The longer the pandemic drags on, the harder it is to navigate COVID-19 restrictions around the world. While some countries such as the United Kingdom have dumped pre-departure testing requirements, others still require a negative test and records on file just to pass through the country.
I’ve learned this the hard way. I somehow got all the way to my departure gate at Logan International in Boston just after New Year’s before I was asked for proof of a negative COVID test. I didn’t have one. I was scheduled for a connecting flight through Portugal, which still required a negative test. This mistake easily could have cost me hundreds of dollars, but I was lucky. I paid $35 to move my flight to the next day, my family picked me up at the airport, I took a self-test at home, uploaded the result to a lab for certification, got my results PDF, and the next day I was on my way across the Atlantic.
I have a hundred excuses for how I failed here, but the reality is this: Health and safety restrictions can change rapidly, they may be different for every destination you visit, and they can be confusing to navigate even when you know where to look.
If you’re traveling soon, here’s where you can check guidelines to make sure you’ll get on that airplane — and not have to quarantine when you get off.
Check COVID-19 restrictions on your airline’s website.
Some airlines have a restrictions “calculator” that lets you enter your route for a list of current entry guidelines and restrictions. I caution against trusting these systems because it’s easy to forget to add a layover destination — this is how I missed the restrictions for Portugal when using TAP Air’s guidelines checker — and you don’t want to assume airline personnel are monitoring each country’s rules and updating the guidelines daily. But this is a good starting point, and gives you a to-do list to double- and triple-check.
Check the U.S. Department of State’s guidelines.
The State Department has a robust and easy-to-navigate website that documents entry requirements for U.S. residents and citizens from every country in the world. If you’re traveling between multiple countries, don’t forget that you need to check two types of restrictions: restrictions for your country of residence/citizenship and restrictions for your point(s) of origin within the last 10 to 14 days.
Check entry requirements on your destination’s government website.
Government websites for other countries’ travel restrictions can be tricky to navigate if you don’t know where to look, especially when there’s a language barrier. Check them anyway, if only for the peace of mind that your list of necessary documents tracks with theirs.
Subscribe to email updates from a government entity.
The United States has a traveler registration program called STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) that allows you to sign up for alerts like safety concerns, updates from the local embassy, and changing COVID restrictions. The United Kingdom also issues email alerts for changes to entry requirements. I recommend signing up for these sort of alerts for all countries you’re planning to visit — even for transit — so you know as soon as possible if restrictions change before or during your trip.
Read the local news.
Tourism is a massive global business and border changes can have a huge impact on local economies. Journalists often get tips from inside sources before restrictions change, so you can often get a heads up in major newspapers that restrictions might be changing soon.
Double-check everything anyone tells you and make sure it’s in writing.
When I checked in for a recent flight from London, a man at the desk next to me was arguing with airline staff over proof of a negative COVID test. I overheard that he was flying to Uganda, which requires a PCR test within 72 hours of travel, which he didn’t have. He said that someone from the airline had told him over the phone that he didn’t need a PCR, and that his doctor had said the same. Sadly for him, that was incorrect information. You can’t talk your way out of regulations like this. (I’ve tried.) So even if you’re asking a trusted friend who lives at your destination, or has just returned from there, always independently verify every rule to make sure nothing gets missed.
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