All Your Questions About Getting on a Plane Again, Answered by an Expert

Here’s a lay of the land before you get up in the air.

Photos: Shutterstock; Design: Marissa Dickson/Thrillist

According to a recent survey, 78% of Americans* can’t wait to travel again, and though air travel hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels, TSA checkpoint travel numbers are showing a significant spike from last year. All of which means you might be considering hopping on an airplane for the first time since, well, the Before Times. 

If you do decide to fly, you likely have some questions about traveling amid the pandemic that you'll want answered before you head to the airport — or even book your flight. Like, is it safe to use the bathroom on the plane? Should you bring your own snacks? What’s the airport experience going to be like? And what should I keep in mind to protect myself and others from the virus (especially given the CDC's latest guidance)? Well, friend, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a lay of the land before you get up in the air.

Which seat should I book?

Even if you were a die-hard window seat or aisle-or-nothing person pre-pandemic, you may have spent more time than normal questioning the seat situation on flights now. We’re happy to share that all seats are created equal when it comes to best practices for COVID-19 safety. “Planes have air circulation systems, many with state-of-the-art high-efficiency (HEPA) filters,” says Dr. Ilan Shapiro, a board-certified physician and the Medical Director of Medical Education and Wellness at AltaMed. “This air circulation takes place throughout the plane, so you don’t need to worry about a certain seat being safer than another.” He also recommends sitting with friends or family if you’re traveling in a group, so you can all sit together and minimize interactions with new people. 

Above all, Shapiro, who is also a Clorox spokesperson, encourages travelers to book with an airline that has clear cleaning protocols in place to help you and others travel safely. “For example, in addition to working with the Clorox Safer Today Alliance, United Airlines launched the United CleanPlus program, delivering industry-leading cleanliness at every touchpoint of the traveler’s journey,” he notes. As part of this program, they were the first to roll out touchless check-in kiosks as one way to reduce touch points, installed sneeze guards at key interaction points, and provided hand sanitizer wipes to passengers as they board. They are also disinfecting high-touch areas inside planes and in their terminals and running HEPA filters the entire time customers are onboard the plane (including during boarding and deplaning). Shapiro recommends checking an airline’s website to see what protocols they have in place before booking your flight

How has the check-in process changed?

Many airports already had a lot of technology designed to minimize human interaction, from kiosks to check in for your flights to self-serve eateries and baggage drops, which are even more widespread (and useful) these days. Now, in addition to the hands-free soap dispensers in bathrooms, you'll spot more hand sanitizer stations spread out throughout airports. (As a bonus for pandemic-era living, the TSA now allows you to travel with a liquid hand sanitizer container up to 12 ounces per passenger in carry-on bags.) 

If hunger strikes before boarding, order food on Grab, a mobile ordering app that lets you order from restaurants directly from your phone, so you can skip any lines and pick up your food in a designated pickup area en route to your gate. It’s also worth noting that many places, both domestic and abroad, require a negative COVID-19 test for entry. So before you’re saying aloha to Hawaii or hitting the beaches in Portugal, you’ll want to check the specific requirements of your destination

Do I have to wear a mask at the airport and on the flight?

Short answer: Yes. That goes even if you’re vaccinated. (FYI: the CDC recommends individuals delay travel until they’re fully vaccinated.) Longer answer: The TSA has extended the rule that individuals wear face masks on all transportation networks throughout the country, including at airports, through September 13. Regardless of vaccination status, you’ll also have to wear a mask onboard the plane at all times, as well. These rules aren’t designed to make you uncomfortable (we feel you), but to keep everyone safe “[by creating] as many barriers as possible between us and the virus,” says Shapiro, who says it’s a good idea to check the CDC website here for the latest guidelines before you start your journey.

I made it to my seat on the plane. Now what?

