My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

How to Plan, Pack, and Prepare for a Pandemic Trip to Europe

Planning, packing, and preparing for a trip to Europe takes a lot of work. And even more so during a pandemic. I’m back in Europe now, having cleared all of those hurdles. A few months ago, when I began planning my trip, I hoped things would become clearer over time. Instead, the opposite happened. But with a little extra preparation and flexibility, coming to Europe has turned out just fine. And I must say, it feels fantastic to be here.

Here are some details about how I packed and prepared for this trip. Keep in mind that, especially in uncertain times, I’m a “belt-and-suspenders” traveler who tends to overprepare. You may find some of these steps overkill. Even more important, be aware that things are changing fast — including several new restrictions that have come about even since I arrived — so don’t take anything in this post as definitive. The key thing for travelers is to stay informed, double-check official sources as your trip nears, and don’t assume anything.

Packing

I gave myself a few weeks to inventory and pack my travel gear — partly because I was rusty after two years of no European travel, and partly because I’m traveling in a whole new world. This gave me time to brainstorm what I might need and to order some new items (like home test kits and N95 masks) well before departure. Here are some of the “extras” that I brought along for pandemic travel:

Your CDC vaccine card is now right up there with your passport as an essential item for traveling in Europe. I enclosed mine in a form-fitting plastic sleeve, sealed with a zipper, which fits perfectly in my money belt. I also went to a copy shop and asked them to make a double-sided, full-color, laminated photocopy; it took a few minutes and cost less than $5. That’s the “vaccine card” that I keep in my pocket, while the original (in case I’m asked for it) is safely in my money belt. So far, the copy has been accepted everywhere in Europe.

Another addition to my luggage were a few home COVID test kits. (File under “Never thought I’d bring that to Europe.”) These have been approved by the FDA for emergency use and are available over-the-counter; I bought the Abbot BinaxNOW kits. (It’s important to note that these are rapid antigen tests, rather than the more sensitive and accurate PCR tests that are sent to a lab. The at-home tests essentially indicate whether you’re actively contagious, not necessarily if you have small amounts of the virus in your system. Learn more about the difference here.) These can be useful to have in hand. For example, after arriving in Europe and spending three days in the mountains, I was heading into civilization where I’d be seeing several friends. So that morning, I took a test…negative!

While not a 100% guarantee, it gave me peace of mind. And if I start having symptoms, I’ll be glad to be able to test quickly to determine if I need to isolate.

I also packed a second type of home COVID test, which can be used for the mandatory test for returning to the US. There’s more detail on this later.

I’m also bringing along lots of extra masks, of various types; I prefer KN95 and N95 respirators, which offer the best protection both for the wearer and for those they interact with. For the first time since the shortages of early 2020, I found it relatively easy to stock up on some medical-grade N95 masks, which give me peace of mind on the airplane. I find my preferred style (3M “Aura”), with more breathing space and a padded nose bridge (to reduce eyeglasses fog), are particularly comfortable on a nine-hour flight.

Here in Europe, I’m noticing that most people wear surgical masks and KN95s; cloth masks are rare, and some countries require medical-grade masks in addition to, or instead of, cloth ones.

Before I was vaccinated, I also wore a face shield on the plane. I brought one along on this trip, just in case, say, the guy seated next to me spent the entire trip coughing. (He didn’t.)

I packed a thermometer and an oximeter. If I’m feeling flushed, a thermometer helps me figure it out if I just got too much sun or actually have a fever. And if I came down with COVID, I’d use the oximeter to track my oxygen levels and determine whether I should seek medical treatment.

And, of course, I brought along loads of disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer. However, now that I’ve arrived, I’m finding that hand sanitizer is as ubiquitous here as it is back home. (This was not the case even a few years ago, when my European friends would stock up on sanitizer anytime they visited the US.)

Finally, before entering each country, I enable the contact tracing app for that place. Many US states have these; in fact, my Washington State app pinged me  with a possible exposure notification earlier this summer. While it turned out to be OK (it was in a brief, masked situation; I never had any symptoms; and an at-home test came up negative), this was a good reminder that these apps do work and can be useful in alerting you if you’ve been near someone who has tested positive. In an effort to be a good guest, I want to use the local app and make sure that the “Exposure Notifications” on my iPhone menu are set to the country that I’m currently in. This involves downloading and setting up the app for each country that you’re visiting (easy to find; or just search “contact tracing app” plus the country).

Red Tape and Restrictions

Another big hurdle was keeping track of the ever-shifting red tape for Americans going to Europe. Each European country has its own policies, so you’ll need to check details for every place you’re going. My itinerary includes Slovenia, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Germany — so that’s four times the homework, and four times the places I have to constantly check for updates.

Some general trends: First of all, Europe wants travelers who are fully vaccinated. As noted, you’ll need to bring your CDC vaccination card and expect to show it frequently — especially when dining indoors or entering a museum. (Anecdotally, some countries are more lax about this than others. But be prepared regardless.) You’ll also be asked to show your vaccine card when boarding a flight for the US, or an internal flight within Europe.

Yes, it’s possible for the unvaccinated to show a recent negative test, or evidence that they have recovered from COVID. However, new restrictions are targeting unvaccinated Americans first and foremost, so being unvaxxed in Europe will only become more challenging. (Several countries now have quarantine requirements for unvaccinated Americans, with more likely to follow.) If you are choosing not to get vaccinated, save yourself some hassle and don’t go to Europe. Or, you know…get vaccinated.

