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.

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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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Covid-19 News: Booster and Variant Updates


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President Biden warned that U.S. progress against Covid-19 would be at severe risk if Congress failed to approve billions in emergency aid to purchase new vaccines, tests and therapeutics.CreditCredit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Biden stepped up the pressure on Congress to approve billions of dollars in emergency coronavirus relief aid, using a speech at the White House on Wednesday to warn that U.S. progress against Covid-19 would be at severe risk if Congress fails to act right away.

“This isn’t partisan. It’s medicine,” Mr. Biden declared. At the end of his remarks, the president, 79, rolled up his sleeve to get his second Pfizer-BioNTech booster shot. That followed a recent move by federal health officials to clear additional boosters of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for Americans older than 50 and many immunocompromised people, four months after their first booster.

Mr. Biden also highlighted a new one-stop-shopping coronavirus website,, aimed at helping Americans navigate access to testing, treatment, vaccines and masks, and to assess the risk of Covid-19 in their neighborhoods. The site went live Wednesday morning.

The website, and Mr. Biden’s speech, are part of a broader effort to ease the nation out of pandemic crisis mode and usher in what experts are calling the “next normal” — a phase in which Americans will learn to live with the risk of Covid-19 and to adjust behavior like mask wearing based on whether cases and hospitalizations are rising or falling. Mr. Biden’s speech on Wednesday was his first dedicated to Covid since before his State of the Union address on March 1.

That strategy depends on the availability of vaccines and therapeutics, though, and the administration says it is out of money for both. The White House has been pleading with Republicans in Congress to approve $22.5 billion in emergency aid to purchase new vaccines and therapeutics, and to reimburse doctors who care for uninsured Covid-19 patients.

The federal government said recently that a fund established to reimburse doctors was no longer accepting those claims for testing and treatment “due to lack of sufficient funds.”

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers said they hoped that a deal could be struck before Congress leaves next week for a two-week April recess, with private talks continuing on Wednesday. If a deal can be struck, it will likely be $15.6 billion, matching the size of the smaller package that Democrats abruptly removed from a catchall spending package earlier this month when rank-and-file lawmakers objected to clawing back state aid to help pay for the deal.

It still remains unclear how the package will be paid for — a crucial Republican demand that has delayed passage.

“It’s totally up to Democrats,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican. “This can get done, but it’s in their court, and it just requires them to be willing to repurpose some existing funds, which they’re reluctant to do.”

Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, who has been leading talks with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, emerged from an afternoon meeting with Mr. Schumer and other top lawmakers, and said that the two parties had exchanged lists of possible funds to repurpose, but had yet to reach agreement.

“There’s a gap between where we would go and where they would go,” Mr. Romney told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Speaking on the Senate floor ahead of the meeting, Mr. Schumer warned that “the consequences of not getting Covid funding are really serious — scary, almost.”

“We are not yet at the finish line, but we will keep working throughout the day and I am committed to working with the other side reasonably and in good faith,” he said.

While new coronavirus cases have been falling in the United States, a highly transmissible Omicron subvariant known as BA.2 has driven a surge in cases in Europe, and many experts expect that the United States may soon see the same. Should that occur, it will be the first major test of the country’s new strategy of living with the virus while limiting its impact.

Around the country, state and local governments have relaxed restrictions like mask and vaccine mandates. White House and federal health officials have been making the case for weeks that Americans now have the tools — testing infrastructure, masks and other mitigation strategies, and drugs and vaccines — to live with the threat of the virus.

In his State of the Union address, Mr. Biden announced a new “test to treat” initiative — a network of pharmacies and other sites where people can be tested for the coronavirus and then receive antiviral drugs if they test positive. More than 2,000 sites are participating, the White House said. The website features a “test-to-treat” locator tool to help people find participating locations.

Under a banner saying “Find Covid-19 guidance for your community,” the website asks users to enter the name of the county in which they live. It then identifies whether the risk of Covid-19 in that county is low, medium or high, depending on factors including the number of hospitalizations and available hospital beds.

The site also links to other government websites, including and, that help users access vaccines and find nearby testing sites.

