IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers| IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers|

Travel Health Journal

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How to travel safely and responsibly as COVID-19 restrictions ease up

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us an opportunity to reset and reevaluate the way we travel. Non-essential international travel is currently still not advised, but as restrictions begin to lift and travel begins to slowly resume, we need to ask: How can we travel better and more consciously?

In this blog, we outline some key things to consider before your next trip – whether it’s an international flight or summer road-trip. The travel landscape is different now and we should seize this moment to reassess our travel habits in order to reduce our health and environmental footprint and protect the communities we visit.

Understanding the risks

This pandemic has emphasized the role travellers play in the international spread of disease. We have a responsibility to do no harm to the health of our communities at home and those we are privileged to visit. Many healthcare systems continue to be overstretched in their response to COVID-19, and it’s important for us, as visitors, to do our best to avoid taking up space and resources that are already in short supply.

Before you go, make sure you have taken all the necessary steps to limit your health footprint. These include:

  • Make sure you are up-to-date on your routine immunizations. This not only protects you, but it also protects communities you come into contact with that may not have high rates of immunity. For example, last year, we saw a surge of Measles outbreaks in many countries where pockets of the population have low vaccination coverage.
  • Get the recommended and required travel vaccinations. Talk with your healthcare professional about your trip itinerary and planned activities to make sure you are adequately protected and where applicable, have the required vaccines and documents to enter the country. Find out what vaccines are recommended and required for your destination through our Travel Health Planner.
  • Take the time to learn about health risks at your destination and how to best prevent them. There are a number of endemic diseases (infections that regularly circulate in a region) that cannot be prevented through vaccination (e.g. Malaria, Zika virus, Dengue, and Chikungunya). It’s important, particularly now, to understand what health risks are present and how to prevent them because symptoms of COVID-19 may be easily mistaken for other illnesses such as Dengue (they share similar clinical and laboratory features). In addition, the risk of co-infection with COVID-19 and other infectious tropical diseases is still not well understood.

COVID-19 guidelines for travel

Before travelling, it will be imperative to ensure you understand the public health guidance and restrictions in place. Make sure you know what to expect at your destination and once you return home. For example, your destination may require you to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. Your home country could also require the same on your return.

The IATA has an Interactive Coronavirus (COVID-19) Travel Regulations Map that details each country’s restrictions for incoming travellers. You can also check with your destination’s embassy or consulate. Make sure to check these guidelines regularly, as they are subject to change.

It’s also important to understand what to expect from your transit company. Many airlines and airports have introduced health and safety requirements for travellers such as wearing a mask, physical distancing measures, and providing a detailed travel history. Your accommodation may also have new guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19 – check what measures they have adopted (e.g. no contact room service, increased cleaning) before you depart.

What can I do to prevent COVID-19 infection on an airplane?

When it comes to preventing COVID-19 during a flight, much of the same simple measures being used on the ground apply, including:

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. Use hand sanitizer when soap and water is not readily available.
  • Avoid touching others and try to maintain a safe distance from people outside of your household. Before booking your flight, check what measures your airline has in place to keep passengers distanced while on board (e.g. are they committed to not booking middle seats?).
  • Cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm or into a tissue. Safely dispose of the tissue and immediately wash your hands.
  • Do not travel if you feel sick. Contact your airline to change your flight details as soon as possible. Look for airlines that have minimal fees for changing and rebooking flights.
  • Follow the safety requirements of your airline (e.g. you may be asked to wear a mask throughout your flight).

Is the risk of contracting COVID-19 higher on an airplane?

Viruses and germs do not spread easily on airplanes due to the highly filtered air that circulates throughout the cabin. However, the risk of contracting COVID-19 on an airplane is likely similar to the risk associated with being in other confined spaces with a high density of people such as a bus, train, or movie theatre for a prolonged period of time. This is because COVID-19 is transmitted through sustained close contact with a person expelling infected air droplets by coughing, sneezing, exhaling or talking, and it may not be possible to keep a safe distance of 2 metres (6 feet) while on board a plane. Moving through airports may also put you at increased risk of contact with an infected person or surface. This is why it’s important to avoid travel if you feel unwell and to follow safety guidelines detailed above.

For more answers to your questions on COVID-19 and travel, check out COVID-19 Q&A.

Being prepared

In addition to understanding what health risks are relevant to your destination, it’s also important to ensure you are prepared for emergencies. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how quickly countries need to respond to contain outbreaks by implementing measures such as travel restrictions and border closures. Going forward, travellers will need to be conscious of how quickly their travel plans can change and be as prepared as possible for the unexpected. Some things to consider include:

  • Ensure you have travel health insurance and that your policy provides adequate coverage. For example, are you covered for COVID-19? Does your policy include trip cancellation? Are there any reasons why you wouldn’t be reimbursed if you had to cancel your trip? We covered some important ways the COVID-19 pandemic has impact travel health insurance here. You can also find helpful resources on what to ask your insurer before you buy and more here.
  • Know the contact information for a healthcare professional at your destination in case of a medical emergency or ailment. Our Medical Directory includes contact information for vetted English-speaking doctors in over 350 cities around the world.
  • Take some time to learn about the healthcare system at your destination. Identify some reputable hospitals within your vicinity in case of a medical emergency. Your insurer may already have an existing partnership with specific hospitals in your area.

Choosing consciously

In 2017, it was estimated that the travel and tourism sector accounts for 1 in 10 jobs worldwide. The sector, which encompasses several industries such as transport, attractions, lodging, travel companies, and more, has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. From massive, billion-dollar companies to small businesses and communities that rely on tourism, the effects run deep and are still being understood. As travel resumes, we have an opportunity to invest in a more sustainable future that puts the health of people and the environment first.

Here are some suggestions to help guide your next trip:

  • Consider your destination and the places you visit. In response to physical distancing, we’re likely to see travellers opt for quieter destinations off-the-beaten-path rather than the typical crowded tourist spots, addressing over-tourism. This can be a great way to explore your destination like a local and can provide greater opportunities to invest into the local economy.
  • Support small and local businesses. During the pandemic we saw many industries suffer but small businesses have been particularly hard-hit, with many unable to recover. Supporting local small businesses – especially in areas that rely heavily on tourism and seasonal visitors – is a great way to directly invest into the wellbeing of the community.
  • Let your investment reflect your values. Choose tourism companies that uphold (and can demonstrate in tangible outcomes) a positive culture of inclusivity and diversity, are supportive of and highly invested in the local community, and are leaders in environmental sustainability.

For more on COVID-19 and travel, check out:

For more responsible travel resources, check out:

Photo by Jamie Fenn, Unsplash

Article by Claire Westmacott