To monitor this, Europe has instituted an EU-wide certification called the “green pass” — a QR code that verifies their vaccination status. When this was announced, the EU claimed that visitors would also be able to get a green pass, but so far that hasn’t happened across the board (though in France, for example, American visitors can get a pass sanitaire.) I am finding that anyplace that requires a green pass recognizes an American CDC vaccination card just as well.

Some countries ask travelers to fill out a passenger locator form, like this one for Italy. Filling this out took me a few exasperating minutes, and after submitting it, I was sent a confirmation with a QR code. In the end, nobody ever asked me for it. But I was glad I had it, just in case. When I go to Prague later this week, I’ll be filling out the Czech form — which, local friends have told me, is in fact being verified at the airport.

One thing very much in flux are the country-by-country requirements for taking a COVID test, typically within two or three days before your trip. When I flew to Italy, I was not required to present test results. (I did a home test anyway, for my own peace of mind.) But just a couple of days after I landed, Italy did begin requiring a test. Your airline’s website can be a good place to start researching this, as is the embassy in the country you’re visiting.

And, it goes without saying: When visiting a foreign land, follow all rules and guidelines to a T. Be a good guest. You’ll notice that masking compliance is near 100% throughout Europe; don’t be the only chinstrapped clod on the train or cable car.

Mentally Preparing for Travel in Uncertain Times

For my trip, the biggest hurdle was a psychological one — when, several days before departure, I began hearing rumors that the European Union was planning to remove the United States from its “safe countries” list. It did not help that these rumors were reported both sparsely and sensationally, using phrases like “travel ban.” I checked the news constantly to see exactly what those changes would look like. If I were already in Europe, would I be sent home? Were Americans truly going to be “banned”?

But when it finally was announced, it was far from a “travel ban against Americans.” It was simply an acknowledgement that COVID rates in the US had reached troubling new highs, and advice that EU member countries should be re-examining their entry requirements — especially for unvaccinated travelers. Some countries placed new limits on the unvaccinated, and/or introduced testing requirements. And a few — including Sweden, Norway, and Bulgaria — instituted new quarantine requirements even for vaccinated Americans. But most of Europe, including the places I’m visiting, didn’t change much for someone who is vaccinated and willing to test as needed.

This was a reminder of the importance of taking the news with a grain of salt. So much information is presented as clickbait, and phrases like “travel ban” (or, say, “Europe’s doors are slamming shut”) generate lots of attention and angst. But travelers need to read beyond those hysterical headlines to understand what’s really happening, and only then re-evaluate how, if at all, it affects their trip. Remember: News outlets are in the business of discovering, isolating, and trumpeting the worst-case scenario rather than the predominant reality.

While Europe is understandably concerned about the USA’s Delta surge, politics are also driving some of these policies. Europeans are very frustrated that, while they opened their borders to Americans early this summer, most Europeans — who live in places which far higher vaccination rates and far lower case rates than the USA — still cannot enter the United States. European threats of a “travel ban” are, at least to some degree, likely a political ploy to encourage the US government to seriously reconsider reciprocity.

Another topic that worries many is this: If you test positive (even asymptomatically) before traveling home to the US, you’ll be required to quarantine and rebook your flight. I’m not going to sugar-coat it: This could happen, and it would be both expensive and inconvenient. We all know that breakthrough cases occur, even when vaccinated people are being careful.

My wife and I had some serious conversations about this eventuality. And we decided to assume that risk, partly because we believe the risk is quite small. While I’ve heard of this happening (the clip from CNN at the top of this article does an excellent job of making this “NIGHTMARE” scenario seem both terrifying and a veritable certainty), I don’t know anyone personally who has experienced it. (If it’s happened to you, or someone you know, by all means give us the details in the Comments.) If you’re risk-averse, or you don’t have the finances or the flexibility to absorb a last-minute change like this one, I wouldn’t blame you for skipping the trip. But in my case, I decided to take a leap of faith.

In general, traveling during COVID requires a willingness to disentangle fear and facts. There are some things to genuinely be fearful about: Delta cases are rising in Europe, so even though I’m vaccinated, I’m scrupulously masking and avoiding crowds. But vague rumors of a blanket “travel ban” against Americans, or the (likely remote) possibility of having to quarantine before coming home, aren’t necessarily worthy of fear.

That said, don’t travel in Europe right now unless you’re willing to change plans on a dime. If Delta rates skyrocket in places I’m planning to visit, there may well come a point where those places say, “Sorry, we don’t want you here.” And at that point, I’m prepared to change plans. For example, I’m hoping to be in Berlin in a couple of weeks. If, between now and then, Germany decrees that even vaccinated Americans need to quarantine, I simply won’t go there; I’ll either re-route my trip to somewhere else, or I’ll change my plans to fly home early. Frankly, I will be mildly surprised if I actually make it to all of the places I’m planning to visit. That’s travel during the pandemic.

“But what about travel insurance?” I can hear some of you saying. I believe there are two types of people in this world: People who buy travel insurance, and people who don’t. And maybe it’s my privilege speaking — as a hale-and-hearty professional traveler — but I’m not in the habit of buying travel insurance. However, I think it could be a great option for some travelers, and I may well regret not taking that step.

