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People are gradually starting to travel more for leisure and business. While driving a personal vehicle or renting an RV are the two most popular choices, public transit is the only option to reach distant places quickly. One question many people wonder is whether trains or planes are cleaner to travel on.

Pullman Rail Journeys dining car for breakfast. Credit: Johnny Jet

Both airlines and passenger rail lines are increasing their safety and cleaning standards. For instance, all employees and passengers must wear masks today, but masks were optional in March. Travel carriers are also improving the cabin air filtration systems and implementing other social distancing measures. To understand if trains or planes are cleaner to travel on, let’s first start with their cleaning standards.

Plane Safety and Cleaning Standards

Each airline may have its own personalized hygiene practices, yet there are several universal standards. Here are a few things you can expect. However, note that these may change with the coming months, as some of these policies are set to expire.

Face Masks Required

You will need to wear face masks when you’re in the terminal, boarding, during the flight, and while deplaning. You’re able to remove your mask for a limited time for eating and drinking.

As a heads up, airlines are banning masks with vents and exhalation valves. The airline may also deny boarding for “bandanas with open-chin triangles” as the mask must fit snugly over your nose and mouth.

Some international airlines also require a face shield to protect your eyes. However, a shield doesn’t substitute for wearing a mask. A shield and a mask are recommended to keep you and other passengers safe.

Reduced In-Flight Amenities

Airlines (and most businesses for that matter) are encouraging contactless experiences. Don’t expect the flight attendant to offer a hot towel. Also, pillows and blankets might only be available for long-haul international flights. Your in-flight snack and drink selection is limited to reduce contact with multiple surfaces.

Attendants likely won’t be able to help you put your carry-on items into the overhead bins, except for certain exceptions. One example can be flying with a disability and you cannot physically access the bins.

You can bring your own travel essentials from home that comply with the TSA guidelines. For example, you can bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer on board.

Related: Credit Cards With TSA PreCheck and Global Entry

Staggered Boarding and Deplaning

Chaotic is usually the best way to describe the typical boarding and deplaning experience. Airlines are staggering boarding zones so fewer passengers try boarding at once. For example, you might board back-to-front instead of front-to-back.

You can also expect deplaning to happen row-by-row instead of an all-out race to the jetway.

Blocked Middle Seats

The major airlines are committing to blocking middle seats through the early fall. However, this policy is contentious and varies widely between airlines. Passenger reports indicate that Delta is the most consistent with keeping the middle seat open. American Airlines is one of the least likely.

HEPA Air Filtration

Encouraging passengers and employees to wear masks, use ample hand sanitizer, and avoid unnecessary contact help reduce the risk of transmission.

The major airlines use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in their mainline fleets. This filtrations system can operate with at least 99.97% efficiency and can remove virus and bacteria particles as small as 0.1 microns. The average diameter for coronavirus particles is approximately 0.12 microns.

HEPA filters recirculate the plane cabin air at least every 2 and 4 minutes during the flight. The plane continuously intakes outside air to keep recycled air to a minimum.

Also, airline filtration systems are designed to flow from the ceiling to the floor. The cabin air intakes are on the floor near your seat row. The ceiling-to-floor circulation flow keeps front-to-back flow to a minimum so you don’t have to worry about rebreathing the air of distant aisles.

Enhanced Disinfection Procedures

Airlines are cleaning the high-traffic areas in the planes more frequently between flights and in the air.

Some of the measures airlines employ include:

  • Giving passengers a hygiene kit when boarding
  • Hand sanitizer stations
  • Electrostatic spraying with an EPA-approved disinfectant
  • Installation of plexiglass “sneeze shields” at boarding areas and service desks
  • Disinfectant wipe downs of luggage at baggage claim

You can read the individual airline cleaning policies here:

Passenger Train Safety and Cleaning Standards

If you can choose between Amtrak and flying, which is safer? Most media attention focuses on what the airlines are doing to combat the current health situation. After all, most people within one or two hours of a commercial airport but may live several states away from a passenger rail station.

City subways to long-distance commuter trains are implementing safety measures of different degrees. Amtrak, for instance, shares many practices with domestic airlines. The following focuses on Amtrak’s current policy.

