Europe is bracing for a wave of American visitors not seen since 2019. But with a war in Ukraine and a new Covid strain making the rounds, is it safe to go?
The European Travel Commission (ETC), an association of national tourism organizations, projects travel demand will remain 20% below pre-pandemic levels this year. And while domestic travel within Europe will return to 2019 levels, it predicts that international travel will be “slower on the uptake” and won’t fully recover until 2024.
But the ETC forecast doesn’t account for seasonal fluctuations of visitors. If you talk to tourism officials and travelers, a different picture emerges. It’s a familiar image of tourists crowding into museums, churches and pedestrian shopping zones. If it’s accurate, then this may be one of the busiest summers in Europe — unless the Ukraine conflict, a new Covid strain, or a wobbly economy interfere.
Can I travel to Europe again?
The biggest question among American vacationers is: Can I travel to Europe? The answer is yes. On March 1, the EU lifted many of its Covid-19 travel restrictions. Countries like France dropped most of their testing and quarantine requirements. You may have to fill out a few more forms before you arrive in the country, but otherwise, there isn’t a lot of red tape. No PCR tests, no quarantines. France considers the United States a “green” country, meaning its infection rate is within an acceptable range.
Before leaving, consult with your airline or travel advisor and check out a site like Sherpa, which which lists travel requirements in an easy to use format. But remember, conditions can change at a moment’s notice. If there’s a new variant and Europe adds new restrictions, you’ll want to know before you go.
Is it safe to travel to Europe now?
Americans who are considering a trip to Europe are also asking about safety. With the war in Ukraine raging, it’s a legitimate concern — until you take a look at a map. Americans tend to visit western European destinations like London, Paris and Rome, which are thousands of miles from the conflict area. Even Warsaw, the tourist destination closest to the war, is a ten-hour drive from Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
A more unanswerable question is whether Covid will be an issue. At the moment, Covid cases are generally falling across Europe, and the barriers to entry are low. But there’s no way to predict whether another surge will happen. If it does, it could seriously affect the number of Americans visiting Europe this summer.
Europe is ready for American tourists
Major European destinations are expecting a busy summer. At least that’s the impression you get from talking to someone like Karen Fedorko, who has been running luxury tours in Istanbul for the last 21 summers.
“Crazy busy,” she says when asked to describe bookings this summer. Hotels are running at full occupancy, and many of her tours are sold out. Fedorko’s company, Sea Song Tours, says the biggest difference between last summer and this summer is the return of cruise ships to Istanbul after a two-year absence.
“We’re seeing massive requests for shore excursions,” she adds.
Tarek Mourad, general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul At The Bosphorus, says interest in coming to Europe is warming up with the weather. His property’s number one market is the United States, and generally, the busiest time of year is the summer.
“This may be our best summer ever,” he says.
But it’s difficult to know since travel habits have changed with the pandemic. More guests are waiting until the last minute to book their rooms, so it’s harder to get a read on demand. And there’s also the war in Ukraine, which is affecting the number of guests coming from Eastern Europe.
How to find a deal to Europe this summer
American travelers are most sensitive to price increases. Despite the fact they have put off bucket-list vacations for two years, they’re still hesitant to book early.
But there are still deals to be had. Ralph Radtke, the general manager for the Çirağan Palace Kempinski hotel in Istanbul, says the level of uncertainty has forced his hotel to make adjustments as the summer vacation season approaches.
“We have to keep our rates dynamic,” he says. That means if you’re planning to see a popular destination in Europe, you could see fluctuations — upward or downward — in hotel prices as Memorial Day approaches, with some opportunities for deals.
There’s a similar dynamic when it comes to airfares. While domestic air travel has almost completely recovered to 2019 levels, international demand has lagged. Only about one-third of Americans say they’re comfortable flying abroad, according to a survey by Morning Consult. That’s more than double the proportion from early January but still far below pre-pandemic levels.
The airfare app Hopper predicts international airfare will match 2019 prices through next month before rising to an average of $940 round-trip in June. It’s a 15 percent increase from last month.
Still, many travelers appear to be waiting until the last minute to book their international trips. The strategies for finding a deal have changed, too.
Don’t wait until the last minute. That was a favorite strategy of American bargain hunters, especially during the pandemic. And it may work, but based on current booking patterns, it may backfire spectacularly, dooming you to yet another staycation. This is the time to book if you can find a reasonable price on a flight, hotel, and tour.
Consider travel insurance. Dealing with the uncertainties of travel is something best left to travel insurance. If you’re headed to Europe, consider a “cancel for any reason” policy, which allows you to recover between 50% and 75% of the cost of your prepaid, nonrefundable expenses.
Go farther. Consider a European destination that’s off the beaten path. London, Paris and Rome could be running at full occupancy. But alternate cities like Nice or Milan — particularly outside the hyper-busy August vacation period — could still have availability and lower rates, according to experts.
Summer travel in Europe: What’s next?
It’s difficult to know if Americans will flock to Europe as they did before the pandemic. Radke, the Kempinski hotel general manager, agrees that the key to the summer travel outlook in Europe will be the return of cruise ships. In a port city like Istanbul, the ships provide a constant stream of business for luxury hotels like his. Guests come to places like the Ciragan Palace Kempinski to stay for a day or two before a tour or for a special meal while their ship is docked in Istanbul.
For cities that are not cruise ship ports, the summer might turn out differently and could offer a few more deals — and that would be good for indecisive travelers.
But the outcome may also depend on factors outside the control of the tourism industry. Will the war in Ukraine continue and maybe widen to other countries? That could put a damper on European tourism, even if the conflict is far away from popular destinations. And, of course, if another Covid wave emerges, all bets are off.
For now, though, none of that appears to be on the horizon. And so, as they say in the cruise industry, it’s full speed ahead.