How to cancel holiday flights, hotels as omicron variant spreads

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U.S. health experts are bracing for record coronavirus numbers this winter due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant, and travelers are debating whether to rethink their trips over the holidays.

Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease specialist, said this weekend that all travel presents risks, but vaccinated and boosted people can go ahead with their trips, as long as they’re following precautions. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told CBS he wouldn’t advocate against travel, “but you should do so very carefully.”

Betsy Ball, co-founder and partner of the travel agency Euro Travel Coach, said she has not had any customers cancel since the omicron variant emerged in late November, but a few potential clients said they will wait and see how the surge goes before committing to a trip. Overall, she said, inquiries for spring trips are way up.

Tara Cappel, founder and CEO of the For the Love of Travel agency, said her company is seeing requests to cancel or postpone trips in the near future, but ones set for February and onward remain untouched.

“It’s also destination-specific,” Cappel said in an email. “We’re not seeing cancellations for trips to Central and South America at this point.”

Jen Moyse, senior director of product for the trip planner and flight tracker app TripIt, said that now that we are entering the third year of the pandemic, more travelers have prioritized flexible bookings in preparation of unexpected surges.

For insight on how omicron will impact travel, we can take a look at the delta variant surge. In a TripIt customer survey, more than 28 percent of users said they canceled or changed plans because of the delta wave, and 27 percent lost money (some up to $5,000).

For people considering canceling or rescheduling an upcoming trip, note that travel companies are much less likely to shell out a refund if you change your mind about going. By now, we are expected to know that booking comes with risks. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to lose your vacation. Here is some advice to get you started.

Battles are being waged over airline refunds. Passengers aren’t always winning.

Airlines largely instituted flexible cancellation policies during the pandemic, but you aren’t likely to get a cash refund. Expect a voucher or credit instead.

During the delta surge, Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes advised travelers to hold off on canceling flights as long as possible. Whether you cancel a month out or a few days, you will probably only get an airline credit. But if you wait, you can see if the airline cancels first. Should your flight get canceled or significantly delayed, you are entitled to ask for a refund, per Department of Transportation regulations.

Unless you cancel a flight within 24 hours of booking, which entitles you to a full refund, results for canceling will otherwise vary depending on what type of ticket you purchased.

How to extend your flight credits and vouchers

With the exception of a few airlines, booking basic economy traps you into a fare that’s nonrefundable and can only be changed with a fee. Delta Air Lines announced earlier this year that you can make changes on basic economy flights without charges through the end of the year.

With airlines still dealing with staffing issues, wait times to speak to a representative can be hours long. If you want to cancel over the phone, here are some tricks for getting through faster. Your best bet may be trying the airline through their online chats, text or social media.

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Hotels have very different cancellation policies because big chains operate differently from independent and boutique businesses. For example, at Hilton, cancellation policies can change based on the rate or dates you booked. Marriott also advises customers to check cancellation policies on a rate-by-rate basis. Hyatt hotels says its properties may adjust their cancellation policies during high-demand periods, so guests are encouraged to review cancellation, deposit and refund policies for the specific dates they have booked.

What you’re able to do will come down to the terms at the time you booked.

Are you striking out when you try to negotiate a refund with the hotel? Keyes says that when all else fails, call your credit card company.

“Every credit card and bank has a process where you can dispute a charge if you’ve paid for something and you didn’t receive that service,” Keyes said.

Card protections are in place for these very reasons, although there are limits to what a credit card dispute can get you. Keyes uses this step as a last resort, because the process can be more of a bureaucratic hassle than going to a merchant directly.

Millions plan to travel for Christmas, New Year’s as omicron spreads

Airbnb instituted more flexible booking policies on listings earlier this year, but a coronavirus surge doesn’t guarantee you a refund. Normally, getting your money back from an Airbnb is between you and the host.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Airbnb did adjust its policies to adapt to the new reality. Now Airbnb says the majority of listings have “flexible or moderate cancellation policies, both of which allow for full refunds of the nightly rate for cancellations made at least five days prior to check-in, regardless of the circumstances.”

While Airbnb created a COVID-19 Extenuating Circumstances policy, it says reservations for stays and experiences after March 14, 2020, aren’t covered “except where the guest or host is currently sick with COVID-19.”

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Note what the policy does not cover: “transportation disruptions and cancellations; travel advisories and restrictions; health advisories and quarantines; changes to applicable law; and other government mandates — like evacuation orders, border closures, prohibitions on short-term rentals, and shelter-in-place requirements.”

