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Since the Covid-19 pandemic exploded around the world in late 2019, we’ve been pretty much hunkered down in Germany on lockdown. Like the rest of the world, we’ve been waiting for a vaccine to be developed. Waiting for it to be widely available. Waiting for folks to get their “jabs” so we can all return to some semblance of normalcy and start living – and traveling – again. But here we are, 20 months into the pandemic, and travel is still a mess. Last month, we learned intimately just how messed up it is when we were denied boarding due to airline error.
The worst part is that it wasn’t our fault. We’ve missed flights before. We’ve been so late due to a last-minute gate change that an airline actually held the plane for 30 minutes for us in Iceland. Everyone on board erupted in applause when we boarded.
Thank you again, Iceland Air! We’ll fly with you any day.
Two “Very Grateful” Small Potatoes
But even though this time we did everything right, being “right” didn’t get us on that plane. We learned a thing or two from our costly travel nightmare, and if we can save even one person from the same fate, then this post will serve its purpose.
Before you book your flights, read this article. If you’ve already booked a flight, hopefully these tips will help you prepare for your trip and prevent you from being denied boarding. In the event you’re in the same rickety dinghy as us and you weren’t allowed to fly, we’ll also give you some useful info about your air passenger rights and how to pursue compensation if the airline is at fault.
Tips For Flying During the Pandemic
Do. Your. Research.
This probably sounds laughable to those who know our fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travel style, but the pandemic – and even more, this experience – has made us revamp how we approach travel.
At least for now, gone are the days when we can just spontaneously throw the kayaks, camping gear, and dog in the car and road trip around Europe. Travel has changed and in order to still be able to do what we love most, we have to change too.
1. Choose your destination carefully; make sure it’s open to travelers from your country.
Pretty obvious, right?
It might seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Just because an airline is willing to sell you a ticket, doesn’t mean you’ll be allowed entry.
Check the main tourism or government website for your destination country to see if you can visit.
One of the biggest reasons we actually chose Cyprus is because they’re one of the few countries welcoming travelers with relatively few regulations.
Their website is available in several languages, including English, and they pretty clearly lay out all information necessary for a visitor to plan their visit.
We’ve never before used a country’s entry regulations as the primary criterion for visiting, but I’m sure we will again for as long as Covid-19 sticks arounds.
2. Research the entry regulations for your destination country.
Once you know for sure you’re allowed to visit, the hard part begins. Now you have to find out the regulations for entry.
This will be a bit different for every country, but it typically will mean finding out which “category” your country belongs to. It’ll likely be color coded – Red, Orange, Green, or Gray. Your ability to enter and the regulations you have to follow are tied to that color category.
That being said, many countries have a different set of regulations, often more relaxed, for vaccinated travelers.
For example, Cyprus lists Germany in the Orange Category, which means for unvaccinated travelers, a negative PCR test less than 72 hours old is required before arriving in Cyprus. However, vaccinated travelers aren’t required to undergo any Covid testing to enter Cyprus, with the exception of random spot testing on arrival.
Pretty straightforward, right?
Of course as soon as you start clicking on different web links, you’ll probably realize you’ve gone down the rabbit hole. With so many different entities’ rules to learn about – the country you want to visit, the airline, even the departure and arrival airports – it can get confusing fast.
In general, it’s become pretty standard to have to wear a face mask. Whether you love them or hate them, this requirement is currently just a common part of travel. Wear one and bring extra.
Beyond that, we’re not aware of any airline or airport that requires passengers to be vaccinated or have a PCR test as part of their company’s rules. The rules they’re following will be the rules their country’s government has laid out. If you know those and follow them, you should be golden.
3. Know the definition of vaccinated.
Most people would define being vaccinated as having received the single shot of Johnson & Johnson, or both shots of Pfizer, Moderna, or Astrazeneca.
I like my vaxxies like I like my cappies: DOBLE!!
