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COVID experience in Italy 2023 (2 parts)

1/2 Thought this updated COVID episode might be useful to folks on this forum.

We were booked on a RS Sicily tour for March/April. For background, we are fairly well-seasoned independent travelers, and this was to be our second RS tour. We also had bivalent boosters in October 2022, wore masks on flights, etc.

We arrived in Rome on a Sunday. Our tour started on Tuesday - but by Wednesday evening, husband had mild cold symptoms. COVID was not even a thought - no fever, mild symptoms, no fatigue. Thursday morning, I mentioned the cold to our guide, assured him we would mask, hubs would load up on cold meds, and did he want us to sit in the back of the bus, etc. Almost as an afterthought, he said “Oh, we need to test for COVID.” (this is not a criticism, I include it here to emphasize the mildness of the symptoms and that COVID is just not top-of-mind these days).

The test came back positive.

And we were dropped like hot potatoes (well, husband was. I was negative, and was told I could continue on the tour. Which was a weird thing to offer lol - “bye honey, feel better, see you in Catania in 9 days!” Uh, no.). Again, not a criticism of our guides or RS Tours - they had 20 other people to handle and get out the door that morning, and a schedule to keep. But it's important to realize that you will not get a hand-holding level of service - and I want to emphasize that RS makes this very clear, IMO. It's on you to figure out any testing required, hotel needs, meals, changes in travel, etc. Still, it was very...abrupt.

Our guide spoke with the hotel and arranged that we could stay another 3 nights - at our expense, of course. We spent a while Thursday figuring out what to do with travel insurance, testing, and what to do after Sunday (move to another hotel? Continue touring Sicily? Etc)

We contacted TravelGuard on what we needed to do to submit claims and were informed that we needed a certificate of a positive test from an official licensed medical facility. It did not have to be a PCR test, and whatever “official” facility at our location would work (i.e., in Palermo, this was certain pharmacies). After a few hours, Travel Guard did follow up with a couple of locations to get tested in Palermo, but neither was close (we were walking) or convenient to our hotel.

We contacted On Call International Global Assistance, which is the RS contracted support resource and found them pretty useless. We wanted to know where to go for testing. We got no response to a text message and nothing more than an acknowledgement to an email. We did get an email from RS Tours - On Call had contacted THEM to generate tour interruption documentation. Which is not what I had asked for. And presumably something I would have gotten anyway.

Rick Steves Tours contacted us quite quickly with information that again confirmed that “you’ll have to figure it out” as noted above. They produced tour interruption documentation promptly. They also mentioned that we needed official positive COVID test documentation for them as well to process our tour refund. (CORRECTION: Email indicated that "self-administered" is OK, although not sure what we would have sent. What is a "copy" of a self-administered test? Maybe a photo of the test?) Which I thought was odd considering they were the ones who tossed us off the tour to start with, based on a test their guide administered. The partial refund for the tour was processed quite promptly, so that was great.

Hotel Ambasciatori staff were wonderful, I have to say. Gave us two convenient pharmacy locations and explained that these were where “official” testing and documentation for COVID could be obtained. Not all “farmacia” do it, so you do need to check to get the locations of the ones who do.

Posted by
386 posts

2/2 Our initial plan was to checkout Sunday - we would have had to do that anyway - which would be 5 days from start of symptoms (he ended up negative then as well), and travel to Catania and try to salvage some Sicily day touring from there (Siracusa, Etna, etc). The original travel itinerary was to then fly from Catania to Naples and stay 5 days in Sorrento before returning home. A look at the weather changed our mind about that - rain all week in Sicily - so we changed our flight and flew from Palermo to Rome instead, making a hotel reservation at Hotel Cellini.

Where I promptly got the cold and the COVID.

The good news is that the Sorrento portion of the trip worked out fine!

A few COVID notes:

IMPORTANT NOTE #1: once off the RS tour you cannot rejoin and the rest of your vacation is totally on your own.

IMPORTANT NOTE #2: you will need official documentation of a positive test from a licensed medical facility (which may be a pharmacy, check with your hotel staff) - not only for any travel insurance, but ALSO RS Tours. Apparently, a test by their own guides and being tossed off the tour by RS Tours itself is not enough ;) (CORRECTION: Email from RS indicated that "self-administered" is OK, although not sure what we would have sent. What is a "copy" of a self-administered test? Maybe a photo of the test?)

IMPORTANT NOTE #3: travel insurance potentially becomes pretty important here - RS Tours refunds $200/day/per person for the number of days missed on the tour. Our tour cost worked out to be about $268/day/per person, so the refund is not quite 100%. Not sure yet in our case what travel insurance might help with regarding the balance, and other costs.

In both our cases, the symptoms were very mild. Runny nose for maybe 2 days - and we would not have thought to test for COVID. Never felt especially sick, and recovered quickly with negative test results 4 days after the initial positive test. We are home now and doing fine.

