Just a few weeks ago I returned from my ninth international trip since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic feeling optimistic that international travel might finally be returning to some level of normal. On that trip to Ecuador, I filled out a quick questionnaire, showed my vaccine card with my passport and was in. To get home, it took less than 20 minutes at the airport to get the antigen test required for entry to the United States.
Then along came the Omicron variant and with it a cascade of fast-changing, confusing new travel rules. And suddenly, as I prepared for a long-anticipated trip to London and France, it felt like 2020 all over again. Because the United Kingdom and France were among the countries erecting strict new testing requirements practically overnight, what I experienced can only be described as a new level of travel misery. One that can be very expensive, mind-bogglingly confusing, and a little scary, even for the most seasoned and intrepid travelers.
Still, with proper planning and research, you can protect yourself from last-minute surprises and reduce your stress and anxiety (at least somewhat).
My saga began two days after Thanksgiving, and just a week before I was set to join 4,000 representatives of the world’s top luxury travel companies in Cannes, France, for the International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) conference.
I had planned overnights in London to break up the long journey to and from Albuquerque, New Mexico. But because I was planning to leave the airport in London, I was subject to the U.K.’s new entry rules, which required me to book and pay for a COVID test to be taken within two days after arrival—even though I wasn’t going to be there that long.
After two hours of searching the internet, I was unable to find an open slot for a test during my 30-hour stop that would guarantee my results in time to avoid the country’s isolation requirements (the U.K. government is asking international arrivals to self-isolate until the results of the post-arrival test are ready). So, I booked the cheapest option a few hours after landing at just under $100 and switched from a downtown hotel to an airport Hilton where I could self-isolate.
As I finished ironing out those plans, France announced that all vaccinated foreign travelers now also have to show proof of a negative test within 48 hours of arriving in that country. So, it was back to the internet to find an antigen test at Heathrow (for an additional $50) that would guarantee my results in time.
In the end, no one from British Airways or the French government even asked to see the test I booked at Heathrow for entry into France. Others weren’t so lucky. A friend I’d been planning to have dinner with Sunday night in Cannes was denied boarding from Istanbul after being told her antigen test didn’t meet the requirements. (There was a great deal of confusion about whether the test for France needed to be from within 24 or 48 hours of travel—the answer depends on which country you are arriving from.) And a fellow writer from London said his flight from Heathrow was called back to the gate from the tarmac and several people removed because their tests didn’t comply with the new rules.
While I was in London (or rather during my extra-long layover at my airport hotel), the U.K. further tightened its rules, announcing that all international visitors were also going to need prearrival COVID tests within 48 hours. That meant I would now need three tests to get home (for a total cost of around $200). I finally gave up and called Delta Air Lines to reroute my trip home from Nice to Albuquerque with two layovers in Amsterdam and Los Angeles.
Things on the ground in France were (thankfully) a little easier. Once I arrived in Cannes, I went to a local drugstore to get my CDC-issued U.S. vaccine card converted to a European digital health pass, which is required to enter restaurants, bars, ILTM events, and most other public places other than shops. That took less than 20 minutes—but cost another $40.
Overall, from a logistical standpoint, this proved to be my most challenging trip since the pandemic began—in part because I ignored one of my own top COVID-era travel rules: stick to one-country itineraries to avoid having to negotiate multiple border requirements.
All of the logistical frustrations were on top of my own doubts and concerns about my health and safety with a patchwork of information about the Omicron variant only starting to emerge just as I was due to head out. I had already received a booster shot so I felt reasonably protected, but traveling internationally while a global network of scientists was still racing to figure out how worried we should be about the latest twist in the coronavirus plot did not necessarily instill a great deal of confidence.
Tips for traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic
Here are some other important lessons learned and general travel tips for how to navigate pandemic travel, especially as new variants emerge:
Use a trusted real-life travel advisor and/or book direct
I use several search engines to find the best flight and hotel options, but then go directly to the airlines and hotels to book. If you buy from an online travel agency, such as Expedia, you have to go through that agency to make changes, adding another layer of difficulty when trying to reach customer service agents. Some online travel agencies also still charge change fees. If you really want someone advocating and fighting for you during your travels, a travel advisor who knows the ins and outs of pandemic travel will be a godsend.
Never book basic economy
One good thing to come out the pandemic has been the waiving of those annoying change fees, which usually run around $200 for the privilege of changing your plane tickets. That waiver doesn’t apply, however to basic fares, which are generally unchangeable and nonrefundable.
Avoid the cheapest, non-refundable hotel rates
For only about $10 or $20 more per night, you can get a flexible cancellation hotel rate that often gives you up until 24 hours before check-in to change or cancel. And again, book directly with the hotel—you won’t regret it.
Research, research, research
If you didn’t book through a rockstar travel advisor who does the homework for you, be prepared to do a lot of research. And keep checking for the latest travel rules and requirements up until right before you leave. Don’t rely on news reports, which often are skimpy or simply wrong about the details when it comes to international travel restrictions. Check with the airlines and government sites of the country or countries you will be entering. Another great resource is the airline trade group International Air Transport Association (IATA), which offers an up-to-date interactive COVID-19 travel map with links to all country regulations.
Consider travel insurance
I am not a huge fan of travel insurance. There are often too many loopholes and I travel enough that I can always use any credits from canceled trips for future adventures. If you do buy coverage, make sure you read the fine print for what is and isn’t covered. Voluntary cancellations out of fear of COVID aren’t usually covered unless you’ve opted for the much pricier Cancel for Any Reason option.
Some countries require you to carry a policy to cover quarantine lodging and medical expenses should you get sick while there. A good place to check and compare options and get more information about travel insurance in general is Squaremouth.com. A good travel advisor will also be able to help you here.
For cruises and tours, buy your plane ticket through the cruise line or tour operator
If you’re booking a cruise or group tour, buy your air through the cruise line or tour operator organizing the trip. If they are forced to cancel, they will often cover all changes and extra fees associated with the new flights.
Check airport and in-country rules regarding public health measures.
Some require surgical or N95 masks (cloth masks don’t always cut it). Some have curfews (no late nights out on the town). Others require proof of vaccine to enter public venues.
Make sure all your documents are under the same name as your passport
Literally the only thing in my life under my husband’s last name is my health insurance. And after getting a predeparture test once at my local CVS, I realized it came back under that name instead of the name on my passport, prompting a very last-minute panicky scramble.
Take photos of your documents
Keep photos on your phone of your passport, vaccine card, and other required travel documents.
Carry your own COVID tests
There are some at-home COVID tests that are approved for international travel. But you will need a good internet connection so that a proctor can witness that you are the person taking the test. And that connection needs to last the 15 minutes it takes for the results to come through.
Have a plan in case you test positive
Of course, the biggest unknown on every international trip is whether you’ll test negative for COVID-19 to get into the countries you are visiting or to get back into the United States. Travelers need to consider what kind of safeguards they have in place, including the cancellation policies for all components of their trip and what they will do if they are stuck abroad for a couple extra weeks in the event that they or anyone in their travel group tests positive.
Fortunately, I aced all my tests and got home safely. But I think I’ll stay put for a bit until we know some more about the Omicron variant and how effective my vaccine and booster are against it.