Europe may be on the verge of reopening to American travelers after a year of border closures and travel bans. Does that mean we can start dreaming of an August tour of the Acropolis or a fall cruise down the Danube? Maybe.
As reported in Sunday’s New York Times, Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will soon be permitted to visit again, according to Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the executive branch of the E.U.Von der Leyen says that, since the United States was exclusively using vaccines that the E.U.’s drug authority had also approved, this “will enable free movement and travel to the European Union.”
She also says the timing depends “on the epidemiological situation, but the situation is improving in the United States, as it is, hopefully, also improving in the European Union.”
But even with the lackluster rollout of vaccines across much of Europe, with millions of tourism dollars at stake, travel is slowly coming back. “This summer will not feel quite normal,” says Virginia Messina, a senior vice president at World Travel & Tourism Council. “But there will definitely be more movement.”
Though no one has announced when exactly borders will open and how travelers will prove their vaccination status, here’s what to consider when preparing for possible summer trips across the pond.
Are airlines flying?
U.S.-based airlines have diverted their planes to popular domestic destinations and won’t reroute them until Europe’s opening dates become official. Even after re-opening, individual countries may still enforce their own quarantine and testing rules, which might impact travelers’ ability to quickly change planes within Europe. Re-open EU, an official website of the E.U., can help travelers check for transit rules before booking flights with connections.
The U.S. currently requires citizens to acquire a negative COVID-19 test no more than three days before boarding a flight back into the country. Countries already open to American travelers have figured out how to offer these tests easily. But it does mean a masked medical tech wielding a daunting nose swab will be one of the last locals you meet on your trip.
How do you prove vaccination?
There are plenty of travel documents in development (aka vaccine passports). The E.U. is working on “Digital Green Certificates,” to prove vaccination status, recent negative tests, or recovery from the disease for easy travel amid the 27-country bloc. Non-E.U. citizens should be able to get a Digital Green Certificate from the member state they are traveling to by submitting proof of vaccination, negative test results, or evidence of recovery. How this will all work remains to be confirmed by E.U. and member state authorities.
Brace yourself for a new normal
Compared to some places in the U.S. which have dropped all mask mandates or never enacted restrictions at all, Europe has done more widespread lockdowns and enacted stricter regulations to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Being there might even feel safer for some visitors, especially in locations trying to lure travelers who have already decided to get a vaccine and a vaccine passport. (This may indicate acceptance or prioritization of safety measures.) Those offerings might include more outdoor seating, plastic partitions, social distancing efforts, and strict mask regulations, even as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advises that vaccinated people can stop wearing face coverings outside in most settings.
“It’s all about attracting the tourists you want,” says Terry Suero, a travel agent and founder of Safe Travel Pathways, a travel agency focused on finding locations and travel operators following CDC guidelines. “They are trying to make sure they have a safe environment so people feel comfortable.”
Google, which already was including information about COVID-related travel restrictions in search results, just launched additional features allowing users to track new advisories as well as destination-specific policies on quarantines, testing, and immunization requirements.
Case numbers across Europe are up but are still lower than many places across the U.S. Of course, the process of getting there exposes people to some COVID-19 risks, but airlines and airports have been improving safety measures for a year now.
The U.S. State Department also just upped 115 countries to “Level 4: Do Not Travel,” its highest travel advisory, including all 27 E.U. countries. The CDC’s guidance now has the entirety of the E.U. at level four as well, meaning “Travelers should avoid all travel to these destinations.”
What about insurance for a trip?
While a comprehensive travel insurance policy can pay for itself after one delayed flight, the COVID-19 pandemic has made insurance even more critical. Most insurance providers cover any costs associated with contracting COVID-19, but if European officials decide not to open borders to Americans, most plans don’t cover changes in government travel policies.
To protect against that, travel insurance company InsureMyTrip’s pandemic expert Meghan Walch recommends that those considering going abroad purchase travel insurance that includes a “cancel for any reason” upgrade. “With situations as fluid as this, cancel for any reasons are typically your best bet to be reimbursed,” she says.
The cancel for any reason addition usually requires policyholders to insure their entire trip (not just, say, their flights), to buy the policy within three weeks of booking the voyage, and to cancel at least two days before their scheduled departure date. This add-on could cover up to 50 to 75 percent of a trip, according to Walch, and also protect people who see numbers increase in their destination and decide that’s outside their comfort zone, also not typically covered in other plans. Cancel for any reason policies usually add 40 to 60 percent to the insurance policy.
The ethics of traveling now
Should you take a far-flung trip during a continuing pandemic? “It’s not an easy one-word answer situation,” says Ross Silverman, a professor of health policy and management at Indiana University’s Fairbanks School of Public Health.
Most of Europe has had a slower vaccine rollout than the U.S., he points out, and we are still waiting on more data about the effectiveness of the jabs to stop transmission, and much isn’t known about the variants. “There are a lot of unknown unknowns,” he says.
For travelers who decide to jet off, Silverman encourages them to plan outdoor activities and avoid crowds, and continue wearing masks. Remember, too, that Europe has been more willing to shut down when virus caseloads get high, which could impact even the best-laid plans.
“Anyone considering traveling is going to have to think very flexibly about this summer,” he says. “You also have to be prepared that if things flare up, the things you hope to do might get shut down.”
What about your kids?
Though some individual European countries like Greece will allow all travelers with recent negative COVID-19 tests to enter, the overall E.U. stance seems to be that borders will only open to vaccinated Americans. No vaccine has been approved for children under 16. Both Pfizer–BioNTech and Moderna are running trials right now for vaccines in children under 12, with Johnson & Johnson’s in the works.
Early trial results have found that 12- to 15-year-olds who received two Pfizer–BioNTech doses developed higher levels of antibodies than 16- to 25-year-olds in earlier trials. Pfizer has requested the FDA’s permission to allow children in that age group to receive the jabs. This is a good sign for reaching herd immunity, but top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci has predicted that children won’t be able to be vaccinated against COVID-19 until the beginning of 2022. Maybe pencil in the Paris Olympics in 2024?
Where should you go?
If you want a deal, Malta announced it would pay people 200 euros each if they booked a five-star hotel on the country’s main island, and 220 euros for those traveling to Gozo, a smaller, less-touristy island.
Greece is one of the only European countries currently open to fully inoculated visitors. As of April 19, residents of the U.S., E.U., the U.K., Israel, the UAE, and Serbia who have been vaccinated or can present a negative PCR test have been able to enter.
Even with the opening up of the E.U., there are still destinations that will have to wait.One is Australia, which has extended its foreign travel ban until 2022. Japan recently announced that visitors would not be allowed back in time to watch the Olympics.
Are you forgetting anything?
If it’s been a while since you’ve last traveled out of the country, check your passport’s expiration date. Most countries require it to be valid for at least six months after a planned departure.
Many travelers had to cancel trips in the early months of the pandemic, leaving travel vouchers and credits for another day. Those could be expiring, so check on them before booking any new travel.
Then, don’t forget to pack a few spare masks and your CDC card.