Things are changing quickly: What to know about traveling right now during omicron

Dec 17, 2021

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The new omicron variant could potentially throw a wrench in even the most carefully planned holiday travel.

There’s still much we’re learning about omicron, and it is admittedly still a very developing situation. But we do know that the variant may be more contagious than others and contains several spike protein mutations that may make it less responsive to COVID-19 vaccines. However, on the more positive side of the coin, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has said omicron appeared to be less severe than last summer’s delta variant.

Additionally, Pfizer said three doses of its vaccine proved to “neutralize” the variant – good news for the 30 million Americans who have received a Pfizer booster dose.

That doesn’t mean the virus isn’t still spreading — rapidly in at least some areas. Here’s what we know about the omicron coronavirus variant and the role it could play in your holiday travels.

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Travelers are concerned, but not canceling in large numbers

A rapid COVID-19 testing site for arriving international passengers at Los Angeles International Airport. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Data from several sources suggest that travelers are concerned about the omicron variant – but not currently enough to put off their travel plans.

While situations like this can change rather rapidly, in an interview last week, U.S. Travel Association executive vice president Tori Emerson Barnes told TPG that the omicron variant didn’t appear to have a significant impact on holiday travel. Still, she also noted that Americans are “very much in a cautionary mood.” And a survey from the travel deals site Scott’s Cheap Flights found that nearly 90% of people still planned to travel this holiday season despite the threat of the omicron variant.

Just this week, several travelers told TPG that, two years into the pandemic, they had no plans to put their travel plans on hold.

“Our entire immediate family is meeting in Puerto Vallarta this weekend through New Year’s, and then my husband and I are staying through April,” TPG Lounge member Christina Nickel Hatfield said. She said her plans hadn’t changed: “not one bit.”

Another Lounge member, Aaron Arnold, said that his plans hadn’t changed because he had planned to drive for the holidays anyway. He said he’s concerned about the variant and grateful not to be in crowded airports during the holiday season.

“We’re trying not to let it affect our plans too much. We had already made some plans with family … we’ll be cautious when we’re out (masked up, avoid crowds, etc.) – but most of our time will be spent in our families’ homes,” he said.

But while travelers say fears of the omicron variant aren’t keeping them home this holiday season – a positive test might.

According to The New York Times, positive cases are up a whopping 40% over the past 14 days, while deaths are up 34%.

In New York City, a popular Christmas and New Years’ destination, 9,900 positive cases were reported on Dec. 13. There’s also been a 48% change in hospitalizations in the city in the past two weeks, a sign that the pandemic situation is again worsening – even with 72% of New Yorkers vaccinated.

So far, the mayor’s office hasn’t made changes to the New Years’ Eve celebration, which will draw thousands of vaccinated spectators to Times Square. But some restaurants are feeling the strain of the virus: a handful have temporarily shut their doors because workers are testing positive. And New York State recently reimposed its indoor mask mandate.

Worldwide, the situation isn’t much better. TPG Lounge member Bardia Khajenoori, who lives in Germany and had plans to visit England for Christmas, said she’s canceled her plans – for the second year in a row.

“This time around, my issue is the possibility of new omicron-related travel restrictions on either side coming into effect at short notice or inconvenient times,” she said.

The United Kingdom on Dec.15 reported the highest number of new daily cases – more than 78,000 in the last 24 hours. That’s the highest number of cases the country has ever seen and surpasses January 2021 figures.

Other European countries are taking notice of the U.K.’s high cases, with France banning nonessential British travelers. Unfortunately, this comes just days before the holiday but underscores the severity of the new variant.

For their part, TPG readers had the chance to share the impact of omicron on their plans via a Twitter poll conducted on Dec. 16 and while about 62% report no change in their travel plans due to omicron, 22% report that the variant is causing plans to be adjusted while 16% are now staying home.

How to safeguard your travel during the omicron variant

(Photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

We’re a little more than a week until Christmas and two weeks until New Year’s Day. Travelers are shoring up their holiday plans: gift wrapping presents, making last-minute travel preparations, boarding the cat or dog.

But travelers this year have another step to add before heading off for the holidays – ensuring they do as much as they can to stay COVID-19-free. Several TPG staffers – including this writer – are returning to early-pandemic social isolation levels and staying unusually low-key for this time of year before the holidays to avoid possible exposure.

So, that work holiday party or end-of-year happy hour with close friends might not be the best idea to reduce your chances of contracting COVID-19, at least right now while cases are on the rise. Travelers may also want to consider going back to double-masking in public, utilizing N95 masks and favoring cooking at home or delivery over dining out in restaurants.

