What It’s Like to Travel & Fly Internationally from the U.S. During the COVID-19 Pandemic: My Experience as a Wine Lover Traveling to Germany
I haven’t traveled an hour radius from my home in seven months since the start of the pandemic in March, but last month I spent a week in Germany.
I never planned on traveling outside of the state of Connecticut — much less outside the United States.
But that changed in September when my father-in-law passed away, and I flew to Germany to attend his funeral and spend time with family.
I love to travel internationally, and most of my travel revolves around wine.
In fact, this time last year during the last four months of 2019 my interest in wine took to me to Seville (Spain), Barcelona (Spain), Hunter Valley (Australia) and the Rheinhessen (Germany).
But traveling during a pandemic?
Like everyone else I canceled all my 2020 and early-2021 travel plans, so when this essential travel need popped up I was a little apprehensive.
Here’s what it’s like traveling internationally from the United States and back in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Preparing to Travel
Preparing to travel during a pandemic is stressful.
First you need to check whether the country you want to visit is actually accepting visitors from the United States.
Most countries aren’t accepting American visitors during the pandemic including France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal and most of Europe and the rest of the world.
I was only allowed to enter Germany, because I’m married to a German citizen.
In order to gain entry to Germany, I had to send a certified copy of my marriage certificate from my local Town Clerk’s office to the Connecticut Secretary of State to get an Apostille.
An Apostille is a specific authentication prepared pursuant to the Hague Convention of 1965 that eliminates the need for authentication of foreign public documents above the Secretary of State for participating countries of which Germany is one.
Knowing my father-in-law was in ill health for some time, I had all this documentation ready to go a month prior in the event I needed to travel on short notice.
Getting these documents requested and processed via mail easily took four-week’s time especially with state and local government offices being closed to the public coupled with reduced service during the pandemic.
If you think you may need to travel internationally due to a similar circumstance, go ahead and request the appropriate documents now as the Apostille authentication lasts for over a year.
Choosing a Flight & Seats
Normally when I choose a flight, I’m looking for the most direct flight at the lowest price, and given that I fly out of New York City pricing tends to be competitive.
This is not necessarily the case during a pandemic.
Airlines have drastically reduced the number and frequency of international flights.
Instead of taking a nonstop, roundtrip flight to Frankfurt on United Airlines ($2,100), I booked two separate one-way flights on two different airlines – Tap Air with a layover in Lisbon ($500), and a return flight on Air France (Delta codeshare partner) with a layover in Paris ($400).
As a point of pre-pandemic fare comparison, I usually book a nonstop flight to Frankfurt on Singapore Air for around $950 (and Singapore Air rocks).
When researching flights, I was curious if airlines were seating passengers in a way to maximize social distancing.
Most airlines are not enforcing social distancing onboard, and make no social-distancing guarantees.
Even though I booked my return ticket through Delta which currently advertises it leaves the middle seat empty, their codeshare partner, Air France, who operated the flight enforces no such rule.
So, when choosing seats on your flight, try to choose seats based on the available selection that gives you the best chance of social distancing (more on that later).
Pre-Board COVID-19 Testing Requirements
Prior to boarding international flights, many airlines now require you to show documented proof of a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours prior to departure.
And you have to have a specific type of COVID-19 test — a RT-PCR test, and not a rapid COVID-19 test.
At its fastest, RT-PCR tests usually take around 12 hours to turn around with 24-48 hours being pretty standard to get results due to administrative processing.
Be sure to schedule your COVID-19 test as soon as you can as getting on the calendar to get a test can be challenging.
I got my test done at a drive-through testing site at the Greenwich Hospital which offers a 12-hour testing turn around.
Print a copy of your test results with the date/time stamp of your test or be prepared to share your results with a check-in agent using your phone.
I’m personally a stickler for paper for important stuff like this.
Because flying internationally required me to have a negative COVID-19 test, it actually made me feel safer than if I were flying domestically where no such test is required.
Getting to the Airport & Checking In
I took an Amtrak train from Stamford, Connecticut to Newark International Airport.
Amtrak is limiting capacity on all of its trains during the pandemic, and shows you at the time booking how full your train will be.
Thankfully my train was only at 25% capacity, and I had a whole row to myself in coach which was a nice experience as my first train ride in seven months.
When I arrived at the Newark airport I was immediately struck by how empty and eerie it was with hardly any people in it.
I’ve never seen it so dead.
Few restaurants and retail outlets were open.
At the TAP Air check-in desk for my Lisbon (Portugal) layover, I presented my negative COVID-19 test documentation.
