UPDATED 5.25.20: Greece, Aruba and Iceland Are Reopening Borders This Summer – Time to Pack?

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UPDATED 5.25.20

As new countries around the globe are opening their borders, I’ll be posting updates here. 

More countries that are likely to begin opening their borders to U.S. travelers soon

Spain is getting ready to open its borders to international travelers this summer

Per Reuters:

From July, foreign tourism will resume in safe conditions. We will guarantee tourists will not take any risks and will not bring us any risks,”  [Prime Minister] Sanchez told a televised news conference, without giving further details.

I personally find this “double guarantee” quite ridiculous (pardon my skepticism) – but still, if you’re hell-bent on vacationing this year, should you pick Spain?

I wouldn’t go to Spain for the same reason I wouldn’t go to Greece. Spain is too fascinating, too rich in culture and history, too beautiful in nature, and too tempting gastronomically. Add a very strong possibility that it will be very crowded this season, and you might find it difficult to minimize your health risks and keep your social distance.

If you must visit Spain, I would check some of those lists of 10, 20, or whatever “best places to visit in Spain” and cross them all off my itinerary. Instead I would stick to off-the-beaten-path places and go in the fall rather than summer.

Chances are you’ll still enjoy the culture, history, and nature in a less crowded and less risky environment. I wholeheartedly recommend Cádiz – an underrated gem of a city where my cousin Timmy and I spent a few amazing days last November. We stayed in a ridiculously cheap oceanfront apartment and enjoyed empty beaches, which were still great for swimming and sunbathing while the beach in Málaga had been literally moving underneath hundreds of sunbathers just a few days prior. The weather should still be warm and pleasant that time of the year, and the crowds should be easily avoidable even in the historic and very popular city center.

COVID-19 hit Spain very hard: 236,000 cases and almost 29,000 deaths.

Other countries likely to reopen borders in the next couple of months to U.S. travelers

Belize: BZE airport will tentatively reopen on July 1. There have been 18 COVID-19 cases and 2 deaths.

Saint Lucia is reopening on June 4, and so far this is the only country that specifically welcomes U.S. tourists. In fact, the U.S. tourists will be the only ones allowed to enter during the first phase of reopening. Saint Lucia has had 18 COVID-19 cases and no deaths.

Antigua and Barbuda is planning to reopen on June 4 with an American flight from Miami. The country had 25 COVID-19 cases and no deaths.

Portugal? Maybe. When they say “Portugal’s doors are open to tourists,” it’s not quite clear to me if they mean all tourists or the ones from the European Union. Portugal has fared much better than its neighbors Spain and Italy with 30,623 COVID-19 cases and 1,316 deaths.

So, here is this new shiny object for all of us travel junkies: three countries have announced they are about to welcome international travelers again. I’ll be honest. When I saw the news, it almost felt like a bunch of butterflies suddenly embarked on a Roman-styled orgy in the pit of my stomach.

Here is my take on [mostly] Iceland reopening borders. This write-up is just thinking (and daydreaming) aloud. In all probability, I’m not flying anywhere this year, and, sorry I have to say this, neither are you.

————End of the UPDATE

Iceland, Greece, or Aruba?

Let’s say you’re considering one of these 3 destinations. Which one?

Shamefully, I’ve never been to Greece or Aruba, but both nations have apparently done a great job containing COVID-19, and I’m happy they’ve found themselves in a position to open up their borders to international travelers. In all honesty, if I had to choose between Greece and Aruba, I wouldn’t think twice: Greece is a big country and has much more to offer a traveler beyond the beaches.

On the other side, Aruba is just a 4-hour flight from New York (provided there is a nonstop flight by the time you want to travel), so that would be almost ideal for those who just want a tropical beach.

However, if there is one place I wouldn’t go until the virus is gone, it’s the beach (unless it’s private and rigorously capacity controlled). I don’t believe there is any logistical way to ensure and enforce the social distancing on a beach. All it takes is one a-hole setting a towel too close to you. Maybe I’m wrong, but until I see the proof that it can be done, I’m out. Not in Aruba, not in Greece, not on the Jersey Shore. Here is the beach near Athens after reopening. Looks organized? Now paint a mental picture of the added hordes of international travelers.

iceland reopening borders

Voice of America: Alimos beach, near Athens, Saturday, May 16, 2020

If I were adamant I had to travel somewhere in 2020, Iceland would perfectly fit the bill.

Iceland is as unique as unique gets

Iceland is incredible. Its nature and landscapes defy comparisons. How it is not on every list of main wonders of the world is beyond me. If you want to land on another planet after just a 5-hour flight (from NYC) look no further. No matter how jaded and well-traveled you are – you will be blown away.

