Europe Is Reopening. So Many Questions!

After 14 long months of being patient, travelers finally got some good news: Europe is hoping to reopen to vaccinated Americans this summer. If you’ve been dreaming of Tuscan agriturismi, Greek isles, Slovenian Alps, or Spanish cities…you may not have to dream much longer.

This news, however, raised more questions than it answered. And as I knock the rust off my gears and click over from “dreaming/reminiscing” into “planning” mode, my mind is buzzing with what comes next.

Some things are known — or, at least, “known unkowns.” Over the last several days, I’ve been researching logistics for a post-COVID Europe travel FAQ on our website. If you’re looking for straightforward details on exactly when and how Europe’s reopening might work, click over there.

Those boxes ticked, now I’m finding myself preoccupied with bigger questions about travel in Europe post-COVID — the kinds of questions that are hypothetical until, suddenly, they aren’t. You won’t find many answers in this post, but maybe these questions will prime your pump as you ponder whether and when to go to Europe, too. (And feel free to add your own concerns and musings in the Comments.)

First: How “open” will Europe really be? It seems likely that, in the coming months, the United States’ vaccination rate will continue to outpace most of Europe’s. That means that vaccinated travelers will be mixing among non-vaccinated locals. And that means that COVID restrictions will likely remain in full effect: masking, distancing, limits on gatherings, and so on. Many businesses will still be closed, or operating at very reduced capacity.

In response to Europe’s reopening, I’ve heard some people say, “Why would I go somewhere when the museums and restaurants are closed?” That’s a fair point — and those people should stay home longer, until Europe is entirely back on its feet. But for travelers who choose to venture out sooner, it remains to be seen whether things are “open enough” to warrant the trip. (And, for what it’s worth, if you’ve ever wished you could visit Europe when it was less crowded, this may be your chance. Unexpected closures and other hiccups could be a welcome tradeoff for peace and quiet.)

A related question is an ethical one: Is it appropriate to travel in a place where many residents are not vaccinated, even if you are? I chewed over this question in my previous post, about Iceland’s reopening. And I can really see both sides.

The fact is, Europe’s tourism industry is in a tailspin. Every week I get emails from European friends who are struggling: Some tour guides have taken office jobs, chained to a desk rather than leading eager students around the wonders of Europe. Others can’t find work, so they’re scraping to get by. Restaurants and bars that have long been hubs where travelers and locals could meet and mingle have closed their doors forever. Spunky little hotels and lovingly run B&Bs have closed up shop.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen a new wave of closures, both in my own community and across Europe, escalate in the last few months — ironically, just as the end is in sight. It seems like many business operators have the finances and the internal fortitude to weather up to one year of crisis…but at some point, they just can’t keep going. One big question I have is, simply, which businesses will survive and emerge on the other side of the pandemic?

Vaccines are a game-changer. And vaccinated Americans are a huge potential customer base just sitting there, waiting to be invited in to spend money and revive an ailing economy. Nothing is 100% “safe” these days, but vaccinated travelers (provided they obey local masking, distancing, and other regulations) are Europe’s safest bet for getting things rolling again, short of not getting things rolling at all. Will this gamble pay off? Or will unexpected outbreaks cause Europe to pull the “emergency brake” on reopening and make travelers wish they’d waited?

Looking farther into the future, I wonder what the new status quo will be in Europe, in the wake of COVID. We are all eager to get “back to normal,” but it’s only realistic to expect that it will be a new normal. After 9/11, air travel (and travel in general) gradually began to feel “normal” again…but some things were permanently altered. (When’s the last time you walked a loved one to their gate and waved goodbye as they got on the plane?)

Similarly, some aspects of travel will never quite go back to “pre-COVID.” Many of these changes are probably for the best. For example, after a year and half of no colds whatsoever, you’d better believe I’ll be wearing a mask on long flights for the foreseeable future. (Think of all the sore throats and runny noses I’ll avoid!) And for quite some time, I’m sure I’ll keep a mask tucked in my back pocket for crowded Metros and other congested areas.

