What can you expect when traveling in Europe in this time of COVID?
I recently returned from a 10-week trip in France and Italy, my first international trip since March 2020. In this post I want to share something of my personal experiences traveling in France and Italy, from August 18 to October 25. I’ll also offer some recommendations for others who may be considering or planning European travel in this new environment.
My focus here is on American travelers, though some information and our recommendations are also very relevant to travelers from other countries who are permitted to enter European countries. Please note that every European country has different requirements and restrictions; I’ll talk here only about France and Italy. And the restrictions are continuing to change based on the changing conditions with the virus. It’s definitely a moving target.
There’s always some amount of risk with travel. At any time—and especially now—the key is to find ways to minimize risk and stress so you can relax and enjoy your vacation. Like me, many people have traveled to Europe over the past few months and have had a safe and extremely rewarding experience. It’s a personal choice… you have to decide for yourself when you feel comfortable traveling again.
Everything I love about Europe is still the same: incredible scenery, thousands of years of history, remarkable art and architecture, and wonderful food and wine. One big plus these days: with limitations on international travel, there are fewer tourists than usual. Most importantly, I found an enthusiastic welcome from old and new friends who were happy to welcome Americans back to their countries.
Getting Ready to Travel
In June 2021, vaccinated Americans were again permitted to travel to Europe. Hooray! Charley and I had our COVID vaccinations as soon as we were eligible, and we decided we could safely proceed with our four autumn tours in Provence and Puglia. Most of our travelers still wanted to join us. I began to plan a longer trip that would also include some research work in Normandy and Provence and some personal time with Charley at our second home in Provence.
I booked a round trip on Delta to/from Paris, using credits from cancelled trips last year. At the end of my time in France, I flew Air France from Marseille to Bari in Puglia (via Paris) and then from Puglia to Paris at the end of our three groups.
There are additional pre-flight requirements these days. The Delta website had all the information about what was required to enter France. I uploaded a copy of my CDC COVID vaccination card to the Delta website a few days before I left. I also uploaded copies of all my documents to a folder on my phone and also carried printed copies of everything with me.
Five weeks later when I flew to Italy, I found the information I needed about travel requirements for Italy on the Air France website. I needed to upload a special Passenger Locator form before my flight. And another form was required for Puglia, though no one ever asked for it. It’s important to complete everything—just in case.
I thought I would also need a negative COVID test to enter Italy, since this was required for travelers coming from the USA (taken 48 hours before the flight). I had a COVID test in Marseille, but since I had been in the EU already for several weeks, I was never asked for the documentation of my negative test.
The French “Pass Sanitaire” and Italian “Green Pass”
A “pass sanitaire” is an essential document for travelers in France. This pass verifies your vaccination status and includes a unique QR code. The pass is required to ride intercity trains, go to bars and restaurants (even to sit on the outside terrace), attend public events, and visit museums. French residents who aren’t vaccinated could initially get a temporary pass for three days with a negative COVID test… this is now being reduced to just one day.
I was able to get my digital pass sanitaire for France before leaving the USA and connected it to the AntiCOVID app I downloaded on my my phone. Charley obtained his pass when he arrived in Bonnieux. Although I printed a paper copy, I always showed the digital pass on my phone. Charley preferred to carry a paper copy.
The procedure for foreign visitors to obtain this French pass has been frustrating and has changed four times since the summer, but I think they finally have a good process in place. After arriving in France, international visitors must now visit a participating pharmacy to present their vaccination documentation and get the French pass. The pharmacy can charge up to 36 euro. You must now also have a booster shot within seven months of your last vaccine shot in order to have a valid pass.
Learn more about obtaining a French pass sanitaire here. This website also identifies the participating pharmacies—now over 2,000—including two pharmacies at the CDG airport. You’ll need to show your passport and your original CDC card.
Italy requires a similar pass, called a “green pass.” When this was requested, I showed my French pass sanitaire on my phone, but Italy accepts the American CDC vaccine card. If you’re traveling in Italy, you’ll want to carry your CDC card with you at all times.
On the Flight to Europe
I was probably most nervous about the flights—but this was actually easy! I flew from Knoxville to Atlanta on August 17, then Atlanta to Paris. I was able to access the Delta Sky Club between flights, where I found a private corner to spread out. On both my transatlantic flights, I was able to book a seat with no one next to me. Being very cautious, I wore a double mask on my flights over.
After several hours at the Charles de Gaulle airport, I took a bus from CDG to Caen in Normandy, where my daughter Kelly picked me up at the station. I was also glad to have a seat alone on the bus. I wore a mask for more than 24 hours straight, removing it only briefly to eat and drink! I was glad to be with Kelly and to settle into our rental apartment in Caen for a few days.
Once in Europe
I was much more active during my 10 weeks in Europe than I had been at home over the previous 17 months. I was “out and about” daily and around many more people. I felt very safe (to be honest, safer than I feel at home) because of the high percentage of vaccinated people in France and Italy and the restrictions on those who were unvaccinated. I also appreciated the precautions such as mask wearing that were widely-accepted and not seen as any kind of political statement.