Which is why Iceland reopening is huge news.

Iceland is a pure outdoors paradise. Waterfalls, hot springs, volcanoes, geysers, lagoons, caves, breathtaking ocean views – and that’s before we squeeze in the Northern Lights because they’re not easy (but not impossible) to see in the summer. Then there are beautiful harbor walks and lively bars in downtown Reykjavik. Icelanders gulp down those $12 beers and $25 cocktails like water, and it’s hard even for budget-conscious tourists not to follow the trend, because, boy, do they really, I mean, really know how to have fun! It’s contagious! (Whoops, too soon?)

I stayed in Iceland for one week in August 2017 and kicked myself for seeing so little due to my stupid decision not to rent a car. I promised myself I wouldn’t make the same mistake next time I visit this fascinating country.

Myvatn Bath, by wunee

It seems like some people are already making plans

Last week I stumbled on a couple of posts. One was from Lucky (OMAT), who expressed his maybe/possibly preliminary plans to travel to Iceland this summer. Another one was from Gary (VFTW), who tells him to just go and not worry about anything. I recommend you read both posts including the comments. I thought they were kind of funny. It almost feels as if one blogger is asking his followers for a blessing, while the other tells the first one: Well, you don’t need a blessing, just go. 🙂

iceland reopening borders

The View from my huge wraparound balcony at Radisson Blu Saga Hotel. Some folks don’t like this hotel, but they weren’t upgraded to a humongous suite. 🙂

But what’s interesting to me – strictly theoretically – is this: Would any resemblance to that relative safety of yesteryear travel even be possible in the coming months?

What does Iceland say on reopening borders?

Actually, not much. Just that they are planning on letting everyone in after June 15, at the latest (at least, this is the way how it reads to me).

Let’s go to the primary source, the Directorate of Immigration. Until June 15, 2020, we can’t enter Iceland anyway.

As of 20 March 2020, Foreign Nationals – except EU/EEA, EFTA or UK nationals are not allowed to enter Iceland. These restrictions are valid until June 15 2020.

However, another government announcement from May 12 states the following:

No later than 15 June 2020, travelers are expected to be given a choice between a two-week quarantine or being tested for the virus upon arrival, or otherwise proving that they are free of coronavirus infection. Exact requirements are still being developed but travelers will likely be required to download and use the official tracing app already in use by 40% of the population in Iceland…

Final details on the easing of quarantine requirements for travellers will be announced by the end of May.

It’s still not crystal clear to me from the original source how exactly Iceland is reopening borders. Is it going to admit travelers from countries other than those mentioned in the restrictions announcements? To me the latest government announcement sounds intentionally vague. So let’s presume that the U.S.-based travelers will be welcome; what does it mean to us?

 

Downtown Reykjavik

I’m sure we all agree that a 2-week quarantine is a non-starter for a tourist anyway, so let’s talk about “a choice.”

“Being tested upon arrival” sounds like a good option …

We all want to be reasonably safe, but I think anyone would agree that being in a metal tube (or 2 or 3 tubes) with hundreds of other passengers adds a disturbing who-knows factor to the whole affair. Let’s agree that after spending hours and hours on a plane / planes and in the airport terminal(s) for security check(s) and immigration, it would be great to know that you still don’t have the virus.

Which brings me to the next question. Does Iceland already have a test that can rule it out?

From my very limited-scale research, it seems to me that the answer would be no.

Now please let me reiterate that I’m not a virologist or medical professional of any kind. I might not fully understand these complicated issues, but this is the reason why I’m linking to people and organizations who are. Please follow the links, do your research, and draw your own conclusions.

… until you remind yourself of inherent COVID-19 testing limitations

These limitations have nothing to do with test shortages (I’m sure Iceland has more than enough). The biggest problem is how to make sure that visitors without any symptoms don’t have the disease. We still don’t know everything about COVID-19, but most experts do agree on at least one thing: that asymptomatic and presymptomatic carriers play a huge role in spreading the disease.

Laboratory tests have 2 important characteristics: sensitivity and specificity. Here is an excerpt from ARUP Laboratories, and unlike some scientific sources you might encounter, it doesn’t require the use of a dictionary. Here and thereafter bolding’s mine.

Laboratory tests are characterized by their ability to detect a positive case (sensitivity) and their ability to determine a negative case (specificity). So a sensitive test is less likely to provide a false-negative result and a specific test is less likely to provide a false-positive result.