As we have reported before, it is not impossible to get an Airbnb host to give you a refund outside of the listing’s policies. While hosts might not be obligated to make any exceptions, you can still ask nicely and may end up getting what you want.

Luckily, most rental cars offer refundable reservations.

Your refund may depend on whether you prepaid for your reservation. With companies like Enterprise and Alamo, if you didn’t prepay, you will not be charged a cancellation fee. If you already paid, you will get hit with a cancellation fee that varies by your timing.

The pandemic has led to changes in many cruise booking and cancellation policies. As a result, Ball said, it’s easier now to make changes without incurring extra fees. Deposits may be nonrefundable, but you may be able to get a voucher to use at a later date.

“If a risk-free guarantee policy was in place when the reservation was made, it is not difficult to change the reservation by contacting the cruise line,” Ball said. “It’s even easier if you have a travel adviser who will take care of you and make those changes and arrangements for you.”

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Shaking off Omicron, Uber for Business recovery accelerates

Despite a negative effect from the Covid-19 Omicron variant in the beginning of the first quarter, Uber’s Uber for Business gross bookings of US$1.2 billion for the period were only slightly below the prior quarter’s $1.3 billion, the company reported on Wednesday. The first-quarter figure represents a 91 per cent year-over-year improvement.

Managed Uber for Business, which is the actively managed portion of the unit through Uber’s account managers and sales teams, represented 27 per cent of Uber for Business gross bookings. The overall unit reported strong year-over-year growth in both rides and delivery gross bookings “as corporate mobility and delivery use cases continue to grow,” according to the company. 

During the quarter, Uber also added its Uber One membership programme to its Uber for Business platform, “which serves 170,000 organisations worldwide, including 60 per cent of the Fortune 500,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in a statement, adding that it can be used as an employee perk. “We see substantial runway for membership adoption through this channel.” 

In addition, the company rolled out Uber One internationally in Germany and Mexico and anticipates “many more launches coming soon.” 

Uber’s first-quarter gross bookings grew 35 per cent year over year to $26.4 billion, with mobility gross bookings up 58 per cent to $10.7 billion and delivery gross bookings up 12 per cent to $13.9 billion. On a sequential basis, mobility bookings declined 5 per cent, driven by “typical seasonal trends and impacts from the omicron variant”.

“Our mobility business reached an all-time high adjusted [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation] margin in Q1, despite higher gas prices and continued competition for labour,” Khosrowshahi said. “Further, in April, we reached post-pandemic highs for mobility gross bookings as well as active drivers.” 

Trips during the quarter grew 18 per cent year over year to 1.71 billion – about 19 million per day, on average – according to the company, but were down 3 per cent from the prior quarter. Monthly active platform consumers increased 17 per cent year over year to 115 million from 98 million in Q1 2021.

First-quarter revenue grew 136 per cent year over year to $6.9 billion. The company’s net loss was $5.9 billion, which includes a “$5.6 billion headwind (pre-tax) relating to Uber’s equity investments”.

Revenue in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) in Q1 2022 increased to $1.1 billion, following business model changes in the UK worth $200 million. Revenue from the same quarter last year was hit by a $600 million accrual made for the resolution of historical claims in the UK relating to the classification of drivers

The company’s Wednesday earnings call was a question-and-answer session only, since Uber released prepared remarks ahead of the call. Khosrowshahi noted that the company anticipated the need to increase the number of drivers on the platform last year, and “leaned in very aggressively” with incentives. The company followed that up with product innovations to help drivers earn sooner. 

“We have pivoted the company to being earner-centric, innovating for earners, thinking about the earner experience, treating earners with respect and dignity, and building for them versus building just for the company,” he said. 

One of those innovations is Uber’s “upfront fare,” which will allow drivers to see a customer’s destination in advance of accepting the trip. Pricing partially will be based on the value to the driver of a potential return fare. If it’s a trip to the “outskirts of a neighbourhood, we will then price up that trip so that the earner earns the fair value of that fare and knows exactly what they are accepting or not accepting,” Khosrowshahi said.

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Travel and vacations are back: As omicron wanes, Americans are booking trips again

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Americans are preparing to spend big — again — as omicron cases subside and states across the country loosen covid restrictions.

Travel agents, hotel operators and restaurateurs say they’ve seen dramatic spikes in demand in the past week, following a drop of more than 40 percent in daily U.S. coronavirus cases and spates of warmer weather in some parts of the country. People are booking spring break trips and summer vacations. They’re splurging on Disney vacations, private tours of Hawaii and cruises to Antarctica.