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Covid-19 Live Updates: Cases, Vaccines, Travel and Variant News

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Babies and children younger than age 5 were hospitalized with coronavirus at much higher rates during the latest U.S. surge, when the highly transmissible Omicron variant was dominant, compared with earlier periods in the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hospitalizations of these children were about five times higher during the Omicron surge, between Dec. 19 and Feb. 19, than during the period when the Delta variant was dominant, between June 27 and Dec. 18.

Rates of admission to intensive care also rose dramatically among young children, reaching a peak on Jan. 8 of this year.

Children of color younger than age 5 wound up in hospitals at disproportionate rates. Only one-third of the children were white, while 28 percent were Hispanic and 23 percent were Black. Hispanic people represent just 18 percent of the population, and Black Americans make up 13 percent.

(Six percent of these hospitalizations were among Asian or other Pacific Islander children, about the same as their representation in the population.)

Experts say children of color are infected at higher rates because they are more likely to have parents who work in public-facing jobs, and more likely to live in poverty and in multigenerational households.

Though hospitalization rates for young children are still relatively low, compared to the rates among older Americans, the virus poses special risks to the youngest children and especially to babies.

Infants six months old and younger were the most vulnerable, representing nearly half of the hospitalizations among young children during the Omicron period. They were hospitalized at rates about six times as high at the peak of the Omicron surge, compared with the peak of the Delta wave. Two infants died, the C.D.C. found.

“People should know there are risks to children under 1 that are pretty serious, especially during surges, and they might want to take extra precautions to reduce exposure,” said Julia Raifman, an assistant professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University School of Public Health, who was not involved in the research.

More than 1,000 children younger than age 18 have died of Covid since the pandemic started, including 350 children under 5. But experts also worry about the long-term effects, as well as multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a rare but serious condition.

The C.D.C. study found that most of the children and babies who were hospitalized — about two-thirds — were healthy and did not have underlying medical conditions, as has been the case throughout the pandemic.

No Covid vaccines are currently authorized in the United States for children younger than 5, and the regulatory process has been fraught with delays and setbacks. Public health experts strongly recommend that anyone who comes into regular contact with young children get vaccinated.

“To help protect children too young to be vaccinated, everyone ages five and older, including pregnant women, family members and caregivers, should stay up to date with Covid-19 vaccines,” Dr. Kristin J. Marks, the study’s first author and an epidemic intelligence service officer with the CDC, said in an email.

The study, published on March 15, examined hospitalizations of children in counties in 14 states whose catchment areas represent about 10 percent of the U.S. population.

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Air Travel Demand in Early 2022 Surged Despite Impact of Omicron Variant

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced air travel’s recovery slowed for both domestic and international in January 2022 compared to December 2021 due to travel restrictions associated with the Omicron variant of coronavirus.

Total demand for air travel in January 2022 was up 82.3 percent compared to January 2021, but was down 4.9 percent compared to the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis. Domestic travel in January was up 41.5 percent, while international rose 165.6 percent.


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In North America, airlines experienced a 148.8 percent traffic rise in January versus the 2021 period, while capacity rose 78 percent and load factor climbed 17 points to 59.9 percent.

“The recovery in air travel continued in January, despite hitting a speed bump called Omicron,” IATA Director General Willie Walsh said. “Strengthened border controls did not stop the spread of the variant, but where population immunity was strong, the public health systems were not overwhelmed.”

“Many governments are now adjusting COVID-19 polices to align with those for other endemic viruses,” Walsh continued. “This includes lifting travel restrictions that have had such a devastating impact on lives, economies and the freedom to travel.”

Despite the strong traffic growth recorded in January 2022, passenger demand remains far below pre-COVID-19 levels. Numbers for January were down 49.6 percent compared to January 2019, with international traffic down 62.4 percent and domestic traffic off by 26.5 percent.

While the IATA figures do not include any impact from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the resulting sanctions and airspace closures are expected to have a significant impact on travel. Airspace closures have led to rerouting or cancellations of flights on some routes, mostly in the Europe-Asia and Asia-North America markets.

In addition to the disruptions, the sudden spike in fuel prices is putting pressure on airline costs.

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Coronavirus Omicron variant begins to rattle travel industry

Another Greek letter is in the headlines and the travel industry is bracing for a new COVID-19 jolt.

Several business conferences and international gatherings have been postponed because of the uncertainty generated by the latest coronavirus variant — Omicron — and airlines are preparing for a pause to the rebound of travel that the industry started to see over the last few months.

