girl with suitcases
Illustration by Doug Davis

I love to travel and get excited just planning trips — but not during this pandemic. Since the arrival of COVID-19, I have had no desire to travel anywhere.
But I had to.

My son needed a very specialized surgery that required me to take my medically high-risk family on an unwanted, unwelcome and scary trip across the nation for a two-week stay in Cleveland, Ohio. We had no choice.

I found myself wringing my hands and racking my brain to determine the best strategies to stay safe from the threat of COVID-19. I questioned my decisions, reviewed and replanned my trip. I wanted to think of every little thing.

My analytical brain started asking questions: What can I do to minimize exposure to COVID-19? How can I protect myself and my family on the way to and from the airports, during our flights and during our stay? Where do I start?

Here is what I did to prepare, how things actually went and what I learned from being forced to travel during the pandemic.

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Booking

My Plan: Health is more important than money, so I sprung for first-class tickets for the only time in my life. It meant more space for us, and even more importantly, around us. I armed my son and husband with face masks, glasses, sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer. I decided to bring gloves but wasn’t convinced I would always wear them while traveling.

What Happened: Thankfully, a friend gave us N95 masks. We wore them unfailingly for all aspects of our travel. I brought and used a lot of hand sanitizer and wipes. I tried gloves once, but struggled with quad hand issues, so I quickly jettisoned them and sanitized, washed and used lotion more.
I think I wasted money on most of the first-class tickets. Only one of the five flights had enough room for real social distancing. If I could do it again, I would inquire about the specific plane configuration. The cubical-style first class seating was superior.

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Getting to the Airport & Flying

My Plan: I asked a trusted friend, who I knew was diligently self-isolating, to take us from our home to the airport. In Cleveland, my nephew, who also self-isolated, offered to pick us up. My backup plan was to rent a car and spray it down with isopropyl alcohol before getting in it. Normally, I would use Lyft, but in my quest to reduce unknowns that seemed like too much risk.

No non-stop flight between our airport and Cleveland meant extra layovers — a new complication due to the virus. My exposure-minimizing strategy for our seven layovers on the roundtrip was to not buy food at airports unless it was sealed and wipeable, and to wipe everything before touching it — like grab bars and toilet seats — then wash my hands with soap and water, or use hand sanitizer afterwards.

On the plane, I planned to wipe my tray table and latch, armrests, seatbelt and again use hand sanitizer. I started taking Airborne and extra vitamin C a few days before flying to build up my immune system and was ready to only accept sealed food items that I could wipe down before opening.

Baggage

To manage our belongings, we checked two bags for the three of us and each had a carry-on backpack. We knew our son would not be able to carry anything on the way after his surgery, so we stuffed all of his belongings in with ours. I assumed the outside of checked and carry-on bags were contaminated for 24 hours — it’s my understanding that the virus doesn’t stay more than 24 hours on porous things like canvas — but I knew the inside was clean. So after I opened the bags and got what I needed from them, I washed or sanitized my hands.

What happened: My trustworthy friend and nephew got us to and from the airports, coming and going, with no problems. The flights were definitely the riskiest part of the trip. We flew United, and on two portions of my roundtrip flight, I was seated right next to total strangers — no skipped seats. One lady climbed over me to catch her connecting flight in Chicago. Social distancing was impossible. Literally everyone walked past me twice, within a foot, boarding and deplaning. Thankfully all were wearing masks.

Everyone was allowed to remove their masks in the plane when eating or drinking, including the lady beside me who kept coughing. I carefully kept my mask on, didn’t touch my face and skipped snacks to eliminate mask removal. I repeatedly hand sanitized. We were provided with sealed, boxed food and bottled water and a sanitizing wipe on the plane, so no need to buy airport food. I ate this airline lunch at the airport where social distancing was much easier. All flight staff kept their masks on during my flights.

I was adamant about wiping down my airplane area as planned. But not the aisle chair or airport restrooms — no time. I asked before each transfer into an aisle chair if it had been sanitized and staff always said yes. I used gobs of hand sanitizer anytime I touched anything throughout the flights and airports. I diligently washed my hands when I had access to soap and water. The hardest place to maintain social distancing at the airports was going through security.

At the Hotel

My Plan: I packed isopropyl alcohol and a refillable mister bottle to sanitize our hotel room surfaces upon arrival. Disinfectant spray was sold out everywhere I looked, so I planned to use 70% rubbing alcohol. It works, too. To minimize possible exposure, I’d ask the hotel staff to clean only once a week. Still, I planned to spray everything with alcohol after anyone entered our room.

What Happened: The entire Cleveland Clinic campus, including hotel, required non-contact temperature checks upon each entry of all buildings, and mandatory masks. Good protocol! The hotel made it very easy for us to skip the daily cleaning. Housekeeping allowed us to set our trash outside the door for collection and they were great about bringing us requested items like towels and shampoo.
We dropped the ball on the alcohol surface spraying in the room. We were honestly exhausted when we arrived and simply collapsed when we should have been disinfecting surfaces.

Food & Transportation

My Plan: I requested a room with microwave and fridge so we could make our own food. I Googled the hotel location and found a grocery store three blocks away, and, you guessed it, planned to spray anything we bought with isopropyl alcohol once in our room.
Our hotel is close to the hospital, so there is no need for shuttles. After any outings, I’d spray alcohol on my chair wheels and shoe bottoms when we returned to the room.

What Happened: Grocery ordering and delivery worked great using Instacart, and we dutifully alcohol-sprayed all groceries. Our limited “kitchen” was sufficient, but only because it was short-term. I packed two bottles of foaming soap and still had to buy more, as we washed hands a lot. About half the time, we remembered to spray my wheels and bottoms of shoes. We preferred wheeling/walking to the hospital. We needed to take the clinic’s shuttle three times, but it was sanitized between riders.

Overall, my plan turned out to be pretty good. Key actions were keeping my mask on and staying hyper-aware of anything that I touched so I could sanitize/wash my hands immediately.

We have been home for over a month now. We are all healthy, including my son whose surgery was a complete success. That makes it worth the trip.