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.
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.
UPDATE, Sept. 23: Crossing borders has been less of an ordeal than I expected. Flying from Italy to Prague, I had to show my vaccine card, and I had to fill out a passenger locator form for Czechia before going to the airport (which was checked on arrival in Prague). And before taking the train from Prague to Berlin, I carefully studied requirements for entering Germany and found I didn’t need to do anything in particular, since I had not been in a high-risk place (like the USA) for more than 14 days. Sure enough, upon crossing the border, nobody ever came through the train to check passports or any other paperwork. (I did receive a text message that said, simply, “Please follow the rules on tests/quarantines,” with a link.) And when I go home, I’ll need to test negative within three days of my flight. Of course, your mileage may vary: Depending on which borders you’re crossing, things could be more complicated. And I have heard, anecdotally, that there can be more restrictions for airports than land crossings. But overall, the parts of Europe I’m visiting feel fully open.
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.)