Unlike earlier in the crisis, when it seemed the pandemic would end with a celebratory boom, the reality has been more uncertain and filled with fits and starts. Many say that’s given them a sense of urgency to lock in “revenge travel” during this window of relative calm before it possibly disappears again. And though the Food and Drug Administration has delayed a decision on a vaccine for children under 5, families are holding their breath and booking anyway.

“People really want to make sure they travel while they can,” said Mark Matthews, marketing manager for Maui Seasons, a private tour company in Hawaii where bookings are up 65 percent so far this year. “Who knows when the next strain is going to come and what it’s going to look like? Everything is so unknown.”

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Pandemic patterns show that consumers rush out after each coronavirus wave, eager to splurge on flights, hotels, amusement parks and other services they had forgone.

That surge in spending was most evident last summer, when households were emboldened by a lull in coronavirus infections and widespread vaccine availability. Subsequent rebounds have been less pronounced, though economists say they still provide a notable jolt to the economy.

This time around, the expected burst of spending comes just as the Federal Reserve prepares to raise interest rates to slow inflation, fueled by consumer demand that is widely seen as unsustainable. Prices are rising at the fastest rate in 40 years, which Fed officials have said is the biggest threat to the economic expansion.

A new wave of spending could further complicate the Fed’s plans while also raising broader questions about whether restaurants, hotels and airlines — which are already struggling to find enough workers — will be able to staff up in time to meet demand. Addressing worker shortages, leisure and hospitality employers raised wages an average 14 percent last year, making it the only sector where wage growth outpaced inflation.

Economists say it remains to be seen just how sustained or widespread a spring spending boom may be. Unlike in previous reopening surges, there are no government stimulus checks or extra child tax credit payments padding Americans’ bank accounts. And while the economy continues to add jobs, wage growth has been largely eclipsed by inflation.

‘That raise meant nothing’: Inflation is wiping out pay increases for most Americans

“I do expect things to bounce back, but in a broader context, spending has already been very strong,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “Omicron dented the economy but did less damage than previous waves.”

Consumers spent heavily on furniture, cars and groceries in January, sending U.S. retail sales soaring 3.8 percent even as omicron roiled many parts of the economy. That’s on top of record holiday sales, which jumped 14 percent to $886.7 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. Now, as coronavirus cases subside, economists say Americans are likely to shift more of their spending from goods — such as electronics and exercise equipment — to services including travel and leisure.

To that end, airline bookings are rising. Hotels are filling up. And at Five Star Travel, demand for luxury cruises and European vacations has reached a fever pitch this week, according to Jay Shapiro, who owns the high-end travel agency with offices in Las Vegas, Honolulu and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“Clients who were sitting out the last few years — because they were old and had comorbidities — are calling now, saying ‘We’re ready to start cruising again,’” he said. “Business has picked up tremendously, just in the last day or two.”

Customers are also spending considerably more after having been cooped up for the winter, Shapiro said. And for the wealthiest, couples who may have budgeted $25,000 on a luxury vacation before the pandemic are suddenly willing to spend three or four times that, he said. A $150,000 family vacation to South Africa is no longer out of the question for some. And many summer cruises to Europe are already sold out.

“People still have the means to spend; they just needed a catalyst, and now they have one,” said Aneta Markowska, chief economist at Jefferies, who is planning a spring vacation, her first in two years, to Turks and Caicos. “They are sitting on the biggest cash cushion they’ve seen in years — and that’s not just the wealthy; it’s 80 percent of the population.”

Americans have set aside roughly $2.4 trillion in extra savings during the pandemic, in part because they’ve cut back on dining out, travel and entertainment, according to Wells Fargo. But data shows spending on those services tends to pick up rapidly as coronavirus cases subside.

Airline bookings for both domestic and international travel are on the upswing, according to Bank of America. Flight searches on the travel site Kayak have picked up in February, with interest in flights to the Philippines and Morocco more than doubling from a month ago.

Meanwhile, in Orlando, hotel bookings have almost fully returned to pre-pandemic norms in the past two weeks, according to the city’s tourism association.

“This isn’t our first rodeo. We know that the minute we get the opportunity, everybody rushes out,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton. “We are going to see quite a strong catch-up in spending as we go into spring.”

