COVID requirements make travel planning essential

Janet Arrowood

If you’re like most people, including me, you’re probably eager to hit the road or the air. Maybe for business or perhaps pleasure. Having just completed a trip to Europe, here are a few tips gleaned from the experience.

While passengers on the international legs of a flight will have completed a COVID-19 test and often produced a vaccination card, a
top-of-the-line mask remains essential. You’re going to be surrounded for 12 to 24 hours — or more — by people you don’t know. There isn’t much personal space, especially in economy. 

What type of mask should you consider? While the hospital-grade N-95 is the gold standard, non-medical grade versions also are available. There are also N-93 or 94 masks that are almost as effective as N-95 masks. Plan well ahead of time to order a half dozen or so for each traveler. Make sure to look for masks that are made in South Korea or anywhere else but China. There are too many knockoffs coming from China. Bandannas and face shields aren’t acceptable face coverings.

Make sure you can get the required COVID test in the required time frame with results before you leave. Airlines won’t let you get any boarding passes — not even the domestic portion — without a number of forms. These can include an affidavit and either the PCR COVID test results or proof of vaccination. Monitor your airline website to make sure you provide the correct documentation. I went to the airport the day before and had a gate agent review my papers, enter them into the airline computer and ensure my passport and known traveler number were in the system. I left with my boarding passes in hand.

Keep in mind the requirements for COVID tests can change rapidly. These requirements are set by your destination — in my case, the Netherlands. The Dutch accepted the vaccination record from the CDC or PCR test (NOT the antigen or rapid tests). But the requirement shifted the day before I left from 72 hours before departure to 48 hours. Since Mesa County Public Health takes 48 to 72 hours to get test results back, this could be a problem for those who aren’t fully vaccinated. As a precaution, I got the PCR test even though my vaccination card should have been enough. 

Your destination country could require additional forms. Confirm those requirements through your airline website and check back every day, including the morning you leave. United Airlines offers a link to upload documents and confirm requirements — their “Travel Ready” feature.

Many airports have roving officials and law enforcement making sure you wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose. Some airports — including Denver International Airport — use law enforcement on bicycles. Airlines and airport personnel have been dealing with less-than-cooperative passengers for more than 18 months now, and their tolerance is low. You could be escorted out of the airport or off the plane or fined for non-compliance. 

My return presented another scramble to meet re-entry requirements. The U.S. accepts some rapid antigen tests, but not all of them. Abbott Labs makes an accepted test you can perform in your hotel room with an online “coach.” It takes about 25 to 30 minutes. But not all the Abbott Lab test kits qualify. The ones you can buy in Walgreens, Sam’s or other retailers don’t qualify. Your airline website should have pictures of what the accepted test kits look like. United Airlines will sell you a package of six Abbott Labs antigen tests for about $150. You can also order direct from Abbott Labs for the same price. If several people are traveling together or you plan to travel again before the kits expire, the six-kit package is useful. You must download an app and register your kit and planned users online before departure.

If you want to take the return test at your destination, it could prove expensive. Tests cost about 200 Euros, nearly $250, for the places I checked in Amsterdam. You can do the test at the airport, but that’s even more expensive.

People returning from international destinations are likely to need the antigen test. The PCR one is OK, too. The requirement was a test completed within three days (a bit better than 72 hours) of your first flight on your return itinerary. This is fluid, so check. The U.S. doesn’t currently accept a vaccine record in lieu of the antigen or PCR test, but that also could change. It’s possible — and increasingly likely — the U.S. and your destination country will start requiring both an antigen or PCR test and proof of vaccination.

Various officials and airlines tend to want both electronic and paper versions of everything, Scan your vaccine record and download the electronic version of your test results. Make sure the version of the test results you submit to your airline for each direction of travel is the electronic version — with the QR code, if available. You need the printed version as backup, but the airline system will probably reject a scan or photo.

Bottom line: My trip was fun, but a bit stressful. Wearing a really effective mask for almost 18 hours was uncomfortable, but doable. And if your trip takes you through Denver International, there’s a lovely outdoor patio at the west end of the B concourse, You can sit outside and take your mask off.