By Natalie B Compton
As the scientific community works to understand the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, travel advisers are finding their workloads increasing.
Customers spooked by stories of stranded passengers want to know how they will manoeuvre around rapidly evolving travel bans, border closings and new restrictions ahead of what was expected to be a bustling holiday season. "Every single trip on the books has been a call," GTC Tzell travel adviser David Waldes says. "They're looking for guidance."
Unfortunately for antsy clients, advisers don't have much information to offer yet. Some are telling customers to wait and see how the research on Omicron develops - and how countries respond - before cancelling or changing itineraries.
Working with a travel adviser can be one way to help safeguard your travel plans; it is their job to stay current on restrictions and manage unexpected obstacles. But even without a professional, the everyday traveller can take plenty of measures to protect a trip.
Find flexible bookings
Even if you are feeling confident about travel restrictions for the destination you are visiting soon, "everything is day by day," said Maurice Smith, a luxury travel adviser and CEO of Eugene Toriko travel agency. Places that are unrestricted today may come with lengthy quarantines tomorrow. People are still fighting to get their money back from early pandemic travel upsets. Many companies have built in more flexibility to change or cancel reservations to encourage a rebound in business, but some are going back to their pre-Covid policies. So beware: not all bookings will be easy to change or cancel without a financial penalty.
As far as your airfare goes, "many airlines offer airline e-credits if you have to postpone your trip," said Cheryl Nelson, a travel preparedness expert and owner of Prepare with Cher, in an email. "We all deserve a vacation, so think about just postponing your trip, rather than cancelling it." Opt for booking flights with airlines you know you can use again. You don't want to get stuck with credits or vouchers to a small foreign airline if your trip completely falls through.
Stick to one country
One of the trips Waldes may reschedule because of Omicron restrictions is a client's multi-country, bucket-list trip through Europe.
"You're crossing into three different countries; any one of those could create a hiccup and kind of torpedo your trip," he says.
To be on the safe side, plan to visit only one country to eliminate the risk of having multiple travel restrictions change and leave you scrambling to rebook parts of your trip.
Pay extra for insurance
The pandemic has made travel insurance more essential than ever for covering big-ticket vacation deposits and the potential financial hardships of getting sick away from home.
"We always suggest some form of travel insurance," Waldes says. "But it's a little bit tricky to get travel insurance against all things related to Covid."
Before the coronavirus, pandemics were typically excluded from travel insurance coverage. Insurers have since adjusted, mostly to cover travellers if they get the virus (and can have a doctor confirm it) and had to cancel a trip or find medical attention on the road. But that leaves plenty of situations uncovered.
"Travellers should understand that travel insurance does not cover you if you choose not to travel because of concern over Covid, nor does it cover your trip cost if a country suddenly shuts down and you can no longer travel," Carol Mueller, vice president of Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, said in an email.
For more protection, travellers can buy supplemental Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) coverage.
"That allows you to just - as it says - cancel for any reason that's not already listed in your base plan," says Amy Danise, the insurance analyst for Forbes Advisor. "It could really be anything, and I think that coverage really speaks to the uncertainties that travellers are facing now."
Rajeev Shrivastava, CEO of the travel insurance plan review site and marketplace VisitorsCoverage.com, says in the last few months, the vast majority of the company's customers who have purchased travel insurance plans have also added a CFAR option. Not only does it give some financial protection, but also it provides peace of mind.
The exact price of CFAR insurance will depend on the cost of the trip as well as factors like the age of the traveller. Note that adding on CFAR insurance doesn't mean you get all of your money back if you do decide to cancel. Danise says it generally reimburses 75% of trip costs, and some policies may only cover 50% of trip costs.
If you're feeling unsure about what an insurance policy covers or exactly what kind of insurance you should be buying, Danise recommends calling the company to speak with a representative who can walk you through your options.
Get a coronavirus test, even if it's not required
Smith encourages clients to get a coronavirus test before leaving the country, even if the destination they're visiting does not mandate one. Detecting an asymptomatic case ahead of the trip is important not only to avoid spreading the virus, but also to protect a traveller from getting stuck abroad if a test is needed to get home.
Everyone entering the United States is required to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test taken before departure. If you test before you leave for the trip and find out you have the virus, you can cancel or change your trip to avoid quarantine in a foreign country until you recover.
Have a backup plan
Smith has been booking most clients on trips to Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America, where travel restrictions have been more consistent than those in Europe. But he also knows no plan is 100% safe during the pandemic.
"What we've been doing is planning a couple of alternatives," Smith says. "If this doesn't work out, we can have them travel to a different destination."
Some travel advisers are "trip stacking," or booking multiple trips for the same dates, to have a backup option for clients if their original vacation falls through. For people planning trips themselves, it can be financially risky if they are not careful about fully understanding hotel, tour or package cancellation policies. DIY-ers also have to be vigilant about cancellation deadlines.
Waldes does not like the financial risks involved with trip stacking. He prefers to book multiple, unattached trips for clients instead. A trip for Europe in January doesn't work out? There's still something on the books for February to look forward to - for people who can afford to book multiple vacations so close together, at least.