As 2021 came to a close and the New Year began, my family and I decided to spread our wings and fly once again.
After canceling so many travel plans over the better part of two years, it was exciting to actually put together an itinerary, knowing that we would all be fully vaccinated before the holidays.
Altogether, we were away from home for about six and a half weeks over a two-month span, returning home for a couple of weeks that included Christmas and New Years’ Day. We spent two weeks in Mexico before the holidays, and we kicked off the New Year with a week or more each in Athens, Malta, Sicily, and Rome.
Were there unique challenges given the state of the pandemic? Definitely.
Do I regret traveling when we did? Not at all.
Now, if I had known that a new variant by the name of Omicron would be peaking at this time and that all sorts of new travel restrictions and requirements would be instituted, I might have timed our travels differently. But, as we’ve come to accept, there is only so much that is in our control.
The Mexico trip was originally booked in September of 2020 for travel in the fall of 2021. I wanted something to look forward to, and I was cautiously optimistic that the pandemic might be over by then. It was wishful thinking, so we decided to postpone our visit to Guanajuato at least until both of our sons had received their two Pfizer shots. My wife and I were also able to get 3rd shots by then, an added boost, so to say.
What was to be a five-week trip to the central highlands of Mexico that would have included El Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of The Dead) became a two-week trip in December, but at least we got to go.
The month-long southern European tour was planned during the first week of October (for travel in early January to early February) when it looked like FDA approval for the 5-to-11 age group was only a matter of time. That proved true, and our youngest finished his two-shot series in late November, right around the time we first heard about Omicron.
With case numbers spiking like never before, many nations tightened their restrictions and added mandatory COVID testing as an entry requirement, even for vaccinated passengers. That list included the USA, Italy, and Greece, and all of these new rules were put in place in December of 2021 and they remain in place as of February 2022.
However, assume that the rules we traveled under are already out of date, and please check the current requirements for travel, as they are constantly evolving (and starting to loosen up in some cases).
Is It Wise to Travel at All?
A case could be made for staying home. If you don’t leave home, you’re less likely to contract this novel coronavirus, less likely to spread it, and less likely to require medical care in an unfamiliar place.
Staying home also means avoiding domestic travel, avoiding indoor gatherings, workplaces, restaurants, bars, and basically any place where you’re around people who don’t live with you.
Each of the European countries we visited has a higher vaccination rate than the U.S. All have a mask mandate for both indoor and outdoor spaces, compliance is high, and some require an FFP2 mask (KN-95 or equivalent) in government buildings, museums, airports, and airplanes.
Mexico lags a bit in vaccination rates, with 60% of the nation fully vaccinated as opposed to the U.S. rate of 64% as of early February, but far more people are wearing masks in Mexico as compared to the U.S., and mandatory hand sanitation and temperature checks are common before entering places of business.
Also, everyone in my family is relatively young, fit, and healthy. Our odds of severe illness are not zero, but given our health and vaccination status, if one of us were to contract COVID, we would likely have relatively mild symptoms, if any.
The biggest risk for us was probably financial. If one of us were to test positive, we would have to quarantine at a government-sanctioned facility, would miss our flights, and would likely have to arrange for a new itinerary to get home once fully recovered.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
I’ll write about our non-COVID-related experiences in these amazing places in other posts. Here, I’ll review the new and exciting forms and fees that we encountered for each leg of our recent travels.
Arrival: December 2, 2021
COVID Case Peak (Mexico): January 25, 2022
We spent two more weeks in this lovely city that we have now visited three times in five years for a cumulative total of about three months.
Getting there required nothing out of the ordinary. We did miss our scheduled flight when it was delayed but left early. It was a comedy of errors that I hope never to repeat, but we did make it across the border after an unfortunate delay.
While we were there, the requirement for a negative COVID test to return to the U.S. was shortened from within 3 days to either the same day or the day before. We checked around town, and the cheapest antigen test we could find was about $35 USD each.