Since it can take some time for the vaccine to take full effect though, some countries don’t consider you fully vaccinated until a certain amount of time has elapsed after the final dose.
Here in Germany, the government doesn’t consider those entering the country to be fully vaccinated until 14 days have elapsed since your final shot. If you get your second Pfizer jab on July 1st and want to fly to Germany on July 5th, you’ll still need to provide a negative PCR test result.
In our case, TUIfly’s affiliate staff members denied boarding in Germany because they applied Germany’s entry regulations for our departure.
Or more accurately, to our attempted departure.
Specifically, the employee at check-in stated the only issue was with me flying because I had just received my second Pfizer vaccine two days before. He said I either needed to have waited 14 days to fly or I needed a negative PCR test. This is not a rule by the German government, the airline itself, or the airport for us to fly to Cyprus.
Travel Tip: The one thing you shouldn’t have to worry about are travel regulations for exiting your departure country. For those flying from Germany, the Federal Ministry of the Interior clearly states, “There are currently no pandemic-related restrictions on leaving Germany.”
One final tip is to make sure the brand of vaccine you received meets your destination’s standards. To date, the only four vaccines that meet the Paul Ehrlich Institute’s standards in Germany are Pfizer, Moderna, Astrazeneca, and J&J.
If you happen to have been vaccinated with one dose each of two different vaccines, like many here in Germany have?
God help you.
4. Only book airfare with a company you know and trust.
Our biggest mistake is that we didn’t book with a trusted airline. Especially now, we can’t stress how important this is.
Typically when we fly here in Germany, we book with Lufthansa. As the country’s flagship carrier, we’ve only had good experiences with them. Unfortunately when we searched for airfare, the tickets to Cyprus with Lufthansa were more expensive, and they didn’t offer any direct flights.
Instead, the carrier that consistently popped up with crazy cheap direct flights was TUIfly. Neither of us had heard of it, but we had heard of their parent company, TUI. As the largest travel company in the world, it’d be hard not to!
We had a pretty good impression of them, so we looked up TUIfly. We found out the budget airline is actually based right here in Hanover, which I immediately liked.
Yay for shopping local, right?
My only concern initially was that reviews online for TUIfly are pretty negative overall. That alone made us reconsider the entire trip. In the end, two years without international travel and the prospect of spending yet another birthday without it made us decide to give them a try.
Unfortunately, our cheap tickets quickly went up in cost.
As is typical with budget airlines, every single comfort and “extra” is stripped out of your flying experience so they can offer bargain-basement prices. We had to pay extra for checked bags for our photography gear. We even had to pay extra to sit together, even though the plane was still over half empty when we checked in online shortly before our flight. Despite the pandemic, it was packed with nearly every seat taken at the back of the plane and the entire front half empty.
With all the extras, our total cost for two roundtrip tickets had gone up from €198 to €562!
Not so cheap anymore, but still the cheapest available the day we bought our tickets.
In hindsight, we probably should’ve flown with Lufthansa. We would’ve paid more for the tickets, but we’re confident we wouldn’t have been denied boarding.
Curious to see how they would address my recent vaccination, Travis contacted Lufthansa customer service via chat just a few hours after TUIfly denied boarding.
They made it clear they understood the travel regulations as we did and that we wouldn’t have been denied boarding with Lufthansa.
One final recommendation is to book directly with the airline. Your best bet at getting a refund if you’re denied boarding in error is if you’ve booked with them.
We have personal experience trying to get a refund for a canceled flight when we booked through a third-party website a few years ago. It was a lot of pointing fingers between the airline and the third-party company we used to book our tickets. It took two months and a lot of time and stress to get our refund.
We very nearly booked our tickets to Cyprus through a third party site but decided it was safer to book directly with the airline.
The silver lining in all this is that TUIfly issued us a full refund for our airfare. It definitely doesn’t make up for the money we lost on the rest of the trip, how they treated us at the airport, or our ruined holiday, but it’s something.
