The views expressed are those of the author and may not always reflect the views of Wego. Some parts have been edited for brevity and clarity. All images courtesy of the author.
Most of you reading this article are thinking to yourself – should I fly right now? Collectively, we are in the midst of the worst pandemic in living memory. The virus itself has been almost dangerously random – killing some, affecting some people severely, and leaving other, milder or asymptomatic cases with potential long term damage to their lungs and other organs. Avoiding a new, deadly virus then, is the only way to be safe.
For some context, on July 1 I travelled 36 hours, door to door, from my parent’s house in the United Arab Emirates to be reunited with my wife in California after 5 months apart. A week after I landed, my wife and I both got tested for the coronavirus at home (For US readers, we ordered this test). A few days later, we both tested negative, and breathed a collective sigh of relief.
By the time I’d taken the trip, I’d spent more than a month understanding the virus, booking the right flights, making sure I had all the right precautions and planning every step of the journey. Many of you are eager to return to your families and see this trip as unavoidable. So, how do you do it safely? This is a guide.
A disclaimer: Non essential travel, such as traveling for a vacation, is still strongly discouraged the world over. The case count worldwide stands at 14 million, with 1 million of those being added in just the last 4 days alone. The WHO says that the pandemic is rapidly accelerating and getting worse, and in the worst hit countries, including the United States, hospitals have run out of ICU beds and are having to turn patients away. Despite countries reopening and flights slowly returning, the best advice remains the same: Stay home if you can.
Table of Contents
For those of you whose travel is more than a week away, it’s time to do what you can to build up your own immunity. I’m no medical expert – I based my actions on new medical advice being churned out daily (r/covid19 is a great source). Please do your own research and consult a doctor before doing any of the below.
Working out, cutting back
During the 3 months I was under lockdown, I began an exercise routine for the first time in my life, taking care not to strain myself too much, but also making sure my body was challenged. From not having exercised consistently ever in my life, I was doing bodyweight exercises (squats, planks, lunges, pushups) 4 days a week. My motivation for starting the regime was more pandemic related — I wanted my body to be operating at an optimum in case I got infected.
I also aimed to cut my visceral fat down as it has been linked to much worse outcomes for COVID-19 due to the high number of ACE-2 receptors. Post exercise, I made sure to down hot water with honey, turmeric, pepper and ginger powder, all of which have been linked with increased fat burning and infection fighting properties.
Loading up on vitamins and nutritions
Additionally, I began taking vitamin D supplements regularly and made sure I got enough sunlight standing by the balcony facing the lovely, Persian gulf at my parents’ place. 1000 IU was the amount I took — most people around the world are deficient, and 1000 IU is considered a safe level to take. Vitamin D is arguably the single most important supplement you can take to protect your immune system against the virus.
Zinc and Vitamin C supplements are also known to boost the immune system, though I didn’t take them because I was unsure whether long term consumption was safe. Right before the trip, I did eventually take a supplement, and I’ve since started taking it regularly since my vegetarian diet means I’m most likely somewhat deficient.
Thanks to my parents, I also took green tea, almonds, chia seeds, flax seeds and garlic everyday. Green tea is great at burning fat and maintaining good health. Garlic is a known antimicrobial, with a multitude of positive health effects. Almonds, chia and flax are healthy fats that also raise HDL cholesterol levels, and low HDL cholesterol levels have been linked to greater risk of infection and greater infection severity.
Based on the latest we know about the virus, the virus spreads in primarily 2 ways – from touching surfaces that have traces of the virus, and then touching our face, allowing the virus to enter through our eyes, nose or mouth, or airborne through the same entry points. I was far more concerned about airborne transmission, as it seemed to me something I had much less control over than making sure my hands were well sanitized every few minutes.
Here’s what I bought and used on the trip:
- 6 different types of masks (more detail below)
- Face Shield
- Nasal saline spray
- Dettol hand sanitizer (any sanitizer with 60% alcohol concentration or more should work)
- Disposable gloves (several pairs)
- Alcohol Wipes
- Collapsible Water bottle
In retrospect, I rarely used the goggles – the face shield was far more comfortable, did not fog up, and offered more protection. I wore one face shield during the journey, and packed a face shield-baseball cap that wouldn’t break in my small backpack as a spare.
