Omicron throws travel for a loop once again

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This story is part of The Year Ahead, CNET’s look at how the world will continue to evolve starting in 2022 and beyond.

For some, 2021 was a year of reunions. After COVID-19 limited people to seeing faraway friends and family on computer screens through 2020, vaccinations and loosening travel restrictions gave hope of visiting loved ones in person at last.

Total travel in the US over the recent holiday period was more than double the same period in 2020, according to Transportation Security Administration records. The busiest day came on Dec. 17, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson told CNET via email, with 50,179 flights controlled by air traffic.

But for others, 2021 was a year of false starts and disappointments. The rise of the omicron variant, which forced many last-minute cancellations during the holiday stretch, serves as a stark reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over. Since first being reported to the World Health Organization at the end of November, omicron has been detected in at least 89 countries and has become the dominant variant in the US, leading to a surge in cases.  

The FAA acknowledged a decline in flights following the holidays and the onset of omicron, with traffic dipping 10% below its seasonally adjusted baseline for the first week of January and international flights dropping to around 15% below 2019 levels.

The wide disparity of experiences underscores the new, chaotic status quo for travel in 2022 and possibly beyond. Gone are the days of easily hopping on a plane at the last minute, replaced by a number of hoops to jump through, including a calculus of whether it’s worth it at all. 

For those who pursue travel, that’ll mean checking the latest advice from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, airlines or other travel services, as well as the requirements of your destination state or country. This is likely to add multiple layers of expense and stress to any journey, particularly for families. 

Given the unpredictability of the pandemic, it’s tough to say exactly how travel will evolve in 2022, but current regulations and how the situation has developed so far offer some clues. 

Masks are required on public transportation in the US, including airplanes.

ArtMarie/Getty Images

Taking to the air

As of early January, people traveling within the US must wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth while on planes and indoors at airports. They don’t have to do so in outdoor areas, but the CDC recommends masking up in crowded open-air locations, particularly in areas with high COVID-19 case numbers.

Unfortunately, masks have become politicized and are the subject of misinformation, creating tension among travelers. The FAA reported 4,290 mask-related incidents in 2021 and noted in email to CNET that “addressing unruly airline passenger behavior is a priority.” 

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson also sent a letter to airports asking them “among other things, to work with concessionaires to avoid giving passengers to-go cups of alcohol before they board their flight,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

COVID-19 vaccine being administered

Many countries require proof of COVID-19 vaccination from travelers. 

Bloomberg/Getty Images

The CDC also recommends delaying travel until you’re fully vaccinated and self-monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms afterward. Those who aren’t vaccinated should self-quarantine for five days and get tested after travel.

Taking an international flight adds another layer of complexity, since you’ll have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than a day before travel and provide the airline with contact information. 

Non-US citizens also have to show proof of vaccination when entering the US, and many countries require it from all travelers. The concept of a vaccine passport has proven controversial, but Terry Jones, the founder of online travel agencies Kayak and Travelocity and former chief information officer of an American Airlines division, noted that an international vaccination card was once the norm.

“I carried one for years and also ran a visa service that helped people navigate the myriad rules for vaccination by country,” he said via email. “I had to get a new cholera shot in Kenya during an outbreak in order to travel to any other country and had clients turned back at borders for lack of shots or documentation. Just as many countries still require a visa, health regulations are part of international travel and always have been.” 

He added that the Biden administration should have certified a US vaccination verification app for citizens, even if it’s voluntary, like TSA PreCheck or Global Entry (which offer expedited security screening for travelers).

Even if you’ve taken all the necessary steps ahead of a journey, it’d be wise to check your flight regularly in the days leading up to the trip. A combination of bad weather and spikes in coronavirus cases led to thousands of US and international flights being canceled over the holiday season, disrupting many people’s plans and posing health risks. 

Jones reckons it could happen again if a new variant shows up. 

“Airlines were already stretched having to retrain and re-certify staff who hadn’t flown for months. Then to have a substantial number get sick, they really had no option but to cancel,” he said of the holiday cancellations. 

