There was a time, about three years ago to be exact, when I could sit at my computer and gleefully bang out suggestions for far-flung places to visit in the coming year with devil-may-care keystrokes. The sense of adventure was palpable and my suitcase would tingle in anticipation. Can a suitcase tingle? Stop asking so many questions.
Today I sit defeated at my computer. A few months ago I had the gall to start collecting a list of places to go in 2022. Canary Islands? Yes please! Antarctica? Don’t mind if I do! My dream travel list grew as vaccinations rolled out. But then the Delta-Omicron tire fire was lit and a fire extinguisher was nowhere to be found. Now the question isn’t where to go in 2022, it’s whether you should go anywhere at all, aside from a meditation studio or a panic room.
With all of that in mind, I temporarily scrapped the list of dream destinations for 2022 (see you in 2023, Monaco) and instead reached out to experts to ask whether travel is a good idea in 2022 — at least the first half of 2022. They (mostly) said there was no need to panic or cancel plans that you’ve already made, but they had plenty to say about how to book a trip, and how to proceed with trips that are already booked.
“Since the pandemic is unlikely to disappear and life needs to continue, it may still be worth proceeding with personal travel plans, while taking advantage of all available protective measures,” said Dr. Sara Suliman, assistant professor in residence at University of California San Francisco. “People should weigh the pros and cons of travel, and prioritize less risky travel modes, like cars, where possible.”
Be flexible and ready to adapt plans
“Book something you can cancel,” said Dr. William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.F. Chan School of Public Health. “Then reassess when your trip is closer. Remember, it’s not only about the chance of being infected, but also the chance of restrictions being implemented wherever you are vacationing. It wouldn’t be fun quarantining for a substantial portion of your stay.”
Airlines have grown particularly flexible as the pandemic continues. Last week I canceled a trip to see family in Miami less than 24 hours before my departure because of worries about Omicron, and we received a full refund from JetBlue. Most airlines are following the same guidelines. Basic economy fares are usually nonrefundable, so read carefully before you purchase the cheapest ticket.
Likewise, if you reserve a hotel room from a third-party booking site (such as Expedia or Hotels.com), or from the hotel itself, don’t jump on the lowest rate. Those are usually the rooms that are nonrefundable. If you have any worries that you might need to cancel, make sure you can do it without penalty.
In addition to staying flexible, stay on top of travel restrictions and lockdowns. As Omicron surges, many European countries are bringing back restrictions.
Buy travel insurance
In pre-pandemic times, travel insurance seemed like a luxury, something only needed if you were taking a pricey, once-in-a-lifetime journey. Now it feels like an essential part of a vacation.
“I think given how fast things change, it’s much better to see how things all play out and make a decision based on current rules a week before you go,” said Matthew Kepnes, author of “How to Travel the World on $50 a Day” and founder of the website Nomadic Matt. “This is why it’s important to make sure you have travel insurance that covers COVID as well as make sure your bookings are refundable should the situation change. That way, if you do have to cancel, you won’t lose money.”
Most standard travel insurance plans do not cover COVID-related closures and cancellations, so when you purchase a policy, make sure it’s a “cancel for any reason” or “change for any reason” policy. These policies are more expensive (prices for travel insurance are based on the protections you choose), but spending more at the onset can save you from battling later to get your money back.
At Cambridge-based Hopper, a company that analyzes flight searches, they’ve noticed an increase in people booking flexible options and also the number of people buying “cancel for any reason” policies. Pre-Omicron, that number was one in every eight international bookings, now it’s one in every six, according to Brianna Schneider, director of communications.
Don’t travel unless you’re vaccinated and boosted
This is just common sense. No one (and I mean no one) in the travel industry or the medical world wants you traveling if you haven’t been vaccinated. If you won’t do it for yourself or those you care about, then do it because unvaccinated travel options are shrinking. Most countries require citizens of the United States to be vaccinated in order to enter. Testing alone is not an option. An increasing number of cities (New York, San Francisco, Boston) require proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, bars, and clubs.
Even Puerto Rico just announced that it is requiring all domestic travelers to show proof of vaccination and a negative PCR test. Those who are unvaccinated must quarantine for seven days or face a fine. But remember, even if you’re vaccinated and boosted, it doesn’t mean that you can doff your mask and hit the town.
“If you opt to travel in the next six weeks, know that you’re rolling the dice with getting infected,” said Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider, host of the “TED Health” podcast. “If you can put off traveling, it’s best to do so until we better understand the severity of illness caused by this new variant.”
Consider driving if you can
This holiday season, air travelers were back in force. Passenger counts came close to pre-pandemic levels. While a few studies have shown that air travel is relatively safe, flights are bookended by crowded airports and other enclosed areas that offer an opportunity for community spread.
Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, opted to drive to visit family in Montreal this year instead of flying.
“I think staying in a car bubble and just going right to my parents’ house took away some of the worry,” Brownstein said. “They’ve been boosted, but I think it’s just overall safer, and Montreal is not so far that it’s inconvenient to drive. So we’re driving in our family bubble, not stopping, and it’s that much safer.”
The word “bubble,” which was so much a part of our lives before vaccines arrived, is creeping back in the lexicon of travel for 2022.
“Whether people cancel their travel plans or carry on comes down to two straightforward questions,” said Dr. Mark Cameron, an infectious disease specialist and immunologist at Case Western Reserve University. “One: Can we form and maintain a 2020-style travel bubble with vaccination, testing, and pre-vaccine era precautions? Two: What happens if anyone in our travel party shows COVID-like symptoms or tests positive and needs medical care? I know a lot of people who changed or postponed holiday travel on the basis of thinking through these questions, myself included.”
The correct answer to whether or not you should travel is that there is no correct answer
“The smart advice is conflicting advice,” said travel adviser Henley Vazquez, who started an agency called Fora. “Be bold, but also be cautious. Book your trip to France this summer, but be sure it’s refundable. Grab your spring break ski plan, but also get your travel insurance, because the possibility of testing positive remains high (and don’t forget to buy your lift tickets and book ski school, because there are limitations on the numbers of people on the mountain and in classes). Move forward, but be prepared to shift gears.”
In other words, travel for 2022, at least the beginning of 2022, is starting to look like travel in 2020 and 2021. Hope for the best, but be prepared for all scenarios, good and bad.
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.