What it was like traveling internationally during a Pandemic. Here's the complete story on how this came about and what it was like to be overseas during COVID-19.
I’ve had a lot of people ask for the details of my three-month stint in the United Kingdom and Italy…during the middle of a pandemic. Now that I’m back in Dallas, I figured it’s time to share the details. What it was like to travel during a pandemic, the struggles, the positives, and my overall experience as a traveler with an American passport (which made everything more unclear and questionable).
I’ll first take you through what our trip and timeline looked like. Then we’ll go into details of what plane and train travel was like, what extra steps we had to take to go through customs, how I kept up with regulations and travel restrictions, what mentality you have to have to travel right now, etc.
How this all started
Let’s start at the very beginning on how this trip came to fruition. It’s the middle of July and COVID had been in full force for over six months. Jake had been working from home since March. It was becoming clearer by the day that he wouldn’t be back in the office for several more months. My makeup business was on hold since weddings and events were cancelled or postponed, and I was temporarily laid off from where I teach fitness classes.
Jake and I were both in a very rare position where we had nothing holding us to Dallas, our home. Our first plan was to take an extended vacation to Greece where Jake would do a mixture of taking vacation days and working remotely. We had it all planned out. Mykonos, Crete, a scattering of other Greek Islands, and Malta. Hotel and Airbnb prices were insane. We could basically live in Greece for cheaper than our rent in Dallas.
Greece seemed like the perfect place to be during a pandemic. Case counts were under control, the hospitals never got close to being overwhelmed, and the Greek Islands are the perfect place to be if you want to spend your time outdoors. You can read this post on my entire logic on why Greece was the perfect COVID destination.
EU closes borders to Americans…time for plan B
Then the EU decides to close its borders to Americans…that trip goes out the window. In a 24-hour window I changed all our plans. The United Kingdom seemed to be one of the only options for American travelers. The only caveat was a required two-week quarantine on arrival and a few extra forms. Considering we were planning on being gone at least two months, the two-week quarantine seemed doable.
The new plan was a little over two weeks in Edinburgh, five days in the Cotswolds, a month in London…and then…who knows. We also realized there was a chance we might get stuck over there. That’s when we decided to end our lease and put all our belongings in a POD. That way we weren’t paying rent and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we weren’t able to get home.
You will soon learn this is the mentality you must have if you decide to travel overseas right now. You have to accept a million different situations that could happen while you are gone and that you might not be able to get home.
Jake goes home and I continue to Italy
Jake ended up going back to the states from London in early September because of work reasons. I decided to continue to Italy. Traveling anywhere in the EU with an American passport was going to be tricky (and still is). Countries in the EU are taking one of two stances. They are either looking at WHERE you have been the last 14 days or your citizenship/passport. Italy was one of the few countries that was looking at where you have been and where you are coming from.
Since I had been in the UK for 7 weeks, I was technically good to go…but it wasn’t that simple. After emailing the Italian embassy and Italian Consulate, both said that even though I met the requirements for getting into Italy from the UK, the border control agents had full authority to deny me entry…whatever their reason.
I researched Italy travel restrictions every day before I left to make sure the rules had not changed and printed/filled out all the forms listed on the Italian government website (with copies just in case I didn’t fill them out correctly). Fortunately, everything went as smoothly as possible.
I had no trouble checking into my flight or getting through customs. I flew from London Heathrow to Venice. Part of the reason I chose Venice is because a) I wanted to take advantage of a place that is normally insanely crowded b) there are plenty of hotels in Venice and I wouldn’t have a problem booking something last minute (i.e. the moment I got through customs) and c) I found a flight for 11,000 points on British Airways.
Back to the US
To end our long travel timeline, after spending three weeks in Venice, Florence, and the Amalfi coast, it was time for me to come home. At the end of September, I flew from Naples back to the US.