Kelly and I spent two weeks together exploring Normandy, researching a new trip we plan to offer in 2023. She’s been living in Paris since mid-January and was very comfortable with daily life in France in this time of COVID. In Normandy we were outside much of the time, but we also visited museums, castles, towns and villages, apple distilleries, and a cheese factory. We rode a white tourist train in Caen, took a boat ride on the Seine from Honfleur, and enjoyed an all-day small group D-Day tour. We visited a few outdoor markets and a food festival. I quickly got used to the special COVID requirements in France, such as showing my pass sanitaire to enter restaurants and museums. I also got used to wearing a mask for extended periods of time… really, not so bad!
In Provence Charley and I visited with vaccinated friends, enjoyed our favorite restaurants, shopped at our favorite markets, and wandered on backroads in the beautiful countryside. We had lunch with good friends and fellow Slow Travel Tours members Anne and Kirk Woodyard of Music and Markets Tours and also enjoyed meeting one of our newest members, Tess Baker of Paint Provence with Tess. I spent a day in Aix and traveled down to the Mediterranean Coast for two days with my business partner Jennifer to research our new Mediterranean Provence trip. And then we welcomed our Luberon Experience group, our first group in 20 months! At the end of our Luberon Experience week, Charley and I joined Kelly for a few days in Marseille before Charley flew home to the USA.
In October I hosted three groups for our Puglia Experience week, where we base in the hilltop “white city” of Ostuni. Our guides and drivers were vaccinated, and we all wore masks indoors. (Our bus drivers always wore a mask.) Our hotel had special procedures at their reception desk and in the breakfast room. (Instead of serving yourself, a staff member behind a Plexiglas barrier filled your plate with the items you wanted from their wonderful breakfast buffet.) Our groups became accustomed to wearing masks into restaurants and then removing them when we sat down together. Our servers always wore masks.
Because everyone was vaccinated, our groups in Provence and Puglia were very comfortable together. We created our own “bubble” and were committed to keeping each other safe.
Our approach of basing for one week in one place definitely makes travel easier. We were very pleased that everyone who completed our post-trip survey said they were “very satisfied” with the concern and procedures for their health and safety during the week and that they appreciated all our efforts to keep them informed of changing requirements in the months and weeks before the trip.
An Important Travel Accessory – A Mask!
Masks are required in airports and train stations, on trains, and on planes, in most interior public spaces, and in some outdoor places. For example, masks were required at the busy L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue market in Provence, and I saw police enforcing this.
It’s important to know if your airline has requirements for particular kinds of masks. I wore a KN95 mask on flights and on my bus trip. Many airlines don’t allow fabric masks; you must wear a surgical or medical mask (N95 or KN95 mask without valve).
Most people I saw in France and Italy out-and-about wore light disposable medical masks. They dropped their mask around their neck or on carried it on their arm when not needed. The more fashionable fabric masks aren’t so widely used in Europe.
I found it was very comfortable—even natural—to wear a mask. If I approached a group of people on the street, often many were wearing masks– and I could always slip on my mask as I walked by.
Our groups appreciated that when we visited farms, artisan workshops and wineries, our hosts maintained a careful social distance outdoors (often in a mask) or wore a mask indoors.
The high vaccination rates and general acceptance of health and safety protocols in France and Italy made all of us feel very comfortable in public settings.
A COVID Test to Return Home
Return to the USA currently requires a negative COVID test within three days of departure. It’s important to understand the requirements, to secure the right kind of test, and to ensure you get the results a sufficient time before your departure. You must also complete an attestation form, available on your airline’s website. You can learn more about the requirements on the Centers for Disease Control website here. Be sure to read what types of tests are accepted.
I arranged for this test for our travelers who were returning home a day or two after our trip, and we’ll continue to do this if it’s a requirement at the time of our 2022 trips. In the Luberon I took several travelers to a laboratory near our village on Friday morning. In Puglia, our hotel worked with me to arrange for a laboratory come to the hotel to test our travelers late on Thursday afternoon. We made sure that results were returned on a timely basis.
Some international airports have testing centers, and hotels that have international guests should also be able to direct you to a testing center. (I’d just caution you that a Monday departure can be difficult as testing centers may be closed over the weekends.)
Several of our travelers successfully used a pre-purchased, self-administered test, monitored online. You can find information here about the Binax test here.
Charley and I both tested ourselves this way before returning home. I found the process very easy… it took less than 30 minutes in my hotel room at the Charles de Gaulle airport, and I didn’t have any wait time to connect. You just need an electronic device with a camera and microphone/speaker and a good WIFI connection– and maybe some level of confidence operating online. But I’ll mention that two of our Puglia travelers purchased home tests from another company (Ellume), which turned out to be defective—and there has since been a product recall of their tests. (Fortunately another traveler and I each had an extra Binax test we could give them, averting a major issue for their return home.) You should carry an extra test with you, just in case there are any issues, as well as a back-up plan.