Mandatory Face Coverings

Wearing a face mask or a qualifying face-covering alternative is mandatory. Riders can only remove their masks in their private room.

You will also see frequent cleaning of high-traffic areas such as door handles, seating areas, and kiosks in stations and passenger cars.

Train Safety; train or plane cleaner
Amtrak shows the current seating capacity to help you find a train with optimal social distancing. Credit: Amtrak

Limited Bookings

Amtrak is restricting seating capacity so you’re not sitting next to a stranger. Solo travelers can keep their belongings in the adjacent seat. Friends and family traveling together can book accompanying seats.

Most rail departures now include a capacity meter to see how full a train is.

Book a Private Room

Amtrak can give you a booking option that offers more privacy than long-haul domestic first-class flights. It’s booking a private room.

Having your own room lets you travel without a mask on. You can also order room service meals. For overnight trips, a sleeper cabin can also optimize your comfort. Of course, privacy comes at a price and costs more for than a general seat.

Air Filtration

Amtrak states the onboard air filtration systems circulate fresh air every four to five minutes. But, Amtrak doesn’t specifically state their railcars use HEPA filters like planes. If the coronavirus spreads through the air, there is a higher likelihood that droplets could spread easier in a rail car versus a plane cabin.

There are many variables that the medical and HVAC communities are discussing the best air filtration. For this specific topic, check out this discussion thread. As more research is done on COVID-19, you may expect to see stricter policies.

Contactless Travel Whenever Possible

Amtrak (and other passenger rail carriers) are encouraging contactless travel habits. Minimizing touchpoints means you’re less likely to come into contact with a contaminated surface.

Here are some of the ways Amtrak is making rail travel contactless:

  • Passengers can move between cars using the foot-activated “automatic door open” button
  • Carryout or room service dining options only
  • Removal of non-safety reading material from seatbacks
  • Cashless payments only
  • Amtrak app delivers push notifications of your boarding gate and track information
  • Use the Amtrak app whenever possible

Except for the Auto Train, Amtrak encourages customers to arrive 30 minutes before departures (60 minutes if you need ticketing or baggage assistance). Spending less time at the station means less time in public spaces.

Trains or Planes Cleaner?

So, are trains or planes cleaner? Should you fly or take the train to minimize contact? There are several variables including:

  • Overall cabin capacity (i.e., is it a full flight or empty flight?)
  • Is the seat next to you empty or “blocked off/”
  • Can you book a private room or a first-class suite?
  • Will your travel time and wait time be shorter flying or taking the train?

Flying on a plane can give you more peace of mind if you want HEPA filter technology. However, you run the risk of flying on a full flight with no blocked seats. And, you are likely to spend more time in the airport terminal than a train station as airlines recommend that you arrive at the airport at least two hours before departure instead of 30 minutes.

Best Credit Card for Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

There’s a chance you will travel by train or plane at some point, plus the periodic road trip where you might rent a car. One of these travel credit cards can help you earn the most points to maximize whatever travel option you choose.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has some of the most valuable credit card points at the moment. You earn 2 Ultimate Rewards per $1 on all travel and dining purchases and 1 point per $1 for non-bonus spending.

Your points are worth 25% more when booking award travel on the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. You can also transfer your points at a 1:1 ratio to airline and hotel partners including United, Southwest, and Hyatt.

One valuable travel benefit is primary rental car coverage on most U.S. car rentals.

This card has a reasonable $95 annual fee, which can be more budget-friendly until you travel frequently again.

Related: Best Credit Cards for Everyday Spending

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card makes earning and redeeming points easy. You earn 2 miles per $1 on every purchase and can redeem them for travel statement credits on recent purchases. It’s also possible to redeem your Venture Miles for upcoming travel or transfer to participating airline and hotel loyalty programs.

This card offers a fee credit of up to $100 for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. This expedited airline security credential can help you avoid the long security wait times so you arrive at your gate in time.

Related: Chase Sapphire Preferred vs Capital One Venture Review

Summary of Are Trains or Planes Cleaner

Are trains or planes cleaner? The cleaner travel option can depend on where you’re going and the current seating options. Compare various carriers and choose that one that offers the most peace of mind within your budget. Note that many travel policies are changing or are set to expire in the fall (though there may be extensions). It is always a good idea to check the requirements and guidelines before traveling.

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