How my family of four pulled off a Portugal trip during the pandemic

By Erika Mailman,

Erika Mailman for The Washington Post

Covid signage at the Lisbon airport. The author’s family traveled from California to Portugal this summer.

It started, as so many adventures do, with a nasal swab in the Walgreens drive-through. All four of us sat in the car rotating a giant swab about one inch deep into our nostrils with various grimaces as cars backed up behind us. We put them into our individual test tubes and hoped for the best. That negative result would allow us to get on a plane to Portugal.

It was the first step of a trip that, even the week before we left, I didn’t think was going to happen. Besides airport strikes and weekend lockdowns in Lisbon, there was a new delta variant circulating around the globe. Yet with coronavirus test kits for the return trip, hotels and Airbnbs booked, and someone lined up to watch our dog, it seemed as if we were going. Writing this now from the safety of my own desk, I’m still amazed we managed to take two kids across the world in the middle of a travel summer fraught with restrictions and curfews. I’m honestly kind of surprised we went. We have been the ultimately masked family, the first people on board to get vaccinated, the ones who weren’t going to let their kids go to physical school in 2020 because of a schools superintendent who wanted everything open as usual. (At the 11th hour, hybrid opened up, and one kid grabbed that option; the other did distance learning all year.)

[Navigating coronavirus restrictions in Europe requires a new set of skills. Fortunately, they are easy to acquire.]

But I kept all my fears and lip biting to myself. My husband is a physician assistant and needed this trip after a punishing year and a half of being on the front lines in an understaffed emergency room. Travel is our elation machine, our healer. This trip was his reward for risking his life, for the phone calls we made in 2020 ensuring that, if our kids were orphaned, everything was lined up for them to be instantly connected with family in other states. Was the trip risky? Possibly. But all of us were vaccinated, with the exception of our youngest, who was not yet eligible, and we knew we would always comply with safety measures.

After the Walgreens test cleared us to fly, my husband spent three hours on the phone the night before our flight to ensure the testing had taken place during the narrow time frame required. This was tricky, given that the first leg of the trip from California was 12 hours and involved a nine-hour time-zone jump forward. That means we “lost” 21 hours just in flying, when the test needed to be performed — with a 48-hour turnaround time for results — within 72 hours of both our initial flight and the second flight out of Munich. Mathematically speaking, that meant there was a scant three hours of acceptable timing for us to have taken the test.

Erika Mailman for The Washington Post

A typical street scene in Almada, a quick ferry trip over from Lisbon.

Erika Mailman for The Washington Post

Livraria Lello, often said to be the prettiest bookstore in the world, offers incredible Baroque architecture and many books in different languages.

Sure enough, in San Francisco, the airline employee at check-in believed the test had not been performed within the proper time frame. We deteriorated into low-grade panic, and I even started contemplating alternative destinations as we waited in the cavernous international departures hall. Finally, the employee was able to okay us for travel. Hurdle jumped! But we still had to fill out multiple forms on our phones for each passenger. (This particular trip during this particular pandemic would not be possible without smartphones and good WiFi. Luddites, you have to stick to car trips.)

Once on the plane, I had to be satisfied thinking about the impressive air filtration system I had read about and the fact that I would been given a wet wipe to clean my tray table and armrests. Everyone was masked. We were told by announcement that, when food arrived, we were to remove our masks to take a bite but put them back on to chew. I’d seen kids do this in my backyard when I hosted a summer writing camp and was stunned to realize that this was what they must have been doing all year at school. But on the plane, folks just took off their masks altogether to eat, ignoring the protocol. We were served multiple times on this first leg: two snacks and a full meal, plus two more drink rounds.

At our layover in Munich, all 150 passengers stood in a single line to again verify our coronavirus status. This was the case throughout all legs of the trip. (On the return, we came through Zurich.) Each time was one more opportunity for there to be a problem and for us to be denied entry.

[What to know as Europe reopens to U.S. travelers]

Once we made it to Lisbon, we found a city of effortless masking. Everyone wore masks everywhere. In open air and walking down the street, catching a ferry, riding the metro, shopping in the grocery store: All were masked . . . and not with their noses sticking out like snouty scofflaws.

Ride shares and taxis are not permitted to take more than three people. When you’re a family of four, that’s a problem. One day, we took a taxi to a historical site that isn’t easily reached by public transportation; the two drivers who had been chatting to each other as we walked up to the queue informed us that we had to take two taxis . . . and then the whole time, they talked to each other on their phones and drove us hither and snakily yon while driving up the tab. Ah, well; at least the view out the window was pretty. Another time, a taxi driver pulled out a third row, which satisfied requirements but seemed silly, because we still shared the same interior square footage of the vehicle.

As days went by, I started to relax into our journey and saw that, if anything, Portugal was safer than our little corner of the United States.

Erika Mailman for The Washington Post

Seen from the Royal Palace of Coimbra is a vista of the traditional red roofs often observed in Portugal.

Erika Mailman for The Washington Post

High above the city of Sintra, the ruins of an 8th-century Moorish castle offer a glimpse into the past.

