Editor’s Note: This post will be regularly updated with the latest news and updates on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on travel. Scroll down or click for previous updates and stay tuned for additional coverage.
- Hawaii May Soon Require Travelers to be Boosted
- CDC Calls to Avoid Cruises, Regardless of Vaccination Status
- Delta Doles Out Bonus SkyMiles for Canceled Holiday Flights
- Calls Growing for Vaccine Mandate for Domestic Flights
- Unruly Passengers May Lose TSA PreCheck Privileges
- Fauci Says Masks May Be Needed on Planes for Good
- Airline CEOs Warn Rising Fuel Costs Could Mean Higher Fares
- Thanksgiving Travel Sets Another Pandemic Record
- New COVID-19 Variant Spooks World, Halts Some Flights
- TSA, Airlines Brace for Thanksgiving Travel Surge
- Hawaii’s Governor Gives Travelers Green Light to Return
Hawaii Will Soon Require Travelers to be Boosted
Friday, Jan. 14 at 8 a.m.
Travelers heading for Hawaii with a vaccination card in hand may soon need a booster shot on file in order to bypass testing or quarantine requirements on the islands.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige has confirmed that the state is preparing to require a booster to consider travelers fully vaccinated. While there’s no confirmed effective date yet for that change, Ige told Hawaii News Now it could happen in a matter of weeks.
“We know that the community needs time to react to that, so we would have to provide at least two weeks for those who may not be up to date to go to have the opportunity to go and get vaccinated if they need to,” Ige said this week.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, Hawaii has the most restrictive entry requirements of any state. Its Safe Travels Hawaii program requires travelers from the mainland to present proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 72 hours prior to departure for the islands. Otherwise, tourists face a mandatory 10-day quarantine upon arrival.
Even with a booster requirement, Hawaii would reportedly continue accepting visitors with a negative COVID-19 test. Children under 5 are exempt from both testing and vaccination requirements.
Read more on Hawaii’s travel restrictions!
Hawaii isn’t the first destination to consider making boosters mandatory. The European Commission has passed a measure that would encourage countries to require booster shots by making vaccination certificates valid for just nine months after a final dose. Several countries including Iceland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands have already imposed that requirement.
The booster requirements could go beyond merely getting into the islands. On Maui, Mayor Michael Victorino is imposing a new rule requiring boosters to be considered fully vaccinated in order to enter restaurants, bars, gyms, and other indoor venues. Initially set to take effect last week, that new requirement was delayed until Jan. 24.
And Gov. Ige said he’s talking with talking with other mayors across the islands about making boosters mandatory for indoor spaces. While recent negative COVID-19 tests are also accepted on most islands with indoor entry restrictions, that would require getting additional tests during a trip.
Read all our coverage of traveling and COVID-19.
CDC Calls to Avoid Cruises, Regardless of Vaccination Status
Friday, Dec. 31 at 7:30 a.m.
Amid a growing number of mass outbreaks at sea, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging Americans to avoid cruise ships altogether – regardless of their vaccination status.
The CDC on Thursday bumped its warning level for cruises from Level 3 to the highest Level 4, indicating the risk of cruises is “very high,” CNN reports. After slowly restarting the cruise industry over the last year, cruise ships around the world have been making headlines for COVID-19 outbreaks onboard again.
“Since the identification of the Omicron variant, there has been an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases among cruise passengers and crew reported to CDC. Additionally, there has been an increase in the number of cruise ships meeting the COVID-19 case threshold for CDC investigation,” the CDC said.
Currently, at least 91 ships in U.S. waters meet the threshold for a CDC investigation due to active COVID-19 cases onboard. That number has been growing over the last several weeks.
Cruise and travel industry groups objected to the CDC’s warning, arguing that the testing, masking, and vaccination requirements that many cruise lines have implemented have kept COVID-19 cases at sea minimal.
In a statement, the Cruise Lines International Association called it “particularly perplexing considering that cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard — far fewer than on land — and the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore.”
Several cruise ships have been stuck at bay recently, unable to disembark in the U.S. due to active COVID-19 cases on the ship. It harkens back to the earliest stages of the pandemic, when ships were left stranded for weeks with cases of the then-mysterious coronavirus onboard, unable to find a port that would accept them.
Delta Doles Out Bonus SkyMiles for Canceled Holiday Flights
Monday, Dec. 27 at 12 p.m.
