Travelling in Europe as the Coronavirus pandemic winds down
Sources of information about where and how it is possible to travel around Europe are few and far between. This article provides a few helpful pointers to assist a person in collating all the information they need in advance of undertaking international travel in June 2020.
Information on how to travel around Europe is now bewildering in its complexity. Although travel has become much easier than it was just two weeks ago, the situation is constantly in flux and the pan-European principles previously being pushed quietly by the European Commission are now losing momentum. Now each country is adopting its own rules and procedures. Here are the rules you need to know:
Limited flights are restarting wherever countries have opened their borders. If you can't fly to your destination of choice, it is probably a bad idea to try to go there unless you are desperate.
Trawl both travel agency websites that collate flight purchase information (for example, Travelocity and Expedia) and the websites of airlines that used to fly on the route you seek. The latter are more reliable, and may show flights that the travel agencies do not have.
Also check airports' daily departures and arrivals pages, as this gives valuable clues as to which routes may be running and with which airlines. Some airlines have emerged operating routes that you may never have heard of, and the easiest way to find out about them may be airports' websites.
Check every day, as things change.
Very few flight routes are being flown daily. Some flight routes may only operate once a week at the current time. To find what you want, you may spend a lot of time on the internet, searching.
Purchase tickets in the knowledge that the flight may be cancelled just before you fly. This can often be because there are very few passengers; or a country has just changed its health / immigration / border policies. If your flight is cancelled, the same airline or travel agency will typically give you a voucher or a ticket for a later date. Cash refunds are the exception and they can take a long time to process. Many travel agencies and airlines are cash-poor at the moment.
Country restrictions on entry by non-nationals are being dismantled gradually. But if you intend travelling to a country that has had such a rule (e.g. Germany, Switzerland, Russia), you must check the Foreign Ministry website for the latest position.
If you want to cancel your flight at short notice, this is usually possible before check-in without penalty; but again your reimbursement is likely to be via voucher.
The following website (courtesy of the UK newspaper The Guardian) presents an incomplete summary of the travel rules for each country: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2020/may/18/europe-holidays-which-european-countries-are-easing-coronavirus-travel-restrictions-lockdown-measures
Check with each country's foreign ministry websites for rules applicable to foreign travellers entering their territory. Where they want to encourage tourists, they will have notices in English.
The requirements for "PCR" tests (polymerase chain reaction) for travellers are generally being quietly dropped as impracticable. There are insufficient numbers of tests; they are so expensive as to prohibit all but the most eager travellers; they are unreliable in multiple ways.
Self-quarantining obligations are also being quietly dropped, one country at a time. They are not generally being enforced: particularly not for foreigners. As the Police in varying countries start returning to their ordinary duties, the enforcement of social distancing and quarantines is likely to move ever further down their list of priorities. However there are no guarantees. The Police could turn up at an address you provide at immigration; or they could telephone a number you have given. If you gave an address you are not at, or a telephone number that does not work, it is not clear what would happen.
Always travel with a face mask and gloves. The former are starting to become mandatory in airports across Europe.
Dress conservatively for the benefit of immigration and health officials you may encounter. Exit the aeroplane with a mask on. Approach immigration with a mask on. Pull the mask down as you hand over your passport with the photo page on display. Always aim to look like an uncomplicated case.
Be aware that airlines may have stopped serving food and drink. Aeroplanes may be anywhere from completely full to very empty. Relatively few airlines are actually applying a "no middle passenger in a row of three" rule, so you may be jammed in close with unknown people and no way to get off the aeroplane or move seats if the aeroplane is full. Obviously aeroplanes are highly infectious places and there is no way around this. If you choose to fly then you are exposing yourself to the risk of infection.
Take note of what the social distancing rules are when you arrive in a new country. You may be obliged to wear face masks (which are uncomfortable) in a variety of different public places. AirBnB is widely available across Europe. A number of hotels have recently reopened but many have not and their websites may not be accurately updated. Reserve in advance. If you do not receive a confirmation email, do not assume you have a booking. A number of hotels may have closed permanently as the market is in a state of flux. If you do stay in a hotel, be prepared to be the only guest or one of very few.
It is wise to travel with copies of accommodation reservations and/or onward travel bookings, to show inquisitive immigration officials and/or Police officers. In any event have a good cover story, particularly if the country you are travelling to has not publicly stated that it is welcoming tourists as of the date you travel.
Eating in restaurants remains problematic in a number of countries, as they adapt to a miscellany of different social distancing rules. Opening hours may be curtailed. Reservations may be necessary. Or you may find yourself eating on your own. A number of restaurants may remain closed, again possibly permanently.
In the experience of the author, things to avoid in public places include coughing loudly; sneezing; smoking; and going round in large groups. Generally avoid authority unless you are in trouble. The Police can be helpful at the moment, particularly to foreigners, if you approach them with a specific problem. Do not stand out so as to invite them to identify you for further scrutiny, however.
Travelling around in a post-lockdown environment can be a little disconcerting. There may be some xenophobia; it may be feared that you are carrying disease from abroad. You may be approached by beggars, particularly if you appear conspicuously to be foreign. Remember that despite all the foregoing advice, very few people are actually travelling at the moment and therefore you are likely to be looked upon as an oddity.
One relief from all the foregoing pessimistic and negative information is that if you do travel, taxis are currently plentiful everywhere you would normally find them (nobody is taking taxis but taxi drivers still need to eat); and travel is cheap: all of aeroplanes, trains, hotels and AirBnB are currently offering discounts upon their usual rates. That may not last for long, as the hospitality sector experiences impending insolvency and a supply crunch. Enjoy travel while you can!