Is it safe to travel now? It depends. The Omicron variant of COVID-19, which has contributed to a “tidal wave” of infections in the United Kingdom, is rattling Europe and fueling dread about the holidays. Countries have responded by returning to 2020-like restrictions with the Netherlands in lockdown until January 14 and France banning tourists from the U.K. for now.
That tidal wave appears to be headed to the United States. In the U.S., COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly in places like New York State, which broke a record for new cases reported in one day (22,000) on Saturday.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky says she expects Omicron to become the dominant variant in the coming weeks, setting the stage for a new wave of infections.
This has prompted White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients to warn that the unvaccinated are “looking at a winter of severe illness and death—for yourselves, your families and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.” President Joe Biden will address the country December 21 to talk about Omicron and its challenges. This comes when only 61.4 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.
Although many pandemic restrictions and precautions are still in place, the anticipated Omicron surge is a serious cause for concern, especially as holiday travel is underway. This leaves many travelers—who have planned holiday reunions for months—with the question: Now what?
One fact has emerged: You can’t eliminate the risk of catching the coronavirus while traveling, but you can minimize it. Here’s everything you need to know about traveling during the latest surge.
What is Omicron, and why is there heightened concern?
Omicron was first detected in South Africa’s Gauteng Province, in late November. Since then, the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified Omicron as a variant of concern, along with Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.
Viruses are constantly changing, including the one that causes COVID-19. These changes occur over time and can lead to the emergence of variants that may have new characteristics.
Ongoing analysis shows Omicron is the most contagious variant to date. It shares many key mutations with previous variants of concern, but it has accumulated a dozen novel mutations on its spike protein, the part of the virus that is essential for infecting human cells. Overall, Omicron has 32 mutations, some of which could infect cells faster and transmit more easily from person to person.
Positive cases in the region where Omicron was first detected increased from less than one percent to more than 30 percent in three weeks. Despite mounting concerns, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci says that he doesn't “foresee” a lockdown in the U.S.
The CDC says that vaccines continue to reduce a person’s risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 and are highly effective against severe illness. Although research is still being done, some early studies suggest booster shots are at least 80 percent effective at preventing severe illness caused by Omicron. Moderna announced Monday that preliminary data shows their half-dose booster shot increases antibodies against Omicron. Still, only one in six eligible Americans have received a booster, worrying health officials.
How does the coronavirus spread?
As the CDC outlines, COVID-19 spreads when an infected person breathes out droplets and very small particles that contain the virus. These droplets and particles can be breathed in by other people or land on their eyes, nose, or mouth. In some circumstances, droplets may contaminate surfaces. People who are closer than six feet from the infected person are most likely to get infected.
Remember the safety basics
While there is no current need for Omicron-specific boosters, early data indicates that a booster dose of either Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can restore antibody levels to their peak values, providing enhanced protection against Omicron.
Wearing a mask over your nose and mouth is required in indoor areas of public transportation (including airplanes) and indoors in U.S. transportation hubs (including airports).
The CDC recommends that you check your destination’s COVID-19 situation before traveling. The CDC actively updates warnings against international travel and cautions about travel within the U.S. Best advice is to delay travel until you are fully vaccinated.
If you are not fully vaccinated and must travel, get tested both before and after your trip. If you’re concerned about your own potential exposure but can’t test and quarantine before a holiday trip, hold joint festivities outdoors, keep six feet apart, and stay masked at all times.
Related health and safety measures, outlined by the World Health Organization include: washing your hands well, avoiding touching your face, coughing and sneezing into your elbow, disinfecting frequently touched items like your phone, and staying home if you’re sick.
When should you not travel?
The CDC recommends that you should not travel if you have been exposed to COVID-19 (unless you are fully vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 in the past 90 days); you are sick; you tested positive for COVID-19 and haven’t ended isolation (even if you are fully vaccinated); you are waiting for results of a COVID-19 test.
If your test comes back positive while you are at your destination, you will need to isolate and postpone your return until it’s safe, generally until you have taken several consecutive negative PCR tests. Your travel companions may need to self-quarantine. Consider whether the benefits of travel outweigh the risk that you might spread the virus.