A luxury spending boom is reshaping the economy

In North Carolina’s Outer Banks, demand for beach home rentals is higher than it’s ever been, according to Alexis Lowe, marketing specialist at Carolina Designs Realty, which manages about 350 coastal rental properties.

“We’re so booked this summer that our focus is shifting to 2023,” she said. “We filled our prime weeks faster than we ever have. I’m pleasantly surprised by how confident people feel.”

That confidence, many in the industry say, has gotten a boost in the past week. With coronavirus cases on the decline, a number of states, including New York, Nevada, Rhode Island and Delaware, have dropped mask mandates, and many others have signaled that they will follow suit by the end of the month.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) last week announced he would lift mask mandates at schools at the end of February, setting off a flurry of inquiries at the Vacationeer, a travel agency in Watertown, Mass., that specializes in Disney vacations. Owner Jonathan de Araujo says he already has twice as many trips on the books as he did in all of 2021, and expects that figure to triple by the end of the year.

“People are back at it,” he said. “With all of these states dropping mask requirements, it was like a signal that things are getting back to normal. Families are saying, ‘We haven’t traveled in two years. Let’s do it now.’”

But, he says, he’s also prepared for another round of closures and cancellations if coronavirus cases pick back up again. “There could be another spike and my customers could say, ‘I’m not traveling right now,’” he said. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that things change.”

Traveling to Europe? What to know about requirements for 5 countries.

After canceling a long-awaited European vacation in March 2020, Jenni Solis finally booked another trip — albeit on a smaller scale. She’s planning to fly to Redwood National Park for five days in June.

“Omicron is getting better and I really need to get away,” said Solis, 47, an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles. “We need to unwind even more than we did pre-pandemic.”

But, she added, she’s still not ready to rebook her vacation to Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands just yet, in case it’s derailed by a new variant. “I don’t want to cancel a trip like that again,” she said.

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.

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Air travel recovery ‘gathering steam’ after Omicron dip

Air travel has seen a “strong rebound” following the dip caused by the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 at the start of 2022.

Traffic figures for February from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) showed “accelerated growth” compared with January as many countries lifted their Covid travel restrictions. The association added that the war in Ukraine, which started on 24 February, did not have a “major impact” on airline traffic.

Total traffic in February 2022, as measured in revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs), increased by 116 per cent compared to February 2021, according to IATA. This was an improvement from January 2022, which only saw a year-on-year increase of 83.1 per cent. 

European carriers saw their traffic in February shoot up by 381 per cent compared with February 2021, as capacity rose by 175 per cent over the same period and load factors reached 71 per cent. Europe was the best performing region in terms of traffic growth in February.

But there is still a long way to go for the global airline industry to get back to pre-Covid levels as February’s traffic was still down by 45 per cent on the same month in 2019. Although this was a significant improvement from January when traffic levels were down by 49.6 per cent compared with pre-pandemic figures.

Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general, said: “The recovery in air travel is gathering steam as governments in many parts of the world lift travel restrictions. 

“States that persist in attempting to lock-out the disease, rather than managing it, as we do with other diseases, risk missing out on the enormous economic and societal benefits that a restoration of international connectivity will bring.”

Walsh also highlighted the problems many airports are already experiencing as they ramp up their operations to cope with higher passenger numbers, which is already becoming a problem at UK airports.

“It is important that our infrastructure providers are prepared for a huge increase in passenger numbers in the coming months,” added Walsh.

“We are already seeing reports of unacceptably long lines at some airports owing to the growing number of travellers, and that is even before the surge of Easter holiday travel in many markets next week. 

“The peak Northern summer travel season will be critical for jobs throughout the travel and tourism value chain. Now is the time to prepare. Governments can help by ensuring that border positions are staffed adequately and that background security checks for new staff are managed as efficiently as possible.”

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IATA: February Air Demand Rebounds After Omicron Dip

As cases of the Covid-19 omicron variant moderated outside of Asia and governments continued to lift travel restrictions, total passenger air traffic in February 2022 increased 115.9 percent year over year, according to the International Air Transport Association. 

That growth improved on January’s 83.1 percent year-over-year increase, but still was only at 54.5 percent of February 2019 demand levels. The comparative recovery level also was lower than December’s 55.1 percent level versus 2019. The war in Ukraine started Feb. 24 and did not have a major impact on traffic levels, according to IATA.

