They say only two things are certain: death and taxes. These days three things are: death, taxes and changes in COVID restrictions. Rules surrounding the travel industry are especially confusing. It seems these changes occur almost daily and show no sign of slowing down and for better or worse some are here to stay.
I am currently preparing to spend the first 10 days of July exploring Rome and Tuscany. These two Italian staples are among the most visited places on earth. People from all over the globe travel there to immerse themselves in Italy’s history, art, food, wine and fashion. The small nation of 60 million was devastated by COVID, with a death rate nearly twice that of the United States. So what will travelers find when they return to this cultural mecca? I intend to find out.
Before I even board my “COVID-free” flight to Rome from New York’s JFK there are several hoops I must jump through. My trip includes a dozen travel advisors from around the country. We have been invited by a local, on-the-ground travel guide who helped us attain “essential worker” status. When traveling we must carry letters of invitation referencing planned meetings with hospitality industry representatives. The need for documentation is reminiscent of my summer spent studying in communist Cuba in 1999 on a coveted student visa.
Delta Airlines has been operating what they call “COVID-Free” flights all along. These depart only from Atlanta and JFK and have their own set of stipulations. Each passenger must have proof of a negative COVID test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival in Rome (which proves a challenge for those needing to spend 36 of those hours flying from the west coast.). Upon arrival at the airport, the airline collects a rapid antigen test. If both tests are negative we may board the flight, on which we must wear and change masks every four hours in flight. A final rapid antigen test performed on the plane in Rome clears us to roam around Rome and the rest of Italy.
Now, you’ll note I have yet to mention anything about vaccines. Most people planning travel these days have had the jab and are extremely eager to get out and explore again. Many countries are open only to visitors who have been vaccinated, Iceland among the first. What we see, however, is having proof of vaccination does not negate the need to test, especially for the return to the United States.
This may change soon with the adoption of an electronic test and vaccine verification. As of July 1, citizens of the European Union can use the EU Digital COVID Certificate, an application that provides QR codes to securely display proof of vaccination, a negative test or recovery from COVID. While not yet available outside the European Union, the rest of the world will be watching closely to see how safely and effectively this technology can help people move freely across borders again.
There is a good likelihood we all may be required to use such means for international travel in the future. Until that time, we must make plans according to whatever policies are in place at the time of booking. A few tips have revealed themselves as a useful guide to trip planning until the many new rules and regulations of travel stabilize. Here is a list:
• DO NOT LAMINATE YOUR VAX CARD (any possible boosters can’t be recorded)
• Check your passport now! (the State Department has quite a backlog)
• Take advantage of liberal cancellation policies and promos (like free air for river cruises)
• Schedule the required PCR or Antigen test ahead of time for your return home
• Car rentals are very scarce (if you even think you’ll need one…reserve it now!)
• Buy good insurance and be sure it covers COVID related issues.
With all of these preparations satisfied, I am ready to embark on my first overseas trip in two years. Like everyone else, I am not sure what to expect and I am eager to see, hear, smell and taste Italy again first hand and share it all. Of course, all the rules may change again before I even get there.
To follow Emily’s adventures in real time (or after), find her on Instagram and Facebook @griswoldtravel.
International Travel Update
I am recently back from a tour of Italy with a report on what it was like to venture beyond our shores.
In my last article in August, entitled “New Rules for Navigating the World,” I detailed the hoops to jump through for the flight to Rome. I ended by stating the many existing restrictions could change at any time. Sure enough, the restrictions eased a few days before departure and with vaccination card in hand off we went.
I flew from New York’s JFK airport, which looked like the chaos of a train station in India. Lines were out the door with unpracticed tourists chomping at the bit to get out of town, myself included
Once in Rome, life seemed just like home. Masks were required indoors, but not at restaurant tables. Outdoors they were not required, and social distancing seemed to be a habit many people were still using. And that is the most significant part of this report. Normally on a summer day in Rome, you would be hard pressed to stay six feet from others at the city’s most popular sites. I happened upon the Eternal City during its first week open to full capacity, but it was not at full occupancy yet. It turned out to be an ideal time to be a tourist in Rome.
We waited in virtually no lines anywhere, enjoyed wide open views of the Colosseum, took photos on the Spanish steps completely alone and, most significantly, experienced a nearly empty Vatican. It was so empty that we could have stayed to admire the Sistine Chapel the whole day if we preferred. A normal day sees 15,000 tourists pass under Michelangelo’s ceiling. We shared it with approximately 40 others. Forty!
I am a traveler, museum lover and a history buff. This experience was something I will never forget and may be hard pressed to beat.
Follow Emily Griswold on Instagram and Facebook @griswoldtravel.