Could Transatlantic Travel Return With Coronavirus Testing?

Filed Under: Advice

Currently travel between the United States and the European Union is restricted for most passengers, due to the travel bans in place. One common question has been when people will be able to freely travel across the Atlantic again.

Who can travel between the US & EU?

Most major airlines are continuing to operate some flights between the United States and European Union, despite the United States ban against European Union travelers, and the European Union ban against United States travelers. A majority of the revenue from these flights presumably comes from cargo rather than passengers.

So, who is actually allowed to travel between the US and EU right now?

  • Residents and citizens, along with family members, can return to their home country (for example, anyone with an EU passport can return to the EU, and anyone with a US passport can return to the US)
  • Passengers can take flights between the US and EU if they’re enroute to a country they are allowed to travel to (for example, Americans could fly Lufthansa from New York to Frankfurt to Istanbul, since Americans are allowed in Turkey)
  • There are some further exclusions for certain groups of travelers, including those going for essential reasons

Transatlantic flights are largely very empty

Could travel with testing be allowed again?

For the past several weeks, all kinds of organizations (and in particular airlines) have been calling for transatlantic travel restrictions to slowly be lifted. Today BDL, Germany’s largest aviation industry group, has made a proposal to bring back limited air travel corridors for more travelers between the United States and Germany.

With this proposal:

  • Passengers would have to produce a negative COVID-19 PCR test prior to travel
  • This would apply for flights from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Newark, to Frankfurt and Munich
  • Frankfurt and Munich already offer testing options for passengers, and testing facilities would also be added at select US airports (though my understanding is that travelers could get tested prior to going to the airport)

Munich Airport already offers coronavirus testing

Is it time to start lifting restrictions?

Understandably this is a very complex issue. Before we talk about the actual practicality of opening up transatlantic air travel bubbles, let me acknowledge a few things:

  • There’s a lot of pride at stake here; the US banned European Union travelers first, and then things ended up getting very bad in the US
  • I would imagine on some level there’s quite a bit of (understandable) schadenfreude on the European Union side
  • The US has done an awful job handling the pandemic, and the arrogance with which the US government has approached it doesn’t help
  • Not all European Union countries have handled the pandemic equally well; Germany has seen 9,000+ deaths, while France has seen 30,000+ deaths, even though France’s population is smaller
  • It’s debatable whether international travel of any sort should be encouraged at this point

All that being said, if there’s a way for there to be functional testing, would starting to ease restrictions truly be a bad thing?

Between those precautions, it sure seems to me like risk would be mitigated sufficiently. The challenge, however, is figuring out all the logistics:

  • Will there be options to get tested before all departing flights, and if so, how fast will results come in?
  • Should passengers also be required to test upon arrival, and if so, how long will it take to get the results?
  • Will there be a quarantine until the results come in, and how will it be enforced?

Most transatlantic flights are quite empty

Bottom line

At some point travel restrictions between the United States and the European Union will need to be lifted. We’re seeing airlines lobby hard for this, and we’ve seen various proposals thrown around.

Without a vaccine, efficient testing is what’s needed in order to allow more travel with fewer restrictions. The problem continues to be the availability, cost, turnaround time, and logistics, of doing widespread and frequent testing.

While airlines are campaigning hard for more travel restrictions to be lifted in conjunction with testing, I can’t help but feel like a bit more effort should go into actually launching more airport testing sites.

Munich Airport offers free coronavirus testing for arriving passengers. Meanwhile here in the US we have… basically nothing?

I understand that may simply not be a priority when it comes to the overall testing program in the US, but then again, that might also be a sign that it’s too early to start opening up more travel based on testing.

Where do you stand on this — would easing restrictions with testing make sense? When and how do you think we’ll see restrictions between the EU & US relaxed?

  1. Ben, munich airport is not offering free testing but the state of Bavaria offers it for all who are residents in Germany

    And there is further discussion to adopt the Iceland model (negative test at arrive- 5 day quarantine and a second negative test) in Germany aswell

  2. Travel will be freed when the orange cabbage in the oval office get’s over his ego, so unlikely to any major extent in the near term.

  3. I don’t think testing on arrival will make people want to travel. The risk of testing positive and being required to quarantine for a full two weeks during a vacation is a complete no-go.

    I would not want to risk it. Not worth it. People just need to limit their interactions with others or be super cautious when doing meeting others or just stay their butts home. This thing has dragged on for too long. Everyone needs to start being part of the solution.

