The European Union this week called on its 27 member states to revive previous restrictions on travel from the U.S. as a result of the worsening COVID-19 situation.
This could be the prelude to a flurry of policy changes in the coming weeks as politicians across Europe look to avoid another massive wave of infections.
Or it could mean very little.
It all depends on where you’re traveling.
That’s because the recommendation, which came from the European Council, is nonbinding.
Monday’s decision removed the U.S. from a safe list of countries for nonessential travel — to be on the list, countries needed to have fewer than 75 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the last two weeks.
The U.S. far surpassed that threshold, and it wasn’t alone. Israel, Kosovo, Lebanon, Montenegro and North Macedonia were all also removed from the EU’s list.
The European Council’s ruling doesn’t have the force of law, and EU member states are entitled to set their own policies for travel requirements for overseas visitors.
“Right now we are in a wait and see phase because the Council’s decision is only a recommendation,” said Tammy O’Hara, owner of Million Miles Travel Agency in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“It is up to the individual member countries to determine how they wish to proceed,” she added.
Here is what Americans planning European getaways need to consider as the stage is set for policy changes:
Only one country has re-imposed tighter restrictions on U.S. tourists
So far Italy is the only country to take the bait, so to speak, and revise its travel restrictions in light of the Council’s ruling.
On Tuesday, the country announced new restrictions for U.S. travelers — as well as tourists coming from Japan, Canada and Israel — that will remain in place until at least Oct. 25. All travelers from the U.S. must present a negative COVID test taken within three days of their arrival, moving forward, and fill out a passenger locator form for contact tracing purposes.
Unvaccinated travelers, meanwhile, must quarantine for five days following their arrival and then take another COVID test. Vaccinated individuals are exempt from the self-isolation requirement.
“ ‘Even before the U.S. was added to the safe list in June, some EU countries like Greece and Croatia were already allowing American travelers to visit.’ ”
Other countries have already taken a different tact, with Greece reiterating that it will accept American visitors regardless of their vaccination status without a requirement to self-isolate.
“Even before the U.S. was added to the safe list in June, some EU countries like Greece and Croatia were already allowing American travelers to visit,” said Caroline Teel, managing editor at SmarterTravel.com.
On the flip side, Ireland never removed its quarantine requirement for American travelers.
Vaccine cards will be tourists’ golden ticket in Europe
To the extent that some countries may decide to batten down the hatches, vaccinated visitors will likely be exempt from the toughest restrictions, travel experts predicted.
Only one country in the world has reintroduced mandatory quarantines for vaccinated tourists, and that was Israel. Otherwise, the trend has steadily moved in the opposite direction.
“By and large your ability to visit Europe and elsewhere has not regressed in the past few months,” said Scott Keyes, founder of travel website Scott’s Cheap Flights. “On the contrary it’s actually increased — there are more place that now welcome vaccinated Americans.”
It’s a completely different situation for unvaccinated people, who can expect to face more challenges traveling overseas including to Europe. “It’s likely that some countries will continue to require or bring back quarantine rules especially for unvaccinated visitors,” Teel said.
Travel companies aren’t changing their rules despite the new policy
In earlier waves of the pandemic, travel operators including airlines and hotels were quick to amend cancellation and refund policies to be more consumer-friendly in the hopes that travelers would feel encouraged to keep their reservations. In many cases, those policies remain intact.
Most major airlines continue to waive the change fees for trips, if the traveler purchases a main economy ticket or higher, Keyes said. Some airlines, including Delta and United, have also extended the waiver to basic economy seats, which are the cheapest, until the end of the year.
“Now when you book a flight, you can book in pencil and not in pen — and you can change your travel dates later without having to pay any penalty to do so,” Keyes said. Travelers who take advantage of the free changes must pay the difference in fares. If the new flights are cheaper, they typically receive the difference as a flight credit.
“ ‘I do not see airline and hotel companies updating cancelation policies, but it is unlikely that travelers that wish to cancel will receive cash refunds.’ ”
It’s different with low-cost carriers, such as Ryanair RYAAY, +0.93% and EasyJet EZJ, -1.94%. “Major carriers, I would say, are being a little bit more forthcoming and providing a bit more flexibility, whereas some of the low-cost carriers are kind of in a state where it’s kind of use it or lose it,” said Jason Oshiokpekhai, managing director of Global Travel Collection UK, a conglomerate of luxury travel agencies.
Even if countries in Europe were to impose more draconian restrictions on American tourists, refunds aren’t guaranteed.
“Most tour operators are not updating cancelation policies but are updating requirements for participation up to and including mandating vaccinations for all travelers,” O’Hara said. “I do not see airline and hotel companies updating cancelation policies, but it is unlikely that travelers that wish to cancel will receive cash refunds.”
How to avoid catastrophe while traveling abroad
For some travelers, now may be an ideal time to consider using the services of a travel agent rather than booking flights and accommodations on your own.
In the coming weeks, Oshiokpekhai expects the rules and regulations regarding international travel in Europe to change at “lightning speed,” which can be quite confusing for the lonesome traveler.
“Some of this stuff is changing — not even daily, it could be every six hours,” he said. “What do you do if you trying to transit through a second country?”
For instance, someone traveling to Berlin with a layover in London will face an entirely different set of potential entry policies than someone with a stopover in Lisbon.
“That’s two different sets of requirements, even though your end destination is the same,” Oshiokpekhai said. “The diversity of those changes is truly breathtaking.”
Travel agents from companies like his, he said, generally have access to security desks that monitor the COVID situation around the globe, and update agents when policies change. Because agencies have working relationships with airlines and hotels, they can help to rebook customers affected by these sudden changes.
“ Someone traveling to Berlin with a layover in London will face an entirely different set of potential entry policies than someone with a stopover in Lisbon. ”
Similarly, travel insurance has taken on a newfound importance in the COVID era. While the EU has changed its rules, America’s remain the same. U.S. citizens returning from overseas must present proof of a negative COVID test prior to boarding their flight. That raises the possibility, though, of testing positive and suddenly needing to delay their return.
“I advise my clients to always purchase travel insurance, should that low possibility arise where they test positive prior to their return to the states and need to quarantine,” said Emily Brillanti, president of Vita Brillanti Travel, a travel agency based in Brooklyn.
Many travel insurance plans now come with coverage that will reimburse policyholders for the costs associated with self-isolating if they contract COVID while on their trip.
“ Travel insurance can reimburse you for COVID-related quarantines, if you purchase the right plans. ”
What travel insurance won’t necessarily cover, though, is COVID fear: Proactively canceling a trip isn’t covered, unless someone purchases a more expensive, cancel-for-any-reason policy.
Therefore, international jetsetters need to do more soul-searching than ever before if they want to go overseas as the pandemic continues.
“Traveling is an extremely personal choice,” Brillanti said.
“I would not consider it riskier to travel abroad now, even when compared to the travel boom we saw overseas this summer,” she added. “The European Union just announced that over 70% of their adult population is vaccinated, so the large majority of their citizens are doing their best to protect themselves. To me it seems that these new recommended restrictions are simply the EU looking to ensure they maintain low levels of infection.”