Travelling in Europe during the pandemic: Everything you need to know

For most Australian travellers, a trip to Europe has not necessarily been all about a checklist of countries but more about unique experiences.

The gentle pleasure of sipping a morning espresso standing with locals at a bar in Naples; the tart aroma of crushed grapes that permeates the air during the harvest in Burgundy; the shiver of the Aegean Sea on the first dive into its deep blue, or the little trattoria with the handwritten menu in rural Spain, where the owners fill your glass over and over while you savour the best meal of your life.

However, even I, as a travel writer, was apprehensive about a recent return to Europe. I'd spent five years living there previously: after two years of the pandemic, could, and for that matter would, travelling the continent ever feel the same? Reassuringly, it is remarkable how little the European travel experience has changed.

In Paris, the streets heave with tourists. The lines for the Louvre are as long as ever, tourists stand in front of cars at the Arc de Triomphe taking selfies and pickpockets seem to do a brisk trade on every metro ride we take.

And beyond all the everyday travel frustrations around the continent is that familiar European magic. The view to Montmartre through the clock face at the Musee d'Orsay brings all conversation to a pause. Upstairs in the library at Shakespeare & Co, Agatha the cat sleeps soundly. Across the Seine, the Notre Dame still stands proud, despite being bruised, burnt and wrapped in scaffolding, and is humming with the sounds of reconstruction.

Certainly, much has changed over the last two years. Slow travel has gained momentum as people choose to explore small regions rather than whistle-stop tours. There's a growing focus on outdoor-based experiences, and a return to rail, with several sleeper train routes launched.

"Being back in Europe this past Fall filled me with hope," says US writer and tour operator Rick Steves, an expert in Europe travel.

Steves recently returned to Europe after a two-year break running newly-updated pilot tours for the 2022 season.

"I was energised to see the sensible, pragmatic, and compassionate way that Europeans were managing risk while getting back to enjoying life," he says.

Advertisement

"The joys of European travel are still waiting for us: the rattan seats at the Paris corner cafe, the passeggiata [stroll] in Rome, and the edgy street art tour in Athens — and the best travel advice is simply to keep the news in perspective."

There's no doubt that this year, a trip to Europe will require a fine balance: you will have to meticulously plan, but be remarkably flexible; be mindful of your health, yet relaxed enough to go with the flow.

Whether you're taking a tour or travelling solo, it is still entirely possible to have a satisfying and safe European holiday experience and here, in Traveller's step by step guide, is how.

STEP ONE: PLANNING

There's no denying it: a trip to Europe now involves a lot more planning and administrative hoops to jump than ever before.

The most recent hiccup for travellers was Australia's removal from the European Council's "white list" - countries that should not have their travel restricted due to high COVID-19 numbers. And to underscore the confusingly fluid nature of international travel regulations, from February 11 the UK will remove all incoming travel restrictions for vaccinated travellers.

However, it is important to emphasise that the white list decision was only a recommendation as, notably, Italy, Cyprus and Greece, for example, all decided to keep welcoming Australians.

The Australian Government requires all outbound overseas travellers to be vaccinated; a third vaccine dose mandate is also becoming relevant, and likely imminent, with some countries increasingly focusing on the date of your last vaccination.

Australians can exit the country using the Australian COVID-19 Vaccination Certificate which can be downloaded through my.gov.au

However, there are limitations to the certificate's usefulness once you're overseas (more on that later).

One of the biggest challenges outgoing passengers have encountered is renewing their passports. Officially, you can expect to get your passport back six weeks after you apply but try to leave as much time as possible as the passport office clears a backlog of applications.

There's also the question of whether you will want to travel independently in Europe or join an organised tour. Many operators offer flexible booking terms, have adjusted their tour numbers for social distancing and require regular testing of all passengers.

For example, Viking Cruises (viking.com) has built on-board testing labs on their ocean-going ships (river cruises rely on a series of shore labs), while others, such as Bunnik Tours (bunniktours.com.au), require passengers, guides and tour directors to be fully vaccinated.

"We are working with local teams to ensure all COVID plans are in place so that if any passenger tests positive on tour they have all the support they need to guide them through any isolation, medical and insurance matters," says Dennis Bunnik, of Bunnik Tours.

For some travellers, one of the key appeals of tours will be this level of support if they are sick.

STEP TWO: PACKING

The golden rule of packing is to always travel light. However, it's worth packing a few extra items in your first aid kit, including hand sanitiser, antibacterial wipes, throat lozenges, hydration salts and cold & flu tablets.