Other things might feel like a loss. In many southern European countries, old friends and new acquaintances greet each other with a double or triple kiss on the cheek.  Much as some people are speculating that the elbow or fist bump will remain a viable alternative to a handshake, I have to wonder if Europeans will become less “kissy”? Will they adopt a more American attitude about personal space?

In general, people-to-people interaction has always been one of the great joys of travel. How will that be affected by rampant germophobia? I imagine, at a minimum, we’ll all need to wade back into those kinds of interactions, and deprogram ourselves from seeing every stranger as a potential existential threat.

I also wonder how the pandemic will change travelers’ tastes — their preferred style of traveling, their mindset, even their preference of destinations? I’ve heard some speculation that urban destinations will be on the outs, at least for a while, as travelers head for the countryside to socially distance in an idyllic little slice of rural Europe. Places like village Tuscany, rugged North Wales, or Iceland’s remote Westfjords may become newly popular.

On the other hand, some travelers — having spent so much time stuck at home — may be desperate to plunge into a big city and let it gobble them up whole. I daydream about simply being in my favorite city, Budapest. Not doing anything in particular; just existing in a place I love.

I suspect that fast-paced, whistle-stop, if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium itineraries may also go out of vogue. Will travelers be inclined to slow down and listen to the church bells? Lingering longer — visiting fewer places and digging in deeper? Not traveling for so long has reminded me what a privilege travel is, and that I shouldn’t take it for granted. Rather than racing through an itinerary as if eager to mark off a big red X on each calendar day, I’m planning on building in more slack…creating space to relax and reflect.

Before the pandemic, Europe had reached a saturation point. “Overtourism” was the big theme of 2018 and 2019, and some super-popular cities (like Amsterdam, Barcelona, or Venice) were even asking travelers to stay away. Soon those people got their wish, and then some, as they had those places entirely, unmistakably to themselves. Will they now welcome us back with open arms? Or have they gotten used to the solitude?

It’s hard to imagine it today. But someday — perhaps sooner than we think — Europe will be grappling with “overtourism” all over again. My last question — more of a hope, really — is whether all of us, Europeans and travelers, will have taken the long pandemic hiatus to approach these challenges in a more thoughtful way. Now more than ever, I am aware that I should travel as an invited guest — mindful that my impact on a place can be positive, or negative, or a mix of both. My goal will be to enjoy and engage in Europe without becoming part of the problem. And maybe Europe will be more proactive about limiting, or more smartly managing, incoming travelers to prevent damaging fragile cities and towns.

In some ways, I wish someone could just give me the answers to these questions right now. At the same time…I just can’t wait to head over there and find out for myself.

What about you? Any hopes or fears about Europe’s reopening? What are the big questions you’re hoping to find answers for, when at long last you make your way back to Europe?

46 Replies to “Europe Is Reopening. So Many Questions!”

  1. I like your idea of just hanging out in a place you love, with time for reflection. I’ve been toying with a desire for a canal cruise possibly in France for a quiet slice of rural French life. That would also minimize the number of people we’d interact with. I’ve loved seeing the big featured sights, but am ready for a slower pace.

    1. I live in Switzerland and had a canal cruise trip planned for right now but we had to postpone it until next May due to Covid. We had to fight to get the same route as it is so booked already with rebookers. If you would really like to do it I recommend to look into it now.

    2. I appreciate the idea of traveling with the “invited guest” mindset. My greatest fear is that the rude and entitled behavior and “no filter” interactions I’m witnessing more and more of here in the US will be just as bad or worse when Americans venture to Europe again.

  2. A couple weeks ago, my wife (who’s never been to Europe) and I (who’s logged 60 days of tourism there to date) were thinking “Do a month, visit the top 5 or 6 places for her and my 2 or 3 faves on the bucket list”.

    Now our thinking has fallen more in line with your thinking – shorter trips with more time in each city, planning to go back multiple times.

    Your point about visiting with fewer crowds while tourism wakes back up is a good one. Lots of thoughtful points – we appreciate it!