“The recovery in air travel is gathering steam as governments in many parts of the world lift travel restrictions,” IATA director general Willie Walsh said in a statement. “States that persist in attempting to lock out the disease rather than manage it, as we do with other diseases, risk missing out on the enormous economic and societal benefits that a restoration of international connectivity will bring.”

[Report continues under chart.]

2022-02 IATA

Global capacity was up 68.4 percent year over year, with Europe reporting the biggest regional gain at 136.1 percent compared with February 2021. Still, total capacity was just 37 percent of 2019 levels. Global load factor increased 15.4 percentage points year over year to 69.8 percent. Compared with 2019, load factor was down 10.8 percent.

Total international traffic was up 256.8 percent year over year, with international capacity up 112.4 percent. Europe also led this category with a 380.6 percent passenger increase compared with February 2021, and a 174.8 percent increase in capacity. Total domestic traffic increased 60.7 percent compared with February 2021, with capacity up 39.7 percent. The United States led the domestic regions with a 112.5 percent traffic increase and 60.4 percent gain in capacity year over year. 

“As the long-awaited recovery in air travel accelerates, it is important that our infrastructure providers are prepared for a huge increase in passenger numbers in the coming months,” Walsh said. “We are already seeing reports of unacceptably long lines at some airports owing to the growing number of travelers. … Now is the time to prepare. Governments can help by ensuring that border positions are staffed adequately and that background security checks for new staff are managed as efficiently as possible.”

RELATED: IATA: Omicron Restrictions Dinged January Air Recovery

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Covid Live Updates: News on Omicron, Boosters, and Cases

Credit…Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

It has long been clear that Black Americans have experienced high rates of coronavirus infection, hospitalization and death throughout the pandemic.

But those factors are now leading experts to sound the alarm about what will may come next: a prevalence of long Covid in the Black community and a lack of access to treatment.

Long Covid — with chronic symptoms like fatigue, cognitive problems and others that linger for months after an acute coronavirus infection has cleared up — has perplexed researchers, and many are working hard to find a treatment for people experiencing it. But health experts warn that crucial data is missing: Black Americans have not been sufficiently included in long-Covid trials, treatment programs and registries, according to the authors of a new report released on Tuesday.

“We expect there are going to be greater barriers to access the resources and services available for long Covid,” said one of the authors, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, who is the director of Yale University’s health equity office and a former chair of President Biden’s health equity task force.

“The pandemic isn’t over, it isn’t over for anyone,” Dr. Nunez-Smith said. “But the reality is, it’s certainly not over in Black America.”

The report, called the State of Black America and Covid-19, outlines how disinvestment in health care in Black communities contributed to Black people contracting Covid at higher rates than white people. Black people were then more likely to face serious illness or death as a result.

The Black Coalition Against Covid, the Yale School of Medicine and the Morehouse School of Medicine were authors of the report, which also offers recommendations to policy leaders.

In the first three months of the pandemic, the average weekly case rate per 100,000 Black Americans was 36.2, compared with 12.5 for white Americans, the authors write. The Black hospitalization rate was 12.6 per 100,000 people, compared with 4 per 100,000 for white people, and the death rate was also higher: 3.6 per 100,000 compared with 1.8 per 100,000.

“The severity of Covid-19 among Black Americans was the predictable result of structural and societal realities, not differences in genetic predisposition,” the report says.

Black Americans were overrepresented in essential-worker positions, which increased the risk of exposure to the virus, the authors write. And they were also more likely than white Americans to live in multigenerational homes or crowded spaces, be incarcerated, or live in densely populated areas.

Many Black Americans who contracted the coronavirus experienced serious illness because of pre-existing conditions like obesity, hypertension and chronic kidney disease, which themselves were often the result of “differential access to high-quality care and health promoting resources,” the report says.

The authorization of the first coronavirus vaccines was seen by many experts as a light at the end of the tunnel, but new disparities emerged, driven by both vaccine hesitancy and limited access to the shots.

Though the gap in vaccinations has since narrowed — 80 percent of Black Americans were fully vaccinated as of January, compared with 83 percent of white Americans, the report says — disparities persist.

“We understand that there remains unfinished work yet to do to save and protect our communities from the Covid-19 pandemic,” wrote Dr. Reed Tuckson, who in April 2020 co-founded the Black Coalition Against Covid.

And when it comes to unfinished work, long Covid is top of mind.

“So much of even getting a long Covid diagnosis is tied to having had a positive test right at the beginning,” said Dr. Nunez-Smith, adding that early on in the pandemic, many Black Americans “weren’t able to secure a test and in some cases, were denied testing.”

