For the 50+ Traveler

Dr. Buck Greenough is a professor emeritus in the department of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He’s run a ventilator unit, was the head of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins Hospital for a number of years, and is a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the American Geriatrics Society. In a candid TravelAwaits interview, he shared his advice for safe travel in 2020 to help you make the best travel decisions for yourself and your family. 

Air Travel Is An Option

Believe it or not, Dr. Greenough told us flying “might be a fairly safe means of travel until things get crowded again.” In fact, he said, “The bright spot right now in my mind is the resuscitation of air travel.”

“Most airplanes are flying empty now. So one of the safest ways of travel could be by air thanks to spacing travelers and the precautions [the airlines] are taking.”

“Considering what’s happened to air travel in the last few months,” Dr. Greenough told us, “it is an option. ... The airlines are highly motivated to ensure [safety]. Rather than a long road trip, air may be safer.”

“I don’t have any documentation,” he told us, “but that’s rational,” especially considering the streamlined safety, sanitizing, and distance measures airlines have put in place.

Expert Advice

However you choose to travel, Dr. Greenough says you need to be equipped with a mask, hand sanitizer, and wipes for handles, hard surfaces, and luggage. Specifically, your wipes or sprays need to have alcohol or bleach (sodium hypochlorite), the active ingredient in Clorox.

‘Road Trips Can Involve A Lot Of Contact’

If you thought road tripping was inherently safer than flying, Dr. Greenough pointed out that “road trips can involve a lot of contact,” especially considering necessary pit stops.

Dr. Greenough told us we have two defenses against contracting a virus during our travels: masks and social distancing, and that social distancing is going to be “tough if you’re going into a crowded gas station.”

His advice: “Have your eyes open for restaurants and stops that are not too crowded” if you do decide to take a road trip.

Expert Advice

When you do have to touch shared surfaces, “particularly when you’re using a bathroom or making a pit stop ... the principle defense is to have a good stock of wipes and sprays with you,” Dr. Greenough told us. And that applies however you choose to travel.

Choose Small Ship Cruises Over Large Ships

“Particularly for us in the over 60 age group, cruises have a very bad track record,” Dr. Greenough cautioned. “This is probably the most unsafe travel that you can choose.”

He encourages people to ask the important questions, even if they feel awkward. If you are considering a cruise, resort stay, or checking into any given property, “do not hesitate to ask what they’re doing to prevent spread.”

In terms of cruise ships specifically, Dr. Greenough said it’s their duct systems, which airborne illnesses spread through, that’s the concern. “It will be an ongoing problem.” If you are going to go on a cruise, he said, “you must really be equipped with a lot of wipes.”

Expert Advice

If a ton of wipes don’t put your mind at ease about the large cruise ship reality, but you really want to experience a cruise, Dr. Greenough said it might be worth looking into smaller cruise lines.

He told us, “There’s nothing showing up in CDC data recently or in the past on smaller cruise ships” in terms of viral outbreaks.

“They don’t have the complex airflow systems; they don’t have the huge crowds and eating areas.” Other small-cruise upsides? Dr. Greenough notes that small cruise ships go to “other interesting places,” and they’re “much better equipped to control their environments.”

Want to know more about small ship cruises? We have informative and inspirational content on experiencing Alaska by small ship cruise, reasons to see Croatia by boat, and river cruises around the world.

‘The Argument For Traveling By RV Is That You’re More Self-Contained’

Unlike road-tripping, during which you’ll have to use public restrooms, things are much more self-contained in an RV. You can use your own bathroom and prepare your own meals.

Dr. Greenough said that in the case of RV travel, you can “control the environment much better.”

Still, according to Dr. Greenough, whether you’re RVing or traveling by other means, “the main risk is unexpected contact.”

Expert Advice

“Be prepared for the unexpected emergency,” (think breaking down and needing roadside assistance). “Stay six feet away with a mask, and if you’re exchanging documents or tools with anyone, [be sure] that you’re wiping them down.”

Of course, if you opt to RV, you’ll still have to gas up and empty the tanks. If you’ll be new to RVing in 2020, read up on the 21 things you need to know before renting your first RV and master the RV Renter’s Checklist before hitting the road. The better prepared you are, the more energy you can devote to keeping yourself and your rig clean and safe.

‘Running And Trail Hiking Are Pretty Safe’

If you decide to hit the trails, “just keep your distance.” Dr. Greenough said staying away from crowds is key.

“One of the big problems with the coronavirus,” he told us, “is that you have many asymptomatic carriers of the disease.” A healthy, athletic-looking person maintaining a steady clip on a trail could be a carrier.

“This is why it is so important to establish contact tracing,” Dr. Greenough told us. “And so far, that hasn’t been done very effectively.”

We have loads of recommended hikes, and you can select your destination based on scenery and experiences that capture your interest, plus data.

Dr. Greenough suggests that you travel only to places that are “definitely not on the upslope” in terms of number of active cases. In fact, he says safe travel involves going only to places that are “on the downslope, and further on the downslope.”

Expert Advice

Whether you’re going hiking or heading out for another activity, “avoid hotspots where you have local outbreaks.”

“Unfortunately,” Dr. Greenough acknowledged, “that depends a lot on local newspapers.” Educate yourself on your intended destination and follow local news as soon as you know where you’re going. You can also follow Johns Hopkins’ COVID-19 Map as you start trip planning.

‘Do What Your Body Is Telling You’ (And Consider Avoiding NSAIDs)

If you start feeling unwell on vacation, Dr. Greenough said, “You want to stay away from other people, cut down your activity, rest.” And, he said, the really burning question is whether or not you should take aspirin or ibuprofen.

While they might make you feel better, NSAIDS may not belong in your safety kit alongside your masks, disinfectants, and thermometer. Dr. Greenough told us, “Studies show that if you take aspirin or an anti-inflammatory that it prolongs the illness and the virus shedding.”

“The only defense we have is our inflammatory system,” he said, and NSAIDs like aspirin and ibuprofen limit our inflammatory mechanisms, prolonging the illness.

“It may be safer to suffer a little bit more and not take some of these.” Instead, he said, “Do not try to exert or go out or do exercise. Do what your body is telling you. Take it easy.”

“If you’re terribly uncomfortable and you’re going to take ibuprofen or aspirin, take a limited amount, maybe before bedtime.”

Expert Advice

If you need medical attention during a trip, Dr. Greenough said, “The safest place to go would be the emergency room of the closest academic hospital, where they will have testing.” If being able to reach a well-equipped hospital during your trip is a priority, you’ll want to keep this in mind and know what hospitals are in the area.

He also noted that “most places do have drive-through testing. Look for that so you could get tested if you’re on the road.”

‘The Goal We Need To Reach For Sooner Rather Than Later’

Dr. Greenough said access to rapid testing and results in real time -- that is, those that come back in less than a day -- is essential to first-class epidemic control. “That’s the goal we need to reach for sooner rather than later.”

“When this happens, the risk goes way down,” but “because no one is doing that kind of epidemic control, we’ve had to shut down travel.” Even with states and tourist destinations reopening, throughout our interview, Dr. Greenough stressed the importance of being prepared and, until rapid testing is a reality, “choose more isolated, less crowded venues anywhere you go.”