TPG’s safe travel guide: How to minimize risk on your summer vacation

Jun 30, 2020

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Editor’s note: Travelers need to remember that even though experts can generally assess how risky a situation may be, this is all circumstantial. If a destination is incredibly crowded, it could be much riskier. So, always consult with your doctor and carefully evaluate every situation before deciding where and how to travel this summer. 

Around the world, destinations are beginning to cautiously reopen. Beaches and national parks have welcomed back visitors, restaurants are turning the lights on and travelers are emerging from their homes to set out on road trips and vacations to nearby destinations.

But though nearly a third of Americans have said they’d be ready to travel this summer, the pandemic is not yet in our rearview mirror.

As coronavirus cases continue to spike in parts of the country, theme parks are delaying their reopening plans and some casinos have even closed for a second time. It’s really no surprise travelers everywhere have valid concerns about the risks associated with leaving home.

Despite the backward slide, summer travel is still very much top of mind for many people — though travelers may be understandably seeking additional guidance about their health and safety when venturing out during these complex and uncertain times.

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

To determine how safe traveling is right now, TPG consulted with several medical experts and health professionals. We asked them to weigh in on not only how risky an activity may be — from checking in for a flight using a kiosk at the airport to visiting a casino, taking a road trip and planning a day at the beach — but also how travelers can mitigate the risk associated with each activity during their summer vacations.

Tips for a healthy summer vacation

Overall, experts urge travelers to be mindful of a few main factors, including how small (or large) and well-ventilated a space is; the duration of your exposure to others; and how much you’re interacting with high-touch surfaces.

“As we head into the summer months, and more communities and businesses reopen, we know many Americans are also looking for ways to resume some daily activities as safely as possible. It’s important to remember this unprecedented pandemic has not ended, and there is no way to ensure [there’s zero risk] of infection,” Kate Grusich, a spokesperson at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told TPG. “The general rule of thumb is: The more closely you interact with others, and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread.”

So, how can you plan the safest summer getaway possible?

Seek fresh air and ventilation

Experts say it’s much more difficult for the virus to travel from person to person when there’s more air circulation, wind blowing and when the air isn’t recycled. In general, you’re going to want to seek outdoor activities in wide-open spaces.

Steer clear of crowds

Even outside, your risk increases as the number of people around you increase. You’ll want to avoid large groups and be willing to make on-the-fly decisions because choosing a less-busy destination can make the situation safer.

Avoid high-touch surfaces

Check-in kiosks, railings, elevator buttons and tray tables: These surfaces are handled multiple times throughout a day (or an hour), and they can increase the risk of picking up a virus. Fortunately, many travel providers are leaning on mobile check-in apps and reducing the need for travelers to use high-touch surfaces.

Consider the duration of exposure

Try to limit the amount of time you spend doing activities with lots of other people. A short train ride or flight, for example, would likely be less risky than a multiday cruise.

Here’s what the experts had to say about putting together a low-risk vacation during a global crisis.

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(Graphic by Orli Friedman/The Points Guy)

Getting there

No matter where you decide to go this summer, the process of getting there will always be part of the equation. We asked experts to consider everything from train and road trips to flying — including the experiences you might have at the airport, such as using a kiosk to check in for your flight, waiting in line at security and grabbing a prepackaged snack at the airport lounge.

Dr. Hanh Le, senior director of medical affairs at Healthline (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures), said high-risk modes of transportation include airplanes, cruise ships and buses, when travelers have prolonged exposure to other passengers in a small, confined area.

Cruises, Le said, are “like being on a better-ventilated airplane” but “create scenarios where many passengers (sometimes hundreds if not thousands) are often kept in close quarters, such as at communal dining areas, swimming pools and bars and in the casinos.”

At this time, of course, most major cruise lines won’t resume operations until the end of September or later — and the industry is still developing sanitation and health protocols in cooperation with the CDC and Cruise Lines International (CLIA) to improve safety standards and lower the risk for cruisers.

Still, Kumi Smith, assistant professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, says cruises are “on the riskier side” of the travel spectrum.

Related: Believe it or not, cruising is back — and it’s weirder than we expected

Traveling by air

Flying is complicated by all the risk factors at the airport. There’s the check-in kiosk or desk, airport security and, in some cases, the airport lounge. But the risk factors don’t end when you find your seat and give it a sanitary scrub down worthy of Naomi Campbell.

