Washing hands with soap

Practical Steps for Avoiding COVID-19 and Other Illnesses While Traveling

By Alison Barretta Stay Safe and SecureNo Comments


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The COVID-19 coronavirus has the world on high alert. Governments are working on ways to contain and prevent the disease from spreading and overwhelming local health systems.

This is making international travel increasingly risky and difficult, as several countries are canceling public events, instituting flight bans, or initiating quarantines. 

In light of this global health crisis, you may need to change, postpone, or totally scrap your travel plans. This often means taking a financial hit, but the alternative is worse: endangering both your own health and that of vulnerable members of society, plus risking being stranded somewhere that’s on lockdown and not being unable to return home easily or at all.

That said, if you do decide to travel or are already doing so, the COVID-19 outbreak has emphasized the importance of practicing good hygiene and being aware of potential health hazards. These are both things we should already be conscious of while traveling, but don’t always pay as much attention to as we should.

Falling ill while traveling is not a phenomenon that’s exclusive to this new strain of coronavirus. According to the International Travel Health Guide, up to 65% of travelers from the developed world experience mild illnesses like the common cold and diarrhea, and 8% of them are sick enough to seek medical care either during or after their trip.

Whether you’re worried about the coronavirus or other types of disease, you can decrease your chances of getting sick by taking proper precautions before, during, and after your travels. Here are our tips for keeping yourself safe and healthy on the road.

Useful Resources

Before and during your trip, you should stay up-to-date on the latest public health information so you’ll know what’s going on and how to proceed in an emergency. That’s especially true at the moment, with the situation changing daily as the coronavirus pandemic continues to escalate.

It’s important, however, to stick to credible sources and avoid misinformation as much as possible. We recommend the following sites as general health resources:

Major news sites like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are providing free access to their coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are a good place to find the most recent information.

If you intend to travel for a specific event, such as a sports match or a conference, look for information from official or trusted channels regarding any postponements and cancelations. The New York Times has a brief list of major events impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Before You Travel

If you’re moving forward with your travel plans or already on the road, it’s imperative you have a plan in place. Things can and do change suddenly, so you’ll need to be prepared.

Buy Travel Insurance

We believe that if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel. The money you put towards a policy is negligible compared to a medical bill worth hundreds of thousands of dollars because you didn’t buy travel insurance.

If your trip has been interrupted due to an accident, natural disasters, civil unrest, or a family emergency, travel insurance can also help you in those situations.

Policies are not all created equal, however, and terms vary by region and insurer. Be sure to read the fine print carefully to understand what will (or won’t) be covered while you’re abroad or if you need to cancel.

The COVID-19 outbreak is what’s called a known and foreseeable event, which often has a coverage cut-off date. Check your policy to see if the outbreak is covered and when the coverage period is, as the dates could be outside your travel window.

We’ve used World Nomads for our travel insurance needs for over a decade, which provides coverage to people from 140 countries. Unlike most travel insurers, you’re able to extend or renew your policy online no matter where in the world you are in case of unexpected delays (or any other reason.) Many providers require you to be in your home country to do that.

We’ve found the support team easy to deal with, whether via email, phone, or social media. This is a welcome quality, since travelers faced with an emergency are stressed and worried, and don’t need extra hassle from their insurance company.

World Nomads is extending coverage to the current COVID-19 outbreak in certain situations, but terms will vary based on the region where you purchased your plan. You can find more information here.

Load Your Phone With Risk Management Apps

Sitata app

A risk management app on your phone or tablet makes it easy for you to receive local public health alerts, find a hospital, or connect with a traveling doctor. Here are three worth considering.

Sitata

Sitata is a comprehensive travel risk management app that makes you aware of any potential disruptions to your travel plans, including disease outbreaks. The app also allows you to connect with doctors via video conference in the event of a medical emergency. 

You can download Sitata for iOS or Android for free. A premium option called Sitata Plus is available for $59/year. It has a number of added features like information on recommended vaccinations, more comprehensive travel alerts, and extra personal safety functions. This will suit regular travelers and organizations that often send staff abroad.

Sickweather

Sickweather uses a combination of social media monitoring, crowdsourcing, clinical data, and advanced machine learning models to generate illness forecasts.

Sickweather processes over six million reports each month from around the world, but more accurate information seems to be found within English-speaking countries. You’ll have most success if you’re traveling through the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, or Australia.

We checked the status of Wuhan, China and Daegu, South Korea, two cities where the COVID-19 outbreak has been rampant. Each was deemed a low-risk area by Sickweather, with little signs of illness to be found. The usefulness of this app definitely depends on where you’re going.

