I just returned from my first trip outside the US since COVID started, and thought that some readers might be interested in the logistics of traveling in the kind of-sort of-post-COVID era. Executive summary: as long as you are fully vaccinated, you research the entry requirements of the country you’re going to, and you obtain the US-required COVID viral test before you return, I actually think it’s an excellent time to visit Europe. The countries I visited (Denmark and Switzerland, transiting through Iceland) were almost empty of tourists but almost everything was open, and I didn’t encounter any COVID-related difficulties while traveling.
The motivation for the trip
My husband and daughter are already dual Swiss-US citizens, and I’ve been in the application process since 2016. As part of the process for applying for citizenship by marriage, I have to spend five days in Switzerland every other year. The last time I went was in 2018, but then obviously 2020 was a no-go, so I wanted to do a trip as soon as the European borders opened to vaccinated Americans (although Switzerland isn’t part of the EU, they follow many of the same procedures). I was also concerned that with the rise of the Delta variant and the comparatively slower pace of vaccination in Europe, things might shut down again in the Fall, so in mid-June I decided to go for it. I bought a ticket (Denver-Iceland-Copenhagen-Geneva-Zurich-Iceland-Denver) and talked my best friend from high school into coming along on the Denmark leg, where we visited my Danish exchange sister who lived with my family when I was in high school.
The first step in traveling to Europe right now is to check the entry requirements of the country you want to visit. You also have to accept that the entry requirements can change at any time and you literally might have to cancel the day before. I was willing to accept that risk, and I had a credit on Iceland Air from a trip I had to cancel at the start of the pandemic. A good source for entry requirements is the website of the US embassy in the country you’re planning on visiting. It’s important to be aware that entry requirements in Europe vary wildly right now. On one end of the spectrum is Denmark and Switzerland, which currently require neither a COVID test nor a quarantine if you’re two weeks past the second COVID shot (and Denmark is actively marketing itself as a “fully open” destination for vaccinated Americans), and on the other end of the spectrum is a place like Norway (not an EU member), where even fully vaccinated Americans have to quarantine in a government hotel.
The stated entry requirements did apply to Denmark and Switzerland: I had to show my COVID vaccination card to check in for the flight, but there was no (zero) COVID check or even a passport check upon arrival.
What it’s like to be in Europe right now
It’s interesting to see how the different countries are handling the COVID situation right now. In both countries, masks were required in a lot more places (public transportation, stores, restaurants) than they are in Colorado at the moment. In Denmark, the mask requirements are a lot looser, and fewer people seemed to scrupulously follow them. For example masks are required on the Copenhagen metro when you’re boarding or standing up, but not when you’re sitting down, but I’d say probably 50% of people on the metro just did not wear masks at all. Whereas in Switzerland, I’m not sure I saw more than one or two people not wearing masks on public transportation.
Another big difference: the “coronapass” requirements. In Denmark, everyone who’s vaccinated has a QR code that my Danish friend had to show in various places, and my American friend and I had to show our vaccination cards, even to get into places like the Arhus art museum. In Switzerland, there’s no national “coronapass” and no one asked to see my vaccination card.
Random logistical observations
A few logistical observations on items like communications and money from this trip, in no particular order:
- My cell phone provider doesn’t have international roaming, so I bought an Orange Holiday Europe SIM card for my unlocked iPhone 6S. It worked great in some ways and not in others: the price (US $45) for 20 GB of data was appealing, and it worked in all three countries (including Iceland). Data service was really reliable, and allowed me to use Google Maps, buy train tickets, check e-mail, etc. The not-so-great part is that texting didn’t work at all: I couldn’t receive or send texts, and something about the SIM card was incompatible even with iMessage, Apple’s iPhone to iPhone messaging that works over wi-fi. To add to the fun, all of the texts that I received to my US phone number (the SIM card assigns you a European phone number) while I had the European SIM card installed simply disappeared. Not the end of the world, but annoying.
- Online services in Denmark, and specifically the app and website of the Danish national train system (DSB) can be a pain for foreigners. For anti-fraud reasons, you can’t buy tickets on the DSB website or app using a foreign credit card, nor can you use the Denmark-wide Mobile Pay app without a Danish cell phone number. You can buy tickets from the machines at the train station using a foreign credit card, but not online. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but due to COVID, you have to have a seat reservation for all DSB trains, and the trains are often full. I’m not sure if this was always the case, or if the number of cars has been decreased due to COVID, but for example, my American friend and I got the last two seats on a train from Arhus to Copenhagen three days in advance, and the train was in the middle of the day on a weekday. There are a couple of workarounds: use the app Trainline, but just make sure that when it gives you the option to book a seat, that you do book a seat, because Trainline, unlike the DSB website, doesn’t make it obvious that a seat reservation is required. You can also get a Danish local to make just the seat reservation for you, which is free, then you can buy the actual ticket when you get to the station. I used both of these workarounds: I used Trainline to book a ticket from Copenhagen to Arhus, but I boarded without a seat reservation and every reservable seat was booked. Fortunately, the ticket taker took pity on me and let me sit on one of the jump seats in the bike car, and for the return trip my Danish exchange sister booked the free seat reservation for me and then I bought the actual ticket using my US credit card at the station.
- Trains in Switzerland were no problem. I have the Swiss train (SBB) app which accepted my US credit card and is really easy to use. You get real-time schedules, and it even tells you which track the train is coming on so that you don’t have to go find the display board in the station. The Swiss trains don’t require seat reservations and are rarely full. Train tickets in Switzerland are pretty expensive and I did a fair bit of traveling around, so I purchased an SBB half fare card, which is 134 Swiss francs and gets you half price for a month on trains, buses, boats, and city public transportation.
Pre-return COVID test
As of this writing, the US requires everyone (even if you’re fully vaccinated) entering the US to present a negative COVID test performed within the three calendar days of your return flight. My return flight was on a Tuesday, so I could get tested on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday. Again, as of this writing, the US does accept the results of a rapid test as long as it’s a viral assay, which gives you more options and is much faster than getting a PCR test. Many pharmacies in Switzerland do COVID tests, but I wanted somewhere that I could book an appointment ahead of time on a Saturday in the Geneva area, so pretty much my only option was the Geneva airport. It’s only about a 10 minute train ride from the central station in Geneva, and as luck would have it, the rapid test was free; perhaps the first and only time that something I thought would be expensive in Switzerland turned out to be free! I waited 15 minutes for the results and then got a printed COVID certificate that I showed at the Zurich airport when I checked in.
The big question…the Delta variant
Part of the reason I took this trip now is because of concerns about the Delta variant. The pace of vaccination in most European countries is slower than here in the US; Denmark had just started vaccinating 50 year olds when I was there. At the same time, most businesses and events are open as normal; I arrived to the streets of Copenhagen exploding with thousands of (mostly unmasked) people celebrating Denmark’s victory over the Czech republic in the Euro Cup, and most stores, restaurants, museums, etc. are open as normal. With the rise of the Delta variant, there are already some new restrictions: for example you now have to quarantine if you fly to Germany from Portugal or Russia. So I’m glad to have gotten this trip done and dusted before things close down any further.