International Travel in a Covid World (part one)

That vagaries of international travel in a Covid world creates quite a few opportunities for either upside or downside. The upside is that fewer people are traveling, and with fewer travelers come the perks of lighter crowds, better seats, cheaper hotel rooms, and a more pleasant experience in every attraction, museum, restaurant, or historical site. The downside is that the stress and effort of travel has become much more arduous, the planning much more daunting. The real fear that you’ll be turned away at the airport before you even board your flight because your travel documents are not in order, or you’re missing some key piece of required paperwork adds an element of stress to a vacation that hasn’t really existed since the time of the Iron Curtain. Restrictions and requirements are changing constantly, and much of the literature and regulations are confusing and poorly written, very hard to understand and interpret.

For travelers from the United States, things are even more daunting. We aren’t exactly the role-model for the world when it comes to vaccination status, and coronavirus cases here are on the rise as the Delta variant flames its way through our population. This has caused the U.S. to be added to precisely zero “green lists” for international travel, and quite a few “red lists.” Luckily, most countries have U.S. travelers on a “yellow” or “amber list” currently, and the restrictions, while numerous, are manageable with a bit of time, effort, and patience in your planning.

Our trip involved flying to Berlin, Germany, on British Air, with a very quick layover in London. After a few days in Berlin, we would be taking a train to Copenhagen, Denmark, and staying there for a few days, before taking another train to Stockholm, Sweden and staying there a few days. We would then fly back to Berlin for a day or two, and then return to the United States with another layover in London. Save for the roundtrip flights in and out of Berlin, none of this was pre-booked and all subject to change based on our enjoyment of the various cities and the ever-changing regulations around Covid that could cause us to have to cancel or adjust certain legs. Luckily, this is how I prefer to travel anyway, so the uncertain nature of our trip was one I am well-accustomed to and enjoy immensely.

Because our entry-point to Europe was Berlin, I carefully navigated the often-confusing requirements for travel to Germany from the United States, and discovered, much to my delight, that we wouldn’t need a negative Covid test to enter Germany. The requirements for entry were:

1. Full vaccination for at least 14 days, or

2. A negative PCR or Antigen test taken within 72 and 48 hours respectively prior to arrival, or

3. Proof from a doctor of recovery from Covid within the preceding six months.

The “or” on these requirements was a welcome word, and since Tracy and I were both fully vaccinated, we didn’t need to do anything more than remember to bring our vaccination cards to the airport.

Or, so I thought.

It wasn’t until just a few days before our travel that I had a sudden thought that perhaps I should confirm that even though we were only stopping over in London, not leaving the airport or even clearing customs, which meant no official entry into the country, I should probably check to make sure there weren’t any odd rules to be aware of. It was a good thing I checked.

The rules for actually entering Great Britain are arduous and involve things like prescheduling Covid tests on day 2 and again on day 8, quarantines for many travelers, and other nonsense. It turned out, as I dug deeper, that even though we were only laying over, the Brits are quite protective of even their unofficial air, and we would be required to get a Covid test before we would be allowed access to the hallowed aisles of the British Airways 787-10.

The requirements for the specific nature of the test involved immersion rates and accuracy rates and a bunch of other numbers and percentages that nothing in the literature of the various testing sites allows you to confirm. I finally ended up just booking a rapid antigen test because it was the only one where the results would be available within 48 hours. All the testing sites around me were reporting results times of 72 hours or longer, and that wouldn’t work for the flight requirements, so I lied and said I was suffering Covid symptoms just so I could get a rapid test that I wasn’t even sure met the requirements for entry into a country that I wasn’t even officially entering. In addition to the proof of vaccination and negative Covid test, Britain also requires all travelers—even those just passing through—to complete a Passenger Locator Form. This form compiles every bit of information about you, your travel plans—right down to your seat number on all flights—your vaccination and test status, home address, telephone number, passport information, and shoe size.

What a complete pain in the ass.

Anyway, the results of my rapid Covid test came back in about fifteen minutes and were negative, and, shockingly, somehow when I got to the airport, the agent at the ticket counter wasn’t trained to know the difference between an antigen test with soluble rates of 98.7% at a diffusion of 300 grams per milliliter, a PCR test with sensitivity of 91.4% and specificity of 99.6%, and a picture of a cozy rabbit burrow stuffed with cute baby bunnies. It turned out that all she really cared about was the large, bold NEGATIVE stamped halfway down the results page, the vaccination dates on our cards, and that our U.S. passports were valid.

Whew.

On the flight, despite the fact that literally every person is fully vaccinated AND has tested negative within the previous couple of days, masks are still required, which, when you think about it even a little bit, is completely ludicrous. That little self-contained tube in the sky was probably the safest, most Covid-free piece of real estate in the entire world, and yet masks were required to be worn the entire flight. Luckily, we were flying in business class, which has private little cabins where you can’t even see another passenger, and so most of the flight attendants were quite lenient when it came to enforcing the mask mandate. I actually took mine off completely when I laid out my bed and went to sleep for a few hours, and nobody woke me to demand I put a completely useless piece of cloth over my mouth. When we arrived in Berlin, the customs agents wanted to see our passports and our vaccination cards, and that was it, a very simple entry into Germany, and our vacation was underway.

Germany does have some quite strict Covid protocols in place. It’s not just that masks are required everywhere indoors, but they specifically are required to be “medical masks,” which most people in Germany take to mean N95s. Nobody is wearing a bandanna, or a gator, or a scarf over their face like I see all over the U.S. The citizenry are religious maskers in Germany, and every person wears a medical mask, with at least 50% of them of the N95 variety. I rarely saw anybody (other than myself) openly flouting the law and not wearing their masks, and they do apparently levy fines of 50 Euros or more if you are caught willfully violating the mask mandate. It was quite clear that the Germans have received their marching orders from their leaders, and they have fallen in line to snap their heels together, salute, and obey. Hmmm.

I should say here, if my opinion isn’t already clear, mask mandates are stupid. They are performative in nature, designed to make people feel like they’re making a difference and taking steps to be safe while ignoring the science that says that masks, especially the non-N95 variety, are almost entirely useless. In particular, in areas where everybody is required to be vaccinated and test negative, as on the flights, requiring masks in addition to those rules is nothing more than willful disdain for common sense. That being said, N95 masks likely do actually provide some small amount of protection and help to stop the spread of Covid, and if you were going to require a mask mandate in your country the percentage of people wearing the N95 variety is at least encouraging even if it is still ridiculous.

Not only does Germany require and mandate mask wearing indoors, they also require proof of vaccination or a negative test everywhere. I mean everywhere. The hotel requires it at check-in. Many restaurants require it when you go to dinner. Museums, attractions, and tours, all require you to show proof that you are vaccinated or don’t currently have Covid. It’s absolutely nuts to have to show that proof to your maître d’, and then have him also demand you pull your mask up over your nose before he shows you to your table. It’s utter lunacy.

Luckily, all of this idiocy was going to soon come to an end as we boarded a high-speed train for Copenhagen, Denmark, and the start of the Nordic leg of our journey.

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