Flying in Europe during COVID-19
For someone who catches the travel bug easily, I have been travelling only a little this year. Flying in Europe during COVID-19 can’t be fun – or is it not that big a deal?
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, I did travel a bit, including flying in Europe during COVID-19. Here is my honest account of pandemic travelling along with some practical tips. Two of my trips were for work and by train. Three trips were plane journeys within Europe.
Table of Contents
Why am I flying in Europe during COVID-19?
Well. I was wondering that, but then you have situations where you just want to travel.
My father in-law is 80 and lives in Southern France. We like to go see him at least once a year, more often if we can. We booked flights in JAnuary to visit for his birthday party in MArch, and again in late spring. The European travel restrictions put a stop to that. Since I need to submit for days off months in advance, we speculatively booked another flight for late summer. Turned out the German government attempted a fairly lenient policy by testing everyone returning from abroad, the infections numbers in France were relatively stable in summer, and who knows how often you can see your elderly family?
I would rather not have gone on my second trip. My kindest, best ever former boyfriend died suddenly. After the initial shock, we organised his funeral at a time when restrictions in the UK were slowly being lifted, but still having a funeral during COVID-19 was a challenge, and I am so grateful to his friends and the professionals who helped us have a funeral in a way he might have approved. I mean, I could ahve stayed out, pandemic and so on, but I felt I wanted to attend. This was also my first trip outside Germany for over six months.
And last not least, a holiday
Last trip, finally a holiday. I can safely say this summer has been one of the crappiest recently, COVID-19 nonewithstanding. I just felt vaguely stressed after working an awful lot this spring and summer and being exposed to the bloody virus on a daily level, wearing protective equipment that may or may not have been safe enough. Then, I got mugged outside my house and what’s worse, that thug knows where I live and threatened further action, and two weeks later my friend died. Fun summer, much? I cannot tell you how ready I was for a break!
Our planned Japan trip was definitely not going to happen, so in good faith, we booked a cheap flight to Catania and were going to figure out what we’ll do later. We ended up on the Aeolian Islands which is not the worst backup holiday.
Risk versus Benefit is individual
There are many reasons to fly, and yes, they include holidays for some. I neither want to encourage you to travel nor wag my finger and tell you not to, especially when I travel myself. Risks are different for everyone. Not everybody has the choice to do home office. If you work in a very public job, you may laugh about sitting on an airplane with reasonable air conditioning for two hours. And, let’s face it, now might be a good time to see a place which would otherwise be hopelessly crowded.
I have spent most of this year at home, despite my love for galleries, cinema and music. I have severely limited restaurant visits and cafes. Travel is one of my biggest hobbies, and at some point be it out of necessity or to relax it was time for me to travel again. If it everyone’s individual decision how important travel is. And aside from individual concerns, I also travel because I want to support the tourism industry, even if my contribution is small – by staying in smaller, family owned hotels and visiting restaurants and cafes again.
Risks when flying in Europe during COVID-19
COVID-19 makes travelling tricky but not impossible. There are restrictions from your coountry of origin as well as your destination to consider.
In my case, Germany had produced a list of “risk areas for COVID-19” which gets updated every 3-7 days. If you have been in a “risk country” in the last 14 days, currently a 14-day quarantine is mandatory but can be shortened by a RT-PCR test. Both risk areas and rules keep changing. The German Foreign Office also produces Travel Warning lists. We had a travel warning for all countries outside the EU and Schengen Area but this has now changed, and the Foreign Office his assessing risks for individual countries again. The do not equal a travel ban, but a recommendation. However, some travel insurers will not insure a trip to a country or area with a travel warning.
And then… of course, your destination will have something to say whether they allow you in or not! Over the summer, the USA, most countries in the Middle East, Far East and some African countries were mostly not open to German tourists. And now it is best to check with the individual countries consulates, as many require negative tests, and most still will not let Germans in. Even some countries of the EU (Hungary, Finland and some others) have limited touristic travel again. The situation keeps changing constantly, and you’d be best advised to keep an eye on developments.
