Everything You Need to Know to Avoid Getting Sick on an Airplane

Nine expert tips for avoiding the grossest parts of air travel.

Aerial view of white airplane on runway

When traveling by plane, there are some ways to minimize the spread of germs.

Photo by Thiago B Trevisan/Shutterstock

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, especially having recently lived through a pandemic. It’s understandable to balk at being trapped in a pressurized cabin filled with recycled air, dingy seats, and rumors of unhygienic surroundings, with only a few inches between you and your neighbor, isn’t it?

Here are a few tips to help you avoid getting sick on an airplane.

1. Bring a refillable water bottle or buy a bottle 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 or cartons. 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.

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, such as when the seat belt 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, seat belts, overhead bin handles, and more, so this step is an important 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

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 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.

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, seat belt, the wall if you’re in a window seat, 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. Before the pandemic, it was reported that airplane-provided blankets and pillows were not washed in between flights. While we are hopeful this has no doubt changed now that airlines are paying more attention than ever to germs, bringing your own is a safer bet.

8. Wear a mask

While airlines are no longer requiring passengers to wear a mask, it’s always a good idea to wear one to protect ourselves from airborne germs—especially in enclosed spaces like airplanes where you can’t distance yourself from other people. Choose a high-quality one, such as an N95 or a KN95—they are more effective than surgical or cloth masks.

9. Wear shoes you can easily clean when you get home

Rain boots, sandals, or combat boots are usually made of materials that are easier to wipe down, postflight, than sneakers, suede, or fabric shoes. When you return home, sanitize your shoes with a few wipes (or toss them in the washing machine, if they’re machine-washable) so you won’t be carrying the germs of the plane around for days to come.

This article originally appeared online in 2020; it was most recently updated on October 20, 2023, to include current information.

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