Stephanie Flynn had planned to travel from Boston to Italy with her mom to celebrate her 30th birthday. It was April 2020, and the trip didn’t happen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Neither did their rescheduled getaway last September. Finally, with the world opening up this past spring, Flynn—fully vaccinated—made a third attempt to book her Italy trip, aiming for a September departure.
Then the Delta variant numbers started to creep up in July.
With fewer than two weeks to go before her departure, Flynn reached out to her travel agent, who expressed no concerns. Less than a day later, the European Union announced that it was changing its guidance for American travelers. Now she isn’t sure if she’ll be on a gondola in Venice or making pasta at home next week.
“I have my suitcase laid out, and I have no idea if I’m going or not,” she says.
Flynn isn’t the only one disoriented by the news. The confusion stems from an announcement on Sunday by the European Council, the E.U.’s governing body, that advised its 27-member states to block nonessential travel from five countries, including the U.S., after a rise in COVID-19 cases.
These nations—Israel, Kosovo, Lebanon, Montenegro, the Republic of North Macedonia, and the U.S.—were removed from the bloc’s “safe list” of countries that have low caseloads, which permitted their passport holders to visit the E.U. without additional restrictions, such as quarantine and testing requirements.
(People with breakthrough infections can spread Delta easily.)
As of now, the announcement is merely a recommendation; each E.U. member state can decide whether (or not) to follow the guidance. The statement suggested that vaccinated travelers from these areas could be left out of the restrictions, with one anonymous E.U. diplomat telling the Washington Post that “it is widely expected that fully vaccinated Americans would still maintain unfettered access.”
But at least one country has taken action already: The Netherlands announced that as of September 4, 2021, unvaccinated Americans will be banned altogether and vaccinated Americans will have to quarantine upon arrival; the quarantine will be for 10 days, but can be cut in half (to five days) with testing, as reported by travel news site One Mile at a Time.
Confusion over possible E.U. travel restrictions
The E.U. lifted restrictions for American travelers, vaccinated or not, in June, although tourism-dependent countries including Greece and Italy had already started to accept American travelers in April. At the time, the U.S. had higher vaccination levels than most of Europe, and was seeing relatively low transmission rates.
Now, many European countries have surpassed the vaccination rates in the U.S., which is in its fourth wave of the pandemic. The U.S. is now seeing more than 150,000 cases per day, and some areas are experiencing the highest hospitalization numbers for COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began.
It’s unclear which countries will follow the new recommendations. However, some countries already had requirements that forced unvaccinated travelers to quarantine. Even without a quarantine, 88 percent of travel routes in the E.U. have some sort of restrictions, according to recent data from Swiss Bank UBS’ Evidence Lab. Germany put the U.S. on its list of “high-risk areas” in mid-August, which meant that unjabbed travelers had to undergo a 10-day quarantine that can be shortened with a negative COVID-19 test after five days. France requires vaccination proof for activities like taking a train and both indoor and outdoor dining.
(The pandemic couldn’t silence the symphony of violin-making in Italy.)
Amid the uncertainty, many travel agencies and hotels in Europe remain convinced that the rules will not be changing, according to Terry Suero, a travel agent and founder of Safe Travel Pathways.
“What we are hearing is it’s a bunch of hot air,” he says. “We are telling our clients not to worry about it right now. We don’t see anything changing in the next two to three months.”
Although some cautious countries might add tighter testing rules for unvaccinated travelers, the rollout of the E.U.’s announcement is not expected to go far.
“Vaccinated travelers should be able to enter the E.U. as easily as they can now,” says Robert Cottey, an analyst at A2 Global Risk, an international security risk management company. “But planning has become much more important. The situation has become more dynamic.”
Cottey advises travelers to keep an eye on the rules in their destinations and to also have a travel insurance policy covering changes or cancellations. All travelers, including American citizens, still must present a negative COVID-19 test (taken within three calendar days) to board a flight back to the U.S.
Enforcing vaccine requirements
Soon, even vaccinated travelers might have more hoops to jump through. Croatia and Austria have set terms for how long a vaccine is accepted as valid for entry into the country without additional proof, like a negative result of the COVID-19 test or evidence of recovery of a recent infection.
In the U.S., some cities—New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, among them—are enforcing requirements to show valid vaccination cards in order to sit down at a restaurant, go to a play, or attend a concert. Colleges and workplaces are requiring vaccines except for some religious or medical circumstances, as well.
Political concerns are making matters even more complicated in countries already trying to keep up with a changing pandemic. European travelers continue to be barred from the U.S., a rule that President Trump enacted at the beginning of the pandemic and lifted before he left office. President Biden then reinstated it and has received no shortage of criticism on the policy.
(Why is Delta more infectious and deadly? New research holds answers.)
The online-based coalition Stop the Travel Ban says the policy keeps families apart and destroys businesses. According to the group’s website, the restrictions are “both cruel and unscientific.”
The Biden Administration recently said it’s working with federal agencies and speaking with international partners to develop a “consistent and safe international travel policy.” The E.U.’s announcement of new guidance suggested that a change in policy could impact their guidance, with reciprocity “taken into account on a case-by-case basis.”
The bottom line
There are always risks to travel, but even more so during the pandemic—including getting sick and stuck abroad.
In Europe now, 70 percent of adults have been fully vaccinated. But all travelers—especially unvaccinated ones—should exercise caution before making a trip anywhere, as the Delta variant remains a serious threat that doubles the risk of hospitalization and strains health services in areas with low vaccination rates. The CDC issued a warning ahead of Labor Day saying, “if you are unvaccinated, we would recommend not traveling.” It also urged jabbed Americans to reconsider travel due to surging caseloads across the country.
(The U.S. plans to authorize boosters—but many already got a third dose.)
“No place anywhere on Earth is safe for the unvaccinated and for people exposed to the unvaccinated,” says Tom Kenyon, the chief health officer at Project HOPE, a global health and humanitarian relief organization, and the former director of Global Health at the CDC.
Traveling now, he adds, “is like playing Russian roulette—tragically.”
Jackie Snow is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in technology and travel. Follow her on Instagram.