Travel in Europe during Covid: my experience in France, Spain, Andorra and Portugal

boat on the river seine in paris

I recently came back from travelling in Europe, through France, Spain, Andorra and Portugal. My head is full of the wonderful experiences I had of great culture, beautiful architecture and delicious food – and I have so many ideas for blog posts, which I’ve added to my list.  However, I also wanted to share my experience of travel in Europe at this time, specifically the covid-related restrictions and requirements. I normally like to focus on more inspiring content, but I did a similar post on travelling to Iceland during Covid, and I had feedback this was useful to other travellers – so I hope this post will be similarly helpful.

Now, I have to start with clarity of what my experience is: I am from the UK and I travelled from London to Paris in France by Eurostar in late September 2021. I then took a TGV train from Paris to Barcelona in Spain. From Barcelona, I took a bus to Andorra and back, and then a train from Barcelona to Madrid.  I couldn’t find a direct overland train from Madrid to Lisbon in Portugal (i know, it’s crazy, right?), so I flew that route, I then took a train from Lisbon to Porto and a flight from to London from Porto. I am also fully vaccinated, which definitely affected my ability to travel in Europe during Covid.

Also, I need to caveat this post with a disclaimer that the information and links I’ll share about travel in Europe during Covid are correct at the time of posting to be best of my knowledge. I hope that my sharing of my experience will help prepare you for your journey.  However, we all know things can change as the pandemic evolves – so please don’t use this as your one and only source of information about travel in Europe during Covid. It is best to check official sources for the latest requirements from the country you want to visit, in case their requirements have changed since I wrote this (or in case they are different based on where you are travelling from).

In this post, I will summarise my experience of each border crossing during my trip.

London to Paris, France during Covid – by train

boat on the river seine in Paris, with grand buildings and a bridge
The Seine in the sunshine

Pre-boarding in London

I booked my ticket on the Eurostar website and they were pretty good at sending emails to make sure I knew the correct information and procedures I’d have to go through before getting the train.  Their website also has a summary of the travel requirements for the destinations they serve.

In fact, they were better than the UK government’s website, which did link to some out of date requirements for France (which caused me some concern for a while!).

I found official information from France here and at the time I travelled to France, as a fully vaccinated person, I needed the following:

  • A ticket
  • My passport
  • Proof of my vaccination – I had this in the NHS App and also as a paper copy
  • A declaration called a Statement of Honour, which I had to sign to declare ‘on my honour’ that I had not had any symptoms of Covid, nor been in contact with anyone who has tested positive.

Don’t you just love the idea of the ‘statement of honour’?  It seems so French and I am here for it!

excerpt from the Statement of Honour required when entering France
Statement of Honour

I was advised to arrive at St Pancras station two hours earlier than my train departed, which I did – and then I had tonnes of time to kill because the check-in didn’t take that much time.  So, bring something to keep you occupied if you are also doing this journey!

Boarding the train

To board the train, the processes I went through were:

  • Scanning my boarding pass to get through the initial gates
  • Having my luggage scanned – but not to the same degree as if I was flying, ie I didn’t have to separate my laptop nor liquids.
  • Seeing a border guard who checked everything: my ticket, passport, vaccination and statement of honour.  They also stamped my passport, which I think was the first time that has ever happened to me travelling in Europe – a side effect of Brexit I guess.

The waiting area did not have any enforced social distancing – though I noticed most people were spacing out and leaving a seat in between them. In addition, everyone kept their masks on.

The train opened for boarding 30 minutes prior to departure, which was plenty of time to get my luggage on board and to get settled in.

On the train

Everyone was required to wear a mask on board the Eurostar, and from what I saw, everyone complied.  The exception is if you are eating or drinking.

selfie of the author with a mask on
Train selfie: can you tell I was excited about this trip?

On arrival in Paris

When my train arrived at Gare Du Nord station in Paris, there were no barriers or checks of any kind. I was simply let off the train and I wandered into the streets of Paris!

grey rooftops of Paris with the Eiffel tower in the background
The rooftops of Paris

In France

In France, it seemed like people were taking Covid pretty seriously and I observed almost 100% mask-wearing on public transport, and indoors. I literally saw one person not complying during my two days there.

Restaurants and tourist attractions require proof of vaccination to enter, which is done by showing your digital passport QR code. I thought I might need to try to use the French covid app, by scanning my NHS information into the French app – but this didn’t work. And in any case, they accepted the QR code from my NHS app.

Arc de triomphe in paris wrapped up in fabric for an art installation with a barrier around it to ensure only those with a covid vaccination pass are allowed in
Covid passport barriers at the Arc De Triomphe

Top Tip: take your paper copy of your vaccination and/or screenshot the QR code, as the NHS app is a little clunky and convoluted – you need to go through four screens before you get to your QR code, so it can be quicker to use the paper copy!

Top Tip 2: make sure you show the QR code for the second shot of your vaccination, as they won’t accept the QR code from the first shot.

