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The Hypochondriac’s Guide to Flying During the Pandemic

Here’s the straight truth about the stress of air travel right now

There’s a good chance that you’d always taken cross-country and intercontinental flight for granted. I moved to the West Coast after growing up on the East — with the understanding that, for a few hundred dollars, I could easily travel back and forth as I pleased. But as the coronavirus ravages the U.S., with no end in sight, people are weighing the risks of boarding a metal tube where you sit in close proximity to dozens of other passengers for several hours.

I myself did not expect to journey home for a good long while. Then my brother told me that the September wedding he and his fiancée had canceled would instead be held as a small backyard ceremony in early October. It was worth it for me to be there, especially as I’d not seen anyone in my family since the end of 2019. But it meant getting on an airplane, and now that the trip is over, I’m anxiously waiting to see if I develop symptoms of COVID-19. Nothing so far, thankfully, and now I know that the pandemic airline experience is not unmanageable.

• Read next: Is It Safe to Buy Cheap Flights Right Now?

Here’s a no-bullshit rundown of what to expect (and how to prepare for it)…

Rideshare to Airport

I hadn’t gotten in a Lyft or Uber since March, and while L.A. is known for some chatty drivers, mine got me to LAX with barely a word, both of us masked, windows down the whole way. Obviously, these employees are at much worse risk than you are, and they seem to act like it, taking any and every precaution. You’re not gonna get the usual mini bottle of water or candy selection, but honestly, that’s how it should be. Why should overworked drivers have to provide these little extras anyway? You’re paying for transportation.

Airport Security

Can’t sugar-coat this one. The TSA procedure sucks as much as ever, if not more. You’ll spend much less time in it — the overall decrease in air traffic means you needn’t get to the airport four hours early, no matter what your dad says — but those saved minutes are outweighed by the impossibility of social distancing in the line. I even came within a few inches of a guy messily eating a banana before he reached the front. Not good! Plus you’ll likely see an agent or two unmasked, or wearing the mask incorrectly, etc. I recommend washing your hands in a bathroom before queuing up, then again immediately after you’re through to the terminal.

The Terminal

The distancing is a little better here, but still not great. Expect some anxiety just from the number of people milling about. I’d almost lost the sense-memory of being part of a directionless, indoor crowd, and when you’re thinking in terms of contagion, it can be overwhelming. To that end, it’s worth planning out your self-medication. I don’t have any helpful prescriptions, so I usually drink to excess to kill my nerves; the airport bars aren’t open-open, but you can get a cocktail “to go” and try to find an empty corner to “enjoy” it in. You’re allowed to have the mask off if you’re eating or drinking, and lots of people are taking… full advantage of this. I do recommend trying to isolate, as I stood in a decently busy spot where a guy approached me for money, and I wound up handing him $20 just so he’d stop standing so close. I should tell you the opportunity for a second round is more limited now. Might as well order a double.

The Plane

After washing my hands once more, I boarded a flight with JetBlue, which is mercifully blocking off middle seats so you’re not rubbing elbows with anyone else. It’s almost like first class! Anyway, worth checking out what policy the airline you’re booking has right now, and whether they’re planning to resume “normal” seating soon, before you buy that ticket. Be strategic about seat assignments, too: It’s possible to get a section to yourself. Don’t expect any food and beverage service on board; hope you got sufficiently liquored up and brought a big bottle of your own water, because you’ll get one or two of the mini size at most, plus a modest snack in a plastic bag. You’ll see people wearing their masks incorrectly, of course, and the flight attendants try to mitigate this, but there’s only so much they can do. Far worse was the toddler behind me who screamed and coughed and, because of their age, at no point had to wear a mask. The good news, per the CDC: “Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.”

Keep your own face covered when you’re not eating or drinking and hit up the bathroom for another soaping now and then. You should be safer than you were in the terminal or security line. Stay calm. You’ve got this.

Living in Fear for Weeks Afterward

No reason you can’t psych yourself up for a plane ride if it’s necessary. As long as you accept that some stuff is out of your control — while plenty of things still are — you’ll be able to minimize risk and stress. Honestly, the two weeks of hypochondria afterward might be the hardest part, since COVID-19 can manifest symptoms up to 14 days after exposure. Remember, though, that thousands and thousands have already flown without incident. There’s sensible worrying, and then there’s unfounded panic. If you must fly, happy, healthy travels to you.