Should U.S. travelers rethink Europe plans because of the war in Ukraine?
With many travel restrictions finally relaxing in early 2022, Gabriele Antoni booked a trip she’s been wanting to take for a while: several weeks in her home country of Germany, followed by a 12-day cruise in Norway with friends.
The 64-year-old Florida resident and US green card holder hasn’t been back to Germany since her mother died in February 2020. At that time, Antoni had to abruptly return to the United States, where she’s lived for decades, to avoid border closures as the pandemic gained steam.
But ever since, she has longed to return to her small hometown of Sonthofen to “properly grieve” her mother, she says, by visiting cafes they frequented together and hiking where they once did in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps.
In the lead-up to her trip, Antoni is busy booking hotels and flights, making arrangements with friends — and, like many others with plans to visit Europe, keeping an eye on the horrifying headlines coming out of Ukraine since it was invaded by Russia on February 24.
“I am doing everything, but in the back of my mind, I tell myself, you might not be able to do this, you might not be able to get there,” Antoni said.
Antoni isn’t alone in her concerns. According to a recent survey conducted by MMGY Travel Intelligence, the research division of marketing research firm MMGY Global, the war in Ukraine is now twice as likely to impact Americans’ travel plans to Europe as the coronavirus pandemic.
Of the 350 adult US travelers with upcoming plans to visit Europe who were surveyed, 62% said the invasion is a factor for planning their trips, compared with 31% who cited Covid-19 health and safety concerns. In addition, 47% said they’re taking a “wait and see” approach on how the situation evolves before making plans to visit Europe this year.
Flight data reflects similar hesitations.
According to a report from flight tracker app Hopper, searches for round-trip flights to Europe from the United States were on the rise as the Omicron variant wave subsided, indicating a strong rebound for transatlantic demand.
But as news of Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine started making headlines in mid-February, that demand started to taper. According to Hopper data, since February 12, Europe has dropped from 21% to 15% of international bookings — a notable decrease from the approximately 30% of international bookings in the same time frame the region accounts for in a pre-pandemic year such as 2019.
‘You can travel safely’
However, travel and security experts say there’s no need to start canceling trips just yet.
Ukraine and Russia currently have Level 4 “Do Not Travel” warnings from the US Department of State, but the department has not issued similar advisories for European countries that are affected by the crisis.
Poland, which is receiving the majority of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war, is listed at a Level 4 advisory but for Covid-19 concerns, not the current conflict.
A spokesperson for Rick Steves’ Europe said via email that the tour company “intend[s] to run all Eastern Europe itineraries, including the Best of Poland tour,” adding that the only tours it has canceled are those with stops in Russia.
Indeed, Europe remains open for travelers despite the crisis unfolding in Ukraine. And after limping along for two years during the pandemic, the tourism sector is more eager to welcome visitors than ever.
And while concerns over traveling during a war are valid, security experts also emphasize that many of Europe’s most popular tourist areas, such as Barcelona, Rome and Paris, are many hundreds (if not thousands) of miles from the current conflict in Ukraine.
“You don’t need to have this sort of heightened state of anxiety, [which] is the one thing that I’m seeing the most right now,” said Greg Pearson, CEO and founder of Care & Assistance Plus, a newly launched travel and crisis assistance service by global firm FocusPoint International.
“People are maybe prematurely canceling their plans, and I don’t think we’re there yet. It’s anybody’s best guess as to what’s going to happen next, but as it relates to travel to western Europe, I think you can travel safely.”
For countries closer to Ukraine, the situation becomes a bit murkier.
Pearson estimates that about 30% of CAP’s customers over the past few weeks have either canceled or postponed trips to countries including the Czech Republic and Germany, neither of which border Ukraine. Other travelers have shifted their itineraries farther away from the conflict to western Europe.
In addition, Pearson says, some travelers are concerned about whether they should take part in shore excursions during river boat tours of eastern Europe.
“The advice we’ve provided them has been ‘Absolutely get off [the boat],’” Pearson told CNN Travel. “They need those tourism dollars, they want to see you, they want you to visit their restaurants and shop and stay if you can, so we want people to do that. Our mantra here is to travel fearlessly, but to travel informed and stay connected.”
