Health experts are steeling themselves for record COVID-19 numbers this winter, thanks to the spread of omicron, which has cast a shadow over the holiday season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the new variant now accounts for three-quarters of new U.S. cases. It’s a whiplash that has lots of travelers reevaluating their holiday travel plans. Ultimately, few may choose to abandon theirs; the AAA still estimates a 34% increase in holiday travel over 2020, and more than three in four Americans said in a recent survey that they’re unlikely to cancel anything at all. But questions remain about if it’s safe to travel, and what you’re on the hook for with the airline if you don’t fly. Here’s what to know:
How risky is risky right now?
Earlier this month, when the uptick in omicron variant cases started, the initial advice was largely to be extra careful, but carry on. That was before places like New York posted their highest new single-day case totals since the pandemic began.
Since then, some experts have essentially said to read the room. “We’re in deep trouble” is how William Haseltine, former Harvard virologist who runs the global think tank Access Health International, put it to the New York Times. He’s pleading with Americans to cancel not just travel, but holiday parties too, and to go out (always in a mask) only when absolutely necessary. Peter Hotez, a vaccine specialist at the Baylor College of Medicine, likewise told CNN on Friday that people shouldn’t travel, shrugging at anyone who wants to call him “the Dr. Grinch that stole Christmas.”
Yet Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, is striking a very different tone. Omicron notwithstanding, he told CNBC on Friday that vaccinated and boosted Americans should feel “reasonably comfortable” visiting family, and that he personally “would not hesitate” to get on a plane if he had to. On Meet the Press two days later, he acknowledged the omicron variant is “just raging through the world” but repeated the same holiday advice: “If people need to travel and want to travel for the obvious family reasons during this holiday season, if you’re vaccinated and you’re boosted and you take care when you go into congregate settings like airports to make sure you continually wear your mask, you should be okay.”
One thing experts urge people to keep in mind is where inbound guests are coming from. Testing data lags behind the numbers on the ground anyway, but because some places are seeing far more cases—including breakthrough cases in vaccinated and boosted people—travelers from, say, New York could arrive with a higher risk profile than travelers coming from the middle of the country.
What if I want to rebook or cancel a flight?
The major airlines all still have special policies for the pandemic, but you probably aren’t going to get a cash refund. Instead, expect a credit, and only then if your flight qualifies—which is a big If. When it comes to rebooking, the “big three” U.S. carriers have similar policies, some of which incur a fee and some of which do not:
- American Airlines says fees have been waived to exchange most tickets, but not for the airline’s Basic Economy option. Basic Economy tickets used to qualify, but that waiver policy expired on March 31; tickets in that class, purchased afterward, are not refundable or changeable.
- Delta Air Lines has a similar policy in effect. It says tickets purchased after April 30 of this year cannot be canceled or exchanged without a fee; so you’re in luck if you booked this year’s holiday flight last spring. The airline has a webpage dedicated to helping customers untangle their travel messes. Delta tells Fast Company it’s predicting the omicron variant won’t disrupt domestic holiday travel very much, but its impact will probably be felt on the international side.
- United Airlines says it has “permanently gotten rid of” change fees for most economy and premium cabin tickets for three types of travel: domestic, flights between the U.S. and Mexico, and flights to and from the Caribbean. There also aren’t change fees for international travel originating in the United States. For its Basic Economy tickets, however, they can only be changed if they’re for travel dates before December 31. It refers travelers to a page on its website for more information about ticket changes. As for omicron’s effect on travel, a spokesperson tells Fast Company that United saw a short wave of cancellations when news of the variant first emerged, but that “they’ve mostly recovered,” and travel demand looks pretty promising overall: “The last several days have been among our busiest since the start of the pandemic.”
Yesterday, United’s CEO, Scott Kirby, put this in a different context on ABC’s Good Morning America, explaining the airline is bracing for almost twice as much air travel as last year, and noting it expects to fly more than 420,000 customers every day for the next two weeks, still below pre-pandemic levels but the highest recorded since 2019.