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, this is helpful (as is everything you share)! Our family is scheduled to depart 6/11 for two months in Europe (France, Italy, England, Scotland, Sweden, Iceland). We planned it over a year ago. We have three teenagers who are well traveled in North America, while my husband and I have spent extended time in Central Asia, parts of Europe and Thailand. It is my husband’s sabbatical year, a required 3 month break from his profession (an Episcopal priest), and he received a significant amount of grant funds that cover this specific trip and this is the only year it will work. We won’t go if the two youngest don’t get their shots next week. We’ve had endless discussions about how this trip will look and we won’t know until we get there. But we are excited for the adventure and will do as much as we can with the time we have. Regarding the ethical implications, while it is heartbreaking that this virus is still spreading so steadily and Europe hasn’t gotten a handle on vaccination, this virus is something we will need to adjust to living with and once we are fully vaccinated, there is little reason to continue to isolate. We will continue to use covid-safe precautions (as we have this entire time), but we will also be really happy to spend our money (x5) on the many tour guides, short flights, outdoor restaurants, and hosts who desperately need tourism for their livelihoods. And we will tip generously (even when it’s not customary… I think… well, that might be a question you could answer? Should we?). There are few people who can travel safely this summer and it seems that if we have the privilege of being fully vaccinated as well as the commitment to maintaining covid precautions, we should use that privilege and support these economies. My husband uses the analogy of running towards a closing elevator, except that it isn’t closing, it’s opening and we’re jumping in just as it’s opening. We are flexible people who are accustomed to solving problems and have money to spend (again, not ours, funds given to us for this!). We are hopefully doing this and are happy to be the test humans!

    1. Andrea, I like your “opening elevator” metaphor. Well said. Regarding tips–that’s a great question. I’ve made a point to tip extra-generously though the pandemic, as I know restaurants are struggling. Usually in Europe I advocate for tipping at normal standards (that is, much less than in the US). But when I first go back, I may wind up giving Yankee-sized tips, at least for a while, to help European businesses recover.

    2. Be aware restrictions are still in place within “greater” Europe. Right now (5/14) arrivals into the UK must quarantine for 10 days unless coming from a short list of “green” countries. The list expands on 5/17 but does not include the other countries on your list or the US. It may be possible to maintain your trip and drop the UK if these rules do not change. I live in France for example and I’m traveling to the UK tomorrow and will go directly into quarantine for 10 days – even though I am fully vaccinated. The rules don’t distinguish yet.

    3. The thing with your vaccination is that it keeps you safer, but as I understand it, does not protect unvaccinated people you might meet. You are right that these places need the economic support, but your visit also raises a risk of illness or death for them. It’s hard to know what is the right course.

      You will also have rules that may change. For example, in the UK the US and Canada are amber zone countries, and you will be required to quarantine for 10 days on arrival. Right now France will not admit you. (I am assuming you are North American). I knew the rules for UK and googled them for France. I don’t know about the other destinations.

      https://www.gov.uk/guidance/red-amber-and-green-list-rules-for-entering-england

      https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/coming-to-france/coronavirus-advice-for-foreign-nationals-in-france/

      Sorry to be a Debbie Downer. Good luck whichever way you decide.

      1. The vaccine has been proven to stop people from transmitting to other people so that should not be a concern. That said, you can still get covid from unvaccinated people, even if you are vaccinated–you just won’t die or be sick enough to be hospitalized, so wearing a mask seems smart!

  4. I’m an American living in the UK. My partner and I had loads of great trips to the Continent planned when Covid hit, and neither of us have left the country since (I haven’t seen my family since Christmas 2019). We’re a 30-minute train ride from central London but haven’t ventured into the city at all, other than one trip to Kew Gardens when the Underground full of people wearing masks under their chins almost gave me a panic attack. We have many opportunities to travel and should get our second doses of the vaccine by mid-July, but we have already decided to stay local for another year while things shake out. We plan to do a lot of walking and learning about the local wildlife, and we hope that the popular spots will be quieter than usual, like they were last year.

  5. Looking back on visits to Europe, I realize the most memorable, fun, poignant moments could never, ever have happened had we not made plenty of time in which they COULD happen. How easy to get swept into American efficiency, abroad. How can I squeeze the very most events into that Wednesday in (fill in a place-name)?

