Of all the amusing questions I receive – and trust me, I receive some whoppers – there’s one I get more than most: how do you avoid getting sick, with all that travel?

With Coronavirus rightfully scaring the living daylights out of people, the question is more relevant than ever. The answer: there’s pretty much at least 10 common things people I never did on a plane before covid-19, which I will still never do even after it’s gone.

This article came out just before the outbreak went global, and I find it almost eerie looking back at it now, knowing what was to come from the original publish date of January 27th, 2020.

Cup of fresh coffee with heart form milk drawing on blue wooden table, view from above, flat layDrink The Tap Water

If you’ve avoided reading those articles about why you shouldn’t drink coffee on the plane, you’ve done yourself a disservice. Airplane water tanks are petri dishes, with water that’s been found to contain just about every bacteria and parasite under the sun. I wish that was a joke.

I don’t drink the tap water, or even use it to brush my teeth and neither should you. Bring a reusable water bottle and fill up in the airport, or use bottled if you must. No tap water typically means no coffee, tea or anything else that’s made with that water, just FYI. Even if the water isn’t the problem, the coffee pots aren’t the best either…

Read The Magazines

Historically, airplane seats were rarely cleaned to the extent they should be, so how do you think the magazines fare? Think about hundreds of passengers each and every week putting their unwashed, sometimes greasy – or worse, germ filled – hands all over each page.

I never read the magazines or touch anything in the seat pocket in front of me. Watch the safety demo carefully and then keep your hands to yourself. Bring your own magazines, or better yet, read online. Waste of paper..

airport spaceGo Barefoot

For once, and for all – it’s never okay to go barefoot on a plane.

Socks, totally fine, but barefoot is not ok for you, or anyone else. Continuing the theme that planes are one of the most biologically terrifying places on and above the earth, any minor wounds could be exposed to potentially life threatening bacteria.

I wear socks at my seat, but any movement beyond that area I put on shoes, primarily because glasses and other things do break, and you do not want to bleed in a pressurized environment.

Stay Seated For Too Long

Short flights are one thing, but if you’re in the air for more than a couple hours it’s absolutely crucial to get up, invigorate your body and promote good blood flow. Everyday, somewhere around the world, a person picks up a potentially life threatening blood clot from DVT.

Even on flights where I’m lucky enough to have a bed or room to spread out, I still make a point of getting up, stretching and trying to raise my heart rate just enough to keep things pumping well at altitude. New planes definitely help with better pressure, so seek them out where possible.

Wear A Single Layer

If you ask me, layers are the key to a happy travel experience. For starters, almost every environment in air travel is either too hot, or too cold. Layers help prepare and plan for both, but can also provide a health benefit.

I was on a show once with a leading scientist studying disease control, and he noted that pulling a layer above your nose and mouth in the immediate aftermath of someone sneezing can greatly reduce your risk of actually taking the germs into your airways.

Since learning that that’s scientifically true, I’ve always worn a hoodie, scarf or additional layer to quickly pop over my nose, if someone is hacking away. Plus, I stay comfy, which is nice. Of course, now this is a strict law or rule in many parts of the world, but it’s always been the right move.

Put Valuables In Overhead Bins

Allover the world, there are actual crime syndicates that target overhead bins. It may sound weird, but it’s true. These groups wait until the lights are out when passengers are sleeping, and they make gut assessments about which bags may have a laptop, cash stash or something valuable.

Too often, the person only realizes what’s missing after the plane has landed, and even if they realize earlier, it’s not like you can strip search every passenger.

I usually try to fly carry on only – aka no checked bags – so I typically have a full sized bag in the overhead bin, but I never put anything valuable, or crucial in it. Passport, wallet, tablet, all that stuff stays in my backpack or pockets, somewhere within arms reach where only a brazen fool would attempt to steal it.

Argue With Cabin Crew

Ok, this may not keep you from getting sick, but it’s increasingly important advice. Cabin crew are not your enemy, even if they have power to trip on. Stay calm, know that even if they might be wrong, they run the show, and be the polite human you’re capable of being.

Fights in the air mean planes get diverted, which means you may end up in a cold city when you thought you were going somewhere warm.

Even if I think I’m right, and the person is being unjustified in whatever they’re doing, nobody wins if you have an aggressive argument with airline personnel, and the stress isn’t helpful either. PSA – just shut up, move on.

Lose To Dehydration

If you’re going to drink on a plane, always drink at least equal, if not double the amount in water. If you don’t drink alcohol, still ply yourself with the water. Air travel is incredibly dehydrating, which not only makes you feel sub optimal, but also makes your glands more susceptible to picking up germs.

Basically, if I feel dehydrated going into a flight, it’s already game over, so I make a point of hydrating the day before and then keeping it up throughout the flight, even if there’s other liquids involved. I’m already fighting the elements with dry, artificial air, so being dehydrated makes it so much worse.