Can travel insurance protect you or your trip?
Travel insurance and even credit cards can protect you if you must cancel or change your trip. By far the most flexible option is a Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) policy. It can help recoup as much as 75 percent of your trip’s cost, but it can be pricey. Standard coverage can cost about 5 percent of your trip cost, but CFAR can push that up to 50 percent.
Experts recommend doing your homework and contacting an agent with specific questions long before you pack your bags. Sites like Travelinsurance.com, Squaremouth.com, and Insuremytrip.com are handy tools for comparing policies from multiple providers.
Whichever policy you consider, Long Island travel agent Helen Prochilo notes that “fear is not covered.”
How to deal with masking (and non-maskers)
Wearing masks when traveling on planes, trains, and other forms of transit continues to be one of the cheapest, easiest, and most effective ways to zap your risk of catching COVID-19. The CDC recommends wearing them inside in areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases and anytime you will be in close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.
The U.S. government extended the mask mandate on airplanes and trains until March 18, 2022. For details on wearing masks, check out the CDC’s extensive guide. Although cloth masks were widely used early in the pandemic due to a PPE shortage, there is now an ample supply of surgical, N95, and KN95 masks. These block at least 95 percent of 0.1-micron particles and are more effective at preventing disease than cloth masks.
Masking customs and local laws differ from state to state and country to country. The best way to assure protection in an indoor, congregate setting is to cover your face. If people around you on an airplane or crowded place aren’t masking, you could politely ask anyone who gets too close “would you mind giving us a bit more space, please?” but it might be easier just to move away. It’s likely not worth the risk, or the stress, to confront a stranger. If you can’t escape the situation, ask a store manager or flight attendant for help.
Do you need to take a test?
If you’re symptom-free and following stringent health rules at home, you generally don’t need to test before leaving for domestic travel. But travel to some international destinations requires a recent negative test in addition to proof of vaccination; several European countries including France and Switzerland require a recent negative COVID-19 test for entrance, usually within 24 hours.
There are several types of COVID-19 tests, with molecular ones like RT-PCR tests seen as most reliable. At-home, rapid tests—which U.S. President Joe Biden says insurance will pay for soon—can provide some assurance that you aren’t actively infectious. “If you can afford it and you can find them, get rapid at-home tests. My wife refers to them as day passes,” said COVID-19 expert and former White House advisor Andy Slavitt on a recent In The Bubble podcast. ”Take it, and that day, you’re pretty clear you’re not infectious. If you’re coming over, spring for a box.”
Still, you could have a negative result and still be infected with—and pass along—COVID-19. After exposure, the average person takes about five days to develop measurable levels of the virus, known as the “incubation window.” This window doesn’t always match the symptoms, which can take up to 14 days to appear. In the meantime, people could pass the virus to anyone they come into close contact with. Some 50 percent of COVID-19 transmission comes from those without symptoms.
Navigating air travel
Road trips have soared in popularity during the pandemic, and driving to your holiday destination—while avoiding contact with others—does mean less indoor time with strangers than flying. But many experts say airplanes are safer than you think. High-tech filtration and low-tech masks make flying safer. The air you breathe in flight—though not necessarily entirely virus-free—is much cleaner than the air in restaurants, bars, stores, and most homes.
Remember that COVID-19 most often spreads when people come in close contact, increasing their exposure to hefty respiratory droplets or smaller particles called aerosols that linger in the air over a few feet. Airplane ventilation systems filter out 99 percent of those particles.
The bigger danger is the airport, which presents the highest risk of catching the coronavirus during air travel. The labyrinth of human bodies means you’ll want to practice social distancing, mask wearing, and good hygiene (bring hand sanitizer!) in check-in and boarding lines. If you’re hungry, eat far away from other people. On the flight, open your overhead vent. The gust coming out is not only filtered, it also creates an invisible buffer between you and others. Snacking or drinking en route should be OK as long as you don’t take your mask off for longer than 15 minutes.
With reporting by Nsikan Akpan, Vicky Hallett, Sanjay Mishra, Johanna Read, and Allie Yang.