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Travelling with kids in Europe during the COVID-19 era

In the hilltop chora (village) on Folagandros, a rustic, volcanic rock of an island in the Greek Cyclades, children dart between dinner tables as twilight makes the walls turn to pale lavender morphing to deeper mauve. A bottle of sanitiser sits on the table. Servers in clear plastic face protectors take orders as elegant diners waft in. Apart from these nods to hygiene, it would be hard to know that the world is in the middle of a pandemic. 

In the ‘situation’ of 2020 (some in tourism refuse to mention the word COVID-19 as though it’s Voldemort), not all countries have fared equally. As the Euro summer heats up, tourism hot spots like Mallorca are under new restrictions with compulsory face masks in all areas except hotel rooms. Yet others like Santorini have remained thus far virus free. 

Oia town on Santorini island, Greece
Picture perfect Santorini has remained COVID-19 free so far. Credit: Shutterstock

Ask the Mayor of Santorini Antonis Sigalas why this is so and he describes how the island had an early heads up. They knew there was a new virus developing in China when all their Chinese New Year bookings were cancelled. “It isn’t luck that we are COVID-19 free” he says. “We  closed the island and we closed it quickly”, including halting all construction and sending workers back to their area of origin.  

But is he worried since Greece opened to foreigners July 1 that it will come? “Oh, it will” he agrees.  “But we have every measure in place to catch it with inbound visitors. A new hospital and if necessary, air lifts to Athens.” 

Summer has been given the green light in an area of Europe that is epic for kids. Beaches! A kid-loving culture!  Incredible food! But it isn’t travel as we know it. While it may have the two thumbs up, you still have to get from Point A to Point B. 

Travelling with kids in the COVID-19 era

Oh, The Places You Will Go! 

“DON’T LICK THE ELEVATOR BUTTONS!” My four-year-old is a licker, and I am petrified she is going to lick the buttons in Frankfurt Airport. Or the check in desk, check-in attendant or any available handrail. What I am not so scared of is Frankfurt Airport itself. 

A week before flying I’m with the Terminal and Aviation department in FRA and we stroll the wide-open spaces. The departure board is a tale in itself. Usually Europe’s fourth busiest airport could only fit flights up to three hours ahead. Now on one board are flights for the entire day. It’s around 80% down on last year’s passenger numbers, but they’re rapidly  increasing. 

mother & daughter with face mask on Condor flight
No mask no fly face masks compulsory on Condor flights and most others. Credit: Flip Byrnes

“Our main message is that it is safe to fly from Frankfurt Airport. We did a lot of measures, including constant disinfecting of all surfaces, 80 hand sanitisers positioned around and very clear messages to passengers about what to do,” says Thomas Kirner. Their measures include being a flagship member of a pilot program for EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency). This includes entering the airport only if masked, respecting 1.5 metre distances and having roaming Hygiene Officers in high vis vests who remind flyers of protocols. It’s all part of #SafeInFRA.

They have also partnered with CENTOGENE to offer a walk-in virus testing facility. We do this before flying – bags not be the one to bring COVID-19 to the Cyclades!

Top tips for flying with kids in the COVID-19 era

Here are my top tips for international flying with kids when Australia opens again:

  • Choose a full-service flight. Not one that ferries people to the tarmac on buses – those hand holding poles will make even the most hardened shudder. 
  • Choose your flight time carefully  – Saturday morning or Friday night? Probably not. I chose a 6am mid-week flight despite what it will do to the kids (not good things). I also booked a night at the Hilton Frankfurt Airport (smartest move ever) to minimise the early waking damage. The airport was empty. But despite the planning it was still a fail when it turned out we were on a full flight. Oh well, I tried.
  • BYO snacks. Some airport shops aren’t open and even full-service carriers may have restricted onboard offerings (including no pillows or blankets for economy).  
  • My kids wore their gardening gloves through the airport (seriously). They removed them on the plane once I’d done a Naomi Campbell style sanitise.   

Hotel stays with kids in the COVID-19 era

The Andronis Luxury Suites in Santorini isn’t messing around with COVID-19. Luckily, they have the perfect location. Mainly outdoor with private white-washed suites dribbling down the caldera cliff towards the ocean like a melting vanilla ice-cream.  There are no corridors to rub shoulders with guests. And no elevators, ciao ciao buttons! The boutique size of the property means you can always enter the pool (larger hotels may have number restrictions). And the best bit? Breakfast.

Andronis Luxury Suites on Santorini breakfasts
Breakfast options likes this at Andronis Luxury Suites will see the luxury sector bounce back faster than others. Credit: Flip Byrnes

Now THIS is breakfast. In our case it was delivered every morning by a smiling Johannes with calves of steel who somehow manages to ferry our 8kg breakfast tray to the balcony with good nature. A pretty awesome alternative to a buffet.

But is this the case everywhere? Another property invents a breakfast of a boiled egg, slice of cake and  bread in a plastic airline box. While this may have been a good reinvention for grounded airlines, it doesn’t spark joy. If you are used to staying at economic properties, maybe check on some of their new operating details.

Especially when travelling with kids in the COVID-19 era, it’s important to check if things like Kids Clubs will be closed. In many cases they will be.

On our trip the tempting playroom at the kids paradise Anemi Hotel on Folegandros was closed. Although my kids managed to break into it anyway… apologies to management. So, what do they have instead? In this case they have one of the biggest pools in the Greek islands. If the kids don’t get tired in there, you can always send them to join the cleaning team who seem to work non-stop. (again, this is a mainly outdoor hotel with rooms in separate blocks, a huge win). 

colorful Agali Beach, Folegandros Island, Greece
The spectacular Folegandros Island, Greece. Credit: Shutterstock

Is It Worth It? 

That depends on now you feel. For example, the anxiety about the thought of going to Mallorca in Spain made us cancel. Conversely, being able to head to a place like the Greek islands, which I’d resisted in summer due to former crowds, seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity for our family. 

While villages are beginning to buzz, and all seems normal on the surface, new habits don’t disappear overnight (like never leaving the house without sanitiser and masks in Germany where we’re based). Will COVID-19 change tourism in the islands? As one hotelier said, apart from hygiene measures, how they handle tourism may not change, but visitors themselves would change, and that’s all true.

Those who are currently allowed out (thinking of Melbourne) are a little more cautious, more respectful of fellow travellers and grateful that we’re out at all, aware that things including lockdowns, could change with a simple sneeze. 

Flip Byrnes explored Greece with Discover Greece, visit here for more inspiration


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