The current strain of coronavirus is not a selectable alert in Sickweather, but you can set up notifications for individual symptoms such as coughing and fever. Sickweather has alerts for other ailments such as the flu and norovirus.

You can download Sickweather for iOS or Android for free. If you have an Apple Watch, you’ll receive an extra feature: a 20-second hand-washing timer

Allianz TravelSmart

Allianz TravelSmart is an app useful to all travelers, not just those who’ve purchased an insurance policy through Allianz. 

Features of the TravelSmart app include a map of nearby medical facilities, emergency numbers by country, and a dictionary of medical terms and phrases in 18 languages to help communicate your needs clearly.

If you purchase a policy through Allianz, you can access your information and file a claim on-the-go. You’ll also have access to 24/7 hotline assistance.

You can download Allianz TravelSmart for iOS or Android for free.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has an official app that’s free for iOS or Android. Unfortunately, it’s full of broken links and other issues, so you’re better off bookmarking the CDC’s mobile site on your mobile browser instead.

Create a Backup Plan

Having a backup plan that you can quickly execute in case of an emergency will help make the situation less stressful. Here are a few things you can do in case your plans go awry:

  • Keep copies of essential travel documents (such as your passport, visa, itinerary, and travel insurance certificate) in case the originals are lost, stolen, or otherwise inaccessible.
  • Have contact information to hand for your airlines, hotels, travel insurance provider, tour company, and anyone else that you’ll need to get in touch with quickly when plans change.
  • Have a spare debit or credit card and an extra stash of cash as an emergency fund, with bills in both the local currency and your home currency. Hide this money somewhere that’s easy for you to access but difficult for others to find.
  • To prevent social media or messaging overload, designate a couple of people back home as official points of contact. You can rely on these points of contact to share your status with anyone who is concerned about your wellbeing.

Being well-informed lets you quickly decide on the best approach, while purchasing insurance can help mitigate any large costs out-of-pocket. You can’t prepare for every eventuality, but having a general plan that you can modify as needed will be useful.

During Your Travels

Once you’re traveling, do all that you can to keep yourself and the people around you safe. A lot of these measures are merely common sense and good manners, but there are also a number of small, lightweight supplies worth packing.

Use Common Sense

Many of the following suggestions should be followed whether you’re at home or away, especially during the current COVID-19 outbreak:

  • During a widespread outbreak like the coronavirus, try to avoid crowded areas and minimize the number of common surfaces like door handles and elevator buttons that you touch with your hands.
  • Avoid touching your face as much as possible, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Always cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. If you don’t have a tissue, use your elbow or upper sleeve to catch droplets. Never use your bare hands.
  • Wearing a surgical mask or similar won’t stop you from catching most viruses (including coronavirus), but will reduce the risk of infecting others. Side benefit: they’ll also stop you touching your nose and mouth.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after using public transit, upon entering your accommodation, before and after eating out, shaking hands, or blowing your nose.

Bring These Must-Have Supplies

Have these items with you to help reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 and other illnesses while you’re abroad.

Hand Soap and Sanitizer

Lava Heavy-Duty Hand Cleaner with Moisturizers, Professional Line, 4 OZ

Soap and water are your best defense against germs. While your hotel or apartment may include soap, it’s worth bringing your own in case accommodations are lacking.

Opt for bar soap instead of liquid soap, as the former is more travel-friendly. Liquid soap is prone to leaking all over your luggage and subject to strict carry-on regulations. Bar soap is more eco-friendly, too. It takes over six times the amount of liquid soap to wash your hands as effectively as bar soap.

Regular washing can leave your hands dry, so pick up a formula that also has moisturizers like the Lava Heavy Duty Hand Cleaner. Transport your bar soap in a travel case like this one to stop it from making a mess in your bag or breaking while you’re on the move.

For an even more compact solution, there’s the Travelon Hand Soap Toiletry Sheets. Just add water and the sheet will dissolve into a lather. Note that you only get 50 per pack, so you’ll need more than one pack to get through an extended trip.

If you can’t access a sink or clean, running water, then use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. This is not meant to replace soap and water as your primary method of handwashing. Also be aware that due to the recent coronavirus outbreak, travel-size packs of hand sanitizer may be out of stock or have limited supply.

Disinfectants for Your Devices

Your smartphone is infested with more germs than you may imagine, which is why you need to be vigilant about keeping it clean. That goes for the rest of your tech, from laptops to digital cameras. Viruses can live on hard surfaces for several days, so anything you touch often must be thoroughly disinfected.