I asked the check-in agent to confirm my understanding that everyone onboard my flight would also have a negative COVID-19 test, and was surprised to learn that all passengers were not required to be tested prior to boarding.
Apparently if you’re a Portuguese citizen (TAP Air is a Portuguese airline) you aren’t required to be tested prior to returning to your home country.
I was told on average around 85% of passengers on a flight will have been tested.
While I was disappointed all passengers weren’t required to be tested, I was happy about the high-percentage of passengers who would have negative tests which was a good reminder to me to not let my guard down in terms of taking reasonable precautions to protect myself.
Flying and Seating
So, when I booked my flight online five days before departure, I chose an aisle seat in a two-seat row near a window in the rear of the plane.
At the time of booking the rear section of the plane was basically empty except for one or two passengers.
I anticipated having an entire row to myself and no passengers next to, behind or in front of me.
When I boarded the plane, I discovered it was nearly full.
To my surprise there were passengers sitting next to, behind and in front of me.
Apparently, Air Canada canceled its scheduled flight and put its passengers on my TAP Air flight.
I get that it makes better business-and-environmental sense to fly one full plane rather than two half-filled planes, but it irked me because this experience wasn’t what I was expecting.
If I had booked this flight months ago I would have been understanding of other people’s later bookings, but booking five days before takeoff in the mostly-empty section of the plane I felt misled.
My takeaway from this experience is that you should choose your seat on international flights assuming that all seats around you could be occupied just like you did pre-pandemic no matter how close you book to a departure date.
There will likely be more last-minute, international-flight consolidations over the next two years as the airline industry attempts to manage expenses during the pandemic so adjust your expectations accordingly.
And one other thing.
Now when you’re flying internationally you have to fill out a contact tracing form on the flight that notes your seat number and gathers information about where you’ll be staying upon arrival so you can be contacted in case there was an outbreak on your plane.
Smart, comforting and disconcerting all at the same time.
Eating & Drinking on a Plane
While travelers are constantly reminded to maintain social distancing while moving around the airport and boarding flights, the reality of social distancing ends once you take your seat.
It might be wise and easy to avoid eating or drinking on a domestic flight, but it’s not so easy on a 7-plus-hour-long international flight.
So how is meal and drink service handled during the pandemic?
You simply remove your mask, eat, drink and put your mask on when finished.
There is no strategic sequencing of meal service or meal consumption (e.g., taking turns removing your mask an eating with the passenger you’re sitting next to).
Yes, it’s as though the entire plane takes a collective time out on the reality of COVID’s existence and silently participates in an ill-advised sustenance ritual in the sky that would have never been allowed on the ground.
It is definitely a calculated risk to consume a meal surrounded by people you don’t know on all sides who are not socially distanced, but it is what it is.
Normally, I savor eating and drinking and take my time to enjoy the entire experience.
Now, I just wanted to wolf down my meal as quickly as possible so I could put my mask back on.
On long international flights there are usually multiple meals served, one substantial meal at the beginning of the flight and a snack closer to end of the flight with active beverage service throughout.
On my flight to Germany and returning to the U.S. using two different airlines, there was only one meal served with no repeat beverage service offered after the initial meal – including the usual post-meal coffee/tea service.
Usually, when I get thirsty on the flight I walk to the back of the plane and ask a flight attendant for something to drink.
During a pandemic you don’t want to do this as I learned.
Rather, push the flight-attendant call button at your seat and have an attendant bring you what you need.
Airlines now want to discourage passengers from visiting the flight attendant area (usually near the restrooms where passengers frequently visit) since attendants take off their masks to eat and drink there.
Totally understandable though it struck me as odd that it was OK for me to eat sitting next to strangers with my mask off, but not OK for me to be within 6 feet of a flight attendant with my mask on.
Eating & Drinking at the Lisbon Airport During a Layover
After a 7-hour flight where only one small meal was served and with a 3-hour layover before getting on my connecting flight, I needed something to eat when I arrived at the Lisbon airport.
If there is one thing I love about visiting Portugal and Spain, it’s Ibérico ham.
If you’ve had it before you know why I made a beeline to the airport food court to search for a place to get my jamon fix on.
And to my delight, I found a place that served Ibérico ham sandwiches.
I picked up a sandwich and a 375ml bottle of Vinho Regional Alentejano white wine and sat down in the food court at a socially-distanced table as an active staff of service people sanitized tables between visitor seatings.
Before I began eating, I quickly tweeted out a photo of my meal which to my surprise quickly generated over 100 likes (my most liked tweet ever) and my favorite comment from @GreatBigReds, “100% support flying to Europe for a good sandwich.”