The required two-week quarantine in the UK and why I chose Edinburgh
The United Kingdom requires a two-week quarantine for anyone coming from a “banned” country which includes the United States. I decided Edinburgh made the most sense for our two-week quarantine. Airbnb prices were extremely low, so we were able to get a spacious apartment right below the castle. Jake had plenty of space to set-up his office and we didn’t feel on top of each other.
I also chose Edinburgh because the city is 100% walkable, so we wouldn’t have to take public transportation and would never be far from our Airbnb if we had to go out and grab something. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information on what exactly the self-quarantine entailed. So, I searched for the legal documents spelling out the self-quarantine rules for Scotland and England and found that Scotland seemed a little less restrictive.
The Scotland quarantine (the version while we were there) allowed you to get essential items. The England quarantine did not. Basically, in England, you had zero excuse not to be in your home if the NHS called or gave you a surprise visit.
The burning question I’m sure you want to know is “did anyone check that you were quarantining”. Surprisingly, no. We never received a text, call, or visit. I have read that both Scotland and England have admitted to dropping the ball on enforcing self-quarantine and have since stepped up their game. I would fully expect to be contacted now that we are months into self-quarantine restrictions and the authorities have had time to strategize on how to enforce the rules.
Getting through Customs
We went through customs in London and it was a breeze. There was no line and we walked straight up to the customs officer. The only difference this time around was he asked to see our passenger locator form. This is a new form the UK (and many other countries) are requiring from anyone entering the country.
The main point of the form is to confirm you have one place booked for 14 nights to adhere to the self-quarantine mandate. They don't want you out and about and moving to different locations the first 14 days. You are also required to enter your contact information. In my research, I read that they can call the hotel (or wherever you are staying) to confirm you in fact have a reservation. They can also call the phone number you list to make sure it does ring to your phone. You can be fined if they find you have not filled the form out correctly.
The officer took a look at our form to make sure everything was filled out, asked us our travel plans and that was that. We continued to our connecting flight to Edinburgh minutes later. When we arrived in Edinburgh we walked straight out of the airport since we had already gone through customs at LHR.
Flying International During a pandemic
The international flights we took were all empty. Our plane from Houston to London was a 2-day old Dreamliner 787 and there were maybe 30 passengers. Jake and I basically had the entire back section of the plane to ourselves. And yes, I asked if we could move to Business or First Class and was given a hard “no”.
We were served food and drinks and the only difference was everything was pre-packaged and boxed. The food was actually pretty good (I find it usually is with British Airways).
Jake went back to the states before I did in early September. His flight from London to the US was empty as well. I flew back to the states at the very end of September and my international flight from Frankfurt had around forty people on it.
Flying Regional within the EU/UK
The regional flights were a different story. I took a flight from London to Venice and another from Naples to Frankfurt. Both flights were 90% full. Which makes sense since Europeans were able to travel within the EU depending on where they were coming from and where they were going.
Train Travel and public TRANSPORTATION
Jake and I took several trains in the United Kingdom. Edinburgh to Oxford, Oxford to London, London to York, etc. The trains were usually empty, 20-30% occupied.
The Tube in London was early quiet and empty. There were many times we were the only ones at the stop. Empty seats were always available and there was plenty of space to spread out. Even during weekends.
The trains I took in Italy, Venice to Florence, Florence to Naples, and around Cinque Terre, were about 60% occupied. I think this was the case because at the time, Italy was one of the few countries that wasn’t on the UK travel ban list. This means UK citizens could visit Italy and not have to self-quarantine when they returned to the UK. I heard a lot of German, French, and English accents while in Italy. Zero Americans though.
Keeping up to date on ever-changing rules and restrictions
Before we left, and almost every day we were abroad, I would search for travel restriction updates. That usually meant I was searching for things like “COVID travel restrictions UK”, “current travel restrictions Italy”, “EU COVID travel restrictions”.