One thing I will advise: If you are considering travel insurance, be sure to carefully read and fully understand the fine print about things like what happens if you choose to call off your trip (rather than the trip being cancelled because of new restrictions); or whether a quarantine hotel and flight changes would be covered in case you test positive on the way home. (If I’m being honest, a lack of patience for sorting through those details is the main reason I didn’t bother with insurance.) If anyone has any tips about trip insurance, then by all means, fill us in in the Comments.

The Journey (There and Back)

With all of that packing and planning out of the way, my flight to Europe was smooth and uneventful. I was asked for my vaccination card upon check-in at Sea-Tac Airport (and then never again). Otherwise, the trip over was about the same as always; everyone on board masked carefully, and the plane was mostly full. On a tight layover in Amsterdam, I went through passport control (to enter the Schengen zone), but there were no further security or vaccination checks. Same thing on arrival in Venice: No vaccination or other paperwork checks…simply benvenuti in Italia! I picked up my rental car at the airport and was on my way to Slovenia, where the border was entirely unguarded and unchecked. (Keep in mind this is specific to my itinerary; travelers going to other places, at other times, may find things more complicated.)

There were plenty of subtle differences, of course. In airport bathrooms, every other urinal was taped off in a halfhearted social-distancing measure. Nearly all of the entrances and exits at the Venice Airport had been closed, and the flow had been re-routed on a one-way path, so that everyone entered the airport through the same door, and everyone exited through another door. (Take that, COVID!) Aside from minor, idiosyncratic hassles like that one, Europe was still Europe. And it was wonderful to be back…jet lag and all.

One last bit of red tape: Before returning home, I’ll need to get a negative COVID test within 72 hours to enter the United States. Some travelers do this by going to a European pharmacy or testing center. I brought along a home test kit (specifically, this one) that is approved for entering the US. This works basically like other home test kits, except that you have to call in for a telehealth appointment (included in the price) to have your test supervised.

While I am still in Europe, my wife — who joined me for the first part of my trip — has already returned home, and she used this test two days before she departed. The entire process took about 45 minutes: She followed the instructions to download the app on her phone, then initiated a video call with a proctor on her laptop. In just a few minutes, her call was answered and a live person gave her instructions while visually ensuring that she was doing the test correctly. After a nasal swab, the proctor set a timer and returned 15 minutes later to verify the result: Negative. Within minutes, a QR code with the result popped up on her phone, which was readily accepted at her airline check-in.

Some travelers — especially ones staying in big cities with ready testing availability — may prefer the simplicity of just stopping by a pharmacy for an in-person test. (Your hotel can help you track down options.) In our case, we were staying in smaller and more remote places, so it was a relief to be able to test at home rather than spend precious vacation time driving into a big city for a test. I should also stress that, while this test is currently accepted for people going to the United States, each European country has their own list of tests that they do and do not accept. Check specifics to determine exactly which types of tests are valid for the place you’re going. For more on these options, I found this article very helpful in understanding exactly how this works; here’s another one.

Once You’re There, You’re There.

For some people, this all sounds like too much hassle. And those people should hold off on a trip to Europe until things are more settled. But for those of us who just can’t wait, going to Europe feels far more manageable, and far safer, than we would have dreamed a year ago.

A few years back, on a visit to New Zealand, I was lamenting to a friend who’d moved there about how far away it feels: a fourteen-hour flight from the West Coast of the US! He smiled patiently and said, “Yes. It’s a long trip. But once you’re there, you’re there.”

And that’s how I feel about this trip: Planning and packing was far more complicated than I’m used to. But now that I’m here…I’m here. And it’s wonderful. Speaking of which, my next post will cover what it’s like to actually be on the ground in Europe right now. (Spoiler alert: Surprisingly normal.)

Travel Shaming, Pandemicking Responsibly, and Why I’m Still Going to Europe

Recently, I found myself ripping into a perfectly good guidebook: neatly slicing its spine with a razor blade, discarding sections I don’t need, then stapling and taping it back together. This is my pre-trip, packing-light ritual anytime I go to Europe. And it felt very strange to be doing it again — both because it’s been so long since I last went to Europe, and because we’re still living through a pandemic.

After 686 days without setting foot in Europe, I’m finally getting ready to hit the road once again. When I tell people about my trip, some are excited for me. Others are quite the opposite: Their reactions suggest that I should be frightened, or even ashamed.

If overtourism was the travel trend for 2019, and 2020 was all about staycations, then 2021 is the year of travel shaming. And, as someone who tries to be a thoughtful traveler, I’ve lost a lot of sleep wondering whether it’s OK to go to Europe right now. But at the end of the day, I’ve decided to go. Here’s why.

Travel Shaming, Defiance, and a Third Option

Some people believe that it’s simply wrong to contemplate traveling internationally right now. These days, when you read travel articles — even fairly innocuous ones — a significant number of the comments express disappointment, anger, even ire. “How dare you travel at a time like this! You should be ashamed.”

Shaming has become our culture’s go-to move. That’s understandable: There’s a lot to be angry about these days, and it’s tempting to point fingers at the people and behaviors we believe are solely responsible. In the moment, shaming feels good. It’s cathartic. It comes with that delicious little hit of adrenaline…aaah!

Unfortunately, shaming is as counter-productive as it is gratifying. For instance, when it comes to engaging the vaccine-hesitant, experts are very clear on one point: Shaming does not work.

Shaming doesn’t work because the only meaningful reaction to being shamed is defiance — which also feels very good, and also comes with that adrenaline bump, and also is entirely non-constructive. It’s like we are all addicted to the same drug, and that drug is self-righteous disagreement.