She emphasized the importance of investing adequate resources into studying long Covid. “Like everything else, without intentionality, we’re not going to get to equity there,” she said.


March 29, 2022

An earlier version of this item described incorrectly the average rate of weekly cases, hospitalizations and deaths from Covid among Black Americans in the first three months of the pandemic. They were rates per 100,000 people, not percentages. An earlier version also included outdated figures provided by the Black Coalition Against Covid that the organization revised after publication.

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Holiday travel safety tips amid Omicron concerns

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. — More than 100 million Americans are planning on hitting the road or flying for the holidays, but with the more contagious Omicron variant raging across the U.S., there are some important things you need to know to keep you and your family safe.

Here are some tips from the St. Joseph County Health Department:

If you and your family are traveling by car this holiday season health experts recommend everyone traveling whether you’re vaccinated or not to mask up if you’re stopping at a rest stop, going inside of a gas station, store or restaurant on the way.

If you’re heading out of state experts also advise to check with that specific state’s health guidelines and recommendations to ensure you’re following those.

“Part of it depends on how far you’re traveling. So, an extended trip anyone who’s in the car together is at risk to one another. So, presumably that’s your family members, but if anyone is sick they should be tested or they out to stay home…” said St. Joseph County Deputy Health Officer, Dr. Mark Fox.

If you’re staying home to host a holiday celebration with vaccinated or unvaccinated people outside your household experts recommended limiting the gathering size and wearing masks, except when eating and drinking.

Since most gatherings will be happening indoors health experts also suggested keeping good air flow in the house by opening windows or having a fan on during festivities.

“So, if you’re going to spend all day at grandma’s house, then fewer people for a longer period of time is certainly safer. But particularly if anyone in that group is at high risk based on age or medical problems the other piece of advice is there’s benefit to getting a rapid test before you gather with family again to try to reduce the rest anyone who’s especially vulnerable in that gathering,” said Dr. Fox.

If you’re taking to the friendly skies while in flight Dr. Fox recommended keeping air vents open, limiting the amount of time your mask is off, along with hand-washing, sanitizing, and social distancing whenever possible inside of the airport.

“The benefits of air travel is that masks are required, so that’s kind of non-negotiable and the airplanes themselves really are pretty safe because they do frequent air exchanges for the cabin air so the riskiest place in my view is the airport itself,” said Dr. Fox. “I guess the other thing I would say particularly for people who are at higher risk is wearing a higher quality mask an N-95 or KN-95. N-95 is usually in the healthcare setting but the KN-95 there were more widely available now.”

Dr. Fox also recommended getting tested three to five days after you come back from traveling.

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Canceled flights and omicron: How to get a refund from airlines

Airlines have blamed the surging omicron variant for sending their crews to sick leave or isolation after being identified in contact tracing. Winter weather in the East Coast, the Pacific Northwest and hub cities like Chicago and Atlanta has exacerbated the industry’s struggles, even as new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends cutting isolation time in half.

Back in the summer, a chaotic travel season rife with staffing shortages, By The Way compiled a guide for what to do if your flight gets canceled and how to get a refund you are owed. Here’s a helpful reminder.

From traveling light to booking your flight directly through the airline, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind during particularly messy travel seasons. (The Washington Post)

If your flight gets canceled

But be warned: Accepting the canceled flight, getting your money back and starting from scratch may put you in a position of scrambling for a more expensive flight, if you can find one at all. Then there’s the risk that your new flight may be canceled or delayed. You may want to reschedule a new flight with the airline instead of going for the refund.

Disappointed customers should also expect long waits for refunds. Although the massive carriers are legally obligated to pay back customers, they have been inundated with requests for months, pushing the DOT to crack down on wrongful denials and investigate delays in payment. In November, following an investigation into Air Canada, the airline reached a $4.5 million settlement with DOT, saying it had provided $570 million in required refunds over the course of the pandemic.

DOT said in a September report that in the 18 months starting in January 2020, it received 124,918 consumer complaints related to air travel — more than 84 percent of which were about refunds. That compares with about 8 percent a year before the pandemic.

If your flight gets delayed

You may not know your flight is going to be rescheduled until the last minute — maybe even after you have arrived at the airport. In August, Katherine Estep, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Airlines For America, recommended downloading your carrier’s app to get immediate updates on your flight schedule.