The most commonly used test to detect COVID-19 is a so-called PCR test. And you have probably guessed what kind of test it is. If you receive a positive result, it can usually be trusted because the PCR test is specific.

These tests are highly specific because they are based on the unique genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2. If a test comes back positive, you can be confident that there was SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA in the specimen collected from the patient.

But what if you’ve received a negative result? Well, that’s a bit more complicated.

When a “no” doesn’t mean “no”

Hvítserkur: by v2osk on Unsplash

Since PCR tests are specific rather than sensitive, a negative result is simply an argument for cautious optimism, rather than a cause for celebration.

In a small study of 51 patients in China who had fever or respiratory symptoms or had been in Wuhan or another endemic area, or had contact with people who had been there, only 71% tested positive by RT-PCR throat swab or sputum sample, while 98% had abnormal CT compatible with viral pneumonia.

In still another study that compared results by different tissue types published in JAMA last month, the nasal swab with RT-PCR testing revealed 63% of hospitalized patients with severe acute respiratory syndrome consistent with SARS-CoV-2 in China were positive.

Source: Fear of the False Negative COVID-19 Test

What makes things even more disturbing, the tests that Iceland (or Greece or Aruba) might run at the airports wouldn’t be regular tests that take days to analyze, but rapid PCR tests like the Abbot ID NOW that can get a result under 15 minutes. Unfortunately, there is a chance they might even be less accurate.

Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic tested 239 specimens known to contain the coronavirus using five of the most commonly used coronavirus tests, including the Abbott ID NOW. The ID NOW has generated widespread excitement because it can produce results in less than 15 minutes.

But the ID NOW only detected the virus in 85.2% of the samples, meaning it had a false-negative rate of 14.8 percent, according to Dr. Gary Procop, who heads COVID-19 testing at the Cleveland Clinic and led the study.

And things are even worse with testing COVID-19 asymptomatic carriers!

Let’s try and see what we’ve found out so far. False negatives might already reach over 30% even in symptomatic patients. Rapid tests might further reduce the accuracy by about 15%. But when you’re dealing with asymptomatic or presymptomatic patients – well, all bets are off!

In the May 13 study by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, researchers have found that accurate COVID-19 detection might even be harder depending on when the test is taken.

Over the 4 days of infection before the typical time of symptom onset (day 5), the probability of a false-negative result in an infected person decreases from 100% (95% CI, 100% to 100%) on day 1 to 67% (CI, 27% to 94%) on day 4. On the day of symptom onset, the median false-negative rate was 38% (CI, 18% to 65%). This decreased to 20% (CI, 12% to 30%) on day 8 (3 days after symptom onset) then began to increase again, from 21% (CI, 13% to 31%) on day 9 to 66% (CI, 54% to 77%) on day 21.

And here is the above conclusion in plain English (where day 5 is the time of symptom onset and FNR stands for False Negative Result).

  • Day 1: FNR Probability is 100%

  • Day 4: 67%

  • Day 5 (SYMPTOM ONSET: 38%)

  • Day 8: 20%

  • Day 9: 21%

  • Day 21: 66%

If I’m reading these numbers right, it means that any kind of testing on arrival doesn’t tell much to anyone. Quite the opposite — by giving you a false negative, it might add to the false sense of security and reduce your vigilance.

I think, by reopening borders so quickly Iceland is taking a huge risk.

Of course, there is still time. Maybe some other types of quick tests will become available by the time of your travel. I’ve seen some reports on sniffing dogs that have been trained to sniff out the coronavirus, but with the information available today, I’ll stay put.

Unless there is a new, more reliable way to test people quickly, I don’t believe traveling to Iceland or any other re-opened destinations (while the infection rates are still on the rise in many parts of the world) should even be on the table.

But Iceland is all about outdoors …

Yes, it is. Which is why my first concern is the flights (although it might be just my paranoia getting the best of me).

But let’s say you made the flight OK. Then what?

Are you sure you’ll be able to split 24 hours a day strictly between “the outdoors” and your own room?

Sure, you’ll rent a car at the airport. Not just to be safer by avoiding public transportation of any kind, including tourist buses, but because it’s the only way to tour Iceland right.

The next safER thing to do would be renting an Airbnb apartment rather than a hotel room. Have an extra deep cleaning / disinfection service before you move in, as I have no confidence that your host will do the right thing even if they promise (hey, remember the bit about my paranoia?).

But then … Are you seriously going to always avoid restaurants and bars that will be packed to (and beyond) capacity? What about their incredible hot springs and spas (no soaking in Blue Lagoon)? Come on, you know you won’t be able to avoid the risks; you don’t have the will power. At least I know I don’t.

