Italy Travel Q&A -- Part 2
More "unsolicited" travel advice
I’m back in the United States after a very long trip home. Not having flown since the end of 2019, I found the experience to be daunting and stressful. Having said that, I wanted to finish the Q&A I started in the previous post by discussing some observations and recommendations for traveling during the pandemic. These are just my opinions, and your experience(s) may differ.
Airlines are doing a great job mitigating COVID-19. The airlines that I flew (Air France, Delta, KLM, ITA) took COVID-19 seriously. Studies have indicated that airplane air is cleaned and circulated frequently. Air France also had additional measures in their planes to mitigate COVID-19, mask wearing is obligatory except when eating, and on several flights passengers who attempted to remove masks were asked to comply. ITA, for example, requires passengers to disembark one row at a time to minimize social distancing and were quite adamant that passengers adhere to this. I felt that airlines were doing their best during this difficult period.
Get to the airport early. Checking in for flights, even if you are connecting, will take longer. The additional level of restrictions and monitoring have placed additional burdens on ground staff. Some airlines allow you to upload your COVID-19 test and vaccine card/Green pass before you arrive at the airport, but don’t count on this speeding up your process. My documents were accepted, but I had to check-in with the gate agents personally and show the documents anyway. It didn’t help or save time.
Also, at smaller regional airports like the one in Florence or Palermo, for example, there will be fewer staff (sometimes just one or two people). On a full flight of 150-200 people, it will take a bit of time to check everyone in. My flight from Florence to Paris had a departure time of 6:30 AM. I arrived at the airport just after 5:00 AM to find the line running out the door to check in. Don’t be on online check-in or checking in using kiosks - in most of the airports I traveled through, these kiosks were not working and were directing passengers to check in with staff.
Leave plenty of time between your connections. Flying to Europe was easier then returning to the United States, which is probably due to the additional restrictions the US has placed on travel. When returning to the US, passengers need a COVID-19 test no older than the day before your intended travel. You also need to sign an attestation, which is turned over to the gate agents on the flight that ultimately brings you back to the US. My flight from Florence to Paris was not only late taking off but late arriving, which seemed to be the norm.
While I had a connection of 2 hours even being late arriving in Paris (CDG), I almost missed my return flight back to the United States because it took almost two hours to clear customs in France. After clearing customs, I then had to wait for a shuttle to take me to the departure terminal, which added an additional 20-30 minutes of time. My connection times were almost always insufficient, and I should have pushed for longer connection times.
When purchasing tickets, airlines will often pick your connections for you. Try to organize your connections so you have more time to clear customs. Staffing levels at airports seem lower than pre-pandemic - the extra time will be helpful!
Flights are full - don’t count on airlines to leave empty seats. Flights are really full, and there are no empty seats between passengers. Of all the flights I took over the last two weeks, there was only one flight (Amsterdam to Florence) where the plane wasn’t completely full. Full flights are probably the norm, especially during this busy holiday season!
Airlines are charging passengers for seat selection. All the airlines I flew charged a fee to select seats. I dislike sitting in the middle seat if I can help it, so I try to book the window for short flights and the aisle for longer flights as I like to get up and walk around whenever possible. I suggest doing this even if you do not want to pay the extra few dollars/euro (this seemed to be a bone of contention among discussions I overheard in the airport).
If you are traveling with children or in a group/family, especially, don’t count on other passengers giving up their seats or being able to give up their seats. In many instances, you may not be allowed to change seats for reasons of contact tracing (in other words, if you switch seats with someone, and the person sitting next to you has COVID-19, the airline may not inform you because you weren’t assigned that seat). On my flight from Florence to Paris, passengers were asked not to change seats because of contact tracing requirements.
Before you go on your trip outside the US, remember that to return or visit the US you need that COVID-19 test that can’t be older than a day (the US doesn’t require its citizens to be vaccinated to travel, but it does require vaccination for non-citizens). Make sure you know where you can get tested in the country or countries you are visiting. Keep in mind that if your flight is delayed and you are forced to fly a day or two after your original departure, you will probably need to be tested again (that happened to me). Many sites (including airports) require scheduling appointments and same day testing; it might be useful to schedule appointments in advance if possible and canceling appointments later if they are not needed. Rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 are acceptable for travel to the US and the results are often available in a couple of minutes. Try to schedule your flights back to US so that, if you had to get a test at the airport, that you would have time to do so. Many testing places may not be open at 5am or 6am.
The CDC offers passengers free at-home COVID-19 testing kits upon arrival in the US. When I landed in Atlanta, I saw that the CDC was offering free at-home testing kits for COVID-19 to travelers. I didn’t get one because I needed to make a connecting flight (which, as it turned out, was delayed by several hours). When returning to the US, there were no temperature checks or questions about COVID-19 testing — just the usual questions about where you went and why you went to where you went. I will say that US customs is much more efficient now that they have done away with those customs forms (at least the ones required of US citizens). The whole process took only a few minutes, and I don’t think I was in customs longer than 10 minutes.
Lastly, please be patient and kind to gate staff, flight attendants, and other airport personnel. In my travels, I saw a number of passengers become quite argumentative and angry with airport staff over delays, mask requirements, and other rules. Gate agents have no control over air traffic control or the arrival of late flights, and they are not responsible for mask mandates. They probably know just as much (or as little) as you do about flight delays. Screaming at them to make flights take off on time is unproductive. These people are coming to work in a difficult public health climate to make sure that we can all get to where we are going and are often forced to work in situations where social distancing is difficult/impossible. They are tired and stressed out like the rest of us - kindness and compassion can go a long way to making the pandemic and pandemic travel more pleasant for all of us.