5. Consider getting a PCR test, even if you know it’s not required.
This is a bit of a tricky issue for us, and Travis and I are a bit split on how we feel about it.
Even after our travel fiasco, we still can’t in good conscience tell all vaccinated travelers to get a PCR test just to be on the safe side. The test is uncomfortable and rather invasive. Many places require an appointment – one more thing to take care of in your already busy schedule. Some people don’t live near a testing center or don’t have transportation.
Depending on where you live, it can also cost an arm and a leg. Some friends visiting from Switzerland recently told us they’ll need to have a PCR test to fly to the US soon. They’re vaccinated, but it’s still required. At the Zurich Airport, a single PCR test costs 195 CHF (€180/$212). Multiple that by a family of four or five, and you’re looking at a huge chunk of change!
In Germany, prices range from €49 at the Hanover Airport to €65.90 at the Covid Zentrum. Obviously many people can afford that, but even for those who can, why would you take on that expense unless it’s required??
Well, because it’s better to be safe than sorry.
As our experience proves, travel is still in turmoil. Every country, region, and business has different rules. The chances that every employee of even a single company knows the current correct rules is zero. And as new variants of this stupid virus keep popping up, travel is again thrown into turmoil every time an airline cuts flights with no notice or countries close their borders overnight.
We really never seriously considered getting a PCR test before the flight. We knew the regulations to fly from Germany to Cyprus and were confident we’d followed all the rules. It never occurred to us that airline staff wouldn’t know the current travel regulations and that we’d be wrongfully denied boarding.
So would we get a PCR test if we had the exact same situation to do over?
For our ruined trip to Cyprus? Travis says yes, while I still waver. My gut still says we should’ve just booked with a better airline. Trav’s right though that the test would’ve cost less than the money we lost on non-refundable bookings, and it would’ve cost less than booking with another airline.
Hindsight is always 20/20, right?
6. Assume the trip will cost more than you originally anticipated.
Especially if you’re on a tight budget, be aware that you’ll quite possibly end up spending more money on your trip than planned.
In particular, plan on possible Covid testing on arrival. Since rules change quickly, testing might not be required at your destination when your plane leaves the ground, yet it’s mandatory by the time you land.
Other countries are simply doing random spot testing. Though this cost tends to fall back on the airport or local authorities, some require that travelers pay it. We knew it was possible we might get randomly tested on arrival in Cyprus, and we were prepared to pay for the €27 PCR test.
Have extra cash in the local currency and a major credit card on hand, just in case.
7. Buy travel insurance for your trip.
Even if you do everything right, you might still be denied boarding. Depending on how much you’ve booked in advance, you have to weigh whether the cost of insurance outweighs how much you might lose if you’re forced to cancel.
For us, travel insurance would’ve been a cautious, and smart, option.
Unfortunately, we were so sure we’d followed all the rules and done everything right, we opted not to add the extra expense. In our 20+ years of traveling to almost 40 countries, we’ve never once purchased additional travel insurance. Typically we don’t book far in advance or spend huge sums on lodging or excursions, so it never seemed necessary.
The pandemic has changed that.
It’s changed travel – our confidence in travel companies and the need for extra trip protection. If you do buy travel insurance, make sure you understand exactly what it covers and doesn’t exclude Covid-related cancelations!
It really comes down to being informed.
Do. Your. Research.
Read about the entry regulations for your destination country. Read about the airline requirements for travel. Read about requirements for your departure airport.
Read every single email and booking confirmation you receive BEFORE your travel date.
Read pretty much absolutely everything on the World Wide Web before booking your vacation.
Make sure you have a stiff drink on hand.
What To Do Immediately If You’re Denied Boarding
Clearly, what you should do if you’re denied boarding depends at least to some degree on the reason you were denied. If you’re drunk or punch the flight attendant because you don’t want to wear a mask, they have every right to deny boarding or even toss you off the plane.
Travel Tip: Do NOT lay hands on the flight attendants.
