Just as our family was about to cancel a long-awaited trip to Germany this summer, we learned that the country would lift travel restrictions for U.S. residents — only five days before our scheduled flight. When we arrived in Frankfurt the morning of June 26, the airport was uncharacteristically quiet, making us feel, for a moment, like the only tourists there.
After implementing a measured lockdown strategy during the pandemic’s first wave, Germany emerged relatively unscathed but later struggled. The German government responded with more lockdowns, which were finally lifted this summer. And despite Germans’ tendency toward “Zukunftsangst” — fear of the future — people are now luxuriating in the ability to socialize in public spaces again.
Germany’s coronavirus guidelines need not stop you from enjoying a visit, particularly if you focus your sightseeing outdoors. Fans of castles and fairy tales will find plenty to admire. Our family stayed in Marburg, a university town north of Frankfurt that mixes picturesque qualities (steep staircases, winding cobblestone streets, a towering castle) with modern innovation (BioNTech has a new manufacturing plant for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine here).
From Marburg’s old town, visitors can hike up to the Landgrafenschloss (Landgrave Castle) for a spectacular view — and maybe some homemade ice cream at the nearby Bückingsgarten restaurant. Strolling the city’s cobblestone streets, we saw locals relaxing at outdoor cafes. Servers, mostly masked, ferried cappuccino and radler — a popular drink made with beer and citrus soda — to packed tables. Some even brought bowls of water for customers’ dogs.
Here’s what we learned before and during our two-week trip:
The decision to travel: After Germany announced that U.S. residents were again allowed to enter the country, without the requirement to quarantine, our family evaluated the trip from a health and safety perspective. My husband and I are fully vaccinated, and our young children have no conditions that put them at risk for covid-19 complications. In late June, community spread of the coronavirus in Germany was low, with seven cases per 100,000 people, a rate similar to our home state of Wisconsin. In addition, more than 50 percent of the German population had received one vaccine dose. Given these factors, we felt comfortable going ahead with the trip.
Entry requirements: To enter Germany, U.S. residents must present evidence of vaccination, a recent negative coronavirus test or proof of immunity. If you’re fully vaccinated, show your Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-issued vaccine card at the airport in paper form; digital photos of the card are not accepted. If presenting a negative test, you may use either a PCR or rapid antigen test. PCR tests must be taken less than 72 hours before you land in Germany, while antigen tests need to be conducted less than 48 hours before arrival. We scheduled a PCR test for our daughters at a Walgreens drive-through two days before our departure. To prove you were infected with and recovered from the coronavirus, you must show a positive PCR test that was taken between 28 days and six months before your trip; you must also display no symptoms.
On the plane: Per CDC guidelines, passengers must continue to wear masks on airplanes. If you’re flying on a German airline, such as Lufthansa, medical masks are the only type of mask permitted. These include surgical masks or FFP2-, KN95- or N95-standard masks. Because Germany also requires medical masks in public spaces, I stocked up before we left, but once we arrived, I found them readily available at Aldi and other stores.
Helpful apps: Consider downloading Germany’s contact-tracing app, Luca, available on Google Play and Apple’s App Store. The app enables customers to check in digitally at restaurants, stores and other businesses and sends a text alert if you were exposed to the coronavirus. We also used the Navica app, which stores and displays results from Abbott’s BinaxNow rapid antigen test.
WhatsApp was extremely useful for communicating with our German contacts. I used it to call and text friends in Austria and my father back home in the United States, too. The app is popular in Europe; it’s free, and you can text, send photos and conduct voice and video calls.
Navigating “Corona” rules: As in the United States, Germany’s states have different coronavirus protocols and social norms. If you travel throughout the country, expect the rules to shift. Remember, too, that protocols can change rapidly, depending on local infection rates. In general, regulations relating to the coronavirus — called “Corona” in Germany — remain stricter than those in the United States. Unless you’re renting a private house and sticking to outdoor spaces when sightseeing, expect to see these three words a lot: “geimpft, getestet, genesen.” They translate to “vaccinated, tested, recovered.” You must meet one of these criteria to dine indoors at many restaurants and participate in some indoor attractions.
To provide proof of vaccination or recovery, present documentation just as you did to enter Germany. If you need a test, plan to visit an official testing site for a quick swab. (Though at-home test kits are inexpensive and widely available at supermarkets and drugstores, their usage is geared more toward personal health monitoring.) Rapid antigen testing centers in Germany are abundant, fast and reliable. When we needed a test for our daughters before visiting Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland museum, we obtained one easily with a walk-up appointment at a mobile testing site in Lehrte, a town in the district of Hanover. The process took less than 20 minutes, and our kids even received a piece of candy with the printed results. Testing is free for German residents, but a fee may apply for nonresidents.
Hotels: If you are staying in a hotel, know that some also require guests to provide coronavirus documentation — even if you plan to mostly lounge in your room. Speak with your hotel directly to confirm the rules specific to the region, especially if you use a third-party booking website such as Expedia, as we did. In Hamburg, the hotel front desk employee surprised me by asking for coronavirus paperwork at check-in. Although my husband and I always carried our vaccine cards, it was only due to auspicious timing that we had recent tests for our kids.
Masking expectations: With the exception of very young children in some states, individuals must wear medical masks in most public indoor spaces throughout Germany, including in grocery stores, on public transportation and in retail shops. Traveling by car, we visited nearly a dozen towns across central and northern Germany. Almost everyone I saw had a blue or white medical mask, either worn on their face or slipped over a wrist if outdoors. Masks were so common in public that it felt like a fashion faux pas not to have yours visible.
Contact tracing: Germany implements contact tracing, though some states enforce it more rigorously than others. In Hamburg, regulations were the most stringent we encountered. Businesses including retail stores required guests to register with the Luca app before entering, no matter how brief the visit. In Hessen, rules were more moderate: Restaurants used Luca or asked guests to complete a paper form called a “Corona Meldeschein” — even for outdoor dining. However, stores did not conduct contact tracing.
Getting home: Plan ahead for your return trip. All passengers traveling to the United States by air — even if fully vaccinated — must present a recent negative coronavirus test or proof of immunity to enter the country. As a backup, in case we could not find a testing center, we purchased the BinaxNow home test recommended by our airline and carried the kits in our luggage.
If you can’t show that you’ve recovered from the coronavirus, you’ll need to present a recent negative test to return to the United States. Whether you opt to visit a testing site or use a home test, make sure the results are ready before your flight. We used the home tests we had packed, completing them two days before our departure. The process included live video guidance from a proctor. Within 20 minutes, our results were available and loaded onto an app, which we showed to an airport agent before boarding.
Allow much more time at the airport than you think you’ll need. When we returned to Frankfurt for our July 10 flight home, long lines snaked through the terminal, and the sleepy airport we had encountered just weeks ago seemed like a distant memory. But we won’t forget our trip anytime soon.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments on The Post’s live blog at www.washingtonpost.com/coronavirus