Shaming implies that there’s just one correct answer to a problem. But problems are nuanced and complex, and so are solutions. The flipside of shame is empathy: trying to understand someone’s point of view, ideally to find some common ground as we navigate that complexity.

Whether you think it’s “OK” to travel right now is largely driven by how you view the value of travel. Some people see travel simply as a hedonistic pastime, a non-essential indulgence. And by that standard, sure — now may not be the time for casual tourism.

But for others, travel is a calling — something that brings us not just enjoyment, but meaning. For me, travel goes beyond mere “leisure.” Travel isn’t optional; it feeds my soul. I’ve devoted my career to travel not because it’s fun, but because it’s transformative.

Maybe you can relate. What’s the thing in your own life that sustains you? Hugging your grandchildren; being with friends or co-workers face-to-face; attending a live sporting event or music performance?

A recent study found that one major factor in COVID-19 spread during 2020 was family gatherings, and specifically children’s birthday parties. Interestingly, this was equally the case both for Democrats and for Republicans. It turns out, during our unprecedentedly polemicized times, one issue found strikingly bipartisan support: Nobody wants to tell their child that they can’t have a birthday party.

We all have those things we can only go for so long without — things we’re just not willing to give up. For you, it may be birthday parties, live theater, book group, poker night, or college football games. For me, it’s traveling in Europe.

So, in an effort to break the travel-shaming cycle, let’s talk about how people who travel during a pandemic can do so thoughtfully.

Please Pandemic Responsibly

These days, each one of us is making complicated, highly personal decisions about how we navigate the pandemic. Our lives are a series of tricky judgment calls on a sliding scale of risk: Is it OK to go out to eat, and if so, is it OK to sit indoors? Should the kids go back to school? Should you wear a mask indoors, even where it’s not required? Should you attend a live sporting event? Should you get on an airplane? Should you go to Europe?

While there’s plenty of science to help guide those choices, interpreting that science is complicated, highly idiosyncratic, and, very often, internally inconsistent. It sometimes feels like the USA has 330 million different individual approaches to the pandemic.

For me, pandemicking responsibly begins with getting vaccinated. And Europe agrees: Recently, the European Union recommended increasing restrictions on unvaccinated American travelers. Like it or not, if you’re unvaxxed, Europe does not want you, and they will make things hard on you. (That’s not shaming; it’s practical travel advice.)

For me, that question — whether a place wants me to visit — is critical. For example, the governor of Hawaii has discouraged tourists from visiting the islands for now. They are facing an acute crisis: When you’re running out of ICU beds, and the nearest capacity is a five-hour flight away, you can’t afford to take chances. And if a place is saying they don’t want me there, I’m not going.

In Europe’s case, the infection and vaccine rates in the countries I’m visiting are significantly better than in the United States. While they continue to face the slow, grinding crisis of the pandemic, they are currently handling it effectively. And the language of recent restrictions makes it clear that, for the sake of their tourism industry, most countries are comfortable welcoming travelers who are vaccinated and conscientious.

That’s because Europe’s tourism industry is struggling. Through COVID, I’ve been keeping in touch with European friends in the travel industry. And right now, most of them are desperate for income — in many cases, living off their savings and doing odd jobs to scrape by since early 2020. I keep hearing about favorite businesses that are closing up shop. I’m not sure Europe’s wonderful mom-and-pop hotels and restaurants can survive another winter. At some level, I feel OK about traveling — provided I’m doing it conscientiously — because I can do some good by spending money to tide them over until 2022.

One in ten people on this planet derives their income from the travel industry. And it’s not just tour guides, flight attendants, and hotel desk clerks. It’s the farmers who supply restaurants, the engineers who design and build airplanes, the Lyft and Uber drivers making some extra cash with airport transfers. At some point we will cross (or already have crossed) an imaginary line of “safe enough” to help these industries rebound. It may feel cynical to boil travel ethics down to euros and cents, but for people who need those euros and cents, that’s no small consideration.

When I began planning this trip a few months ago, it felt like we were charging toward normalcy. Since then, the rise of Delta has clouded things in uncertainty. In the end, I’ve decided to go to Europe, but with several caveats:

  • I am fully vaccinated. There are no guarantees of safety, in life or in travel. But given my age and general health, I believe that the vaccine puts me at very low risk for severe disease. (If someone feels that their health, or the health of the people traveling with them, is too risky for the current conditions, they should stay home.)
  • I intend to mask, distance, and do whatever else is asked of me, wherever I go. I recently stocked up on a new supply of hospital-grade N95 masks, for airplanes and other crowded situations. While I’m comfortable going maskless outdoors, I’ll continue to mask up inside, even when it’s not required.
  • I am realistic that I’ll need to be flexible. Flights may be changed, cancelled, or rebooked. (In fact, one of mine already has been.) Museums or restaurants may be unexpectedly closed. This would not be a time to go to Europe with a long wish list of sights or a meticulously plotted-out itinerary; it’s a time to stay loose and roll with what comes.
  • I accept the reality that there will be much more red tape than usual. For each country I enter, I’ll do my due diligence to fully understand the entry requirements, and I’ll fill out any required “passenger locator forms” (for example, this one for Italy and Slovenia). I will be prepared to prove my vaccination status on a regular basis. I assume that, at some point (or many), I’ll need to take a COVID test. And if I were to test positive — even asymptomatically — I am fully prepared to quarantine at my own expense.