  4. I think there should be testing before one goes and when one arrives if travel is to be eased. Most of Europe is doing better than the US, but in both cases you need to drive down to where the cases and deaths are occurring. Spain is doing worse than the US when you adjust for population for comparing both cases and deaths. Belgium has the the 2nd highest death rate per million people. So I certainly wouldn’t want to visit Spain and Europeans may not want to visit many hotspots in the US. Too easy to say all is good here and all is bad there and that is never or rarely the case.

  5. It should be very simple: liberate the healthy and those under 65. Test them before departure. The rest should stay at home.

  6. All these testing activities and quarantines do not make a dent in the pandemic. Turkey is open essentially for everyone to come, does not require testing or quarantine, and the cases are steady.

  7. The main issue isn’t getting a pcr test at home BEFORE you travel. Well that is an issue also, but anyways.

    The main issues are test requirements DURING or at the END of your travel, when you are in a foreign country and now need to figure out how to schedule and get a test result to get back home. Will you reliably be able to that while on a Kenya safari? What if the test result for return trip comes back negative – now what, you’re stuck in a foreign country?\

    This is the main problem with any testing requirement. The uncertainty that you’ll be able to go back home because you failed some test. Even if there is a 1% chance that you would be stuck in Namibia after your safari because you’re denied boarding, no one will take that chance and tourism can never fully recover.

  8. Travel right now is irresponsible – full stop. We must wait until a reliable vaccine has been produced and is widely available. Yes that’s painful, especially for those in the hospitality/travel industries, but it’s the only safe way to approach a pandemic. It bums me out because I love to travel (I imagine everyone following this blog enjoys travel), but it is what it is.

  9. Lucky – based primarily as a result of the great trip review and the great time that both you and Ford had in Turkey, I too have a trip planned to Turkey in September. In your article just now, you talk about transiting between the EU and USA. I wanted to make sure about my return. On my return, I am scheduled from IST-LHR-DFW. The return requires an overnight in LHR before heading home to DFW. Is an overnight allowed in this case since I originate in Turkey?

  10. It’s not IF, it’s when.

    Testing before travel should happen for all travel that goes over an ocean. Europe, Asia, Hawaii etc. If that is done, things can open up once more and destinations reliant on American dollars can harvest them once more.

  11. Also, another point – for many people their typical tourism involves border hopping multiple countries in the region, on a tight schedule.

    This is specially true for Caribbean tours, Eurotrips, african safaris (e.g. the Botswana Chobe day-trip), 3 day iceland stopovers and so on.

    Right now everyone is going to Turkey, Serbia and Croatia and exploring them, which is fine because everyone is mostly sticking to one country with their one rule.

    But all the testing and quarantine requirements make the *typical* multi-country tourism trip almost impossible. No one wants to figure out test/quarantine rules for every single country on their trip. The test requirement will have to be fully removed to make this possible.

  12. Traveling during the pandemic may be the only way to visit touristy European cities without the crowds. I’ve never visited Venice, Barcelona, or Amsterdam because of my dislike for over tourism, but I may consider it when it feels safe-ish and restrictions are eased as I doubt we’ll see the mass numbers of tourists anytime soon.

  13. I wonder if temperature checks before boarding would eliminate 80%+ of the transmission the way testing days before departure appears to in the study Hawaii is using

  14. “John the European” The replies were enjoyable reading until your childish remark. Back to point, many of the others are correct until we as a world develop an effective vaccine, testing and protocols we are whistling in the wind, much like John. We are seeing what appears to be a second wave of infections in some countries just as some are dealing with their first this virus is not going anywhere soon and we need to get use to it.

    I like most everyone else is “jonesing” on lack of travel having canceled three planned trips now to Europe frankly the thought of being in a metal cylinder for 10/12 hours “packaged’ food with wearing a mask the majority of the time is not overly appealing then worrying about possible infection where your going to!

    Travel safe everyone

  15. We need to get the travel Industry back on the Road again, we owe it to all the people in the Industry, who is now without a job.
    Testing before departure and on arrival is the way forward.

  16. @Lucky: You write…..”Passengers can take flights between the US and EU if they’re en-route to a country they are allowed to travel to (for example, Americans could fly Lufthansa from New York to Frankfurt to Istanbul. /// I had tix for SFO/FRA/LHR in early August 2020. United blocked my boarding @SFO bc (US Passport) they said I wouldn’t be allowed to entered FRA/DE even for connection to London. WERE THE AIRLINES RIGHT OR WRONG? SHOULD I HAVE BEEN ABLE TO CONNECT THRU FRANKFURT? / Thanks.

