Traveling during Covid – part II: Portugal

Disclaimer: all mentioned information of this blog article is based on my personal experience, opinion, and decisions. I do not advertise traveling during a pandemic, but just describe my experience to answer questions of my readers. 

We have planned 3 weeks of work break in November 2020. In the beginning of the year, we thought that this might be a good time because the pandemic will have calmed down at the end of the year. We all know, that this didn’t happen. Nor would have anybody expected that we are hitting a second big wave at that time of the year.

However, we had 3 weeks of holidays from work and needed to take it. So what to do now?

Should we just stay at home? What we did the whole year already? Our inner voice told us that we need a change of environment – also for psychological health reasons. And even if it would just mean going to the mountains in Bavaria. It was not about traveling far, but just getting out of our usual environment. But hotels in Germany were all closed down. Traveling within Germany was not allowed.

Initially we wanted to go to Greece

Initially we have planned a trip to Greece that we’ve booked two weeks before the beginning of our holiday. Greece seemed to be the place in Europe that was hit by Covid the least at that point of time. The North of Greece was already affected higher than the rest of the country. But Crete, an island in the South with low infection numbers, seemed to be a great option.

What was clear to us is that we didn’t want to leave Europe because we wanted to keep the flight time as short as possible. For us, the inside of the airplane was the riskiest place to get infected during a travel. Therefore a place in Europe with maximum 2 or 3 hours of flight time was what we were looking for.

But everything turned out differently

As everything in 2020, it turned out differently. Two days before our flight to Crete a lockdown for whole Greece was decided – quiet unexpectedly. Considering the fact that Germany for example was already affected way more hit by the second wave and no further measures were taken at that point of time.

So we were back at the beginning of our decision: Should we just stay at home? Is it the safest and most rational decision? What is more important: the psychological health or the physical health? And what about our fellows: how much risk does it mean for other people if we travel? Or will all the people on an airplane have the same attitude? Do we support economy and industry if we travel to another country and help small companies to survive? Or do we risk to infect others? Questions over questions. Doubts over doubts.

After checking many options we decided to travel to Portugal already on the next day. Portugal has been declared as a risk country. So has been Germany. Therefore for us it felt like the risk is kind of the same in both countries. You might argue differently. And that’s ok. But it’s the decision we took.

After a very long introduction now, I’d like to answer some questions that might be interesting for those who are thinking about traveling during a pandemic.

Is it safe to travel during a pandemic?

This is the most frequently asked question and a though one. I can’t answer it. 

The safest is to stay at home for sure – meaning in your apartment. But do you do that in your home town? Do you only stay in your apartment in your home town? Probably not.

For us personally, there were three main factors to consider: how is the situation at the place where we will go? Do we risk infecting other people that might not have access to good health care? And how will the flight be? As the situation in Portugal was similar than in Germany, it didn’t make a big safety difference for us. 

But what about the airplane and the airport? We didn’t know what to expect and didn’t know how safe or not safe it will be. What we got were empty airports and plains and our own safety measurements (FFPT masks, hand sanitizer, desinfection wipes and spray for arm rest and tray).

Now the question might arise: but what if everybody would travel, then the airports and planes would be full. Yes, that’s true. 

How are the Covid measures in Portugal?

As they are constantly changing like in every other country, I’m providing you here with the link to the official governmental rules in English: https://covid19estamoson.gov.pt/new-state-of-emergency-measures/ 

Here you can find the rules per municipality / town:
https://covid19estamoson.gov.pt/lista-de-concelhos-nivel-de-risco/

In general the approach is like in most European countries, maybe a bit less strict than in Germany because as of now shops and restaurants are open. Masks, distance, gathering of max 5 people and sanitizing hands when you enter shops and restaurants are the basic rules. 

Update Jan 2021: This has been changed now and Portugal is in lockdown.

Besides these national measures, there are local measures that are taken depending on the amount of infections. Municipalities are clustered in 4 groups: moderate, high, very high and extremely high risk. When a municipality exceeds a certain amount of infections, stricter measurements are taken e.g. curfey at night, limitation of restaurant opening hours or a curfew on the weekends.

However, please check https://covid19estamoson.gov.pt/ for the current rules as these change in fast pace like in most countries.

How was it at the airport in Munich and Lisbon?

We were flying from Munich airport and it was very empty. There was only one check-in counter open and we were asked to self-check in our bags. Therefore there were also no people queuing at the security check. In the security area there were few more people because of course there were still several flights going on that day. However it felt very empty throughout the whole time in the airport. We could keep enough distance at every time and there are sanitizer dispensers throughout the whole airport. 

We had to fly via Brussels because there was no direct flight available as we were just booking 1 day before. In Brussels the airport was almost like a ghost town. All shops and all restaurants in the airport were closed. Only Starbucks was open – thank god because we had to wait 3 hours there. At that time Belgium had the highest infection numbers in Europe and therefore flights to and from Brussels were kept to a minimum.