The six types of masks
On to the masks. First, I wanted to make sure I had enough masks for the 36 hour journey. Why would I need multiple masks? The longer you wear a mask, the less effective, and more uncomfortable it becomes. Assuming I changed my mask every 3-4 hours, I’d need around 9-12 masks. Accounting for spares in case of breakage, here’s what I packed:
- Surgical Masks, 8 count
- KN95 Masks, 8 count
- N95 Masks, 5 count
- N95 Respirators, 5 count
- Cloth Masks with PM2.5 Filters, 2 count
- Breathable Copper Fiber Mask, 1 count
Why so many different types of masks? Each of these masks offered a different level of protection and comfort. Every step of the journey presented a different level of risk, and I wanted to wear the most protective masks during the riskiest parts of the journey, and the more comfortable masks during other times (and particularly during the time I had to sleep).
I purchased all the masks from Amazon. Two days before the flight, I realized I had another problem – how do I know if the masks I purchased were legit? I won’t go into much detail here, but I used two tests to figure this out:
- The water bowl test – can the N95 and KN95 masks hold water without letting it drip out the other side? Water molecules should be too large to pass through the mask’s filters.
- The blow test – I didn’t have a candle, so I tried blowing a glass of water to see if I could create ripples on its surface.
Thankfully, the N95 / KN95 masks I’d purchased passed both tests.
Navigating the process of flight booking — a checklist before you book
In early June, I’d booked the first available direct flight on July 1 from DXB to SFO on Emirates. The flight was as good as I thought I could get—on account of it being direct, on Emirates, and at the two airports that seemed to be taking the right precautions (and in SFO’s case, still empty).
Two days later however, the flight was cancelled.
Stunned, I knew I’d have to be careful about choosing my next flight. Not only would I need to consider safety and comfort, but also the probability of whether the flight would run at all.
A checklist to consider before booking the flight
- Book the flight on a highly rated airline. More often than not, their superior service will mean higher standards of care during a time like this.
- Find out what safety precautions and standards the airline is enforcing from their website. Some of the more important ones include:
- Having HEPA filters installed on all their aircraft (absolutely necessary)
- Enforcing mask usage on their flights for crew and passengers (absolutely necessary. This is much tougher in countries that have not mandated national mask wearing policies)
- Blocking middle seats
- Making sure aircraft are cleaned between flights
- Making sure aircraft toilets are cleaned during the flight. This is much more difficult to encounter.
- It’s important to realize as well that many airlines have done away with cabin baggage allowances altogether, allowing only a personal item on board. I had to leave behind several sets of important documents and pack only what I needed in my backpack.
- Book directly on the airline’s website itself or through a travel agent that makes it easy to request a refund later on. Make sure you read up on the airline’s refund policy before booking, as most agents will enforce the same policy as the airline.
- Make your booking a few days before flying. This ensures 2 things – that the flight is unlikely to be cancelled, and you can ensure that the flight you’re taking isn’t packed with passengers, thus lowering the risk.
- Direct flights are best, but if that isn’t possible, limit your journey to 1 stop, ideally in an airport where precautions are being taken (the most important one being mask usage enforcement). Finding a journey that reduces your time spent next to other people in queues is an added bonus.
- Make sure to give the airline your current contact information. This makes contact tracing so much easier at your destination.
- If possible, book a cancellable flight. It gives you more options in case of emergencies.
- Take a look at IATA’s website for the latest updates to see the countries you can fly to or the countries you can transit through. Given the US’ handling of the crisis, I felt much more comfortable transiting through Canada, South Korea, Singapore or Europe. However, those flights were either prohibitively expensive, not available, or transiting for non nationals and residents simply wasn’t possible.
- Book a window seat, ideally with no one seated in your row. Window seats present the lowest risk of all seat types.
- Book a seat near enough to a restroom that you can see if anyone’s using the restroom without having to queue up.
- Seats closest to the front of the airplane are the best. Aircraft filters generally don’t run while the aircraft is on the tarmac, so the less time you spend on the plane during boarding and disembarking, the better. Between being seated at the front and being seated further away from other people, always choose the latter. Other people are the biggest risk during your journey.