Should your flight get significantly delayed, you are entitled to a refund (if you ask for one), per DOT regulations. However, every airline has a different definition of “significantly.” You will have to check with your carrier to find out if you are eligible. Even if you’re not, you may be able to get compensation for the disruption. Ask the airline if you are eligible for a meal voucher or a hotel room for the night while you wait.

Don’t like the rebooked flight? “Keep an eye on backup plans,” said Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes. “If your flight were to get canceled, what are flights that this airline has that would work for me and my schedule?”

Once you have picked a new flight that works for you, get on the phone with customer service and request it specifically.

“That’s going to be much more fruitful than saying, ‘My flight got canceled, what do I do?’ ” Keyes said.

If you want to be protected

There are a few things you can do to put yourself in a better position for this uncertain time of flying.

Protecting yourself starts when you book the flight. Brian Kelly, the founder and chief executive of the Points Guy, recommends booking your flights with frequent flier miles.

“Most airline frequent-flier programs will actually refund your points and taxes and fees, so it’s kind of like buying a refundable ticket,” Kelly said. “They give you maximum flexibility.”

Look for nonstop flights to your destination that depart earlier in the day. You will have fewer variables to deal with, and should something go wrong, you’ll have more rerouting options than if you were departing later.

Martin Nolan, a traveler rights expert at Skyscanner, recommends booking a flight with a flexible fare that allows for a free date or destination change. He also suggests booking travel with a credit card that offers extra protections. A good credit card company will go to bat for you if you are struggling to get a rightfully owed refund.

Adit Damodaran, economist at the travel booking app Hopper, says it is wise to prepare for the worst by padding your trip with some buffer time if you’re traveling for a special event. Don’t cut your arrival too close; find a flight a day before in case there is a delay or cancellation. Hopper also has “Rebooking Protection Services,” allowing travelers to fly on another airline if there is a disruption.

Keyes strongly urges travelers to skip checking a bag.

“If you have checked a bag and then you get to the gate and your flight gets canceled or delayed, it’s going to be more difficult to get switched to a different flight,” he said. “If there’s another flight that’s leaving 15 minutes from now or 20 minutes from now, your bag is not going to make it.”

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Omicron and Holiday Travel: 12 of the Most Pressing Questions

Holiday travel suddenly feels more fraught as the world waits for emerging information on the transmissibility and virulence of the new coronavirus variant. Scientists are racing to see if the current vaccines offer protection against Omicron, but many families and other travelers may need to consider a variety of factors now before embarking to see relatives or to experience a change of scenery.

“Once again they will have to make informed decisions,” said Kathy Risse, a pediatrician in Seattle. But unlike last year’s holiday period, Dr. Risse said, “we know so much more about stopping transmission, and widespread testing is up and running.”

For those planning to travel, the basics for protection — vaccinations, masks and social distancing — will help make the trip safer. Here are answers to 12 of the most pressing travel questions for now.

Currently there are no vaccine, testing or quarantine requirements to travel within the 50 United States, whether you fly, drive or go by rail — except Hawaii. Hawaii requires a 10-day quarantine for domestic travelers if they do not show proof of a full vaccination against the coronavirus or negative results from a test taken no more than 72 hours before their flight’s arrival.

Masks are still required by the Transportation Security Administration for passengers age 2 and up on planes, trains and buses. Different states, and even cities within states, may have their own mask, testing or vaccine requirements for activities such as indoor dining. Local health department sites or the AARP website are good starting places to research a state’s coronavirus rules.

Again no, but C.D.C. guidelines recommend people delay travel until they are fully vaccinated.

Current C.D.C. guidance does not recommend international travel if you are not vaccinated. If you choose to travel overseas, it can be complicated: Your desired destination may have rules and guidelines that differ from those of the United States. Take Mexico, one of the most popular destinations for U.S. travelers. The country does not require vaccinations or testing for entry, regardless of the traveler’s nationality, while other countries, like Japan, Israel and Morocco, have recently closed their borders to noncitizens. To visit Canada, foreign visitors must show proof of vaccination and the negative results of a PCR or nucleic acid test. (Unvaccinated children can accompany vaccinated adults into Canada but must follow a specific set of protocols including health questionnaires and a virus test.)

Rules for these and other countries can change at any time, so it’s best to keep checking official government websites as your travel date approaches. The Times updates a list of countries open to U.S. citizens and the C.D.C. maintains a list of global Covid hot spots.

Again, it’s complicated. For outbound travel from the United States, vaccination requirements depend on your destination. U.S. embassy sites are good sources of information, as are countries’ tourist and health sites for your desired destination. Age requirements can also vary by destination.

