Thinking About Travelling? Here's How to Do It Safely | Nat Geo Traveller India

Thinking About Travelling? Here’s How to Do It Safely

Should you take a flight, or book a hotel? Are national parks less risky destinations? Doctors and industry experts tell you how to go about it.  
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Avoid travelling to countries struggling to contain the pandemic—and cancel plans if you hail from a high-risk area yourself. Photo By: William.Vaccaro/Shutterstock

After more than two months of stifling lockdown, restrictions around the country are being eased up cautiously. Domestic flights have resumed in a limited capacity, and places of worship, malls, hotels, and restaurants outside containment zones. 

Outside our borders, countries like Greece and Georgia have announced that they’ll slowly allow direct international flights from July 1. India, too, is aiming to resume them by July.

But how safe is it to step out into the world after all that we know about the novel coronavirus? You might be itching to visit a place that’s not a few yards away from your couch; to talk to a friendly stranger instead of your house plant. Should you still book a flight, hop on to a long-distance train, or an inter-state bus teeming with people? What about a road trip with the family, which feels safer but begs the question of using public bathrooms and smaller joints we once loved to feast in? Are national parks less risky because they aren’t enclosed areas; and what about buffets and swimming pools in hotels? 

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Choose places that make it easier to maintain a minimum of 6.5 feet from people, even if its a national park. Photo By: Paul Cameron Allen/Shutterstock

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Social distancing guidelines should be followed in dining experiences in restaurants as well. Photo By: Nattakorn_Maneerat/Shutterstock

 

Travel advisories on quarantine and rules of entry differ from state to state and, for now, discourage non-essential travel—it is wise to pay heed to those. But being informed about potential risks and ways to avoid them will go a long way when you eventually decide to venture out. “Our current understanding of SARS CoV-2 (the virus causing COVID-19) indicates that it is here to stay and we have to find ways of living with it,” says Dr. Lalit Kant, an infectious disease epidemiologist and senior adviser, Infectious Diseases, Public Health Foundation of India. Washing hands for 20 seconds, wearing a mask, and maintaining a minimum physical distance of 6.5 feet  will have to become second nature, he adds. 

 

Here are the Best Practices for Travellers:

Should I Get on an Airplane?

Challenge: Long hours in a confined space with strangers from across the world

Best Practice: It can feel exceptionally vulnerable to be crammed with people on a plane. But studies show that it isn’t the aircraft that necessarily increases the risk of the virus’s transmission. “Chances of infection aboard the plane are not high, especially because carriers use HEPA filters to recirculate air, which flush out all the major pathogens, about 99.9 per cent of them,” says Dr. Kant. 

What you can’t control is who you’re sitting around—so guard the three main portals of entry into your body. “Face shields protect the nose, mouth and eyes, so even if infected droplets are released around you, the barrier could help,” says Prof. K. Srinath Reddy, President of Public Health Foundation of India. An oft-forgotten aspect is actually the washroom, he points out. “Long-haul flights have fliers brushing and spitting in the basin—so make sure it is regularly cleaned, and spray sanitiser before and after you use it,” advises Prof. Reddy.      

Preparing for a safe journey begins way before you even board the flight—you’re more likely to catch a virus in the airport security queue, during check-in, or at the boarding gate. Across India, airports and airlines have introduced added measures to make their communal spaces safer. Mumbai’s CSM International Airport sanitises and disinfects its entire terminal buildings, including high touch-point areas. All passengers are required to wear masks and maintain 6.5 feet  of distance between one another in queue. Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport too conducts thermal screening of all passengers, and ensures cashless transactions and contact-less food ordering through an app. 

Airlines are taking strict measures to alleviate flyers’ anxieties. Planes and airport coaches are now regularly fogged with disinfectant. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has asked airlines to keep middle seats vacant as far as possible. If you do end up in one, you’re entitled to additional protective equipment, such a wrap-around gown. Indigo Airlines provides protective kits which includes a face mask, a shield, and sanitiser before passengers board the aircraft, and has discontinued food service on board. Vistara, however, retains its food service while reducing the time its cabin crew spends in the aisles interacting with passengers. 

While downloading the Aarogya Setu app is mandatory, check state-wise guidelines before you fly—some require passengers to register on select websites before entry. 

 

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When you travel, check whether the airlines you pick regularly disinfects its aircrafts. Photo By: Pradpriew/Shutterstock

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Even when travel resumes, ensure that you practice good hygiene at a personal capacity. Photo By: Steve Heap/Shutterstock

Is It Safe to Visit a National Park?

Challenge: Avoiding large gatherings in safaris and campsites

Best Practice: Open-air destinations have a definite advantage over enclosed spaces, according to Dr. Kant. But visiting a national park also means sharing safari rides with strangers for up to four hours each, bustling camp sites, buffets and bonfires. “Choose places where the chance of direct interaction with people is minimal. Groups travelling together must be small, maybe only a family,” advises Kant. 

