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Omicron is upending the holidays for international travelers

Travel restrictions and border closures are wreaking havoc on long-delayed trips

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
8 min

Like so many Americans last holiday season, Emma Webb planned a trip, but it didn’t happen. At the time, she was excited for her father, stepmother and brother in the United Kingdom to meet the baby boy she had shortly before the coronavirus pandemic. Due to a lockdown in Britain, she canceled.

This year, she was more hopeful. She booked another flight, looking forward to the visit after two long years that included the death of her mother, her only relative near her home in central Kansas. But in a matter of weeks, as the spread of the omicron variant triggered new travel restrictions worldwide, she has become resigned to a disappointing winter. For Webb and plenty of other international travelers, ramped-up precautions by governments at home and abroad have cast uncertainty over their holiday reunions.

“I’m concerned whether my family is ever going to meet my kid.” said Webb, a 44-year-old project manager for a nonprofit. “I can’t see a world where there isn’t another variant that pops up.”

‘Very exhausted, very confused’

The latest round of restrictions has been too much for Webb, who expects to postpone her trip because she is concerned about having to self-quarantine overseas or, worse, potentially passing omicron to her elderly father. Because her tickets are nonrefundable, Webb wants to wait a little longer and see if the U.K. alters its travel rules before requesting a flight credit.

In the past two weeks, the U.K. and the Biden administration have both imposed preflight testing requirements for international visitors. In Britain, arriving travelers have to self-quarantine until they can show a negative test result, and any contact with a suspected omicron case mandates another 10 days of self-isolation.

Webb is far from the only traveler having to cancel or rethink a long-delayed trip. There are at least a half-dozen groups on Facebook dedicated to covid-era travel littered with stories of pandemic restrictions flummoxing planners.

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Susan Hiwatashi, who lives in Honolulu with her husband, Hirotaka, and two children ages 7 and 2, looked for answers on a support group for people trying to enter Japan. She had been planning on visiting her elderly in-laws in Hokkaido for the first time since the pandemic began. The last time the grandparents saw their grandchildren, the youngest had just been born.

Hirotaka, a mechanic for Hawaiian Airlines, is a Japanese national, and their children carry Japanese passports. But Hiwatashi is an American citizen and needed a special visa to visit amid Japan’s strict pandemic restrictions, so she spent weeks obtaining one this fall.

Then, on Nov. 29, Japan announced that it was barring all nonresident foreigners from entering the country for one month. A day after the announcement, the Japanese Consulate called Hiwatashi with a notification that her visa was suspended.

“We’re careful … We do everything right. It’s frustrating,” Hiwatashi said. “Obviously, we are very exhausted, very confused, and very hesitant to make new plans.”

Because of their eldest son’s school schedule, it is unlikely the family will attempt the trip again until next summer. It has been an especially difficult pill to swallow, Hiwatashi said, because Hirotaka’s mother is very ill.

Refunds not a given

Ryan Brill, a 33-year-old English instructor at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo, also had to call off a family reunion because of Japan’s stringent restrictions. After losing two grandparents this year, he planned to travel home to Washington state for a memorial service with his family over Christmas. He has not been home in several years and nixed two previous trips during the pandemic.

Brill booked a flight with Delta Air Lines in November, only for the airline to inform him this past week that it would not be able to guarantee entry back to Tokyo. Delta did not grant a refund for the flight but instead it offered to roll the $7,000 airfare for him and his partner into a credit that he must use within the next year.

“I know [the restrictions are] not Delta’s fault. But the right thing to do is to give people their money back,” he said.

First reported in mid-November, the omicron variant has now spread to at least four dozen countries, including the United States. While research is ongoing, the variant contains a high number of mutations that, scientists worry, could make it more transmissible, even for those who have been vaccinated or already recovered from the virus.

The variant has thrown into sharp relief the complications and frustrations with travel at this stage of the pandemic.

In early 2020, many airlines began waiving change fees and offering vouchers that cover the full price of tickets. But, although airlines are legally obligated to provide refunds for canceled or significantly delayed flights, a huge number of customers have reported companies are failing to pay them back.

The Department of Transportation said in a September report that within the record number of complaints it received about air travel in the previous 18 months, 84 percent concerned refunds. In the five years before the pandemic, refunds accounted for about 8 percent of the total.

As long as American Airlines continues to operate Webb’s flight as scheduled, her tickets to the United Kingdom do not entitle her to a cash refund. That upsets her given how uncertain travel looks since omicron started spreading. She is unsure when she will be able to make the trip to see her family, and she worries she will end up having to eat thousands of dollars in airfare.

“Our tax dollars have helped bolster the airline industry,” she said, “and now I’m sitting here on the other end not only dealing with the frustration and heartbreak of not seeing my family, but with the reality that the travel industry is trying to milk me for as much money as humanly possible.”

For Dan Waits, a 30-year-old program manager for Twilio, a cloud communications platform in San Francisco, omicron’s emergence has made combing airline booking policies even more important.

Waits and a few friends were supposed to visit Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, this month for their first major vacation since the start of the pandemic. But after omicron emerged, the group thought through the latest restrictions, weighed the risk of having to self-quarantine over Christmas and then decided to cancel the trip. While they were able to roll over the deposit for the Airbnb rental to a trip scheduled in late 2022, Waits said American Airlines is not offering a refund or rebooking for the flight.

“After getting burned on this, I am triple-checking the fine print,” Waits said.

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Disappointment — and relief

Theodore Atkinson, a 51-year-old attorney for the Department of Justice, wanted to visit London with his 75-year-old mother. The two had originally planned to go last year, but the pandemic quashed those plans. Then, they rescheduled for this December.

However, once the British government revised its travel restrictions, Atkinson and his mother realized that it might be best to cancel a second time. Spending two days in quarantine — and possibly longer — didn’t make sense for a one-week vacation.

“This wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime event like a wedding or a funeral. Big Ben is not going anywhere,” Atkinson said. “With the uncertainty, the new restrictions, the costs associated with those restrictions, and the possibility of my mother getting a breakthrough case, it just wasn’t worth it.”

Surprisingly, Atkinson said, the pair felt more relief than disappointment once they canceled.

“It wasn’t going to be a relaxing trip,” he said. “After we canceled, we celebrated with fish and chips from a local restaurant.”

For people whose families already missed one of those once-in-a-lifetime events, however, the calculus is more complicated.

Cris Padua, a 35-year-old virtual assistant in the Philippines, got engaged shortly before the pandemic. She hoped her partner’s family would be able to travel from California to attend their wedding. When that became impossible, the couple got married in a small ceremony last September.

When the Philippines announced in November it would begin reopening to vaccinated travelers, the couple thought their families could meet this Christmas.

But the archipelago again shut down its borders to many foreigners, so the couple has been left canceling bookings and trying to find another place the families can meet — possibly Thailand or Hong Kong.

“At some point, we’re just going to have to live with the variants,” Padua said. “Are we going to wait five years for this to all be over? That’s not going to happen. We need to see our families.”