Crucially, don't bother trying to source Rapid Antigen Tests before you go: most pharmacies in Europe stock RATs at reasonable prices (about €12.50 for five). FFP2 masks, which many countries (including Austria) have made mandatory, are also readily available.

Potentially, the most important thing to pack is a print and a digital copy of your travel insurance policy. Travel insurance remains a critical item. Aside from the pandemic, it covers everything from your lost luggage in Lyon to that broken clavicle courtesy of the cobblestones in Cologne.

The Federal Government's Smart Traveller website (smartraveller.gov.au) provides a comprehensive guide to choosing international travel insurance and COVID-19.

Of course, always read the fine print: most policies offer limited cover for COVID-19 related medical costs but not for government travel bans. Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) advice level for each country also impacts your coverage.

Remember that anything you need you can buy on the go and the more room you have the more shopping you can do. Lastly, don't leave it until the night you travel to air your luggage; 12 hours before our flight we discovered we'd lost ours to 18 months of mould.

STEP THREE: FLYING

The good news is flights to Europe are currently affordable with fares for the European summer ranging from $1300 to $1600. The bad news? A long-haul flight in economy is still a long haul flight in economy. If you have the funds for an upgrade to premium or economy now may be the time to splash out.

Don't leave getting to the airport to the last moment - some airlines require you to show up four hours before departure - with the check-in process more onerous due to all of the new rules and documentation.

However, once you're up in the air, expect a calmer flying experience: flights are less crowded, more people remain seated, and masks remain mandatory, removed only for eating and drinking (some medical experts recommend not removing your mask until those beside you have finished their meals).

While it is still possible to break your journey with a stopover in places like Singapore and Dubai, you'll need to weigh up if it's worth the hassle of extra entry and exit testing requirements.

STEP FOUR: LOGISTICS

From immigration control to checking in at your hotel, the nitty-gritty of travel is much as it always was. Within busy cities, public transport continues to run at capacity. Consider a private airport transfer if you're keen to minimise your exposure to others.

Try to stay within walking distance of attractions you want to visit, or take advantage of the many public bike and scooter hire schemes available in most cities to get around.

If you plan to fly between cities you'll find many airlines require costly (and time-draining) PCR tests and recently, there has been a high volume of flight cancellations.

Taking the train is a more affordable and enjoyable alternative and its upsurge in Europe is being driven by increasing awareness of the effects of air travel on climate change by European governments and the travelling public. Most train services are running at full capacity, with the exception of the Eurostar, which has had its services reduced.

Mark Smith, publisher of the authoritative The Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com) rail travel website says Europe's railways are open for business and they're a great way to get around, "pandemic or no pandemic".

"There's usually no problem turning up and buying a ticket for the next train. The issue isn't availability, it's cost…" he says.

"For example, a train from Paris to Geneva starts at €29 ($A46) if you book ahead, closer to the day you'll pay €148 ($A235). "

Several new sleeper train routes have also launched (some with private compartments and ensuites), allowing you to save a night's accommodation (and isolate yourself from others). However, if you're hopping between countries, be aware that each country has its own entry requirements.

"Complying with these various requirements is now the biggest challenge for travellers," Smith says. He recommends the online platform Sherpa (apply.joinsherpa.com), which allows you to check each country's restrictions and requirements by entering your passport, point of departure and your destination.

STEP FIVE: DOCUMENTATION

Once you've arrived in Europe, you've got one last major hurdle: To enter any museum, restaurant or bar in the EU, you'll require an EU Digital COVID Certificate, which proves you are vaccinated.

Each country is responsible for handing out these certificates to their citizens and 28 non-EU countries, including the US and New Zealand, signed up to the system. Australia did not, much to the annoyance of many a recent Australian traveller in Europe.

In Europe, the Australian COVID-19 vaccination certificate is not sufficient proof of vaccination for getting around day to day. Luckily, there are helpful but always changing workarounds.

In France, a trip to the local pharmacy and €35($56AUD) will get you an EU Digital Covid Certificate (sante.fr/how-to-obtain-a-french-health-pass). However, this is for eligible passport holders from outside the EU.

If you're an Australian permanent resident with an EU-based passport, France will not issue a certificate and redirect you to your country of passport origin.

Switzerland has a much easier system that many have chosen to take advantage of: visitors to Switzerland with a valid hotel booking can apply in advance for a Swiss COVID certificate (covidcertificate-form.admin.ch/foreign) for CHF30 ($A45).

