Update: Israel just closed all flights for the time being, showing the volatility noted below.

I hate fear mongering. It’s not what’s needed in the world right now any more than the push notifications alerting us of every event and live tally. This is not that.

As someone who cares deeply about loved ones being able to connect across borders and about essential workers being able to help expedite the world recovery, I’m seeing a worrying trend in travel, however warranted it may be.

It means for the next couple months, connectivity may become increasingly difficult.

The tl;dr version is that travel will begin to open up from late spring into early summer as vaccines reach those most in need and the worst is behind us, but it may be a wild ride for the next month or two, which could see the closure of many key flight links.

If you’re trying to get home, or make a move, it’s may either best to stay put for a while, or move quickly. Even essential travel isn’t going to be easy.

Image by Pacific Azure from Pixabay

Reactionary Travel Restrictions

Countries are freaked out about various virus mutations. Yes, even though most epidemiologists and virologists would generally tell you that they’re not unexpected in the slightest, and often mean a virus is getting more spreadable, but less deadly, as viruses tend to do.

So far the vaccines are also reported to be effective with all the new mutations found.

Politicians, however, are also always eager to “look” like they’re “doing a thing”, so they can use soundbites which resonate with certain segments of the public in the present and future, regardless of how actually irrational and damaging the restrictions may be.

This has lead to many rather insane new covid-19 related travel restrictions in recent weeks, jeopardizing connectivity for entire countries, and the future of many airlines, despite little basis from a scientific perspective. In layman terms, it’s a “barn door after horse bottled” situation in most cases.

Country Closures, Flight Cancellations

It came down to the wire, but KLM was able to avoid plans to temporarily suspend all international flights from January 22nd, as previously reported in ‘KLM will temporarily suspend ALL long haul flying‘, for an undisclosed period of time in response to intense travel restrictions introduced in the Netherlands.

The restrictions require all passengers, even those in transit, to take a rapid test within 4 hours before departure, in addition to a PCR test within 72 hours of departure. A 10 day quarantine period has also been introduced. Basically, it’s a no go. KLM was able to discuss more viable options with the government.

Yes, it meant anyone flying to New York, Dubai, Hong Kong or anywhere else KLM flies long haul will now find their flights cancelled for the foreseeable future, with little chance of rebooking on another airline, as other airlines retreat from the Netherlands.

Even key workers driving vaccine initiatives and scientific miracles may find themselves unable to travel, particularly if airlines continue to close long haul flying. Who’s left?

In the UK, it appears British Airways can’t even sell you a holiday right now. At least not during lockdown.

A flight plus hotel search for a trip to Dubai in February returns a pop-up window stating “It’s illegal for residents of the UK to travel internationally on holiday during national lockdown. As a result, we are unable to provide availability for your search dates.”

It’s illegal for many UK based travelers to go abroad right now, but not all. Business and education are among a variety of accepted reasons. Putting a blanket restriction against holiday sales is an extraordinary step, though it’s likely you could still buy a BA flight on its own.

Balancing Panic And Logic

Airlines will continue to operate to places where financial opportunity exists without risk of leaving crew members behind due to changing restrictions. That doesn’t always need to include passengers. In fact, many airlines have survived purely on flying cargo, but if prices drop, so too could that viability.

So no, not all long haul travel will cease overnight, but the frequency of flights between cities or countries may drop swiftly. If a market, or entire country, is no longer viable, flights will go from daily, to twice weekly, to weekly, to not at all. And not with just one airline either.

That’s perhaps the most alarming part of recent travel border changes: the lack of notice.

The argument isn’t that countries don’t need to make changes, or use new and improved technologies to test for covid-19. The argument is that they need to offer clear guidelines for future moves, and how sustainably safe initiatives can hold, even with new emerging

Australia recently enacted changes which caused Emirates and a variety of airlines to stop flying to Australia with little or no notice. The caps on citizens and family hoping to return to the country mean it’s no longer viable for airlines to fly, which leaves some 25,000 travelers due to return without many current options.

It’s just one example of yet another overnight change, which will fundamentally change the course of many lives and livelihoods.

In Joe Biden’s historic first day as President Of the United States, many proclamations were signed to get the ball rolling on a recovery from covid-19, and reestablishing the US as a key global figure.

This included rescinding a ban on Muslim majority countries, but also immediately repealed plans to remove travel bans on arrivals from Europe, Brazil and China. These bans remain in place, and there’s talk of adding additional restrictions on all travelers entering the country, including returning citizens.

A negative covid-19 test for all arrivals from January 26th onward is one confirmed measure, but there are many others reportedly on the table. In many countries, access to timely testing is not a given, which further complicates plans.

Similar to the UK, South Africa also finds itself isolated, as many countries banned all flights to or from South Africa in response to a strain found in recent weeks. Like all strains found, fear mongers are quick to assign a geographical tilt to the strain, even though it’s typically already in at least 20 countries at the time of discovery, and the discovery is typically only as a result of fantastic scientific work from experts.