The PhoneSoap UV Sanitizer is a phone charger with a built-in UV light that purportedly kills 99.99% of germs in just 10 minutes. It fits most popular smartphone models and can also be used to disinfect keys, credit cards, and cash. Unsurprisingly, it’s currently on backorder due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

You can also use wipes and liquid cleaners on your smartphones and other tech, but pay attention to the ingredients list: most are only designed to get rid of smudges and dust and aren’t an effective disinfectant.

To disinfect your devices without causing damage to the screen coating, look for a formula that contains 70% isopropyl alcohol. Apple recently decided Clorox wipes are also safe for use on iPhones, but again, stock is scarce due to the recent outbreak.

UV Light Sanitizers

Verilux CleanWave Portable Sanitizing Travel Wand - UV-C Technology - Kills Germs and Bacteria

Far-UVC light is capable of killing bacteria without harming human skin tissue. Thanks to a number of devices on the market today, it’s easy to use UV light to help sanitize your devices and accommodation while traveling.

The Verilux CleanWave Portable Sanitizing Travel Wand is a solid choice for travel. It’s ultralight, at only half a pound with batteries installed. Four AA batteries are required, but not included. Use the CleanWave to disinfect furniture, bedding, telephones, remote controls, and just about anything else in your hotel room, hostel, or apartment.

Your toothbrush can become a breeding ground for germs and bacteria, especially if you leave it out in plain sight in your bathroom. The Pursonic S1 Portable UV Toothbrush Sanitizer fits most manual brushes and electric toothbrush heads. It’s also a convenient way of transporting your toothbrush while traveling.

Maintain a Clean Living Space

Whether you’re in a hotel, hostel, or Airbnb, there are several measures you can take to make sure your temporary home doesn’t become a breeding ground for germs and bacteria. Although your accommodation may have cleaning staff, there’s no guarantee they’ve taken the time to thoroughly clean everything, especially if they have many rooms to tend to, so:

  • Take your shoes off at the door to avoid tracking dirt and other debris inside. Bring a comfortable pair of indoor slippers to walk around in rather than going barefoot.
  • Disinfect all surfaces via UV light or travel-size disinfectant wipes with isopropyl alcohol content of at least 60%. 
  • If your place is equipped with a full kitchen, wash dishes and glasses thoroughly before you use them, and wipe down the counter, stove, and microwave before and after cooking.
  • Close the toilet lid before you flush, to avoid spreading disease-ridden particles.

Build an Emergency Kit

If you’ll be staying somewhere for an extended period of time, build an emergency kit with non-perishable food, water, and supplies to keep in your living space in case your area becomes quarantined and you can’t go outside. During an outbreak, essential items can quickly become scarce as people panic-buy such things en masse. See: toilet paper and sanitizer shortages in light of COVID-19.

For shorter stays, it’s worth packing your luggage with extra energy-dense snack bars to at least tide you over for a day or two if needed. 

After Your Travels

Suitcase with clothes on top

Now that you’re home you can be lax about your hygiene, right? Nope. Health risks don’t end when your trip does, unfortunately.

Clean your suitcase and backpacks thoroughly, and wash your clothes on a hot cycle as soon as you get home. This will help reduce the risk of virus contamination, plus help keep bedbugs and other nasties at bay.

If you’re returning from a country in the midst of an outbreak, follow local procedures accordingly. For instance, the CDC is recommending a 14-day self-quarantine for travelers entering the United States from countries with a wide number of confirmed coronavirus cases. Other countries are enforcing such quarantine measures, even on their own citizens.

If you feel unwell upon returning home, monitor your health carefully, avoid being around other people as much as possible, and seek medical advice (by phone, unless it’s an emergency.)

Be Vigilant About Your Health, No Matter Where You Are

Awareness, knowledge, and good personal habits will go a long way in keeping you healthy and safe while traveling, both during and after the COVID-19 outbreak. Hope for the best, but plan in advance for the worst-case scenario.

If you can avoid traveling during the coronavirus pandemic, then by all means do so. If not, be vigilant about your health. Stay informed, have an emergency plan in place, and please, wash your hands.


Feature image via zukunftssicherer, article images via Sitata (app screenshots), Amazon (product images), James DeMers

About the Author
Alison Barretta

Alison Barretta

Alison is a writer and editor based out of Philadelphia. Her fondest travel memories have originated from outside of her comfort zone (but don't expect her to go skydiving any time soon!). Alison's other interests include martial arts (Tang Soo Do and Hapkido), skincare, and cats.

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