Denied boarding redux: TPG readers share horror stories about flights to and through Europe

Jun 7, 2021

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As we enter summer, more than a year after the world largely shut down to travelers, we thought it was time to bring you an updated take on 2020’s Denied Boarding article. Learn what you can expect as countries reopen and you prepare to fly to your next European destination, but be warned: no two experiences are likely to be the same.

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Things are still confusing

With more European countries reopening their borders by the day, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with what’s required for entry. We’ve seen everything from minimal mandates in Greece to strict ones in France, which is set to reopen on June 9 under a new traffic light system that is currently requiring arrivals from nearly all non-EU countries to submit to testing, even if they’re vaccinated.

In terms of air travel, lots of flights to countries allowing U.S. visitors have connections and layovers in countries that don’t, creating trouble for flyers before they even take to the skies.

Related: Spain reopens to Americans

While some adventurous jetsetters have had luck entering places like Italy as soon as they’ve opened, others have reported issues merely transiting through airports in the EU on their way to other places if their flights aren’t direct. These last-minute changes leave them scrambling to make alternate — and often pricey — arrangements.

Denied boarding … again

“I was denied boarding on a Lufthansa flight from DFW-ATH with a connection in Frankfurt because the check-in team at Dallas told me I had to have a Schengen visa, but then I have the German consulate telling me as a U.S. citizen I don’t need one,” said TPG reader Danielle Dillow. “I ended up having to book a flight the night before on American through the U.K. to get to Athens because no one in the Star Alliance had a flight that could get me to Greece.”

(Photo by LordHenriVoton/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, some members of the TPG Lounge on Facebook shared that they’re having similar problems.

“In mid-February, I booked a ticket using United Airlines miles to fly home from Amman, Jordan, to Frankfurt to the U.S.,” Jon Morrison told us. “About a month later, I got an email from United Airlines, advising me that my itinerary had been changed. Instead of flying direct to Frankfurt with Lufthansa, I would have to take Austrian Airlines to Vienna, and then on to Frankfurt, before boarding my flight to the U.S.

“When I turned up at the Amman airport, Austrian Airlines advised me that they would not allow me to board their aircraft. They said that my routing was not allowed. They told me that in Vienna I would have to clear immigration in order to board the Schengen flight to Frankfurt, but because I was American, the Austrian immigration authorities would not allow me in and I would be turned back, due to the restrictions on Americans entering the Schengen area.”

Morrison said, as a result, he had to switch his flight to go from Amman to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines and then on the U.S. but not before he endured a rough 10-hour layover. As if that weren’t enough of a kick in the teeth, before leaving Amman, he passed the required PCR test to get back into the U.S., but less than a week later, he tested positive.

“Had issues going from JFK to RIX,” said Bob Teofilo. “Originally had booked Delta from JFK to AMS and changing airlines to Lufthansa from AMS to RIX. Ended up getting denied to board the plane in JFK because they could not confirm my entry into AMS (even though technically Holland was open but required quarantining). Had to book a separate AirFrance flight from JFK to RIX on the spot with a stop in CDG.”

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

A lot of reports we’ve been hearing from readers indicate that their rates of success vary on a case-by-case basis, based on the whims of the gate agent stateside and also on how friendly officials are feeling on the other side when they arrive wherever they’re headed. While some have had no trouble transiting through Amsterdam, for example, clearly that wasn’t the case for Teofilo.

Several others also expressed that they hit snags at their departure airports when they attempted to board flights for outbound travel to Europe. The sticking point consistently seems to be that airline gate agents aren’t being kept up to date with the latest requirements.

(Photo by Tempura/Getty Images)

Official airline policies

Last year at this time, the general rule was that travelers were allowed to transit through EU countries if they had a same-day connection and their final destination was not an EU country. However, now that some EU member nations have started to reopen, the rules are more fuzzy. Ultimately, though, it’s up to each country (not the airline) to decide if you’ll be allowed in.

So, can flight passengers from the U.S. pass through an EU country to go to, say, Greece — an EU country that’s open to Americans? Reader Emily Warpinski says yes.

Related: A country-by-country guide to reopenings

“I booked a crazy journey to Chania with three different airlines and three stops in Europe before Chania over the course of three days: Chicago to Paris (CDG) to Lisbon on Air France, then Lisbon to Paris (Orly) on Vueling, and then Paris to Chania on Transavia,” Warpinski said.

“The Delta ticket counter guy in Chicago almost didn’t let me board the flight because they believed that Paris (CDG) would not let me in the country because I had too many stops in Europe and I was over the 24-hour transit window. The Delta guy very strongly and very seriously cautioned me about getting on the flight…. But no one in Paris even gave me a second look. I got in and out of border patrol at all three airports, no problem. The only thing the airlines cared about was a negative PCR test.

