We have probably all experienced it over the last two years—the travel bug. An itching to get out of our homes and neighborhoods and explore someplace new. With spring break approaching and summer just around the corner, an exciting international adventure could be just the trick to scratch your itch, but you might be thinking, "How do I travel safely overseas during COVID? What protocols are in place? How should I prepare?” Well, it is possible! And I'm here to give you a few tips and tricks to help you navigate airports, checkpoints, and COVID-19 screenings!
My husband and I recently took a week-long Thanksgiving holiday to Europe. Yes, there were many logistical issues to consider when planning this trip, the major one being required COVID-19 testing. We heard it in the airports, on airplanes, and throughout the cities we visited -- most everyone wants to get back to traveling! Yet, some new travel challenges are definitely in place since the pandemic disrupted our "normal" nearly two years ago.
We took a tour of London and Portugal (Lisbon, Sintra, and Porto) during our Thanksgiving week. I will walk you through exactly how we traversed international travel starting from the beginning. Not to worry, in the end, the logistical headache was well worth it for the magical experience of exploring new places and cultures! And while some spots were more accessible to navigate than others, here is what we learned and what you need to have to get through your European travels in the world of COVID-19.
What You Need to Fly
We booked our main flights (to and from the US) through Delta. Then to hop from London to Portugal, we flew TAP Air Portugal. And last, to move around Portugal, we used the rail system, which was very clean and organized! As you look at where you are traveling, each country (including the US) has its own requirements for entry. Likewise, the UK requires a Day-2 COVID-19 test during your travels, and you have to show proof of booking the test before you fly. More on that in a bit.
If you are looking for airlines to guide you through every requirement, I recommend calling them. Yes, the wait times are horrendous, but I have always found that double-checking important information is done more efficiently via phone. Airlines do send a reminder of what you need to fly. However, the reminder email was only sent two days in advance, which really isn't enough time to get all the necessary travel arrangements coordinated. Where we found the most help was with the hotel concierges. I emailed ahead of time to ask questions about COVID-19 testing.
Also, my husband and I are both fully vaccinated. It is not a requirement, but it made things a lot easier when we went through various border checkpoints. Note: The Biden Administration passed an order on November 8th that is still in effect, requiring all non-immigrant, non-citizen air travelers to the US to be fully vaccinated and to provide proof of vaccination status before boarding an airplane to the US. There are a few exceptions to this rule which you can read about here. Likewise, while being vaccinated made moving through checkpoints easier, fully vaccinated people still have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Because requirements changed every time we flew, I have shared our COVID-19 testing itinerary and helpful links below!
COVID-19 Testing Itinerary and Helpful Links
Traveling from the US to UK
- We needed to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding our flight from JFK to London. Because we were fully vaccinated, we could get a COVID-19 viral (aka PCR) test within 72 hours of our flight's departure time. This was tricky as we had to schedule an appointment with a qualified provider. We went to Walgreens. You can book appointments for testing via the Walgreens website.
- Next, we had to schedule the mandatory Day-2 antigen test for when we were in London. We were lucky, and my husband's work shared this helpful link to book our tests.
- We then needed our confirmation code from our scheduled Day-2 test to complete an online Passenger Locator Form (PLF), which is also required for travel and entry. Note: you will have to complete a PLF for every country you travel to. The information assists with contact tracing if necessary. You can complete the PLF within 48 hours of your departure time, and we were able to find the PLF via our airlines or here in the UK.
While in the UK
- Because we wanted to hop around Europe a bit, we not only had to take the mandatory Day-2 testing while in the UK, but we also had to add an antigen test called "Fit-To-Fly" for our flight to Portugal. The good news here is, if you are within the necessary time frame, you can save a bit of money and buy the COVID-19 tests in a bundle. Results for the Fit-to-Fly are emailed directly to you within 4 hours. We had to have the negative antigen test within 48 hours of our flight's departure time. Use this same link from above to book your testing online.
- Travel Tip: We stayed in Belgravia, which was right near Victoria Station, and there was an accessible testing center at the DoubleTree Hilton Victoria. The online booking system allows you to pick a location closest to your stay, and there are many options!
Traveling from UK to Portugal
- Along with our Fit-to-Fly negative antigen test, we completed our PLF for Portugal. The easiest way to do this is via the airline you are flying. Again, we flew TAP Air Portugal, and I completed the forms online and was emailed a PDF copy of the documents that I could show at the airport. Here is the PLF information on the Portugal government's website.
Traveling from Portugal back to USA (layover in Paris CDG)
- This leg of our journey was probably the most hectic for us, but that was likely due to our first flight being canceled and us being rescheduled on a flight leaving Lisbon the next day. Luckily, we had just taken our COVID-19 PCR test just 24 hours before our flight. If we had done it 72 hours before our original flight, we would have had to retake the test before boarding our newly scheduled flight -- and yes, pay for the test all over again!
- Our hotel, Heritage Avenida Liberdade, a Lisbon Heritage Collection, which was a spectacular stay, helped us book our tests. This helped a lot, especially since neither one of us speaks Portuguese. While many people in Portugal speak English, the hotel helped us steer clear of misinformation. If, for whatever reason, you need to book your own testing in Lisbon, we went to NOVA Medical School. If you are looking more broadly in Portugal, check out this useful link.
- Once we completed the necessary testing, we had to complete an attestation form to confirm we were both fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and negative for COVID-19. We completed these forms at the airport. However, you can check with your airline for the digital versions.
- Last but not least, you guessed it, we had to complete a PLF. Even though we filled out a lot of these forms, it was nice knowing that countries are taking the help of their citizens and visitors seriously.
Extra Travel Tips for a Smooth Ride
- Print off your travel itinerary, passenger locator forms, and proof of covid-19 negative tests where you can. Surprisingly, passing all the paper documents to the airline check-in counter and border control is far more manageable. Also, you will need to carry your physical vaccination paper card with you the entire trip. Airports and border police do not accept photocopies of the vaccination cards.
- Because of all the added check-in requirements I recommend getting to the airport at least 3 hours before your flight from or to the US and about 2 - 2.5 hours ahead of your flight's departure time for travel within Europe. We could not check-in for our flights online the way we usually do for domestic flights within the US, and we were told this is because of all the international travel restrictions due to COVID-19. Therefore, it is imperative to arrive early to get through check-in, documentation checks, and security.
- Travel with extra masks because it's always a good idea to keep changing yours out.
- Bring antibacterial hand spray. Antibacterial hand gel is good; however, we prefer the spray—it is easier to access and tends to absorb more quickly. You can also make your own homemade antibacterial spray. To do this: it's 30% alcohol and 70% water. I like to add a few drops of essential oils like peppermint or lavender and bergamot to help cut the smell of the alcohol. Mix the ingredients in a small 100ml spray bottle, and you can take it on the airplanes with you!
- Pack extra Lysol or Purell wipes. While every airline offers you antibacterial wipes when you board the aircraft, we still needed extras to wipe down the seats, armrests, tray tables, and touch screen TVs.
Wherever your Spring and Summer holidays take you, be sure to plan ahead and prepare! Safe and healthy traveling!