I was one of the first American tourists to fly to Italy on a COVID-tested flight: Here’s what it was like
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On Friday, I was asked if I would fly to Italy two days later on Sunday, May 16.
That’s the day when it became possible for tourists to fly from the U.S. to Italy on so-called COVID-tested flights (flights where every passenger has provided one or more negative COVID-19 test results prior to check-in and boarding) and bypass otherwise mandatory quarantine requirements.
Never one to miss out on a fun adventure, I took to the skies this weekend to be one of the first U.S.-based tourists to return to Italy without quarantining.
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Multiple U.S.-based airlines now offer COVID-tested flights to Italy that are open to tourists. Delta, for example, announced Friday that Italy would reopen to any Americans who travel on specific flights starting May 16. And American Airlines made a similar announcement on Sunday. On Monday, May 17, United confirmed to TPG that it’s also offering quarantine-free flights to Italy for all Americans.
As I planned for my last-minute trip to Italy, I found the process confusing at times — frankly, these special flights require more preparation than most. If you’re thinking about booking a trip to Italy now that it’s possible for tourists to avoid a quarantine on arrival, here’s what it was like to enter Italy on one of the first COVID-tested flights open to American tourists.
The booking process for a COVID-tested flight isn’t very different than usual. However, you’ll want to ensure your flight is eligible. If you’re booking with Delta, look for the teal flag when searching for flights.
To snag less-expensive award pricing, TPG booked my flights to Milan as two separate tickets: one round-trip from Atlanta (ATL) to New York JFK and another round-trip from New York JFK to Milan (MXP). Both my outbound and return on the JFK to Milan ticket are quarantine-free flights.
If you select a COVID-tested flight, you’ll need to agree to the requirements of the flight. For example, when booking my JFK to Milan flight, I agreed to take a COVID-19:
- PCR test (at my own expense) within 72 hours of my scheduled departure to Italy
- Rapid antigen test (at no additional cost to me) at the airport before departing the U.S.
- Rapid antigen test (at no additional cost to me) upon arrival in Italy
And, when booking my Milan to JFK flight, I agreed to:
- Provide contact tracing information at check-in for my flight to the U.S.
- Take an eligible COVID-19 test (at my own expense) within three days of my scheduled departure from Italy
You can, however, pair COVID-tested flights with normal flights. For example, you could fly on a quarantine-free flight to Italy to bypass the local quarantine requirements when you arrive. But, you could book a normal return if you’re traveling to a place that wouldn’t require you to quarantine either way. I only needed a quarantine-free flight to Italy, but I decided to also fly a COVID-tested flight on my return because the routing and price made the most sense for me.
Preflight PCR testing
For Delta’s COVID-tested flights between JFK and Milan, you must get a COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of scheduled departure. Luckily, Delta makes it easy to find recommended testing facilities. I quickly found many options near me in Northern Georgia.
But, as I didn’t decide to take the trip until about 24 hours before I’d be departing from Atlanta, most of the recommended testing facilities wouldn’t provide results in time. For example, CVS said results would take one to two days.
Luckily, Delta doesn’t require you to use a specific provider. So, I found an urgent care clinic nearby that offers pre-travel RT-PCR testing in less than 24 hours.
Despite having an appointment, I needed to wait in my car for about 50 minutes once I arrived at the clinic. But once it was my turn, I spent less than 10 minutes inside the clinic. I took the test at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and the results arrived by email at 2:05 a.m. on Sunday. I printed my results before heading to the airport, as Delta’s website said printed results are required for these flights to Milan and Rome.
Check-in and preflight rapid antigen test
Since TPG booked my flights as two separate round-trips, I exited the secure airside area when I landed in JFK and started the COVID-tested flight experience as if I were originating in New York City. Based on information on Delta’s website for COVID-tested flights to Italy, I knew to go to the Terminal 4 arrivals area for a rapid antigen test before trying to check in for my flight.
However, when I got to this area, I saw a sizeable, slow-moving line at XpresCheck. The information on Delta’s website for these flights to Italy said to “proceed immediately to the COVID-19 testing location in the arrivals area (lower level) before checking in to your flight,” so I almost got into line.
But then I noticed a table with a Delta banner and staff members wearing Delta uniforms to the right of the testing area.
They checked my name against a list before asking for my passport, driver’s license and negative PCR test result. They took photos of my driver’s license, had me sign multiple statements on an iPad and then asked me to fill out a European Union form on my phone.
Then, I was instructed to go to Room 9 for a rapid antigen test. Here, I was asked to spell my first and last name and provide my date of birth, country of residence and destination. Then, she took a nasal swab sample from just one nostril.
After the nasal swab was complete, I was told to go to the waiting area. I waited for 45 minutes for my test results, but my name was never called. I eventually went to the Delta table to inquire about my results.
A flustered Delta agent told me my results came back a long time ago and they’d been looking for me. I’d been in the waiting area the entire time, though, and didn’t see or hear any Delta agents looking for me, so it’s unclear how this disconnect occurred. In any case, the Delta agents gave me a boarding pass and another paper form to fill out before sending me upstairs to security.
After testing, check-in and security, Delta says you can wait anywhere you want in the terminal. I’d planned to go to the new JFK Centurion Lounge. But, after the longer-than-expected testing process, I headed straight to the gate.
