Thoughts about traveling in Europe as Omicron News Spreads

Updated February 2022

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We had reservations near Interlaken, Switzerland, for next May (2022). 18 months of thinking where in the world we would want to be kept bringing us back to Switzerland, which is so beautiful and makes its mountaintops so accessible. As time ticks away, with the likelihood we have renewed our passports for the very last time, we chose the peaks and waterfalls of the Lauterbrunnen Valley as our antidote to the last two years. But a recent check of the CDC map for international travelers made us change our plans. We will wait longer, having been boosted and extremely careful, to see what the summer brings. That reminds me that there are things we can do if we want the world to be a place that is safe to visit. It begins with getting ourselves and family vaccinated, but it includes pushing to make vaccines available to everyone around the world, so that no person becomes the host who creates more virulent stains of this disease.

For me, travel has always been more than an escape or distraction; it has been a way to understand the world and the people who share it with me. As I near the end of my journey, I want to savor the beauty of this planet one last time and to be able to do that, I need to more actively work to ensure vaccines are received by those who have never had the privileges I have had.

The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) is leading the effort to get vaccines to developing nations. To learn more or make a donation, visit the United Nations fund for Covid 19 Vaccines.

Omicron challenged our masks and vaccinations, and the case count in Europe was high. Over the last week of January 2022, 10% of the population of the remote Faeroe Islands was infected ( worldometer-coronavirus 2/7/2022), in Denmark, 5% of the population was dealing with the virus. And as those numbers drop, the rules that apply to passengers also change. It is a complicated system for most travelers, with new requirements for quarantine being added to the journeys of some visitors.

And just as Covid has altered the labor market in the US, the tourism industry in Europe has seen significant changes. That may impact, in the short term, the quality of service in hotels and the hours of operation of attractions sustained by tourists. I will read press releases from travel industry sources to evaluate how hotels and attractions do this summer to decide when to rebook our adventure. I am anxious for the day when we can return to Europe and create new memories. Until then, it is good to know we have been "there" and are apt to return again.

For information about current Covid-19 conditions in the EU, visit European Center for Disease Prevention and Control,which has data and useful informational graphics for Europe and the entire world. The ECDC provides details about infection rates and hospitalization clearly in a way that should help you assess the risks of your planned travel.

If you have never been to Europe but are starting to think about traveling during or after the coronavirus pandemic, I will encourage you to to make the journey. It took seven years from the time I started planning to finally reach Paris. It only happened because I made getting there a priority in my life. No espressos, new clothes only when I absolutely needed them, and a willingness to eat only bread and cheese as we toured the continent if that was what it would take to make the trip possible. But my first journey through Europe changed my understanding of my world, my family, and the history that created the human relationships we have today. I took a vacation and discovered that there was so much the rest of the world could teach me and so much more I wanted to learn.

Fortunately, on that first trip, camping (which was more comfortable than we experienced in the US) and preparing many of our own picnics made it possible to spend six weeks in Europe for much less than we had planned. It also made us eager to return, to explore new places and spend more time with people who generously invited us into the communities, told us their stories, and made us feel welcome in their countries.

Over the years, we have realized that a comfortable vacation in Europe can cost less than a similar trip through the US. Airfares to Europe were slightly more expensive than the cost of domestic flights, but we saved money by staying in well-rated B&Bs in small towns, grabbed lunches from farmers' markets, local fast food chains, and grocery stores, and avoided places that primarily served international tourists. Our 7-week trip, for two adults and a dog, in 2018 to Denmark, France and Switzerland cost $8000 including hotels and airfare (only $2000 more than our 2019 driving trip from San Francisco to Yellowstone, and Glacier, that cut costs by camping when we visited the national parks). The savings came from the cost of lodging, where outside the major cities, a $100 hotel room for 2 in Europe will be comfortable and clean and often include some breakfast.

Our first trip, during the summer of 2001, was in very different times. We returned from Europe four weeks before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. We went to Oradour, where the French remembered the tragedies of World War II with a town preserved as it had been the day German soldiers slaughtered everyone in the village, and to the Somme and Verdun, past battlefields and cemeteries holding the dead from too many wars. Those visits helped me find hope in a Europe that had was reuniting and recognizing their shared interests as they moved to a common currency and easier travel across their borders. Within months of that trip, most of western Europe was going to start using the Euro and most of the guard stations that prevented foreigners from entering without proper documentation were going to be closed. When the planes crashed into the twin towers of New York, the sadness of Oradour was put in a new perspective: just as a small group of cruel soldiers had wiped out the quaint French village, a small group of angry men brought the towers crashing to the ground, killing thousands, forever changing the lives of so many who survived, and robbing Americans of our naive sense of security from global threats.

Since that trip, there have been more terrorist attacks in the US and, also, throughout Europe, and it would be easy to look at what seems like escalating violence as a reason to stay home and possibly isolated from the threats that seem to happening more frequently "over there". But to do so would let the terrorists win and might steal from you some of the richest experiences of your life. Since 9/11, I've been back to Venice four times, and each time reconnected with a place that has captured my soul; I've spent a day hiking around the waterfalls of Plitvice Lakes, Croatia, celebrating the endless beauty of its rocks and water as it rejuvenated my heart while knowing it was where the Croatian war of independence had began 23 years earlier; I was serenaded by four Austrian folk singers as we shared wine and laughter at a small agriturismo outside San Gimiagno, and, while playing a round of golf where the game was born, found a moment to "be" with an old golf buddy who had been died 8 years before. Taking a step away from my daily life, I have had so many reasons to laugh, to feel joy, and to reflect on the things that are important to me, from a new perspective.

We all fear the unknown, and that makes travel a difficult activity for many people, and international travel even more worrisome. In addition to the cost, there are language concerns and cultural fears. A pre-coronavirus survey suggested 40% of us have never been outside the country; a larger percent have never left the continent. But travel helps you discover that we have much more in common with the rest of the world and that, sometimes, we can learn a lot watching different ways people deal with the tasks and opportunities of life. For most of us, it will take some spectacular pictures and stories from friends to get us on a plane, and now, with fears about coronavirus and worries about a conflict near Ukranian borders, the pictures will have to be more fantastic and the stories more dramatic to get us back on planes flying across oceans.

That is probably good. Though many people around the world work in the travel industry and need our recreational dollars, a pause on global travel will allow countries to develop new systems to deal with foreign guests. As we learn more about the disease, companies are discovering new strategies to sanitize rooms and restaurants, so travel will have be safer when we venture out into the world.

There are risks in life; traveling changes the risks you face. You leave some of the dangers you have at home and face new ones on your journey. So the key is to plan well; pay attention to the warnings from the US State Department and other governments as you plan, and then design the trip so the rewards you will get exceed the risks you are taking. Use the time you are at home to think about the experiences that bring you joy and set your agenda to maximize those experiences. There is an energy in Paris and London that is positively infectious, but if you'd rather be hiking in canyons and over streams, then put those kinds of destinations on YOUR itinerary. (Europe has more ways to enjoy nature than we ever expected, in incomparable settings you can only experience there). Identify the weekend pleasures you find at home, and then look for them in the country you want to visit. This website will help you understand that, when it is safe, there are great reasons to explore the world, and in particular, Europe again, and that with appropriate levels of caution, you will be so happy that you did.

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Last revised February 2022