The airport actually offered the lowest cost option at about $25 USD a head, as long as you had a boarding pass.
We all tested negative and were on our way home to celebrate Christmas.
In Mexico, we had our first contingency plan conversation. I don’t know how forgiving airlines will be if a person misses a flight due to COVID. Also, we had holiday plans with family (for which we also tested negative numerous times out of an abundance of caution).
If we were to all test positive on a pre-flight COVID check, or if both adults test positive, we obviously would all stay put where we were.
If one adult tested positive, he or she would stay put while the other would return home with the kids. If a child tested positive, a parent would stay back with the child and the other parent and child would head home.
This may go without saying, but if one of us tested positive and another family member with symptoms were to test negative, we would treat that as a false negative and quarantine together.
We would have tentatively stuck with the same plan in Europe, although we may have chosen to come up with a new plan to stick together depending on where we were geographically and how far along we were on the trip. With a new set of flights every 7 or 8 days, there are a lot of factors to consider.
Arrival: January 5, 2022
COVID Case Peak: January 5, 2022
Greece hopped on the mandatory testing bandwagon on December 19th, and this new requirement presented a challenge. All four of us had to show proof of either a negative PCR test within 72 hours or a negative antigen test within 24 hours of arrival.
We would be flying out of our little hometown airport that has one or two flights out per day. Furthermore, we were scheduled to depart on a Monday morning after a long holiday weekend, and it takes the better part of 24 hours to get there when three flights and seven time zones are involved.
Our clinic and hospital would only test symptomatic people. The normal Saturday drive-up testing at the County Fairgrounds and/or Community College was canceled due to it being New Year’s Day. Our local Walgreens and Rite Aid pharmacies only offered PCR testing, but they weren’t testing on Friday (holiday recognized) or Saturday. Friday would have been too early, anyway.
We did find a small, local pharmacy offering antigen tests that Monday morning. However, they wanted $125 apiece and they will not bill insurance. Priority Health, my insurer, confirmed that they would not reimburse me if the tests were being done for travel on asymptomatic people.
We had tentative plans to fly to Detroit, take an Uber to a nearby Walgreens during our long layover, walk through the drive-through to get tested (I called and verified that this would be allowed — and I was assured that we wouldn’t be the first family to do so), but that would have really sucked in January weather, and if one of us tested positive, then what?
That wouldn’t have worked, anyway, as they asked for the COVID tests at our local airport, even though a negative test isn’t required for domestic travel. I guess it’s required upon check-in for an international itinerary.
It was a conundrum that my wife and I each spent hours trying to solve. Our local Meijer pharmacy wasn’t advertising this, but through the grapevine, we heard that they had drive-through COVID NAAT testing (counts as PCR) on certain days of the week. We got tested first thing Monday morning. Unfortunately, our first flight out was canceled, and we took the next flight out of town 30 hours later.
In the end, the only person that asked for proof of our negative COVID tests was the gate agent our local airport and he barely glanced at the papers.
Passenger Locator Forms
Every European country also required that a Passenger Locator Form (PLF) be filled out ahead of time. This could be done with an app or on the website, and a .pdf form was generated that could be scanned upon arrival.
It asked for names, passport information, temporary address while visiting, where and when you were born, and proof of vaccination status.
Greece only required one per family with the ability to add family members to the PLF. When we arrived at the airport in Athens, the square code on our PLF was scanned, and we were free to enter the country.
Arrival: January 9, 2022
COVID Case Peak: January 4, 2022
I had selected Malta as our next destination. This small island nation south of Sicily has a rich history, a moderate Mediterranean climate, and plenty to see and do in a week’s time. Also, the flights there via Ryan Air were dirt cheap.
We actually booked all of our flights within Europe on Ryan Air, and the average cost for four one-way flights with and checked bag (that we shared) and a “personal item” apiece was just over $100 per leg, or $25 to $30 per person.