‘This uncertainty is really difficult’
Not surprisingly, some European tourism officials are concerned about the potential disruption to travel — yet another setback facing the beleaguered industry after two challenging years.
In Prague, Czech Republic, the tourism board is focusing its summer marketing campaigns on domestic tourism and visitors from other European countries, instead of the US and Asia, the organization said in a statement shared with CNN Travel.
Christian Tänzler, a spokesperson for Visit Berlin in Germany, also said that while he expects Europeans to travel as usual throughout Europe for spring and summer holidays as long as the Ukraine crisis does not spill over into other countries, the US market is a tougher sell.
In non-pandemic years, US travelers made up the second-largest group of international tourists behind the United Kingdom, Tänzler said.
However, in light of the current crisis, those travelers appear to be in a wait-and-see mode regarding booking, although the organization hasn’t seen a noticeable uptick in cancellations so far.
“Nobody knows, really, if people will start canceling because of the situation,” he said. “This uncertainty is really difficult.”
In addition, Tänzler noted, US-based travelers may not have an accurate account of the current situation in Germany, which he said is “absolutely safe.”
“Last weekend in Berlin, the cafes, bars, restaurants were all packed,” Tänzler said. “Everything was crowded. Everybody was sitting outside. It was like a normal spring day.”
But even for travelers who know Europe well — such as Antoni, who grew up in Germany — the specter of possible nuclear war, or fallout from war-damaged nuclear reactors in Ukraine, can add an extra layer of trepidation.
It’s a fear that Antoni understands firsthand: Following the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986, she decided to cancel a trip from the United States to Germany with her young children.
“It was a big deal,” Antoni said, recalling memories of warnings over possible food contamination and other health scares in Germany. “I hope and hope and hope that this is not happening again. But I always say, ‘ I’ll cross the bridge when I get there.’ No use worrying now.”
‘Always have an emergency plan’
As some travelers reconsider upcoming travel plans to Europe, security and risk experts note that it’s always a good practice to stay informed about current events no matter where you’re headed. They also emphasize the need to have a solid plan in place should things go awry, whether it’s the coronavirus or a war.
“The worst time to figure out what to do in a crisis is in the middle of a crisis,” said CAP’s Pearson.
As two years of pandemic-caused cancellations and disruptions have demonstrated, reliable travel insurance and flexible booking policies for airfare and accommodations are more important than ever.
Before leaving, make copies of important travel documents such as passports and vaccine certificates, and US citizens and nationals should be sure to register with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, a free service that connects travelers with embassies and consulates in their destination country. The service also provides travel and security updates.
Figuring out where you’ll go ahead of time in case of an emergency situation, such as wartime conflict, also is crucial.
“If war spreads across Eastern Europe or into one inch of NATO soil, you should have a plan to evacuate or relocate to a safer area,” says Tim Hentschel, co-founder and CEO of HotelPlanner, a service provider for the global hotel sales market. “Always have an emergency plan anytime you travel to a city that’s foreign to you.”
Pearson also advises travelers to share a copy of their itinerary, hotel and flight information with friends or family back home. Regular check-ins are important too, he said. Also, don’t forget about the basics, such as “how to dial the phone internationally while you’re abroad.”
In addition, travelers headed to Poland or other countries receiving a large influx of refugees should also be aware of the constraints on transportation infrastructure and hotel room availability.
Protests and demonstrations, meanwhile, continue in popular European tourist destinations, and while most of them are peaceful, travelers should always be vigilant and avoid conflicts with security.
Finally, while a devastating invasion and humanitarian crisis shouldn’t prevent people from taking a much-anticipated vacation, what’s happening in Ukraine can also offer travelers a profound sense of perspective, especially in light of common on-the-road gripes such as long security lines.
“I talk to people within my own circles that are interested in traveling, and one of the things I say to them is, ‘Don’t be an ugly American,’ ” Pearson said. “Of course, enjoy yourself, have a great time, but just be sensitive to the fact that there are a lot of people recently displaced and struggling right now.”