    Sure, we want to absorb as much as we can during finite hours; but there’s a seductive frenzy lurking in such a mindset that has neither time nor sensitivity for those serendipity moments that always wait. Quietly. Designed to last longer and more sweetly than what our frenetic schedule has any use for. (Smiling: thus endeth Eric’s soapbox oration.)

  6. My travel friend and I are on Rick’s Wish List for October it would be our sixth tour, fully vaccinated an hoping it’s a go. I do have concerns since the vaccine is so new about how long the protection lasts, the CDC thinks 6 to 12 months but, and that’s the But, they don’t know. So many questions.
    Enjoy your posts.
    Carolyn

  7. I had to cancel a planned trip to Amsterdam in the spring of 2020, with big ideas about day trips by train to The Hague, Leiden, Rotterdam, etc., as well as getting in a lot of biking in A-dam and surrounding areas. I had a place rented along the Tram route, and had done much research on museums and other important places within the city. At 70, I am in very good physical shape (hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu 2 years ago — 4-day mountain hike, camping along the way), and had decided it was time to do a Rick Steves tour in ’21or ’22, as you cater to those who are fit, and believe it would be fun to meet others of similar thinking. Will still do one on my own annually, but will definitely give you a try in the near future — once things open. Terry Mindham

  8. The big unknown to me is travel insurance with many questions needing clear answers before I leave my home country (Australia) eg:-
    1. Will I be fully covered for medical expenses if I am fully vaccinated before leaving?
    2. What if my home country blocks its borders to returned travellers?
    3. Who pays for additional accommodation and return travel costs (no doubt more expensive) if I am trapped overseas due to COVID restrictions?

    1. Exactly Christopher, you have made excellent points. Right now Canada has restrictions for travellers from India and Pakistan. What if you can’t re-enter your country. You can still spread the virus even if you are vaccinated, will you be welcome in a foreign country? What if you get sick over there but the hospitals are still full with Covid cases and they can’t care for you. Their hospitals are not like North America, some small towns and villages don’t have hospitals. Look into travel insurance costs and see what their coverage will be. We have been to Europe five times, two months at a time, and love to see the many wonderful sights but if most of the sites are not open yet what will your experience be? Finding accommodations and restaurants where you can eat and finding facilities like washrooms was already a challenge before Covid, it would be great Rick to hear from your guides over there what they advise. I think it is too early to go anywhere in Europe, enjoy the country you live in and explore local for this year. Hopefully, next year will be a better story. Tina

  9. This is a great post and especially relevant for me as I just confirmed my attendance to study a Master’s Program in Ireland. Normally (in the before times) I would try to see all the places and do all the things as fast as I could. I find it’s the way we, as Americans, are taught to do everything – as quickly as possible to hit all the marks. It didn’t leave much room to take in a location or experience its full beauty as I had to make sure I did as much traveling before my few vacation days expired. I like the idea of spending more quality time in one place now and I hope that as we slowly get back to “normal” many of these precautions stay in place for everyone’s comfort and safety.

  10. My daughter lives in The Netherlands. I miss her so much. Residents are VERY hesitant about the return of Americans. The Dutch do not have their vaccines and they are not inclined to welcome us for a little bit longer. If you do chose to go, be extra polite and patient.

  11. I too believe I will be wearing a mask on flights. No colds this past year, or flu. I have always loved staying in a home base outside of cities and doing day trips so I am on board with your comments. I love staying in one place for a while and getting to know the culture and people. Maybe it’s something to incorporate in tours? Can’t wait to travel again after cancelling three trips in 2020.

  12. My wife and I are scheduled to cruise on small ship around Italy in October. We are of course fully vaccinated but wonder what kind of reception we will experience from locals. Certainly we do not want to be thought of as privileged Americans ignorant on going hardships. While we believe our tourist dollars will be mostly welcome, we are concerned about resentment from some. Clearly there is not much we can do about that except to be respectful. We shall see.

