Travel Diaries: My Trip to Portugal During the Pandemic

A diary of my first time going abroad solo, and what that looks like under COVID restrictions.

As the worldwide quarantine begins to lift and the world begins to spin as it used to, we all have begun to gravitate towards normal again (whatever that may mean). And with the return to pre-COVID lifestyle, comes a newfound motivation to travel the great big world. For some, traveling may mean taking the tread across town to your favorite restaurant, for others it may mean a family beach trip. For me, as a random turn of events would happen, it means traveling abroad to Portugal.

Now, although I’ve been abroad before, it is the first time I will be traveling this far from home nearly alone, while navigating the complexities of COVID travels. So, below I will tell the story as i experience it, from my time at the airport, to my flight home.

Part I: Preflight

2 Weeks Until Takeoff

The first thing I realized about traveling abroad alone is that there is a lot to remember and take care of before you even step on the plane. So, my best advice is to start early.

When going abroad, especially in a world with COVID-19, it’s important to frequently check travel restrictions to prepare what you need beforehand. So, 2 weeks before I went abroad, I started checking US and Portuguese travel restrictions and here is what I found as of July 25th, 2021.

  1. Travel to Portugal as a US citizen is allowed, however, before boarding your flight you must present a negative COVID-19 test that was taken within 72 hours if it is a NAAT test, and 48 hours if it is a rapid antigen test. All requirements apply even if you are vaccinated.
  2. When traveling back to the US from Portugal, you must also present a COVID test that has been taken within 72 hours of boarding the flight. All requirements apply even if you are vaccinated.

Knowing this, and being the slightly paranoid individual myself. I have scheduled two COVID tests (One 72 hour test, and another 24 hours rapid test) to be taken prior to my flight, where I will have print-out copies and email copies on my phone.

The second thing that needed to be completed a few weeks prior to my flight is my banking situation. Many countries world-wide accept VISA debit cards, such as Portugal, so my advice is check your bank’s website to know whether or not you need to inform them about your travels, or you need a ‘travel’ card. For me, using a Bank of America debit card, I did not need to notify my bank nor get a new card. Additionally, BofA and other companies do allow a currency cash exchange if you want pocket change before you leave. But don’t bring more cash than you are willing to lose.

The third item on my 2-week checklist was assuring I had all of my needed documentation. Be sure you have your drivers license, passport, vaccination card, and other ID’s deemed necessary for your trip. I later learned I need to print copies of each document prior to leaving, so knowing where these are will make everything easier for you in the long term.

I’ll see you in a week!

1 Week Until Takeoff

About a week before takeoff is a good place to start scheduling appointments to get COVID tested, and assure that all of your documentation, financial, cellular, and personal stuff is prepared for you to leave (believe me, this will save you lot’s of stress in the future). Also, here is where it may be most beneficial to keep up to date on travel restrictions and daily travel news, just in case any last-minute changes occur.

When scheduling your COVID test, it’s important to make sure the test you are getting will be valid for both the airline you are going on, and the country you are going to, and whether or not they accept email or print test results. You can find this information on the airline website, and the US Embassy and Consulate website, where it has all of the countries and the COVID steps needed to enter/return.

When it comes to scheduling your tests, there are some free options at local CVS and Wallgreens with medical insurance, or there are local drive-through tests found on the city/county website! Personally, I scheduled a local test a few minutes from my house 72 hours beforehand, and a rapid test the day before I was scheduled to leave.

Tip: Usually rapid antigen tests (48 hours) or NAAT Tests (72 hours) are accepted for International travel, just be sure to check ahead of scheduling the test themselves.

When it came to my finances, I informed my bank that I was leaving throughout the week. I also scheduled a currency exchange so I could have Euros on me before my flight. I did this on my banking app, and scheduled to pick it up in 24 hours (this was a bit cheaper than doing the exchange at the airport). I also advise creating an “outline” of anticipated expenses over your trip, this will help you have fun without breaking your wallet.

Tip: Leave yourself some “wiggle-room” in your budget, it will help in the long run!

I also set up an international phone/data plan through my phone company, which cost me $10 a day.

Tip: Download Whatsapp if your company charges me per text and call, it is free and easy to set up.

The final thing I did at the end of the week, I located all of my important documents for my trip including my passport, ID’s, vaccination cards, medical card, and passport card and made 2 copies of each, on e fore my carry-on and one for my suitcase.

