Whether your current vacation plans involve a quick train ride to visit college friends or an 18-hour flight to some exotic locale (and if so, please try to keep the Instagram bragging to a minimum so the rest of us don’t die from envy, OK?), the journey and the destination will most likely feature some germy moments. We asked Charles Gerba, Professor of Microbiology & Environmental Sciences at the University of Arizona College of Public Health, and super duper clean-person Jolie Kerr, author of “My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag…And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha,” to share how to stay safe from the ickiness that’s lurking positively everywhere.
Area: Airplane Freebies Verdict: Gross!
All those little gadgets and amenities that serve to make your flight more comfortable and entertaining (think touchscreen TVs, armrests, fold-down trays, headrests, pillows and blankets) also function as germ multiplication zones. Anywhere you might put your hands and head have also been touched by dozens of others, so Kerr recommends giving every spot a serious cleaning with alcohol wipes. Who cares if you look like a freak? And don’t even think about putting those communal pillows and blankets near your body; Kerr says they’re “riddled with bacteria and are just legit gross.” Bring your own, or wear a soft cardigan to snuggle with safely. There’s no need to worry about the cups of water the plane crew has to offer. Gerba says that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPS) closely monitors all water used on airplanes to be sure it meets safety standards. One caveat here, though: Those freebie or rental headphones are potentially dangerous for anyone prone to ear infections. The extra pressure on the plane combined with germs is a recipe for bad news, so bring and use your own set.
Area: Airplane/Airport Bathrooms Verdict: Dangerous!
Each of those teensy loos are used by at least 60 people per trip, and who can really be sure how diligently they’re scrubbed in between flights? Add to that the fact that those miniature sinks don’t make hand washing an easy job, and you’ve got an endless amount of bacteria that can be passed from one person to another. Gerba warns that these germs have been linked to outbreaks of flu and norovirus. Skip the soap and water routine altogether (which requires you to touch the germy sink), and just use alcohol-based wipes after using the facilities and touching the door latches. The same goes for airport restrooms, since they’re usually the first place everyone heads after deplaning.
Area: Hotel Room Linens Verdict: Gross!
You can literally rest comfortably knowing that sheets, pillowcases and towels are meticulously washed on a daily basis, but the same cannot be said for the bed comforters and decorative pillows. Not dangerous though—just gross. “Don’t just chuck them on the floor, though, because then you’ll walk on them and transfer more germs from the floor,” warns Kerr. She likes to fold them up and pile everything on a chair, and you can also ask the cleaning staff not to put them back on the bed throughout your stay. Even bedbugs aren’t dangerous, just super DUPER gross. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends inspecting the beds (sheets, mattress, box spring, especially in tight, close spaces and built-in furniture that’s all connected, like bed/desk/shelves/etc.), for signs of them—the flat reddish-brown bugs themselves, dusty light brown patches that are clumps of eggs, and spots of dried blood anywhere. (AHHHH!!) They suggest you go stay somewhere else, duh.
Area: Hotel Room Remote Control Verdict: Dangerous!
According to Gerba, the germ level of these suckers is “pretty bad.” His assumption is that they don’t get cleaned often enough, and since hands are excellent germ carriers, communally used remote controls take dirty to a new level and can leave you dealing with skin infections and norovirus. Clean them with an alcohol hand wipe before use, and practice what Gerba calls “good hand health,” which means thorough cleaning and avoiding touching your face. He’s a fan of gel hand sanitizers; buy a bunch of small bottles and stash them everywhere so there’s no excuse for being disgusting, ever.
Area: Rental Homes Verdict: Gross!
Yes, you usually pay a bit extra for cleaning services when you borrow someone’s house, but it really can’t hurt to give high traffic areas a once-over when you first arrive. Gerba says to disinfect food preparation areas and bathrooms as a precautionary measure.
Area: Public Transportation Verdict: Dangerous!
Basically, every surface is covered with bacteria that can make you sick—including traces of fecal matter, shudder—so make the phrases “don’t touch” and “wash hands” your mantra. Think we’re exaggerating? Nope. Gerba recently contributed to a study that showed bus riders were six times more likely to contract the flu and common cold, so get familiar with portable sanitizers ASAP. Jolie likes to swab down taxi seats and subway poles with wipes before touching anything, which seems like a brilliant idea to us germ-phobes. Just be sure to clean up after any trip to reduce the chance of contracting an illness.
Area: Shoe-Related Travel Moments Verdict: Gross!
Planning ahead and smart packing can reduce the amount of nasty travel moments you may face. One easy solution is to wear slip-on shoes with socks for airplane travel, so you can move through security quickly without having to go barefoot on the dirty floor. And since you wouldn’t throw shoes into your dresser drawers with clean clothes, why pack like that? “Use those little cloth bags you get with new shoes, or just pack them in large Ziplocs,” says Jolie.
Area: Hot Tubs Verdict: Dangerous!
There’s enough chlorine in hotel swimming pools to kill any harmful germs, but Jacuzzis are a different story. Sure, those jets of hot water feel amazing on sore muscles, but it’s time consuming and difficult to disinfect their mechanisms; getting into a not-clean hot tub can leave you vulnerable to infection, especially if you have any open cuts or scrapes. Skip them and take a hot bath instead.
Area: Toothbrush Verdict: Dangerous!
And please, try to be more conscientious about oral health when you’re traveling. Don’t just chuck a toothbrush into your toiletry bag without a cover, but don’t think that little piece of plastic will save the day. “Cleaning your toothbrush cover is important, because it definitely has lots of bacteria on it,” says Jolie. “You can put it in the dishwasher, or use every trip as an excuse to buy a new one.” Bon voyage!