Why I’m waiting to book a flight to Iceland — and you might want to do the same

Since March 15, I’ve been quarantining at my dad’s house just outside Philadelphia. Before then, I was at a ski resort in a remote part of Canada, with an overnight stop in Vermont on the drive south. During these days, weeks and now months, I’ve been helping care for my young siblings while my dad, a physician, has treated COVID-19 patients. Fortunately, with homeschooling almost done for the season, he soon won’t need my help.

My dad’s been especially careful and has tested negative for COVID-19 and coronavirus antibodies, and I’ve always worn a mask near anyone in public. In other words, I’m in the clear myself, and we’re confident there’s no risk that I’d infect anyone else if I decide to fly. As you might imagine, I’m especially eager to venture far beyond the neighborhood, so I immediately began planning a trip to Iceland for next month, once I heard that the country had a plan to safely welcome tourists beginning June 15.

I’ve actually never been to Iceland, and I’ve been eager to visit. Plus, with virtually zero tourists in the country right now, at least until mid-June, I can’t imagine a better time to go. There are some risks associated with flying, but I discussed it with my dad, who’s successfully stayed coronavirus-free despite interacting with COVID patients on a regular basis. He’s confident I’ll be able to make the trip safely.

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I’ll keep my distance at the TSA checkpoint, put my backpack into a trash bag before it enters a screening bin, sanitize my hands constantly and wear an N95 mask that I’ve had since before the pandemic with a plastic face shield for the entire flight. I’ll skip any food or beverage service, and avoid using the lavatory on board. It’ll be a far cry from what I’ve experienced before the pandemic, and I don’t plan to sleep even a moment on the red-eye, but that’s alright.

Upon arrival in Iceland, the country has committed to offering coronavirus tests on arrival, with results delivered within five hours. The test is even expected to be provided free of charge for the first couple of weeks. Alternatively, visitors may be able to present an acceptable clean bill of health obtained before departure or begin a mandatory 14-day quarantine after arrival.

I’ve felt good about that plan of being tested upon arrival, until this week, when the Iceland Monitor reported that the country may only be able to process 500 tests a day — less than the capacity of two Boeing 767s.

All the while, Icelandair continues to sell thousands of seats on flights arriving on June 15, the very first day that the country expects to welcome guests, waiving the quarantine requirement with a negative test. As of now, passengers can book nonstop flights on any of the below flights, for arrival on June 15:

Boeing 757: Chicago (ORD), Denver (DEN), New York (JFK), Seattle (SEA), Toronto (YYZ), Berlin (TXL), Brussels (BRU), Copenhagen (CPH) x2, Frankfurt (FRA) x2, Helsinki (HEL), London (LHR), Munich (MUC), Oslo (OSL), Paris (CDG) x2, Stockholm (ARN), Zurich (ZRH).

Boeing 767: Boston (BOS), Newark (EWR), Washington, D.C. (IAD), Amsterdam (AMS), Copenhagen (CPH), London (LHR), Paris (CDG).

It’s a fraction of the carrier’s regular schedule, but far more than the two Boeing 767s the country would reasonably be able to process, based on this week’s report.

Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.
Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.

Icelandair operates several Boeing 757 configurations, with at least 171 seats, and one version of the Boeing 767, with 259 seats. Currently, for flights arriving on June 15, the airline is selling 19 flights operated by the 757, and seven flights operated by the 767.

While the airline is trying to avoid having passengers fly in the middle seat, when possible, assuming every flight goes out as scheduled and every seat is sold, that’s more than 5,000 passengers on Icelandair flights alone. Half that would still be 2,500 passengers. A number of other European airlines are selling flights arriving that day as well, including Wizz Air from London (LTN) and SAS from Copenhagen (CPH).

As it turns out, Icelandair isn’t actually operating all the flights it’s selling — a grand total of six round-trips are scheduled for next week, for example. Just because you can book a particular route doesn’t mean the airline will fly it. Instead, Icelandair will accept bookings, then confirm which flights will operate within a few days of departure, on this frequently updated page:

The same seems to apply to some Iceland hotels. The Points Guy himself, Brian Kelly, has been eyeing a June Iceland trip as well, and one of the hotels he booked just canceled his reservation, sharing plans to delay its opening for at least a few more days. He had a similar experience with a hotel in Antigua. Brian will be detailing both, along with his June plans, in his weekly newsletter.

I’ve been taking an especially cautious approach. Despite phenomenal rates at some Iceland hotels and Airbnbs — including the Ion Adventure Hotel, which usually commands rates twice as high — many bookings are nonrefundable, and you could be left with a hefty bill if the country isn’t able to welcome tourists on June 15 without a quarantine, as it currently hopes.

As for what happens if Icelandair ends up canceling your flight?

The airline will certainly be on the hook for a refund for tickets that include travel to or from the United States, and an Icelandair reservations agent I spoke with explained that you’ll be able to move to a new flight completely free of charge within seven days of your original booking. Or, if you want to travel in the future, the airline will waive the change fee, but you’ll be on the hook for any difference in fare.

Alternatively, assuming you book directly with the airline, Icelandair will allow you to cancel your flight voluntarily through Sept. 30, 2020, and receive the full value in the form of a Travel Credit Voucher, which can be used to book a future Icelandair flight within three years of the date the certificate was issued — and for travel within one year of booking — for a total of four years.

Hotels, tours and other nonrefundable expenses might prove more of a challenge, but you could still negotiate a refundable rate and reimbursement terms up front, especially if you avoid booking through an online travel agency.

As for me? I’m still hopeful I’ll be able to travel to Iceland next month. With a June 15 deadline looming, I imagine we’ll hear more over the next week or so. Until then, I’m working through all the details, so once we hear the all-clear, I’ll be ready to book my entire trip. But I’m holding off on pressing the booking button, for now.

For more on traveling to Iceland now, see:

Featured photo by John Fredricks/NurPhoto via Getty Images.