Traveling to Europe During COVID: What You Need to Know

Visitors get a PCR test outside a hospital in Athens. The exam is required to transit through London on the way back to the United States.

Writer: Steve Dinnen

*Passport: Check.
*Online flight check-in completed: Check.
*Electronic results of fresh PCR test: Check.
*Completed Passenger Locator Form, also electronic, specified by the country to be visited: Check.
*COVID vaccination card to present to anyone who demands it for entry to a bar or restaurant or museum: Check. 

Summer vacation in Europe is back, but with some extra steps needed now that COVID and its nasty delta variant still lurk. Nearly every country (see a very useful list compiled by the Points Guy) will allow Americans in, and the United States will let them return. But restrictions have been placed on travelers, and if you don’t follow the rules, the airlines will deny you boarding.

A just-completed trip to Greece, coupled with an upcoming visit to Spain, have taught me some lessons you may find useful as you plan your travels. For starters, look to the airline website, plus the government of whichever country is on your itinerary, for up-to-date entrance requirements. It is from both of them that I learned I would need a COVID-19 PCR test and a Passenger Locator Form both to enter Greece and to transit through London’s Heathrow Airport on my return. An entire industry has sprung up to administer PCR exams. You can get one done at Des Moines International Airport, or many other spots around town, though it’s best to do so the day before you travel (and it can’t be older than 72 hours).

For my return, my hotel in Athens had suggestions of PCR test sites, though I had pre-booked a PCR test at a hospital nearby. Greeks love to eat outdoors and apparently tend to health matters there as well, as my nose was swabbed as I stood on the sidewalk outside the hospital’s entrance (pictured above). Twenty Euros and two hours later, results were emailed to me.

Both the Greek and British governments (and virtually every other country in Europe) require what they call Passenger Locator Forms, documents that list your flight particulars, where you’ll be staying, contact information. You’ll need to complete them before starting your trip, and airline workers will ask to see them at check-in. No form, no fly.

I had emailed a copy of both my PCR exam and PLFs to the hotel front desk and they printed them out. That way I had a hard copies of the documents, both of which also were imprinted with QR codes that officials could look up. I also used a QR code at the British Airways Galleries First lounge at Heathrow, to order drinks and food as I awaited my flight to Dallas. You cannot walk up to the bar, which was 10 feet from me, and order a drink. BA’s tasty and practical buffet line has been replaced with a code-accessed menu. (A minor aside: Eighteen months ago I had no idea what Zoom was. Eighteen days ago, I had no idea what a QR code was. Times have changed.)

As for that COVID card: Get the shot. I got “carded” numerous times in Greece by restaurateurs who demanded proof of vaccination. (I had shrunk my card to wallet-sized and laminated it, courtesy of Office Depot.) France, Germany, Italy—most European destinations—are issuing “green passes” that show vaccinations and allow entrance to bars, restaurants and public places. They’re accepting the paper COVID cards Americans have gotten (though Yanks can now apply online for the French Health Pass).

Take along masks. They don’t hand them out much in Europe, but you’re expected to wear one in the airport, on the metro, at a museum, etc.

With the delta variant raising a ruckus, these rules are subject to change. Before you go, triple-check requirements with your airline, the government in your destination country, and the U.S. Embassy there.

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