But if you’re denied boarding because of issues with testing, vaccination paperwork, or miscommunication, give the following things a try before you completely kiss your sweet vacation goodbye.
1. Ask if you can speak to a manager.
First off, recognize that the person checking you in likely has zero authority. They’re following a set of rules they’ve been told to follow, and they can’t simply waive them for you. If you have a dispute over what the rules are or who put them in place, they might not be able to even answer your questions.
Even worse, they really might not care. In that case, ask to speak to a manager or their boss. Perhaps they can be more helpful, or at least provide more information.
In our case, we ended up with an apathetic employee who didn’t make any effort to help. It was obvious he didn’t care about us as customers, or people. Like a robot, he just kept repeating that the 14-day waiting period was a rule. Over and over, “That is the rule. That is the rule.“
He couldn’t tell us whose rule. At first we assumed it was the airline’s rule and we’d somehow missed it. Yet I’d painstakingly translated the 10-page German flight confirmation they’d emailed, and it does not say this on the TUIfly paperwork.
After some back and forth, he finally volunteered that he wasn’t even an employee of TUIfly. He works for a company called AHS – Aviation Handling Services. I later looked them up, and they’re a huge company that airlines hire to farm out some of their processes, like boarding.
When I asked to talk to a manager, he repeatedly deflected, first saying they were busy, then saying there were none there. He didn’t offer a single suggestion for how we might resolve the situation so we could still fly, even at a later time.
As it started to sink in that we wouldn’t get anywhere with him, I asked, “Is there absolutely no way that we can make this flight?“
He nodded toward Travis and said, “Well he can, you can’t.“
He literally smirked when he said it, as if he’d told a clever joke!
When I continued to insist on speaking to a manager, the AHS employee placed a call and handed the phone to me. He’d called another AHS employee, a woman. She was even more unprofessional and less helpful.
She also had no idea whose rule she was quoting and enforcing. She finally said it’s a TUIfly rule and told me to look on their website. She couldn’t tell me where, just to look on their website. I asked her for a specific URL. She couldn’t provide it. Then she said that it’s in the Terms & Conditions and I agreed to this 14-day airline rule when we booked the tickets.
It’s most definitely not in the airline’s T&Cs, or anywhere we’ve been able to find on their website.
The call ended when she hung up on me, though I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt and hope she mistook a brief break in the conversation as some sort of resolution. It wasn’t.
Normally at that point we would have next attempted to resolve the issue directly with TUIfly. Due to their limited customer service access, we weren’t able to contact anyone there before our flight departed. Their service center hours are daily from 1000 – 1800, so we struck out.
If your discussion with a manager proves as fruitless as ours did, proceed to the next steps!
2. If you’re denied boarding because of an issue with Covid testing, ask if you can get tested at the airport.
Testing centers at major airports around the world are commonplace by now, and you might be able to get tested there. Some require prior appointments, but others take walk-ins.
Make sure the airline employee is very clear about which test you need and how long the results will take. If they require a PCR test, you probably won’t make your flight since the results usually take at least a few hours. If they only require an antigen test, you might be in luck.
Make sure you know the cost, and then hoof it as fast as you can to the testing center!
Sadly, this wasn’t an option for us.
We checked in for boarding at 3 am sharp for a flight departing at 5 am. The testing center at the Hanover Airport didn’t open for another seven hours, plus wait time for the results.
3. See if you can catch a later flight on the same airline.
Ask if the airline offers a later flight same day or next day to allow you time to get tested or get other paperwork in order.
This wasn’t an option for us since TUIfly is currently only offering direct flights to Cyprus once a week.
4. Look for last minute flights with another airline.
If you can’t, or simply don’t want anything more to do with the airline that denied you boarding, find out if you can book with another airline. The cost will likely not be cheap for last minute flights, but again, it’s worth a try.
Since the Hanover Airport was all but a ghost town, most of the flight desks were closed. We couldn’t pop in to ask about flights.