Posted by
471 posts

Thank you. That is an interesting story. It does seem that they would want to have a doctor-administered test before removing you from the tour. I'm glad you got to salvage some of your trip.

Posted by
1426 posts

I’m sorry this happened to you! Glad you still managed to see something of Italy.
Thanks so much for your detailed report, especially your note #2 which contains worrying information.

“ IMPORTANT NOTE #2: you will need official documentation of a positive test from a licensed medical facility (which may be a pharmacy, check with your hotel staff) - not only for any travel insurance, but ALSO RS Tours. Apparently, a test by their own guides and being tossed off the tour by RS Tours itself is not enough ;)”

I hope the webmaster can explain this. If RS wants a positive test from a licensed medical facility before issuing the $200 a day refund, they should not throw people off a tour on the basis of a positive home test. These self-administered tests aren’t fully reliable and can result in false-negatives as well as false-positives. What if someone who was kicked off the tour based on a home test, tests negative on an official test? They’re off the tour and are not allowed to return, but they also won’t be refunded by RS and can’t claim anything on their travel insurance. Surely this can’t be right?

Posted by
15717 posts

What if someone who was kicked off the tour based on a home test, tests negative on an official test? They’re off the tour and are not allowed to return, but they also won’t be refunded by RS and can’t claim anything on their travel insurance. Surely this can’t be right?

In the U.S., we have a common term for this.....it's called a lawsuit. (LOL)

Posted by
386 posts

CT and DutchTraveler - yes, we thought it was odd. We were removed from the tour based on the self-test, administered by the tour guide. It was AFTER we were removed from the tour that we were asked for the documentation so the refund could be processed.

BUT - I stand corrected. Kinda. Email indicated that "self-administered" is OK, although not sure what we would have sent. What is a "copy" of a self-administered test? Maybe a photo of the test?

Opening line of the email:
"We’re so sorry you must leave your Rick Steves tour. We've prepared some information and resources to help you get back on your feet and on to your next destination. Please carefully read the information below, so you understand what happens if your tour is interrupted by illness or injury."

Closing line:
"You may be entitled to a pro-rated $200-per-day refund for you (and your travel partner if you choose to leave your tour together) for the number of tour days missed due to Covid. Please provide a copy of your positive test result (self-administered is accepted) and I can begin the refunding process."

So my advice stands - get official documentation. You'll need it for travel insurance anyway.

Posted by
302 posts

"These self-administered tests aren’t fully reliable and can result in false-negatives as well as false-positives."
Two weeks ago a PCR test came back negative for my SIL, while his home antigen tests remained positive, with mild symptoms, as you describe. Then came getting horribly ill and finally a positive PCR last week...he is still not at all well and still testing positive.
As with all things COVID since the "beginning", it just doesn't behave predictably. It's great you recovered quickly and salvaged some of your holiday.
It's a tricky balance for RS and any tour operation - meantime, no tours for me.

Posted by
386 posts

It is a tricky balance, and I understand the choices made by the tour. And maybe the follow-up email just wasn't crafted as carefully as it should have been. But our understanding of it was we needed to provided additional proof of the positive test AFTER we had already been removed from the tour, in order to get the partial refund. So yes, it did sound like there was a risk of no refund, even though we had been dropped from the tour and not allowed to rejoin. So maybe RS tours need to work on the language a little.

Posted by
2924 posts

I’m so sorry this happened to you. What a disappointment after looking forward to and planning your trip. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

I leave in 5 weeks on a RS Tour. Covid is always in the back of my mind. Last year I survived a tour when 14 out of 24 left due to Covid. And I then got Covid two weeks after returning home.

Posted by
683 posts

Thank you for sharing your experience. We were on a wonderful covid-free RS tour last May, but what you went through is what I was concerned would happen to us.

Despite being current on vaccines/booster, we both tested positive on Christmas. Our symptoms were so mild that we never would have known except for testing (tested because of a little cough and we were planning on a houseful of company).

Our local hospitals/clinics have discontinued mandatory masks. I am hoping that soon RS will be able to remove the testing piece.

Posted by
8653 posts

I think it is clear that your husband received his exposure to Covid prior to leaving for your tour if you consider a “typical” incubation period. I think one thing that most people might want to consider is limiting your possible exposures in the week leading up to a tour.

I’m glad you had travel insurance and were able to “re-create” a trip plan.

Posted by
386 posts

@Carol Now Retired - it's possible he got it on the flight, but who knows. We flew on a Saturday, arrived Sunday, cold started Wednesday, Covid positive Thursday. We purposely did not go out, etc. prior to travel for exactly this reason. Just goes to show you can do all the right things - and the right things are preventative measures, not guarantees - and still be exposed.