As long as you skip the many extras they try to upsell and you abide by the one-personal-item-per-person rule (we each had 20 liter backpacks), Ryan Air can be an extremely affordable way to hop around Europe. It’s cheaper than train travel, not that you can take a train to or from Malta.
The COVID regulations in Malta were a bit outdated. Thankfully, fully vaccinated visitors age 12 and up did not need to present a negative COVID test. However, the written rules stated that anyone aged 5 to 12 required a negative PCR test.
Our 11-year old was fully vaccinated, and, having had the most recent shot amongst us all, probably had the strongest immunity. It made no sense to subject him to a PCR test, and I didn’t really care to throw $60 away before leaving Athens.
Complicating matters was the fact that Malta required a separate Passenger Locator Form for each individual, and if the child was under 12, there was no option to submit a CDC vaccination card via the Verifly app (another fun tool I was required to discover).
A couple of emails sent to Maltese representatives the week before our visit went unanswered, but I was able to reach English-speaking representatives by phone at both the Malta COVID hotline and their Health Department, and both assured me that a PCR test would not be necessary.
At the 11th hour, I also got an email confirmation from a Maltese government address that said we could skip the PCR test for our fully vaccinated 11-year old son. Their rules simply didn’t account for the presence of such a kid, even though both the E.U. and U.S. had approved the vaccine for that age group more than a month earlier.
When we arrived at the airport, I did not have a PLF for our younger son, as it couldn’t be submitted without attaching documentation of a negative test. All visitors were required to stop at a health screening booth upon arrival. We explained the situation, our attendant checked with a supervisor (I had the email giving us permission to skip the test, just in case), and we were allowed to enter the country.
Then, I hopped into the right front seat of the car and proceeded to drive down the left side of the road, yielding to cars on the right on oh-so-many roundabouts. That was a trip!
Catania, Sicily, Italy
Arrival: January 16, 2022
COVID Case Peak: January 14, 2022
For the first time, we had no real challenges to overcome. I didn’t love forking over €35 each for four antigen tests at the Malta airport parking ramp, but after dropping the equivalent of about $160 USD, we had four negative tests and were on our way to Sicily.
That was a better fate than the group in front of us. One guy’s positive lateral flow test was there on the table, and the rest of his travel companions decided to save some money by not testing, since they were traveling together and had a fairly high chance of testing positive, too.
Italy requires a PLF for each adult, and kids can be added to an adult’s PLF. I created one for my kids and I and one for my wife the day before leaving Malta. At this point, I could breeze through the form pretty quickly.
Arrival: January 23, 2022
COVID Case Peak: January 14, 2022
Since we weren’t crossing an international border, we didn’t have to test for COVID or fill out a new PLF. I had filled out our Rome address on the forms I completed when entering the country in Sicily. There was no testing requirement, either.
It does seem odd that we have this patchwork of different rules and requirements that come into play when crossing man-made political borders. How is it that an unvaccinated passenger can fly from New York to Los Angeles without a COVID test, but to cross most borders, you have to be vaccinated and test negative right before you leave? None of it makes a whole lot of sense to me, but I do what I have to do.
Back to Rome. As was also true throughout most of our European travels, a “COVID green pass” was required to enter restaurants and museums. Some shops asked to see them, too.
Most nations have an app with a square code that can be scanned to prove your vaccination status. Our U.S. “green pass” is a white piece of tagboard with the CDC logo on it. Ours now have rounded corners, and mine has always had different dimensions than the rest of my family’s cards. It looks suspect, but fortunately, in tourist areas, people are used to seeing our primitive “proof” of vaccination, and we were never denied entry anywhere.
There were some confused looks due to the fact that much of the world uses a Day/Month/Year standard for dates as opposed to our Month/Day/Year system, but our compliance checkers eventually figured it out.
Athens, Greece (again)
Arrival: January 31, 2022
COVID Case Peak: Still January 5, 2022
The next time I schedule a trip like this, I’ll try to book an “open jaw” ticket — that is, one that arrives in one city and takes you home from another. If we had done so, we could have avoided four antigen tests (€20 apiece or about $92 USD total) and a second Greek PLF.