Before zeroing down on a national park, check its website to see the precautions it is taking, like limiting the number of visitors and interactions with staff and other travellers. Pick parks that strongly enforce rules such as mask-wearing and disinfection of their public areas. Campsites are where nature lovers bond and are a beloved part of visiting a national park, but it is wiser to avoid these group activities for the time being.

Mahesh Kumar, Director at Nagarhole National Park, plans to make safety a priority at the Karnataka sanctuary. “We plan to reduce the number of safari vehicles, the number of visitors in each vehicle, and the safari duration to half. Visitors will also be provided with masks, gloves, and sanitisers at entry points,” he says. Kumar plans to go digital with bookings and payment to prevent crowds from gathering at the gates before safaris. The biggest change he hopes to make is to not accept bookings for overnight stays at Nagarhole’s guest houses and dormitories for some time after the park reopens. “Travellers will be directed to safaris only,” he explains. These guidelines are pending approval from the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Head Office of Karnataka Forest Department.

 

Should I Stay in a Hotel?

Challenge: Social distancing, and ensuring hygienic housekeeping

Best Practice: A staycation in a resort looks a lot more appealing than most other forms of trips right now. But know that hotels are also places where social distancing is difficult and sharing amenities unavoidable. Your safety depends on how serious the hotel is about its hygiene protocols, so look up its website to see what COVID-19 guidelines it follows. Check whether it demands that all staff and guests wear masks, whether their new housekeeping rules are stringent, and how often they disinfect their public areas. 

According to K.B. Kachru, Vice President of the Hotel Association of India, many Indian hotels are considering making Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) available for their staff. “They also plan to introduce cashless payment, discontinue luggage storage, and replace glassware with disposable cups. Restaurants too are likely to have disposable or QR code-based menus,” he says. In addition to these, hotels will heed the government’s guidelines and keep their gyms and swimming pools closed. (When pools do eventually open, know that chlorine disinfection kills the coronavirus, so the risk isn’t from the water as much as oft-touched surfaces—shower areas, rails, chairs, door knobs and so on.) 

There’s a lot you can do by yourself too. “Skip the elevators and take the stairs wherever possible. Sanitise your hands before and after you press an elevator’s buttons,” cautions Dr. Kant. The key, he says, is not to forget social distancing norms even during your hotel stay. 

 

Should I Use a Public Bathroom?

Challenge: Managing risk in a confined, busy space

Best Practice: Avoid them if you can, advises Dr. Kant, but if you absolutely must, wait a couple of minutes between users. “Public restrooms have lot of high-touch surfaces: doorknobs, toilet handles and seats, faucets, and paper towel dispensers. Touching them is risky,” he adds. “Flushing the toilet whisks viral particles into the air, and droplets of SARS-CoV-2 can remain airborne for up to three hours. Use toilet seas which have a lid.”

Washing hands after using a public bathroom carries more significance than ever—so those 20 seconds with soap and water would be well spent here. “Seek out touchless urinals and toilets when you can. Avoid using hand driers—they suck in micro-organisms from the air and could deposit them on your washed hands,” says Dr. Kant.

  

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When intra-city travel begins again, make sure to use public transport responsibly. Photo By: Travelerpix/Shutterstock

Staying Safe, and Protecting Others

We don’t know everything about the coronavirus. Equipping yourself with facts and scientifically-backed data is best way to go forward. 

Cities and workplaces are opening up even as cases rise, so maintaining a minimum of six-feet distance between you and others is paramount. Follow WHO guidelines on making workplaces safer and community health (www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public), and continue washing your hands, sneezing into the elbow, avoiding touching your face, and regularly disinfecting things you touch regularly around the home and outside, including your phone. Wearing reusable masks goes a long way in protecting the people you come in contact with. 

 

Follow Protocols

The face of travel will change immensely in the coming months and safety will be the top consideration. As a rule, avoid destinations that are struggling to contain the virus. If you come from a high-risk area, avoid travelling—you have a shared responsibility to not carry the virus to another community. This is also true for travellers from cities that have containment zones, moving to the mountains or smaller towns to shelter in place. 

Keep track of changing travel restrictions and guidelines on state governments’ websites. When international travel opens up, countries are likely to allow travellers only from surrounding regions first, so check entry and visa rules. Mandatory quarantine protocols too differ at each destination—be it in India or abroad—and respecting them is key to keeping yourself and the community safe.

 

(Reporting by Julian Manning, Sanjana Ray, Pooja Naik, and Lubna Amir)

 

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  • Kareena Gianani loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes. She is the former Commissioning Editor of Nat Geo Traveller India.

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