At that moment, I realized traveling during a pandemic and being able to experience wine and food abroad was something that many of my friends are also yearning to do as well.
Just as I did aboard the flight, I wolfed down my sandwich and finished the wine as quickly as possible so I could put my mask back on.
I took no tasting notes on the wine, as I usually do (which pained me).
Near the food court I stumbled up a Portuguese gift shop and wine bar serving small bites.
In addition to picking up tins of canned tuna to give away as gifts, I also perused the enviable selection of Portuguese wines and picked up two wines to take with me duty free.
Fortunately, some of the wines for sale on the shelves were also available to purchase by the glass.
With a 3-hour layover and delicious wine being offered inexpensively for 4 Euro a glass (yes, in an airport), I sat down at one of the small, wooden tables in the store and gleefully enjoyed a glass of the store’s available white-blend and red-blend.
Again, no tasting notes.
Leaving the shop thoroughly satisfied but a little peckish, I returned to the sandwich place and picked up two more Ibérico ham sandwiches to take with me to Germany – one for me, and one for my husband who adores them as well.
And there may have been another 375ml bottle of Vinho Regional Alentejano white wine purchased as well for the flight . . . [Pandemic preparations after all]
I made it to the gate happy.
Arriving in Germany & Border/Passport Control
The process of arriving in another country is totally different now during the pandemic with fewer people traveling.
Upon arriving at my final destination in Germany as well as during layover stops, border patrol officers met passengers at the gate deboarding the plane.
There was only a quick check of passports at the gate and no passport stamps
And I was never asked if I wanted to declare any goods.
When I arrived in Frankfurt, the border patrol officer asked me where my final destination was, and I noted that may final destination was Frankfurt.
He looked at me, squinted his eyes and said, “But we’re not accepting Americans at this time.”
I promptly shared my Apostille and accompanying marriage certificate, and he asked why I didn’t fly directly to Frankfurt.
I explained direct flights were $2,000 while flights with layovers were $900, and he gave me an approving nod.
Germans are value conscious, so his response was somewhat predictable to me.
The border patrol officer asked me the reason for my visit, and I shared that I was visiting to attend my father-in-law’s funeral.
Finally, he asked me if I had a COVID test, and I shared the paper printout of my time-dated negative test results.
And with that I entered Frankfurt.
Choose Your Own Adventure: Quarantine or COVID-19 Test
In Germany and many other countries there is a 14-day mandatory quarantine for visitors from countries with high COVID-19 infection rates such as the United States.
A mandatory quarantine can usually be avoided after taking a COVID-19 test shortly after arrival and receiving a negative result.
Germany makes it easy to get tested.
Centogene, a rare disease company, has COVID-19 testing centers in the Frankfurt airport in which you can register for a test in advance online.
So, within 72 hours of having a negative test before leaving the U.S., I endeavored upon a second COVID-19 test.
With barely a 5-minute wait upon check-in I was whisked into a testing booth and given a RT-PCR test with a throat swab.
Under bright, fluorescent overhead lights, and inside a white-and-red-colored testing booth, I felt like I was in a pharmaceutical or cosmetics company’s tradeshow booth.
Forty-eight hours before leaving Germany I also returned to the airport to get a third COVID-19 test in preparation for flying even though it wasn’t required to fly.
I took the test because I couldn’t entirely figure out from Delta and Air France’s websites if I needed a negative test to enter Paris during my layover or to eventually enter the U.S., and I didn’t want to take any chances with constantly-evolving, country-entry policies during the pandemic.
I received my test negative results online within approximately 12 hours of being tested on both occasions.
Paris Airport Layover on My Way Back to the U.S.
After my visit to Germany it was finally time to return to the U.S., and I boarded a plane in Frankfurt without needing to share my most-recent, negative COVID-19 test.
My layover in Paris at the Charles de Gaulle airport on my return home did not match the wonderful experience I had traveling through Lisbon’s airport en route to Frankfurt.
For one, there were only four shops open in the K concourse to purchase food from including a Starbucks and a Champagne and caviar bar offering 30 grams of entry-level caviar for 118 Euro.
I ate at Pret a Manger — but it’s was a Paris Pret a Manger dammit!
Second, and I’ve thought this on multiple occasions in the past when traveling through Paris.
What is up with the restrooms in the K concourse of the Charles de Gaulle airport?
Not only are there just three small restrooms in the whole K concourse, but the restrooms are rustic and look like something you’d find in a lobby of a hostel or a state welcome-center highway pitstop.
