Planning an international trip can be a bit stressful these days, especially since the rules might change at any minute. But we recently had an amazing trip to Europe and recommend just doing some research and practicing some patience.
Was it hard to navigate European travel in the times of COVID? No, at least not if you’re full vaccinated and willing to take a bunch of rapid tests. Travel takes a bit more planning, some extra Euros and a little luck. Here are our tips for the fully vaccinated.
1. Be flexible.
A year in advance, we booked a trip to Munich for Oktoberfest 2021 thinking the pandemic would surely be over by then. Clearly, we were wrong.
Oktoberfest was cancelled. Our direct flight from Washington, D.C., to Munich was cancelled. Our flight home from Nice via Lisbon was cancelled.
We were armed with changeable tickets, and we wound up altering our plans about 10 times from the day we first booked our trip until the day we actually took off for Europe. Ultimately, we rerouted to a direct flight to Paris and got a return flight home from Porto (via Lisbon).
Since we visited Paris shortly before the pandemic, we decided to just stay a night in the city of lights and head down to Lyon and Marseille before hopping a Ryanair flight to Porto.
The key is to purchase tickets that can be changed without a fee, so it’s important to carefully read the rules for the fare-type and make sure you are comfortable with the details.
2. Submit any required documents in advance and print your confirmation or keep a copy on your phone.
Make sure you check the country’s specific requirements, as you likely will have to submit a health declaration or passenger locator form online before arrival. You also can check the U.S. Embassy website for country-specific information.
3. Apply for a Health Pass.
The French government is now allowing non-EU passport holders to apply for a health pass online. You can get this if you are fully vaccinated (note that “fully vaccinated” is defined a little differently from place to place but usually means you got your final shot at least two weeks before travel). [Update: France is now processing health passes at designated pharmacies]
The health pass is your golden ticket to gain entry into EU museums, dining and other attractions. Our advice: know the rules, check the website and apply as soon as possible. France changed the process a few times before our trip, and we were not able to apply much in advance. We DID NOT get our health pass in time but that also did not stop us from getting around. Don’t worry if you don’t get it! We still had no problems traveling through France (see point 4 below).
Note: We applied for the health pass on Sept. 13 and finally got a rejection on Sept. 29 because our trip had ended.
4. Get rapid tests on the ground.
All we needed to enter France at the time we arrived (it changes, so check frequently) was proof that we are fully vaccinated. But we got a PCR test before we left for two reasons. First, so we had a negative test result before ever leaving home (we don’t want to unintentionally infect others or test positive abroad and have to quarantine). Second, we thought the PCR results would grant us access to restaurants and attractions for our first few days—but you may run into trouble if the lab report can’t be scanned.
This is getting into the minutia but: Our PCR test from the U.S. didn’t have a QR code and our U.S.-based rapid test, which had a QR code, wasn’t scannable in Europe. You may be able to show the lab report, but the easiest thing to do is get a rapid test on the ground immediately after you arrive, because the results will come with a QR code that is scannable in the EU and will grant you access everywhere. It’s so much easier on you and the restaurant staff if you have a QR code! We didn’t even have to seek a place out. Just walk around and look for a tent outside or a pharmacy with a sign in the window that says they are doing rapid tests.
We literally just walked down the street two blocks from our hotel and popped into a pharmacy with a tent outside. Thirty minutes and €26 each later we had a pass that lasted us 72 hours. Note that the rules are different everywhere. A rapid test might grant you access for anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. You may need a PCR test. Read the rules, and if the rules aren’t clear, ask questions.
5. Bring some COVID home test kits.
While you’re on the ground in Europe, it’s a good idea to have some COVID home-test kits with you. If your rapid test wasn’t administered in the approved window for the location (restaurant, Airbnb, hotel, museum), many places will let you take a rapid test in front of them (well, likely in a private room).
6. Make an appointment if you need a PCR test.
If you have a choice between getting a PCR or a rapid antigen test, getting a rapid test is the easiest thing to do—just make sure you get it within the appropriate window because the results are usually good for a shorter period than a PCR test. We never needed an appointment for a rapid test but we did need an appointment at a lab for a PCR test. We checked with our hotel, which gave us the link to the local labs, and we made an appointment prior to leaving the U.S. The language barrier was a little challenging at the lab (we, sadly, don’t speak more than five words of French, but it worked out just fine). We had our results emailed in less than 24-hours and uploaded them for our flight from France to Portugal. That worked great for the airline. But the lab report didn’t have a QR code, so again, if all you need is a rapid test, get that at a pharmacy instead. It’s easier.
7. Yes, you likely will need to get tested on the ground if you want to go anywhere.
So not every accommodation, restaurant and attraction will ask for your health pass or rapid test, but many will. In Paris and Lyon, almost every place asked for it, whether we sat indoors or outdoors. In Marseille, it was a little less enforced. Portugal’s rules weren’t as stringent, but we still needed to show the test results a few times, particularly on the weekends in popular places.
8. Brace yourself for the brain swab!
Eighteen months into the pandemic, we’ve done countless COVID tests before traveling or seeing family. No testing site in the U.S. has ever done a brain scrape with the nasal swab the way they did in France. Every. Single. Time. Ouch! It’s not terrible but it’s really uncomfortable for about 20 seconds as they dig into your nasal cavity.
9. Check out eMed for your return trip to the U.S.
Even if you’re a U.S. citizen, you must show a negative COVID test before returning to the country. You only need a rapid antigen test taken within 3 days of your flight (which is more flexible than the strict 48-hour or 72-hour rule for most countries). You can get the test on the ground pretty easily, but another alternative is to go through eMed, which provides an FDA authorized at-home kit that you administer yourself under the supervision of a telehealth provider. You have to buy and receive the tests before you leave the U.S. and pack them in your bag. You should download the app and set up your accounts with eMed and NAVICA (you will need accounts with both) prior to your trip. The process is a little confusing, but ultimately it’s super convenient to do from your hotel at your leisure. The Points Guy has a great step-by-step explanation of the process, so I won’t go into it here.
You will get a QR code (which didn’t work for us as a health pass in Europe but does work with participating airlines) and an official lab report that you can print out and show to airlines and accommodations that can’t scan the NAVICA code.
Certain airlines, such as United, allow you to upload the NAVICA QR code using the airline app. For other airlines, such as TAP Portugal, we just selected “other airline” on the form we completed when taking the test, printed out the eMed lab report and showed it at the gate before boarding. No problems.
Note: We’ve heard reports of long wait times to connect to a telehealth rep. Our family has collectively done this process 10 times with almost no wait at all—but it’s important to make sure you give yourself plenty of time because delays can happen at peak travel times.
10. Practice patience.
Travel is more stressful than it used to be, but it can still be just as enjoyable. The easy of getting a rapid test makes things better than they were a year ago, and hopefully the health-pass process will improve with time, too. Things are going to be this way for a while, so it’s a good idea to be patient and give yourself plenty of time to gather and submit your documents and get through the airport.
Do you have more questions or any experience of your own to share? Let us know in the comments.