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What to Know About COVID-19 Rules and Travel to Europe This Fall

Include lots of flexibility and patience with your proof of vaccination

Colosseum in Rome

Eloi_Omella/Getty Images

En español | Many Americans have been hoping that this fall and winter would see the pandemic fading and travel to Europe fully open again. But the delta variant has thrown a wrench in the works, with new travel restrictions and cautions in place across the continent — and more changes are inevitable. Now that the European Union has removed the United States from its list of safe countries, people with European travel plans are really wondering what to do.

While the EU downgrade of the U.S. sounded dire, it’s still up to each European country to decide how to manage travel from the United States. Depending on your target destination, your travel plans may not have to change — for the moment.

So far, only Sweden and Bulgaria have outright banned all U.S. tourists, but other countries, including the Netherlands, have introduced mandatory quarantines even for vaccinated U.S. travelers.

On the flip side, Portugal announced it “will remain open to travelers from the United States despite the announcement of the EU,” welcoming visitors who bring proof of a negative COVID-19 test. The most common response from popular destinations like England, Italy, Iceland and Germany has been to allow entry only to U.S. travelers who are vaccinated and bring a recent negative COVID test while requiring quarantine for those who don’t.

Given that the COVID situation will continue to change, as will the requirements for travel, here are a few tips about what you should know about travel to Europe in the months ahead, and how you can better plan for it.

1. Europe's COVID situation — and rules for visitors — will continue to change

Based on the recent global surge of COVID cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) pandemic-related guidelines on the safety of given countries are changing on a sometimes weekly basis, even to extremes. For example, the CDC ranked Iceland as low risk (Level 1) in late July, but by mid-August had elevated it to the highest risk level (Level 4, meaning “avoid travel”). What seems safe now may be considered risky by the time your trip begins.

Also keep in mind that given the continued high rate of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., the European countries could at any time ban or further restrict inbound U.S. travelers. For example, on Sept. 4, Denmark announced it is refusing entry to unvaccinated visitors from the U.S. (with only a few exceptions).  

What you can do: Book travel with flexibility in mind. Consider backup plans that will allow you to change your target country if restrictions increase. Search for plane tickets without change fees, research cancellation policies at hotels, and plan itineraries with options to spend more time outdoors in case indoor attractions are limited. Being vaccinated will in almost all cases improve your ability to travel.

2. You'll face a patchwork of rules and regulations across Europe

Requirements for visitors for entry and travel can be different depending on an individual country, region within a country, airline, hotel or public space. It’s confusing even for the experts. Amrei Gold, a representative with the German National Tourist Office, says of her country: “Because each of our 16 federated states can do their own rules, it is sometimes a challenge even for us to track the latest situation.”

Economic advisory firm Global Data has reported that more than half of potential travelers surveyed are being deterred from travel due to “fragmented rules and a lack of mutual agreements (between countries). Travelers have been left confused over how to provide their vaccination status with varying rules across destinations … potentially suppressing international demand.”

What you can do: Carefully research the latest requirements from the destination, as well as your airline, tour company and lodging (see links to individual countries’ websites below). Bring multiple sets of digital and hard copy documentation of your vaccination status and testing results. Some destinations require online entry of this information before arrival. France recently began requiring a Health Pass certifying vaccination or a negative coronavirus test for entry to indoor spaces, with a system for foreign tourists. European tour operator Intrepid Travel recently began requiring all their guests (and tour guides) to be fully vaccinated. Other countries, cities or attractions may follow suit with similar programs.

And given the variety of regulations, consider limiting the geographic scope of your trip. This will make planning and travel easier, as 2021 is probably not the time for an 8-countries-in-7-days Grand Tour. Explore “slow travel” vacation options based at a single location, like walking and biking day trips from a countryside home rental. “I would definitely limit travel to one or two countries at the most,” says Brigitte Armand, president of the Eurobound destination management company, “in case a country decides to impose new travel restrictions all of a sudden.”

The Latest from Top European Destinations

The CDC's current COVID-19 risk assessments (with links to destination websites listing current rules) include:

Level 4 (very high risk; avoid travel): Britain, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland

Level 3 (high risk; make sure you are fully vaccinated before travel): Italy, CroatiaGermany

Level 2 (moderate risk; make sure you are fully vaccinated before travel): Czech Republic

Level 1 (low risk, make sure you are fully vaccinated): Slovakia, Hungary, Poland

Be sure to review the latest information before and even during travel.

3. Consider travel Insurance — but read the fine print

Travel insurance can protect against trip cancellation, provide medical relief and cover potentially exorbitant costs in case you contract COVID-19 during your trip. But policies will only cover exactly what is mentioned in the fine print.

What you can do: Read carefully. “Go over details, like what qualifies as a covered event, before purchasing,” says Chris Carnicelli, CEO of Generali Global Assistance. “It’s important to remember that coverage related to the pandemic is only available if you, a traveling companion or family member get sick from COVID-19 or if you buy a Cancel for Any Reason plan.”

Lisa Cheng, spokesperson for World Nomads travel insurance, says to make sure you have “sufficient medical coverage under your chosen policy as well as coverage for emergency evacuation. Medical bills are going to be the biggest cost to you if you contract one of the variants when traveling.”

4. Costs may be high and availability low in Europe this fall

Europe’s recent reopening to U.S. travelers has led to a flood of eager tourists in prime tourist destinations in countries like France, Italy, Greece and Iceland. This increase in demand combined with COVID-related closures and lack of staffing means you may find limited availability and skyrocketing prices for lodging, transport and attractions in these popular spots.

What you can do: Consider lesser-trafficked destinations and visiting off-season, during non-holiday periods. Planning ahead can lock in savings and ensure access to museums and other popular attractions where capacity and hours may be restricted and reservations required. Be aware of cancellation costs in case plans change. The good news is that many hotels and ground operators have relaxed cancellation rules and introduced more flexible terms.


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Editor's note: This article was originally published on August 24, 2021. It's been updated to reflect new information. 

Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer who has covered cultural travel for Lonely Planet, Frommer's, the San Francisco Chronicle and many other outlets.

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