“Airplanes have a lot of shared facilities,” said Smith. There are tray tables, overhead bins, latches, the bathroom — “those would all be considered high-touch surfaces,” she said, and “It might not be realistic for all of us to disinfect [everything] every time we touch [it]. Plus, not everyone is complying with airline recommendations and wearing masks for the duration of the flight. “For people who are really vulnerable to severe infection or death, I would really discourage air travel that puts you in a cabin with other folks for a long period of time.”

Related: How to thoroughly disinfect your airplane seat

And all the experts agree that keeping a mask on is important when you find yourself in a situation — say, in economy on a long-haul flight — where you can’t effectively maintain a safe distance from others.

“If you have to fly, I recommend wearing a mask and, if you want to be extra safe, wear eye protection as well. It may be overkill, but it certainly can’t hurt,” said Anne Rimoin, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Global and Immigrant Health at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Travelers keen on flying should also consider taking additional measures to mitigate the risks. Stick with shorter, regional flights (when possible) to lower the duration of exposure and consider an airline’s cleaning and sanitation program: Delta, for example, is cleaning every plane between every flight and overnight. You can also opt for an airline, such as Delta, Southwest or JetBlue, that’s blocking off middle seats so you can more easily keep your distance. And because only about 25% of the normal number of travelers are passing through TSA checkpoints right now, many have found themselves on relatively empty planes, though more are beginning to fill as flyers return.

Airports are offering more sanitation options like automatic hand sanitzer dispensers. (Photo by ArtMarie/Getty Images)
Airports are offering more sanitation options like automatic hand sanitizer dispensers. (Photo by ArtMarie/Getty Images)

At the airport, a kiosk may be better than communicating face-to-face with an agent, Smith said, but these are still high-touch surfaces. And Le said it’s still better to check in for your flight at home, if possible. Before you drop by your favorite airport lounge, consider the footprint and how crowded it is. (Many lounges are currently closed due to the pandemic, anyway, and those that are open are offering reduced services.)

“The thing to think about is how much distance can you keep from [others]. If you anticipate being in a confined space with other people, know your risk is not zero,” Smith said.

For many travelers, airport security may be one of the most fraught experiences of air travel during a pandemic. Policies that effectively enforce face masks and help travelers maintain a 6-foot physical distance mitigate the level of risk, said Le. But this process isn’t without complications.

“I particularly worry about agents staffing [airport security],” Smith added, noticing that it’s hard for them to avoid being in close contact and that they’re dealing with a high volume of people. But “for those of us who are only passing through once, the risk is a little lower.”

Related: Your guide to airport mask requirements and coronavirus modifications

Hitting the road

Travelers who might find themselves on a bus can slightly improve the conditions, Le said, by opening the windows and, if possible, sitting away from others. And if you’re considering a train ride this summer, know this may be less risky than airplanes, buses or cruise ships, but it all depends on the number of other passengers, how close everyone is sitting and whether or not you’re able to open the windows.

As we said, it’s possible to make generalizations, but everything is circumstantial, and your experience could vary. All you have to do is ride the New York City subway during rush hour (before the pandemic, of course) to know how crowded trains can get.

Taking a road trip is one of the hottest trends of the summer — in May, travelers overwhelmingly said they’d consider in-state and out-of-state road trips this summer (47% and 41%, respectively) — and that’s good news for travelers anxious about lowering their risk of contracting COVID-19. According to the experts, it’s one of the safest ways to travel during the pandemic, especially, as Smith said if you’re camping along the way and avoiding hotels and other destinations with the potential for crowds.

(Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)
While not risk-free, a road trip is still a fun and safe way to get out of the house this summer. (Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

“This mode [of transportation] has the lowest risk,” Le said, echoing Smith. “But even then, the risk could be lower if you decrease the number of stops. Bringing your own food, making sure that you have face masks to wear when you need to stop for gas or restroom breaks. Bring antibacterial hand sanitizer in case rest stops don’t have soap and water to allow good hand washing.”

Related: 10 tips for anyone taking a road trip right now

Where to go — and what you’ll do when you get there

Trying to figure out how you’re going to spend your time once you’ve reached your destination? It turns out there’s a simple algorithm, as Smith puts it, that can help you make a decision: The risk is lower if you’re outdoors, and higher if you’re indoors. The risk is lower if an attraction is empty, and much higher if it’s crowded.

“Being outside is better than being inside,” Rimoin agreed. “So going for a hike, going to the beach and activities that are outside are generally better than inside — but you should still avoid crowded areas.”