  13. So what if you cannot get the vaccine due to medical issues? Will having the test work for Italy?

  14. My spouse and I just booked our trip to the UK for this October. We’re thinking with a bit more time, maybe vaccine availability may ramp up and COVID rules and regulations/guidance for tourists will be less restrictive. Currently, UK requires visitors to quarantine for 10 days which will be prohibitive as we don’t have that many vacation days to take. We’re taking a chance and made the reservations; hopefully, with us fully vaccinated, the quarantine restrictions will be removed by the time we travel. We’ve certainly missed our trips to Europe or for that matter just being on a plane going somewhere. We have spent idle days in Europe where we didn’t anything. Once we spent a day in Varena, Italy where we sat at a cafe by the lake for almost the entire day just watching the swans swim and dive for food. We took in the flapping water, listened to the church bell ring on the hour and just let the day wash over us. One of my best memories. Funny thing is it was one of the most inexpensive day we encounter, but the enrichment to our souls and how relaxing it was for our bodies will always be remembered. We look forward to many more days like that to come… Travel well and stay healthy and safe!

  15. Instead of going to Europe, visit places locally or regionally and support the local / regional tourism industry. They’re hurting too.

  16. I’m an American living in Germany near the Mosel. Its been heartbreaking to walk around the villages & see all the closed shops, biergardens and cafes. The best advice i can give for planning travel again is the Reopen Europe app & American embassy website for the country you want to visit. Most of the countries in the EU have different requirements for testing especially if you are travelling with children. All of us are hoping for June to start seeing more freedoms with regard to travel. Good luck!

    1. Hi Heather. I was lucky to win a Rhine River Cruise for late October. Thank you for the helpful suggestions. I just got my first shot and I’m very much looking forward to smart and responsible travel. I plan to stay and explore Germany and my heritage. :)

  17. Good article and helpful. However, it, like many other travel articles, has a bias toward vaccination, vaccination, vaccination.

    That is NOT the only way to acquire immunity from COVID19. My wife and I had the illness this past January and have been tested for antibodies. Since millions have had COVID, we’re hoping that more countries will follow Iceland’s lead in welcoming visitors who’ve acquired immunity the natural way.

    1. Hi Marty,
      I’ve heard that some countries will accept medical documents proving that you recovered from Covid-19.
      The EU may be one. Keep an eye on their website for that information.

    1. Hi Marianne. In order, the photos are: Lucca, Italy; Coimbra, Portugal; Melanes (Westfjords), Iceland; Budapest, Hungary; and Riomaggiore (Cinque Terre), Italy.

  18. I pretty much always plonk myself down in one place for a week or more. Spending 3 months in Cairo on an internship spoiled me for the travel that dashed from high point to high point. I walk all over the place, hang out and really get to know it.

    My fantasy right now is to go back to the Airbnb I stayed in in Berlin (and loved) – also the last place I was before Covid – for about a month and just hang out in Berlin with maybe a few day trips… Then too, I’m getting older and so many places I haven’t seen…

  19. My family has close friends in Austria. We have booked a trip for June 2021. We are hopeful that Germany will let us land and cross into Austria. I am constantly reading articles on the re-opening and how anxious the tourism industry in the EU is. We are all vaccinated as are the friends we are going ro stay with. The only hiccup is our 15yr old daughter cannot yet have the vaccine given it is not being administered to younger children yet. She has had COVID and I have a Dr’s letter stating she has fully recovered. From everything I am reading that should work to travel and enter the countries we are traveling to so long as she follows the quarantine rules in Austria.

    All that being said, I am trying to decide whether to land in Zurich or Munich. What have been your experiences with crossing through customs in these 2 countries. Such as difficulty and differences? 1st time European travelers here.❤

    1. Heather, some countries are allowing proof of a COVID recovery in lieu of a vaccination, but Germany has not yet announced what their policy will be. Keep an eye on that. In normal times, crossing between Switzerland and Germany is effortless–but there may be increased scrutiny in the age of COVID, since individual countries may have their own guidelines. Again, that information will evolve. Good luck!

