to plan now, travel later (most of their clients are looking to travel between March and May of 2021), book refundable options, be aware of cleaning policies, try to travel domestically or close to home, opt for socially distant places, take advantage of deals, and assess your own comfort level with risk before booking.
Socially distant travel: safe vacations during COVID-19
As noted by various experts, no matter your destination, your risk of infection largely depends on factors such as whether you'll encounter other people, the intensity of such encounters, and if the location is experiencing high rates of infection.
While nothing can be guaranteed safe 100 percent safe, if you heed expert advice, take necessary precautions, and make informed decisions led by CDC and WHO guidance, you may be able to explore the world again soon.
If you find yourself in such a position, consider these locations within the United States that are well-suited to outdoor activities, offer socially-distant-friendly lodging, and remove the need for international travel.
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