The Problem With International Travel In January And February

There’s good reason to think that Omicron spreads more rapidly than previous versions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. That would be both because of inherent transmissibility and because of greater likelihood of breakthrough infections for those that have had Covid-19 before as well as those fully vaccinated (and even boosted) against it, though boosters do appear to provide greater protection than mere vaccination.

With Omicron appearing headed towards dominance in parts of Europe, outcompeting Delta, and with cases rising rapidly we are facing a conundrum.

  • It may be that cases aren’t a true indicator of severity, because the virus could wind up less dangerous and those with prior infection and vaccination may also retain a strong degree of protection against severe disease. It also remains more than reasonable to believe – though there are formidable counterarguments – that less severe cases so far stem from age cohorts in which the variant first spread and from some protection provided by prior infection.)

  • Either way there will still be a much greater degree of testing positive – including more breakthrough cases than in prior waves, and even for those that are boosted.

You have to test negative the day before international air travel to the U.S. And there may be a greater chance of testing positive than before. That makes international trips less convenient – uncertainty around when you’ll actually return, and extra cost associated with travel (from extra days staying outside the country quarantining).

Omicron may come rapidly, displacing Delta and leading to more cases. Even if it’s less severe that could be troublesome for hospitals. Cases could come more quickly than tailored boosters, and even more quickly than FDA approval for Paxlovid.

I’m vaccinated and I’m boosted and I’m not especially in an especially high risk category. I still believe it’s better to be boosted than delay travel if you’re not high risk, especially with new treatments (come on, FDA, maybe schedule that meeting on Paxlovid). Travel is likely less dangerous for me than dining or shopping at home in Texas or at least not more so. But international travel may be less convenient in the sense of being more uncertain – especially in the next coming of months.

The good news if the virus is less severe or no more severe, and hospitals aren’t overwhelmed also because of semi-protective immunity in the community, is that the total number of ‘cases’ may not be greater than they’d otherwise have been by any meaningful degree. They’ll just come more quickly, and thus spread will come and go rapidly. It could seem very difficult and then all of a sudden more o fus will protection from Omicron too. Hopefully future mutations in the virus will be less severe, and we’ll have Paxlovid and other treatments by then.

This is just one possible scenario, and the pandemic doesn’t have to play out this way for the point to remain. Most people plan their international travel in advance, and the scenario is plausible enough that there’s significant uncertainty. And uncertainty is a reason for many to reconsider international travel in January and February.

I do have trips booked for travel abroad in the first quarter of 2022. A couple of months ago I had considered buying paid tickets instead of redeeming miles, because there were some very good deals. But I kept to my policy of redeeming miles for trips booked reasonably far in advance for travel abroad due to the uncertainty – and refundability – of the strategy. My air and hotel can be cancelled completely without penalty.

All that said, summer international travel 2022 looks pretty darned good, unless further mutations are worse. Hopefully we” just have to get through a potentially very challenging start to the year and then (hopefully) restrictions relax in line with facts on the ground.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Just a few weeks ago, people were calling for the federal mask mandate to be dropped. I wonder if people still feel the same with this new variant? The media was so stupid when they kept harping on people wearing masks indoors. The Atlantic even mocked people and look where we are now. It’s shame that uninformed people spew just for clicks.

  2. My concern is that even if the virus mutates toward less severity (something like a bad cold) governments will continue with restrictions and hoop jumping simply because it is called “COVID..” It’s as if we’re in a closed loop from which there is no escape.

  3. I’m so sick and tired of travel bloggers pretending they know the first thing about viruses. Omicron is a non-event but governments will NEVER give up the power they unjustly gained during the last 2 years.

  4. As the number vaccinated increases, the number of positive Covid tests decreases in importance and relevance.

    And why are we still testing travelers for an endemic disease? Bizarre…

  5. @Samuel- That is too facile. You don’t even account for people who have long term horrible effects from Covid.

  6. Europe will keep the no vaccine no entry policy in place for a long time maybe forever
    as it reduces the a holes in Europe while they slowly die off here and abroad.
    We just need a massive spread to occur before the 2024 election and Darwinism will again be reconfirmed.

