14 new travel essentials to pack while traveling during the pandemic

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  • The CDC still urges Americans to avoid traveling in order to minimize the risk of contracting or spreading the disease.
  • If you do travel, it’s crucial to take precautions and be vigilant about personal and communal safety. 
  • Pack three-ply masks, disinfectant wipes, and a travel safety kit with items that can clean your hands in a pinch.
  • This article was medically reviewed by Dr. David Aronoff, the director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology, and Inflammation.

It’s natural to feel an increased temptation to travel as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to lock down much of the United States. But as cases surge throughout the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are urging Americans to stay home in order to continue to protect themselves and others. 

Despite those warnings, many people still choose to travel either for vacation or to visit family and friends. The safest way to do this is to self-isolate for 14 days before and after traveling or getting together with other people, limit all social interactions to their own homes, and continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing.

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Dr. Abe Malkin, and the founder and medical director of Concierge MD LA, told Insider that the most important precautions are keeping your hands clean, avoiding touching your face, and keeping a distance from people you don’t live with.

That last point is especially vital while traveling. It’s harder to catch COVID-19 from surfaces, so staying away from other people is a necessity. So is packing a travel safety kit with items like hand sanitizer, spare masks, storage bags, and disinfectant wipes — no matter if you plan on flying or driving.

If any of this feels too stressful to think about or prepare for, that’s a good sign it’s best to stay home and avoid traveling altogether. Dr. David Aronoff, our medical reviewer, agreed.

“All travelers should ask themselves before they go: Can I afford to be trapped somewhere if I or one of my travel companions gets COVID and can’t travel home? If the answer is no, stay home,” Aronoff, the director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology, and Inflammation, told Insider.

If you are traveling, he encourages checking your health-insurance information before you go to find out where and how to seek medical attention if you need it and what your policy covers. Aronoff suggested having a plan for where you’d go to get care if you got sick and how you’d quarantine from the people you’re visiting.

For those who do plan to travel, we’ve compiled information and product recommendations to help make air and vehicle travel safer during the pandemic.

Here are the new essentials everyone should pack along before traveling:

  • Standard adult face masks: Herschel Classic Fitted Face Mask
  • A face mask with a removable filter: Halo Life Nanofilter Mask
  • Face masks for kids: Onzie Mindful Masks (2-Pack)
  • A face shield: Mada Reusable Face Shield
  • A clean towel: Matador NanoDry Trek Towel
  • Portable hand sanitizer: Touchland Power Mist Hydrating Hand Sanitizer Spray
  • A pack of antibacterial wipes: Oars + Alps Antibacterial Aloe Wipes
  • Travel-sized disinfectant wipes: Clorox Disinfectant Wipes On the Go
  • A smartphone sanitizer: PhoneSoap 3 Smartphone UV Sanitizer
  • Packing cubes for easy organizing: eBags Hyperlite Packing Cubes
  • Tape to secure your face mask: Cabeau Tape
  • An attachment to keep mask cloth out of your mouth: HeartFormSF Mask Bracket (5-Count)
  • A reusable bag to store safety gear: Stasher Reusable Silicone Bag
  • A thermometer to keep track of your body temperature: Vicks ComfortFlex Thermometer

What should be in your travel safety kit

First and foremost, remember the basics: Keep your hands clean, and stay away from people outside your household as much as possible. The biggest challenge when traveling is maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and others.

You should also pack a portable safety kit — and the necessary items in this COVID-19 safety kit only slightly differ for flying versus driving.

Masks for adults

We all know wearing a mask all day isn’t exactly the height of comfort, but most people get used to it quite quickly.

Dr. Joyce Sanchez, the medical director of the Travel Health Clinic at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin, told Insider that even if it feels harder to breathe while wearing a mask, it doesn’t actually affect how much oxygen your body gets. Aside from people who are unable to put on and take off a mask themselves, such as people with cognitive difficulties, almost everyone can safely wear a mask, “including those with chronic lung and heart problems,” Sanchez said.

Wearing a mask helps compensate for the lack of distance that inevitably comes with standing in line, sitting on a plane, or walking by someone on the way to the bathroom.

COVID-19 is mainly transmitted via droplets and microscopic particles (aerosols) that come out of our noses and mouths when we cough, sneeze, laugh, talk, and breathe.

Wearing the right mask the right way helps to protect not only the people around you but the wearer too, the CDC says. And while wearing a disposable or a reusable mask is a personal choice, we’d encourage you to minimize waste whenever possible.