Related: As travel resumes, sticker shock and overwhelming demand follows for some destinations

Beaches, lakes, pools and parks

Le said that for everything, including beaches, lakes and parks, the risk can be low, medium or high “depending on the density of people and how well they’re complying with physical distancing and use of face masks.”

“In general,” Le said, “unless it’s deserted, these locations are at least medium risk because most people find it difficult to wear face masks when swimming at the beach or exercising outdoors, and if there are crowds of people, then inherently, the benefits of being outdoors with open ventilation are completely negated.”

And in case you were wondering, no, you shouldn’t necessarily be concerned about swimming with strangers. “There is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas or water play areas,” Grusich said, “but there is still exposure risk if you’re too close to people who may be sick.”

So, stick to the 6-foot rule when you’re swimming around and keep your pool float to yourself.

Visiting a theme park

Disneyland may have just delayed its reopening, but for travelers (and little ones) craving the amusements and thrills of a theme park, others — such as Universal Orlando — have already welcomed back guests.

Still, both Smith and Le consider theme parks high-risk attractions this summer because there’s so much waiting in line involved, and children are “not as compliant with wearing masks and hand hygiene,” Le said.

“My experience at theme parks,” Smith recalls, is “a lot of people, in lines, everywhere.” And as much as she dislikes the idea of people crowded together in lengthy queues, she also cites the children you might be traveling with as a key concern. “Kids are harder to give instructions to, and theme parks are a real family environment, so … I think it’s worth thinking through, how much kid policing are you expecting yourself to be able to do?”

Disneyland Hotel pool area (Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
While very family-friendly, theme parks can be a difficult place if you’re looking to stay safe and avoid crowds. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

It might be difficult to keep little ones from touching their faces after touching, well, every single surface they pass in the park. One plus, Smith said, is that so many of the lines are outdoors. So, if there’s an inevitable theme park trip in your near future, stick to outdoor rides as much as possible, and practice frequent hand sanitizing with your kids. “Even if the kid [is] fine,” Smith warned, “they might pass it on to a grandparent.”

Travelers may also be able to take advantage of new virtual queueing and mobile food ordering technologies at the parks to spend less time waiting in line, but know that on a crowded day, it could still be difficult to stay 6 feet apart from other park-goers at all times.

Going to the museum or casino

After being closed for nearly four months, the Louvre will reopen in July. And major Las Vegas casinos reopened even earlier, welcoming back high rollers the first week of June. But just because your favorite museum or casino has reopened, is it really safe to visit?

“Activities that are indoors, with crowds, are not advisable,” Rimoin said simply.
Smith expanded on the idea, urging travelers to be mindful of the number of people — an even bigger factor than the size of the space. A major museum might be crammed with people, she said, while “smaller gallery spaces have no one.”
“In a lot of these situations,” she said, travelers have to “be flexible with planning. If you see hordes of people, be willing to adjust your plans.” And while visitors are generally discouraged from touching the artwork, the same can’t be said for a children’s museum. “I would definitely discourage that right now,” Smith said.

And experts agree that casinos can be very risky. People congregate in relatively small, poorly ventilated spaces for long periods. Servers are passing around food and drinks, guests are handling chips and cards, moving between tables and slot machines all night long and there’s drinking — so even new mask requirements may prove difficult to enforce at all times.

Dining at a restaurant

Again, travelers should be constantly weighing two factors (how crowded a restaurant is, and whether or not outdoor seating is available) when deciding where to dine out this summer. Outdoor dining is “the preferred arrangement,” Le said, and Smith added if you can pick up your food from a counter, rather than have it served, that’s even safer.

If you must dine indoors, check to see that tables are spread a safe distance from each other.

But nothing is without its risks. Both Le and Smith say that for a true indication of how seriously a restaurant is treating the pandemic, diners should observe the staff. “I try to take cues about how well they’re protecting employees,” Smith said. Look to see if a restaurant has installed a plastic barrier for the cashier and if staff have personal protective equipment, such as face masks.

“The more of that I see,” Smith said, “the better I feel about the whole establishment and how seriously they’re taking [COVID-19].”

(Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
Restaurants have been forced to shift how they do seating for people to maintain safe social distancing during the dining experience. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Grusich said, “There are several steps you can take to minimize risk before visiting a restaurant,” including calling ahead to “ask if staff are wearing cloth face coverings at work … [sitting] outside at tables spaced at least 6 feet away from others … wearing a cloth face covering as much as possible when not eating” and “choosing food and drink options that are not self-serve to limit the use of shared serving utensils, handles, buttons or touchscreens.”

