It has been six weeks since returning from France, and I’m still looking back with a bit of wonder at how well everything worked out.
With parts of the world slowly beginning to open up and the plethora of ever-changing Covid protocols, it was a precarious time to venture beyond the borders of our home country. These were uncharted waters, and we took many deep breaths as we made our plans.
I’ve put together a few thoughts and tips that may be helpful for anyone traveling internationally. Keep in mind that these are fluid times and that anything can change or even become obsolete as soon as I write this. My reflections are based solely on our experiences in France in late September 2021.
Choosing Where to Travel
When the trip we’d been planning for two years to South Africa was cancelled in May – six months before we were scheduled to leave – I wasn’t sure we’d be traveling anywhere this year. But the thought of another year of lost travel really saddened me, and I began looking for options that seemed possible and maybe even probable. When I happened upon a Seine River cruise that included a special access, before-it-opens-to-the-public tour of Giverny, I was smitten with that joyful travel spirit once again.
Herb and I thought it made sense to keep our plans as simple as possible. One flight. One country. The cruise was seven days, and with our decision to spend three days in Paris on our own, we would be away less than two weeks. Enough time to dip our toes in the post-pandemic waters and see how we felt.
Until the day we left home, I held my breath every morning as I checked my email. I was certain that the cruise would be canceled or that our flight would be changed. Or worst of all, that France would change its mind and not let us in the country.
The Flight to Paris
We flew Air France from Los Angeles to Charles de Gaulle Paris. Covid vaccines were required to enter France, but we did not need to take a Covid test. Everyone on board was required to wear a surgical mask during the entire nine-and-a-half-hour flight, except, of course, when eating. Cloth masks were not accepted, and the flight attendants offered a proper mask to anyone who didn’t have one.
We had no issues with flight cancellations or rescheduling, but we met several people on our river cruise who had stories to tell about the flight reshuffling they went through to get to Paris. One gentleman from Southern California arrived on the riverboat shortly before we were ready to sail. Two of his flights had been cancelled – the second one was cancelled after he had arrived at the airport. He had also flown Air France from LAX.
Herb and I always arrive several days ahead of time before boarding a cruise. It’s a big help with jetlag and gives us time to explore a city on our own. It may be wise to add an extra day ahead of any scheduled plans when traveling right now.
Tourist Life in Paris
About a month before our trip, France changed its status for U.S. visitors from green to orange. A vaccine QR code called the Pass Sanitaire was now required to enter museums, cafés or restaurants. Herb and I applied online, submitting the requested copies of our U.S. vaccine cards, passports and airline tickets. After waiting several weeks, we both received emails stating that the system was overwhelmed and that we would not be getting our passes.
Our plan was to try to obtain passes in Paris, but it turned out that our U.S. vaccine cards were accepted everywhere in the city as well as in the towns we visited on the river cruise. The French took vaccinations quite seriously, checking our cards for the dates and brands of vaccines, sometimes taking a photo of our cards. It was quite comforting knowing that everyone around us in a café had been vaccinated.
Two days before our cruise ended, I received an email stating that I had been approved for a Pass Sanitaire. A week after we returned home, Herb received his.
Life on the River Cruise
Everyone on our river cruise – staff, crew and guests – was required to be vaccinated. This was a huge incentive for our willingness to travel with a group and spend time in the close quarters of a riverboat. Masks were required in public areas, except when dining or on the top Sun Deck. Everyone was incredibly cooperative. I think we were all so giddy about traveling again, that we were happy to comply with any rules!
Masks were also required when touring indoor sites – as they had been in Paris. The added difference was that on several outdoor tours, they were also mandatory. One of our guides explained that she could be fined if she led a group that wasn’t compliant. The rules seemed to be based on the place we were visiting. Once the tour was over and we were on our own, we could remove our masks.
A Special Time
The biggest surprise to us was the lack of crowds. It felt as if we had the entire city of Paris to ourselves. And on our riverboat, it was a real treat to be two of just 32 passengers. We all joked about being on a private yacht, but the truth was that we sort of were. The Tauck team didn’t let the small number of guests alter any plans, and they seemed genuinely thrilled to be back on the river.
In Case of Emergency, Break Out This Packing Cube
In order to return to the United States, we were required to be tested for Covid within 72 hours of our flight. The thought of being asymptomatic but testing positive or receiving a false positive test was always in the back of my mind. If that occurred, we would be required to quarantine in Paris for two weeks.
To prepare for this worst-case scenario, Herb and I packed two additional weeks’ worth of medications and a few extra clothes – mostly exercise items that didn’t take up much room and could easily be washed in a hotel sink. We put everything in separate packing cubes that we wouldn’t need to open unless our stay was extended.
My other fear was that because the test would be administered before our last stop in Giverny, if I were positive, I would miss my main reason for the trip! If that happened, we decided we would take the train to Giverny after our quarantine was over. For me, having back-up plans is a real comfort, and I am continually reminded of one of our travel packing mantras: When in doubt, throw it in!
Tauck arranged for a nurse to administer Covid tests on the ship. The morning after our test when were walking back to our cabin after breakfast, I saw the nurse boarding the riverboat. “Oh no!” I said to Herb. She’s coming to tell me I tested positive!” In reality, she was on board to test the next group of passengers who were leaving Paris a day later.
Happily, everyone in our group had a negative test.
A Final Thought
There are a few more preparations and hurdles to overcome when traveling internationally right now. You need to be flexible, willing to compromise at a moment’s notice and extremely vigilant about the latest updates that could impact your destinations.
And then there is the issue of wearing masks. It is far from ideal, especially when meeting new people and wanting to recognize their faces. Or when walking into a shop or café and having your smile, well, masked. I learned quickly to show appreciation and friendliness with my eyes and voice, but a smile just can’t be replaced.
These inconveniences were small, compared with the option of waiting to travel until the world returns to “normal times.” I think it boils down to weighing the risks and compromises with your heart’s desire. For me – and I imagine for all of us who love to explore the world – the choice is an easy one.