Sanchez said the real key is to “choose a face mask that fully covers your mouth and nose and has two or more layers of fabric.” She also suggested choosing masks made of nonstretch fabrics because they “better block the passage of droplets.”

The very best nonmedical masks have three layers. The layer next to your face and the outer layer should be a tightly woven fabric like cotton or linen.

The layer in the middle should be a filter fabric, ideally made from a water-repellent fabric like nonwoven polypropylene. Some masks have this filter built in, but you can add your own to a two-layer mask with a pocket. A folded paper towel or nonwoven polypropylene fabric (like what’s typically used in reusable shopping bags) also works well.

It’s important to have a snug-fitting mask, Malkin said. This means the air you breathe in and out will be pushed through your mask’s fabric layers so that virus particles are more likely to get trapped in the mask rather than inhaled.

Set kids up for success

If kids can help choose their own supplies, it increases the chance they’ll use them. But it’s more important to “model safe practices,” Sanchez said. “If you’re wearing a mask, disinfecting your hands, maintaining that distance, and reinforcing those behaviors through what you say and do — children pick up on and mirror that.”

Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration says kids 6 and under shouldn’t use hand sanitizer unless supervised by an adult. This is to prevent them from ingesting it or getting it in their eyes. You just need to watch them until it dries. Once sanitizer evaporates, it’s safe for kids to eat with their hands and even stick their fingers in their mouths.

Make sure your mask fits correctly and is comfortable

The fit of your mask is crucial. Malkin said you want one that’s “not too big to where it’s falling off below your nose, and not too small to where it’s compromising your airflow.”

If a mask causes your glasses or sunglasses to fog up — a very common complaint — that’s actually a sign it doesn’t fit properly and allows respiratory droplets to escape out the top.

Special tape, like Cabeau Tape, can be placed over any gaps to create a better seal and can even be used across the sides of a mask to seal it to your face if ear loops irritate you. (The tape is reusable, but make sure you create a real seal every time you take it off and put it back on.)

Though masks don’t actually inhibit airflow, their tendency to suction to your mouth every time you breathe in can be annoying and increase moisture in the fabric. To prevent this, look for a mask with a more structured frame that keeps the fabric away from your lips, or insert a frame, like one from HeartFormSF, into a covering you already have.

If you do need to travel, driving is generally safer than flying commercially, Sanchez said. If you drive, you have control over who shares the car with you, what measures are used for disinfecting surfaces, where you stop along the way, and when you return, she said.

However, driving isn’t realistic for every destination.

Just keep in mind that you’re most likely to transmit or catch the coronavirus just by being in close proximity to an infected person. That means airport lines are an issue (sitting on the plane much less so, as we’ll explain below), as is driving with anyone not already in your household bubble.

Regardless of your mode of transportation, it’s important to be incredibly diligent with precautions.

Your driving safety plan

If you’re driving, you don’t need to wipe down your steering wheel and anything in your car, so long as you’re careful to clean your hands before getting in. That means you should have hand sanitizer at the ready for after you use a gas pump and a public restroom, for example.

Airports — especially with lines at security or boarding gates — are risky because of the close proximity to other people. Wear your mask at all times, and keep as much distance from others as you can.

Since you’re much more likely to contract COVID-19 through the air than by touching something, don’t stress about taking your shoes off to get through security. But do wear socks. “When you take off shoes to go through security, thousands of dirty soles have touched that surface,” Malkin said. “Wear socks to protect your feet from a host of possible germs.”

It’s also wise to sanitize or wash your hands after you’ve touched security trays.

As for the plane itself, airlines have stepped up their disinfecting regimens. Many use electrostatic foggers nightly — sometimes between every flight. Those spray a fine mist of disinfectant throughout the plane, and the electrostatic charge causes it to stick to all surfaces, not just fall to the floor.

It’s still wise to wipe down everything in your seat area with a disinfecting wipe like Clorox Ultra Clean Disinfecting Wipes. Do look for “disinfecting” on the label — a cleaning wipe rids your tray table of that splash of Coke, but it won’t kill any viruses. Settle into your seat and wipe down everything you’re likely to touch: the seat belt, armrests, the tray table, the air vent, the window-shade handle, and all places you need to touch to operate the entertainment system.

Then thoroughly clean your hands with sanitizer. The Transportation Security Administration increased the size limit for sanitizer during the pandemic, so you’re now allowed to bring one bottle that’s up to 12 ounces in your carry-on bag. If you’re flying internationally, note that some countries maintain the 3-ounce limit.

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