Omicron already playing havoc with travel and tourism

The latest Covid-19 variant has introduced new concerns and restrictions into travel plans.

News of the omicron variant of the coronavirus and a growing list of new restrictions is putting a crimp in freshly made travel plans.

Thanksgiving leftovers are still in the fridge, Cyber Monday and Travel Tuesday sales are in play, and this week many fully vaccinated people were hoping to get deals for Christmas travel, spring break, and reunion and bucket list trips.

Cases were first reported in South Africa and soon surfaced in other countries, including Israel, Belgium, and Canada. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Saturday on NBC’s “Weekend TODAY” that the variant could already be in the U.S.

In Monday remarks about the omicron variant, President Joe Biden said it is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”

The U.S. is currently restricting travel for non-U.S. citizens from South Africa and seven other countries. Many other countries have put restrictions on flights from some southern African nations. Israel, Japan and Morocco have already put flight restrictions in place for all foreign nationals, and Australia is delaying plans to reopen its borders to some foreign nationals.

Delta Air Lines, which operates flights between Johannesburg, South Africa, and Atlanta three times weekly, says it currently has “no planned adjustments to service at this time” and that customers traveling through Dec. 31 who need to alter their travel plans can do so without change fees. The airline is also offering a fare difference waiver for customers booked through Dec. 12.

United Airlines, the only other U.S. carrier with flights to and from Africa, said in a statement it “continues to follow all government requirements related to international travel” and “will continue to monitor the situation and make adjustments to our schedule as necessary.” 

Those with travel plans now and in the next few weeks should expect “a ripple effect.”

While U.S. citizens are allowed to travel back to the United States, it is “more complicated than ever before and we’re seeing it in real time, once again,” said Erika Richter, spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents. “There are logistical hurdles any time borders shut down because of the rush to rebook flights and the capacity of airlines’ available flights.”

With travel bans being updated hourly, in some cases, travelers are likely to find it challenging to get timely information and definitive answers — and that’s not to mention “the strain on customer service with the airlines,” Richter added. Using an airline’s online chat feature can often be faster than waiting on hold on international customer service lines, Richter said.

For those with travel plans now and in the next few weeks, “we’re expecting to see more of a ripple effect in the coming days,” said Willis Orlando, senior product operations specialist for Scott’s Cheap Flights. “This has been happening each time there’s Covid-related news and we’re already seeing early signs of that for international travel.”

The flexible cancellation and refund policies airlines and hotels adopted during the initial phases of the pandemic are generally still in place and many airlines will likely extend the time that travelers will be able to use their credits, Orlando said.

However, “when news gets bad, prices get low,” he added. “It can be a good time to buy if you’re vaccinated and traveling to countries that are open — but be conscious of the airline policies,” he said. “Just don’t book willy-nilly.”

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