Of course, we don’t know what the requirements and procedures will be in the future. If you’re traveling with European Experiences, we’ll keep you well-informed about requirements as the time of your trip our approaches and will help you navigate any requirements that may be in place.
Our Vaccination Requirement
We have decided to continue our requirement for full COVID vaccination for all our European Experiences travelers in 2022. This may very well continue to be an entrance requirement by our host countries as well as a requirement to enter restaurants and museums, but we think it’s also critical for our groups. Our trip leaders and hosts will also be fully-vaccinated.
We want everyone to feel comfortable and safe with their fellow group members, and we definitely want to minimize any risk of COVID infection in our groups and to protect our friends in Europe. Next year we’ll ask our travelers to provide us with proof of vaccination before the trip. It will also be important for travelers to get a booster shot.
Our Recommendations for Safe Travel in Europe in this time of COVID
You can have a great time—a safe time— traveling in Europe in this time of COVID. Based on our experiences, here are some recommendations to make your trip as easy as possible and to ensure you remain healthy during your time abroad and for your return home.
- You and your travel companions must be fully vaccinated to travel to Europe. Make sure you have your booster shot a few weeks before your trip. Carry your original CDC card with you in a safe place.
- Reconsider traveling internationally with small children who can’t be vaccinated.
- Do your upfront research. Be aware of the latest requirements for the countries you’ll visit and for returning home. Try not to overly stress about this too far in advance, as the requirements may change—but also don’t wait until the last minute. (For example, the UK is changing their entry requirements effective tomorrow—hopefully just a short-term change.) I find the best resources for up-to-date information are the embassy websites and my airline websites. The Sherpa website is also an excellent resource with information on travel and health restrictions for international destinations.
- Keep your trip simple. Spend more time in fewer countries (or perhaps just one country) since every country will have different requirements, which adds another layer of complexity and stress.
- Travel slowly and stay longer in fewer places. Avoid crowded places. Enjoy outdoor activities when possible or visit indoor places that take precautions and allow for social distancing.
- Consider a small group tour, where everyone is vaccinated and the leader will handle many aspects of COVID protection and requirements for you. If you’re traveling independently, an excellent travel consultant will help you navigate what’s required and support you if you have any issues while traveling.
- If your trip involves a meaningful investment, consider travel insurance with some COVID coverage. You can learn more about this on www.insuremytrip.com.
- In the days before your trip, limit your involvement with others, especially crowded situations or with anyone who may be unvaccinated. Even if not required, you may want to take a COVID test before leaving on your trip.
- Allow plenty of time for connections at airports and train stations. Flights may be delayed, there may be staffing shortages with the airlines or at the airports, and it may take longer to check in. It’s better to have too much time than to miss a flight or train. Find places to wait between flights where you can relax away from lots of other people.
- Carry your important documents in paper and electronic form. (Download documents to a special folder on your phone.)
- Minimize your flights and train trips and exposure to others in a confined space, even though vaccination and masks may be required.
- Check your seat assignment before you check in for your flight online. You may be able to change your seat to one that offers more personal space.
- On a flight or train, remove your mask only briefly to eat and drink.
- Take plenty of masks (of varied types) and travel-size hand sanitizer with you. You can carry a 12 oz bottle of hand sanitizer in your carry-on luggage.
- Wear a mask whenever required and whenever it makes you feel more comfortable. Wear your mask properly, over your nose and mouth. Always keep a mask close at hand so you can slip it on when needed. Carry an extra mask or two in case you need to offer one to someone else.
- If you’re feeling unwell (especially if you exhibit any COVID symptoms), wear a mask immediately and limit contact with others. Get a COVID test as soon as possible and isolate while waiting for the results.
- Relax, stay flexible, maintain a positive attitude, and express appreciation to people who help you.
Much as we all wish the pandemic was “over,” the situation continues to evolve. But although there’s uncertainty, European travel is definitely still possible and enjoyable. We all need to be flexible over the next few months to better understand what we can expect for travel in 2022. I continue to be cautiously optimistic!
Charley and I are looking forward to returning to Provence next week, to our three weeks there during the Christmas season, and to enjoying this special time with our daughter and our friends. We wish everyone health and happiness in the holiday season and in the coming year!
Have you traveled to Europe over the past few months? If you have other suggestions to share, we hope you’ll comment on this post.
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Read posts from other Slow Travel Tours members about their experiences in Europe during this time of COVID:
Kathy and Charley Wood founded European Experiences in 2006 European Experiences, offering week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe. They have personally hosted 124 Experience groups. Their trips include The Luberon Experience in Provence, France, named one of the top 50 tours in the world by National Geographic Traveler magazine.
Kathy hosts Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds. Charley is now mostly retired but continues to co-host two longer tours with Kathy: The European Christmas Experience (12 days) and The Cornwall Experience in southwest England (10 days).
Kathy has been traveling in Europe for 30 years and loves sharing her special places in Europe with other travelers. The Woods have a second home in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.