  7. @Manuel and @Samuel miss the point. Government policy in reaction to a lot of cases, combined with more breakthrough infections *even if asymptomatic*, create uncertainty for travel in the coming couple of months.

    You don’t even have to believe Covid is a big deal for this to be true. But if it is true then the good news is barring even more troublesome mitations faster spread means it may end quickly.

  8. Good analysis, Gary. I have a trip planned for mid-January to Berlin for a few days. I haven’t booked the tickets yet – mainly because biz prices are too high right now and I’m not certain the event I’m attending will take place.

    Agree with you that the biggest factor in considering to go right now is the inconvenience risk of a positive test on return to the USA, causing me wasted time in quarantine in another country.

  9. It’s ridiculous to argue that because the variant isn’t deadly, Gary shouldn’t make this post. The issue is all about convenience. Let’s say you only have a week to travel and you want to fly premium class to a particular country for a great trip and on the day of your return, you test positive and aren’t allowed to fly back. Suddenly you have to find awards seats or use your status at an airline to get them to rebook you, probably not in the same cabin, and you may miss work/appointments/ commitments. That is the issue that confronts us all when we think about traveling internationally in the next few months

  10. @ Gary — This same logic could have ben applied the last several months and for the next several months after “January and February.” It is ridiculous to postpone travel at this point if you’ve received three shots.

  11. The problem of testing positive and being stuck somewhere is a real issue.

    This is why OPM flying will not recover anytime soon.

  12. For you that seem to deny the virus is serious, please explain the continued spike in hospitalization (particularly the ICU). I could stomach your ignorance if you basically argued it was Lessing in severity but your comments are worthless as they stand. How long should governments continue to treat your unvaccinated friends since this is all an attempt to control. Me, enough is enough, let the fat followers of the nonbelievers suffer and die and let their families pay the bills. Maybe then your friends will take it seriously and get vaccinated. Get the shots, life will return to normal. Continue to whine and cry about masks, we stay like this.

  13. I’d be more afraid of going to someplace like Michigan where the hospitals are filled with unvaccinated dimwits – you don’t want to get in an auto accident there or have a heart attack and need a hospital bed.

    Meanwhile, if going to Europe book KLM/Air France – all of their fares are refundable.

  14. “All that said, summer international travel 2022 looks pretty darned good”

    IMO, it’ll look good when I can take an overseas trip without having to worry about getting 846 covid tests, quarantining, or covid passes.

  15. I cancelled my “Christmas in Paris” trip . Stupid to chance it now. If I test positive on the return, I’m screwed. Now.. what to do for Christmas….

  16. Who else is tired of this dog and pony show? I still can’t believe people are folloing this. They came out and said the V doesn’t protect you against Omni-BS but go get boosted. Where are peoples brains and common sense you’ve been played for the almighty $$$$$

  17. Having just emerged from 10 day isolation because I had COVID (probably delta), I can tell you that the human-made rules associated with COVID were the worst part of having it. Otherwise, it was like a cold with the added treat that you lose smell/taste. I was vaccinated, not boosted yet, and am in my 50s. And, while we followed the protocols so that nobody around me got it, my illness was NOT reported to big government. You would be shocked at just how many people do the same. Take the home test, quarantine at home, get better. Pretty typical and never captured in government statistics or breathless media hype (both of which dwell on the rare horrible cases).

    We, as a society, need to stop freaking out over this and to start handling it like a fact of life. Because thanks to the slimeballs in China (plus Fauci and company who fund them), it is now.

  18. @Andre: We also had a ‘Christmas in Paris’ trip planned, and were slated to leave today (12/10). Cancelled it a couple of weeks ago because of what we’re seeing and I’m so glad we did!

  19. I’ve lost track of how many times Gary has predicted that “international travel looks good” in period X or month Y. I do know he’s been wrong almost every time he’s done so.

    Don’t take your pandemic government policy predictions from a credit card salesman, folks.