Rely On In Flight Entertainment

If you find yourself bored on a plane, you have only yourself to blame. Some airlines are awesome at stocking the latest releases, box sets and classics, but others are simply terrible. Also, those screens are yet another petri dish, where people specifically tap away with their fingers, which may or may not have been in places you’d care not to know about.

If you’re reading this and don’t own a mobile phone or tablet – congrats – and let me know how that bunker is working out – but if you do have one, download some content for use on the plane. I always download more than I expect I’ll need, and using wireless headphones and my own screen greatly helps me avoid germs by touching things outside of my control.

Take My Shoes Off Before Take Off

A pilot once told me that one of the greatest mistakes a passenger can make is to take their shoes off before the plane successfully climbs into the sky, or touches down safely and comes to a halt.

These are the two critical areas of flight, where the unlikely event of an emergency is more likely and if your shoes are off, you can get cut, trampled or immobilized because of it.

I always, always keep my shoes on until we’re a few thousand feet up in the air and make sure I’ve put them back on before the final approach. It makes perfect sense, and you do not want to hinder a thing in an emergency situation. Also, if you’re instructed to evacuate, don’t grab your bags.

Touch Anything I Don’t Need to

Last, but not least, just try not to touch anything. You don’t have to go too out there, but the more you self cater, the more you control what you touch. Screens are bad, but things like tray tables, where not only fingers but food hit the surface can be even worse.

I never reach too far down into a seat crevice, try to use a sleeve to tap or grab things that are part of the aircraft and just generally try to keep my hands away from any surface which might hold the thing that makes me every other passengers nightmare – a sniffling, coughing human seated within inches.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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21 Comments

  1. One tip I’d add it be mindful of what you put in the seatback pocket. I see people put snacks, drinks and water bottles in the pockets. So you sanitize your hands then take that bag of pretzels out of the seatback, tear it open and start eating with your hands that are now covered with whatever was in the seatback.

  2. I always take a pack of handy disinfectant wipes with me and clean around the areas I’ll touch in my seat area – IFE screens, seat adjuster buttons, window blind, and IFE remote as well as the entire tray table. Plenty of filthy people about to ruin my holiday by making me ill!
    Recently flew to LGW-MRU and back and to be fair to BA I cleaned my seat area (only second time I’d ever done it) and the wipes came off clean still so the seat had obviously been well cleaned prior to the flight.

  3. I bring wipes as well. Regardless if I sit in economy or business, I always wipe off the main areas of the seat that I know I’ll be touching (screen, armrest, table, etc.) Overall great article!

  4. Going further than keeping shoes on during take off / landing, keep your wallet, passport, house and car keys on your person during these flight phases. If you need to get off in a hurry, you’ll have all your vital bits with you.

  5. At the risk of getting some strange looks from other pax, I now take a few pairs of disposable vinyl gloves with me –

    * Pair 1 goes on for seat belt closure & subsequent tray table opening and are then discarded
    * Pairs 2+ go on for eating snacks and meals and I try not to touch anything else while wearing them

    I am not paranoid about germs, but I do feel that a barrier between me and infection hotspots (buckles, handles etc.) does help a bit. I am not convinced that wiping surfaces actually does very much…

    I always wash my hands thoroughly and use paper towels to open the toilet door as I leave…

    Not sure there’s much else anyone can do except stay home 🙁

  6. Give me a break. Please show me the evidence of what you are talking about. Yes it all seems “logical” with so many passengers flying, but overall you are talking BS. Please show me the testing data behind the tanks and coffee pots loaded with bacteria and parasites. Yes there are germs all around in public places including planes, but show the data of how long those germs last. I’ve flown all over the world and have never gotten sick beyond anything but a cold and since most cold viruses don’t last more that 20 minutes outside the body, my guess is I got it from fellow passengers or at the airport. If you are going to report crap like this, show evidence rather than your inferences and scaremongering.

    What you are recommending is absurd. Don’t use inflight entertainment? Touch as least as possible as you can? Get real dude. Should I board in a hazmat suit too?

    Also international crime syndicates stealing things on planes in overhead bins? Really? Ok. Sure theft may happen and people always need to be cautious when traveling, but international crime syndicates? Melodramatic anyone? I would be way more worried about theft on trains than planes.

    On another note, you boast about all the travel you have done. Why not take a break and help save the planet a bit of carbon? With more clowns like you on the ground, there will be less planes in the air.

  7. Yet another affirmation of shoes in and valuables (passport/wallet/phone) on your person for takeoff and landing. Maybe even light coat if it’s dead of winter (especially when on large body for a long haul and easy to take it off after airborne). Flew for military for 25years and as passenger on commercial flights for most of my 56 years. Have evacuated a plane SEVERAL times….. once it WAS on fire and I saw a-holes trying to bring their roll aboard off with them. Did my best drill sergeant voice coupled with linebacker mover and stopped THAT pretty quickly!