Delta has found a way to apologize to passengers whose travel plans were disrupted by thousands of flight cancellations over the last week: A bunch of bonus SkyMiles.
The Atlanta-based airline has begun emailing customers with canceled or delayed flights over the holidays with an apology and a notice that it’s depositing 15,000 SkyMiles in the affected traveler’s account. Points, Miles & Martinis first reported the email, which reads:
“We apologize for the disruption to your holiday weekend travel plans, driven by winter weather and the omicron variant. Providing reliable, best-in-class customer service is very important to us. We will deposit 15,000 SkyMiles into your account. Please allow up to five business days for the mileage to be posted. Thanks for your business and, again, we are sorry for the delay in your travels.
It’s unclear if every Delta flyer over the last week will receive SkyMiles as compensation for the disruptions, but Delta has done this in the past. Delta has also previously issued vouchers of $150 to customers who don’t have a Delta SkyMiles account.
But Delta isn’t the only airline struggling with cancellations right now. When problems first cropped up at Delta last week, United and JetBlue also canceled hundreds of flights heading into the Christmas travel weekend. And the issues have spread to nearly every U.S. carrier big and small this week, with more than 1,400 flights canceled Monday nationwide and another 1,300-plus scrapped on Tuesday – with many thousands more delayed.
Airlines frequently hand out vouchers or bonus miles as an apology for travel disruptions, though often not for days after the dust has settled. That underscores the harsh reality of flying in the U.S.: It’s up to the airlines’ judgment to make things right with passengers. Beyond that, there’s little recourse for travelers whose plans have been ruined by the airlines’ inability to run on time.
Aside from requiring airlines to refund passengers when canceling or significantly delaying a flight, there are few rights or protections for air travelers. That stands in stark contrast to Europe, which has a strict law requiring additional compensation in the event of delays or cancellations.
Calls Growing for Vaccine Mandate for Domestic Flights
Monday, Dec. 27 at 12 p.m.
For nearly a year, public health officials have wondered aloud whether the U.S. should require proof of vaccination or pre-travel testing even for domestic travel. Now, even top leaders from the White House are starting to embrace the idea publicly
On Monday morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci told MSNBC a vaccine mandate “seriously should be considered.” It’s one of the boldest statements yet from the White House’s public face of the battle against COVID-19 and could be a trial balloon for President Joe Biden’s administration as it looks to boost vaccination rates in the face of surging cases driven by the new Omicron variant.
Fauci stopped short of saying he had recommended the policy change to Biden but made clear he supports it.
“When you make vaccination a requirement, that’s another incentive to get more people vaccinated. If you want to do that with domestic flights, I think that’s something that seriously should be considered,” Fauci said.
There’s no current vaccination mandate just to get on a plane: It depends on where you’re going, as entry requirements vary from destination to destination. Hawaii is one of the few states with entry requirements: Travelers must provide proof of vaccination or a COVID-19 test taken no more than 72 hours before departure. Some major cities including New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles have vaccine mandates for indoor spaces like bars, restaurants, and theaters.
International travel is trickier still. While some countries like Mexico have no entry requirements, others across the globe are increasingly imposing requirements for testing, vaccination, or both – especially throughout much of Europe. And the U.S. now requires all travelers to get a negative COVID-19 test no more than a day before flying back to the U.S – including fully vaccinated Americans.
Vaccine mandates for all air travel have been discussed for months, and several U.S. lawmakers have even introduced bills to put it in law. The Biden administration reportedly considered a testing requirement for domestic travel in early 2021 but ruled it out at the time.
A vaccination requirement for travel within the U.S. would undoubtedly spur many legal challenges and could be difficult for airlines to enforce. And the airlines themselves may not embrace the idea, as nearly 40% of the country – and therefore some of their potential customers – remains unvaccinated.
Unruly Passengers May Lose TSA PreCheck Privileges
Tuesday, Dec. 21 at 12:00 p.m.
Airline passengers who are fined for unruly or bad behavior while in airports or onboard planes may lose their TSA PreCheck privileges, officials announced Tuesday morning.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) formed an information-sharing partnership, allowing the FAA to use TSA data to identify and find passengers who have behaved badly during travel. And that also means the TSA can access the FAA’s databases on travelers who face fines for misbehavior.