There are only two urinals and two toilet stalls in each of the three concourse restrooms that literally serve thousands of people a day.
I’ve never had to wait in line to use a urinal at an airport, except in Paris.
Seriously, Charles de Gaulle Airport, you can and must do better!
I’m embarrassed for you.
But, I digress.
Before getting on my Air France flight, gate agents administered temperature checks of each passenger before boarding.
Once in flight, passengers are asked to remove personal face masks and use two provided disposable surgical masks, changing into the second fresh mask after the first 4-hours on the flight.
The reasoning behind the mask change is because the efficacy of the mask diminishes over time as the mask absorbs moisture from your breathing.
Below are some of the scenes from the Paris airport (I purposefully spared you the restroom photo).
As you can see when it comes to personal protective equipment, some travelers go all the way.
Returning to the JFK Airport in New York
At JFK there was no wait to pass through border/passport control.
I’ve been at JFK when it’s been absolutely packed, so getting through border patrol quickly was a welcome relief.
It was interesting that U.S. border patrol gave no guidance or directives about quarantining or being tested for COVID upon arrival.
This is different from when I arrived in Germany and received a handout outlining all guidelines and responsibilities for visitors with regards to the mandatory 14-day quarantine.
I have to believe this lack of guidance has been influenced in part or in whole by the current U.S. Federal Government’s approach towards COVID-19.
Like the Newark International Airport, JFK was also dead and mostly empty.
Taxis are pretty much your only way to travel from the airport.
Inexpensive NYC Airporter shuttle busses to Grand Central Train terminal are a thing of the past.
Quarantine or COVID-19 Test When Your Return?
You’ll want to check the quarantine guidelines for your state when you return.
While Connecticut has quarantine guidelines for visiting U.S. states with high COVID-19 rates, there is no mandatory quarantine or testing requirement when returning from international travel.
You’ll also want to check your employer’s health guidelines as well.
I work at a university which requires all students and staff returning from international travel to have a COVID-19 test upon return, and a second test no sooner than four days after the first test.
I’ve already had my first negative COVID-19 test upon return and feel pretty confident that my second test will also be negative as well.
Tips for Traveling Internationally During COVID-19 Pandemic
Here are some tips I’d share after my experience traveling during the pandemic.
- Carry paper copies of your COVID-19 test results when traveling through the airport if possible. You never know if airport complimentary wifi will be working when you need to access your records online through your phone.
- Bring multiple masks with you while you’re actively traveling. Some masks are more difficult to breathe through than others which is something you might not realize if you’ve only been using masks for essential grocery shopping and tasks. You may require something different of a mask you have to wear for 13-hours straight on a plane. Plus, with all the moisture you generate a normal part of breathing, you’ll want a fresh mask after a while.
- Be mindful of country entry restrictions at your layover intermediary stops. Many countries that won’t allow Americans to visit, will allow Americans to pass through the airport on a layover. This of course may vary by country.
- Don’t depend on airlines to know the entry restrictions at your final destination after you deboard the plane. During my entire journey to Germany which isn’t currently open to visits by Americans, no one from TAP Air asked me if I would actually be able to be admitted once I arrived. I knew I would because I had documentation, but no one inquired or even asked. They did their job to get me there. It’s your job as a passenger to know if you’ll be admitted.
- Be prepared for the likely scenario that you will not be able to socially distance on the plane, and be comfortable with that possibility in advance. Decide in advance whether you want to remove your mask to eat or drink during the flight so you can plan to eat before you board or be prepared not to eat or drink the entire flight.
Tasting Notes on the Wines I Enjoyed While Traveling
You didn’t think I’d let this post end without sharing notes on some of the wines I had while I was abroad?
Below are links to notes on the wines I was able to take notes on while traveling, including the bottles I picked up in the Lisbon airport and bottles I picked up at the grocery store in Germany – the main channel through which wines are sold there.
• Casa Ermelinda Freitas, Reserva Touriga Nacional 2017, Vinho Regional Peninsula de Setúbal, Portugal (Wine Casual, 88 Points)
• Dona Paterna, Alvarinho 2018, Monção e Melgaço, Vinho Verde, Portugal (Wine Casual, 90 Points)
• Alde Gott Winzer, Spätburgunder Rotwein, Baden, Germany (Wine Casual, 86 Points)
• Landlust, Dornfelder & Spätburgder 2019, Pflaz, Germany (Wine Casual, 86 Points)
• Frankenseele, Spätburgunder 2018, Franken, Germany (Wine Casual, 88 Points)
Safe travels to you should you choose to travel internationally during the pandemic.