Denied boarding: Transiting Europe’s airports in the age of COVID-19

Jul 22, 2020

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You can’t visit most of Europe, but can you transit European airports? The answer had been yes, but there may no longer be a simple answer.

In This Post

Things are confusing

We’ve been busy at The Points Guy updating our guides to international travel in the age of coronavirus. As you know, it’s been quite a struggle keeping up with the constantly changing rules and restrictions. We’ve seen countries open up and then shut down, or open up and then shut down to Americans. Europe instituted a blanket ban on most Americans, but we had heard that transiting European airports was not a problem.

Now that’s changing.

Related: Iceland reopens but not for Americans

The Points Guy has been hearing some horror stories on Americans trying to transit international airports, or being denied boarding in the United States for flights to or via Europe. After a bunch of research, the best news we can find is that you may be able to travel internationally, but there are no guarantees right now.

Denied Boarding

A reader wrote to TPG and told us he’d been denied boarding at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for a flight to Dubrovnik, Croatia, via Frankfurt. Croatia is allowing Americans with a negative COVID-19 test within two days of their departure, despite the European Union ban on Americans.

Related: Croatia reopens to Americans with a catch

The reader told us, “Upon checking in, Lufthansa said I couldn’t fly, saying being an American citizen I could not, and was not allowed to transit in Frankfurt.”  When he called Lufthansa, an agent told him that was the policy which contradicted what United Airlines had told him prior. Indeed, he then called United back since he’d booked the ticket using United miles, and they told him Americans could no longer transit in any Schengen-area nations. He also called the Croatian embassy, and was told that Americans are indeed allowed, which echoes what we’ve reported as well.

Other folks have been able to transit Europe, but not without a lot of work.

Official airline policy

I reached out to Lufthansa, and they said Americans are able to transit Frankfurt as long as they are headed for a third country that accepts Americans, and have a same-day connection. A spokesman said, “We have not heard of U.S. citizens being denied boarding for flights where they are transiting Frankfurt to non-European/Schengen destinations.”

But that doesn’t necessarily include Croatia, which has an exception to the EU ban. Ireland is also allowing Americans even though it is in the European Union (though you’ll need to quarantine for two weeks). My speculation is that the reader may have been denied boarding at LAX because he was transiting FRA to a European country within the Schengen zone, but that is pure speculation on my part. I’ve been unable to confirm that is the case. It does however, make me even more nervous about telling readers they won’t have a problem.

Related: Ireland open to Americans, but.. 

It had also been our understanding that Americans could transit airports in Europe as long as they were headed to a third country that was accepting Americans, like Turkey or Rwanda.

The policies and rules for international travel have been changing so quickly that some workers and airlines may be having trouble keeping up or deciding what is and is not permitted right now.

The Lufthansa spokesman reminded readers, “We always ask all customers to acquaint themselves with the entry regulations of each country, especially for U.S. citizens.”

How are airlines keeping up with new COVID-19 rules?

Most airlines rely on information from the International Air Transport Association (or IATA).

IATA’s Timatic provides international airlines with the latest government regulations, helping them decide what travel documents, visas or tests are required for boarding by their passengers. That includes passport, visa and health requirements for specific countries. They are updating the rules as many as 75 times per day right now, and that may still not be enough to keep up.

A Delta spokesman told me the airline was trying to follow government regulations. But as I can tell you from reporting on which countries are accepting Americans, the rules are changing sometimes hour by hour.

Some success stories

A reader named Colt Mavity told me he’d just successfully made it to Dubrovnik, Croatia, but what he described was a pretty intense journey. Mavity is a school teacher in Northwood, North Dakota, who wanted to go to Europe this summer. He booked a flight on LOT Polish Airlines leaving from Chicago to Warsaw, and then on to Dubrovnik, Croatia. He described an incredibly stressful couple of hours when he tried to board the flight in Chicago. He ended up back at the ticket desk explaining to agents and employees for an hour and a half about Croatian, Polish and EU rules and laws, and describing paperwork and coronavirus test protocols. He tells me the Lot employees were great, but everyone was confused about the rules.

Incredibly, he was eventually able to board after the plane was held for him. When I asked him if it was worth it, Mavity said, “Yes it was worth it. 100 percent.” He said he wanted to experience what it was like traveling in the age of coronavirus.

Another reader told me he and his wife had successfully gotten through Amsterdam on the way to new jobs in Luxembourg, but they had work permits.

Gary Leff from View From the Wing said he’d talked to several people who’d been able to transit with no issue. Ben Schlappig from One Mile At A Time told me he’d successfully gone through Munich (MUN) on Lufthansa with no problem, using a U.S. passport and originating in the U.S.

Other data on international transit

I posed the question about transiting Europe in our Facebook group TPG Lounge as well. Several readers said they wouldn’t even consider trying it right now. Several said they would never consider going through Frankfurt anyway.

Peter Pritzl, along with other commenters, said that public information on countries like France was confusing and contradictory with sites like the U.S. Embassy saying one thing, and other sources saying the opposite.

If you missed it, here’s our country-by-country guide to reopenings.

Tyson Mann wrote that, while he believed transit was possible, “Be prepared for the worst: To encounter an airline employee who doesn’t know the rules and to be denied boarding, or even worse, a customs officer who doesn’t know the rules, and upon arrival you’re put in an airport holding cell to await your return flight back to where you came from.”  
But he and others also said they had friends who transited Amsterdam without any issues.

When it comes to travel Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV)

Personally, the idea of trying my luck anywhere in Europe right now sounds terrifying and not worth the time, but everyone has to make their own decisions on travel. I’ve just canceled a trip to Tahiti, and I’m sadly close to writing off any international travel in 2020.
Featured photo by Hill Street Studios/Getty Images.
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