The worst-case scenario, for me, would not be coming down with COVID and having to pay for a week in a quarantine hotel and an expensive new flight home. It would be unwittingly passing on the virus to someone who doesn’t have the same protection I do. If anything were to prevent me from traveling right now, that would be it.

On the road, I’ll do everything I can to prevent that from happening. I’ve chosen to visit mainly rural, out-of-the-way places where distancing will be easier, and I’ll cook for myself or dine outdoors whenever possible. (No crowded bars or clubs for me.) I will take a COVID test before I depart — even though my destination does not require me to — to ensure that I’m not bringing the virus along with me. I’m also packing some home antigen test kits, which I’ll use on the road as needed — in case I find out I’ve been exposed or I start having symptoms. And if at any point I test positive, my top priority will be  to avoid exposing others.

Keep on Traveling

And I think this is the way of the future. Taking the long view, I agree with experts who now recognize that this pandemic will never really “end” — at least, not the way we might’ve hoped. COVID is gradually migrating from “pandemic” to “endemic”: Most likely, it will always be with us, floating around like common colds or the flu. The good news is that those miraculous vaccines have done exactly what they promised: For those who are vaccinated, they’ve turned COVID from a potential death sentence to a nuisance.

Over the years, I’ve been sick many, many times while on the road. I recall one visit to Spain where I got hit with a gastrointestinal bug and a ferocious head-and-chest cold on the same night. It took 10 days before I felt human again. Being sick while traveling is no fun. But, as kids get access to vaccines and all of us get our winter booster shots, COVID no longer has to mean that we call off travel altogether. It becomes just one more risk — one more potential headache — associated with an activity that already has more than its share of risks and headaches. As long as we’re willing to take that risk, and do our best to avoid passing it along to others, that may be all we can hope for.

I keep circling back to that old metaphor: COVID is the rain. The vaccine is a raincoat. Masking is an umbrella. I’m fine with getting a little mist on my glasses, provided I can stay mostly dry. But I’m not willing to stay inside until the rain stops, because that could be years, or it may never happen at all. Delta has turned a shower into a downpour. But by running from awning to awning, taking cover as necessary, I believe I can enjoy a fun yet responsible trip to Europe without getting soaked.

That’s why I’m heading to Europe soon (and why I’m optimistic for 2022 travels). I have no illusions that my trip is a 100% good idea; I may very well regret going. But these days, nothing is a sure thing. Sometimes you just have to make an educated choice. If you think that’s terrible, perhaps we can agree to disagree, and break that pointless, addictive cycle of shaming and defiance.

Either way, I’ll be posting about how my trip goes, so that anyone making this same decision — or those who are just curious — can have a complete picture of what pandemic travel looks like. I’m sure that, in some ways, returning to Europe will feel like being back home again. And in other ways, it’s a whole new world.


If you’re interested to hear what it’s like traveling in Europe right now, be sure to “Like” my Facebook page and sign up for email blog alerts. Lots of fresh insights are on the way — thanks for traveling along with me once again, after all this time.

Do a Little Sightseeing in Your Own Hometown

Isn’t it strange how we travel halfway around the globe to check out a hot new museum, while ignoring attractions in our own backyard?

I grew up in Delaware County, Ohio, a place with few claims to fame. One of them is the Olentangy Indian Caverns. Even though the caverns are lavishly advertised throughout Central Ohio; even though I passed by the entrance literally thousands of times growing up; even though I had friends who were tour guides at the caverns during summer break; and even though I went to a high school with the same name…I have never set foot inside.

As summer 2021 progresses, we’re in a strange limbo of waiting patiently for normalcy so we can head back to Europe. But in the meantime, now that things are opening up, it’s the perfect opportunity to “play tourist” closer to home — to finally visit some of those sights you always meant to see, but just haven’t gotten around to. Recently I toured an outstanding museum in my own neighborhood, and it felt very good to do a little sightseeing in my own hometown.

The National Nordic Museum opened in 2018 in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Old-timers fondly recall an earlier iteration, the Nordic Heritage Museum, which filled dusty display cases in an old brick elementary school with assorted Scandinavian bric-a-brac. It was endearingly humble and low-tech, as dry and crusty as decade-old stockfish.

The new version is still endearing, but in every other regard it’s a substantial upgrade. Visiting this collection’s bold, modern, purpose-built new home was a revelation. It’s my very favorite kind of museum: combining real artifacts with substantial information, and harnessing technology to set the mood and deepen your understanding of the topic, without being gimmicky. The National Nordic Museum made me nostalgic for some of the great museums I’ve enjoyed over the years in Europe, while at the same time, proud to have one just as impressive here at home.

After you watch a video briefly introducing the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Finns, Icelanders, and Sámi, a long staircase leads up to the main exhibit. This comes in two parts. First, you learn the story of the Nordic peoples — their history, their land, their culture, and their values — culminating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when millions emigrated to North America. Having toured national history museums in each of the Nordic capitals, I was impressed by how thoughtfully this exhibit handled such a sprawling and complicated topic — distilling thousands of years of history into something concise and digestible, without oversimplifying.