United Airlines Chief Executive Scott Kirby called the spread of the variant a “short-term setback” and predicted Omicron will have a temporary effect on bookings, similar to the downturn airlines reported after the spread of the Delta variant several weeks ago.

“It’s like we are taking two steps forward and one step back,” he said Tuesday at an airline expo in Long Beach that drew 1,300 in-person attendees.

Jeffrey Goh, chief executive of Star Alliance, the world’s largest airline alliance, said it was too early to predict how Omicron will affect air travel and urged industry leaders not to panic.

A day after the conference, which required proof of vaccination for entry, organizers alerted attendees that someone at the event had tested positive for COVID-19. The message didn’t specify whether the case detected was of the variant, and organizers said anyone who had close contact with the individual has been contacted.

California on Wednesday confirmed a case of Omicron — the first confirmed case in the U.S. — in an individual who returned home to San Francisco from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive Monday, according to officials.

In response to the variant, the U.S. on Nov. 26 announced a temporary halt on travel from eight African countries, including South Africa, where positive test results for the new variant recently surged. Britain, the European Union, South Korea, Japan and Israel have also instituted new travel restrictions in response to the spread of the variant.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working on a revised testing order that would require international air travelers coming into the U.S. to test for COVID-19 one day before departure. The U.S. currently requires a negative COVID-19 test result within three days of departure.

Several international gatherings have already been postponed.

The 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization in Geneva, scheduled for Nov. 30 through Dec. 3, was postponed indefinitely because of travel restrictions imposed in response to the latest variant.

“Given these unfortunate developments and the uncertainty that they cause, we see no alternative but to propose to postpone the Ministerial Conference and reconvene it as soon as possible when conditions allow,” Ambassador Dacio Castillo, chair of the General Council, said during an emergency meeting of the council. “I trust that you will fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation.”

The World Muslim Communities Council also postponed its international conference, scheduled for Dec. 12 to 14, in the United Arab Emirates because of Omicron.

The African Development Bank, a multinational financial institution, postponed its Dec. 1-3 investment forum in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, because of travel restrictions, the bank’s president said Monday.

“In life, man plans and proposes and God disposes,” bank President Akinwumi Adesina said in a news briefing, noting that the variant has made travel “very, very difficult.”

The new restrictions come less than a month after the U.S. eased limits on travel into the country by foreigners, a move that leaders of the badly pummeled travel industries praised. Long-haul, international travel normally generates the lion’s share of revenue for air carriers.

Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Assn., a trade group for the nation’s travel industries, criticized the Biden administration’s decision to impose new bans on travel from eight African countries so soon after opening the U.S. borders.

“COVID variants are of concern, but closed borders have not prevented their presence in the United States while vaccinations have proven incredibly durable,” she said in a statement issued Sunday.

Fitch Ratings, the credit rating company, on Tuesday revised its global forecast downward, saying the arrival of new COVID-19 variants is likely to make the recovery of global air travel less certain.

“While it is too early to assess the effects of the Omicron [variant], additional waves of infections and policy responses could lead to travel restrictions and stalled or temporary declines in traffic,” Fitch said in a statement.

Still, concern over the variant hasn’t yet affected domestic travel, according to the Adobe Digital Economy Index, which measures booking transactions at six airlines and activity on millions of website visits.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, online bookings for domestic flights increased 1% compared with the seven previous days, with a majority of the flights scheduled for trips in the next two months, according to Adobe.

At the Airline Passenger Experience Assn. expo in Long Beach, several airline executives spoke out against new travel restrictions in response to the variant, saying that restrictions do little to stop the spread of the virus.

“Closing borders doesn’t help,” said Tammy McKnight, chief medical officer for WestJet, the second-largest airline in Canada. She urged governments to instead rely more heavily on testing travelers to keep the variant in check.

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Coronavirus live updates and omicron variant news

HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s government, borrowing from the playbook used in Wuhan, China, at the start of the pandemic, will mandate coronavirus testing for its entire population of 7.5 million, turning schools and other facilities into testing sites.

The program will begin in March, staggering groups to be tested by birth dates, and noncompliance will be punished with a fine, the government announced.

