5 tips for booking flights to Europe this summer when the EU reopens to vaccinated Americans
Huge news for travelers: the European Union is expected to reopen its borders to American travelers who have been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, The New York Times reported Sunday.
The reopening plan has not been finalized yet, according to the Times, and there are few firm concrete details. Still, the news is welcome for travelers and ex-pats after more than a year of myriad border closures and travel restrictions that have heavily curtailed movement across the Atlantic ocean.
More: Reopening Europe: When can you visit again? A country-by-country guide
A number of obstacles remain to actually restarting mass travel, including figuring out standards for proof of vaccination. There's also the fact that even if a country's external borders are open, new outbreaks or spikes could mean regional lockdowns.
So while we're excited for European travel to resume, there are a few things to keep in mind as you book your summer vacations.
1. Take advantage of flexible booking policies — and avoid basic economy
The travel situation may not be as rapidly changing as it was last spring, when policies were changing and new rules were popping up and reversing seemingly every single day. But the state of travel remains in flux, with a "non-linear recovery" defining the current period, as airline CEOs constantly remind investors.
More: Want to travel to Europe this summer? Here’s what you need to know
That means that even when travel reopens, there's no guarantee that it remains open, or that new, onerous requirements — such as a mandatory quarantine — aren't added later.
Fortunately, most U.S. carriers have waived change fees going forward for all flights originating from North America. If something comes up and you can no longer travel, you can either change your dates, or cancel the flight altogether and get a voucher or credit to use for a different flight. Note that if you change your dates, change fees are waived, but a fare difference may apply.
There's one important catch: that doesn't apply to basic economy. If you book those tickets, you won't be able to change your flights at all — it's use 'em or lose 'em, unless you get lucky and the airline cancels your flight for some reason.
2. Book all of your flights on a single reservation, if possible.
One popular European vacation idea is to fly into a city, spend some time road-tripping or taking trains across the continent to explore, and flying home from a different city.
While there's appeal to that option, booking the legs as separate one ways could lead to complications down the road during the pandemic.
More: Now that Europe is reopening, here are some of our favorite cities
At some point, proof of vaccination may need to be linked to your flight reservation. The same is with possible testing requirements, or even rules for transiting certain airports.
To keep things as simple and seamless as possible, try to keep your flights on as few reservations as possible. This includes award flights — ideally, you'll want to book a round-trip award instead of separate bookings for your outbound and return.
Some airlines allow you to book "multi-city" tickets, so if you're keen on arriving in one city and leaving from another, that would be your best way to book. Just keep in mind that each time you transit, you could be subject to new testing requirements — and that could become more complicated if your inbound and outbound transatlantic legs aren't part of a single itinerary.
While the TPG team often encourages using creativity to find deals and more flexibility, this may not be the best time. Don't worry; you can still find some fantastic deals!
Want more airline-specific news? Sign up for TPG's free new biweekly Aviation newsletter!
3. Keep on top of changing rules and regulations
You may have noticed a theme here: the rules surrounding travel are fluid and constantly changing based on the most up-to-date situation on the ground. That means that if you're planning to travel abroad, you should be prepared to roll with the punches.
That means staying on top of rules as they pop up for each destination. Do you need proof of a negative test before arriving? How long before your flight should the test be administered? Is your CDC vaccine card sufficient proof of vaccination, or will you need to fill out a form or apply for a different card? Will you need to quarantine? What happens if, against the odds, you test positive?
The best thing to do once you make a reservation is to keep an eye on your destination's policies. TPG will be constantly updating our guides and lists, so be sure to check back here. Also check with your airline and on the State Department website in the days before your trip.
Also be sure to keep up to date with your airline's health records systems. United currently allows passengers to upload proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test through their app.
4. Keep an eye on your reservation for unexpected changes
One of the consequences of those shifting rules, regulations and wavering demand is that airlines frequently need to adjust their flight schedules.
That could mean anything from a change of aircraft types to a prolonged suspension of service. Flight times might change based on equipment or connection needs; whole routes could be added, removed, or suspended — sometimes with little notice.
As you plan for your trip, periodically check your flight reservation, especially considering how dynamic the international travel picture remains. While airlines will typically notify you of a schedule change, it's always possible that an e-mail ends up in your spam folder, or a notification doesn't get sent out. Staying on top of it gives you more time to troubleshoot in the event of an unexpected change.
5. Set yourself up for a pleasant flight — and expect some things to be different
Congratulations! You're booked on your first long-haul flight since the pandemic began!
Before you head to the airport for your European vacation, make sure you know what to expect.
Although most airlines have restored some or all on-board service to their domestic flights, future service changes on international flights are still possible. That could mean fewer drink services to limit face-to-face interactions, or abbreviated meal or snack services.
Expect masks to remain an in-flight requirement for the near-term, and be aware that blankets and pillows may be unavailable.
Do yourself a favor: check your airline's website before your flight. Maybe you'll want to bring extra snacks on board, or your own extra-large bottle of water, or a sweatshirt or travel pillow.
And of course, be sure to keep an eye on TPG for all the updates as the world reopens to travel. You can sign up for our daily newsletter here, as well as our bi-weekly aviation newsletter here.