In a release, TSA Administrator David Pekoske said the program will especially target those who physically assault others onboard aircraft.
It’s the latest step that federal and airline officials are taking to punish violent or unruly fliers amid an uptick throughout the pandemic. According to FAA data, 5,664 unruly passengers have been reported to date this year – the vast majority at least in part due to a dispute over masks.
Of those 5,664 reports, just more than 1,000 investigations were initiated (charted below) and 315 enforcement cases were initiated.
The uptick in unruly passenger incidents appears to be directly correlated with the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s unclear how much of an impact the threat of losing TSA PreCheck may have: Many PreCheck members may be savvier, and they’ve already been identified as low-risk flyers by the TSA.
But ultimately, adding another punishment could help deter future offenders – or strip away the privileges of past ones.
Fauci Says Masks May Be Needed on Planes for Good
Monday, Dec. 20 at 7:30 a.m.
After the latest extension, the federal mask mandate on planes and in airports is currently set to expire mid-March. But the nation’s leading public health expert is suggesting that masks requirements should be in place much longer – perhaps for good.
Dr. Anthony Fauci was interviewed this weekend about the evolving pandemic and mask requirements. It came just days after the CEOs of several major U.S. airlines suggested the federal mask mandate may be unnecessary given the advanced filtration systems on planes – only to walk back those comments days later.
Fauci, who is the director National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the nation’s most-visible pandemic adviser, went much farther. He was asked by ABC: “Are we going to get to the point where we won’t have to wear masks on airplanes?”
“I don’t think so,” Fauci quickly responded. “I think when you’re dealing with a closed space, even though the filtration is good, that you want to go that that extra step when you have people. You know, you get a flight from Washington to San Francisco, it’s well over a five hour flight, even though you have a good filtration system, I still believe that masks are a prudent thing to do, and we should be doing it.”
Whether Fauci was simply talking about wearing masks until the pandemic ends or for far longer is up for interpretation.
As concerns about the new Omicron variant first cropped up late last month, the Biden administration once again extended the mask mandate for planes, airports, and other forms of public transportation through March 18. It was the third such extension of the policy.
Mask requirements have become a major flashpoint in the skies, helping fuel a drastic surge in unruly passengers and a zero-tolerance crackdown from the Federal Aviation Administration. There had been hope among airlines, travelers, and even Congress that masking requirements would end after the busy summer travel season.
But the fast-spreading Delta variant changed that calculus this summer, driving another wave of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths across the country. And with alarm about the Omicron variant growing by the day, that continues.
Airline CEOs Warn Fuel Costs Could Mean Higher Fares
Thursday, Dec. 16 at 6:30 a.m.
From $50 domestic tickets to $250 roundtrip fares to Europe, the pandemic has brought on some of the cheapest flight deals American travelers have ever seen. But CEOs of the nation’s largest airlines warned Congress this week that rising fuel costs could mean travelers will start paying more.
Fuel is one of the airlines’ biggest costs, second only to paying their massive workforces. Just as inflation has captured the nation’s attention, jet fuel prices are on the rise. After bottoming out early in the pandemic, worldwide jetfuel prices are up 58% compared to a year ago, according to data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the world’s largest airline trade group.
During a Wednesday U.S. Senate hearing surrounding airlines’ recent struggles with mass cancellations, top executives from the four largest U.S. airlines all pointed to those rising costs as a concern for the recovery of the airline industry – and some said it could eventually lead to higher ticket prices.
“That increase is going to have a significant impact on our cost structure, and at some point, that will have an impact on our fares,” said Doug Parker, American Airlines’ outgoing CEO.
Even if airfare ticks up, it’s got a long way to go before prices return to pre-pandemic norms. Data crunched by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that while average domestic airfare has crept up after hitting record lows in 2020, those fares remain far below the average prior to COVID-19. It also shows a steady decline over the last decade.
Southwest’s outgoing CEO Gary Kelly pointed to that decline in airfare and another factor that could keep fare prices low: Competition between the airlines.
“We compete,” Kelly told the senators. We’re going to do our best to be America’s leading low-fare carrier going forward.”
Even Parker, who sounded the strongest alarm about increased fuel costs, said the airline still has more supply of flights than there is demand for travel – a recipe for stable prices. He specifically credited the tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies given to airlines in 2020 and 2021 for allowing airlines to lower fares throughout the pandemic.
