Holiday travel decisions and COVID-19: Should you fly, drive or take the train?

Christopher Elliott, Special to USA TODAY

Fly, drive or take the train? That's the choice Nick Kamboj had to make after the coronavirus outbreak. He needed to travel from Chicago to Los Angeles every two weeks to visit his daughter, and he wanted to do it safely.

"I immediately evaluated every mode of transportation," says Kamboj, the CEO of a Aston & James, college admissions consulting company based in Chicago. "I wanted to ensure that I got to LA safely and returned without any issue."

That's more of a concern now than ever. With a second wave of COVID-19 cases looming in the United States, many travelers are being extra careful about their health and safety. And they want to know: What's the safest way to travel during the second coronavirus wave?

The case for the train

"I think it would be hard to beat a private room on an Amtrak train as a safe way to travel at this time," says Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

Amtrak's roomette has two seats that convert to bunks, and the bedroom has an enclosed shower and lavatory. Attendants bring meals and beverages to you. As long as you are in your compartment, you can remove your mask, too.

In coach, Amtrak blocks off half the seats to allow social distancing. The trains exchange air 44 times each hour, which Amtrak says is better than any other mode of transportation. Amtrak also has a new cleaning program in conjunction with Lysol and in consultation with George Washington University.

Trains are less risky than planes, according to Aaron Rossi, a medical doctor who is also the CEO of Reditus Laboratories, a company that performs COVID-19 testing. That's because many train stations are open air, and the many stops allow for fresh air to enter the train periodically.

"If you're traveling by train, sit as far away from other people as possible and sanitize your seat area, including windows, armrests, trays and any other touchpoints," he says. "I would recommend wearing a mask throughout the duration of the trip and avoid touching your face."

Bottom line: Consider the train if it's a short trip or you can afford to socially distance in a roomette.

The case for the car

Why is the car safe? In a word, control. You decide where and when to stop. And you can avoid crowded areas and other travelers. Note, though, that travel by car may keep you safe from COVID-19 while you're driving, it exposes you to other risks. For example, if you're driving for long periods, you'll have to stay in a hotel or eat at a restaurant, which could increase your chance of an infection. And statistically, driving can be unsafe. An estimated 38,800 people died in car crashes last year and an additional 4.4 million motorists suffered injuries, according to the nonprofit safety advocate National Safety Council.

A car is only as safe as the precautious you take, according to Suzanne Pham, a physician who directs Weiss Memorial Hospital's COVID-19 hospital response in Chicago.

"Try to travel in a car with only members of your household for shorter distances requiring few stops," she says. "Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol frequently when stopping and wash hands thoroughly after using a restroom. And stay socially distanced from others when stopping for a break."

Bottom line: Driving is a great option for short- to medium-length trips. But you have to be careful about your passengers and making frequent stops.

How to road trip safely: Tips for navigating rest stops, gas stations and hotels

The case for flying

Even though air travel has fallen off a cliff – OAG says capacity in North America is down 46% from January – airlines have a strong case for being among the safest ways to travel while COVID-19 is still active. Mitch Krayton has flown during the pandemic and is impressed by the airlines' attention to detail when it comes to safety.

"The aircraft is cleaned, the food and beverage come in self-contained packaging and handled by gloved and masked attendants on board," says Krayton, who owns a travel agency in Aurora, Colorado.

The major airlines have introduced new cleaning procedures and have ventilation systems on planes that refresh the air every two to three minutes, which is reassuring to even the most nervous flyer. Some air carriers, such as Delta and Alaska, are either limiting ticket sales or blocking middle seats to allow for social distancing, and all U.S. airlines require masks. But air travel isn't risk-free.

Forget about that empty middle seat: Southwest Airlines to start filling planes in December

Still, says Jo Anna Leuck, assistant dean of curriculum at TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine, "travel by air has its own risks." A recent survey of epidemiologists by CivicMeter gave airlines a so-so rating of 6.6 out of 10, when it comes to risk. To put that into perspective, visiting a bar, church or gym may be more dangerous, as other scientific studies have found.

Leuck recommends practicing social distancing to the best of your ability and liberally using wipes on all surfaces before touching them – including armrests, seats and tray tables. Leave nothing to chance.

Bottom line: For long distances, air travel is difficult to beat. A few hours on a plane is a lot less risky than a few days on the road.

Flying tips: Here's how to stay safe when flying during the coronavirus pandemic

How one traveler weighed safety options

I won't keep you in suspense. Kamboj considered Amtrak. It takes about 43 hours to get from Chicago to Los Angeles and it costs twice as much as flying. But what really turned him off to ground transportation were the inconsistent mask policies across the country.

How about the car? It's not as slow – about 27 hours – but he couldn't drive that long without stopping.

"I anticipated that at most, it would take me three days, meaning two nights at a hotel, which may or may not follow tight sanitation procedures," he says. "This, coupled with frequent restroom breaks at rest stops, gas stations and other public places, would expose me unnecessarily."

Which left him with flying. Airlines had introduced new, aggressive cleaning protocols, social distancing measures and mask requirements. Plus, flying is the fastest way to get to LA – a little over four hours.

Kamboj, says that for him, flying is "without a doubt" the safest way to travel.

But let's be real. All of these ways of getting there have risks.

"There is no single place on earth that is 100% safe," says Geoffrey Millstone, owner of Clarksburg Travel in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

So be careful out there – no matter how you decide to travel.

Things to be wary of when traveling

Crowds. No matter how well sanitized the seats may be, if there's a crowd, your risk of exposure to the coronavirus goes up. If you use mass transportation, make sure there's adequate opportunity to practice social distancing.

No cleaning. Any sign of dirt or debris may be an indication that the area wasn't cleaned well. And that could be worrisome.

No masks. If the company operating your bus, plane or train doesn't have a firm mask policy or doesn't enforce it, that's a sign of trouble. All it takes is one infected passenger to put everyone else at risk.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Safe to travel amid COVID-19? Consider this about cars, trains, planes