  20. Gee golly @samuel. I wish I was as smart as you. Pointless and just like flu? I don’t think so, comrade. With 800,000 dead here in 2 years, 5.4 million dead worldwide (which is severe undercount)? If vaccines hadn’t arrived after the first year we could have easily had 1.4 million dead here instead. We have seen with each wave overwhelmed hospital beds and ICUs. It is happening right now in many places. Worldwide, not just here. Refrigerated trucks were brought in to store the dead bodies (NYC, FL, south TX, Italy, etc)? And with Covid not AT ALL disappearing in the summer months the way that flu does every year? You sure are a smart guy. I want to grow up to be just like you. Ignorant of facts and living in a fake worldview.

  21. I have a trip to Portugal tentatively booked for late August/September 2022, and I just books the US-Lisbon segment using FF miles. And I plan to do the return segment the same way. It’s easier and cheaper to cancel the FF ticket and get the miles redeposited than it is to cancel the flights and either get a flight credit from the airline (which will probably expire before I can use it completely) or get a refund for the airfare from my travel insurance. (Unfortunately I may have to book a pair of flights to and from the Azores using money – but those flights are much less expensive than the TATL airfare, so I’m not going to sweat that much.)

    I long for the days when only proof of vaccination is needed, and the requirement of a negative pre-flight COVID test within a narrow time window is dropped!

  22. Paul’s concern for the welfare of fellow humans tells you all you need about the fanatic, hateful cult that liberalism has become in the US.

  23. @Toni – Vaccines so far are looking really protective with boosters, e.g. data today suggesting 75% effectiveness for Pfizer against symptomatic Omicron cases and out of the first 581 Omicron cases in the U.K. none hospitalized so far. Plus we’ve got Paxlovid coming.

    That doesn’t mean we won’t have a challenging few months, that’s still uncertain, but it may be that Omicron accelerates the end rather than extending it…

    Regardless I wrote what I did (which was much more nuanced!) based on information pre-Omicron. And we’ve still got Paxlovid in the chute. There are monoclonal antibodies that still work, and small molecule inhibitors that seem to make getting sick no big deal. Get the FDA to meet on the EUA for Paxlovid and we finally may be able to end this thing in the U.S. at least.

  24. @Bob – show links to predictions that have been ‘shown to be wrong’ please. because my predictions have been some of the best, including writing in JUNE 2020 that we’d have an approved vaccine before end of year that would be available broadly by spring 2021. how many can match that?

    as for international travel i have consistently written that the major problem is regime uncertainty. I have written *19* articles on this during the pandemic.

    i have many times suggested making refundable award travel bookings on the hope that this or that place might be open a certain amount of time in the future, but that’s completely different than what you’re (mis)characterizing – as you so often do here.

  25. Have a feb 2-21 trip booked for italy and spain, not sure if things will calm down by then. Fully vaccinated 3 times here but I sure don’t want to cancel this trip as I have a may book to spain and german.

  26. @Gary – “may end quickly”? This has been going on for two years with minimal end in sight. There’s been nothing quick about it. Also and granted I have t followed for a few days but on Wednesday Pfizer announced those triple vaccinated have basically full protection from omicron. Did something change as in your article you imply there’s a high risk of infection for every those individuals?

    We are at a point where we’re doing the best we can. As the virus mutates, science has shown historically that often means less virulence even if greater transmissibility. My understanding is this is true of omicron. So instead of being chicken little, governments need to either open up or not to vaccinated travelers. This whole requiring a quarantine, doing a rapid, is all theatre. If I can go out to eat, go shopping, as well as travel to anywhere in this country, why on earth would I have to quarantine to go to Thailand. I have a higher likelihood of getting typhoid, an STI or something else from them then they do of contracting covid from me. This will keep continuing because it’s a cash cow for countries.

  27. For the first time in the pandemic I’ve had clients get stuck in places due to testing positive. Seems this is the biggest risk of omicron and makes you think twice about intl travel unless you’re ok getting quarantined for a week.

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