Booking flights and connections
In each case, I booked our flights directly with the airline. I flew to Toulouse on Lufthansa, to London on British Airways, and to Catania on Ryanair.
British Airways flights operated according to schedule and they did not make any changes prior to the flight – pretty much sticking to what they said on the BA website. Admittedly, this was a flight I booked about ten day before departure.
Lufthansa only had indirect flights to Toulouse, meaning a 45-60minute layover in Munich on each leg. Seemed reasonable. However… when I checked if the flight still existed, ta-da – it was gone! I went into our booking and found that Lufthansa had changed our flights without telling us. So we now had a 3.5 /2.5 hour layover in Munich, turning both trips into a full day of travel and necessitating an unplanned hotel stay in Toulouse. I was not impressed.
Ryanair to Catania was a smooth booking process as usual on Ryanair, and they duly informed me per Email of the required documents to enter Sicily which is an unusually user-firendly touch from Ryanair.
We flew with hand luggage only to avoid unnecessary handling by others.
But German Airports currently only allow you to bring one piece of hand luggage. In July this was still enforced at Berlin-TXL but largely ignored in Berlin-SXF come August.
BA wanted me to check my hand luggage in Heathrow. Well. Which I did, as it allowed me to stuff my case to the brim with supermarket shopping and fabrics.
Catania Airport really didn’t care and smilingly waved through my three bottles of perfume and bottle of special soft drink and I saw people with two or more hand luggage pieces there – as long as you wore a mask, all was good.
At the Airport
Our departure airport was Berlin-TXL in two cases and Berlin- SXF and Munich in one case. Both airports currently operate just one terminal. Food, drink and shopping options were severely limited. At least you can sit outside in Tegel while waiting for boarding. Boarding in Germany in all three cases was not much different from pre-COVID. They did board in groups, but once on the plane, people mixed and mingled like a pandemic doesn’t exist.
Toulouse was a ghost airport with maybe ten flights a day. Queues for security were non-existent. Despite very few travellers, a decent selection of cafes was operating air side, bunt none on the land side.
Now Toulouse is a rather lovely airport that mainly exists in its current dimensions because of Airbus. But London-HEathrow was shockingly, eerily quiet. Still, they managed nice long queues to drop luggage and a bit of non-distanced queuing at security. Once air side, a skeleton operation of food, drinks, newsstand and Duty-Free was serving travellers in the main departure lounge but I would say 80% of shops were shut.
Only Catania seemed to operate a near-normal service. They cleverly had divided the Airport so that arriving and departing passengers could not mix anywhere in the building. It was relatively busy, possibly owed to the fact that Italy is currently one of the few countries in Europe where you can travel with relatively few restrictions – and it is still sunny.
In my experience, security staff seemed a bit more relaxed. Due to fewer passengers, they may not have the never ending humongous queues to deal with. In Germany, they currently (officially) only screen one piece of hand luggage. I tried to minimise all stuff I had to take out of the hand luggage, and usually carried the extra bottle of sanitizer. All in all, I would say although the same rules still exist on liquids, they may not be as strictly enforced, and staff appeared a lot more friendly and forgiving.
As an example, I had bought two 100ml bottles of cologne and also had a bottle of Sanbitter left over that I just shoved in my case. At security, I put them all in the little plastic dish, packaging and all, and a security person just cast a cursory glance at the still-packaged cologne, and waved me through.
Check-In and necessary documentation
Most countries have some form of tracking forms they want you to complete.
I had to fill an online form for UK entry less than 48hours before my arrival. It wasa bit long winded but easily found on gov.uk and immigration actually wanted to see it. But many people just filled it in in immigraiton, akin to a landing card.
France wanted something similar but Lufthansa crew just handed out paper forms on the plane. I cannot remember what happened to it but immigration was certainly interested in our ID only.