  17. We certainly need to find some way to travel, less so for tourism, but definitely for business. I think testing is an option that would be acceptable for most employees and employers, whereas a two week mandatory quarantine at each of the two ends of the trip is not.

  18. Testing in Germany is becoming quite a mess as well. I’ve been here now for 3 weeks and got tested once and tried to get tested another time unsuccessfully due to lack of capacity while entering via highway. The golden times of Europe having this under control are over.

  19. It is what it is, the virus is everywhere. You cannot hide from it and no matter what anyone says NO vaccine is all that safe if it is rushed to the market. I would take my chance with the virus over a vaccine. There is no longer any reason to restrict travel.

  20. So the latest information I have read about for testing non symptomatic people is that there is a false negative rate of up to 80%. Meaning 80% of those that have Covid make it through the screening. If the goal is to stop the spread it seems to me flipping a coin would be a better gauge.

  21. There is a perfectly good word in English that means the same as schadenfreude, epicaricacy.

    I also agree with Ryan.

  22. @Tina You are not correct. My ex and my daughter have Czech passports. Arrived in MUC two weeks ago and were given the test for free.

  23. It’s a great idea in theory. But my experience with three entires into the EU this summer with an American passport is this:

    Testing is easy in FRA, MUC, and VIE (perhaps others, dunno). Upon entry they ask for a recent result or tell you to get tested and quarantine until the results. This is manned by 19 year old’s doing their mandatory Govt. service and were not at all well trained (imo). I stuck to the “rules” every time and followed their instructions. However, no one checked. No one cared. Once I was out of immigration it was a wide open road. I am sure many never bothered to walk across the street as I did and get a throat swab.

    To implement this you will have no choice but to set up areas in immigration where testing is done and a waiting room is established for the results. The current “honor” system may catch some, assuming they are honest in actually getting tested, but it will never work in opening up more. It’s impossible to enforce and no one wants to enforce once you enter into the EU landside. The EU has far too many close by escape hatches and, unlike Australia and New Zealand (which can perhaps regulate quarantines better) the EU is a black hole.

    Testing before boarding is perhaps the best answer. But until the U.S. is able to test with the same turnaround as the EU (often 4 hours) this will never happen.

  24. A couple of things to point out. Turkey is going back into shutdown because of rising COVID cases. France is seeing record highs which haven’t been this high since May. You mention Hawaii using studies about keeping the virus out. Well Hawaii now has COVID in numbers high enough that they are subject to the NY travel advisory. All of these things seem to indicate that international travel most certainly should not be encouraged at this point. This is the summer in the US. I don’t think people are really comprehending the death tolls we are going to see in the fall. The tests aren’t accurate enough. There is a lot of false negatives. I wish they could come up with a highly accurate, rapid, affordable and non-invasive test. The reality is that they haven’t at this point. I don’t see how people can seriously talk about international travel when most of the US is continuing to fail at addressing the current situation. Have to get our own house in order instead of going off to some other country and infecting their populations. We could have done this months ago but some people just refuse to be responsible by doing what is necessary and they are dragging us all down.

  25. Love is not tourism

    Do you ever thought about how it feels to be separated from your loved one?
    How much pain you feel?
    It’s a emotional roller coaster!
    I would do 100 tests just to spend time with my fiancé again.

    The virus will not go, but in an election year you can’t open the boarders without getting a shit storm

  26. Not going to happen till the US gets a new president. The government will need to show a basic level of competency in managing the pandemic before this is even a discussion.

  27. Lucky – based primarily as a result of the great trip review and the great time that both you and Ford had in Turkey, I too have a trip planned to Turkey in September. In your article just now, you talk about transiting between the EU and USA. I wanted to make sure about my return. On my return, I am scheduled from IST-LHR-DFW. The return requires an overnight in LHR before heading home to DFW. Is an overnight allowed in this case since I originate in Turkey?

    If you have an overnight layover, then you will have to clear customs [1], at which point immigration regulations apply. The current policy essentially says that you must enter quarantine if you visit any country not on the exemption list within 14 days of your arrival in the UK [2]. Turkey is on the exemption list, which I think you knew. So, the answer is: if your vacation is ≥ 14 days, then you’re fine, otherwise you should either take a longer vacation or change the routing to avoid a layover.