Whatever country I was keeping an eye on I would visit their official government website almost daily to make sure I knew what was going on. I also subscribed to email newsletters that focused on the region I was going to. For the UK I subscribed to receive email updates from BBC News, The Telegraph, and other UK focused news outlets.
I would say this is a must if you are thinking of traveling internationally. We no longer live in a time where you can just “wing it” and expect everything to work out.
Forms Forms Forms
Constantly searching for updates is a must because many countries and airlines are requiring extra forms that must be filled out before you check-in for your flight or before you go through customs. I saw both situations where if you didn’t have the form you couldn’t check-in with a “tough luck” attitude, or where the airline had a stack of forms available for those who weren’t prepared.
Don’t count on the airline helping you out though. I’ve heard several stories where people couldn’t check-in and board their flight because they didn’t arrive with the correct forms filled out.
There was also an online form we had to fill out 48 hours prior to arrival in the UK. Be sure to stay on top of what forms (both online and paper) are required and remember that it’s your job to know what’s required. Not the airline, not the government, not the hotel. Don’t expect any leniency at customs or check-in if you arrive unprepared or uninformed.
These forms were/are constantly changing, which is why it was imperative for me to stay updated on what was required up to the day of departure. I would also print two copies of the forms in case I didn’t fill it out correctly as the forms were sometimes confusing.
Thinking of traveling? You’ve got to be openminded and ready for anything
My biggest advice if you are thinking of traveling beyond your own country is you have got to be openminded. The only reason this trip worked for Jake and I is that we went in with zero expectations and fully prepared to be turned away at the border, have the authorities show up at our door to check if we were self-quarantining, not be able to return home, etc.
We thought of all the “worst-case scenarios” and made sure we were ok if that ended up happening.
You also have to be ready to change your plans in a heartbeat. We were forced to cancel all our plans for Greece and change it to a UK trip within a 24-hour period. There were other trips we were planning on doing while in the UK that we had to abandon because of the constantly changing travel ban list in the UK.
I also learned early on I had to dig for information. Because COVID, travel restrictions, travel bans, and social distancing rules were constantly changing, I had to search and read through countless news articles and work to find the must updated information. I spent at least an hour every day making sure I was up to date on where we were based at the time and where we were going next.
If changing plans constantly, not having all the information, and leaving a lot to chance stresses you out, I definitely would not travel overseas.
Was it worth it?
All the above being said…was it worth it? Absolutely and I would do it again in a heartbeat…though that isn’t really an option because Jake is going back into the office and we can’t afford to do another two-week quarantine.
It was incredible to experience some of the most heavily touristed cities completely void of visitors. These three months were filled with memories I will never forget.
Venice was especially memorable and felt nothing like the crowded, over touristed city I was used to. I spent my days soaking in the experience because I knew I would never see Venice like this again. Squares filled with local kids playing, old men arguing over the newspaper at a café, couples enjoying a spritz along the canal…things you usually don’t see when locals leave the city because of the tourists.
Every other city we visited had nowhere near the typical crowd levels. It was really special to experience a city filled with locals as opposed to tourists. I remember smiling every time I heard a Scottish person say, “a wee bit of this” or “cheers mate”. I usually wouldn’t notice Scottish accents or phrases when in Edinburgh because I usually wasn’t surrounded by locals.
Reading a book at the fountain that overlooks Buckingham Palace…something I would normally never do because it’s usually packed…is an example of moments that I know I only experienced because we traveled during this uncertain time. Each and every day I made a point to engrain everything in my memory because I knew how special seeing major tourist cities void of visitors was and that I would never get this opportunity again.
We were also lucky because we hit a good window. Every city we visited was open for the most part. Restaurants were filled, most tourist attractions were accepting visitors, shops were busy…now England is back on the lockdown.
Hopefully this answers many of the questions I’ve been asked since returning home and clears the air on where Jake and I have been the last few months. I can’t tell you how many times someone remarked they couldn’t tell if we were actually traveling or if I was posting old content. Yes, we were actually traveling, and now you know the whole story.
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