We did the impossible. Or at least, if felt like it in the months leading up to our trip.
In July, we took 12 people to Spain and back COVID-19-free as a final hurrah for a Girl Scout troop that had been together for 12 years.
We sold a lot of cookies and nuts and candy, staffed a lot of University of Texas concession stands, and scrimped and saved to make it happen. We planned and researched, and in the end, we learned the value of being flexible and how not to be disappointed when we ended up on plan D, when plans A, B and C fell through because of COVID-19.
Understanding stage 5: What to know about Austin Stage 5 COVID restrictions as delta variant surges
But while we were gone, the situation at home with the delta variant changed exponentially. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Austin Public Health Stage 5 guidelines do not recommend travel for anyone who is considered high risk for a bad COVID-19 outcome, even if they are vaccinated. People who have a low risk and are vaccinated can travel if they wear a mask, according to CDC guidelines, and anyone not vaccinated should not travel.
Here’s how we did it and what we experienced traveling overseas during a pandemic.
Limit the countries you are visiting to one
Crossing borders to hop from country to country is a logistical and paperwork nightmare.
Every country, even every country in the European Union, has very different COVID-19 requirements such as documents, quarantines, testing and vaccination status, and the timing requirements can vary for all of the above.
Each country also has different lists of which countries it is open to receiving visitors from.
If you move from country to country, you might need to do COVID-19 tests multiple days while uploading and filling out forms throughout your trip. You also could be stopped from entering a country as rules change. This situation remains extremely fluid.
Use a tour company
Boy, were we glad we did. When our student trip to five countries in Europe canceled in mid-May because those countries still had restrictions in place, we were able to move to the adult branch of our tour company.
The tour company helped us see where we could travel in July and transferred everything we had already paid to a new trip without us losing any money.
Because our available window was July 2021 for school and work reasons, we looked at Iceland, Greece and Italy as places that the tour company recommended as most viable and settled on northern Italy.
Except Italy didn’t ease all of its restrictions in time for our trip. Six weeks before our scheduled departure, that tour was canceled, but Spain opened up to vaccinated travelers. We seamlessly moved from a northern Italy trip to a most of Spain trip.
If you don’t use a tour company, make sure that everything you purchase is refundable or easily transferrable to a different trip.
Buy travel insurance
We were required to have insurance through Girl Scouts, but each of us also bought insurance through the tour company. That insurance would cover everything from canceled trips because of health problems, including COVID-19, and medical care while on tour as well as the cost of lost luggage. We didn’t use it, but we were glad we had it.
Have a COVID-19 plan
Read the fine print to know what your financial risks are. Our tour company would cover all hotels and food costs if we had to quarantine in Spain because of COVID-19. If we missed a certain amount of our trip because of a quarantine, they would give us a voucher for the amount we missed to be put toward a future tour.
All the travelers on the tour had to sign a COVID-19 agreement that included attesting that we had not come in contact with someone with COVID-19 for 10 days before the tour began and that we would follow the tour rules around COVID-19.
We agreed to impose a self-quarantine and avoid risky behaviors 10 days before the trip. This meant one family canceled a graduation party. The rest of us limited our interactions and where we went and wore masks everywhere.
The tour company guaranteed that all of our bus drivers, tour guides and tour director would be vaccinated. Spain also required us all to be vaccinated to enter the country.
Understand what each country requires for entry
To travel to Spain, we had to fill out an online health form and get a QR code 48 hours before landing. We showed that before boarding the plane in the U.S. and again at the airport in Barcelona to be able to leave the airport.
We had to do the same thing for Switzerland, even though we were in the Zurich airport for only three hours on the trip home.
We also had to have a negative COVID-19 test taken hours before returning to the U.S. We had to show proof of that before boarding our flight from Zurich to Chicago.
We kept our vaccine cards with our passports, as well as a photo copy on our phones, in our luggage and with someone at home. We wanted to make sure that if something got lost, someone could find a copy of both. Some countries require you to show your vaccine card to eat at restaurants, but that was not the case in Spain.