Paris to Barcelona, Spain during Covid – by train

Front windows of Gaudí's Casa Batlló in Barcelona
Gaudí’s gorgeous Casa Batlló in Barcelona

Pre-boarding in Paris

My train to Barcelona departed from Gare De Lyon, and there was no request to arrive at any particular time, but I came 30 minutes early just in case. I’d say it was a good idea because it was a busy train with a large crowd trying to get through the barriers. Plus it was a long train, and it took me a while to get down the platform to my carriage.

I had my passport and vaccination certificate with me, naturally, but the only item that was checked before I could board the train was my ticket barcode.

This is because Spain had no covid requirements for overland crossings at its borders. I found the information about travelling to Spain here.

On the train

There was no social distancing on the TGV train: almost every seat was taken. However, just like on public transport in Paris, absolutely everyone wore a mask the entire time on board the TGV train.

As a side note, the High-Speed TGV train was fine, but not especially comfortable. The carriages are fairly well-packed with narrow aisles and limited luggage space. The best view is on the top deck, and there is a café with basic food and drink options. The free onboard wifi is very limited.

The scenery was great, though, especially in the south of France and through the mountains close to Barcelona, though I didn’t manage to get any good photos from the train.

On arrival in Barcelona

Arriving in Spain from France, there were no checks of any kind: I simply got off the train, walked into the station and was free to go into wonderful, romantic Barcelona.

narrow alleyway in the gothic quarter of Barcelona
Wandering the streets of Barcelona

In Spain

Just like in France, mask-wearing indoors or in face-to-face situations was almost universal.  In fact, in Madrid, around half of the people wore their masks even in the street.  However, I didn’t get asked for my vaccination QR code when going somewhere indoors in Spain in the same way that I was in France. I did find that most restaurants offered a digital menu in the form of a QR code you could scan to look up the menu online – to avoid touching a physical menu.

a glass palace in front of a pond in El Retiro park in Madrid
El Retiro park in Madrid

In addition, worth mentioning my train from Barcelona to Madrid, which was not a border crossing, but did still have some restrictions at Barcelona Sants station:

  • I had to scan my luggage before I could go into the waiting area for platforms 1-6, from where my train departed
  • Have my ticket scanned by a member of staff
  • I was given some wipes and hand gel, which was a nice touch!
renfe branded hand wipe and sanitiser gel
Renfe freebies for the train from Barcelona to Madrid

If you’re interested in visiting Barcelona, check out my recommendations on the top 4 things to do in Barcelona.

Barcelona to Andorra during Covid – by bus

Whilst I was in Barcelona, I decided to visit Andorra on a day trip, mainly because I have set myself a challenge to visit every country in Europe and I have not been to Andorra before.

red statue of a man overlooking the mountains at Andorra's Mirador Roc Del Quer
Andorra’s Mirador Roc Del Quer

Pre-boarding in Barcelona

I booked my trip to Andorra with Alsa, a local bus company.  They didn’t give me any instructions about border crossing, but I had already checked the requirements for travelling to Andorra during Covid and they were… pretty much nothing!  The Visit Andorra website said there were no restrictions at the border for people spending fewer than 3 nights there – though I brought my passport and vaccination certificate anyway.

To get on the bus, they did check my passport along with my ticket – but it was more of a quick glance by the bus driver; not a proper border check. There were no covid checks.

On the bus

Everyone including the driver wore a mask. There was no official social distancing, but there was enough space on my bus for everyone to space out. 

Side note: The drive from Barcelona to Andorra was stunning, winding through mountains and past turquoise lakes!

On arrival in Andorra La Vella

There were no checks of any kind on arrival in Andorra’s capital, Andorra La Vella – we all just got off the bus and wandered into town.

Andorra la Vella in the valley between steep mountains in Andorra
Andorra La Vella, nestled in between the mountains

In Andorra

Shop, bar and taxi workers all wore masks indoors and it seemed like all the people there did also – though I don’t think I was asked for my vaccination certificate anywhere there.

One day I’ll write about visiting Andorra, because some things surprised me, including difficulty connecting to the internet there!  There didn’t seem to be much 3G or 4G around, which made things more complicated.

Madrid to Lisbon, Portugal during Covid – by plane

As I said earlier, I’d really wanted to go by train all the way to Portugal, but the direct trains between Madrid and Lisbon stopped with Covid and I read they aren’t recommencing – which is a real shame!  Therefore, I flew from Madrid to Lisbon.

At the time I flew, the requirement to enter mainland Portugal for vaccinated visitors from the EU was just proof of vaccination. You can check their requirements here.

archway and yellow buildings in Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon, glorious in the sunshine!

Pre-boarding in Madrid

I checked in to my Easyjet flight online and I only had carry-on luggage, so I didn’t have to check-in at Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport (unlike the forced check-in when I flew to Iceland).

However, they did check I had a boarding pass before they even let me into the airport, which was a surprise!

