Why it’s surreal to travel in Europe during Covid

While the global Covid-19 situation is changing every day, for those living in Europe, the borders between countries in the Schengen region have recently reopened. This allows those who assume the risk to travel for tourism outside their home countries for the first time in months. There’s a lot of misinformation and confusion about what it’s like to travel in Europe during Covid, so I thought I’d share my experience of having hopped down to the Portuguese coast for a few days.

What it’s like to travel in Europe during Covid

First, a quick orientation. I’m an American living in Berlin with a German permanent residency. Permanent residency is one step away from German citizenship, but I travel with an American passport. My friend is also American, holding a German work visa and residency permit.

First Flight

It was blindingly clear when I stepped off the U-Bahn at Schönefeld that travel in Europe during Covid was going to be a weird experience. The usual throngs of passengers hustling towards the gates or to the trains was gone. I shared the promenade with only one other person—a Ryanair flight attendant.

The queues

Berlin has two (well, 2.9) airports, and I rarely fly from Schönefeld. Tegel, my usual launchpad, is a Cold War relic that has individual security for gates. That means you can show up to your flight about 20 minutes before and still easily make your departure. Because Schönefeld operates like a modern airport (albeit one that looks like it was meant to be an IKEA store), I arrived with plenty of time to clear the security queues. It was….not necessary.

Signage all around instructed us to keep the 2-meter distance between travelers. But there was no one to distance from. I breezed through security in about three minutes.

The airport

On the gate-side, the airport felt like a zombie apocalypse. All of the shops (including the Duty Free!) were closed. There was one small café open, selling coffee, sandwiches, bottles of water—your typical fare. We’d read that airlines weren’t serving food or beverages in-flight, so we grabbed a bottle of secco each. I mean, why not?

With so few flights going out per day, the airport was close to deserted. By far the most crowded spot was the one café—but if you chose to sit elsewhere, there were hundreds of open seats. Schönefeld had hand sanitizing stations placed at intervals throughout, and everyone wore masks indoors. It felt quite clean and streamlined, with no one loitering or lingering to spread extra germs.

Boarding

Queuing to board was a bit of a different story. Pre-Covid Ryanair was very precise about closing the gates at a prescribed time before your flight. If you weren’t there, you were out of luck. With that in mind, we booked it over to our gate….and found a closely clumped queue stretching about 80 people deep. We joined the line with about a meter’s space in front. When they boarded us, it was like in normal times—everyone flowing at the same pace, no spacing.

Initially, they’d told us no overhead bags would be allowed in the cabin, and offered to check them in the hold free of charge. I assumed that was to keep people from standing/breathing over people as they put their bags up. But no one took our cabin bags, and once on board, no one really seemed too worried about where we stored them.

In emails prior to our departure date, Ryanair had sent an email with the subject line: “All you need to know about healthy flying”. It included the following measures:

I figured that airlines faciliating travel in Europe during Covid would take extra care around sanitizing and cleaning the planes. So I was a bit weirded out to find my seat covered in wrappers and crumbs from the passenger before. We figured the disinfection must be distributed via aerosol—that said, some basic wipe downs during a global pandemic probably wouldn’t be the worst idea, Ryanair.

Are you thinking about booking travel during Covid? Check out my tips for protecting yourself (and your bookings) here.

Prior to boarding, seating was handled the way it was pre-Covid. Passengers paid to choose seats upon check-in, or else opted to be assigned randomly to a seat for free. This resulted in the typical bunching of people—grouped in the lowest-cost seats for those who paid, or else assigned to the less-desirable middle seats. The flight wasn’t full, and the Ryanair crew was very accomodating for people seeking more distance from the nearest passenger.

Also, to our pleasant surprise, they did serve full food and beverage options (alcohol included).

The flight

I won’t lie. The worst part of my travel in Europe during Covid was having to stay masked the entire duration of our flights. It was… not the comfiest sensation. For any flight longer than an hour, I’d recommend one of the masks with more structured coverage, to keep the fabric off of your face and give you a bit more air.

Besides having to stay masked the entire time, the flight was as pleasant as ever.

The arrival

Ryanair had sent us a passenger intake form on behalf of our destination country, Portugal. In an email, we were instructed to print and complete the form to hand over upon arrival at Faro Airport. In our case, the form was an abundance of caution. No one asked to see it as disembarked. In fact, no one checked us at all. No fever scanners, random testing, waiting for positive results. There was barely anyone at the airport at all. We walked easily through the eerily empty terminal, stepped outside into the sunshine, and hailed a FreeNow taxi via app.

Empty airports as we travel in Europe during Covid

The holiday

Imagine you’re at the beach. Waking up after a long nap in the hot sun. Disoriented and pleasantly warm, you sit up. You look around. And are shocked to find the beach deserted.

That was pretty much our experience in Faro, Portugal, in July 2020. What obviously should have been a bustling resort town was more like a ghost town. Businesses were shuttered. The squares were empty. Laundry lines that should have been crowded with colorful towels and wet swimsuits hung empty. It was bizarre.

I had prepared a list of restaurants to visit. All but one of them was closed. Luckily, a local tipped us off to Riviera. “Everyone in Albufeira eats there.” There, we got to enjoy the signature pastel de nata—creamy, buttery, and heavenly sweet.

Riviera

Same with the bars—although the one that was open was a fantastic find: Sal Rosa, a dreamy rooftop bar serving homemade cocktails and a killer view of the sea.

Sal Rosa

Everyone conscientiously wore masks when moving through the public areas, and removed them for socializing at their own tables. Everywhere had hand sanitizers (some, I’m pretty sure, were just upended bottles of vodka, judging from the smell). Our Airbnb, a lovely central apartment with pool near the heart of the Old City, was equipped with sanitizer as well, and came with some additional precautionary information.

So yes, it was bizarre. But also, refreshing? Because there weren’t throngs of drunk tourists, crowding the narrow streets. Or aggressive maître d pushing their tourist menus. Or vendors standing over your sunbed showing rows of braided bracelets.

It was quiet. You could hear the gulls shrilling from any part of the city. There were other people, of course—locals and tourists—but not so many that we overwhelmed the place. Just enough to be picturesque.

It was relaxing. Although Albufeira is one of the busier cities in the Algarve, it felt like we’d discovered a hidden gem. Due to the closures, we missed much of what makes it Albufeira, the signature restaurants, busy nightlife, grand tours. But we also got to appreciate the smaller details. Things like, ornate tile work previously masked by stands of souvenir goods. Motley colored cats running rampant through the dark streets. The peace and quiet of a gorgeous, uncrowded beach.

As weird as the experience was, it reminded me why I love traveling. There were no shortcuts. You had to discover things for yourself—what is open, what not. Without all the distractions of every other person, you could really shake free and be present. Talk to locals. Wave to the grannies. Pet the alleycats. And just enjoy.

The return

Utterly uneventful. Again, Ryanair sent us a passenger detail form for Germany. And about 15 minutes later, sent an email telling us to ignore that form. We boarded easily. We rearranged ourselves on the flight to feel more comfortably distanced. We arrived in Berlin, disembarked, and went on our way—happy, tan, home.

Should I travel in Europe during Covid?

So, would I recommend to travel in Europe during Covid? If you’re comfortable with it—sure. Take precautions. Pay attention when booking. Be open to things changing, stuff being closed, random cancellations, etc. To travel in Europe during Covid will require a certain amount of surrendering control—and what’s more, being okay with that. And honestly, that’s probably something we should all be doing anyway.