Another way to safeguard your trip: travel insurance.

Not all plans cover COVID-19-related expenses, so you’ll need to search for a plan that specifically covers the pandemic. Sometimes you have to add a COVID-19 rider to a policy to cover expenses related to required quarantines while away from home if you test positive. Insurance marketplace websites like InsureMyTrip and Squaremouth can help you pick a plan that works for your budget and travel needs. If you want even more flexibility, consider purchasing a cancel-for-any-reason policy that covers COVID-19 cancellations.

Additionally, if you are traveling further afield and want to ensure that you can get back home if you do contract COVID-19, you can look into a plan offered by Covac Global as that company has plans that will fly you home in an air ambulance if you test positive and have at least one symptom.

The role of testing

COVID testing at Porto Airport (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

COVID-19 testing will be essential – if you can find one. Supply is limited in some parts of the country, and there’s a possibility your results may be delayed due to the sheer demand for tests. In NYC, there are currently testing lines that stretch around the block and locations that were historically very easy to get a same-day test are booked up for several days out.

To make things easier for yourself, you may want to pick up a couple of at-home test kits for use before your trip as well as to fly back into the U.S. You can buy a six-pack testing kit (perfect if you’re traveling with multiple family members or friends) from eMed for $150. You can also arrange for next business day delivery for orders processed and approved by 6 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday. There are other options like Ellume and Cue Health, which says it offers test results in 20 minutes and can detect the new variant.

Also, some urgent care facilities have introduced “rapid PCR tests,” however, this option may cost a lot more and isn’t covered by all types of insurance. That said, you can receive your results as fast as 30 minutes and some facilities will also give you a letter for travel.

What if your travel plans need to change?

Sad traveler with multiple suitcases and a backpack
(Photo by Farknot Architect/Shutterstock.com)

If you – or a loved one – test positive before your trip and you’re forced to cancel, you may wonder what your options are. Many travel companies added flexible change and cancellation policies, and with the variant spreading, some entertainment events have done the same.

Like I mentioned above, some events in New York, like Broadway shows, have been put on hold due to the virus. Just this week multiple Broadway performances, including the Tina Turner musical and “Hamilton,” were canceled due to multiple breakthrough COVID-19 cases among the company.

Luckily, if your event is canceled, you shouldn’t have problems getting a refund. For instance, those who were supposed to attend the Tina Turner musical will receive a full refund.

Most airlines allow travelers to change or cancel their itinerary without paying a penalty, but this is limited. For instance, some tickets, like Basic Economy tickets on American Airlines, are nonrefundable and non-changeable. With hotels, individual hotel cancellation policies in place at the time of your reservation will apply at many chain properties like Marriott and Hyatt. That said, many hotels offer fully flexible booking options and the ability to change or cancel up to 24 hours before arrival.

In this time of renewed uncertainty, you’ll also want to avoid booking through an online travel agency (OTA) if possible.

This is because OTAs serve as a middleman between you and the hotel, adding an unnecessary layer of complexity. When you book through an OTA, the property will often require you to communicate directly with the booking platform instead of them. So if you plan to travel but are concerned about having to potentially cancel, you’ll want to make sure you’re booking a refundable flight and hotel room.

How to decide if you need to cancel a trip due to omicron

The decision to postpone or cancel a trip is a deeply personal decision that should be made with loved ones and a health professional, like a physician. Looking at COVID-19 numbers and trends – such as positive cases and hospitalizations – should also give you an indication of whether you’ll feel comfortable during your trip.

There are several sources to check the coronavirus situation, wherever you plan to be for the holidays. Here are several we use here at TPG:

  • CDC COVID-19 Travel Recommendations: The CDC uses a five-category database specific to COVID-19 levels. They range from “Level Unknown” to the highest, “Level 4: Very high level of COVID-19.” The CDC advises travelers to avoid traveling to Level 4 destinations and, if you have to, make sure you’re fully vaccinated before you go.
  • Johns Hopkins University: The university has a helpful COVID-19 map that can be broken down by city and county.
  • Finally, reading local news reports from your destination could give you a sense of the situation on the ground, especially if you’re traveling abroad. Sometimes, local media has the scoop on COVID-19 requirements or travel bans even before the respective U.S. Embassy in that country does. So if you’re traveling to Cancun, for instance, you may want to read what’s been written in The Yucatan Times or Riviera Maya News before your trip.

None of us want another holiday season full of last-minute travel changes and concerns related to the pandemic. And while the latest data has shown us that omicron isn’t yet having widespread impacts on the U.S. travel patterns, there are anecdotal reports of a portion of travelers that are at least amending plans.

Featured photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

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