You’ve still got that mask on, right? Check. Now’s a good opportunity to grab that disinfecting wipe. “My personal philosophy is to have as many barriers between viruses and myself,” Shapiro says. While airlines like United are using antimicrobials, which create a long-lasting protective barrier against microorganisms on the aircraft interior, “for extra peace of mind, you can use a wipe to disinfect your tray table and armrests,” he notes. P.S. There’s no need to feel self-conscious about the ol’ scrub down, as 50% of Americans with travel plans are planning to disinfect public hard surfaces. 

What if I ‘gotta go’?

Fear not, the bathroom is absolutely A-OK to use on a plane. “As long as you are following proper CDC guidelines to and from the bathroom, such as social distancing from other passengers, it’s safe to use the bathroom on your flight,” Shapiro says.

Here are his three rules of thumb (which will look familiar to those who have always felt iffy about public restrooms):

  • Always be sure to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after using the restroom.
  • Use a paper towel to open the door when you’re done.
  • Trash that paper towel afterward to make things easier on the flight crew.

Should I eat and drink onboard?

Just like pre-pandemic times, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared to quench your thirst or attack a snack craving when you fly. “It’s always smart to have water with you on a flight so you can stay hydrated. While some airlines are offering snacks again, you may want to bring snacks of your own,” Shapiro says.

Since you have to wear a mask over your nose and mouth for the duration of your flight, per the CDC, you should keep it on in between bites or sips, Shapiro notes. Smart tip: “Bring snacks such as protein bars or drinks, fruit squeeze packs, or overnight oats to help prevent the spread of germs that may come from touching surfaces before your food,” he adds.

If I'm traveling with unvaccinated kids, should I do anything differently?

Pray that a tarmac tantrum doesn’t occur. Just kidding. Well, kind of.

In all seriousness, you should note that mask-wearing is required for kids age 2 and older when onboard. We’re guessing you’ve known this drill for going on a year-and-a-half now, but it bears repeating: “You can start practicing the habit of mask-wearing with your kids, keeping in mind that it’s extremely important to lead by example. They learn much more by example rather than by ‘hearing what to do,’” advises Shapiro, also stressing that you make sure your kids know the proper way to wash their hands and that they practice social distancing on escalators, lines, in bathrooms, and the like when possible.   

What about renting a car at my final destination?

Car rental companies have also upped their game to make renting during the pandemic as safe and seamless an experience as possible. “Before arriving at the car rental kiosk, check to see what policies are in place that the company may require to help keep you and future renters healthy,” Shapiro says. “You can also inquire about any cleaning protocols they have in place to help keep their customers safe.”

For example, Enterprise Holdings, which owns the car rental brands Alamo, Enterprise, and National, practices the Complete Clean Pledge throughout its operations. As part of the pledge, the company (which is also a member of the Clorox Safer Today Alliance) provides a one-count Clorox Disinfecting Wipe in every vehicle prior to rental. Other standards in place as part of the pledge include enhanced cleanings between every rental with particular attention to more than 20 high-touch points, limiting passengers on their shuttle buses, and updated sanitization protocols at their rental locations.

Once you’re ready to hit the road, Shapiro urges passengers to do a quick check to make sure you have safety items for the ride such as masks, disinfecting wipes, and hand sanitizer at the ready.

Is travel going to be this way forever?

Before you rethink that trip, remember that this is a rapidly changing situation and there may be a little, shall we say, turbulence. 

“Many things including the way we travel are currently evolving. I would love to tell you that there is a secret way to be 100% percent protected from germs, but sadly, I cannot,” Shapiro says. “That does not mean that we need to let our hopes down. The more barriers and hygienic measures we use, the safer we will be. This is a community-wide effort, and we need to continue living, adapting, and doing our best to be healthy.”

Now, back to bookmarking those adorable tiny home vacation rentals.


*Results from a 10-minute nationally representative survey conducted by Clorox of 1,000 adults 18+; reported at the 95% confidence level and with a margin of error (MOE) of ±3.1%.