Avoiding getting the Ebola virus and the H1N1 flu while traveling is pretty simple; travel smart, not stupid. I’m a professional when it comes to traveling. In fact, in my 20-year career as a humorist I’ve flown over 2 million miles and have spoken at over 2,000 conferences from Texas to Tasmania. In light of the very serious and often ridiculous reactions to the Ebola outbreak, I’m sharing some funny stories and my top 11 tips to avoid getting sick while flying and traveling. As a savvy traveler, I’m aware of the variety of health-related issues that accompany the quick, easy, and cheap access to world travel. I know that not only do people from all over the world travel easily and frequently, but some of these travelers do not have all of the access to health care that I have come to take for granted for most of my life. I share seat space with others on planes, trains, and automobiles. I share hotel rooms with hundreds of people and I even share the air I breath with others on an airplane.
Every time a new virus scare surfaces, my Mom calls me and warns me to be careful. I always assure her I will, but being careful doesn’t mean traveling stupid. I travel smart—I don’t travel hysterically or overreact. Most professional travelers share this approach, however, since the latest Ebola scare I’ve noticed that even experienced travelers have fallen prey to the media hype that has surrounded this latest potential contagion.
The last time I saw this was with the H1N1 flu a few years ago. A pandemic is a serious thing, but traveling stupid is not serious. Back then, I encountered two travelers that left me laughing. The first sat next to me wearing a surgical mask on the plane and refused to take it off to even to sip a beverage. She explained to me that she wanted to avoid catching H1N1. I told her, “I’m not a doctor or a nurse, but are you aware that masks like the one you are wearing are designed to protect other people from your germs and not to protect you from other people?” I then pretended to sneeze. She got up and moved to another seat. Whoo hoo! Extra elbow room for me!
The second encounter was outright hilarious; the person seated next to me on a flight to New Orleans was compulsively coating his hands with Purel every few minutes. He even offered me some. When I declined he said, “It’s the only thing keeping me or you from catching H1N1 flu.” I paused, looked at him and said, “You know that’s antibacterial lotion you’re using right?” He replied, “Yes.” I then added, “You know that swine flu is a virus right?” He just stared at me, so I continued, “Keeping your hands clean is a good thing, but antibacterial soap only kills bacteria… not the flu virus.” He too, got up and moved. Again, more elbow room for me.
I’m more worried about missing a flight connection while traveling than I am inadvertently having someone with Ebola shoot blood in my eyes at the airport.
11 Smart Traveling Tips To Prevent Getting Sick
1. Don’t travel if you are sick, or if your kids are sick (and with you). Period.
2. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze (not with your hand).
3. Wash your hands before you eat anything.
4. Carry anti-viral, anti bacterial lotion with you. Use it.
5. Be conscious of not touching your eyes and mouth (or letting other people touch your eyes and mouth).
6. Don’t lose your humanity. Not everyone you see that fits a profile in your mind is a danger to you or others.
7. Give yourself plenty of time to get to your train or your flight. Don’t book tight connections. People in a hurry make mistakes.
8. Pack lightly, yet adequately—don’t try to carry too much stuff with you.
9. Act, don’t react to stressors that occur while traveling. Take a step back and pause for a moment before you snap at anyone.
10. Pay attention, be aware, be present, be in the now.
11. Insulate against contamination. Never use a blanket or pillow provided by a carrier, wipe off the tray table on your flight and the phone and remote in your hotel room. Avoid ATM’s and pay phones at the airport. Be as clean and aware as is possible in public bathrooms.
The major take-away of all this is that as in any situation, don’t panic. Educate yourself, travel smart, and don’t travel stupid. Traveling safe is trying to avoid touching my eyes when I travel. Traveling stupid is worrying someone else will touch my eyes and infect me when I travel.
I would prefer not to catch Ebola, H1N1, or H1N14, but I don’t think that wearing a surgical mask on the airplane or compulsively washing my hands every few seconds is going to prevent me from catching a virus. I think instead, when I see someone coughing or sneezing, I’ll choose to not rush over and have them sneeze or cough in my face.
What do I do to travel smart and avoid getting sick? I’ve always avoided using ATM’s near airport bathrooms due to their reported levels of contamination. I also do what I can to keep my hands clean without obsessing to the point of traveling in a self-contained environmental suit. I consciously try to avoid touching my eyes or mouth and I carry Handi Wipes with me. But that’s me…
Tim Gard, CSP, CPAE.