Traveling Abroad During COVID? Be Flexible to Change Plans

When Maryland-based, NerdWallet editor Erin Hurd rescheduled a 2020 family trip to visit the Christmas markets in Europe to December 2021, she thought the trip would go according to plan. By then, she figured, her family would be vaccinated against COVID-19.

But as 2021 rolled on, her children remained too young to be vaccinated, and the pandemic brought on new variants. She ultimately decided to cancel their trip.

“We decided not to go to Europe because the kids can catch COVID while traveling, or my husband or I could get a breakthrough case and then test positive before our flight home. We don’t want to get stuck quarantining in Europe and have the kids miss school,” Hurd says.

She adds, “Good thing we had travel insurance when booking our trip.”

Stories like this demonstrate the many moving parts you need to think about when booking international travel during the COVID era. Here’s what to know to better prepare for the flexibility required.

Entry requirements vary by country

Due to the pandemic, planning a trip abroad involves familiarizing yourself with different countries’ specific entry requirements. Though countries generally require a combination of proof of vaccination, a PCR test and/or recovery from COVID-19 before entry, quarantine requirements for the unvaccinated differ, particularly when it comes to age.

COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. are currently only available to those ages 12 and older, and children under 12 may undergo stricter requirements before traveling internationally — but the requirements vary widely. For instance, to enter Germany, kids under 12 need to quarantine for five days, but don’t need a test. To enter Italy, on the other hand, children six years and older who are accompanied by a parent have to take the pre-departure COVID-19 test, but children under six are exempt.

“We might just travel domestically during the holidays so that we can still get away without having to worry about getting stuck abroad,” Hurd says.

Borders may close without warning

Travelers must also be prepared for countries to close their borders to Americans, whether they’re vaccinated or not.

Former NerdWallet employee Alexis Freund, who lives in Chicago, was invited with her boyfriend to a wedding in Lake Como, Italy. They planned a mini trip across Europe, which included flying to Amsterdam, taking the train to Switzerland and Italy, and then flying to Greece. But a week before departure, the Netherlands issued a notice that anyone arriving from the U.S. is required to quarantine — vaccinated or not. This requirement has since changed.

The couple decided to fly to Germany instead, but due to the fare difference, changing both tickets cost an extra $1,400. Then, the city they planned to visit in Switzerland was hit with a storm.

Freund canceled Switzerland and flew to Portugal instead.

“Though we paid for the hotels and trains in advance, we were able to get our money back by using our credit card’s travel insurance policy. Without it, we would’ve lost $1,200 on these expenses,” Freund says.

Travel insurance can pad the unexpected

Because Freund had travel insurance and her reason for cancellation was covered, she was able to use the trip interruption perk — which allows travelers to recoup the unused portion of prepaid activities when plans change — to get a refund for those costs.

Similarly, Hurd was able to benefit from the travel insurance provided by her credit card. “Our flights were booked with United points, but we paid the flight taxes with a travel rewards credit card. We were protected by its complimentary travel insurance. If we had booked our tickets with cash, we would have definitely bought stand-alone travel insurance,” she says.

If you’re planning on traveling during the pandemic and don’t have a credit card that offers free travel insurance, consider purchasing a comprehensive policy. Then, if you need to change or cancel your travels, your prepaid trip plans will be reimbursed.

The cost of COVID tests can add up

You may need to add a new line item to your travel budget: COVID-19 tests.

“As we were researching where to go in Europe, we realized we’d need negative COVID tests to enter many countries. Instead of dealing with looking for a COVID testing center in each country we planned to visit — and potentially paying hundreds of dollars for each test — I ordered a six-pack of COVID tests from Abbott for $150,” Freund says.

Abbott is just one example of an at-home testing kit that’s been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration. These tests can be ordered online and shipped to your home; each test is proctored by a certified health professional during a video call.

Results can be accessed in various ways. For Abbott, test takers need to download an app to securely view a secure digital certificate with a QR code. Ahead of selecting an at-home test kit, confirm that a lab report is provided, which can satisfy certain entry requirements, such as returning to the U.S.

Proof may be required beyond the border

If you’re not tech savvy or don’t have a smartphone, you may encounter additional difficulties when traveling internationally during the pandemic. Some countries, such as Norway, have already transitioned to accepting only a QR code upon entry as proof of vaccination against COVID-19, a negative test result or recovery from the virus, essentially serving as a digital vaccine passport.

You may also need to keep this digital proof handy even beyond immigration.

“We were asked to show our QR codes from the at-home PCR tests before entering Italy and the U.S., and also when visiting restaurants in Lisbon, Portugal,” Freund says.

Be sure to pack your physical vaccine card just in case, too.

If you’re going to travel abroad, be prepared to be flexible

Freund and Hurd both had to alter their travel plans due to the ongoing difficulties of traveling during the pandemic. If you plan to travel in the near future, consider using a credit card with travel insurance to pay for your trip plans, or purchase a separate trip insurance policy.

Most of all, be aware that you may need to change your plans altogether. It might be wise to book a domestic trip instead of an international one.