According to Karen Edwards, PhD, a professor and chair of the department of epidemiology at the University of California, Irvine, the question largely comes down the the particular level of risk a person is willing to take on—because, as is the case with many choices to make amid the pandemic, very few courses of action are completely free of risk. And if you're booking travel for for the distant future, like spring or summer, it's nearly impossible to predict what will become of Omicron and any other variants and challenges we may be facing by then—meaning the level of risk in question is itself unclear.
There are other risk-tolerance-adjacent concerns to weigh, too—including deciding which destinations are safe to visit, whether travel insurance is necessary, and if you do opt to cancel a trip last-minute, understanding if you'll get a refund.
To help you navigate future travel with your health, mental well-being, and wallet in mind, I asked Dr. Edwards and travel experts to offer their best tips for mindfully booking future travel during this confusing time. Below, they offer tips for choosing whether or not to travel period, plus practical advice for ticking off all the health and safety boxes if you do opt to skip town.
5 expert tips to help you weigh your Omicron travel concerns
1. Decide if you can live peacefully with uncertainty—or if it's more likely to just stress you out
There's a certain level of flexibility required to travel safely right now. So if you're someone who likes to have full control over your itinerary when you're on-the-go, booking that trip to Greece right now may not be the best option for you. "COVID will be around next year. It's not going to go away anytime soon. There will probably be new variants that emerge—and we can't predict that," says Dr. Edwards.
While the severity, transmissibility, and general danger associated with those potential novel variants can't be known, if watching their development will stress you out about whether or not you still want to jet set, then maybe the stamp in your passport just isn't worth it. Traveling right now is innately stressful, but it shouldn't be so stressful that it's no longer fun. So, consider that before you start searching for flight deals.
2. Take COVID-19 protocols seriously
Let's just get this out in the open: We're all in this pandemic thing together, and Dr. Edwards says we need to do our part to bring it to a close, even when we're traveling. That means getting vaccinated before you go (many destinations are beginning to require proof of vaccination anyway), and wearing a mask and social distancing at your chosen destination (even if doing so isn't necessarily required). If abiding by those guidelines will make a vacation less enjoyable for you, then you may consider saving your plans for after the pandemic properly ends for good.
3. Pay extra for travel insurance and make sure you're looking at the nitty-gritty details
Travel insurance is special coverage that protects you against the financial and physical risks of traveling—and experts say it's absolutely critical in times like these. Basically, you want to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst—and this type of coverage accomplishes the latter for you. Since there are a few different types of travel insurance, however, make sure you're picking the one that will suit your needs and concerns. "Ensure your travel insurance policy covers COVID-19-related disruptions, and particularly, hospital or medical expenses in the country you’ll be traveling to," says Maria Pasquale, travel expert and author.
Generally speaking, travel insurance will cost between four and 10 percent of the total cost of your trip, so make sure you're willing to financially commit to this expense before planning.
4. Opt for flexible booking on your hotel and flight reservation
Many airlines will charge cancellation or change fees if you book your flights through a third-party website, so make sure you're booking directly from the airline, says Becky Moore, founder of GlobalGrasshopper, a blog for independent travelers. "Even if you are not scoring the best deal available, booking directly for a slightly higher price will give you the ultimate safety net during these uncertain times," she adds. Just make sure you're reading the fine print: Many airlines are offering travel credit instead of full refunds, or only allowing cancellation within a certain window of time. Thus, it's important to make sure you're comfortable with their terms before booking your reservation.
"Even if you are not scoring the best deal available, booking directly for a slightly higher price will give you the ultimate safety net during these uncertain times." —Becky Moore, travel expert
When it comes to booking the hotel or rental house, the same advice goes. Do your research to see what your accommodation is offering in terms of cancellation and refunds, and call to double check their policies. And, most importantly, gauge how comfortable you are with what you learn.
5. Stay up-to-date with your destination's travel restrictions, COVID stats, and safety requirements before and during your trip
Dr. Edwards, Moore, and Pasquale all suggest you closely monitor your destination's COVID-19 stats closely—specifically, vaccination and case numbers so you can make the safest decisions for yourself and your travel companions throughout the trip. For example, if there's a spike in cases at your destination a week before you're supposed to fly, you might want to cash in on those refundable flight and hotel rooms.
You'll also want to watch out for the ongoing list of travel restrictions and safety requirements in different destinations. This will give you a heads up to anything you need to know, like if your destination starts closing the doors to travelers or requiring you to bring proof of vaccination for entry. Ultimately, "if you are arranging travel during these uncertain times, I would advise having a backup plan, and a backup plan for your backup plan. Being over-prepared is one of the best defenses against the unknown," says Moore.
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