The United States recently changed the timing of its testing requirement to re-enter the country. Travelers must now submit a negative virus test result taken within one day of the flight’s departure, instead of the previous three-day requirement for vaccinated fliers. This applies to all travelers age 2 and up, regardless of nationality or vaccination status.

It is important to note that the requirement is “one day” rather than “24 hours.” For example, for a flight leaving on Sunday at 3 p.m., the test needs to be taken anytime on Saturday or anytime on Sunday. This gives fliers more flexibility in scheduling their test for any time the day before the flight, or the day of, rather than timing a nighttime test for a flight the next evening.

Not a bad idea. The Food and Drug Administration has approved 13 home-based Covid tests, and families may want to bring some on the trip to use if anyone comes down with the sniffles or a cough, or to take just before getting to Grandma’s. They may be hard to find in stores or limited to one or two per customer, so don’t leave this errand to the last minute.

Family members may have varying risk tolerances, and at-home tests can help people relax and enjoy each other’s company, Dr. Risse said, “because even though it is imperfect, it adds another layer of protection.”

The C.D.C. specifies which tests are allowed for entry into the United States. Self-tests for the virus are OK if there is an accompanying telehealth service providing “real-time supervision remotely through an audio and video connection.” Your hotel or local family members may be able to point you to other testing options in the country — like at medical clinics or pharmacies.

Rules vary by cruise line. On Disney cruises, passengers 12 and up must be vaccinated, but that age is moving to 5 beginning Jan. 13. Children under 5 must have a negative virus test taken within three days of departure. Princess Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line are only welcoming vaccinated travelers ages 5 and up. Currently, children under 5 are not allowed on board. Royal Caribbean requires guests age 12 and up to be vaccinated.

There may be additional requirements for cruises docking at other countries. Travelers boarding a cruise in Barbados, for example, need to download the BIMsafe app and follow its directions. It’s best to check with each cruise line for a specific sailing’s current rules and protocols.

Cruise lines have reason to worry, as “their whole image as a sector hangs in the balance,” said Lynn Minnaert, a clinical associate professor at the Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality at New York University. “They are taking vaccinations and testing seriously, so passengers who bear in mind the risks and take common sense precautions should have a safe experience.”

The C.D.C. still recommends that people who are unvaccinated or at risk of severe illness (regardless of vaccination status) avoid traveling on cruise ships worldwide, including river cruises.

Theme parks are required to follow state rules. Disneyland in California and Disney World in Florida require guests 2 and older to wear masks in indoor locations, lines and enclosed transportation except when actively eating or drinking. Universal Studios in Florida recommends masking indoors but has no coronavirus-focused guest requirements.

Fully vaccinated, as defined by the C.D.C. as two weeks after the second dose, is not the same as fully protected. Breakthrough cases occur but they are generally mild. Scientists are still examining incoming data to determine if the vaccines will protect against the Omicron variant. In the meantime, the advice from the C.D.C. still stands: children 5 and older should get the vaccine to protect them and those around them from getting Covid-19 disease.

Keeping a mask on a young child while traveling can be challenging for children and parents. Here are some ideas to help your child comply with the rule: Practice wearing a mask together days or weeks before the flight so they get used to the feel. Go slow and don’t make it a fight. Try out different masks for comfort and fit. You may bring different ones to “change into” to make things fun or have a matching mask for a stuffed animal. If your child gets agitated on the flight stay as calm as you can because they will take their emotional cues from you. And consider resorting to bribery — more screen time, or bring small wrapped gifts they can open each time they have kept the mask on for some period of time.

It couldn’t hurt, especially if you are traveling to see older or immune-compromised relatives, no matter their vaccination status.

“Families come to me asking for a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer on if they should travel, because they are so tired of making the day-to-day risk assessments,” said Dr. Risse, the pediatrician. But every family needs to make its own decision to travel, based on the importance of their trip, how protected family members are and how much they trust fellow travelers to abide by the masking and social distancing rules that keep people safer. They also need to be aware of the levels of cases at their destination and the level of exposure their potential activities present. That is, eating at a restaurant indoors or staying at a hotel instead of a private residence.

Vivek Garg, chief medical officer for the health insurer Humana’s senior-focused primary care business, encourages travel when C.D.C. guidelines are followed. “It’s important for everyone’s mental health, especially that of older adults, that we socialize with friends and family,” Dr. Garg said.

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