At the gate, I handed over the paper form I’d filled out, and Delta staff checked my passport, scanned my boarding pass and captured a biometric image.
Interestingly, the process may be more straightforward for passengers who book a connecting flight on the same ticket as their COVID-tested flight. In this case, you’d need to show your negative PCR test when checking in to your first flight. But, you can do the rapid test near Gate B24 once you get to JFK. You’ll see an XpresSpa that’s now an XpresCheck COVID-19 testing center for connecting Delta and KLM passengers.
On the COVID-tested flight to Milan, the service and amenities felt similar to a pre-pandemic flight — just with more forms, masks and disinfecting wipes. And, unlike domestic flights I’ve been on recently — including my positioning flight from Atlanta to New York — every passenger I saw wore their mask appropriately the entire flight (and didn’t need to be told to do so).
Upon boarding, I was welcomed and handed a Purell wipe. Blankets and pillows awaited passengers at the seats.
Since this flight appeared to be less than 20% full, most passengers got an entire row to themselves. I chose my seat carefully the day before the flight and had an entire four-seat row to myself.
Before takeoff, flight attendants passed out earbuds and a travel kit with a mask, earplugs and a wipe.
Then, after we departed, flight attendants passed out a bottle of water, utensils and another Purell wipe.
About an hour after takeoff, flight attendants served the departure meal and drinks. The meal was a choice of chicken or pasta. But, since I was seated near the back of the plane, the only option left when meal service reached my row was chicken. The chicken dish didn’t look appealing when I uncovered it. But, it tasted fine with creamy mashed potatoes, crisp carrots and white meat chicken.
Since I had a four-seat row to myself, I slept in so-called poor man’s business class between the meal services. It was a bit difficult to sleep with a mask on, but I eventually fell asleep.
Flight attendants served the arrival snack about an hour before landing. As with the departure meal, flight attendants distributed utensils and a Purell wipe ahead of the snack boxes. The snack was a warm egg and cheese sandwich that was better than the cold midflight sandwiches I’ve received on other airlines.
About an hour before landing, a flight attendant announced that Italy requires passengers to wear surgical masks in Italian airports. So, flight attendants came through the aisles and handed each passenger a surgical mask. Then, 30 minutes before landing, the flight attendants handed out a final form for passengers to fill out before landing.
Arriving in Milan
As I deplaned and walked up the jet bridge, I heard an announcement stating the rapid antibody COVID-19 testing would be outside baggage claim by Door 4. There were also ample signs about the testing area located along the path to the baggage claim.
Before getting to baggage claim, I first went through a temperature checkpoint.
And then I went through a second checkpoint where an agent took the form I’d filled out on board and looked at my passport.
Finally, passengers could clear passport control. Based on the separation of passengers into EU passport holders and non-EU passport holders at this stage, more than half of the flight seemed to be EU passport holders.
Interestingly, none of the agents asked me any questions during this entry process. And, I didn’t need to show any test results when entering Italy. In fact, the Delta agents near the testing facility at JFK were the only ones to check my test results.
A cheery agent in baggage claim saw me taking a picture of a sign and gave me clear instructions of where the arrival antigen test would be, how to get there, how long results would take and that it was free. Milan did an excellent job of clearly marking the testing location and having agents positioned along the way to help confused travelers.
Several of the passengers on my flight had people waiting for them outside customs. Based on the greetings, I assume some of these people haven’t seen each other since before the pandemic. Seeing a few of these greetings was a good reminder that COVID-tested flights aren’t just for tourism and business; they’re also for reconnecting loved ones around the world.
I walked past the reuniting groups and headed toward the testing area by Door 4. When I arrived at the testing location at 7:40 a.m., the line was modest.
However, it quickly grew as passengers from my flight continued to appear and passengers from an American Airlines flight arrived. I waited in the queue for 36 minutes before it was my turn to sit at a desk with an agent.
The agent asked for basic information such as name, nationality, phone number and flight number. Then he asked me to sign a form consenting to the test and printed test labels before sending me to the testing area.
A woman was waiting for me in the testing area. She confirmed my name and date of birth and took nasal swabs in each nostril. Then I was directed to the waiting area.
I settled in for a 15- to 20-minute wait. But, I received my negative test result just 7 minutes later. So, after three COVID-19 tests in less than 48 hours; six disinfecting wipes across two flights; and more lines and forms than I care to count, I was finally free to explore Italy — no quarantine required.
I won’t lie: I found some of the details confusing when booking this trip. And I was worried this trip might fail, or wouldn’t be worth it. But, now that I’m in Italy eating pizza, enjoying rooftop bars and seeing relatively uncrowded sites, I’m happy I said yes to this trip.
Of course, some travelers won’t want to deal with the hassle and will instead decide to travel to destinations that don’t require testing, proof of vaccination or lengthy quarantines.
But, after going through the testing and forms needed for my COVID-tested flight, I’d do it again — especially if I booked further in advance and didn’t need a less than 24-hour turnaround on my pre-departure PCR test. Best of all, once you finally leave the airport in Italy, you’re free to explore most parts of the country without additional requirements.
Featured image by Katie Genter/The Points Guy.
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