For instance, at our Airbnb in Lisbon, a document posted prominently on the wall contained a hand-drawn map of the apartment with one bedroom marked in all caps, “ZONA DE CONTENÇAO,” which had me madly consulting Google Translate to see whether someone had the coronavirus while staying in that “zone.” The document turned out to be a pretty cool thing, a contingency plan in case a guest did contract the coronavirus while there. If so, the visitor would quarantine in that particular bedroom. I appreciated that our host was thinking ahead; I don’t know whether he was required to create this paperwork.

At the fabulous Bussaco Palace Hotel, once an actual palace for Portuguese royalty and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, we had to take a coronavirus test upon arrival. We were quickly ushered into a small conference room where we self-administered our tests, and an employee returned to see our results. We had brought our own tests (as well as the more official ones for the return flight), but if we hadn’t had them on us, the hotel was charging only 3 euros, or about $3.50. The hotel we stayed at in Porto did not require this.

Except for the airlines and the first Airbnb, we were never asked to show proof of our vaccination status. (In some European cities, such as Paris, Americans must obtain a digital health pass that proves one’s full vaccination to be able to enter locations such as restaurants and museums.)

This trip did fortify our souls and restore some balance. Portugal is full of extraordinary sights; the tilework facades alone are worth a trip, not to mention climbing the ruins of a medieval Moorish castle through a thick mist and trying new foods and drinks, such as Port wine, named for the city of Porto, and the nation’s distinctive ginjinha liqueur. We also visited a secretive Baroque library that you cannot photograph and a neo-Gothic bookstore that is said to have inspired J.K. Rowling in crafting the world of Harry Potter. All the while, we tried hard to have mixed-language conversations with some of the nicest people we’ve ever met in our years of traveling.

After two weeks, we were reluctant to come home and swap the challenges of traveling for the challenges of daily life. If not for our dog, maybe we would have tried to make the getaway permanent.

But we had one last coronavirus-related task to get through to go home . . . and it turned out to be a doozy. My husband had purchased special coronavirus tests acceptable for the airline, which required us to go online with a medical representative who would watch us take a bar-coded test through the computer’s camera after verifying our identity with our passports. This test ($180 for a six-pack) had been vaunted online as taking only 15 minutes. However, the reality was that each of us waited an hour or more for a representative to come online, then another 15 minutes for a separate rep to read the test results. That meant that our last evening in Porto was spent hanging out in the apartment for roughly five hours, hearing the same scripted instructions over and over and waiting anxiously for the line to go live. (Just to make things fun, the calls dropped a few times after 20 minutes.)

Erika Mailman for The Washington Post

The Bussaco Palace Hotel, once an actual palace for Portuguese royalty and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is seen at night.

Budget travelers will be happy to hear we again flew economy light and used our flight-approved carry-on backpacks. We did end up paying $25 per ticket to select seating at the last minute for the first leg. Portugal’s a very affordable country; a tuna sandwich called atum or a steak sandwich called a prego costs only 2 or 3 euros. And the palace we stayed in cost about half what you would pay in your typical Best Western. Besides the happy financials, Portugal was dramatically uncrowded in this pandemic summer. We took many photographs with no other people in them, and we didn’t encounter any other Americans.

Seemingly moments after our arrival home, the kids embarked on their first day of school, and summer became, as is always the case in childhood, fleeting. I’m glad we held fear at bay and took this trip. When I see my tired husband don his scrubs again and take his own journey back to the ER, I’m glad he put himself first for once.

Mailman is a writer based in Northern California. Her website is Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @ErikaMailman.

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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If you go
Where to stay Bussaco Palace Hotel Mata do Bussaco, Luso
011-351-231-937-970 Striking architecture, UNESCO World Heritage grounds in a national forest and a deep sense of history endow this hotel with fairy-tale charm. It’s perfect for hikers or for those who want to nurse a cocktail in the beautiful common rooms. Rooms range from about $137 to $839 per night. Where to eat Tasquinha Ginja d’Alfama 12 Rua de São Pedro -Alfama, Lisbon
011-351-936-207-958 This hole-in-the-wall restaurant, which is part of the usual tourist path through the Alfama neighborhood, offers housemade ginjinha, the famous Portuguese cherry liqueur, and inexpensive sandwiches. Open Wednesday to Monday 10 a.m. to 11:45 p.m.; closed Tuesday. A glass of ginjinha is about $1, food from about $2 to $7. What to do Biblioteca Joanina Pátio das Escolas da Universidade de Coimbra, Coimbra
011-351-239-242-744 Secretive Baroque library dating to 1717 in the university town of Coimbra. Open daily 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 6 p.m. Admission includes entry to three other sites on campus; admission about $15 adults, about $12 seniors and students ages 18 to 25, about $7 youths 13 to 17 and free for children 12 and under. Livraria Lello 144 Rua das Carmelitas, Porto 011-351-22-200-2037 Historical bookstore famed for its architecture, sumptuous red staircase, limited-edition print runs of classics and a possibly apocryphal connection to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; closed some holidays. Admission about $6 per person and can be applied to a book purchase. Castelo dos Mouros 2710-405 Sintra
011-351-21-923-7300 High on a hilltop overlooking the red-roofed city of Sintra, these climbable 8th-century ruins provide evocative historical moments, especially when the fog rolls in. Open daily 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; last entry 6 p.m. Admission about $9 adults, about $8 seniors and children 6 to 17 and about $31 families. Information E.M.

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Source: WP