Posted by
1536 posts

I would think that a copy of an email from your RSE tour guide stating that you had a positive test would have supplied the required documentation for RSE reimbursement.

Posted by
564 posts

IMPORTANT NOTE #1: once off the RS tour you cannot rejoin and the rest
of your vacation is totally on your own.

Are you sure about that? Last October on the Best of Spain trip, one member got COVID and had to stay in Madrid, but after 5 days and testing negative, he rejoined the tour in Seville.

Posted by
8653 posts

From Covid FAQ on RS website

What if I test positive and I'm on consecutive tours?
You may join a subsequent tour as long as you have isolated for five days after the original symptoms began or the initial positive test result and wear a N95/KN95 mask for an additional five days. You also need to be able to show a negative test result on the first day of the subsequent tour. Tour members may not join or rejoin a tour in progress.

Posted by
3342 posts

I would think that a copy of an email from your RSE tour guide stating that you had a positive test would have supplied the required documentation for RSE reimbursement.

I agree.

Posted by
386 posts

Are you sure about that? Last October on the Best of Spain trip, one
member got COVID and had to stay in Madrid, but after 5 days and
testing negative, he rejoined the tour in Seville.

We asked. You cannot rejoin. Not sure how your fellow tour member was able to rejoin...maybe this is a new policy? I have no idea.

And I would think it would be quite a challenge to figure out for the tour, to have someone leave and then rejoin- for a partial refund, for accommodations and meals, etc.

Posted by
27447 posts

Yes, I'd think getting the substantial refund means the tour office needs to cancel the rooms for the rest of the trip, and reduce the head count for meals, right away.

Posted by
70 posts

My husband tested positive (self administered) for Covid on day 2 of our tour. We sent a photo of the test results to our guide who needed it to inform the RSE home office. The home office contacted us - we sent them the photo of the test results as well and they proceeded with the refund process - including a letter for our travel insurance outlining the refund they provided and the portion which was not refunded. Very easy process with the office. We did get a PCR test for the travel insurance claim (which our guide found a pharmacy for us).

Our guide did follow-up via text with us to provide any follow-up for our travel plans if needed. She was as helpful as she could be given she had a tour to lead.

I agree - the On Call Global Assistance was useless! I informed the tour office of this as well. I cannot see anything useful about this service. RSE should not waste their money.

Posted by
33339 posts

thanks for taking the time to get this down on paper to help everybody else.

It doesn't seem that you are so ordinary, TheOrdinaryRebecca

Posted by
169 posts

How was your experience from the Italian authorities side of things? Are they still enforcing a strict quarantine? Could you leave your hotel for food, etc.? It sounds like you could since you went to the farmacia, but I know Italy used to have one of the strictest quarantines in Europe. Wondering how it is nowadays since I will be heading there in September :)

Posted by
386 posts

@James - no one cared, to be honest. Hotel staff just asked that we mask when going to the breakfast room. Of course, we just skipped the breakfast room entirely in both Palermo and Rome - whoever didn't have COVID went and fetched breakfast back to the room. We got takeout, or ate outside for meals. Lots of walking, skipped indoor activities or tours, wore masks - all our own precautions. Note that our symptoms were very mild, so we never experienced anything more than a little fatigue and a runny nose. No quarantines - that we were aware of, anyway.

Posted by
2127 posts

Very interesting info. Thanks for posting.

I agree, it would be very frustrating if the test by a medical professional showed negative immediately after being kicked off the tour for (possibly) incorrect results by the self-test administered by the guide. Yeeeesh.

Hate covid....wish it could be boxed up and sent into outer space.

We are STILL masking when going inside public spaces, and I just explain (kidding, of course) that we are shooting for the Guinness World Record of being the last humans to stop masking

Posted by
256 posts

Just returned from 4 weeks in Europe including 2 weeks in Italy. No quarantine, no vaccine required, very few masks and lots of travelers. No one seems concerned about Covid except a few posters on this Forum. Enjoy your visit to Italy.

Posted by
3363 posts

Sorry this happened to you, I can really empathize as it happened to us last year as well. On our own so abruptly and up to us to figure it all out. We will not take another tour with RS, if there is a possibility of being kicked off a tour due to Covid.

Posted by
3823 posts

Very sorry this happened to you. I'm glad you were able to salvage some of your trip on your own. It is truly amazing that all of us are vaxxed, boosted, boosted again, etc. and still vulnerable to this thing.
Best wishes to you, and wishing you better luck on your next trip, on your own probably.

Posted by
6381 posts

Thanks for laying out your experience in detail. Of course, this is on all our minds.

We just got our latest booster today; we leave for two RS tours in about 70 days. (Well, exactly 70 days, but who's counting, right?)

I'm glad to hear the amount RS refunded you comes so close to your tour costs, although I suspect that in more expensive countries - I'm thinking Scandinavia and Switzerland - the gap may be larger.

