Guest post by Paulette Hannah
When I retired my goal was to travel the world during the “go-go” years of retirement. For five years my husband and I have been realizing that dream. In fact, 2020 was to be our most traveled year ever. We had trips planned for every month,including two European river cruises on the Danube with land packages included. And then, Covid-19 spoiled it all.
Now we’re fully vaccinated and educated about the risks of the pandemic. While cautious about taking risks, we realize there is a balance between living life to the fullest and living life in fear. We’ve hibernated long enough, we’re going to start traveling internationally again!
We’re two years older now and our health is still good, but time becomes ever more precious with each passing day. That’s why we decided to go to Europe in December of 2021. It’s a prelude to 2022 when we’ll be resuming our river cruises and land tours.
This is a new era of travel, one in which trip disruptions are common and each country’s entry and exit requirements can change rapidly. Things are uncertain, but that won’t stop us. We just need to read the fine print, be more aware, flexible and self-reliant.
Here’s how we traveled to Europe during Covid-2021.
Mitigating travel risks
We decided to get an Admiral’s Club lounge pass to minimize time spent waiting in crowded terminals. Using our credit card miles to upgrade to business class also gives us the space to social distance as much as one can on a plane. We can board last and exit first. We use N95 masks that fit snugly but are still comfortable. There are different kinds that are NIOSH approved and I’m no expert here, but we are happy with our disposable RespoKare masks.
Travel insurance is also more important now. Reading the fine print of insurance policies is right up there with my desire to stab a needle in my eye. After hearing of claims denied based on force majeure, I want to be sure I understand the limits of coverage. Ultimately, we bought an annual policy that covers Covid costs, medical evacuation and/or repatriation of our remains, our worst-case scenario. Our policy also includes a handy mobile app that provides quick access to local doctors,trip alerts and filing a claim if needed.
Where to go now?
We looked for countries with high Covid vaccination rates. Rates for the fully vaccinated today in Portugal is 89%; Spain is 81%; and France is 70% (compared to the US at 59%). We opted for independent travel with roughly a week in each country.
Our closest international airport, Charlotte (CLT), is an American Airlines hub, so flying non-stop in and out of Madrid is a logical choice. But wait, we now have to go through JFK, which we haven’t had to do for years. Remember what I said about flexibility? Until international travel gets back to pre-Covid times, we’ll have to make some concessions.
The devil is in the details
It’s all about the preparation these days when traveling internationally. Since each country has their own set of Covid testing, health screening and contact tracing requirements, I invested the time to research what we’ll need to travel from place to place. My go-to resource is the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory website, which keeps current on each country’s changing requirements. For example, the US recently changed the testing timeline for entry.
Covid testing and health passes
In addition to required Covid tests, various health questionnaires must be completed.
Spain’s health questionnaire must be completed within 48 hours before departure. They do not require a negative Covid test to enter for vaccinated travelers.
Portugal, our next stop, requires a negative Covid test for entry, so I booked our appointments with Democratest at a medical center a short walk from our Airbnb in Madrid. They also require a contact tracing form called a Passenger Locator Card (PCL), which must be completed online within four days prior to arrival.
France requires a Pass Sanitaire for entering restaurants, museums and public venues but a Covid test is not required for entry if you are fully vaccinated.*
Once these questionnaires are completed, a QR Code is sent to you that completes your validation. All these various new rules require patience, diligence and persistence.
And we’re finally off to Europe
Eager to get going, we checked in online with American Airlines as we usually do, just to be presented with another surprise. We had to download an app called VeriFly, which integrates with passenger information for international flights. Without it, we could not proceed with online check-in. The alternative is to do this at the airport.
Arrival in Madrid
On arrival in Madrid after passing through Passport Control and Customs, we were directed to a Health Inspection area where we showed our QR codes and vaccination cards. They double-checked our passports with our QR codes. This all went smoothly, but I confess I was relieved by the time we picked up our bags and headed to the taxi stand.
Our Airbnb was located a few blocks from Puerta del Sol, the center of Madrid. Most pedestrians were wearing masks outdoors but restaurants did not ask for our vaccination cards. On our appointment day we headed to our Covid test site and 20 minutes afterwards we had our test results. That prepaid test appointment saved us hours of standing in line.
Arrival in Lisbon
We completed our PCL forms online within the 4-day arrival window, but had no way to print them while traveling. We hoped we would be able to show the QR codes on our smartphones when we arrived. But no, we had to complete a paper form on the flight. This seemed confusing, since we had been required to complete the form online. We chuckled as the flight attendant collected the paper forms prior to landing in Lisbon and wondered how many piles of them are stacking up in someone’s office.
Once in Lisbon we breathed a sigh of relief, as there were no crowds even close to what we experienced in Madrid. Our hotel checked our Covid test results, as required. All restaurants checked our vaccination cards, and most people were wearing masks.
Arrival in Bordeaux
EasyJet’s check-in at the Porto airport was a breeze. All we needed to show were our passports and vaccination cards.
Once in France, we easily passed through Passport Control and Customs as usual, pre-Covid. Since we had received our Pass Sanitaire before leaving the States, we did not need to go to a local pharmacy to register with the France health database. We merely showed our QR codes with the smartphone app called #Tous Anti Covid. All restaurants, retail stores and bars asked for this during our stay in Bordeaux and people were predominantly wearing masks everywhere we went. It made us feel that we were as safe as anywhere, probably safer than back in the States, frankly.
Back to Madrid
We did not need a Covid test to return to Spain, but we did need a new health questionnaire. It was easy to complete that form this time and we received the QR codes via email right away.
Compliance at Bordeaux’s airport was the most stringent. While in line for check-in and bag drop, Iberia’s staff checked our passports, vaccination cards, and our QR codes for Spain. Airport security required that every single electronic device be pulled out and put in the buckets passing through the scanners. For me that meant my laptop; iPad; portable speaker; smartphone; my bag of charging cables; and my flashlight. I think I used four buckets just for my things!
Back to USA
To meet the new US window for Covid testing, I booked rapid PCR tests at the Madrid airport for the day before departure. We arrived early at the Madrid airport for our test appointment. There were long lines for those without appointments. We were in and out with our test results in hand 45 minutes later. Negative!
American Airlines once again required us to use Verifly to validate all requirements for returning to the US. We uploaded our negative test results and complete the attestation that we are telling the truth. It took about three hours from start to finish before we were able to get our boarding passes on our phones. But we did, and now we can rest assured that all will go well tomorrow.
The additional requirements for traveling to Europe and back home during Covid were not insurmountable. This trip was a good test of our determination to travel and our ability to adapt. Yes, it was worth it. We feel prepared and can’t wait to travel again next year.
Today’s travel requirements are designed for public safety and compliance. For those without full vaccination status, it will be onerous.
I hope that sharing our experience of traveling during 2021 will encourage my fellow travelers to not lose heart but to keep traveling like there’s no tomorrow!
*Editors note: When we traveled in France in late October, a passport and vaccination card could be used if unable to receive Pass Sanitaire. (For some people in my group, receiving the pass took upward of a month.)