Exterior of an Amtrak train

Amtrak has added features, like mobile departure notifications, to make people more comfortable.

Gabby Jones/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Crossing by rail

Since there are fewer security measures associated with rail travel, it hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention in the pandemic. However, it’s still subject to federal masking mandates, and operators remind people during the booking process to avoid travel if they have COVID-19 symptoms.

For Amtrak, which offers rail service to 46 US states, 2021 has been about bouncing back and adjusting to a new reality after daily ridership dropped from nearly 89,100 in 2019 to 3,000 at the lowest point in 2020, said Roger Harris, Amtrak’s chief marketing and revenue officer.  

The recovery has been pretty consistent through 2021, Harris noted. Ridership has reached about “70% of pre-COVID levels,” he said via Zoom. However, much of that is leisure travel rather than business.

Scattered riders aboard an Amtrak train

Amtrak says ridership has reached about 70% of pre-pandemic levels. 

Mario Tama/Getty Images

“The heart of our market at Amtrak is in the northeast of the US. That’s where we were historically very dependent on business travel,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to get back to 100% of short-haul travel levels until that business section comes back or until there’s a sustainable growth in the leisure segment.”

Harris acknowledged that commuter habits have changed in the pandemic. Working from home is the norm for many people, and some companies have pushed back their returns to the office, likely leading to a long-term change in travel patterns. Amtrak’s strategy has to evolve with that, and it’s taken steps to make people more comfortable as they travel.

After seeing people congregating around departure boards early in the pandemic, Harris said Amtrak developed “push notifications to get that information out to people’s personal devices and they can sit in the coffee shop or sit privately.” Amtrak also added a feature to its website to let people booking tickets see how full a train is compared with earlier or later departures. 

“They can make a decision on which train they’d feel more comfortable on,” Harris said. 

One potential source of discomfort is the behavior of other passengers, who might remove their masks, get a little too close or otherwise defy health guidance. If this happens, Harris recommends tracking down the conductor, a cabin attendant or an Amtrak police officer to enforce the rules.

Enjoying a cruise

The cruise industry was badly hit early in the pandemic but made a comeback in summer 2021 and seemed to be in good shape until the rise in omicron cases caused the CDC to warn people away from cruises in December. Even fully vaccinated travelers are at risk of contracting and spreading the virus, it noted, and this advice will remain in place until at least Jan. 15.

Royal Caribbean cruise ship docked at a pier

Royal Caribbean in January canceled some upcoming sailings due to concerns about the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Before this, the CDC urged travelers to get fully vaccinated and take a test one to three days prior to cruise travel. Many cruise lines require passengers to be vaccinated, CNET sister site The Points Guy noted, with mask and social distancing guidelines also enforced on board for all passengers.

Travel expert Stewart Chiron, also known as The Cruise Guy, has taken 12 cruises since operators resumed services last summer. He urged would-be travelers to review the numbers to make sure “cruising is the safest vacation option available” before they book.

“If you are experiencing any of the symptoms [of COVID-19], it’s best to cancel or postpone your trip. You’ll be much better off with care and comfort at home,” he said via email.

Passengers have become more patient now than they were pre-pandemic, and Chiron observed that they’re generally complying with the rules and guidelines as they seek a relaxing vacation. 

In December, Royal Caribbean Group (the parent company of Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruise and Silversea Cruises) told investors its safety measures had largely proven successful. Between June and December, it carried 1.1 million passengers, and 1,745 people tested positive. Of those, it said 41 people needed hospitalization and the vast majority had no symptoms or mild symptoms. 

Last week, however, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line canceled some upcoming sailings over concerns about the omicron variant. 

A period of flux

Shifting rules and guidelines will continue to make travel complicated for the foreseeable future, with variants potentially throwing a wrench in the works as we take steps back toward normality. However, people’s urge to meet faraway friends and take vacations is likely to grow stronger in 2022.

“Survey after survey and discussions I’ve had with friends and travel professionals say people want to travel again,” Kayak and Travelocity founder Terry Jones said in his email. “Many did over the holidays, and as summer approaches, I think we will see demand increase rapidly.”

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