  20. Cameron, I see that you and Rick have a “new” 2020 edition for Croatia. I understand that this is a country that is open to vaccinated Americans with Delta beginning flights in July. Do you know how “open” this country is, meaning restaurants, museums, etc. is now? Thanks

    Judi

  21. I am totally in LOVE with Florence, Italy! I go for a month almost every year, but I live as a local. I rent an apartment, cook for myself and spend time with friends I’ve made there. I’m totally fine with restricted business hours because most of the joy for me is just being there. I have received both doses of the Moderna vaccine. I have an apartment booked for the month of July. I will cry tears of joy when that plane touches down!

  22. I have a ticket to go to Switzerland (from the US) in July. I am holding my breath that borders will open. I am also afraid they will open and slam shut as Americans refuse to get vaccinated and cases climb.

  23. We plan to go to the UK, Italy, and Switzerland for the months of Sept and Oct. We are hikers and spend our time outdoors, rarely visit a museum anymore. Anxious to see how our favorite areas are recovering (we go to the same two places every year and add in new territory as well), how things work — or don’t. Flexibility and willingness to conform to local custom are even more important then usual. I am certain there will be disappointments and inconveniences. We usually do long stays in apartments and cook a lot but I cure hope we can support those local restaurants that have made it through and I agree with you: a little extra tipping won’t hurt. FWIW, lodging costs do not seem out of sight for the fall. The exchange rate, not so favorable as 2019.

  24. As a resident of Hawaii I only have one suggestion – please follow the local rules. Yes they may be “stupid” but as visitors we should respect the people who live there. If I’m able to step off the plane in Prague on December 1st that’s what I’ll be doing!

  25. It’s encouraging and enlightening to read about the different ways people are approaching future travels. As is so often the case, we all need to adjust our expectations. My husband and I had plans to travel with friends to Holland and Belgium this summer, but we’ve postponed till next year. We had a meeting of the minds about what compromises seem OK, or not. We agreed that we can still have a wonderful time if we must wear masks and dining is outdoors, but we won’t use up our precious vacation time and money if we can’t visit art museums in Amsterdam, for example.

  26. I love your sentence: “I daydream about simply being in my favorite city, Budapest. Not doing anything in particular; just existing in a place I love.” I’m also looking forward to just existing in a place I love which isn’t home!

  27. The Rick Steve’s brand is about cultural awareness with a bit of emersion. Running a tour that is a quick and dirty and just see the sights would be disappointing. I’ve been on 6 RS tours and I think I understand the formula for success.

  28. Cameron, extremely well said.

    We had our April 2020 trip postponed. I always swore my daughter would see Amsterdam before Disneyworld, and we nearly pulled it off. Maybe we still can, but with kid #2 it’s more difficult to travel abroad.

    My first thought is I’m glad we’ve been fortunate to make 3 trips to Europe in 2012, ‘14 & ‘18 when things were “normal”

    My second thought is Europe isn’t Europe if masks and social distancing are required. I’ve said the same thing about my favorite local Irish pub. If I can’t put my elbows on the bar and have that camaraderie or gemutlekeit, I’ll buy a gift card and go back when it’s safe to imbibe properly.

    You’re right…we still don’t know the answers. Hopefully, we’re moving in the right direction toward getting those answers.

    Cheers!

  29. Wonderfully penned Cameron, I agree totally. Travel will certainly change in many ways and we will need to realign and reset out thought processes.

  30. Someone mentioned an app “Reopen Europe” but I can’t find it and wondering if it’s called something else. Perhaps there is a different app or website you’d recommend?

  31. I love to travel and can’t wait for the world to open up. However I think we need to spend the next year travelling in our own country (mine is Canada) once it is safe to do so. We have many businesses that are struggling financially and now is the time to help them. Travelling abroad creates concerns of healthcare whereas it is not as big a concern if travelling within your own country.

  32. People can’t tell who is vaccinated just by looking at them. So, please please wear a mask and keep your distance from others.

    Also, I agree with others who suggested we travel within our own countries and same our own businesses, at least until the vaccination rates get high enough to determine if herd immunity is going to work.

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