Holiday Guide to Germ-Free Air Travel

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While the rest of us were preparing for Thanksgiving, the CDC was kicking off its largest-ever public awareness campaign about staying healthy while traveling.

And not a moment too soon.

Peak flu season coincides with the busiest weeks of the winter travel season. And although the CDC reported this week that flu-related hospitalizations and deaths are on the drop, an agency spokesperson notes that flu cases “are still very high nation-wide compared to what is expected for this time of year.”

So, in preparation for the next big wave of holiday travel, this week I devoted my Well Mannered Traveler column on to a review of tips for germ-free air travel and an update from airlines about change fees should illness strike.

You can read the Holiday Guide to Germ –Free Air Travel on and vote on whether or not you think all airlines should waive change fees for passengers who are ill. In the meantime, here are some of the highlights from that story.

Steer Clear of Germs

To stay healthy while traveling, begin your trip well-rested and head for the airport early. That way, you won’t be pressed for time, and the stress of traffic and long security lines will roll off your back.

To help ward off illness, experts suggest boosting immunity with exercise, healthy foods and vitamins and, in case you should begin to feel ill, a supply of prescriptions and cold medications to save yourself the hassle of searching for a pharmacy at an airport or in an unfamiliar city.

A sink in every suitcase
Frequent hand washing remains the best way to avoid germs while traveling, so that kitchen sink in your seatmate’s carry-on bag may actually come in handy.

The CDC says alcohol-based hand sanitizers are fine too, but when you pass through security, those small bottles of sanitizing solution must go in your quart-sized plastic bag. Fishing out the bottles after screening can be a hassle, so keep a supply of individual packets of sanitizing wipes in your pocket. That way you can clean up after touching the plastic bins that have held dirty shoes and other germ-laden items and also wipe down the tray table, armrests and lavatory door handles when you’re on the plane.

Flying with the flu

If you do get sick, CDC suggests you change your plans and stay home. But many travelers will ignore that advice because of hefty change fees levied by most airlines.

Many doctors would like all airlines to waive cancellation and change fees for ill passengers and while some do, you can get dizzy trying to wade through some airline Web sites trying to locate the relevant policy.

To confuse matters even more, some airlines said policies regarding change fees for ill passengers were “under review.”  So it’s sort of a moving target. But for now, here’s what I found out:

  • JetBlue, Northwest and Delta deal with ill passengers seeking changes “on a case-by-case basis.”
  • If you’ve got a non-refundable ticket on American or US Airways, changes to accommodate illness will still cost $150, plus the difference between the old and new fares.
  • AirTran Airways will waive cancellation and rescheduling fees for any passenger with a doctor’s note documenting that they have H1N1, but the policy does not apply to seasonal flu or other illnesses.
  • Virgin America, Continental and United have ongoing policies to waive change fees for customers who can provide documentation of illness from their doctor.
  • And, whether you’re sick, or just sick of flying on airplanes seated next to sneezing, wheezing people, Southwest doesn’t charge for changing or canceling a flight.

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