The extent to which travellers will feel the effects of the war depends on where they’re going, though experts say the rising price of oil will likely affect all airline ticket prices, even on domestic routes.
For Americans with international plans, the world map, which recently seemed to be expanding with the relaxation of COVID restrictions in many countries, has shrunk anew. Operators have largely scrapped travel in Russia for the rest of the year, which greatly affects Baltic cruise itineraries where the marquee port of call was St Petersburg.
All of this comes at the time of year when many Americans plan their summer vacations. Some are hesitating. In a recent survey of about 350 American travellers on the impact of the war, the market research firm MMGY Global found that 47% are waiting to see how things pan out in Ukraine before making Europe plans. The conflict leapfrogged COVID-19 as a factor influencing decision-making, with twice as many respondents citing concern about the war spreading beyond Ukraine as those who fear the pandemic.
So far, travel companies are not seeing mass cancellations as travellers, who may have been conditioned to remain flexible by the pandemic, are sticking to their resolve. Nearly 65% of American adults surveyed by TheVacationer.com, a travel strategy website, said they would accept higher prices, longer transit times or another deterrent in order to travel in 2022.
“We’re not seeing a change in behaviour for now from our American travellers,” said Sarah Casewit, a senior travel curator with Origin, a membership-based travel-planning service, which has seen a rise in Europe bookings in recent weeks.
Whatever inconveniences travellers experience is, of course, nothing compared to the suffering inflicted on Ukrainians. Many travellers want to support Europeans who have been hoping for a robust summer season, but do not want to complicate humanitarian efforts to help war refugees.
Given the unpredictability of the war, travellers will need to remain flexible as flight operations, cruises and tours adjust to the conflict.
TURBULENCE IN THE AIR
No commercial carriers from the United States fly to Russia, and those with code-share and interline agreements with Russian carriers, including Delta and American, have cut them.
But the Federal Aviation Administration’s prohibition on flying over Ukraine, Belarus and much of Russia requires some routes to make costly diversions. For commercial flights departing from the United States, these routes are largely limited to India, which only reopened to tourists in mid-November. United Airlines has temporarily suspended service between San Francisco and Delhi and between Newark and Mumbai, though it is continuing service to Delhi from Chicago and Newark.
Rerouting to avoid Russian airspace on Asia flights by flying lower latitude routes over Alaska adds to the cost of operating those flights, said Robert Mann, an airline consultant, who estimated an extra hour of flight time can add up to $12,000.
Those aren’t the only additional expenses that will be passed on through higher ticket prices. The rising cost of oil, expected to rise even more after the Biden administration banned Russian oil imports, is contributing to higher airfares.
But for now, interest in Europe remains high among flyers. The airfare app Hopper found prices on Europe-bound flights from the US have risen 16% since mid-February, from $660 to $763 round trip, which it attributes to post-omicron travel enthusiasm and the usual seasonal cycle of rising prices.
Chelsea Randall and Jacob Meziani became digital nomads during the pandemic — they both work in information technology — living in 16 cities in North America in the past year. In April, the engaged couple plan to move to Europe for several months, first travelling to Portugal and then Poland where they plan to visit Meziani’s family in Lublin, about four hours from the Russian border.
“We are going to stall a little bit, maybe a week or two, to see how it looks for surrounding countries to Ukraine since we don’t know what will happen with refugees,” he said. “If it stays the same as it is, we will book and get trip insurance or an Airbnb with a later cancellation date that can be more flexible.”
CRUISES CHANGING COURSE
Cruise lines were counting on 2022 as their comeback year. But those that operate in and around Russia are quickly changing their routes.
From boutique lines such as Silversea to big-ship specialists such as Carnival, cruise lines have cancelled Russian port visits. Princess Cruise Lines is modifying 24 itineraries initially scheduled to visit St Petersburg.
“Some spend three full days there, longer than any other city in Europe,” said Samuel Spencer, the general manager of Ocean & River Cruises Travel, an agency based in Calgary, who describes the city’s attractions, such as the State Hermitage Museum and Peterhof Palace, as unmatched. “It’s a major blow.”
