Some nice travel bargains are available now to places that the WHO considers COVID-risky. (And by the way, that’s almost every place. Not especially helpful.) We traveled because we had a “use it or lose it” credit with a tour company. Others on our tour told us about the great discounts they got by taking last-minute deals.

Our trip was primarily a river cruise in central Europe, followed by an additional land-only extension. There were a few optional extensions and other travelers took different combinations.

Seen from the ship

The tour company told us about the COVID protocols of the countries we visited, as well as the requirements of airlines, airports and their own on-ship policies, all of which were different and rapidly changing. During the weeks leading up to our trip, most European countries had dropped their mask requirements, but we needed to be vaccinated and boosted for the flight, and also provide a current negative test result to get on the ship. A “current” test means within 24 hours for the quick test, and within 3 days for a PCR test. A local pharmacy offered free PCR tests by appointment, but they couldn’t guarantee that the results would be back in time for us to know we were negative before we got on the plane. We had an anxious day just before we left, but our results came in on time. I spoke to others who had to pay for additional testing because the requirements were unclear, because the results didn’t arrive in time, or because their pre-cruise European excursions started more than 3 days after they left the US.

I hit a challenge uploading my test results to the airline’s website to get boarding passes. For some reason, it refused to accept my result although it took Marcy’s. I think the problem was that the test used the name on my insurance card (“Larry”) which didn’t match the name on my passport (“Laurence”). We went to the airport without passes and were able to resolve the issue easily at the check-in counter. However, nobody wants to get all the way to the airport and then be told they can’t take their vacation. We had a few uncomfortable hours until we had everything straightened out.

Seen on foot

The ship had a capacity of 170 passengers, but they were only able to fill 130 slots, an indication that people are not traveling as they once did. This particular cruise was cancelled a few times before they finally ran it. Although all passengers and crew were vaccinated, we were required to wear masks in public areas of the ship, except while eating. Some off-ship activities used buses where masks were optional but recommended. Generally, no day was completely mask-free and we were definitely aware that we were having a vacation during a pandemic.

Which in fact, was the right way to think about things. Before even getting on our ship, one of the other tour members in a pre-cruise extension tested positive and so was not allowed to join the cruise portion. During our 14-day cruise, one tour member also tested positive and was forced to isolate. Because of the one positive case, they tested everyone onboard (using a quick and — in my opinion — questionably accurate mouth swab). All results fortunately came back negative. After the cruise, 28 of us went on a three-day post-trip extension. Before we could be allowed on our flights back to the US, we had to take another test (nasal, this time), and 4 people tested positive. That’s 14% of a small population, and we were all vaccinated. No one had serious symptoms, but they had to stay additional time in Europe and miss their flights home. As I write this, they’re still there. Fortunately I believe their travel insurance covered the expenses of their additional stay.

Just liked the name of this one

I’ve been intentionally vague about the travel company and our route. I found their policies confusing and it was difficult reaching them to get answers to our questions, but I doubt that they were exceptionally bad. My guess though is that travelers with other companies would have similar stories.

COVID isn’t over. It’s good that no one got seriously sick, which I attribute to the vaccines. Mask wearing is generally decreasing, and we lowered our guard a bit in order to enjoy our time off, fortunately without consequences. EU countries allow free travel between them without COVID restrictions, but entering Europe and returning to the US are both confusing messes of paperwork. Maybe it will be different in a few months. In any case, we’re glad to have had an almost-normal vacation in more exotic locations.