Tip: I know 2 copies each may sound like a lot, but it did help me in the long run.

Well. That’s it for my week 1 update, I will check back when I’m in the sky!

Part II: Takeoff

Before I begin, a quick note: The morning of the flight, I woke up very nervous. This feeling in my stomach did not come from dreading the flight itself, but because this was the first time venturing outside of my comfort zone in more than a year. The resounding what if that followed that was scary. I realize now that this is a completely normal feeling, especially after being indoors for so long. However, be confident in the idea that this is not our first time outside, and that many of the COVID preventative measures we apply in our daily lives, apply in an airport as well (as I would soon find out).

So, back to my experience.

The first thing to note when stepping into the airport for the first time in more than a year, is that it looks exactly the same as before, except with more masks. Federal law requires in the United States that masks be worn at all times while at an airport, including on the planes (with the exception of eating or drinking). So, be sure that whatever mask you bring is comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time.

Check in at the airport went relatively smooth, the only difference was that you were required to show a print out or email copy of your negative COVID test at the check-in counter. And, for the few unfortunate souls who were not aware of this requirement, the airport provides rapid-testing near the entrance. However, do not rely on this service, as there was a long wait time at some of the airports I went to, and some lines were too long for some people to reach their flights on time.

After check-in, I found myself going through TSA. The process through TSA was relatively similar to pre-COVID times, with the exception of it being a bit more spread out, and also the plastic dividers between stations.

After TSA, I was left to grab a quick snack and a place to sit and await my departure. The journey through the airport was not as hectic as I thought it was going to be, however, from observation, I advise everyone to arrive a few hours before the flight in case your COVID results are not accepted by the Airline/country you are going to, and you need to take another test.

Part III: The Flight

A quick note about myself: I love airports and flying in planes. The whole process is so exciting to me. So, when it was announced it was time to board, I eagerly gathered my things and headed to boarding.

There is not much to say about the flight other than it was incredibly smooth, and many airlines seem to have a sanitation process down to memory.

With every meal, you are given a sanitizing wipe, and you are required to have your mask on at all times except when eating or drinking. Additionally, your meals come sealed, so that way you are the only person handling it.

Overall, I felt that the flight experience was as safe as it could be, and everyone seemed to follow the guidelines in place.

Minor Tip: Be sure to keep extra alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your bag, as it will come in handy. Also, keep hand lotion in your bag as well, because all of the sanitizing can irritate and dry out your skin.

IV: The Trip Itself

Overall, the trip went about as smooth as the flight there. The weather was nice, there was not an overwhelming amount of people, and it seemed that most of the restaurants and bars adapted to the new social distancing requirement. So, overall I would say, so long as you take precautions, it is relatively safe to travel.

However, there was still a lot to be learned throughout my few days spent abroad. First, some restaurants and hotels require a negative COVID test or vaccination card prior to service. So, my advice would be to either buy self tests in bulk and to just carry around a copy of your vaccination card, it has saved me lots of time and money to just do both. However, this does depend on the country you visit, for Lisbon, Portugal, hotels still required some negative COVID proof. Second, it pays to buy masks and hand sanitizer in bulk. Believe me, this will help you in the long run. And finally, it makes everything way easier if you book a COVID appointment for the flight back a few days prior to departure. I did this, and it saved me tons of time and energy before my flight back home. European countries usually have testing sites at pharmacies, or at major airports for rapid testing, just be sure you are able to submit the kind of test being given before booking.

V: The Flight Back

Ah. So the final step on my journey: the flight home.

To be completely honest, the flight home was a bit bumpier than the ride there. Word to the wise: give yourself at least two hours of layover time before flights, especially if you are traveling internationally.

However, aside from sprinting across the Newark Airport at 3pm on a Monday morning (because if you are going through the airport after traveling internationally, it is a rather lengthy process to get your passport checked), the trip was rather good. My advice however would be, the airports are rather packed in the United States, so if you want to be extra safe, I would advise double masking while you are in the airport.

Fin.

Well folks, that concludes my journey abroad over COVID times. It was ultimately fun, and I hope you learned from my mistakes. To be completely honest, I would recommend traveling to those who have the opportunity, but, I must admit. The most rewarding part of my journey was not standing and looking down at Lisbon or flying high in the air, but it was stepping through the front door after being on a rather long journey.

Stay safe everyone.