So You’ve Decided on a Trip to Europe. Now What?

The vaccine rollout is accelerating on both sides of the Atlantic and the European Union is trying to reopen its borders to Americans in time for the all-important summer travel season. That’s good news for the airlines and a welcome development for would-be vacationers — but a trip to favorite destinations such as France, Spain and Italy will take some extra navigation this year.

I’m a journalist covering the airline and aerospace industry and even I struggle to make sense of how best to navigate a trip to Europe now. Stuck with a credit from a hotel in France after a canceled 2020 trip, I optimistically rebooked for July, only to push the vacation to September to give myself more time to sort out the labyrinth of evolving restrictions, vaccine requirements and testing protocols. 

The European Union’s executive arm recently recommended opening the bloc’s doors to visitors who have been inoculated with vaccines that are also in use in the region and those traveling from countries with low rates of coronavirus transmission. Because the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE, Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson shots have been cleared by both the U.S. and EU, vaccinated Americans like myself will have an easier time than Russian or Chinese visitors who received homegrown shots that haven’t been approved for use in the West. But what can I do once I get there? And will I be able to get myself home? 

Transatlantic travel isn’t cheap and it’s tough to put thousands of dollars on the line for a trip that feels like a gamble. But if you’re like me, and the prospect of eating croissants in a French cafe or gazing upon the Tuscan countryside helped keep you going during Covid lockdowns, it may be worth it. If your heart is set on a summer trip to Europe, here are some useful tips from travel advisers:

Do Your Country-by-Country Homework. If you’re just following the headlines, you might think there will be one overarching tourism policy for all European countries but that’s not the case. The EU’s reopening proposal still gives a significant amount of practical discretion to individual members, Peter Bates, president and founder of travel industry consultancy Strategic Vision, said in an interview. “There are no common policies,” he said. “The only thing European countries have in common is they all are worried about Covid.” You can already see variances emerging in the European nations that were among the first to reopen to Americans. For example, Croatia will accept a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or antigen test in lieu of a vaccination certificate and exempts children under 7 from these entry requirements. Greece won’t accept antigen tests and only exempts children under 5. “Those nitty gritty details matter,” Miriam Geiser, a managing director at KK Travels Worldwide, said in an interview. The EU’s proposal also includes an emergency brake provision that would let member states ban travelers from regions that are experiencing severe Covid outbreaks or the emergence of a dangerous variant. So the question isn’t whether you can get into Europe but whether you can get into your chosen country. Make sure you’re educated on the different protocols. 

Be Flexible. “If there’s anything we’ve learned in past 14 months, it’s that things can change in an instant,” Geiser said. “It’s important to balance a desire to travel in general versus a desire to travel to Europe, specifically, and to weigh that with the level of flexibility on the client’s part.” For example, if you only have one week in July when you can take a vacation and you are desperate to leave the confines of your home, a moving target like Europe might not be the best choice. It ultimately comes down to individual choice and risk tolerance, but July isn’t that far away. So if you’re not willing to budge on timing or accept that you might have to reschedule at the last minute, an international destination like Mexico which has already been open for several months may be a safer bet, Geiser said. Regardless of your calendar restrictions, it’s smart to have backup options. “We encourage everyone to have a plan A, B and C and be willing to pivot,” Audrey Hendley, president of American Express Co.’s travel arm, said in an e-mail.

Only Go To One Country. With the potential for varying requirements and border checks between European countries, travel advisers agree that this is probably not the year to hopscotch around the continent. “Go to one country and stay there,” Bates of Strategic Vision said. “Don’t try to cross borders. That’s asking for more trouble.” For the same reason, he also recommends getting a direct flight out of the U.S. to your destination so that you don’t have to repeatedly satisfy entry requirements at various different airports. Given the physical and mental strain of the these pandemic months, many people who are considering European travel are inclined to park themselves in one place anyway, said Tom Marchant, co-founder of Black Tomato, a service that helps travelers plan customized luxury vacations. “Europe isn’t done in one trip,” he said. “You can go to these places hundreds of times and not scratch the surface. You can do more of the grand tour in the next year or two when the understanding of the logistics and ease of movement between countries will be far better.”

Lower Your Expectations. Border control is simply one element of the fight against Covid. Many popular European tourism destinations continue to impose some restrictions. These include mask mandates, curfews, limited capacity in museums and restaurants, a moratorium on live events such as concerts or plays and bans on nightclubs or casinos. “American tourists will have a good experience but it won’t be the experience they had in 2019,” Bates of Strategic Vision said. This extends to hotel amenities as well. “There is a lot of discrepancy about what is available in terms of service,” he said. But whether or not the spa is open, Americans are still likely to wind up paying top dollar for hotel rooms as European outposts try to make up for the lost summer of 2020. So this is another area where it’s important to read the fine print and understand exactly what you’re paying for. 

Check the Cancellation Policy. Helpfully, the large U.S. airlines have dropped change fees for many international destinations if the journey originates in America. But be sure to check the specifics because there are slight variances between carriers and the cheapest seats may not qualify. Most hotels — whether boutique accommodations or behemoth resorts — have adopted similarly fluid policies because they realize how necessary flexibility is in attracting travelers right now, Bates of Strategic Vision said. Small bed and breakfasts may be less lax, though, because they don’t have as much of a financial cushion to absorb the blow of last-minute cancellations. And the more popular destinations may be less inclined to offer wiggle room than they were just a few months ago now that demand for travel is returning, Marchant of Black Tomato said. Some travelers have also tried to hedge their bets by booking stays in three different countries in hopes that at least one works out; that’s turning certain hotel operators off from offering flexible policies, he said. Hendley at AmEx cautions that cancellation rules can change by the day. So keep that in mind and pick your spots accordingly. 

Book Sooner Rather than Later. Even with the current uncertainty, Hendley said AmEx is getting an increasing number of calls from card members inquiring about international trips. There are only going to be so many U.S.-to-Europe flights this summer because of the time it takes to set schedules and bring unused wide-body jets out of storage. Transatlantic and transpacific flights will make up only about 3% of American Airlines Group Inc.’s capacity in the peak summer months. Historically speaking, by this point in the year, about two-thirds of people who wanted to book a summer trip to Europe would have done so. American is betting those people have already planned trips elsewhere. So it won’t be chasing any European reopening announcements with a ton of additional seats. As far as lodging goes, U.S. travelers will be competing with people looking to use credits from 2020 that are expiring this year, as well as intra-European vacationers. Another limiting factor could be capacity restrictions within hotels, Geiser of KK Travels said. It’s a recipe for higher prices and a dearth of options if you wait too long.