Lastly, think about the timing of your trip. As countries open up, more and more people are flying, making social distancing more difficult. Counterintuitively, flying to places that are re-imposing restrictions or have them in place may actually be safer than flying to places where passengers are free to travel to.
If all of this is too difficult to remember, remember these 2 rules of thumb for planning your trip:
- Reduce interactions and proximity with other people
- Reduce time in places with poor filtration (most small indoor spaces) and increase time in places with great filtration and/or dilution (outdoors, airplanes)
Making sure my trip would be a smooth one
Taking all of the above into account, I finally booked AUH-JFK-SFO on Etihad-JetBlue. Etihad and Abu Dhabi airport seemed to be taking some great precautions, and JFK’s JetBlue terminal had an outdoor garden where I could get some respite from all the mask-wearing during my 5-hour layover
In addition, Etihad allows you to complete US immigration and customs in Abu Dhabi, that way I wouldn’t have to stand in line with passengers from other flights at JFK and I got to tick off the difficult parts of the journey while I was still energized enough.
In the days leading up to the flight, I obsessively checked for seat allocation on both flights to make sure few people were seated next to me. Two days before the flight, Etihad downsized the aircraft and put me on an aisle seat. Fortunately, I saw it early and took the one remaining window seat I could find with no one seated in my row.
Before you travel, it’s important to check two things:
- Are there travel restrictions within the country preventing me from getting to my departure airport?
- Do I need a coronavirus negative test result, with proof before flying?
In my case, Abu Dhabi had border restrictions preventing entry from other Emirates, and I spent a few days before calling up taxi authorities, the police, the airport and the airline figuring out how I could reach the airport. Etihad offered a coach service, but buses are notorious for poor air circulation, and I didn’t want to take my chances. Ultimately, I found that Dubai taxis could travel freely to Abu Dhabi airport.
On the coronavirus test result, at the time I did not need to present one, but I had one just in case.
30 hours before the trip, I web checked in and locked my window seat choice, although I’d still have to pick up the boarding passes at the airport. I spent the day relaxing, eating well and sleeping. If possible, pack your own food for the journey – it will reduce the risk of fomite transfer from the crew, and allow you to eat at a separate time from the other passengers, who will obviously be unmasked when eating. My mother packed some amazing aloo and paneer parathas for the journey.
This is common advice by now, but I used hand sanitizer liberally and frequently throughout the entire journey, and I made sure not to touch my face. Here are the rest of the precautions I took, broken down by leg. I had a mask or shield on for the entire journey, barring the time I spent outdoors.
Trip Leg 1: Ajman to Abu Dhabi Airport (2 hours)
My parents dropped me off at the Dubai taxi stand. Precautions taken: minimal hand sanitizing, mask wearing in the elevator and common areas of the building.
I put on my face shield, KN95 mask (the most comfortable N95’s I had) and gloves. I don’t think gloves help as they give a false sense of security, but they were mandatory at Abu Dhabi airport. I sat in the back seat, and put both windows down for maximum air circulation. My driver wore a mask, and he had a large plastic shield separating the front seat section from the back seat for added safety.
At the checkpoint, I had my documents ready and presented them.
I paid the driver in cash to avoid having to sanitize my card. Outside the airport, it was completely deserted. I took this as an opportunity to get a breather and change masks, and load my bags onto the trolley. I made sure to wipe the trolley handles down with the alcohol wipes. Before I put on the mask, I used the nasal saline spray, which is supposed to give you additional defence against virus in the dry environment of an airplane.
Trip Leg 2: Abu Dhabi airport (1 hour)
Check-in counters had shields installed. At immigration, I had to remove my mask and face shield, but there was no one else around so it was fine. At security, the line was non-existent, and I packed my hand-carry to be in and out in a jiffy.
Trip Leg 3: US Immigration and customs and boarding (5 hours)
I completed all the procedures by 3 am, and there were still another 3 hours until the US immigration and customs opened. I took the opportunity to sleep—mask and shield on—and take a toilet break. Toilets are high risk areas, but with no one around, going to one felt safe.
Before getting in line for immigration, I changed my mask to an N95 (which had a better seal than the more comfortable KN95’s I was wearing). Standing in a long line would be higher risk, so more protection was required.
At US immigration and customs, I had to remove my mask and shield again.