Across a skyway that spans the sleek and modern atrium is the second part of the main exhibit. Here you learn the stories of what happened to those Nordic immigrants upon arriving in a new land. Many passed through Ellis Island before fanning out across the continent. These new arrivals settled in places like the Upper Midwest, Canadian Prairies, and Pacific Northwest, where they pursued many of the same vocations they’d brought along from their homelands: farming, forestry, mining, fishing, and so on. A beautifully produced video interviews Pacific Northwesterners with Nordic roots (and with names like “Nordstrom”), who explain how the values of their ancestors have shaped who they are and how they live in the present day.

And that’s the great success of the National Nordic Museum: It’s not just about dates, artifacts, and geographical factoids. Rather, it psychoanalyzes what it means to be Nordic, and how Nordic-ness has woven itself into the fabric of Ballard, of Seattle, of the Pacific Northwest, and of the United States. Perhaps I’m biased — both being part-Norwegian and living just up the street — but if I were writing up this museum for a Rick Steves guidebook, I’d award it our coveted “three pyramids” ranking.

This wasn’t my first visit to the museum. Just a few months before the pandemic, around Christmas 2019, I had toured the exhibit for the first time. I was so moved by the museum that I made a donation to install a plaque honoring my great-grandparents.

Andrew and Louise Monson left the fjordlands of western Norway and, after a brief stint in North Dakota, made their way to East Everett, Washington, where they built a farmhouse on a bluff with distant views of Puget Sound. Their family expanded and spread out, eventually putting down roots all over Washington, Oregon, and beyond.

On my recent visit, I brought my parents along — partly to enjoy the exhibit (which we did), but also to surprise them with that plaque. Out in the museum garden, tucked between a Finnish log-cabin sauna and a replica Viking longboat, we found the names of the ancestors who are the reason we’re here.

I grew up in Ohio, but my Dad always kept me in touch with my Pacific Northwest and Norwegian roots…which is probably, semi-subconsciously, part of the reason I moved to Seattle after college. Touring the National Nordic Museum reminded me, in a beautiful way, of the deep connections I enjoy with my great-grandparents and with the adopted community where we all ended up. And I’ll definitely be back.

What about you? Have you taken advantage of the Great Reopening to finally make time to see long-overlooked sights near you? Is there some attraction close to home that you’ve always been meaning to check out?

When Travel Dreaming Turns to Trip Planning: A Reality Check for the Return to Europe

At the end of this summer, I’m hoping to head back to Europe for the first time in nearly two years. My wife and I are excited to spend a mellow vacation in two of our favorite countries: Slovenia and Italy. But now that travel dreaming is turning to trip planning, we’re realizing that being in this “early wave” of Americans heading to Europe won’t be simple.

You may think it’s too early to head back to Europe, and I won’t disagree. We’re well aware that we are early birds, and as such, this trip will require thoughtful planning, patience, flexibility, and a willingness to grapple with uncertainty. The point of this post is not to convince you to go to Europe as soon as possible; rather, it’s a reality check on the speed bumps and hiccups we’re encountering as we begin to make plans. This may embolden you to plan your own trip; more likely, it’ll validate your decision to wait until 2022.

The Plan

We are hoping to spend a couple of weeks in Europe at the end of the summer, about two months from now. Our itinerary: A week in Slovenia (Ljubljana and the Julian Alps), followed by a week in Italy (Tuscany and the Cinque Terre). Why Slovenia and Italy? First, they’re places we’ve been dreaming of since lockdown began, and where we have friends we’re excited to reconnect with. Second, they’re neighboring EU/Schengen countries, hopefully making it relatively straightforward to cross between them. And we’re choosing to travel mainly in rural places — where our only agenda is scenic joyrides, low-impact nature walks, and simply being in Europe — as opposed to big cities, where we’d be tempted by a long wish list of museums and restaurants that may be closed or too crowded for comfort.

Normally I am an itinerary-planning wonk; I totally geek out on this stuff. Obviously, that skill atrophied over the last year and a half. (Though I must admit, during the darkest days of the pandemic, my wife and I sketched out a detailed two-week trip to New Zealand — knowing full well it almost certainly wouldn’t happen. Alas…someday.) Planning this trip feels like exercising a muscle I haven’t used in a very long time. But slowly, I’m getting back into shape.

The Logistics

In the coming weeks, Europe will reopen to vaccinated American visitors. But much is yet to be determined. Going to Europe in the second half of 2021 means keeping up-to-the-minute on the evolving situation. For the latest, I’ve been checking a variety of news sites (which are handy summaries, but often gloss over details); official European government and embassy sites (which are more definitive, but can be clogged with bureaucratic gobbledygook); and, most important, European friends, who are sharing their sixth sense about how things might evolve.

Here’s the tricky part: While Europe is making plans to reopen, those plans are not quite in place yet. So, effectively, we’re planning a trip to a future reality that doesn’t yet exist. Travel is always a leap of faith, but this feels even more so. (For this reason, I won’t bother getting into too many details in this post; suffice it to say, if you’re not up for continually researching the latest on your own…you should hold off on going to Europe.)

As of July 1, vaccinated or recovered Americans are eligible to apply for a “Digital COVID Certificate” from the European Union (also called a “Green Pass”) — a smartphone QR code designed to ease transit. Even before this rolled out, there were already concerns about the rollout. I’m hoping things become clearer over the coming weeks; we have our vaccine cards at the ready, and expect that, when the time comes, we’ll somehow use them to get official permission to enter the EU.