  28. The fallacy that the US has mishandled Covid is a straw man political point. We shut the damn country down for 6 weeks…at the cost of impacting millions and millions of lives financially. Over 40 million became jobless in 6 weeks lockdown. It was not feasible to continue that unless you want to cripple this economy for years and years and the emotional and psychological toll that would bring. Abuse, addiction and suicide rates are soaring now. The reality is our case rate is so high because we have been testing well over a HALF MILLION of people a DAY…that is not even close to any euro country…of course we will have a much larger positive rate…look at the death rate recently in FL or TX…it is significantly lower than NY or NJ…again a false narrative for political purposes.

  29. Still cannot understand why testing on arrival makes sense. If you test positive then under the contact tracing rules everyone on the flight would be required to self-isolate for 14 days. No different if you are in a pub and somebody there at the same time as you later tests positive. You get traced and contacted and told to self-isolate.

    Surely a fast turnaround test before flying is what is needed.

  30. For those who believe that the U.S. and other countries, such as France, have done a poor job in handling the pandemic, what EXACTLY should have been done, by whom, and when?

    It’s easy to sit in the center field bleachers, especially when looking through a retrospectoscope, and snipe criticism, but I don’t recall any high ranking government officials, in the early stages of the pandemic, proactively stating precisely what should be done. Only criticized what WAS being done … such as calling Trump evil, or a racist or whatever the daily rant was, for instituting a travel ban.

    Look up the statistics. The risk of death for anyone under the age of 50 contracting the COVID 19 virus is exceedingly low, far exceeded by the fear of the virus.

    You want to get tested in order to travel? Fine. Maybe it comes back negative. What if it’s a false-negative test result? Or, what if you contract the virus 5 minutes after taking a negative test? Nothing in life is risk free.

    Personally, I would prefer to have the option to travel internationally and assume the risks associated with getting ill with COVID by doing so and being in a country whose medical system I’m unfamiliar with in terms of navigating it and its quality. Yet, I respect the right of other countries to limit my access to its borders and citizenry if they think that my presence presents an increased health risk to their population.

  31. Pete says:
    August 19, 2020 at 1:34 pm
    It should be very simple: liberate the healthy and those under 65. Test them before departure. The rest should stay at home.

    I think Pete meant to write: Let the healthy and those under 65 travel to Europe and spread the virus there, then return home where they will infect the elderly and those with preexisting conditions, thereby driving up the US death rate.

  32. My son (us passport) and his girlfriend (spanish passport) flew from Madrid, where they live, to Mexico, and after spending the required two weeks in Cancun, flew to IAH to enter the USA. Sailed through customs without a temperature check and not one question about the virus, symptons, etc. I can’t even get my nails done with answering a questionaire and temp check!

  33. I agree with @Ben that the uncertainty that you’ll be able to go back home because you failed some test is the biggest obstacle to traveling. Who would cover the expenses there? Hospital stay? What if you die there? No country would willingly accept the financial and social burden that an infected foreigner represents. They would probably put you on the plane back home just to get you out. Travel would completely come to a standstill after a few flights. Sad, but it is what it is.

  34. I agree with @Ryan and @Ron – Both making sense in a sea of fearful people on here, and in many other places.

    Vaccines take 10-15 years to develop and test. You do not have to believe this, because then safety blankets get snatched from your delicate place, but that’s the truth and its widely known. No matter what anyone is saying, there will not be a reliable vaccine before 2025-2030, sorry…and then the harm it will do greatly outweighs the risk, but that’s another conversation, (and yes I once worked for a MAJOR pharmaceutical company – short lived when I learned some hard truths)..but I know a few things, more than most. I do not do armchair banter on here, I’ve worked in many industries.

    There is reality and there is fantasy, most want the fantasy. Sad but true.

  35. Travel won’t loosen based on any testing regimen. It will resume when there is a low incidence in the county of arrival and departure. Full stop.

    And each one of these travel tests, actually multiple tests given each border crossing, take away from resources testing patients and hospital staff.

    Recreational travel can be 100 percent put aside for 2 years. How many bartender jobs are worth a single nurse’s?

    Such protocols should be reserved only for emergency and essential travel and will be fraught with logistical issues.

    It’s time for people to get over their sense of entitlement. No, you don’t have to eat out. No, you don’t have to go to museums. No, you don’t have to engage in tourism.

    And once again, If you are young and healthy, no one is concerned about you. They are concerned about how you will propagate the infection. And if someone doesn’t care, they are exactly the person who should by rules, embargo or ban, be rendered sessile till this blows over.

  36. I hope the borders open soon. I need to go to Greece and will take whatever steps I need to take to be safe and for those around me. I don’t mind paying for the testing and just want to get back to normal life. Let us travel!

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