Right before boarding, I filled up water in my collapsible water bottle.
Trip Leg 4: AUH-JFK (14 hours)
Being seated on the last available row during booking, I was one of the last to get onboard. I had the full row to myself, as planned. Curiously, the 5 rows behind me were kept completely empty – I asked staff if I could sit there. They told me that was a quarantine area for passengers who developed symptoms. I hoped for the best. Prior to sitting down, I wiped everything down with the alcohol wipes I’d gotten.
Sitting at the back had its advantages – I had two relatively empty restrooms I could use (the restrooms in the middle of the aircraft are more accessible to the majority of passengers). Shortly after takeoff, I made use of them.
Right after takeoff and the filters coming on, I used the nasal saline spray again, and changed my mask to a more comfortable KN95. I kept my face shield on the whole time. I turned all the air filters near me on – the air from the filters was filtered through the HEPA filters and the jet provided a protective stream of air to break up any nearby coughs or sneezes.
I made sure to eat at a separate time from my co-passengers, made possible by the food I packed. For water refills, I would wipe the bottle I got from the crew before refilling mine. Wanting to reduce the number of toilet trips, I made sure I didn’t drink or eat as much as I’d normally do.
Having the entire row to myself made sleeping much easier. I made it a point to change my mask every 3 hours or so, or whenever my current mask became uncomfortable. I also used the nasal spray in between mask changes. For this relatively safe part of the trip, I opted for the more comfortable KN95’s.
Trip Leg 5: JFK Airport (5.5 hours)
JFK Airport was, all things considered, a breeze. As soon as I got off the plane, I made a trip to the restroom. I chose one far away from all the gates within the international terminal, and it was completely deserted.
Heading back to JetBlue’s terminal 5, there was a long line at the regular check-in counters, so I went to an isolated help desk where they were able to print my boarding pass. I took a few minutes to go outside the terminal, take in the sunlight, and change my mask to the tighter-fit N95.
TSA was the same as the one at Abu Dhabi – I had to remove my mask and shield. There was no line to speak of, which was great. Post TSA, I made my way to the outdoor garden I’d found in my research.
The garden was beautifully empty, and had a lovely breeze. I used this time to sit down, mask-free (or with a cloth mask when people visited the garden) and get some work done. I refilled my water bottle as well, and ate some more.
Boarding was a bit more stressful. No social distancing and a long line. I wore the uncomfortably tight N95 mask during this time for added protection.
Trip Leg 6: JFK-SFO (6.5 hours)
When I booked my JetBlue seat, I had the row in front of me and behind me empty, and there was no one on my row either. After I boarded, I realized that was no longer true. To my consternation, JetBlue decided to move everybody around so that the whole flight was more evenly distanced. So much for booking the seat in advance. I now had people all around me, including on my row. Thankfully, the middle seat was vacant.
My plan to eat on this flight was dashed. Most of the folks around me wore masks, though I had to remind my co-passenger every now and again to put hers back on. After about an hour, the N95 got really uncomfortable, and I took this as an opportunity to wear a combination of the super comfortable copper mask (the copper fiber kills microbes) and a KN95 mask on top of that, taking care of the fit problem and giving me additional protection on what felt like the riskiest portion of my trip.
Trip Leg 7: Getting Home (2 hours)
I was absolutely exhausted by the time we arrived at San Francisco. There were also a few other flights that landed then, so the baggage area was sadly quite crowded. My bags thankfully came out pretty early and I made my way to the Uber waiting area.
Time for the final mask change – I wore my favored KN95 again, shield on. The Uber driver had a cloth mask on, and the car itself had none of the precautions that the Dubai taxi had. I sat in the back seat and had both windows down for maximum circulation.
Once I got home, the first thing I did was to wipe my suitcases down outside the house and take a shower as soon as I stepped in. My wife and I quarantined for 2 weeks, and a week into quarantine we ordered a home testing kit. We both tested negative a few days later.
Trip success! All the precautions I took appear to have worked. As exhausting as the trip was, it was all completely worth it for being able to see my wife again.
To be honest, planning the trip and making sure I was prepared was more draining than the trip itself. I hope, at the very least, that this guide will help you travel with peace of mind, knowing that you’ve done the best you could to mitigate whatever risks you might face.
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