Our last trip to Spain was exactly two years ago and it was a lot simpler all the way round. Just as 911 changed travel in 2001, Coronavirus is changing the way we travel now. There are several new procedures required and I’m thinking that some will fade away and some will become the new normal for travel. If any of you are planning to travel international in the near future, I hope this is helpful.
Accommodation Reservations are a Must. On the Camino, hotel rooms and albuergues are plentiful but now they are limiting their capacity because of mandated COVID restrictions. It varies from province to province but some are as low as 30% of their normal capacity. We’ve read that many of those walking the Camino are sleeping outdoors because they can’t get a room or a bed anywhere within reason. After two or three days of this, several have called it quits and gone home. Theresa and I spent countless hours planning walking distances and finding hotels, hostels or albuergues where we could reserve a room or beds.
Travel Requirements are Volatile: It’s necessary to keep a constant watch on the entry requirements for countries you wish to visit. The more countries, the more requirements which can change without notice at anytime. We restricted our travel to “Spain only” so we could avoid crossing a border and having to deal with multiple requirements. Spain’s only requirement at the time of our travel was to be vaccinated. Just a few days prior to our departure, Italy decided to require all visitors to quarantine for 14 days while France requires a negative PCR test within 72 hours prior to arrival.
Days before our departure, the European Union (EU) made a recommendation to its 27 members to restrict non-vaccinated United States citizens from entering their countries. Each European country then decides whether or not to accept the EU’s recommendation. This volatility will continue until COVID is contained … and then what happens when the next COVID variant arrives? Consult your crystal ball because nobody knows!
Digital Vaccination Passports: Theresa and I have been vaccinated and now we have to prove it to Spain and American Airlines before being allowed to board the plane to Spain. After purchasing our airline tickets we were encouraged by American Airlines to enroll in their VeriFLY program which acts as a digital vaccination passport. To complete VeriFLY, we needed to receive a QR code from the health department of Spain. To fulfill the above is a two step process.
1. Download Spains SpTH app. This process is probably similar for other countries too. Follow the directions to fill out a request for a QR code. The typical information like name, address, passport #, etc. can be completed at anytime. But the covid information can only be completed within 48 hours of departure. It asks the typical covid questions, like “have you been exposed to anyone with COVID in the last 14 days”. It also asks for the date your COVID vaccination was completed and what type of vaccine you received.
After completing the form correctly, you will receive your QR code. The trick question for us was the “which vaccine did you receive?” We couldn’t find “Pfizer” on their list. It turns out that Pfizer goes by several names and here it was listed as Comirnaty. Completing these forms can sometimes be a problem solving experience.
2. Download the “VeriFLY” app from American Airlines. It would probably work best to add it your your cell phone as opposed to a computer. However, if doing it on a computer, you could print out the QR document and take it with you to check in. VeriFLY is available for all of the countries American Airlines travels to, not just Spain. The other airlines probably have similar apps. It will ask you to take a selfie photo and complete some of the typical info. Similar to the SpTH app, much of it can be done in advance but you are not able to complete it until you have the QR code from SpTH.
A Confident Traveler: Once again, when you complete the VeriFLY form correctly, it will reward you with a digital credential that has your photo and a VeriFLY QR code. It proudly boasts, “A Confident Traveler” over your photo. When you check in for your flight, you provide your VeriFLY digital document to the airline rep and boom you’re done.
Be a Smart Traveler: The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program is a free service that allows US citizens traveling or living abroad to receive the latest security updates from the nearest US embassy or consulate. For us, that would be the US Embassy in Madrid. The embassy will be able to contact you in case of an emergency. If your friends or family back home are having difficulty reaching you with urgent news, the US embassy can try to reach you.
Coming Home to the US: The United States requires its citizens to take a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test within 72 hours of returning. This means the airlines will want to see the results before you board your flight home. We’re flying American Airlines and they offer a verified PCR tests for purchase and it was reasonably priced compared to other similar tests. So we bought a 6-pack of tests rather than take a chance finding an appointment somewhere in Madrid or having the results not be accepted by American Airlines. It ended up costing each of us $85 for three tests. They recommend having a back up test so we each carried two tests with us to Spain.
Verified PCR Tests: After ordering and receiving the tests, the next thing required is to download the NAVICA app by scanning the QR code on the package. The test is actually a Zoom call to a technician (whom you find through Emed) who watches you take the test and verifies the results by emailing you a QR code. The QR code is proof of your PCR results for the airlines and US customs.
This may sound complicated but it really isn’t. The directions on the package are easy to follow. I downloaded the apps and did a test run at home just to learn how it works so it will be easier to accommodate from a hotel room in Spain.
My suggestions: If you are planning a trip to Spain or elsewhere, reserve some time a day or two before you leave to complete the digital forms … like 2-3 hours. Sit down with a cup of coffee. You don’t want to be rushed. If you are like me, human errors happen when completing digital forms and I rarely get them right the first time through. Be a problem solver! If the form keeps indicating errors, look at it as a puzzle you’re trying to solve. Usually it’s something very simple that is easily overlooked.
If you have trouble filling out online forms, get a second pair of eyes to help. The younger the eyes, the better. High school and college age students seem very astute at this and for many of them it is very intuitive.
So How Did it Go? Departing MSP: Check-in at American Airlines was smooth and easy. A delightful ticket agent name Gabby was impressed when I flashed my VeriFLY credentials. She was knowledgeable which helped us navigate this new procedure. We have TSA pre-check so there was no waiting in line. The experience at MSP airport was easy, fast and smooth. Might I add that MSP has some of the best restrooms ever seen at any airport. The flight boarded and left on time. Flight service was good. All passengers were masked and did what they were suppose to do. No incidents.
Breathing easy: One noticeable difference on this flight was the plane’s super pure cabin air. Even with a mask on, in a cabin full of people, you could tell the air was different. It felt fresh and light … like being at a lung spa. When allowed to take the mask off for a glass of wine and dinner, it was very noticeable. According to the American Airlines email received prior to the flight, “HEPA filters refresh the cabin air every 2 to 4 minutes so you can breathe easy.” And that statement was true. It made the flight a much more pleasant experience.
Arriving at the Madrid Airport: Going through Immigration is always slow and this airport did that really well. At the start, they only had two immigration agents working to accommodate our flight of several hundred passengers. It took 45 minutes of going through the line maze. The hard marble floor was not kind to the feet. Eventually two more agents arrived and the line moved slightly faster. Next step was to take the airport’s link tram to Customs. The tram ride was really long but it did get us to the correct place. The custom agent wanted to see the SpTH QR code document. After he dismissed me, another agent appeared and went through it more thoroughly. She wanted to see my vaccination credentials in addition to the QR code … they take this very seriously. This is when being totally prepared pays off. We were now done with the entry process and on our way.