We did get a chance to see and do some things that we missed the first time around, but dividing our time in Athens into two portions did increase the cost and hassle factor, especially given the new testing requirement that didn’t exist when the trip was booked.
United States of America
Arrival: February 3, 2022
COVID Case Peak: January 14, 2022
I wanted to be well-prepared before taking our three-leg Delta trip home. The day before we left Greece, I found the attestation form that would be needed for each passenger to enter the United States. I filled out and e-signed four .pdf attestations. I saved them to the cloud and then downloaded them to my phone.
I then located the forms required for The Netherlands when we had passed through on a layover a month earlier, even though we were only connecting there. We had to fill them out in paper on the way to Athens the first time around, but other passengers had theirs pre-filled out and uploaded with the airline. I was going to be ahead of the game this time.
When I tried to check in online via Delta’s website and app, I was denied. Check-in must be done in person due to all of the paperwork that had to be confirmed. I never got to the supposed Fly-Ready part of the online check-in where you’re supposed to be able to upload your documents. Ryan Air had something similar set up to upload PLFs, test results, and vaccine documentation and it worked well.
We were never asked for the forms for passing through Schiphol airport, probably because we were coming from another E.U. country. At that airport in Amsterdam, we were required to fill out the U.S. attestation form (that I had already completed online) on paper, stating that we were U.S. citizens and that we had tested negative for COVID. The gate agent in Athens had already looked at our negative tests.
These were the cheapest tests we encountered anywhere, as dictated by Greek law to prevent price-gouging. The tests were €10 apiece at a clinic in town. Tests at the airport cost double, but we got ours done the day before at the bargain basement price.
Another unfortunate consequence of no online check-in is the fact that I couldn’t select our number of checked bags, which was one. I had booked the flight with Delta on a Delta credit card, and the first checked bag would normally be free when checking in via the app or online.
The first leg of the flight was operated by KLM, and they insisted upon charging me €50 to check the bag. I didn’t have the Delta card on my person, but that charge never should have been levied, anyway. I’ll try to get it reversed or reimbursed, but I don’t have my hopes up.
I already mentioned the 30-hour delay we had before the trip began. I believe they officially attributed the cancellation due to weather on a clear and sunny day, but this was at a time when COVID-related staffing issues were causing 1,000 or more cancellations a day in the U.S. alone.
Similarly, for “business reasons,” our Ryan Air flight from Malta to Sicily was canceled weeks in advance. I rebooked a different Ryan Air flight to a different airport in Sicily, and that one was canceled within 24 hours of my booking it. I’m guessing that demand was too low to make it worthwhile to fly the route. No “ghost flight” for us.
We eventually found a Malta air flight to Sicily on the same day, but the cost was about €50 each instead of €15, and the checked bag set us back €60 when Ryan Air was only charging €20.
The Added Costs
The cancelations we encountered cost us one day at the beginning of our trip (and a vacant Airbnb in Athens that we paid for) plus about $200 USD in additional airfaire plus baggage costs.
Tack on around $400 USD in COVID testing costs for all of these flights and border crossing for six-plus weeks of travel, and I would guesstimate we spent an extra $600 or so due to COVID.
When you consider that’s the cumulative total for four people, that’s really not bad at all. Also, the round trip tickets from our little airport to Athens were only $590 USD, a steal that can perhaps be attributed to low demand due to COVID. I thank Scott’s Cheap Flights, a freemium email service, for the heads up on the low fare!
I should add that there is an unquantifiable cost that is the uncertainty and what-if scenarios that run through one’s mind every time a cotton swab tickles your nostrils. I’m married to a semi-professional worrier, and this kind of stuff keeps her up at night. I tend to cross bridges when I get to them, but she’s generally better prepared.
