Until more people are vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding travel for now. Nonetheless, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) notes a growing number of Americans have decided it’s time to hit the road, whether to see relatives, attend a wedding or other event, or take that long-overdue vacation. This means many people are booking hotel stays, triggering questions about whether viruses on surfaces pose a risk.
Even people who are fully vaccinated may be feeling anxiety about germs when they travel. Consider the Connecticut couple Mindy and Jeff Siegel, who booked plane tickets to Boca Raton, Florida, for two weeks after their second Pfizer vaccination, when they knew they’d have the full veil of protection against COVID-19.
Still, the first thing Mindy did when they arrived at their hotel room was whip out the disinfecting wipes she’d brought from home, passing them over knobs, faucets, light switches, the telephone, and the remote control. “I wanted to clean things that made sense, but we didn’t go crazy scrubbing everything,” she says.
Was she taking prudent precautions, or going overboard? Here, experts weigh in on how to protect yourself from germs, especially the coronavirus, when you’re staying in a hotel or vacation rental home.
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Contaminated Surfaces Are Not the Main Way the Virus Spreads
Early in the pandemic, before health experts understood how the coronavirus spreads, intensely disinfecting surfaces seemed like the best way to prevent infection.
Now the CDC states that while it’s possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a contaminated surface, this is not a common way for the coronavirus to be transmitted.
Instead, scientists assert that the virus spreads mainly through person-to-person exposure, which can occur when an infected person coughs, speaks, or otherwise emits respiratory droplets.
“Respiratory transmission is a much more important factor than surfaces for spreading COVID-19,” says Tara Kirk Sell, PhD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore.
This means it isn’t necessary to scrub the hotel toilet, sanitize your suitcase, or rewash glasses or coffee cups in a hotel room unless they look dirty, as some travel articles earlier in the pandemic recommended, she says.
In fact, overcleaning has its own risks. “Breathing in a lot of disinfecting chemicals can be bad for your health,” Dr. Sell cautions.
Mild — but Not Major — Cleaning Is Smart
While there is no need to be a complete germaphobe and wipe down absolutely everything, ensuring that high-touch areas in a hotel room are properly disinfected is a good idea. “There is some value to cleaning the light switches, doorknobs, remote controls, and the like,” Sell says, in order to protect against norovirus and other germs in addition to the coronavirus.
Antibacterial wipes are ideal for traveling, since they’re simple to pack. If you’re staying in a vacation rental property, you may prefer to use a diluted bleach solution for disinfecting. To DIY one, use a ratio of ⅓ cup of bleach (containing 5.25 percent to 8.25 percent sodium hypochlorite) per gallon of water, and follow the safety protocols, says the CDC.
For all cleaning products, allow the solution to remain on the surface for at least a minute before you wipe off any excess.
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Open a Window if You Can
Perhaps the best “cleaning” you can do in a hotel room or vacation rental is to open a window to bring in fresh air.
“Virus particles are emitted into the air from talking, singing, coughing, and sneezing, and the tiniest of the droplets can linger for hours,” says Manhar Dhanak, PhD, the chair of ocean and mechanical engineering at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, who has documented how coronavirus travels.
“If you open the window, the breeze will replenish the air inside with fresh air. That is important,” Dr. Dhanak says.
Rooms at some upscale resorts may have a sliding door that opens to a balcony. Leaving that open for several minutes when you first enter is a powerful cleaning strategy.
Of course, windows in many hotel rooms do not open, since they were designed for a time when energy efficiency, not virus protection, was top of mind.
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Decline Housekeeping Service for Short Stays
Part of the lure of a hotel stay is having someone else make your bed and rehang your towels. But if you’re going to be there for just a few days, you should forgo this service. There’s no reason to have people entering your room, even if they’re wearing a mask, experts advise.
Many hotels are skipping typical daily maid service during the pandemic. Instead, housekeepers leave towels, shampoo, and the like outside your door, coming in to clean only if you request it.
Although the Siegels stayed for two weeks at the hotel in Boca Raton, they had housekeeping service only once, after a week, at a prearranged time. In order to protect employees, their hotel has a policy requiring guests to leave their room for three hours before the cleaning staff enter.
It is equally wise for you to postpone coming back to the room until several hours after housekeeping leaves. Open a window when you do come back, if you can.
Don’t Let ‘Hygiene Theater’ Make You Complacent
In some hotels, you’ll find employees stationed in the lobby, spray bottle in hand. This can be a sign that the hotel takes germ transmission seriously, but it can also be what experts call “hygiene theater,” done primarily to impress the guests.
Sell appreciates hotels that continually clean high-touch surfaces in the lobby, including the check-in desktop and elevator buttons. But here again, it’s unnecessary to over-clean and spread toxic chemicals in the air.
Crucially, during the pandemic, you should view a hotel lobby as a conduit to and from your room, not as a place to linger, drink in hand, mingling with others.
Remember Where the Real Risk Lies
If you’re traveling to a hotel for vacation or to see friends or family, exposure to the coronavirus is more likely to occur outside your room than in it, experts say.
Even if you’re fully vaccinated, the CDC recommends continuing to wear masks in public and avoiding medium and large in-person gatherings for now.
It’s important to consider the cleanliness of the hotel, but actions that bring you into close contact with other people — taking public transportation, going to restaurants or movies, socializing — require even more care. “You’re more likely to catch the illness from these activities than from being in your hotel room,” Sell says.