Carrie Lam, the territory’s chief executive, did not fully detail Tuesday how and when the mandatory testing would be carried out, saying only that every resident of Hong Kong will have to be tested three times. Samples would be sent to the mainland, Lam said, if there is no testing capacity locally.

“We are talking about an emergency,” Lam said. “Given the current circumstances, we must do it, even if there are legal constraints. This is the mindset we need to have if we are fighting a battle.”

Lam also announced Tuesday that strict social distancing restrictions in place since the beginning of the year — including closures of gyms and beauty salons — will continue until the end of April. Flights from nine countries including the United States will also continue to be barred from arriving in the city until then.

Hong Kong has kept covid largely at bay until this year, when the more infectious omicron wave spread through the city, hitting the unvaccinated and elderly in particular. New infections have broken records daily, reaching more than 7,000 on Monday, along with deaths, including that of an 11-month-old.

Hong Kong has been under pressure from mainland China to control its outbreak despite the damage that restrictions are doing to businesses and the city’s overall viability as a financial center. Lam said Tuesday that teams have arrived from the mainland to help with testing, construction of isolation facilities and other mitigation measures.

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Coronavirus live updates and omicron variant news

Newly reported coronavirus cases are dropping worldwide, but World Health Organization officials urged caution Wednesday, saying that a drop in testing may be contributing to that decline and that covid deaths remain alarmingly high.

During the week starting Feb. 7, health officials reported 16.3 million new infections globally, an 18.2 percent drop from the prior week, according to WHO figures. Deaths, though, inched higher in the same period, to above 73,000, an increase of 0.5 percent from the previous week.

“It’s the sixth week in a row that we’re seeing increasing reports of deaths,” Maria Van Kerkhove, a WHO epidemiologist, said at a live-streamed event. “At this point in the pandemic, when we have tools that can save people’s lives, this is far, far too many.”

Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, urged people to get vaccinated and to keep up preventive measures such as masking, isolating or quarantining. “This idea that we’re just going to abandon everything, I think is a very premature concept in many countries right now,” he said.

The WHO-designated Western Pacific region — which covers most of the countries located between Mongolia and Australia — was the only one of its six regions to record an increase in cases for the week starting Feb. 7. It logged almost 1.57 million new cases that week, reflecting a 18.7 percent increase from the prior week.

All other regions including Africa, where less than a fifth of the continent’s 1.2 billion people have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, saw the count of new infections fall, WHO tallies show.

The Eastern Mediterranean region — including countries in Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East — saw the largest proportional jump in deaths during the Feb. 7 week, reporting 3,286 fatalities, nearly a 40 percent uptick from the previous week.

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Coronavirus live updates and omicron variant news

The U.K. Health Security Agency report, compiled from 15 long-covid studies conducted around the globe, said the findings add to the known benefits of being vaccinated against the coronavirus. Eight of the studies looked at the effect of vaccinations administered before infection, and most of those suggested that vaccinated people (with one or two doses) were less likely to develop long-covid symptoms compared with unvaccinated people.

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Coronavirus live updates and omicron variant news

The Biden administration has bought 600,000 doses of a new treatment that works against the omicron variant of the coronavirus, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced Friday.

The monoclonal antibody treatment, called bebtelovimab and manufactured by Eli Lilly, is under Food and Drug Administration review for emergency-use authorization. Early data show that the new treatment is effective against both omicron and its subvariant, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“If authorized by FDA, this purchase will add an additional 600,000 courses of treatment to our nation’s ‘medicine cabinet’ that could help prevent severe outcomes for Americans who do get sick with COVID-19,” Becerra said in the announcement. “Our top priority is preventing people from getting sick in the first place, which is why it is critical that Americans continue to get vaccinated and get their booster shot as soon as they’re eligible.”

States would receive the new treatments free of charge if the FDA grants emergency authorization, HHS said, and the federal government is set to receive the medications over February and March.

Shortages of the antiviral treatments that work against omicron have forced uncomfortable questions about which patients to treat first and what rationing criteria should be used. Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, and it evades treatment by two monoclonal antibody therapies, from Regeneron and Eli Lilly, that had been effective against previous variants.

So far, only one authorized monoclonal antibody therapy, sotrovimab from GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology, has proved effective in treating patients with omicron infections. Antiviral pills that are taken at home and that many experts consider a breakthrough treatment were authorized in late December, but they are in short supply.

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