Not to be outdone, South America finds itself worse off than most. In one of the more “wow” moments in travel recently, travel to the entire continent has been banned by a variety of countries, with flight links closed overnight.

Ironically, both the UK and The Netherlands are among those to ban all travel with South America, and the Netherlands also banned the UK in the process.

Is Long Haul Travel Shutting Down?

Given the context of the news above, it’s hard to count on any country links available today being around tomorrow. That doesn’t mean mobility might not still be possible via connections, but even transit is becoming a tricky area with its own testing needs.

Once tragic death rates drop as a result of the mass vaccination of the most at risk, travel restrictions will begin to disappear and become a frustrating memory. It’s not outrageous to believe significant, sustainable changes to the travel landscape could be among us as summer emerges, perhaps even just before.

But before that good news begins to trickle in, it may indeed get worse before it gets better, and that may leave vital links between countries behind. If you’re pondering any movement in the next month, it’s best to make decisions quickly, whether that means staying, or going.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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16 Comments

  1. While there may be an element of wanting to be seen to be doing something, this is a logical step for most countries. After 4 mnths of lockdown followed by semi lockdown, I wouldnt want a new strain to come in and screw us over.

    1. The virus has already spread. Every new variant is in Australia which has extremely strict restrictions.
      Knee-jerk reactions driven by fear and pandering to public opinion

      1. That’s kind of a big lie there Gilbert.
        Please stick to points and let virology and epidemiology and transmission to the experts.
        Your assessment seems particularly self-serving.

        1. Prove me wrong with facts. Show me a statistical analysis in the Western hemisphere showing international travel as a significant contributing factor to community spread Spoiler alert: it’s not. You’ll find circa 80/95% of spread is due to domestic issues. People get cozy with friends, don’t wear masks, go to bars and that remains the predominant spread. Absolutely nothing self serving here. I don’t get paid when people travel.

          1. Thanks for posting this, you’re entirely right about the “knee jerk” responses without scientific evidence to back it up. Incredibly frustration, particularly as there’ll be measures such as boarding from the back of the plane and wearing masks throughout the flight, but then sitting people right next to each other!
            As you say mutations are to be expected, which is why the annual flu vaccine (in the UK) is amended every year.
            Let’s hope that if we’re in this for a while to come, airlines will at least consult medical professionals before making decisions.

          2. This is absolutely true! No spreading from travelling; you wear mask, keep social distancing from strangers as usual. Otherwise, in the US, with closed borders from last March, there should be a completely different situation!! Spreading happens at home, with relatives and friends, eating together, close contact at high risk.

  2. I see…situation is getting worse worldwide. The facts is, as EU did, that’s there’s a big difference between opening borders indiscriminately and permitting reunions for no tourism reasons. Living in EU and having a fiancé in US made us apart from last June, so as for many couples and families. A negative PCR test would be able to guarantee health and safety for all of us.

    1. I think the “hope” to cling onto is that rapid testing is finally getting very accurate, fast, and cheap enough that airlines and airports will be happy to bore the costs. We may still need PCR tests, but I know many countries are believing that with rapid pre-departure testing as an added layer, we can start to really open again within months.

  3. Oh dear iam starke in madeira and I wonder when will I be able to go to uk.iam depressed and walking problems anyone can tell me the fast track to go to uk. Please help I dont have the funds for Hotel foodand the covid-19 is costing €125:00 so it getting me down Iam worried sick thinking what is going to happened.

  4. First off rapid testing is not getting more accurate at all, I have family members that are in the medical community and this is the sad part the rapid test only test for a Corona virus antigen, that means if you’ve had the flu or the cold which by the way are both coronaviruses, then you are more than likely to test positive for covid-19. Those are just the facts. A PCR test is the best way.

    1. Of course they are getting more accurate. Every failure leads to learning and companies have billions/trillions at stake to find the right sensitivity settings and find more accurate solutions. For example, it recently emerged that spit tests appear more accurate than swabs. Believing that progress isn’t being made daily is too contrarian and sad of a view to take on life. A PCR test, yes, is still the best way, but double layers of protection and affordable access to rapid testing bolster that layer.

    2. It’s important to remember that the PCR test only indicates the presence of the viral RNA but this does not represent infectivity. Samples would have to be cultured to know this. So in essence, a person may test positive but only because their immune system fought the virus and they are not infective at all. Unfortunately, this is the measure by which standards are being set (due to limited options), so many non-infective people who may simply have robust immune systems will fall into the positive category.

  5. I’m really confused by the US Travel situation. You say that Biden repealed plans to remove the ban on travel from the UK, but that’s not clear from any of the information on the US Government sites.
    Ignoring the fact we can’t leave the UK at the moment, I thought the US entry side of things had changed to be entry with a negative test and some amount of quarantine (duration yet to be confirmed) for all travellers. Are you saying the ban on Europe, UK and Brazil is still in place?

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