Nonetheless, lines are working to secure substitute ports. Oceania Cruises, which is also cancelling Russian stops in Murmansk, Archangel, Vladivostok and the Solovetsky Islands, plans to add additional overnights in Copenhagen and Stockholm in place of St. Petersburg.
Outside of Russia and Ukraine, where Viking cancelled its river sailings, river cruise companies largely remain committed to their European schedules.
“As we have yet to set sail for the 2022 cruise season, we have no current plans to cancel or adjust Eastern European cruises at this time,” said Pam Hoffee, the managing director of Avalon Waterways, which does not operate in Russia, in a statement.
As with pandemic-inspired travel cancellations, domestic destinations may benefit. Bookings at American Queen Voyages, which offers cruises on American rivers and lakes, shot up 30% in the past two weeks, which it attributed to travellers choosing domestic over European travel.
“The biggest impact I have seen are those that have a cruise booked who do not want their money to go to Russia,” said Victoria Hardison-Sterry, a Florida-based travel adviser with Lakeshore Travel who had one client switch from a Baltic cruise in 2023 to an Alaska cruise. “My clients have been outspoken about not adding to the Russian economy.”
Others are worried about travelling in neighbouring regions that may be flooded by war refugees, and where the presence of tourists would be a hindrance.
In about six weeks, Spencer is slated to take a group on an AmaWaterways cruise through southeastern Europe, including travelling through Romania and ending in Budapest. “Clients were initially reassured that the route was 1,200 to 1,500 kilometres away from the Russia-Ukraine border, but that situation has changed as cities far inland have been targeted by Russia,” he said, noting Budapest is only a few hours from Ukraine. For now, the trip is on, though Spencer is following the news closely. “We travel to support local economies and interact with the cultures, but if they’re dealing with an exodus from Ukraine, we don’t want to be a burden.”
Ensemble Travel Group, a travel adviser consortium, is taking about 150 of its agents on a river cruise in Europe in April. The travellers plan to pack blankets and hygiene kits to donate to a nonprofit helping refugees while they are in Budapest with the goal of doing “something meaningful to help those impacted by this horrible situation,” said Todd Hutzulak, Ensemble’s executive director of marketing, whose grandfather is from Kyiv.
Perhaps no sector of the travel industry has been more affected than tour operators that had trips scheduled in Russia and, to a lesser extent, its neighbours.
Companies including smarTours, Kensington Tours and G Adventures have cancelled upcoming trips there. Smithsonian Journeys cancelled or rerouted all 2022 trips that visited Russia and said cancellations in Europe have been less than 1% since the war began. Ride and Seek, a bike tour company, plans to continue to operate its Paris-to-St.-Petersburg tour, adjusted to ride to the Russian border, then retreat to Tallinn, Estonia, for the final evening.
“Traditionally, Russia is an emerging market for us that’s growing,” said Bruce Poon Tip, the founder of G Adventures, which cancelled a dozen tours in the country including its popular trans-Siberian train trips.
The company’s trips in border countries like Mongolia, the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and Turkey remain on the books. The conflict so far has not triggered mass cancellations.
“In regular times, clients would have said, ‘I’m not going to travel,’ but people have gone two years not travelling,” he said. “There’s a push and pull thing going on.”
Many travellers, newly unbound by COVID-19 restrictions, are sticking to their bucket-list plans. The tour company Atlas Obscura said Romania, which borders Ukraine, was among the top-selling trips in the past week.
“After two years spent close to home, our travellers are planning ambitious, far-flung trips,” wrote Mike Parker, the general manager of the company’s travel division, in an email.
Mir Corporation, a Seattle-based tour company that specializes in travel to Russia and the region — and whose name translates from Russian as “peace” and “world” — has had to cancel a “significant” number of its trips, according to Annie Lucas, the vice president. Meanwhile, trips to the southern Caucasus region, Central Asia and the Middle East are on.
“People are hesitant, of course,” she said in a call from Tbilisi, Georgia, where she travels frequently. “We are hoping the strengthening of US and European efforts will lead to cease-fire negotiations to end this senseless suffering.”
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