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The Traveling Germaphobe’s Guide to Flying

By Nile Cappello

Jan 29, 2016

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Nine expert tips for avoiding the grossest parts of air travel

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For certifiable germaphobes (like me), the transportation, accommodations, and people-to-people interactions of traveling can present a bit of a challenge (read: a huge, whopping struggle).

My germaphobia is related to my longtime struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—at this point, I could easily lead a support group for others similarly addicted to hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and/or toilet seat covers—but you don't have to be a full-blown germaphobe to feel uneasy about airplane cleanliness. It's understandable to balk at being trapped in a pressurized cabin filled with recycled air, dingy seats, and rumors of unhygenic surroundings, with only inches between you and your neighbor, right? 

Here's my—admittedly obsessive—guide to avoiding those “plane germs.”

1) Buy a bottle of water in the airport before boarding
This is especially important if you know your airline serves water poured in cups, instead of in mini unopened bottles. It’s been reported that airplane water can carry a ton of bacteria, and is maybe (probably) not 100-percent safe to drink—at the very least, it's not preferable. While you can’t bring your own water through security, you can purchase a bottle in the airport before boarding or bring a reusable water bottle from home and fill it at a drinking fountain.

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2) Never travel without hand sanitizer
Hand sanitizer is perhaps the most basic foray into germ-protection—but it is still extremely important, especially when traveling. While a water-and-soap wash is always preferred, hand sanitizer is ideal for the times when you can’t (or simply, don’t want to) get up from your seat, like when the seatbelt sign is on. I suggest always using some when you first sit down in your seat—you’ve likely just dealt with touching luggage, seats, seatbelts, overhead bin handles, and more, so this step is a great line of defense against preliminary germs before you settle into your flight.

3) Store your items in the overhead bins instead of under the seat in front of you
Okay, I know how controversial this is, but hear me out. If there is ample overhead bin space on your flight, it’s always better to store your items up high instead of down low . . . underneath the seat in front of you, that is. When you store your personal items underneath the seat, they share the same space as the bottom of your shoes, as well as the bottoms of the shoes of all the passengers before you.

4) Avoid the middle seat
There are approximately 843,902,840,932 reasons to avoid the middle seat, but I’m adding the germ factor to that list. The biggest threat to your health on planes is presented by the people sitting in the two rows around you—not the air itself, which is actually quite clean. By positioning yourself between two people, you’re doubling your chance of getting stuck next to someone who could pass on an illness (or just has sub-par hygiene).

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5) Wipe down your area with sanitizing wipes
Bring a small packet or Ziploc bag of sanitizing wipes, and use them to wipe down the area: the tray table, seatback pocket, armrest, seatbelt, and (my personal favorite) the headrest. It may sound extreme, but it’s highly unlikely that these areas were wiped down in-between flights—and nobody wants to share hair grease or eat off a tray table where someone changed baby diapers (yes, really). In fact, my seatmates often express jealousy that they didn’t think to bring their own.

6) Use wet wipes for EVERYTHING
Repeat after me: "Wet wipes are my friend." They’re easier on your hands than heavier-duty cleaning wipes, but can still be used if you forget the sanitizing wipes mentioned above to wipe down your area. They also can help you clean your face and hands, a much-needed refresher during (and after) the flight.

7) BYOB: bring your own blanket
While you can’t exactly bring your own beer on the plane, you can bring your own blanket. It’s been reported that airplane-provided blankets and pillows are not washed in between flights (only at night, ew), so bringing your own helps you avoid the germ-ridden cesspools disguised as the comfy red blankets they hand out.

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8) Bring lavender oil or spray
There’s just something about planes that smells weird, right? It could be the food, or the recycled air, or simply the abundance of humans condensed into a small space—but no matter the reason, airplanes have an undeniable, distinct scent, and it's not one most of us are particularly fond of. A small bottle of lavender oil or spray can help counteract the smell, as well as help you relax during the flight.

9) Wear shoes you can wipe down
Shoes such as rainboots, sandals, or combat boots are usually made of materials that are easier to wipe down, post-flight, than sneakers, suede, or fabric shoes. When you return home, sanitize your shoes with a few wipes so you won’t be carrying the germs of the plane around for days to come.

>>Next: 10 Tips for Eating Healthy on the Road

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