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What to do if coronavirus variants leave you stranded overseas

Restrictions after omicron warning have left fliers stuck at airports around the world

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
6 min

Since late last week, the emergence of the highly mutated omicron variant of the coronavirus has upended travel around the globe, stranding people in foreign countries as airlines canceled flights, governments imposed new travel bans and nations updated entry requirements.

Much about the new variant, which by Tuesday had been identified in nearly two dozen countries, is not known; the World Health Organization said the overall global risk is “very high.” It was first detected in southern Africa.

As scientists work to determine how transmissible omicron is and how effective vaccines are against it, countries are tightening their defenses. As of Sunday, the WHO had counted 56 countries that were implementing travel measures aimed at keeping omicron out.

“This is all happening so rapidly and the situation is so fluid it’s hard to give council on best practices,” said Robert Quigley, senior vice president and global medical director at International SOS, a medical and travel security firm. “The prudent traveler will take into consideration all of the worst-case scenarios if they elect to travel cross-border and plan accordingly, since we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

For people traveling outside the United States, experts offer this cautionary advice.

What to know about travel after the discovery of the omicron variant

Act fast if you get stranded

Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue — a company that provides medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services — said travelers who get stuck at an airport because of a border closing should immediately contact their embassy, provide their information and register their whereabouts. The next step, he said, would be to book a place to stay and then start the process of finding new flights if possible.

One thing to keep in mind: Travelers in this situation will probably have a lot of company, so they should move quickly to secure a room and a seat on the next available flight.

“If you get stuck at the airport due to a sudden border closing you won’t be the only one,” Richards said in an email. “The closure will impact thousands of travelers.”

Track border rules with multiple sources

The U.S. State Department urged travelers to read coronavirus information for their destination on embassy websites and on That information includes entry and exit rules, testing availability and quarantine information.

“We also encourage traveling U.S. citizens to monitor local news,” its statement said. “As we’ve seen recently, many countries can change their own rules with very little notice.”

The department also said U.S. citizens who travel abroad should register their plans in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which provides updates about their destination and helps the embassy reach them in an emergency.

Quigley said air carriers have also been good at keeping passengers updated on what they need to know, so travelers should make sure airlines have the best way to reach them.

If a country imposes a self-quarantine rule for new arrivals, Quigley said, that will usually take place at a facility the government chooses. But some countries might have other requirements: In the United Kingdom, for example, anyone who enters the country has to take a PCR test by the end of their second day there and self-quarantine until they get a negative result.

Peter Vlitas, executive vice president of partner relations at Internova Travel Group, said travelers are testing at the airport or going straight to a hotel with a testing facility and waiting in their room until the result is available.

What to know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus

Research what happens if you test positive

Vlitas said countries have different rules for what travelers need to do if they test positive. Travelers should check with their airlines, destinations or travel advisers to learn the rules wherever they’re going.

“Some countries will let you isolate in your hotel room; others may want you to move to a different hotel,” he said. “Some countries have a 10-day isolation policy; some have 14 days.”

While some resorts don’t charge for the extra stay if a visitor gets sick, that is not the norm.

Watch the clock after getting tested

The United States requires people flying into the country to test negative no more than three days before the flight. If more than three days pass after the test because of extended delays or cancellations, travelers will need to test again. Quigley said airlines should be able to help in that case: “That’s exactly why there are a lot of testing centers in these international airports.”

Richards said travelers should also check in advance to find out if personal rapid test kits are accepted in their destination. If so, travelers can carry extra in case they run into delays.

International travelers stranded, angry in omicron’s wake

Understand what travel insurance will (and won’t) cover

According to Megan Moncrief, a spokesperson for travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth, most standard travel policies include coverage in case someone gets covid-19 and has to cancel their trip, needs medical care because they become ill on the road or has to quarantine during their travel. For the most part, policies cover a limited amount of time in quarantine, so travelers might be on the hook for some lodging and transportation.

Travelers can typically buy those policies until they leave on their trip.

A more flexible — and expensive — upgrade that lets people cancel for any reason typically has to be bought within 14 days of booking a trip. With that coverage, a person could be reimbursed for canceling because of border closures, a fear of new restrictions or just concerns about a new variant. But “cancel for any reason” coverage only reimburses a portion of the trip’s cost.

Moncrief said the best course of action for some travelers in the short term might be to try to work with their airline or hotel to cancel or reschedule a trip.

“We’re still seeing a lot of providers and suppliers offering refunds and change of dates for no penalty,” she said.

Prepare for a worst-case scenario

Quigley said travelers should bring enough of any medication they take regularly to last throughout a trip, plus a supply for an extra 10 to 14 days in case of a quarantine requirement. Before heading out, anyone who is concerned about the possibility of getting sick should look into the health-care situation in their destination.

And they should be equipped with contact information for anyone back home who would need to know about a delayed return, whether that’s a supervisor at work, a loved one or a pet sitter.

The State Department urges travelers to have contingency plans that don’t rely on U.S. government assistance, “in light of the constantly changing global travel environment.”