photo taken from airplane over lake michigan, with the chicago skyline

A happy (brief) return to my favourite view – the Chicago skyline as we approached ORD over Lake Michigan

I had a hard time deciding what to write about for my second blog post. I have quite a few ideas rattling around my head, But in the end, I’ve always been a travel blogger in my heart—I’ve kept a couple of different travel blogs over the years—so I decided to write a few posts about my recent trip to Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany.

I have wanted to attend a competition in Oberstdorf for as long as I can remember. Skaters and their families and coaches always speak about Oberstdorf so fondly, often comparing it to Lake Placid, which is one of my favourite skating destinations in North America. And attending Nebelhorn when it’s the last-chance Olympic qualifier has been even more of a dream. Idyllic Alpine town with skating competition featuring maximum stakes and peak emotions?! Yes please!

I was supposed to go in 2017 for a big family trip, but my husband took a job that required us to move from Chicago to California in September 2017, and we had to shelve the Nebelhorn expedition. Then in September 2018, I was eight months pregnant. In 2019, we decided on a Grand Prix Final trip to Europe. And in 2020, well, things were a mess. So here we were in 2021. We kicked around the idea all year, but never really made a firm decision, because we were trying to wait and see how business would go once I got back to regular work. I applied for a photo credential in the second half of August, but I still wasn’t sure that things would fall into place.

It was about September 10th, and I was still checking flights daily (and holding reservations for 24 hours, but letting them go), when I started to get pretty antsy. I checked in with a colleague and learned that some people had received denials to their credential applications, but we couldn’t find anyone who’d had a positive response. It seemed that perhaps the German skating federation had forgotten to send out the positive responses, but I couldn’t bank on this. I’d booked travel before when I had assumed that my credential application would be accepted, only to get a denial, and to be stuck with a nonrefundable trip. I did have a small apartment booked, and it was refundable until September 16. According to recent travel restrictions put into place, I wouldn’t be allowed to enter Germany from the U.S. without a quarantine, unless I had a credential to the event. So I decided to wait, and I finally heard the news that I had been accredited on Wednesday, September 15. I planned to check in at the event one week later, on the 22nd.

I booked a flight immediately, knowing that I had 24 hours to cancel if we changed our minds. My husband had been handling the bulk of the toddler and general family care while I edited like mad in the height of my busy season, and it was asking a lot of him to just disappear for a week. Fortunately, he was very supportive and enlisted some help from his family, who are always happy to spend time with our little one. So I forged ahead with plans.

photo of meal from premium economy flight, chicago to london

Upgraded meal & wine in AA’s Premium Economy, ORD to LHR

On Booking International Flights with Little Notice:
I had only done this twice before, and both were due to giant mistakes that I had made, so I was in a different mindset. This time, I was stalking the flights for weeks ahead of time. They went up drastically once about three weeks out, then they went back down and were quite reasonable—under $1000 for a round trip to Munich from a non-hub airport. But once we were about two weeks out, the flight prices started creeping up, and they went up a lot about a week out. I usually plan ahead much further in advance for big trips, so I can’t say if this is typical or a product of limited travel due to COVID-19. I will say that my overseas flights were reasonably full, though.

My family almost exclusively flies American Airlines. It’s been extremely worth it to us to pick an airline and stick to it, especially given how much we have traveled in the past few (typical) years. I’ll share more about this some other time. So when flight prices in economy started creeping up, I decided to buy a premium economy ticket. The slightly higher class meant that I was able to secure Platinum status for next year, which is well worth a ticket that costs just a bit more. And a more comfortable seat meant that I was able to sleep a bit on the flight over, which was very important, as I am Getting Older and no longer able to bounce through jet lag like I used to.

Flying Internationally in a COVID-19 World:
First, I’ll say that it was not easy to navigate the restrictions and rules for different countries, even for a fairly seasoned traveler. If you’re planning an international trip in the near future, you’ll need to make sure you’re checking the official government websites for the country that you’re hoping to enter, as the airline websites and other travel sites may not necessarily be up to date. The airline probably won’t be able to offer much advice besides “check the website,” so you’re on your own to figure things out before your flight. As if I needed more travel anxiety.

To enter Germany without quarantining at the time of my trip, I needed an approved reason for travel, since the increased number of COVID-19 cases in the United States over the summer had put us on Germany’s “list.” Since I was an accredited participant in an approved international sporting event with a testing protocol in place and since I am fully vaccinated, I was allowed to ask for an exemption from quarantine, and it seemed that the request would probably be granted. I also needed to fill out a digital registration so that the local health department would know that I was coming. And in order to stay in a vacation rental in Oberstdorf, I needed to show my proof of vaccination.