  8. @Jay Dick – So don’t do it, but nobody’s required to give you proof of common sense or anything If some is overkill and not right for you then pass it by – or I guess get all loud and angry if that’s what gives you joy. Is there something here that hurts or endangers you? or anybody

  9. Not related at viruses or bacteria, but I always tell people never to wear clothing of synthetic fibers. First, on long journeys, you won’t smell (as much); second, in the unlikely event of fire, synthetic fires will melt to your skin (I learned this from one of the flight attendants on UA 232 who reported her hosiery melted to her legs- this was her only injury).

  10. Quote:

    “Air travel is incredibly dehydrating, which not only makes you feel sub optimal, but also makes your glands more susceptible to picking up germs.”

    There is no evidence that air travel is dehydrating or that dehydration makes your glands more susceptible to picking up germs.

    A poorly researched article – please back this up with science and evidence!

    1. Dry air, which is unquestionably found on planes has always been known to agitate glands, which makes then more susceptible. Thanks for taking the time though.

  11. Although I agree in general with the suggestions, there are several aspects that really need to be queried….
    In general agreement:
    Don’t go barefoot – anywhere on board – is just common sense
    Drinking water to remain hydrated is also common sense, but less required with the higher
    humidity and lower ambient air pressures of aircraft such as the 787 and A350
    Never argue with cabin crew is generally good advice – you are likely to lose the argument –
    badly in some instances!
    Multiple layers of comfortable clothing is excellent advice
    Subject to further discussion….
    Don’t touch anything, don’t read the magazine or use the IFE controls or screen. You HAVE
    TO touch various surfaces, seat belt, overhead baggage handles, possibly armrests. The act
    of touching bacteria infested items creates very little risk in itself. Touching your eyes nose
    or mouth thereafter can transfer the virus/bacteria. Theoretically the airlines are now
    aggressively cleaning all touch surfaces so there “should” not be too much around to
    infect you… Magazines are a good point though – unlikely that airlines are going to clean
    every page that you could touch. Rather touch everything you need to and keep a stash
    of Clorox or similar wipes handy to clean your hands – often!
    Of dubious value (IMHO)
    Valuables in overhead compartments? Gangs of international thieves have been known to
    target specific passengers carrying high-value items – it seems primarily in and out of Hong
    Kong though and not many of us carry up to HK$2.5 million of goods in our carryons…! It
    seems highly unlikely that someone will pay thousands of dollars for an international
    business or first class ticket on the off-chance that they can randomly pick up a few
    laptops or tablets or phones out of the overhead bins or a wallet from a seat area… The
    risk seems very low – but as always, carry wallet and passport on your person at all times.
    ANYTHING else is almost irrelevant and can be replaced easily if stolen!
    Staying seated too long is an unfortunate reality for many of us who, in economy class,
    prefer window seats… And would become very unpopular on long overnight flights, getting
    up every so often to go for a jog around the aircraft…! But yes, try to move if possible –
    and also (if you have risked reading the in-flight magazine) follow some of the in seat
    exercises they recommend!
    Arguable is taking shoes off before takeoff…
    This is just a risk analysis Out of 16 million flights (in USA) per year, how many takeoffs
    have been aborted and the aircraft emergency evacuated? From a risk aspect this seems
    very low – but if you are more comfortable keeping your shoes on, go for it!
    Water quality appears to be a hot topic.
    This is one of the issues that appears to have been massively overhyped. Yes there have
    been water quality issues in the past. And yes, it is probably not advisable to drink the
    water in the bathrooms. But EVERY source of water has a greater or lesser degree of
    impurities and bacteria in it – almost certainly including the bottled water (some of which is
    just bottled tap water)! https://time.com/5686811/is-bottled-water-safest-best/
    With regard to tea or coffee, I have always found these to be served very hot – and over
    160 fahreheit will probably sort out the majority of bacteria or harmful impurities in the
    water. Again this is up to the individual. You can choose to drink the water out of a plastic
    bottle that MIGHT have been left outside in the sunshine for hours thus leaching some of
    the plasticizers into the water – or choose to drink coffee or tea with water that has been
    boiled. Or even bring your own container and fill it up at (OOPS we don’t know how clean
    THAT water is either!!!) one of the filling stations at the airport…
    After 27 years of drinking airline coffee on many flights without any ill effects, I must have developed some form of immunity… Your mileage may vary!!!

    Just one query for Gilbert… What are these glands that get agitated in dry air?

  12. Thank you. Reinforced many things I know and reminded me of some others
    The coffee is so unpalatable in every class I try to avoid it anyway. Also, ice.
    One thing I will add and have found essential for my comfort is to wear loose clothes especially on the bottom. No skinny jeans or even leggings. The compression adds to the risk of DVT.

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