What to Know About Traveling to Europe This Fall

Colosseum in Rome

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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.”