Navigating coronavirus restrictions in Europe requires a new set of skills. Fortunately, they are easy to acquire.
By Andrea Sachs,
Maya Ish-Shalom for The Washington Post
On a walking tour in Venice, our guide stopped outside a former prison at Doge’s Palace in St. Mark’s Square. Earlier in the week, we would have strolled right in, pausing only for a quick temperature check. However, two days before, on Aug. 6, Italy had commenced a new law requiring proof of vaccination to enter certain indoor establishments, such as cultural venues and restaurants.
“Please have your Green Pass ready,” a museum attendant announced to our group of Germans, Dutch and Americans.
Only three of us were carrying a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination card instead of the European Union’s digital certification. I ventured forth, into the unknown, and handed her my paper document. She scrutinized the scribblings. Anticipating her confusion, I explained that Americans sequence our dates as month, day and year. She nodded her approval and stepped aside. While waiting for the others, I reordered my dates in the European fashion and understood her hesitation: When the day preceded the month, it appeared as if I had received my shot only a few weeks earlier, cutting it close to the mandatory 14-day wait time between completing treatment and traveling.
“It’s new and a little slow,” our guide, Lorenzo Guglielmi, said of the freshly minted rule and its execution.
During a multinational jaunt through Europe this month, I learned to adapt to the new order, which changed shape week by week and from country to country. Take proof of vaccination. In some destinations, such as Dubrovnik’s Old Town in Croatia and Lake Bled in Slovenia, I never showed my card. In Venice and Vienna, the document was busier than my passport. I needed it to access the Lace Museum on the Italian island of Burano, ascend the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square, attend the Rathausplatz film festival in Vienna and check into my hotel in the Austrian capital’s MuseumsQuartier.
“Everyone is used to waving a piece of paper to get inside,” Mark Brownlow, founder of the Visiting Vienna online travel guide, told me during a masked conversation inside the city’s main train station.
To ensure a successful trip to Europe — or really anywhere these days — you must be prepared and well-informed. Winging it doesn’t fly. You need to know entry requirements and restrictions on the ground, plus admission rules for attractions and dining protocols at restaurants. Before returning home, you will have to carve out time for a swab.
These extra steps can feel overwhelming, but they are surmountable. Think of them as the homework you must complete before you can run off and play. And what a playground awaits: nearly all of Europe.
Maya Ish-Shalom for The Washington Post
Planning a European vacation
The majority of Europe has welcomed back Americans, though there have been whispers in the corridors that the European Union could remove the United States from its safe-country list. When I started planning my trip in late June, the situation was rosier.
My original plan was to visit destinations I had previously shunned because of overtourism. I was going to start in Portugal, then fly to Barcelona and Venice. From Italy, I would take a road trip to Lake Bled before heading south to Malta, which claimed to have achieved herd immunity in May. However, I abandoned that itinerary when case numbers started to rise in Portugal and Spain. In addition to overall safety concerns, I could be saddled with additional restrictions for visiting an “unsafe” nation, such as quarantining and testing. A few weeks later, the State Department validated my concerns when it advised Americans to avoid travel to both countries.
I swapped in Croatia and Austria, which were both a healthy green. (The E.U. uses a color-coded system.) I rechecked the entry rules for all five countries to make sure they had not changed since I last blinked. Then I booked my flights — but not any flights. Remembering the Refund Panic of March 2020, I avoided third-party booking sites and worked directly with the airlines, in the event that I had to change or cancel my plans. For the transatlantic flight to Dubrovnik, I chose a more expensive route with only domestic connections. I didn’t want to worry about transit requirements in foreign airports or risk getting stuck in a layover city.
I secured my rental car and plane and train tickets before departing but left some plans unfinished, such as accommodations and excursions. By waiting till the last minute, I would have fewer reservations to cancel if my trip imploded. For Malta, I had a lot of blank spaces, because I wasn’t confident the country would allow me in or whether I should even try to get in. The Mediterranean island nation had suffered a spike in cases and had been downgraded to red, the second-worst category before dark red. In early July, the government announced that it would only accept the E.U.’s digital certificate. However, coronavirus restrictions are like New England weather: Give it a minute, and the conditions will change. And so they did. A few days later, the country reversed its decision and said it would accept the CDC card. But threatening clouds still lurked. While I was in Austria, the State Department elevated its warning for Malta.
The takeaway: Factor in coronavirus case numbers when building your itinerary. Pick flights with domestic connections, and book directly with the airline. Resist the urge to schedule every facet of your trip; embrace last-minute planning.
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In Valletta, the capital of Malta, restaurants set up tables along the narrow side streets. Only Americans who have received a coronavirus vaccine are permitted to enter the Mediterranean island nation.
Navigating the entry requirements
Vaccinated travelers must show proof of inoculation at several key points along their journey. (Some governments will also accept a document proving that you have recovered from covid or have a negative test result.) I pulled out my CDC card whenever I checked into a flight or passed through immigration. On the train ride from Vienna to Venice, an official boarded at the last Austrian town before the Italian border and checked our vax status. The process was quick and painless, and I had no real issues using my CDC card. A Ryanair agent in Venice didn’t understand why I had received only one shot. After I explained that Johnson & Johnson requires a single dose, her face relaxed.