At Thrifty Traveler, we’ve dissected the dynamics behind what drives changes in flight prices. And while demand for travel is growing along with fuel costs, we’re still bullish on the future of cheap flights in 2022 and beyond.
Thanksgiving Travel Sets Another Pandemic Record
Monday, Nov. 29 at 8 a.m.
Travelers headed home for turkey in droves, setting several new pandemic travel records over the busy Thanksgiving holiday week.
Nearly 2.5 million travelers were recorded moving through U.S. airports on Sunday, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration – the highest figure recorded since Feb. 17, 2020, before the pandemic struck. And Sunday’s high watermark was just the latest new record set after several busy days leading up to the holiday.
In all, almost 21 million travelers were recorded throughout the 10-day holiday travel week – with eight days clocking in over 2 million. While they were the busiest days in air travel since the start of the pandemic, travel still hasn’t bounced back to pre-pandemic norms. For instance, this Sunday didn’t surpass the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2019, which saw nearly 2.9 million travelers – the most in the TSA’s history.
Despite warning signs heading into Thanksgiving, airlines managed to get through it without a repeat of meltdowns and mass cancellations thanks to a combination of planning and good luck.
Eager to avoid another round of cancellations, carriers like American Airlines offered workers huge bonuses of up to 300% to ensure they had enough staff on hand to handle the surge in travel. The numbers clearly show Americans spread out their travel dates rather than packing into the airports on the same days before and after Thanksgiving, taking advantage of the freedom to work from home and on the road. And above all, clear skies across the nation spared airlines from the storms that often start a snowball effect of cancellations.
As travelers and airlines alike prepare for Christmas travel, one big question looms: Will concerns surrounding the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 derail travel’s ongoing recovery?
New COVID-19 Variant Spooks World, Halts Some Flights
Friday, Nov. 26 at 1 p.m.
The U.S. and several other countries around the world are bracing for the arrival of another new, fast-spreading variant of COVID-19, blocking flights from South Africa where it’s believed to have originated and reintroducing another wave of uncertainty into international travel.
Little is known about the new variant dubbed “Omicron” by the World Health Organization, including how fast and far it may spread and its potential resistance to the vaccines in widespread use. Health officials worldwide and in South Africa where the Omicron variant was first detected cautioned against overreaction.
But several countries were quick to react, hoping to stamp out a new strain of the virus after the fast-spread delta variant fueled several new waves of infections across the globe. Several countries in the European Union temporarily halted flights on Friday morning from several African nations, leaving one flight that took off from Johannesburg in South Africa before the ban was announced stuck on the tarmac for hours, according to the New York Times.
By Friday afternoon, the White House announced it would ban entry of non-citizens coming to the U.S. from South Africa and several other African nations. That policy takes effect starting Monday, Nov. 29.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said, The Associated Press reported.
In the U.S., the new variant has not yet been detected. With international travel underway and Americans free to travel to many countries with COVID-19 testing and vaccination requirements, it’s unlikely the world would close down again.
But just like the Delta variant-fueled spikes from the summer led to secondary testing and vaccination measures across Europe and elsewhere, countries could impose more restrictions in response to the new omicron variant. That makes double-checking travel requirements and booking airfare with flexible change and cancellations paramount.
The head of emergencies at the WHO urged restraint.
“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel,” Dr. Michael Ryan said. “It’s really important that we remain open and stay focused.”
TSA, Airlines Brace for Thanksgiving Travel Surge
Thursday, Nov. 18 at 7:45 a.m.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and airlines alike are preparing for a hectic holiday travel season next week, expecting the biggest surge of travelers they’ve seen since the start of the pandemic.
The TSA said this week that it expects to handle about 20 million passengers through the long Thanksgiving travel period, starting this Friday, Nov. 19 through Sunday, Nov. 28. That would more than double the count from 2020.
And the agency expects the Sunday following Thanksgiving to be the busiest travel day of the season – that same day in 2019 set a travel record with more than 2.9 million travelers heading home or back to work. While federal officials don’t expect to surpass that number in 2021, it could get close.
“We anticipate that travel may be very close to pre-pandemic levels this holiday, and we are staffed and prepared for the holiday travelers,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement. “We have deployed technologies that enhance detection capabilities and reduce physical contact, and it’s equally important that passengers are prepared with travel tips for the most efficient checkpoint experience.”