Going through security was just like pre-covid times – and waiting for gate information was pretty normal, except there were signs on the seats to prevent people from sitting next to each other. This did mean the initial waiting area in Madrid airport was quite crowded with people standing around, waiting for their info.

Shortly before boarding at my gate, the Easyjet staff checked everything: my ticket, my passport and my vaccination passport. It crossed my mind that if I had not had everything present and correct, it would have been too late to do anything about it!

On the plane

My experience on the plane was similar to my experience flying to and from Iceland: the plane was full and everyone wore masks, without exception, the entire flight.

On arrival in Lisbon

After disembarking and before the baggage hall in Lisbon’s airport, there was a queue to have our documents checked by the police. They checked my vaccination certificate and my passport.

After the baggage hall, at the ‘nothing to declare’ customs gate, there was a sign saying they were checking temperatures. But actually, they weren’t doing that – so I walked right through.

yellow funicular carriage on a steep hillside in lisbon
The iconic yellow funicular in Lisbon

In Portugal

Portugal’s general approach to Covid seemed similar to Spain: no requirement to show a vaccination certificate to go into restaurants etc, some restaurants had installed plastic barriers between tables, and some had a barrier at the door to prevent walk-ins. And like in Spain, menus were typically digital.

Everyone wore masks indoors, in taxis etc.

If you’re thinking of visiting glorious Lisbon, read more about the best things to do in Lisbon.

Porto to London, UK during Covid – by plane

Returning to London, involved by far the biggest number of covid-related restrictions – and that was because I travelled before the rules were relaxed on 4 October, which meant I had to:

  • Taka pre-departure covid test (which cost $85)
  • Book a Day 2 test (this cost £60)
  • Complete a passenger locator form
  • Show proof of vaccination
  • Day a test on Day 2 after I returned home.

If I had travelled after 4 October 2021, I would have been able to skip the pre-departure test.

You can check the rules for entering the UK here.

arched bridge and riverside buildings Porto in Portugal
Porto in Portugal

Pre-boarding in Porto

There were no boarding pass checks at Porto airport doors like there were in Madrid. I entered the airport and went through security in the airport like normal.

Like in Madrid, the Ryanair staff checked all my document (boarding pass, passport, passenger locator form and vaccination certificate) at the gate right before boarding.

On the plane

The same as the flight to Lisbon, it was very almost full and everyone wore masks. The staff did drinks, food and duty-free rounds just like they used to pre-covid – everything seemed the same except with a mask on.

On arrival in Stansted Airport

Arriving back in the UK after my travels in Europe, there was only one check at Stansted, which was a passport check. I went through the electronic gates for an automatic passport scan, with most of the other arrivals.  The queue for this was huge, but it was often huge before covid, so I can’t say that this was any different.

In case you were wondering, it also wasn’t any different in terms of being a British Citizen vs an EU citizen – we were all in the same huge queue. So anyone hoping for priority treatment for British at British borders after Brexit: you may be disappointed.

In London

It struck me coming home from the airport that people in the UK don’t seem to be taking Covid as seriously – or at least some people aren’t.  As my taxi journey came to a close, I noticed my taxi driver had his mask pulled down. And when I took the train into London to drop off my Day 2 test, only 35-40% of people on the train had a mask on – despite it being a requirement on all London public transport.

Overall reflections on travel in Europe during Covid

people wearing mass inside Porto's Sao Bento railway station
Porto’s Sao Bento station

Thinking overall about my travels in Europe during Covid, I have two main observations:

  1. I felt really safe travelling in Europe during Covid: the mask-wearing and the vaccination-checking made me feel like the risk of infection was low.  I also felt free to do more and to enjoy the exciting cities I was in – and I was so grateful to have been able to travel. I know it’s a privilege and I’m super thankful for it.
  2. There’s a strange contradiction with the UK’s response to Covid & travel
    1. The strictest covid entry requirements were to re-enter the UK – it was far easier to enter all four of the other countries I travelled to during this trip
    2. Despite this, the UK populations’ observance of covid requirements on public transport was very inconsistent. It was noticeably different to my experience to the continent, where the vast, vast majority wore a mask. It made me wonder why things were so different in the UK… though I don’t really have any answers on that.

I hope this helps you anticipate and prepare for your travels in Europe!

If you have any questions on anything I haven’t covered about travel in Europe during Covid, let me know!

And if you’re interested in train travel across Europe, check out Seat61, which is a really helpful blog with lots of detailed information about trains in Europe.

Finally, if you want to know more about my adventures in Paris, Barcelona, Andorra, Madrid, Lisbon and Porto, sign up for my newsletter (below), so you don’t miss the blogs I will be writing as soon as I can!

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2 thoughts on “Travel in Europe during Covid: my experience in France, Spain, Andorra and Portugal”

    1. Hi, there. Yes, if you travel to Europe via the Eurostar from St Pancras, you need to go through passport control and they’ll stamp your passport. There can be queues, so you need to arrive early enough to make it through security and passport control before your flight – the Eurostar website can advise how early to arrive.

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