On that note, if you’re wondering about the buffet, know that many have shifted to a cafeteria-style or table-service format for now. At the sprawling Buffet at Wynn Las Vegas, for example, diners must now order from a waiter instead of helping themselves to endless piles of Alaskan king crab legs.

Related: 6 feet to eat: The extreme lengths people are going through to social distance

Where will you stay?

Booking vacation rentals and hotels

In May, travelers reported they’d be more likely to choose a hotel or resort (28%) than a vacation rental (19%) this summer. But Le said there’s a lower risk of infection at a vacation rental than a hotel, where you might have to wait in line and it’s more difficult to decrease your exposure to others.

“I think people might worry that Airbnbs don’t have as stringent of a cleaning code, but it’s all kind of a wash,” Smith said, “because Airbnbs probably have a lower volume of people going through them.”

Regardless of where you stay, you want to limit your interactions with other people. At a vacation rental, you can more easily bring your own food and avoid dining out.

No matter what, try to use mobile check in and keep your hands to yourself whenever possible. “If you are in contact with high-touch surfaces such as check-in kiosks or railings, wash your hands thoroughly afterward,” Rimoin advised. “If you cannot wash your hands, use hand sanitizer and avoid touching your face.”

And remember, booking a private vacation property is not the same thing as couch surfing or staying in a shared space.

(Photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy)
Marriott offers home rentals that can be privately booked out by you and your family. (Photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy)

As you might expect, Le calls hostels — the quintessential shared sleeping space — a high-risk situation. “The risk is especially elevated if the communal rooms are small and/or crowded,” she said, meaning you you might even want to be cautious about staying at an intimate inn or bed and breakfast.

But hostels do have additional peculiarities, to say nothing of the shared bathrooms.

“Hostels are … renowned for being hubs for travelers who go from destination to destination, which can easily transmit COVID-19 over many areas. Because many hostels are smaller and independently run, they may not have the same cleaning staff that would be seen with hotel chains,” she added.

Smith elaborated on this point, saying, “It’s not so much that strangers are more likely to infect you, but the reasons why those encounters would concern me is that people have these brushes while out and about, and you don’t know how to let everyone you’ve [connected with] know,” in the event you do fall ill.

Related: 10 ways coronavirus could forever change the future of travel

Camping out

Perhaps unsurprisingly, an outdoor camping trip is one of the safest options right now. “Because it is outdoors with good air ventilation [and] circulation and [limited] exposure to other people, this … has the lowest risk,” Le told TPG. “Again, though, those benefits are negated if you closely gather in small areas with others.”

Even if you’re not planning a remote camping trip, it’s simply easier to keep your distance when “you’re outside in the woods and there’s no boundary locking people into a space,” Smith said, which is largely true for travelers considering day hikes and other wilderness adventures this summer.

But because camping (backpacking trips, car camping and renting an RV) in general is experiencing a major boom this summer and national parks are reopening to significant crowds, be mindful that — unless you’re comfortable in the backcountry, or have access to private facilities — you might be sharing a campground with a lot of other travelers this summer.

And that, simply put, is precisely why travelers should remember this guidance is generalized and could vary wildly depending on the circumstances.

Related: National parks begin to reopen: Here’s everything you need to know to plan a trip

Bottom line

If all this sounds completely overwhelming, you’re not alone. But that doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to stay inside for the rest of, well, who knows how long.

“We’re in this in the long haul,” Smith said. “We have to find sustainable ways to protect ourselves and each other — travel and getting away and all that is very important for mental health and I think … it’s always going to be a balance.” She said it’s important to assess both your personal situation and your level of risk tolerance when deciding how you’re going to spend your summer.

“No matter what activity you are considering pursuing on this list, you have to think about how the virus spreads and whether or not you’re putting yourself at risk,” Rimoin said. “The greatest risk [of contracting COVID-19] is from person to person from droplets. This means that your best bet for staying safe is to avoid crowds, practice social distancing, wear a mask and always wash your hands [and] practice good hand hygiene.” 

And Le said there are other important mitigation strategies everyone should be mindful of, whether you’re pitching a tent in your backyard or flying across the country to place a bet at the casino. Practice physical distancing of “at least 6 feet,” she said, echoing Rimoin, wear a mask when that isn’t possible and avoid touching your face.

Above all? “Do not travel … if you are sick or have been exposed to others who are sick,” she said, “especially if they have been confirmed to have COVID-19.”

Featured image by Orli Friedman/The Points Guy.

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