We also had our negative antigen test on our phones, downloaded as a photo, in case we didn’t have WiFi when we needed to show it in Zurich or if customs in the U.S. asked for it.
Understand the COVID-19 rules for each country
We kept up to date with what Spain was requiring when it came to entering the country as well as while in the country. Things were changing rapidly and varied with each region. The week before we arrived, most regions began allowing people to go without masks outdoors as long as they were not within 1.5 meters (5 feet) of someone not in their family.
In some regions, restaurants could seat only six people to a table; in others, it was four; and in others it didn’t seem to matter. We split our party of 12 into two or three tables depending on where we were. In some regions, taxis were able to seat only three people in the back; in others, there were no restrictions but masks were required.
Having a tour director proved invaluable with helping us sort through the rules as we moved throughout the country.
We also were prepared when Spain required us to wear only a surgical mask, not a cloth one, in the airport and on a plane leaving from Spain. I purchased a pack of 50 surgical paper masks and handed them out throughout the trip and on the way home to people who didn’t bring enough masks.
If you don’t like wearing a mask, stay home
To travel now requires you to wear masks on all planes, trains, buses (including tour buses), taxis and other transportation, and in all airports. On our return flight home, that meant we spent 24 hours in masks except to eat or drink something. It’s a lot, and it’s a lot in the heat of summer.
Spain took their masking mandates seriously. Everywhere we went people wore masks and wore them properly.
We did venture into Gibraltar, which is a United Kingdom territory. The UK had just had “Freedom Day,” during which it lifted its mask mandates. Gibraltar was the only place we visited where mask wearing was lax. We kept our masks on as we had the rest of the tour.
In most regions of Spain, the rule was to mask everywhere indoors except while eating or in your own hotel room. We had to constantly remember to wear a mask in the hallway if we were going to leave our hotel room to go to another person’s hotel room to drop off something.
Hotels also had different rules for how many people could be in an elevator, but the common practice was to wait until the elevator was empty before taking it. We spent a lot of time waiting for empty elevators or used stairs.
The rule that we had wear a mask outdoors if we were within 1.5 meters of another person meant that we constantly had our masks hanging from an ear or from an arm so we could quickly put them on if we encountered anyone not in our group.
We were stopped in Seville by a police officer who saw a crowd of people outside the Alcázar royal palace without masks. Our tour guide explained we were a tour group and considered a family unit, so we were OK.
That was in general our practice. If we were with our group, we were comfortable knowing everyone’s vaccination status and did not wear masks. We also knew that if one of us got sick, all of us would have been required to quarantine. That made it really important that everyone followed the tour rules, the government rules and CDC best practices to keep everyone safe.
It was uncomfortable in the heat of summer to keep that mask on, especially on long bus rides or when walking in shopping areas with other people around, but that was what we signed up for.
Add an international cellphone plan
Because of all the documents needed during the trip, we all needed an international phone plan, especially one that included data.
We also used our cellphones a lot to check whether sites not included in our tour were open, what hours they were open and what the COVID-19 protocols were. Some places required tickets bought in advance. Some had limited hours or were closed.
We never went anywhere without checking. (Again, the beauty of having a tour director and Google.)
Why travel right now?
As the trip organizer, I worried it would be canceled. Then once we arrived, I worried about quarantines and breakthrough cases.
We prepared by carrying a first-aid kit with a thermometer, a pulse oximeter and over-the-counter medications to treat COVID-19 symptoms. We also set realistic expectations about what this trip would be like: masking, hand-sanitizing, social distancing. Our packing list included masks, hand-sanitizer, extra underwear in case we quarantined and plenty of patience.
The biggest unexpected result of not waiting until the pandemic is over was the experience of having Spain to ourselves and the locals. The streets were relatively empty. The tourist attractions were empty. In many sites, we were the only tour group. In the more popular spots, there might have been one or two other groups in a huge cathedral or castle. We never waited in line for anything.
The deals were also fantastic. We saw many shops and restaurants closed, but the ones that were open had items on special. The store owners and restaurant managers also expressed again and again how grateful they were that we were there and how much hope we gave them by just showing up.