“I’m currently on Crete and trying to get used to the time change. I’m glad I didn’t listen to the gate attendant in Chicago and looking forward to my time in Greece.”

Click the map to view the latest. (Screenshot courtesy of the International Air Transport Association)

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

It seems like, in many cases, they’re not. As noted, we’ve had readers submitting stories left and right about how they were told by gate agents on the U.S. side that they wouldn’t be allowed to board, even when they met all of the inbound countries’ requirements.

Dillow, who ticked off all the criteria for her connection in FRA, still was not permitted to board her flight after showing the gate agent information from Germany’s Ministry of the Interior website.

Related: Ready to travel? These are the 11 things you need to do before leaving home

“I know I was one of the very first travelers, so I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this,” Dillow admitted, “but people definitely need to be informed travelers because the Lufthansa DFW agents didn’t know Greece was accepting vaccination cards until I told them. And again, when I flew in on AA and was getting my ticket in London, the BA agent was convinced Greece wasn’t accepting vaccination cards until she went in some back room and then came back to tell me it ‘changed just last night’ when, in fact, the Greek government publicly announced it back on April 19th.

Related: Can Americans finally go to Europe?

“There’s definitely a big disconnect between the government regulations and what the airlines are seeing in their systems. It’s a shame that airline workers are having to enforce immigration-type rules when that was never their job, but [it’s] also a shame that travelers are being punished when the airline workers’ information isn’t up to date and they are not informed.”

Related: Traveling soon? Here’s where you can quickly get a COVID-19 PCR test for travel

In an on-the-record capacity, the International Air Transport Association’s (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.

(Photo by PeopleImages/Getty Images)

Some success stories

“I just transited via LHR and AMS between New York Athens and Iceland,” said Facebook group member Adam White, who, like Warpinski, had success going through other EU countries to get to Greece. “Everything went smoothly in the end, but the process was much more complicated than normal. The U.K. had a lot of confusion with my overnight layover, and my original routing from Reykjavik to Athens was cancelled.”

Related: Traveling to Iceland during coronavirus

White also said he was required to take an unexpected COVID-19 test up on arrival in Athens, but otherwise it was fairly smooth sailing.

Ultimately, most of our readers who experienced surprises at their originating airports were able to find alternative routes that worked for them, but even those had caveats, such as mandatory testing, which added even more to the overall hassle and price tag.

Other data on international transit

To make things easier as additional EU countries open their doors, seven member nations — Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Croatia and Poland — have begun trialing digital COVID-19 certificates as part of their health requirements for entry.

IATA has advised that if a standardized digital system isn’t put in place more widely soon, passengers having their documentation manually checked at the airport could face waits up to eight hours.

Waits in the U.K. — which, like France, employs a stoplight system for rating each country’s COVID-19 risk level — are already in danger of reaching the six-hour mark as officials work to thin out traffic by more evenly distributing it among are airports.

Related: Traveling to Italy during coronavirus

Specific requirements for entry vary by country and include some general mix of vaccination and proof of negative test results within a certain timeframe. Nations with stricter rules might also impost mandatory quarantines or self-isolation upon arrival before your vacation can begin.

(Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

Your mileage will vary (YMWV)

The most important thing to keep in mind here is that, if you choose to resume your pre-pandemic nomadic ways, you’ll need to trade in any rigidity for flexibility. Bring your patience, and go with the flow.

Related: All you need to know to visit Europe this summer

While we’re all super excited to resume travel, doing so post-COVID is new to all of us. Between vaccinations and testing and digital passports and entry approvals and mandatory insurance, there’s a lot going on. The situation is changing constantly, so there’s lots of room for error and frustration — both on our end, as travelers, and on the part of the airlines we’re flying and the destinations we’re visiting.

For each country on your itinerary, check entry requirements frequently — and well in advance — using official government websites. Make sure you know what you’ll need to do to pass muster in each new location, and always have a backup plan. (Tip: Official government Twitter accounts are often great resources for the most updated information.)

Additionally, you might consider avoiding flights with multiple legs right now. Although it could mess with your ability to find the cheapest price or to rack up points in the manner you had planned, it will cut down on the chances that you’ll be prevented from boarding your flight or accidentally violate the rules about transiting through certain countries.

Also pay attention to alerts and warnings. Only you can decide how comfortable you are traveling right now. If you’re someone who like to stick to a strict, set schedule, you might choose to hold off for a few more months until the kinks iron themselves out.

And, finally, be kind to your gate agents. If they deny your boarding, remember that they’re just trying to do their jobs. We know it’s frustrating, but keep your cool. (Throwing a fit isn’t worth possibly being added to the no-fly list!)

Featured photo by Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images.

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