Travelling around Europe during a Coronavirus crisis: a practical guide
Updated: May 4, 2020
This is the first guide written to travel amidst a modern pandemic disease. Its advice may not be politically correct; but it is essential for those who need to travel.
As Europe begins to unlock, people will want to start travelling for a variety of personal and professional reasons, notwithstanding governments' disapproval. If you travel, rest assured that there is nowhere in Europe to which you cannot travel, given persistence. Here is what you need to know.
Ignore official government statements, advice and recommendations. If you constrain yourself by these, you will never get anywhere. Many of them are false ('borders are closed') or misleading ('avoid all but essential travel'). Very few borders are closed. The main limitation upon travel is the collapse of the aviation industry.
To the extent you can achieve your journey by aeroplane, fly. Start with an airline ticket sales website such as Travelocity. If Travelocity will sell you a ticket, the flight is highly likely to fly and you will be able to travel on it - subject to appropriate visas. However the few airlines and routes that do fly are only accepting bookings for a week or two in advance. Therefore you may need to book at the last minute; and you may need to purchase a one-way ticket.
Assertions that borders are closed inside or with the European Union or inside or with the Schengen Zone are false, provided you have an EEA passport. If you do, then you will be permitted free passage across EEA and Schengen borders, and between Schengen countries, provided you are taking a legitimate means of transport - preferably an aeroplane. By contrast the US borders are closed for entry to non-nationals at the time of writing. Unless you hold a US passport or a valid US visa, you will not be permitted to board a flight to the United States from Europe. The Electronic Free Travel Authorisation Scheme (i.e. visa free travel to the United States for certain nationalities) has been suspended.
At the time of writing the airline with the most intra-European flights is the Belarussian national carrier Belavia. If you cannot find a direct flight from your point of departure to destination, consider flying via Minsk, if necessary with an overnight layover.
With a valid airline ticket, upon arrival at the airport you are likely to be let through security and immigration (if any) and onto the aeroplane with no questioning or problems. There may be an atypically large number of police officers present at the airport; but they are unlikely to bother you unless you stand out. Upon arrival at your destination, it is unlikely that there will be any additional checks.
You may be handed a piece of paper instructing you to self-quarantine for some period; you sign it or otherwise acknowledge it to the official and then you place it on your person in a location other than with your passport and you ignore it. Some airport immigration officials are imposing other health checks, such as asking you to complete a questionnaire to which the answers are mostly obvious (e.g. 'have you had a temperature in the last 14 days?' answer: 'no') or shining an infrared thermometer in your face (worthless). These checks are virtually always cursory and will not detain you unless you are foolish (or obviously very ill in which case question the wisdom of your travel).
Very few countries are bussing immigrants at airports to hotels or detention centres for compulsory quarantine; none in Europe are doing this. Singapore has been; that might be an inadvisable travel hub at the current juncture. The safest rule is that once your aeroplane has touched down, you will be going freely through immigration after at maximum some nominal hassle.
If you cannot fly for any reason, the next best option is to travel by train. Both domestic and international services are running, albeit in some cases with reduced schedules. The most reliable source of information is the German railways website www.bahn.de, that collates data from other national railway websites. However the only 100 per cent reliable away of establishing that a train is running is to buy a ticket with a reservation for a specific train, whether on a reliable website or at a railway station.
International railway borders are being treated as normally. Inside the Schengen Zone they are almost invisible. Officials may board the train looking for ill people. Obviously it helps if you are white, because immigration officials are sometimes racist. Nevertheless you are very unlikely to be hauled off an international train at the border if you have a valid EEA passport. What are the immigration officials going to do with you then? Law enforcement officers have been instructed to leave prisons as empty as possible. Leaving you in the street is worthless; with nowhere to go, you will just cause them hassle. Be polite, quiet, firm, have a good cover story, answer their questions shortly and crisply and without extraneous information, and they will let you through.
Obviously when flying or going by train, you should dress reasonably smartly consistent with your cover story (if you're wearing a tie, you need a cover story consistent with that - for example, you're going to a funeral) and with decent luggage. The more you look like a refugee or immigrant with nowhere to go, the more likely you are to encounter problems.
The next most desirable method of travel at the current time is by bus. Domestic buses are running in virtually every European country without complication, albeit to sometimes irregular schedules. Check domestic bus company websites for contemporary scheduling information. There is no reliable European central website for bus schedules. The website www.seat61.com that traditionally served as a multi-modal transport data accumulator should no longer be relied upon as a sole source.
International buses are best avoided if there is an alternative. It is easier for immigration officials to detain an entire bus (the passengers on which are presumptively poor and therefore unimportant) than a train, if they decide there is a problem with one person (be that you or anyone else). The luggage inside buses takes longer per passenger to be searched. International buses are the presumed favoured means of transport of illegal immigrants, and they acquire far more unwelcome attention. Use international buses only as a last resort.
Do not drive, either domestically or internationally. You are open season for Police stops, harassment, questioning, fines and orders to return home.
Travel on your own, and smartly dressed. The more people in your group, the less likely it is that you can justify your travel as 'essential'. If you must travel in a group, sit in different places in the 'plane, train or bus and stay in constant contact using messaging services.
In travelling to or from transport hubs, your preferred forms of transport are (a) public transport (e.g. metros / buses / trams); (b) taxis (virtually never stopped unless travelling internationally); (c) walking. People walking need to walk on their own, looking very determined, preferably with luggage, a good cover story, acknowledging the Police courteously and answering their questions shortly without smiling or providing extraneous information. You are on a grave mission. That is why you are walking anywhere. Do not say you are exercising. Why then do you have luggage and are you checking your mobile telephone frequently?
Obviously walking through cities is less likely to draw unwelcome Police attention than walking through suburban or rural areas.
In many countries, hotels are closed; or, even where some are open, it may not be obvious which ones are open in advance. You need to book accommodation using a reliable website such as www.hotels.com or www.airbnb.com for every conceivable eventuality. You absolutely must not get stranded without a place to stay overnight when travelling during a lockdown, or you are likely to be arrested.
You also want to print out copies of your accommodation reservations, to show inquisitive police officers of the gravity of your mission. Very few police officers will turn you back if you can prove to them you have an accommodation reservation for the night ahead. The reason for your journey, they will think, must be a good one or you would not have gone to such extensive measures.
Do not be concerned about security. You can now walk as a lone female through the centre of virtually every European city in the middle of the night without fear. There is nobody to attack you. Just make it apparent that you are on a mission, in the way you act.
Carry cash, always holding some Euros as well as other potentially relevant currencies. There is no currency like small Euro cash banknotes at the current time of socio-political instability and uncertainty.
Carry a face mask and sanitizer bottle. Wear the face mask everywhere, for as long as you can bear it. It makes you look more serious. The same is true if you routinely spray your hands (or anything else, such as door knobs) with a bottle of hand sanitizer in your possession. You want the alcohol-based variety, that evaporates within a minute. Carry a supply of tranquilizers such as propranalol or valium if you can source them, because at the current time international travel is stressful and showing medications to Police Officers always has a desirable effect.
Travel has suddenly become much more complicated. It is as though we have reverted to the late nineteenth century in the standards of travel to which we now adhere. Nevertheless pan-European travel remains entirely possible for the adventurous and determined. Good luck!