Keeping it real and using science to explain

Travel tips for microbiophobes


If you’re a microbiophobe, you might not want to read any further. Or fly to Bwindi to see Mountain gorillas, take a bucket-list cruise to Alaska, or luxuriate on one of the most infamous passenger trains, the Orient-Express.

All the same, leisure is an important part of our health. Instead of being afraid to travel, let’s debunk a few quirky half-truths on how we get sick on planes, trains, and boats, and learn how not to catch nasty bugs while traveling.


Urban Legend? The air on the plane circulates all the germs throughout the flight.

When you are flying back from Guinea, the passenger next to you looks deathly ill and his traveling companion is double-gloved and in a Hazmat suit, well, I don’t blame you if you begin to worry (Ebola-virus?). But realistically, many of the harmful germs such as from the common cold, are too heavy to float in the air.

According to airline pilot Patrick Smith, “The air circulates until eventually it is drawn into the lower fuselage, where about half of it is vented overboard. The remaining portion is run through filters, then re-mixed with a fresh supply from the engines, and the cycle begins again.”

Although folks describe the air on jetliners as “stagnant,” especially while taxiing, Smith states that the air is constantly in motion while in flight. He explains that compressors in the jet engine match the outside cold, thin air with the pressure and temperature of the cabin.

Airlines confirm this technology. Boeing says that between 94 and 99.9 percent of airborne microbes are captured in the system filters. They say there’s a total change-over of air every two or three minutes.

The study

The free-flowing air doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t take precautions on a plane. Microbiologists from Auburn University found that it’s not so much what we breathe that we should be worried about, but rather, what we touch.

A study was conducted by their team of researchers to find out exactly how long pathogens survive on airplane surfaces, and how likely they are to be passed among passengers.

Surfaces from a Delta airplane were swabbed with a deadly bacteria known for its ability to resist antibiotics, and also with E.coli, a bacteria found in the environment, food, and human intestines.

The Auburn researchers found that the two deadly microbes could survive on surfaces for up to 7 days.

They also discovered that the germiest place on the plane is not the toilet handle. It’s the armrest, tray tables, plastic window shades, and the seat pocket in front of you.

The advice

If you want to wear the little blue mask, go right ahead. But more importantly, bring your own sanitizer and wipes. Clean surfaces around your seat, wash your hands frequently, and leave your tray table locked and in its upright position (so no eating pretzels off your tray table)!


What about trains?

Perhaps you’re an Epicurean who subscribes to ‘the journey is worth more than the destination.’ You might have had the good fortune to have experienced the World’s most elegant trains – India’s Maharajas’ Express, Scotland’s Royal Scotsman or Europe’s Danube Express.

But for those traveling on a tighter budget, trains involve long travel hours, no sleep, bad food, stressful delays and breakdowns. On top of this, cramped quarters can put you at risk of blood clots, especially on a long journey.

What can you do?

Be sure to walk the aisles, stretch your muscles, and move your body parts. Make sure your pack list includes nutritious snacks, plenty of water, and hand sanitizer/wipes-don’t forget about armrests!


Ships and cruisers

If you are prone to seasickness, then of course vessels that swing with the waves are probably off your list.

But on larger ships, the reality is that you probably won’t even feel like you are onboard. Cruise ships are equipped with stabilizers, like fins or rotors beneath the waterline, to keep the ship upright, sailing straight, and prevent seasickness. Besides, there are medications, skin patches, and acupressure bracelets that can really help.

Here’s is a tip from my cruising experience: book an outside cabin with a balcony so you feel less claustrophobic and ask for a room in the middle of the ship, which will be less motion-sensitive. If the wind is picking up and you begin to yawn, a harmless first signal of seasickness, move to the middle of the ship!

Fact or fiction? Cruise ships are notorious for illness outbreaks

The last thing you want to worry about on your next cruise vacation is an outbreak of acute gastroenteritis. However, the truth is that cruise ships are an uncommon setting for an outbreak (click here to learn  the stats).

Most cruise ships are vigilant about sanitization and prevention of contagious illnesses. They tend to provide and encourage hand sanitizer gel, vigorously clean high-touch surfaces, and isolate sick passengers and crew. It makes sense – the last thing they need is a big splashy news headline.

Even so, we need to be realistic about being exposed to so many people.

Tips to avoid illness while cruising:

  • Limit your exposure to viruses by careful hand-washing with soap and water before eating or touching your face or mouth, after touching railings and public surfaces, and when exposed to people who are sick
  • Use your own cabin bathroom, hand sanitizer, and when prompted to do so by the crew
  • Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration
  • In the cafeteria at the buffet, avoid items that appear lukewarm that should be extremely hot or very cold. Better yet, avoid the cafeteria altogether; instead head to the dining room during mealtime so you can order fresh off the menu


Overall, there are plenty of ways you can enjoy your trips and stay healthy when you travel regardless of how you travel. Simply remember to use best health practices. As they say, ‘prevention is always better than the cure.’

Safe travels folks!


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