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How to Avoid Getting Sick on an Airplane

AFAR logo AFAR 9/29/2020 Nile Cappello

diagram: How to Avoid Getting Sick on an Airplane © Photo by Thiago B Trevisan/Shutterstock How to Avoid Getting Sick on an Airplane

For certifiable germaphobes (like me), the transportation, accommodations, and people-to-people interactions of traveling can present a bit of a challenge (read: a huge, whopping struggle).

My germaphobia is related to my longtime struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—at this point, I could easily lead a support group for others similarly addicted to hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and/or toilet seat covers—but you don’t have to be a full-blown germaphobe to feel uneasy about airplane cleanliness, especially during a panedmic. It’s understandable to balk at being trapped in a pressurized cabin filled with recycled air, dingy seats, and rumors of unhygenic surroundings, with only inches between you and your neighbor, right? 

All major U.S. airlines are now requiring passengers to wear face masks, but here’s what else you can to do help avoid “plane germs.”

1. Buy a bottle of water in the airport before boarding

This is especially important if you know your airline serves water poured in cups, instead of in mini unopened bottles. It’s been reported that airplane water can carry a ton of bacteria and is maybe (probably) not 100 percent safe to drink—at the very least, it’s not preferable. While you can’t bring your own water through security, you can purchase a bottle in the airport before boarding or bring a reusable water bottle from home and fill it at a drinking fountain.

2. Never travel without hand sanitizer

Hand sanitizer is perhaps the most basic foray into germ protection—but it is still extremely important, especially when traveling. While a water-and-soap wash is always preferred, hand sanitizer is ideal for the times when you can’t (or simply, don’t want to) get up from your seat, like when the seatbelt sign is on. I suggest always using some when you first sit down in your seat—you’ve likely just dealt with touching luggage, seats, seatbelts, overhead bin handles, and more, so this step is a great line of defense against preliminary germs before you settle into your flight.

3. Store your items in the overhead bins instead of under the seat in front of you

Hear me out. If there is ample overhead bin space on your flight, it’s always better to store your items up high instead of down low . . . underneath the seat in front of you, that is. When you store your personal items underneath the seat, they share the same space as the bottom of your shoes, as well as the bottoms of the shoes of all the passengers before you.

4. Avoid the middle seat

There are approximately 843,902,840,932 reasons to avoid the middle seat, but I’m adding the germ factor to that list. The biggest threat to your health on planes is presented by the people sitting in the two rows around you—not the air itself, which is actually quite clean. By positioning yourself between two people, you’re doubling your chance of getting stuck next to someone who could pass on an illness (or just has sub-par hygiene). 

Before you fly, check to see if your airline is blocking off middle seats to prevent against the spread of COVID—some, like Delta, have committed to doing so until at least January 2021.

5. Wipe down your area with sanitizing wipes

Bring a small packet or Ziploc bag of sanitizing wipes, and use them to wipe down the area: the tray table, seatback pocket, armrest, seatbelt, and (my personal favorite) the headrest. It may sound extreme, but it’s highly unlikely that these areas were wiped down in-between flights—and nobody wants to share hair grease or eat off a tray table where someone changed baby diapers (yes, really). In fact, my seatmates often express jealousy that they didn’t think to bring their own.

6. Use wet wipes for everything

Repeat after me: “Wet wipes are my friend.” They’re easier on your hands than heavier-duty cleaning wipes but can still be used if you forget the sanitizing wipes mentioned above to wipe down your area. They also can help you clean your face and hands, a much-needed refresher during (and after) the flight.

7. BYOB (Bring your own blanket)

While you can’t exactly bring your own beer on the plane, you can bring your own blanket. Before the pandemic, it was reported that airplane-provided blankets and pillows were not washed in between flights. While we are hopeful this has no doubt changed now that airlines are paying more attention than ever to germs, bringing your own is a safer bet.

8. Wear shoes you can easily clean

Rain boots, sandals, or combat boots are usually made of materials that are easier to wipe down, postflight, than sneakers, suede, or fabric shoes. When you return home, sanitize your shoes with a few wipes so you won’t be carrying the germs of the plane around for days to come.

This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated with new information.

>> Next: How an Infectious Disease Doctor Protects Against Germs While Traveling

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