Instead, we checked online once we got home. There were simply no affordable flights available, not even ones with multiple stops and extended layovers.
5. Notify travel companies of your cancelation.
If everything fails, immediately contact any businesses to let them know you have to cancel your reservation and the reason why.
Even if you know your booking is non-refundable, it’s common courtesty.
6. Request refunds for any canceled bookings/reservations.
If you booked through a travel agent, contact them.
If you made refundable bookings, each company should be able to advise you on how to get a refund or change your reservation.
If you made non-refundable bookings or if you’re like us and your cancelation is within 24 hours of check-in, you can still ask for a partial refund. Even if their cancelation policy doesn’t entitle you to a refund and you’re pretty sure you’re out of luck, it’s worth a try. The worst that can happen is they’ll tell you no.
Just be nice!
Remember that they’ve likely suffered from a loss of income during the pandemic and can’t necessarily afford to issue a refund.
Since we were hesitant to book too many things, we’d only made four reservations for our Cyprus trip.
Of them, only one offered a partial refund.
We booked lodging for one night at a cool Airbnb called Euphoria Art Land. It was super expensive for just one night, but it was a special surprise for my birthday from Travis, who found it. We also booked two nights at a place on Booking.com.
Both lodging hosts denied our partial refund request, which was within their rights as per their cancelation policies.
We had a reservation for long-term parking for our car at the Hanover Airport, which doesn’t offer refunds for last minute cancelations.
Plus we had a rental car booked for eight days with BSP Auto. Their flexible cancelation policy means we were able to get a refund of €174. We just lost €50 for the nonrefundable booking fee.
We always recommend booking lodging with businesses that have a flexible cancelation policy. In our case, this wouldn’t have helped since our cancelation was on such short notice.
7. Salvage your vacation if you can.
Our friends and family expressed sympathy when they found out about our canceled trip, but a few people didn’t understand why we didn’t just turn around and book flights to go somewhere else. As it turns out, salvaging a vacation is easier said than done. It’s a bit of a process.
Give yourself time to process your emotions.
We were so disappointed, angry, and exhausted when we first got home, we didn’t feel like going anywhere. We certainly were no longer in “vacation mood.”
Travis popped back sooner than I did. Even later that day, he still desperately wanted to try to plan something last minute to salvage my birthday. I just wasn’t feeling it. It took me a few days of moping around the house and lamenting our lost money before I was even ready to talk about going somewhere else.
Take care of the administrative tasks from your canceled trip.
Travis calls this “mitigation mode.” I mentioned this above, but it’s worth mentioning again here. Unless you have absolutely no reservations or plans during your trip, it’s not really possible to just turn around and jet off somewhere else.
As soon as we got home from the airport, we spent a couple of hours contacting businesses to notify them of our trip cancelation. As it turns out, we weren’t able to get a refund for the lodging portion, but we had a small window to notify the car rental company in order to get a refund. If we hadn’t contacted them quickly, we would’ve lost the entire car rental cost.
Sleep on it.
You know how things always seem at their worst when you’re sleep deprived?
It’s so true that you should never make important decisions when you’re tired. If you hit that wall, snag a few minutes to at least get a nap. Things won’t look so bad when you wake up!
Since we had to check in at the airport at 3 am, we’d only gotten about an hour of sleep the night before. I have no doubt it contributed to my feelings of crushing disappointment when we first got home.
Once we’d dealt with the urgent stuff, we crashed hard and didn’t wake up until noon. We were still disappointed, but we had a different perspective.
Book a local trip instead of international travel.
If you already went to the time and effort of requesting vacation for time off work though, you probably still want to go somewhere. After dealing with a canceled vacation, you especially need a vacation!
We certainly did.
The pandemic has made international travel a giant question mark. If you don’t want to deal with the added expenses, uncertainty, and stress, consider a local trip. Maybe it’s some place you’ve been wanting to go for a long time. It could be something you never thought seemed exotic or exciting enough. Don’t overlook those places!