Arriving in Lisbon, the picture was completely different. It was busy, shops and restaurants were open and it seemed almost like a normal day before the pandemic.

How was the flight?

Both flights, from Munich to Brussels and from Brussels to Lisbon were great. Both flights only half or a third booked and the airlines placed the passengers with at least one, mostly two or even three empty rows in between each other. Middle seats were mostly empty and if not, it seemed like the people were traveling together.

We had FFP2 masks for the travel time and with the huge distance to the other passengers felt very safe. 

However we were not sure if the airlines really disinfected the seats, tray and arm rests. Therefore we did this with our own disinfection spray just when we got on the plane and again when we left it.

(By the way, I always used to clean the tray already before the pandemic.)

How are the hygiene standards in Portugal?

The hygiene standards seem to be the same as in every other European country. People also very strictly stick to the mask rule. Many people also were the mask in the streets voluntarily. 

The Portuguese tourism board introduced a signet „Clean & safe“. Hotels with this signet declared to comply with the requirements defined by Turismo de Portugal, in accordance with the guidelines of the Directorate-General for Health. You can read more about it here: https://www.visitportugal.com/en/content/clean-and-safe

Do you live in an hotel or apartment?

We generally prefer apartments over hotels for longer stays because we like to have a kitchen, a desk and a bit more space than in a hotel room. During the pandemic it also feels better to have an own apartment without cleaning service to make sure that no strangers enter our place day by day. And an own kitchen to make sure we can cook by ourselves and don’t need to eat in restaurants three times a day.

When arriving at the apartment we disinfected the most important surfaces, door handles, sinks, toilets, etc. and after this we felt very comfortable. We have no cleaning or room service. Thus, we are the only ones entering this apartment. This was important to us.

How is it on the spot? Can you do guided tours? Are the restaurants open etc.

Here in Portugal it is not way different than in e.g. Spain, Italy, France and Germany. There are measures to stick to. Most people do so.

We are in the South of Portugal, at Algarve in a small town. That is why it feels less crowded for us compared to Munich. The more west you go in Algarve, the smaller the towns and villages get, the less populated the places are and the fewer people you probably cross. The advantage for us personally is that we don’t know anybody there, so we don’t meet up with other people, plus we don’t live in a big town so it is easy to keep enough distance to other people.

In general there are more establishments open than in Germany right now. Restaurants, Cafés, Shops & gyms are open – of course have some restrictions like limited amount of people that can enter or restricted open hours.

Update Jan 2021: This has changed now and Portugal is in lockdown, shops etc. are closed. Please always refer to the official website for the current Covid rules: https://covid19estamoson.gov.pt/

As it is winter here and due to the pandemic there are very little tourists here, most guided tours seem not to take place. However I’m sure that providers that are on the spot are happy to offer one if you would ask for. 

What is your conclusion after having traveled to Portugal during Covid?

After having spent some weeks in Portugal now, this is what we’ve noticed in our personal behavior and how traveling during a pandemic is like.

  1. We have almost no human interactions. As we do not know any people here, we have no friends here, we do not live in a hotel, we have almost no human interactions. We do not meet different friends, we do not meet family. Because they are not there. We speak to our beloved ones via video calls. Because we are forced to. In Munich we would meet friends and family once in a while. Already in Munich we reduced our personal meetings to a minimum. However, not to go crazy at one point, sometimes we meet friends and family. I assume most of us do.
  2. We spend more time outside. In Germany it is winter and around 0 degrees. We would either stay in our apartment or meet friends at our or their place or in a restaurant. Here in Portugal we go to cafés and restaurants, but whenever possible we try to sit outside. That is mostly the case. We do not take public transportation because we can walk everywhere in our town.
  3. We live here rather than being tourists. We have been in Portugal for 2 months already now. And I think this is key. Yes we were in an airplane, where the risk of an infection might have been higher than anywhere else. But is it really higher than spending an evening with 5 friends in a tiny restaurant in Munich and then going home in a crowded metro? I’m not sure.
    Right now we live more in Portugal than we are tourists here. We have our own apartment, we work from home, we don’t go on guided tours or tiny boats or go to restaurants and cafés every day. We don’t move from one town to the next, explore new places every days, nor do we visit many different places here.
  4. Psychological health.
    We personally feel very good in Portugal, we feel safe and our mood is better than it we would have stayed in Germany. Self-care is an important aspect on our travel to Portugal.

All in all for us personally traveling during a pandemic is possible. Maybe we just have to change the way we travel. Maybe we should prioritize longer trips over many short weekend trips? Apartments and cooking on our own over hotels and restaurants? Maybe we can only do one or two trips a year instead of 10? Whenever possible we should prefer local trips close to our home or day-trips. 

It feels ridiculous to mention, but: Each and everyone has to take responsibility and act hygienically and of course, you should be aware of the local Covid measures any time and stick to them. 

Maybe airlines and other travel companies will take some responsibilities from travelers by certain restrictions, like negative Covid proof, compulsory vaccination? We will see what 2021 brings.

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