This post is not as fun as some, but I wanted to share practical travel-during-Covid info that took me awhile to pull together for our recent travels to Belgium (via the UK), France, Kenya and South Africa.
This year was a big birthday for me, so I was hoping we’d be able to do something special after last year’s pandemic isolation. We were thrilled when Europe opened up to (non-essential) American travelers again after we’d been banned for so long during the pandemic. When Antwerp friends asked us back for a favorite house- and cat-sit in September, we decided to launch my birthday trip there. I came up with a 2-month/4-trips-in-1 birthday trip that included Belgium, Paris, Kenya and South Africa. I made plans with the understanding that any portion of our travels could be canceled at any time given the vagaries of ever-changing Covid restrictions. I researched travel requirements throughout the summer, thinking early on that South Africa might be out when that country raised its Covid Level from 2 to 3 to 4. A ban on all alcohol sales and the closing of many venues would make our planned Garden Route exploration and wine tasting impossible. Fortunately, South Africa was back to Level 2 by the time we traveled there. When –just prior to our September 2 departure– the EU recommended member nations consider banning Americans as our Covid numbers spiked, we started to wonder if we’d even make it to our first stop in Belgium. I decided each and every step of the trip would be a gift. As each portion of our trip materialized, we counted ourselves lucky and crossed our fingers for the next. In the end, all four portions of our trip worked out and we had a wonderful time: We spent three weeks in Antwerp, two weeks in an apartment in my beloved Paris, a week on safari in Kenya, and 15 days in the Western Cape of South Africa.
Traveling to these four countries required the usual check of entry requirements, visas, etc. plus country-specific Covid requirements. A useful, but not perfect, starting place for determining Covid travel requirements is the site Sherpa. Happily, Belgium had dropped all entry restrictions for vaccinated Americans like us. Unfortunately, flying American Airlines meant we were once again funneled through Heathrow which meant we needed a PCR test for the dubious “pleasure” of connecting through Heathrow to Brussels. A suddenly-filled CVS schedule meant an expensive trip ($139pp) to a Denton, Texas, testing clinic. Aggravating, but necessary. (Surprisingly, our health insurance did cover $51.31pp of these tests, so even if you need a totally discretionary Covid test for travel, it’s worth filing a claim.) The UK also requires a passenger locator form submitted within 48 hours of departure. Belgium, too, required us to fill out a passenger locator form prior to arrival and we had to show it at Belgium customs.
Entering France (via Thalys train) from Belgium was no problem. We did fill out the “required” French Covid Statement of Honor just in case we needed it to board the train, but no one asked us for it. I applied online at the French government website prior to our trip for an EU Digital Covid Certificate giving me a QR code establishing that I was vaccinated with an approved vaccine (Pfizer, in my case). This arrived prior to our trip and I was then able to upload that to the French TousAntiCovid app. In the app, I was able to mark this certificate as my “favorite” which then let me create a widget on a home screen so I always had the QR code easily to hand. This is important in France as nearly every restaurant, museum and venue requires a quick scan of that “passe sanitaire.” The French government has recently done away with the online application, and tourists can get the QR code establishing their vaccination status at local pharmacies, potentially at a cost. In a pinch, showing your American vaccination cards should work most or some of the time, but the passe sanitaire is the norm and definitely preferred. Alternatively, visitors can test at the many tents around Paris and provide a negative Covid test for entry.
To fly from Paris to Nairobi, Kenya, we again needed a PCR test. I found several sites offering the tests online and some by simply walking around. We opted for a Biogroup lab at 134bis, rue de Vaugirard, in the 15th arrondissement which did not require an appointment, was fast, and reasonably-priced at €45 (appx. $52pp). Once again, it was necessary to research entry requirements. Kenya specified the test must be 96 hours before our flight and we needed a special health surveillance form with QR code. Officials were waiting to check that form (digital or printed) as we deplaned in Nairobi. It was possible to look up the form by phone number, too, if the actual form was lost. Kenya also requires an eVisa that must be printed. Our flight was delayed an hour as Air France staff sorted through many passengers who thought a digital copy was sufficient, as apparently it had been in the past. [Note: The Kenyan eVisa is easy to apply for and relatively cheap at $51 including a $1 credit card fee. Use the official link above and don’t be fooled by much more expensive online “facilitators.” Also, although the Kenyan government said they’d email the eVisa, they didn’t, but it was online very quickly. We just had to check back to the accounts we created.]
To fly from Kenya (Nairobi) to South Africa (Cape Town), we needed yet another PCR test within 72 hours of our flight and a health screening form completed within 48 hours of travel. The PCR test was problematic as we would be in remote Masai Mara on safari during the window we needed the test since PCR results can take up to 24 hours and the labs are back in Nairobi. Searching online, I found a group offering tests at Masai Mara (on site for $110pp or at our lodge for $140). I arranged with our safari company to go to this testing site. In the end, they arranged for the doctor to come to us for no extra charge. There was a delay and some confusion in getting the results, but all worked out in the end.
[In addition to Covid tests, South Africa requires proof of yellow fever vaccine for travelers arriving from Kenya (and other yellow fever zones). The lifetime vaccine must be gotten at least 10 days prior to arrival in a yellow fever zone. We got ours at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp; easy, extremely knowledgeable, and much cheaper than in the United States. We booked an appointment by phone before leaving the United States. Prior to boarding in Nairobi, Kenya Airways staff checked that we had our yellow booklets proving our yellow fever vaccination status. We also got prescriptions for anti-malarial medicine at the Institute, not required to travel to Kenya, but highly recommended.]
Finally, we needed an antigen test to return to the U.S. from South Africa. The test had to be done 3 days (not 72 hours, which potentially allows a little more time) prior to our departure flight. In another online search, I found a testing center at a Cape Town rugby club less than a 10 minute drive from our final hotel. I booked an appointment and paid 450 rand ($30pp) for the tests online via EasyTesting while we were in Paris. This worked like a charm and we had results emailed to us within 30 minutes.
All of this extra Covid testing and documentation is expensive and a hassle, but it’s doable. (Our total out-of-pocket costs for Covid tests for this trip was $559.) Travel now requires both expense and research, planning and constant checking for changes. In normal times, I usually keep a folder with all the documents David and I need for travel, stacked in chronological order, this includes any visas, tickets (many countries require printed proof of departure tickets), etc. These days I’ve separated documents in the folder into a manila folder for each of us to accommodate the increased number of documents: our proofs of vaccines, Covid tests results, contract tracing forms, etc. Note: Printing can be tricky, depending on where you’re staying, so planning and attention to detail is essential.