We ended up booking a Ferienwohnung (German holiday home) in Quedlinburg for the last four days of Trav’s vacation. The town is a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site less than a two-hour drive from us. It’s been on our bucket list for years.
It was a very different trip than the one we’d planned in Cyprus, but we’re glad we were able to salvage part of our vacation.
Know Your Air Passenger Rights
The European Union takes protecting air passenger rights pretty seriously.
In 2005, they passed the Flight Compensation Regulation(EC 261/2004), a rule which requires airlines to compensate passengers when a flight is significantly delayed, canceled, or if you’re denied boarding. The regulation outlines when an airline is liable to compensate a passenger, situations for which they’re not liable, and the amount and type of compensation to be provided.
It covers flights boarded within the EU and flights from non-EU countries that land in the EU as long as the air carrier is an EU member.
EC 261 does have a clause that states: “Acceptable reasons for denied boarding are e.g. infectious diseases, insufficient travel documents as well as general and / or operational safety.“
This clause puts a travel scenario like ours squarely in the gray area in terms of compensation rights. Covid-19 is clearly an infectious disease, but airlines must still apply current and correct travel regulations. Because we were confident the airline failed to do so, we proceeded with a request for a refund from TUIfly, which they granted.
If you’re denied boarding, had a flight canceled, or suffered a significant wait for an EU flight, it’s worth reading EC 261 carefully to find out if you’re owed a refund for your ticket.
How to Get Compensation for Denied Boarding
Before you make a big stink and start firing off angry calls and letters demanding a refund, read up on the reason you were denied.
Confirm that to the best of your knowledge, you were denied boarding in error. Visit the airline’s website, the official website for your country of flight departure and arrival, and do a general online search to make sure you weren’t at fault. When you’re confident you weren’t, then it’s time to seek compensation.
Contact the airline or company through which you booked airfare.
Give them a chance to make it right. Particularly if it’s a good airline, they’ll hopefully issue a full refund with just a simple explanation of the situation.
If the airline denies your request, send them an official request for a refund in writing.
This step is important because if you end up filing an official complaint against the airline, you’ll likely need to have completed this step first. Check the airline’s website to find out if there’s a specific form you need to complete and for information about where to send it. If they don’t share that or you can’t find it, direct your request to the airline’s corporate office.
File an official complaint against the airline.
You’ll likely need to direct this complaint to the official agency that handles complaints for the airline in the country where it’s headquartered. For complaints against US air carriers, you can use the US Dept of Transportation form. For those in the EU, you can complete the Air Passenger Rights EU Complaint Form from Your Europe and send that to your country’s relevant aviation agency. You can also use this form as your written request to the airline.
File an official complaint in Germany.
For those in Germany, the entity that handles air passenger complaints is the Luftfahrt-Bundesamt (LBA). They offer an interactive complaint form online. In order for them to review your complaint, the incident must have occurred within the past two years. In addition, you must first submit a written request to the airline and wait at least 60 days. If they fail to contact you or deny your request, you can then proceed to file a complaint with the LBA.
So what did we personally take away from our travel nightmare with TUIfly?
For now, we have no plans to attempt to fly again anytime soon.
We certainly don’t plan to ever book with TUIfly again. Their company might have issued a refund for our airfare, but they failed to reimburse us for the rest of our trip. They didn’t apologize. And as long as their company uses uninformed and unprofessional AHS employees at check-in, we won’t be flying with TUIfly.
Even international travel by train or car in Europe is iffy. As much as we’re anxious to visit Norway and the Balkans before Trav’s job ends in Germany this year, it’s unlikely. We’ll have to really weigh how much the trip will cost with additional pandemic-related expenses, and how much we think we’ll enjoy the trip with current travel restrictions. At the very least, we’ll continue to seek out hidden adventures within our borders here in Germany.
Have you been denied boarding during the pandemic?
Or have you had a flight canceled? How did the airline handle it? Did they issue a refund?
Share your experience with us in the comments below!