Check out our tips to make it through the hectic holiday travel season unscathed!
While some areas of the country are struggling with fourth and fifth waves of COVID-19 cases and surging hospitalization rates, it’s clear Americans are ready to put the pandemic behind them and resume traveling in pandemic-record numbers.
Delta alone expects to handle 5.6 million travelers over Thanksgiving, three times what it saw in 2020. And the travel planning app TripIt crunched the numbers and found this Thanksgiving will be the busiest holiday for air travel since the start of the pandemic – with nearly three times as many flights booked as Thanksgiving 2020.
There’s some cause for concern that things may not go smoothly. Heading into winter, several airlines have canceled flights by the thousands as they struggle to keep up with demand when things go wrong. And just a month ago, more than 40% of TSA agents were still unvaccinated. The vaccine mandate for federal workers takes effect next Monday.
The TSA’s Pekoske brushed off concerns about a possible worker shortage next week, saying vaccination rates have accelerated among his workforce.
“I don’t think they should expect chaos… We’re very confident that this is going to be a very smooth operation over the next several days,” he told CBS News this week.
Hawaii’s Governor Gives Travelers Green Light to Return
Thursday, Oct. 21 at 8 a.m.
Hawaii has been open to travelers from the mainland U.S. for more than a year, allowing tourists with proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to visit the islands. But as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations skyrocketed across Hawaii this summer, Gov. David Ige begged travelers to stay away until at least November.
Now Ige is saying it’s safe for travelers to return to Hawaii.
“I think we are all encouraged by what we’ve seen over the last several weeks with the continuing trend of lower case counts,” Ige said this week, according to USA Today. “Our hospitals are doing better, and we have fewer COVID patients in them. Most importantly, our health care system has responded, and we have the ability to move forward with economic recovery.”
When Ige pleaded with travelers stay away back in August, Hawaii was in the midst of its worst outbreak throughout the entire pandemic, with skyrocketing COVID-19 case counts and health care systems strained by surging hospitalizations. But daily cases have plummeted in recent weeks, and the burden on hospitals driven by the fast-spreading Delta variant has lifted.
After locking out travelers with strict quarantines when the pandemic first struck in March 2020, Hawaii has steadily loosened entry requirements since restarting travel last October. As of July 9, fully vaccinated travelers from the mainland can now bypass onerous COVID-19 testing requirements to enter Hawaii.
Read more on Hawaii’s travel restrictions and requirements!
And the number of travelers heading for Hawaii continues to grow. In August, more than 722,000 travelers entered the islands by air, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. While that was down by 22% compared to pre-pandemic levels, it was up by 320% just since January 2021.
Hawaii is bracing for more arrivals soon – including travelers from outside the U.S. Ige says Hawaii is seeking more information about the plan to reopen the U.S. to fully vaccinated foreign visitors from Europe, Brazil, China, and elsewhere come Nov. 8.
United Airlines: Europe-U.S. Bookings up 35% From 2019
Wednesday, Oct. 20 at 12:00 p.m.
United Airlines hosted its quarterly earnings call Wednesday morning, where executives pointed to data showing a resurgence in travel and a recovery CEO Scott Kirby said was “on track.”
The most eye-popping statistic cited by the airline is that Europe to the U.S. flight bookings on United are up 35% in November and December from 2019. The U.S. border reopens to vaccinated travelers Nov. 8.
Last week, United partner Lufthansa’s CEO Carson Spohr said bookings between Europe and the U.S. increased 40% after the announcement of the U.S. reopening.
United Commercial Chief Andrew Nocella said demand across the Atlantic Ocean has remained at about the same levels as the airline saw in 2019, but that Tuesday’s demand was up 19% from two years prior.
Overall, United said it plans to fly 5% more capacity on its planes next year than in 2019 thanks to the resurgence of international travel.
United has painted a rosy picture of its recovery recently. Last week, Kirby made headlines when he said, “My guess is that next summer will be the busiest over the Atlantic ever. There is a huge desire to travel.”
Earlier this month, we crunched the numbers and found several key indicators showing a coming resurgence in travel, too.
The Nov. 8 reopening announcement won’t bring many changes for Americans traveling internationally, but will help many Americans reunite with friends and family abroad. Along with vaccination, COVID-19 tests will still be required for foreign nationals to enter into the U.S. come November.