Before the pandemic, packing for a flight had a lot to do with your travel style and destination. A carry-on bag for a beach vacation might include a sun hat and a beach read. You could count on business travelers to wear noise-canceling headphones and pull out laptops right after takeoff.
Now, packing considerations should start with coronavirus precautions.
“I would really encourage people to think about whether or not they need to be flying right now,” says Brian Garibaldi, medical director of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit. “There are very few states in the country right now where infections are low enough that I feel comfortable getting on a plane.”
But Americans are on the move. The number of people passing through airport security checkpoints has been rising steadily since April, and the Transportation Security Administration reported daily figures exceeding 700,000 many times throughout July.
If you are traveling in the near future, here are some things to keep in mind while you pack.
Opt for carrying on a bag during the pandemic
Health experts recommend using carry-on luggage instead of checking a bag during the pandemic.
Garibaldi says risks are highest for contracting or spreading the coronavirus when you’re in enclosed spaces with other people. One perk of carrying on a bag is that you can avoid lingering around a potentially crowded luggage carousel when you land.
“If you have your bag with you, you’re going to minimize the amount of time you have to spend waiting for your bag on the other end,” he said.
Norman Beatty, assistant professor of medicine in the University of Florida division of infectious disease and global medicine, says a traveler’s decision should be made based on whether they need to check a bag, however, “it would theoretically be safer to carry on your luggage; that way it would be less direct contact with others who may be infected.”
Nahid Bhadelia, the medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at the Boston University School of Medicine, echoed the advice in an email.
“If you carry the bag, you have a better sense of where it’s been and who has touched it, so one could say that’s slightly safer,” she says.
But it’s okay to check a bag if you must
While they recommend carry-on bags, health experts aren’t strongly warning against checking luggage at this time.
“In general, as the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] suggests, it looks like it’s harder to get this disease from surfaces than from face-to-face interactions, so luggage handling is probably a lower-risk aspect of travel,” Bhadelia says.
Her recommendation to travelers checking a bag is to wipe down hard-case luggage with disinfecting wipes after picking it up in baggage claim.
Stock your carry-on with the correct PPE and disinfectants
Bhadelia says what’s more important than your luggage situation is to wear your mask, avoid full flights and maintain good hand hygiene. Those precautions can be made possible with smart packing.
You don’t have to go as far as wearing a hazmat suit on a plane — in fact, experts warn against the practice — but you do need to wear a mask now that major airlines and some airports are mandating the procedure. And while masks are mandatory, face shields are optional on most airlines. For some travelers, particularly those that are high-risk, Beatty says it’s not an unreasonable precaution.
And while once considered extreme before the pandemic, cleaning your airplane seat area is strongly recommended by health experts, so stock your carry-on bag with the right personal protective equipment (PPE) and disinfectants.
“Wipe down the headrest, the tray [table] in front of you, possibly even some of the reading material,” Beatty says. “You could also utilize those wipes to clean the buttons on the entertainment equipment.”
Pack your own refreshments
Airlines have been changing their food and drink policies throughout the pandemic, so pack your own refreshments in case they’re not available onboard. But because you need to pull your mask down to eat or drink, Garibaldi says to limit your in-flight intake.
“I would do my very best to try to avoid eating or drinking on the plane unless I actually have to,” he says.
Garibaldi acknowledges there are exceptions to that advice, such as diabetic travelers who need to eat periodically or someone who needs to stay hydrated because of medication, “but I wouldn’t be planning on a three-course meal during a flight.”
And Beatty says that if you do eat or drink on the plane, make sure to sanitize your hands both before and after.