For many Minnesotans, the first snow fall of December cause an instinctual, almost automatic response. We grab the nearest smartphone or tablet and open Kayak or Google Flights to plan a trip — and get the heck out of here. And just when we thought COVID-19 concerns were behind us, we are broadsided by the worries of the Omicron variant! Is it really going to be another horrible winter of boring walks around the neighborhood? I have two domestic trips and one international trip planned and I am damn sure not staying home. Here are some of the ways I am going to maneuver through the upcoming travel season.
Choose Air Fares With Most Flexibility
The risk of new lockdowns, vaccination mandates or someone in your party getting sick makes travel flexibility paramount this winter. Southwest Airlines, the largest U.S. domestic carrier continues its long-standing policy allowing flight changes without fees. That is a one excellent option.
For the other major airlines, the most attractive low fare Basic Economy rates charge change fees for travel after December 31st. This presents the classic risk-reward decision for eager vacationers. If the next fare level above Basic Economy is reasonable, I suggest buying it. American, United and Delta all allow free flight changes on those fares.
On the other hand, if you find that irresistible $99 fare on Sun Country or Spirit, you may just want to roll the dice and book it knowing there is not that much money at risk if your plans are derailed.
What if your trip includes significant sunk expenses such as non-refundable fares, lodging or tour packages? In that case I would consider the Allianz One Trip Basic Plan that covers key travel threats such as getting sick, canceling or trip interruption, and even emergency medical evacuation. Further, the plan offers reasonable reimbursements for lost or damaged bags and $150 a day coverage for flight delays of six hours or more.
Hotel and Car Strategy
I am advocating a similar flexible approach for hotel or rental cars. I am paying a few dollars more for hotel rates that allow me to cancel close to arrival. For Airbnb (or VRBO), I am still going through my regular procedure, finding the best neighborhood to stay in through Trip Advisor Forums and finding lodging that has consistently high reviews. However, I am veering away from properties that demand high out-of-pocket outlays months out. And on the car rental front, as you can imagine I am not prepaying car rentals.
International Travel Just Got Tougher
The Biden Administration raised the international difficulty level on December 6th by requiring that international travelers complete a negative COVID-19 test within one day of departure to the United States. I am traveling to Cartagena, Colombia in January so I have been busy preparing for the new rule. Although some of the major airlines, resorts and hotels offer testing options, you definitely want to have your plan secured before you leave! I am flying JetBlue and they do not offer testing options in Colombia. No worries, I found two well-respected providers of self-testing kits that I can pack in my luggage. Then by finding a good Wi-Fi signal, I can conduct the self-test at my hotel during a video call with the health service company.
The two companies I found were Elluma priced at $50 for a test kit and the Binax Now COVID-19 home test selling a six pack for $150. Both of these rapid antigen tests have FDA emergency use authorization. Once I have completed the supervised 15 minute test, the provider immediately sends me a verification e-mail. I can load that information into the airline’s mobile app to expedite check-in.
I am going to take my preparation one step further. It is possible (likely) that Customs lines will be enormous under the new rules. The best bet would be Global Entry status to skirt past the lines on my return but I don’t have it. Instead I am going to use the Customs Border Patrol Mobile Passport Control App. This app is a free application that can be downloaded from the Apple App store and Google Play.
These apps are accepted at 27 airports and four cruise ports in the U.S. I will preload my passport and customs information into the app and if all goes well will be able to skip the queues waiting to get into the Custom halls to the kiosks. There are two other CBP partner companies: Airside Mobile and Clear that offer apps approved to do the same thing.
Well if all that sounds like too much work, I guess I don’t blame you for staying home. I’ll glance out my window from time to time to see if you are hiking around my block in frigid temperatures.