What about testing and quarantining? In theory, the Digital COVID Certificate will allow us to avoid any quarantine requirements on arrival in Europe, and when traveling between EU/Schengen countries. But each country sets its own policies. Currently there are still some testing requirements when entering or moving within Europe; these may be relaxed — or heightened — as the summer goes on. Even though we are fully vaccinated, we’re expecting that we may need to test at some point, or many, in our travels. (And as of now, we’ll definitely need to test before returning to the US — though this, like many other aspects of international travel, may well change.)

While we wait for the red tape to become clear, our biggest hurdle is booking flights. Normally we look for the most affordable option, without much concern about refundability. But in this case, it’s more likely that we’ll need to change or cancel our plans. As I’ve looked around at likely flight options, it appears that airlines are offering more changeable, or even refundable, tickets for $200 to $400 more than basic economy fares. Normally this would sound steep. But in 2021, it’s a worthwhile investment in our peace of mind. (The good news is that base fares for our trip are about on par with 2019, and in some cases even lower.)

I also have this concern in mind when booking accommodations. So far, most of the places we’re considering have very liberal refund policies, allowing us to cancel even a few days before arrival. We’d be reluctant to book a hotel with strict cancellation policies — but, of course, that limits our choices.

Is Europe ready for us? Increasingly, the answer appears to be yes. After some stumbles out of the gate, European vaccination rates are rapidly moving the right direction. In fact, some countries are already pulling ahead of the USA, and the EU is shooting for the ambitious goal of immunizing 70 percent of its adult population by the end of July. Just over the last few weeks, Spain, France, and Italy have all suspended their masking requirements. European hotels and restaurants are desperate for our business, and it seems we’re reaching a tipping point where it’s safe and responsible for us to head over and help them out.

Still, I sense a healthy skepticism, bordering on unease, among my European friends. The rise of the Delta variant is putting certain countries (including the UK) on the “undesirable” list; this could lead to new travel restrictions in some places. However, vaccines appear to be successful in preventing Delta infections, and so far, these added restrictions apply only to non-vaccinated travelers. If a variant emerges that causes more “breakthrough” infections in vaccinated people, I’d take that as a reason to cancel our trip. (Meanwhile, the still-evolving variant situation is even more reason to focus our trip on remote, rural areas that are well suited to distancing.)

In general, when I ask my European friends what they think about this trip, the response is unanimously positive. Maybe they’re just lonely and eager to see me after two long years. But I also think they have a sense that the pandemic is winding down, and late summer will be a great time to venture back and celebrate together. Some have mentioned a fear (based partly on bad memories from last year) that there could be a new surge over the winter. Hopefully the success of the vaccines prevents that. But either way, my European friends seem to believe that late summer or early fall is as good a time as any for a visit.

The Attitude Adjustment

All of the above are logistical questions. But there are larger philosophical questions, too. And whether you’re heading to Europe soon, or holding off until 2022 (or beyond), it’s clear that we travelers will need to adjust our expectations.

One thing I keep reminding myself is that, following an event as major as the pandemic, there’s no returning to exactly the way things were. We talk a lot about “back to normal,” but the fact is that our post-COVID reality will be a “new normal.”

After 9/11, there were many temporary changes to our daily lives — and also a few that are still with us, such as perpetually heightened security checks at the airport. Likewise, I imagine we’ll see some long-term changes in European travel. For example, I assume more people will wear masks on airplanes and in crowded spaces, as a matter of course. Some changes will be for the better: Some of my favorite restaurants have streamlined their takeout business and their in-person menus and ordering. But other changes might be a headache, or even feel like a loss.

The fact is, even as we’re being told to celebrate our soaring vaccination rates and plummeting cases, many of us are unhappy. We’re seeing an epidemic of mass shootings and gun violence; employees are quitting their jobs at an unprecedented rate (the so-called “Great Resignation”); and, anecdotally, shoppers, airline passengers, and motorists are melting down in numbers we’ve never seen before. Many of us are probably dealing with some unresolved trauma from weathering a once-a-century global crisis. And everyone is still adapting to all those little changes and readjustments in everyday life.

As travelers, if not simply as human beings, the first step is to accept that things are different, and to cut each other some slack. When you go back to Europe — whether it’s this summer or next — if you expect things to be exactly as you remember them, you’ll be disappointed. That’s why flexibility will be key. And the sooner you go, the more flexible you’ll need to be.

That also includes adhering to the local guidelines, wherever you go. If you bristle at the idea of having to mask or distance in a way that you don’t personally feel is necessary — or that runs counter to your own government’s advice — I suggest that you exercise your right to postpone your trip to Europe until such time as it’s more in line with your expectations. If the Romans are masking and distancing…do as the Romans do.

All of this is to say that my wife and I are totally realistic that our dreamed-of return to Europe will hit several more bumps in the road over the coming weeks, and may not happen at all. But for the first time in a very long time, we’re optimistic. And no matter how it turns out, I’ll be reporting on what I learn.

What about you? Any thoughts of heading to Europe later this year? If you’re planning a trip, what challenges are you encountering? And if you’re the rare American who’s already made it to Europe, how did it go?

Why Americans Don’t Trust Each Other (and Northern Europeans Do)

With the big news that vaccinated Americans can go maskless in most situations, I’ve noticed a trend: deep societal distrust. People in my social circles (who are mostly vaccinated, or will be soon) are wringing their hands and raising alarms that some Americans will remove their masks even if they’re not vaccinated. The new CDC policy is predicated on trusting both the efficacy of the vaccines (which is well-founded) and the “honor system” approach to unmasking only when vaccinated. The challenge is that the Venn diagram overlap of “anti-vaxxers” and “anti-maskers” is, one imagines, very nearly a solid circle. But there’s a bigger, underlying problem: We Americans don’t trust each other.