The easy access offered by the French and Swiss systems make them excellent places to start your trip. Rules change frequently, the EU recently indicated it will consider how travellers from abroad can access the pass more freely on its website, so be sure to check for changes often (reopen.europa.eu/en)

STEP SIX: SIGHTSEEING

Europe remains a feast and its major attractions are arguably busier due to social distancing requirements and fewer tickets. Always pre-book for big attractions such as The Louvre (louvre.fr) in Paris or Anne Frank House (annefrank.org) in Amsterdam and also make sure any destinations you want to visit aren't shut on Mondays.

However, also be aware that many museums that show up as fully booked online may allow walk-ins so it can pay to check in person. To avoid the crowds, check for late-night openings, or arrive early. Behind-the-scenes or early access tours can be pricey but during the pandemic may prove a sensible investment.

"Pandemic or not, the advantage of having a guide is that they can keep you away from the crowds, and show you things you might overlook," says Rome-based guide Agnes Crawford.

If you're determined to stay away from the hordes, consider getting out of the city and exploring a regional area.

In Switzerland, for example, you can book a stay in a remote alpine mountain hut (www.holidaybooking.ch). There are terrific cycling and walking tours of Italy (intrepidtravel.com), or you could even take the helm of a yacht and sail Croatia or Greece (sunsail.com.au).

STEP SEVEN: CHALLENGES

Being sick while travelling isn't fun. If you develop COVID-19 symptoms, RATs are available at local pharmacies and your concierge can advise you of the nearest PCR testing centre.

If you do test positive, start by calling your travel insurer who should offer guidance on what your next move should be. Some countries like Italy have special quarantine hotels set up for travellers. In other countries you may just have to find a place to stay and self-quarantine which could get expensive.

Unfortunately, 2022 isn't the year to travel on a shoestring budget and you should have some contingency funds set aside if you need to change flights or stay longer in a hotel or apartment.

Once you've recovered, many airlines require both a negative PCR test and a recovery certificate to fly. The good news is airlines are quite used to making changes and can walk you through the process.

STEP EIGHT: DEPARTURE

Sadly, it's now time to head home with your European sojourn drawing to end. If you require a PCR test for an upcoming flight, you'll need to head to an accredited private lab. Many airline websites list certified labs passengers can use.

If you're travelling remotely, you may need to spend an extra night in a capital city to ensure you get your PCR test results back in time. Importantly, don't forget to fill out the comprehensive Australian Travel Declaration online at least 72 hours before you return.

Australia has also recently changed the criteria for returning travellers who test positive. Previously it was 14 days, now you'll only need to wait seven days after testing positive.

Rules and restrictions will shift and change in the lead up to your trip, but the beauty, culture, history and magic of Europe is worth it. As the saying goes, 20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do, than by the ones you did. For those ready, it's time to get on with travelling. And if the last two years have taught us anything, life is short: seize the opportunity when you can.

TIMELESS TIPS FOR TRAVEL TO EUROPE

GET OUT OF THE BIG CITIES

Everybody loves London, Venice, Paris and Rome. And, unfortunately, that can sometimes prove to be the problem. Leave the crowds behind and explore smaller, regional areas and their comparatively small-sized villages, towns and cities. Follow this rule and you'll get a better feel for the culture, people and history.

GET YOUR TIMING RIGHT

The time of year you travel can dictate the holiday you'll have. Try to avoid peak summer, remember that many businesses close in August and consider late spring and early autumn for their fair weather and slightly less intimidating crowds.

LEAVE ROOM FOR SPONTANEITY

Europe may look small on a map but it's not a place to tick the box on destinations. Instead, create an itinerary that doesn't cram too much in and leaves room for spontaneity, whether it's the chance to accept that invitation for drinks or return to an old favourite museum, landmark or eatery.

WEAR COMFORTABLE (BUT STYLISH) SHOES

This is Europe, after all. If you think COVID-19 can ruin a trip quickly, wait until you've got popped blisters from bad shoes. Comfortable footwear is a must in Europe: from cobblestones to steep stairways, ditch what looks good and wear what fits.

BRING YOUR APPETITE

From priceless pintxos in San Sebastian to securing a booking at an outstanding osteria in Modena, one of the great indulgences of Europe is food. Book early if you're after a Michelin-starred meal, avoid any restaurants with a menu featuring photos of food and do take a gamble on a local's recommendations.

Comments