None of the countries I visited required vaccinated visitors to submit a negative test result. However, to be safe, I received a swab in Washington and again at the Newark airport, so I would have a valid result for my first intra-Europe flight. I also filled out a number of forms that officials mostly ignored. I was thrilled when the train agent asked to see my QR code for Italy’s E.U. Digital Passenger Locator Form.
Of all my crossings, the drive from Italy to Slovenia was the easiest. I pulled over less than a half-mile from the border to buy a toll pass for Slovenia. Piece of Bled cream cake. The most cumbersome was Malta. I completed a half-dozen documents, including the same DPL form requested by Italy. I also uploaded my medical information to the VeriFly app, which Malta had touted as a contingency for revising its position on the CDC card. In the end, the process was very straightforward. The official took my vaccination card and a form I had found on a table preceding the immigration queue. She asked me which countries I had visited before Malta; I listed the four in Europe. Apparently, that was the correct answer.
The takeaway: Be overprepared, even if that means filling out forms that are never collected. Several days before you travel, check for any changes in entry requirements, especially in regard to testing.
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The island of Burano, a 45-minute ferry ride from Venice, is known for its colorful houses and lace-making traditions. To visit the Lace Museum, guests must show proof of vaccination.
Following the ground rules
A movement to require proof of vaccination is gaining momentum on both sides of the Atlantic. Austria, which eased restrictions July 1, created the 3G rule, which stands for “getestet” (tested), “geimpft” (vaccinated) and “genesen” (recovered). You must belong to one of these three categories to gain entry into such establishments as restaurants, bars and hotels. Masks are not required in 3G venues, but they are mandated everywhere else, including stores, public transportation and museums. Officials are quick to remind you to mask up. At the museum at Belvedere Palace, a visitor removed her face covering to snap a photo with Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.” A guard motioned for her to pull it back up.
On the first day of Italy’s Green Pass law, which will extend to modes of long-distance transportation on Sept. 1, the line for the Campanile bell tower in St. Mark’s Square was moving at a fairly brisk pace. I waited for about 10 minutes before an official called me over and checked my CDC card. I proceeded to the ticket counter, where I received an N95 mask that I was required to wear in the elevator and on the observation deck. At La Tecia Vegana, a vegan restaurant, I sat outdoors on a warm Saturday night. However, if the mosquitoes or humidity drove me indoors, a server told me I would need to show him my certification. I could use the bathroom and pay my bill at the cash register without it.
In several instances, businesses had posted notices about the rule but did not enforce it. At a coffee joint, an employee reached over the sign resting on the counter to hand me my iced drink. I also saw stirrings of resistance: I ran into a protest led by a man with a microphone and a banner that stated “No Green Pass.” A woman in the crowd was wearing a T-shirt with the same message scrawled on the back. Her young daughter carried a sign that read “Liberta.”
The takeaway: Always carry your vaccination card.
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In St. Mark’s Square in Venice, late-night visitors splash in the water caused by the high-tide phenomenon called acqua alta.
Exploring without the crowds
Europe without the sweaty masses was glorious. On Lake Bled, the ducks outnumbered the watercraft. In Dubrovnik, I was the only Queen Cersei on the “Walk of Shame” steps, a normally thronged “Game of Thrones” film site. “This is empty,” said Tea Bundalo, my guide and an extra on the HBO show. “You used to wait 20 minutes or longer just to get into the Old City.” Although Venice was a little busier than Vienna or Dubrovnik, I could still walk down the enchanting side streets and hear the echo of my footfalls, a rarity before the pandemic. “Venice reached a point where it was almost unbearable,” said Monica Delli Colli, a guide whose last tour in Venice coincided with the November 2019 floods. “There were constant queues.”
Without the mobs, I could also spend more time chatting with the locals, who told me how the return of tourists was helping them lift their spirits and revive their livelihoods. “For almost two years, nobody came and kissed my grandmother’s hand,” said the grandson of the family-run Campanil Lab, a lace shop on Burano. “Now, they are coming back, and she is happy.”
The takeaway: Relish the relative quiet and thin crowds before tourism comes back in full force. Show your support of the locals; the gratitude flows both ways.
Maya Ish-Shalom for The Washington Post
All travelers returning to the States must provide a negative test result from within three days of their departure, regardless of vaccination status. Unless you have a self-test kit, which the CDC approved for international travel in May, you will need to track down a testing site in your destination. This is surprisingly easy. Hotel staff are well-versed on this topic. The reservations manager at Quaint Boutique Hotels, my accommodations on the Maltese island of Gozo, booked me an appointment at a pharmacy two days before my flight. At Hotel Antiche Figure in Venice, an employee gave an American family a map on which he had circled the testing locations. I also came across facilities during my daily wanderings. I found them in train stations (Venice) and airports (Venice, Malta) and at pharmacies (Vienna) and medical centers (Bled) in touristy areas.
To help with your research, government agencies provide addresses, hours, cost and other details online. Among the resources: Vienna’s municipal website and Slovenia’s tourism portal, as well as the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your destination. The airlines are also great resources. Days before your departure, you will start receiving messages from the carrier reminding you about the requirements for your connecting airports and final destination. United even assisted me with the timing of my test: “Based on your itinerary, an acceptable test should be dated no earlier than Aug. 17.”
The takeaway: Don’t stress over the coronavirus test. You can easily squeeze a swab in between breakfast and an afternoon of sightseeing.
Please NotePotential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.
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