There’s also the cost of your time spent learning the latest rules and restrictions, filling out forms, and making sure everything you might need is at the ready and can be pulled up quickly on your phone or in-hand on paper.
I’d rather spend my last evening in a city taking nighttime photos or sipping a local beverage as the sun sets, but instead, I’m often on my computer making sure everything is in order to make our travels go as smoothly as possible.
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The Upsides of Traveling During Peak Pandemic
We’ve already highlighted the risks to ourselves and others. While we were visiting CDC Level 4 countries, I’d put traveling within the U.S. at a Level 4.5 or higher if such a level existed. There are simply fewer precautions and restrictions in The States designed to prevent the virus from spreading.
I’ve added up the monetary and other costs I can attribute to COVID, which were not astronomical, certainly not enough to have me second-guessing the trips.
Let’s now turn our attention to some of the positives of traveling during the off season at a time when COVID case levels were peaking.
The Lowest Season
January is normally low season in terms of tourism. Pandemic January has got to be as low as it gets, and that’s a good thing.
We slept in on our first day in Athens and strolled up to the ticket counter at The Acropolis to see The Parthenon and other sites late in the morning when lines would normally wrap around the block. We paid our entry fee (half price in the off season) and walked right in.
Our rental car in Malta cost less than €10 a day. If I was bold enough to drive a stick shift from the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road (sorry, Maltese friends), it would have cost me €6 or €7 a day.
At The Vatican, we arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica at 0650 on our first day in town, looking for the line to gain entrance when they opened 10 minutes later.
There was no line. We were the only tourists there. For 20 to 30 minutes, the only people we saw were staffers and priests. We had no trouble securing free tickets to join Pope Francis for his weekly audience on Wednesday morning.
In Rome, the Colosseum was nearly as empty as Athens’ Acropolis. There was no line to walk into Rome’s Parthenon mid-day. I have picture after picture from all of these amazing sites with nary a tourist in them, other than my family.
As mentioned, the pandemic precautions are more strict and stronger in Europe, and compliance was better than I’m accustomed to seeing.
While I don’t see a need for everyone to wear a mask on an uncrowded sidewalk or in an open park, if a society is going to err on one side or the other when it comes to limiting viral spread, I’d rather be in the place that’s doing more as opposed to less.
There is a certain comfort in knowing that everyone around you in an indoor space has been vaccinated against COVID.
I know that this has become a highly political topic, and the mere fact that I’ve mentioned masks, vaccines, and testing will invite some commentary, but I personally was pleased with the precautions being taken, even if some of it, like the universal outdoor mask mandate, may have been overkill.
If you value the freedom to never be required to don a mask, test for COVID, or be vaccinated against the disease (or you or your family members are unable to due to age or medical reasons), you’ll want to put your European vacation plans on hold.
Wow, did it ever feel good to travel again. A primary motivation of mine for retiring from medicine was to be able to immerse ourselves in history, culture, and unfamiliar surroundings. These trips checked all the boxes.
We were able to enjoy a modest amount of domestic travel over the last year, but there’s no better place to dig into Greek mythology, the Roman Empire, or the Maltese Sieges (16th century and World War II) than amidst the artifacts in the places where it all went down.
We only have one more school year before our older son will be high-school-aged, and our plan has been for him to go back to in-person learning then. It was beginning to look like we had lost the opportunity to carry out this vision of family travel in the ‘tween years, but a return to our traveling ways has brought some optimism back where there was little before.
Should you travel at this time? That’s a personal decision that I can’t make for you, but I am glad that my family was able to get out and explore a small part of this big, beautiful world in spite of the new challenges presented by the pandemic.
My goal here is to share a realistic look at what travel is like at this time, something that more than a few readers have requested. If you’d like to see some of what we were up to, I tend to post on Instagram when traveling, and I’ll be sharing travel reports focusing on anything but the pandemic in the coming weeks.
Have you traveled internationally during the pandemic? What challenges, if any, did you face?