What to Know Before You Go

Healthline spoke with health and travel experts for answers to your biggest questions about traveling during the holiday season now that the Omicron variant has emerged.

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The rise of the Omicron variant has cause increased concern for many people who were considering traveling during the holidays. Westend61/Getty Images

The Omicron variant is a new variant of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. It was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on Nov. 24.

It was first detected earlier that month in samples collected in Botswana and South Africa.

On Nov. 26, the WHO named the variant and classified as it as variant of concern.

On Nov. 30, the United States followed suit, with the first U.S. case being identified the following day.

As with other variants, there are concerns about whether the new variant will be more contagious or cause more severe disease than other variants. There are also questions about whether existing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments will be effective against it.

In light of Omicron appearing just in time for the holidays and potential holiday travel plans, Healthline conducted a reader survey from Dec. 2–3 to gain a stronger sense of the biggest concerns and questions people have about their safety while traveling at this time.

After gathering this data, Healthline spoke with health and travel experts to provide answers and guidance about holiday travel safety after the rise of the Omicron variant.

Perhaps not surprisingly, almost all of the survey respondents had heard of the Omicron variant.

In fact, of the 1,044 U.S. consumers who participated in the survey, 97 percent reported that they had heard of it, leaving only 3 percent who had not.

The majority of people surveyed reported feeling concerned about the Omicron variant, with 68 percent saying they felt this way.

On the other hand, 29 percent said they were not worried about it.

Because of the new variant, respondents said they were less optimistic about the future of the pandemic than they were in a previous survey done in August.

Overall, 32 percent of people said they felt less optimistic about the future, 19 percent said they felt more optimistic, and 39 percent said their outlook was unchanged.

This was a steep decline from the August poll when 33 percent said they were feeling more optimistic about the future.

In our December survey, 75 percent of participants said that they have received the vaccine. In addition, among those, 50 percent have received a booster shot.

This is a bit better than the count reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that indicates that, as of Dec. 9, 71.5 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and only 26.9 percent of adults have had a booster shot.

Most survey respondents said they did not plan to travel this holiday season, with 66 percent saying they would abstain.

Five percent were not sure whether they would travel.

Among the 29 percent who said they were likely to travel, 46 percent haven’t changed their plans yet but are closely monitoring the situation with COVID-19.

Fifteen percent said they had already canceled or postponed holiday travel plans.

During the survey, readers also expressed several concerns about the Omicron variant.

To help answer the most commonly asked questions, Healthline enlisted the help of Professor Cyrille Cohen, PhD, director of the Immunotherapy Lab at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

1. How effective are COVID-19 vaccines against the Omicron variant?

Fifty-three percent of you wanted to know whether the existing COVID-19 vaccines will do a good job against the new variant.

According to Cohen, we simply don’t know yet.

“The only reliable information we have from South Africa is that it seems Omicron can infect convalescent people at a rate superior than other variants,” he said.

Cohen added that, in his country of Israel, out of 21 verified COVID-19 cases, 13 people were vaccinated and 8 were not. However, he said these numbers are too small for him to draw any valid conclusion.

The CDC has said it expects the vaccines to work in protecting against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19.

However, breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people are possible.

2. How contagious is the Omicron variant?

Fifty-two percent of survey participants were concerned about how contagious the new variant might be.

Cohen said it seems to be more contagious than other variants based on the data that is currently available.

He cited estimates that Omicron is anywhere from 30 to 300 percent more contagious than the Delta variant.

According to the CDC, the Delta variant is highly contagious, more than twice as contagious as the coronavirus variants that came before it.

3. How severe are the symptoms of the Omicron variant?

Finally, 51 percent of the people we surveyed wanted to know how severe Omicron’s symptoms are.

The CDC has said we need more data — especially regarding reinfections and breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people — before we can determine whether it causes more severe illness or death than other variants.

However, Cohen said that right now, Omicron does not seem to be causing more severe disease, which is a good sign.

“So far, the cases observed in Israel do not seem more severe than the other variants we know,” said Cohen.

Medical experts advise against any unnecessary travel this holiday season.

However, if travel is a part of your holiday plans, Melissa Yeager, senior editor at Lonely Planet, advises taking extra precautions before you go.

“Traveling does take a bit more research and a different mindset these days,” she said. “Information changes rapidly, and you have to keep up with news about the virus at home as well as in the destinations you plan to visit.”

She recommends doing the following before you travel:

  • Visit the CDC’s travel advisory website for information about the status of the pandemic at your destination.
  • Visit the State Department’s travel advisory page for information about your destination as well as country-specific information about travel restrictions, what’s open and closed, and other requirements related to COVID-19.
  • Sign up for the State Department’s STEP program. This free program will provide you with updates to State Department travel advisories. You’ll also receive any emergency communications sent out by the U.S. government.
  • Set up a Google alert for your destination so you can keep up with current news.
  • Make sure you check with the foreign ministry or tourism bureau at your destination to see the current travel restrictions and requirements.

A nationally representative sample of 1,044 U.S. consumers participated in the survey on Dec. 2 and 3, 2021.

An opt-in panel of screened and verified consumers between the ages of 15 and 72 took part in the survey.

Participants answered questions about Omicron via desktop or their mobile device using the Suzy platform to collect their answers.

They received points redeemable for gift cards in exchange for their time.

The margin of error for this survey is ± 4 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

The Credibility Interval is ± 3.5 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

We understand that you’re worried about your health and safety away from home and the safety of the communities you’re visiting worldwide. As regulations and requirements for travel shift, we’re here to help you navigate this complex and often confusing landscape. Whether you’re driving to a natural wonder in your state or flying around the globe, we can help you protect yourself and others.

Check back often to learn how to protect yourself and your loved ones on your next journey.