International Travel in COVID Times

International travel can be stressful in the best of times, even before COVID was a daily household word. For those who have yet to travel internationally since the pandemic started (we’ve just completed our third transatlantic journey) it can be confusing, frustrating and nerve wracking. What paperwork is necessary? Will COVID cases cancel my flight? What test do I need to have? What do I need to do when I arrive? Etc. It’s essential to know the rules at your destination, plan ahead and be patient.

The Source of Truth. First, make sure to check with your airline website for the requirements. You can also check the US State Department website for the rules in the country of your destination. The Points Guy travel blog also has useful information, though some of it can be outdated. I check all three. Sometimes there is conflicting information between the sites above, but the airlines we’ve flown (TAP and Air France) have been very current and very accurate so that’s been my source of truth.

Proof of vaccination. As far as paperwork, vaccination is required in many countries to do much.

Portugal. Once in Portugal, there are varying degrees of checking vaccine passports or not, I believe this is related to the level of cases and hospitalizations. Last summer, hotels were required by law to check vaccine status as were restaurants if you wanted to eat inside. We used our US CDC cards initially until we were able to get the EU Digital passport. As residents of Portugal, we could do this though I am not exactly sure how or if a non resident could get it from the Portugal health department. Our friends who have visited used their CDC cards and those worked. We’ve not been out yet since returning to our European home but given caseloads of Omicron I’d suspect we will need to have all of the above at the ready for restaurants, hotels, etc. Portugal has taken the vaccine effort very seriously and now has something like 92% of the country with two doses and 40% boosted.

When traveling to Portugal, they also require a digital passenger locator form be completed after you check in (you can actually do it before within 48 hours but you’re supposed to do it afterwards in case your seat changes). You can do it online and get a QR code (make sure to take a picture of it as you will most likely be asked for it when you check in and when you board your Portugal-bound flight). Onboard, you will either need to provide a printed copy of the PDF which you’ll get emailed to you after completing the form online or show the QR code or fill out a new one on paper. If you don’t have access to a printer (since you can’t do it until within 24-48 hours of your flight and may not be home when you check in, this can present an obstacle), not to worry, the flights we’ve been on the passed out the same form to be completed and returned to the flight attendants. This form is intended to be used for contact tracing if someone on your flight tests positive subsequent to your flight. Its not optional, in our experience. Have your address in Portugal, flight info and passport handy. You’ll need them.

Other European Countries. One thing is for sure, country to country is very inconsistent. This summer, Great Britain required a negative COVID test both before coming and post arrival. That’s changed now to only be pre-arrival but who knows, it could change again.

We plan to travel to France and Italy this spring, so the following is what we know about those countries.

France. France has been more aggressive than some European countries and as of this past weekend a booster dose is required to go to theaters or museums, etc., according to The Points Guy. Friends who visited France last summer were able to get an EU digital passport for France in advance, but those rules have now changed and you need to go to a pharmacy in France upon arrival, with your CDC card, to get it. That process, as described online anyway, appears to be easy. We plan to do that, unless we can get the Portuguese health department to load our booster records into their system before we go. That’s likely, although not a simple process if our experience last summer repeats itself.

Italy. So far, Italy doesn’t seem to be requiring a digital passport for non-Italians but one thing is for sure with COVID, the rules change and are inconsistent country to country so check early and check back often.

Bottom line, in addition to your passport and any required visas, make sure you have your CDC vaccine proof, any digital vaccine passport available to you and any other forms required by your country (like the locator form for Portugal). Take pictures of everything in case you lose the paper or don’t have Wi-Fi or cell service as you pass through customs or board your plane. You may be asked for one, several or all at any point along the way.

Testing. Testing requirements also vary from country to country. The US now requires a negative PCR test within 24 hours of boarding your flight. In Portugal, this has been easy to get done. There are drive up testing labs all over the place, most pharmacies do them and the cost is relatively inexpensive (€30 per test this summer where we went). Turnaround time is usually within a few hours. Make sure your name, DOB, date of test and result are all accurate and legible or you’ll have problems. If you’re in a hotel, the hotel can arrange a test for you, so ask.

In the US, if you’re travelling elsewhere, this can be trickier because, astonishingly, two years into this thing we’ve not yet figured out a seamless process with a guaranteed, quick turnaround of results by travel time. Web sites I’ve looked at can vary, but the airlines ones have been accurate, in determining the timeframe before boarding and what test is required (antigen vs PCR). We went with PCR tests within 24 hours of flight time both times to be conservative and safe. Since, both times we traveled to Europe, no one outside the airport could guarantee results on time, we got our tests both in July and this month (January) through XpressChek at Boston’s Logan Airport (July) and San Francisco’s SFO. XpressChek has locations in many US International airports. Some XpressCheck sites, like in Denver, are post-security so if your international flight initiates in Denver you may be asked for proof of a COVID test result when you check in. I assume that they must let you through if you can prove you have an XpressChek appointment but will verify your test status at the gate, but I haven’t tried it. Several of our Denver friends have used XpressChek appointments as a back up to a test obtained elsewhere the day or so before the flight. Fortunately, in all cases, their test outside of the airport did come through on time so I can’t personally attest to what happens if you try to check in without a negative test result but do know that if you check in for your flight online, you’ll be asked to come to prove test status to the gate agent before boarding. Note: XpressChek ain’t cheap, but has provided peace of mind for us, which is worth something.

XpressChek’s online booking is easy. If you have to cancel or reschedule (we had to do both during this most recent trip due to Omicron-inspired canceled flights) you’ll have to wait a while on hold as there is not a way I’ve found to cancel or reschedule online. The Denver number never connected to the scheduling call center but the SFO one did so who knows, good luck. We also found varying success in the efficiency of the processes between Boston and San Fran. Boston was extremely efficient to check in, San Fran, well, I’ll be nice and say only not so much. Despite that, once you check in, the testing process at both locations was efficient. Getting your test results back can take anywhere between one to three hours depending on how many people are getting tests done at the site. We’ve been lucky both times and got results within the hour but the staff there told horror stories of three-plus hour stressful wait times.

My advice: allow lots of time, make an appointment in advance (appointments take priority to walk ins) and be patient. Also, remove some of the mystery and take a rapid test at home (if you can get your hands on one, an issue in the USA but not in Europe, or Portugal anyway) in advance so if you happen to test positive on that one you can rebook while you quarantine from the comfort of home or wherever you are. Two people at SFO tested positive (we assume, since rather than delivering their paperwork to them, they were told to gather their items and come back with the XpressChek staff destined for some undisclosed location) which I have no doubt derailed their days and travel plans. You will need the test paperwork when you check in and/or board and when you clear customs. In Portugal, they now check them upon arrival before you leave the airport too which was new since summer. There is some variability to how closely the paperwork is reviewed from basically not at all (in France when we returned to the US) to close scrutiny (every other time).

Bottom line: be patient, take pictures of everything and be organized. Things change and there is a lot of inconsistency country to country and agent to agent but “just winging it” and hoping for the best ain’t gonna cut it.

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