Blue Lagoon

Can you buy a travel medical insurance if you get sick?

I rarely buy a travel medical insurance policy. I usually travel for a short time and up until recently I had different versions of credit cards that offered Medical Evacuation services. That’s not the same, of course, but it gave me some – probably false – sense of security. Well, those carefree days are gone. If you, god forbid, catch the disease while traveling, you DO WANT TO BE COVERED!

The problem with travel medical insurance is that most plans exclude epidemics and pandemics if your government has issued a warning for your destination.

CDC issued a Level 4 global warning back in March. So, it would seem that the answer to this question is no.

However, I’ve found at least one plan that doesn’t seem to expressly exclude epidemics and pandemics. I’ve only reviewed it briefly, so investigate for yourself and do NOT take my word for it, but I thought if there was one, there would probably be more.

And there are. This website offers more coronavirus travel coverage options.

If you’ve decided to go no matter what, fly Business Class with as few segments as possible

Despite all the airline promises in the world, I don’t believe flying in times of COVID-19 can be safe. It just boggles the mind that anyone does! Not with the empty middle seat, not with wearing masks, not with adherence to “social distancing.” How anyone can even utter the words social distancing with a straight face in relation to a plane is beyond me!

Having said that, there are things you can do to reduce the risk. Flying in a Business Class cabin, for example, will put a greater distance between you and your fellow passengers. Wearing masks as much as possible onboard and in the terminals will improve your chances even further. Most importantly, try to reduce the number of layovers as much as possible even if it’s going to cost you extra.

From what I know there is only one nonstop flight still operating between the U.S. and Reykjavik: on IcelandAir from Boston. Hopefully, if Iceland does open the borders, they will unlock other U.S. departures soon.

Unfortunately, IcelandAir’s Business Class (called Saga Premium) is a joke – think U.S. domestic First with a slightly updated configuration on a 757 or 767 (I believe it’s 2+1+2 on a 767). Still, for the price it’s not a bad deal. I found $1500 per round trip from my random search in August about twice as much as the cheapest coach seat.

If you want to use miles, you can try Alaska. I’d rather pay cash considering high fuel surcharges and lame hard product.

If you live on the East Coast and can drive to Boston, I don’t think there is a safer way to get to and from Reykjavik. Lie-flat beds be damned if they add an extra segment or two to your journey.

I’ll talk more about safety in air travel during COVID-19 in my next post. This one is already too long.

To recap

A few countries have announced the intention to open their borders for international travelers: Greece, Iceland, and Aruba. While they’ve done a great job controlling coronavirus within their borders, the current COVID-19 testing accuracy is very limited, especially for asymptomatic and presymptomatic carriers. It’s not Icelanders I’d be worried about, but my fellow travelers from the U.S., Italy, Spain, or Great Britain. I wouldn’t make any plans at all at this point until we have a better understanding of how Iceland is going to mitigate the risk.

However, if you’re hell-bent on going, there are things you can do to reduce your exposure to the virus. Fly in Business Class, wear masks, and try to reduce the number of air segments to get to your destination.

Featured Photo: by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash

What about your plans? No judgement, I promise. 🙂

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TimmyD

For my first travel, I’m aiming for late 2020. I only have five vacation days that I must use or lose at my new job, so I’m hoping to see a new place with that. I would consider Iceland but these safest to me feels like something in the Aruba category. I will aim for something that has a direct flight from NYC, DC, or PHL so that I can drive directly there and avoid much interaction. I like the beach but I’m not a sunbather so I think I can avoid people. I’m assuming swimming pools are still not… Read more »

John

Andy, a well though out post during a time of uncertainty. I love the insurance link. I’m one of those nuts (paranoid) who gets the insurance all the time and sadly or not has had to use the policies. I have been to the three places opening up and and stayed at that Radisson Blue minus your awesome suite. I remember being fine for a few nights with points. I am hoping that my trip in October to Easter Island, South America will still be possible. For the summer, if USA opens up, I think I will consider taking a… Read more »

John

Andy, thanks for the tips. However, it seems this trip is already breaking down as i just found out that Copa has cancel 3 of my flights (Chile-Panama, Panama-Suriname, Suriname-JFk). I know I am suppose to be cool and use the airport codeS but too lazy to look them up. My fight to Lima with AA is still on, as well as my LATAM RT to Easter Island with OneWorld miles. This was based on your great post before LATAM went with Delta. I jumped on that immediately but who knew… What is your opinion that if I forced to… Read more »

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