Traveling on different modes of transportation with others can come with varying degrees of risk during the pandemic. Here’s what to know.

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In general, the fewer people you are exposed to during travel, the lower your COVID-19 risk will be. Dmitry Marchenko/EyeEm/Getty Images

As you make plans for trips this holiday season, you may be wondering which mode of transportation would be best to take as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

Is it safer to travel by train or plane cross-country? Is a bus more convenient? What are the different requirements and safety protocols for each?

Should you just hop in your own car?

These are just some of the many questions people are asking themselves as they contemplate traveling during the holiday season this year.

Dr. Kavitha Prabaker, assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at UCLA Health, told Healthline that the level of COVID-19 risk you might be willing to tolerate during this travel-heavy holiday season will depend on a number of factors regarding your health, including:

  • if you or a member of your household have any immunocompromising conditions
  • the potential consequences of getting ill or getting exposed to the coronavirus (which might mean missing school or work, or needing to find child care)
  • your own vaccination status and that of your children or other household members

“In general, the fewer people you are exposed to during travel, the lower your risk of COVID-19 infection will be. Travel by plane, train, or bus during busy times, including the upcoming holiday season, may expose you to others who may be sick or unknowingly infected with COVID-19,” said Prabaker, who also serves as associate director of clinical epidemiology and infection prevention at UCLA Santa Monica, and associate director of the antimicrobial stewardship program at UCLA Health.

She explained that the key risk of contracting the coronavirus comes from sitting closely to others, since respiratory droplets can travel with ease to your eyes, nose, and mouth.

“The risk of acquiring COVID-19 from an infected individual on the other side of the airplane, bus, or train is low, as long as there is adequate ventilation — high efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters or open windows,” she said.

“Traveling alone or with household members by car is the safest option. The risk of traveling by airplane, train, or bus is likely similar, and this risk increases with the number of people sitting within 6 feet of you. You should also consider the COVID-19 prevalence in your destination when planning a trip,” she added.

Alex Butler, senior editor at Lonely Planet, said safety procedures and COVID-19 guidelines can vary between different modes of public transportation depending on your location.

“Most countries require people to wear face masks, regardless of their vaccination status, on public transport. Cloth masks are generally accepted on trains, buses, and ferries. However, some airlines have strict mask policies, where cloth masks are banned and passengers are required to use single-use medical masks on their flight,” Butler told Healthline.

She said it’s important to check your airline’s policy when booking tickets, and make sure you have the right mask when boarding.

Butler added that, in the United States, vaccination proof isn’t required for boarding domestic flights, but in some countries it is.

For instance, in France and Italy, you’ll need to present your proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to board a domestic flight as well as long-distance trains.

“When flying internationally, you’re generally supposed to show you’re not infected with COVID-19 through either a recent negative test or a vaccine — or recovery cert — and sometimes even both. Though proof of vaccination is increasingly becoming the standard,” Butler said.

“Make sure that you know what the vaccine and testing requirements are for your specific mode of transportation before you travel. Also be aware of the local requirements for testing and quarantine, if required, for your destination,” Prabaker added.

Butler said that most travel and transportation companies list their COVID-19-related policies on their official websites.

All major airlines as well as bus and train companies also have informational phone numbers you can call to try to reach a customer services representative who might be able to clarify any confusing points.

“It’s important to remember that different countries have different rules, so some international airlines will have very different policies than U.S. airlines. For example, Air France and Lufthansa do not allow cloth masks, so if you’re traveling internationally, always double-check,” Butler explained.

“In fact, it’s a good idea to keep a variety of masks ⁠— cloth, surgical, and N95 ⁠— on hand so you can meet requirements as needed. The rules can still change with little notice, so being prepared for anything is always the safest bet,” she said.

Is there a safest mode of transportation?

Butler said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends delaying any travel until you are fully vaccinated.

“From there, any situation where you’re interacting with lots of people, like on public transport or airplanes, still carries a risk of contracting or spreading the disease⁠. That means that travelers need to base their decisions on their own level of comfort,” she said.

“A private vehicle may be the best option if you are really trying to limit potential exposure⁠ — and it may be the best choice for anyone concerned about traveling with unvaccinated kids,” Butler added.

She also said that if you were planning on using Amtrak to travel cross-country by train, you could consider booking a private room “to help limit your exposure to others.”

Additionally, if you’re flying, Butler added you should be prepared to take all necessary precautions, both in the airport and on the plane.

If you’re going by bus, similar recommendations apply.

The CDC requires you to wear a mask in indoor transit hubs as well as inside buses.

Traveling a great distance when close to others on a bus isn’t unlike a train or a plane. It also comes with risks, but as with choosing any method, you have to assess how comfortable you are with long-distance travel during this time.

With all this information at your disposal, you still might be anxious about any kind of travel during this continued health crisis.

“If you are immunocompromised or very concerned about COVID-19, I recommend that you travel by car alone or only with members of your household,” Prabaker said.

“Vaccination is by far the most effective way to reduce your risk of COVID-19 during travel. If you have already been fully vaccinated, you may be eligible for a booster shot or a supplemental vaccine,” she said.

At the end of the day, Prabaker said it’s about ensuring you and those around you remain safe.

You not only have to make sure you do the research to determine what is the best way to travel for you, but also how you can keep others safe along the way.

“Any travel will increase your risk of acquiring COVID-19, but with vaccination and the above recommendations, you can reduce your risk to a minimal amount this holiday season, and enjoy time spent on family, friends, and new adventures,” Prabaker said.

We understand that you’re worried about your health and safety away from home, and the safety of the communities that you’re visiting around the world. As regulations and requirements for travel shift, we’re here to help you navigate this complex and often confusing landscape. Whether you’re driving to a natural wonder in your state or flying around the globe, we can help you protect yourself and others.

Check back often to learn how to protect yourself and your loved ones on your next journey.