“Social trust” is a complicated sociological construct, with many ramifications. But it boils down to a simple question: Do you believe that most people can be trusted?

It’s staggering to reflect upon what a huge blow American social trust has taken over the last year. Of course, there’s the pandemic: When called upon to change our behavior to protect ourselves and our most vulnerable neighbors, many Americans simply refused — throwing temper tantrums in supermarkets and politicizing public health guidance as a matter of “personal freedom.” And even some people who’ve been saying “Trust the science!” for all this time are now, suddenly…not trusting the science.

But there have been many other reminders, too, of how little Americans trust each other. The murder of George Floyd, and so many others, demonstrated why Black Americans have very good reason not to trust the police (or, really, society at large). And on January 6, a mob of furious insurrectionists who didn’t trust the results of a legitimate election stormed the US Capitol building.

All of this is not just to recap a grisly year in American history, but to illustrate how little trust Americans have for each other. (Not to mention, how little the rest of the world trusts the US.) And that’s very much at odds with the way much of Europe operates. In fact, Northern European countries have the highest social trust of anyone.

I’m not pretending to be a social scientist. But I am an avid traveler. And especially in Northern Europe, I see signs of social trust permeating everyday life, in a way that makes me jealous…if not tempted to move abroad.

Strolling the canals of Amsterdam, you find yourself peeking in big, open windows that face out to the street. It’s as if people have chosen to live their personal lives in public. That’s because they have: Dutch people sacrifice some degree of privacy for the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your neighbors are looking out for you. They want to be seen, because if their neighbor walks by one day and notices they’re not sitting at the table drinking their morning coffee, the neighbor will investigate and, if necessary, send for help. For the Dutch, spying on each other doesn’t breed paranoia. It provides comfort.

I have changed planes dozens of times at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. When you’re lying there on a hard bench in a jeg-lag stupor, you hear the same announcement again and again: “Immediate boarding, please. Delta flight 143 to Seattle. Please report to the gate. You are delaying the flight.” It’s telling how the Dutch try to motivate wayward passengers: Not with the consequences to yourself (that would be “You will miss your flight”) — but with the inconvenience you are causing others. Letting someone else down, to the Dutch, is the ultimate embarrassment. (To many Americans, it’s a point of pride.)

Walking through small-town Denmark, you may come across a strange sight: a baby stroller — with the baby inside! — just sitting there on the sidewalk. This seems shocking, until you realize that the stroller is parked at the window of a café, where Mom is catching up with friends while keeping an eye on her kiddo. This would never fly in most parts of the US; we’d call Child Protective Services without hesitation. But the Danes trust each other: Mom knows that nobody will snatch her dozing baby, and passersby know that she’s just a few steps away if needed. (And even if she weren’t, they’d step in to help.)

On a visit to Oslo, a Norwegian friend told me he’s very aware — and appreciative — of the trust he feels within his society. He is comforted that everyone looks out for each other, and that individual achievement doesn’t supersede a more widespread prosperity. Norwegians believe there’s always enough to go around.

He said that you also find this ethic in Scandinavian emigre communities in North America. A prime example is the “Minnesota slice” phenomenon at an Upper Midwest potluck: Nobody wants to take the last slice of pie, so instead, they keep cutting it in half, then in half again, carving off infinitesimally smaller slivers. At some point, once a wedge can’t be divided any further, what’s left sits on a plate until the table is cleared. The Minnesota slice is a tangible symbol of “just in case you need it, my friend…”

Anecdotally, it seems to me that many Americans are pretty depressed right now, even in spite of our euphoria that the pandemic appears to be in its final stages. We’re wiped out from the false starts and the hurry-up/wait that has characterized life for the last 14 months. We’re exhausted from a year-plus of quarantine, we’ve grown accustomed to isolation, and we’re anxious about changing our entire lifestyle yet again. I believe this transition is made harder because we’ve lost any faith we once had in our fellow Americans. Scary times are scarier when you don’t feel like the person next to you has your back.

In fact, scientists have found that social trust is correlated with happiness (repeatedly, including in the United States). It’s also correlated with economic development (again, repeatedly). In the USA, we prize individuality. We tell ourselves that the only way to be happy is to be a free agent, to follow our own compass. This has only increased over the last year. But the research tells a different story; it suggests that “maximum personal freedom” is a recipe for existential misery.

I don’t know how we begin to re-establish social trust in the United States. Maybe it’s a lost cause. (Though I imagine a first step would be to embrace objective reality in the form of, let’s say, election results, police body-cam footage, and scientific inquiry — even when these don’t support our deeply held beliefs.) But it’s clear that trusting each other is the only viable path forward, if we hope to emerge from COVID stronger and happier than before.

I am aware this is naively optimistic, but I like to dream that somehow, this will change with the post-pandemic “new normal” in America. Perhaps we’ll realize that we’ve hit rock bottom and will now turn toward a more Northern European model of trusting our neighbors, earning their trust in return, and remembering that we’re all in this together. After all, it’s right there in our national motto: “Out of many, one.” Somewhere along the way we clung to only the first part and jettisoned the last.

Either way…I’ll save a slice of pie for you. Just in case.