Travel

A rundown of pandemic-related developments affecting travel in Alaska, the U.S. and Europe

Although travelers are weary of COVID-related inconvenience, there’s just no way to separate the effect of the contagious virus from travel to far-flung destinations. In addition to the threat of contracting the virus here at home, there are the logistics of vaccine delivery — and various governments’ efforts to contain the spread with lockdowns, travel restrictions and testing.

Against this backdrop, travelers are anxious to fly, cruise and explore the world. Some countries are closer than others in terms of welcoming American visitors, especially those who are fully vaccinated.

Here’s a rundown of important travel news that will affect our summer plans:

1. The TSA has renewed the mask mandate for all airline passengers through Sept. 13, 2021. This requirement, in addition to all commercial flights in the U.S., includes all airports, buses and trains.

2. The Canadian border remains closed to non-essential travel until May 21. Leaders from both countries are anxious to open the border. But COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Canada and vaccinations are proceeding slower than in the U.S. Last week, Canadian Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Canada was working on a “vaccine passport” that will be required to enter (or transit) Canada.

[Alaska towns near the Canadian border prepare for another summer of restrictions]

3. European officials indicated they want to welcome fully vaccinated Americans in Europe this summer. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen mentioned that all 27 EU member states will accept travelers who are vaccinated using approved vaccines (including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson).

The timeline for travelers is murky, as are details regarding verifiable documentation like a “vaccine passport” or something else.

Several countries already have opened their borders to Americans. Iceland is welcoming fully vaccinated travelers. Greece and Croatia are opening back up to U.S. travelers, based on a negative COVID-19 test. In fact, Delta and United are adding flights to Reykjavik, Dubrovnik and Athens to provide nonstop flights from the U.S.

French President Emmanuel Macron initiated a plan to reopen the country to tourists, including those from the U.S., by June 9. However, there are two conditions. First, COVID-19 numbers must stay below a specific level. Second, travelers must have a “pass sanitaire,” which is a health passport. It has not yet been tested with international travelers.

While the German carrier Eurowings already has canceled its scheduled Anchorage-Frankfurt service, Condor Airlines still is hanging on to see if conditions are right for flights from Anchorage and Fairbanks to Frankfurt. There will be no flights in May, but the airline’s planners are anxious to launch the flights. “Bookings are good,” they said in an email.

4. Cruise lovers are still in wait-and-see mode. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued new guidance to further a resumption of sailings for the big ships.

Key takeaways of the new CDC guidance include requirements that 95% of cruise passengers (and 98% of the crew) must be fully vaccinated.

Alaska-bound cruise ships have additional requirements, though: If they are foreign flagged (all the big ships are registered outside the U.S.), they must make a stop in Canada. Since Canada still is off-limits to cruise ships, more negotiations are required.

[Norwegian Cruise Line threatens to pull ships from Florida over governor’s vaccine passport ban]

Lanie Downs of the Cruise Lines International Association, a trade association, shared her group’s perspective: “The technical instructions issued by the CDC on May 5 confirm that there is a lot of work to do in order to achieve the goal of sailing from U.S. ports this summer. We appreciate the CDC’s expressed commitment to this goal and look forward to further discussions on the details of the instruction, including a better understanding of how predominantly vaccinated passengers and crew can accelerate a return to service.”

While the big ships wrestle with the Canadians and the CDC, small U.S.-flagged vessels started sailing this week from Juneau.

Dan Blanchard owns UnCruise Adventures. Due to increased pandemic restrictions in Seattle, UnCruise sailed its 22-passenger charter yacht, the “Safari Quest” up to Juneau. The yacht is on its first weeklong itinerary, which includes three days in Glacier Bay, as well as a visit to Endicott Glacier. “The permits to Glacier Bay were really easy to get,” he said, “because nobody’s up here.”

UnCruise is operating six ships in Alaska this summer, including the 76-passenger Wilderness Discoverer. The company is running a Mother’s Day special of up to $1,100 off per cabin on select Alaska sailings.

5. Airlines are bringing more travelers to Alaska. Even though the big cruise ships aren’t sailing (yet), Alaska is extremely popular, particularly since it’s a domestic destination and there are few pandemic-related travel restrictions. All the airlines are beefing up their schedules.

One big problem: There aren’t enough rental cars to go around. Rental car companies sold off their fleets during the pandemic. New orders were cut because of the chip shortage and resulting shutdown of new car manufacturing. Gary Zimmerman runs three rental car brands in Anchorage: Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty. “When my friends call asking about June, July and August, I have to say no,” he said. “And I hate to say no.”

There is another option, although it’s lesser-known. Car owners can rent out their vehicles to visitors using Turo. Between June 16 and June 20, Turo offers a 2017 Kia Rio for $176 per day, or a Ford Eco-Sport for $191 per day. That’s still cheaper than Hertz at the airport, which offers a “manager’s special” for $270 per day. Avis, Alamo and Enterprise had no cars available.

Whether it’s cruises, border crossings or rental cars, the hiccups as we move out of the pandemic-induced lockdowns are substantial. Still, our inconveniences pale in comparison to the true horror of an uncontrolled pandemic, or the real frustration of not having access to the vaccine.

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