In order to transit (connect) through London-Heathrow, I needed a negative COVID-19 test taken within the previous three days, and I needed to fill out a Passenger Locator Form with contact and travel details. Needing special documents just to change planes through another country was new to me, so I nearly missed this requirement. Fortunately, American Airlines sent an email a few days before my flight. The Passenger Locator Form can’t be filled out too far in advance (only within 48 hours of entry or less), so it wasn’t a problem. At this time, you cannot board a flight to the UK from any other country (besides Ireland, I think) without having a Passenger Locator Form.

I had digital copies of all of my documents, but I also printed everything out and kept things in a folder, which proved to be a good strategy, as they were checked multiple times.

American partners with a mobile app called VeriFLY, and other airlines participate as well. I tried to use it for my outbound flight, but I didn’t understand that I needed to put in Chicago to London as my first flight, instead of putting in my departure airport (Cleveland) and ultimate destination (Munich). With VeriFLY, you input your international flight (or flights), and the app asks for the appropriate documents. You can take photos with your phone or upload attachments. Then someone checks the documents ahead of time, and ideally, by the time you get to the airport, you’re able to produce a checkmark, which helps the lines move faster, as the counter agents don’t have to pore over your documents, which all vary by company and country, of course. So my return trip was a bit smoother; on the way there, it took me some extra time to get checked in. Cleveland isn’t a hub for American, so they have limited international flights, and probably fewer opportunities for the ticket counter agents to be comfortable with the different requirements for each country. It’s probably more important than ever to arrive early for international flights, especially as things are changing all the time.

Transiting through Heathrow takes ages, especially when you arrive late, and find that you’ve been rebooked on another airline. I don’t recommend choosing Heathrow for your connection if you have another option, but my options were limited. But with all of my documents in hand, I was able to make my rebooked flight (though it was closer than I would have liked, and I didn’t have time to grab a bite).

Entry into Munich was oddly super low key. I wasn’t really asked what I was doing there, nor was I asked to show proof that I was accredited for this event. I had printed out all kinds of things from the Nebelhorn website, including a summary of the testing protocols, and the part of the site that indicated that foreign visitors would not have to quarantine because the event was approved. I was asked where I was going and how long I was staying, and then I was suddenly in Germany.

The questions actually came later, via email. My digital registration form that I’d done from home had been sent to the Bavaria state health department, and I received a lengthy email detailing the rules and indicating that I should be quarantining, unless I qualified for an exemption. I responded and said that I was accredited for Nebelhorn Trophy, and someone replied quickly to confirm my exemption from quarantine.

To get home to the U.S., everyone has to provide a negative COVID-19 test result. There were several different companies doing testing in the Munich airport. American also sells an at-home kit that you can order ahead of time and pack in your luggage with you. I believe there’s some sort of virtual visit component so a health care provider can verify that you’re administering the test correctly. Since I had testing done every other day at the competition, I was able to use that result to board my flight home, so it was very easy for me. Some locations in the U.S. require a PCR test (Hawaii currently does, and I’m not sure where else), but in my case, the antigen test done at the competition was sufficient.

photo of me in a mask on the airplaneOn Mask Requirements outside the U.S:
One other thing that ended up catching me by surprise, because my last-minute trip was less researched than my trips usually are, is that a “medical”-type mask is generally required for public transit in Europe. They don’t need to be actually supplied by a medical provider, but they should look legit. I did see one passenger on my flight that was asked to wear a different type of mask before boarding. Both the surgical-type masks and FFP2s are accepted. The FFP2 is common in Europe and similar to an N95 or KN95. I had a couple of packs of KN95 masks with me anyway, because I find that a well-fitting KN95 is a good option for photography, so I ended up being prepared, as the KN95 seemed to be accepted as an alternate version of an FFP2.

The same types of masks were also required on all trains and buses in Germany, and in general, compliance was fairly high, at least from an American perspective. I was only on a crowded subway once; all of my other transit trips were at off-peak times and the trains were not crowded at all.

And the same types of masks were also required in the rink for the competition, as well as negative COVID test results. All accredited participants were tested every 48 hours, and I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the rules for spectators, but I think that they were showing negative test results to enter as well.

In general, I rarely saw printed fabric masks that are so common in the U.S. I typically wear a multi-layer fabric mask with a filter at home, unless I’m going to be somewhere very crowded (like a plane or on transit in any city besides Cleveland). But my stack of fabric masks stayed in my luggage all week this time; I wore only the KN95 masks.

A Final Note on Health:
Especially since we have an unvaccinated toddler, my family has been pretty careful over the past year and a half. We have eased up a bit, since we’re sending our daughter to preschool and traveling quite a bit for my work, but my husband and I still wear masks most of the time, which is not really that common anymore in much of Ohio.

People have been asking me what it was like traveling internationally during a pandemic, and honestly, in many ways, I felt safer than I do at home. The logistics were a bit complicated, but everything ended up going smoothly, and I would feel comfortable traveling internationally again if I had the opportunity and the time. And it was great to get in a “practice” trip before the Olympics in a few months, when I expect that the protocols and restrictions will be even more stringent.

Next up, I’ll cover the Nebelhorn Trophy competition experience!