Italy had the longest form which had to be completed and printed out but then, no one ever asked for it! Half of our accommodation pointed out that we must install the Sicilia SiCura App. This app is fairly straightforward to install and use but I never had any one ask to see proof of my account.
Germany, high-tech as it is, has paper landing cards until mid-October when a online registration system is supposed to take over. Whether this is for all arrivals or just those from risk countries is as of yet unclear.
The only country I heard of where people were actually denied boarding if they could not produce a QR code, is Greece, but that information is pretty well publicised.
During the flight
As I mentioned before, there have been attempts by airlines to regulate boarding and exiting the plane as to avoid crowding but in my experience, all this went to pot as soon as boarding was called.
Masks on planes
Many airports and airlines now require wearing of a surgical single-use mask while in the airport and on the plane. We saw this in Catania although it was not strictly enforced. Even during the flight we saw many nose hangers, regardless of the airline. And honestly, cabin crew did remind people to wear their masks properly, but it should by now be known that you may as well not bother if your nose hangs free outside the mask and depending of the stage of the light, cabin crew may have better things to do than play mask police. What escapes most people is that a mask, worn properly, will also protect the wearer, and had this been publicised more, perhaps people would be more compliant when their own health is at risk – perhaps.
The service offer on the so-called full-service airlines was reduced to a small bottle of water (Lufthansa) and water and some crackers (British Airways). Ryanair appeared to have their usual menu for sale but not many takers.
I mean, seriously, do I need to eat and drink on a 2.5 hour flight? If I were polydipsic, surely.
Is my flight safe?
They say the risk of contamination is highest in the airport and during boarding and alighting. I usually travel with a couple of FFP2 or N95 masks and put them on when I enter the airport. If I have along wait, I might change this for a surgical face mask. At other tines, I wear my cloth mask. I have about ten now, so no shortage. I can handwash them on holiday. if I want to feel extra safe, I pour extra boiling water on them and stew them for 5 minutes. Most of my cotton masks have played along with this, and if they wouldn’t I would just make new ones form fabric that can withstand a bit of boiling water.
Other than that, I never bothered to wipe things on the plane. I carry a 100ml bottle of cologne and use that unless I can wash my hands after the flight.
Conclusion after eight flights
Honestly, flying in Europe during COVID-19 is nothing scary that must be avoided at all costs. As I mentioned before, there are several risks to consider when travelling, and flying is just part of them and pretty safe in my experience.
All eight flights I have been on were almost at full capacity, so forget about distancing while on the plane. Some airlines offer to purchase the middle seat, but I am not certain this is worth it especally if you wear an efficient mask like and FFP2/N95 mask and are careful with hand hygiene.
Would I fly again?
Absolutely, under the conditions that I am healthy myself and fit to fly. I am aware short notice flight cancellations still exist, and this and getting sick while away are my two greatest worries.
I can solve the flight cancellation problem by booking another flight booking a train (or hiring a car) as distances in Europe are not that great. Every country I have been to so far would have let me travel back home quite safely, but transit through a risk country is possible (and likely) in such unplanned situations, so I would need to be prepared to quarantine then test back home.
And getting sick? Well, a year ago I would have thought nothing about flying with a bit of a cold and just worn a mask. Yes, I really do that. How else would I have functioned pre-COVID when I have the sniffles yet still have to see patients? Mask, of course. But now? Even an attack of the migraine makes me think I might have the dreaded virus and cancel my plans because I don’t fancy getting sick and passing it on to others, especially not far away from home with a husband fetching hot tea, ibuprofen, and three cat nurses. I have always booked accommodation with cancellation options, and I did not go on a trip because I felt slightly under the weather, preferring to stay home instead.
Would you fly?
What is your experience? Would you fly? I would love to hear, especially how your flying experience is with different airlines, in different countries. Please let me know!