It does seem like a lot depends on your RS guide; Denise's experience was better that yours.

Posted by
10 posts

As I read other travelers' reports of having to stay behind at the hotel because of positive COVID test and being dropped from the tour....what happens if the hotel cannot accommodate you staying extra days? Are you then on your own to call around to find a hotel that is not booked? What exactly is to happen step by step? and who advises you along the way? What is the tour guide's responsibility exactly and what is left to the traveler to figure out? My very first tour (Southern Italy) is planned for this coming October, and I want to have a plan of action just in case. I do have travel insurance through Travel Guard, but I just want to know step by step what should occur and answer the "what if" situations such as if the hotel actually does not have a room available for you to stay in if you must leave the tour. I did read the COVID information on the Rick Steve's website, but it leaves more questions than answers.

Posted by
486 posts

I can understand you are wanting an updated plan on what really happens with current Covid infections while on tour. No updated posts for a few months. As much as we have wished it away it’s still ongoing. It has to be so hard to be as decisive with how infection is handled now on these tours!?! Just read how there’s an uptick in hospitalization and in nursing facilities. I am waiting awhile for newest booster for most recent variant…as we both had it for first time this past February. No European travel for us until next August.

Posted by
386 posts

RS tours just doesn’t provide the level of service you may be looking for, in my experience, so assume you will need to work everything out yourselves - if you get more support, then great!

You will not be able to continue the tour if COVID positive - at all, unless something has changed. You will be responsible for booking what nights you need beyond what is included in the tour, since all of your tour bookings will be invalid. For example our tour was leaving Palermo when husband got sick, so it was checking out that day. We managed to get an additional 3 nights, at our expense, at the same hotel but beyond that they were booked. Since we were not very sick, with few symptoms, and hubby was negative after a few days, we went to Rome (changed our flight, booked a hotel) before continuing on our original post-tour itinerary to Sorrento.

Guides are as helpful as they can be considering they have 20 other people and a tour to provide. Home office will contact you but no one will advise much of anything. If you need to find a hotel, you’ll need to do that. If you need to change a flight - that’s on you too. Hotel staff can recommend clinics and pharmacies. But there just isn’t going to be a lot of hand-holding.

Obviously if you have a true medical emergency that’s a different situation (I would assume).

If you feel the need to create your own safety net, I would suggest having the RS guidebook on hand for help with hotel suggestions. Load the travel apps for your airlines, and something like Expedia. Make sure your credit cards can accommodate the added expenses - you'll get few if any credits until you get home. I would also encourage getting receipts for everything and saving any boarding passes, etc. - you may need them for any claims.

Hope that helps.

Posted by
189 posts

I was on the Best of England tour last fall. I optimistically had assumed we would be done with Covid when I booked the tour 1 year earlier. Nobody on our tour tested positive, but I was quite anxious that it might happen. I wore masks on the plane, all indoor spaces, and on the bus. It certainly takes some joy out of the tour, with that hanging over your head.

I am now booked on a RS Berlin Prague and Vienna tour for September 2024. I checked with the RS office a couple of days ago and enquired what the Covid policy would be for 2024. It has not been determined yet.

I absolutely agree that anyone on the tours should be vaccinated, but Covid is still around and will be for the foreseeable future. I don’t think you should get kicked off the tour if you test positive. Yes you should have to mask up, but not have to leave the tour.

The office informed me that when the policy is decided, all people registered for tours in 2024 will be notified. If they request that I leave the tour if I test positive, I will cancel my tour and book with another company.

Posted by
10 posts

Very helpful these last couple of replies to my query. Thank you. I'll figure it out, but certainly will research a few recommended hotels and understand clearly how to change flights if I have to (never done that before either). All of this is new to me and right now pretty daunting. I was looking at canceling everything altogether, but I don't want to fall into a negative worrisome mindset with "what if" situations. I am sure there are plenty of travelers on the tours who end up just fine. At the very least, it will be a learning experience....and I hope that I just stay healthy! This forum is extremely helpful in so many ways. Thanks to you all!

Posted by
5688 posts

Very helpful these last couple of replies to my query. Thank you. I'll figure it out, but certainly will research a few recommended hotels and understand clearly how to change flights if I have to (never done that before either). All of this is new to me and right now pretty daunting.

TerryRD,

While it may seem daunting, the things you would need to do are not that different than traveling in the U.S. If you have a smart phone and money (credit card and debit card), you can use those tools supplemented by your brain to solve most problems. Use a site like booking.com to find a new hotel. If you need to change hotels, ask the front desk to help you get a taxi to take you to the new hotel. If you need to change your flight, either do it online or call the airline’s customer service number to make the change.

When I was planning to travel last year, I only did a few things differently from what I did pre-pandemic. I brought some masks and over-the-counter meds with me. I asked my physician what she would recommend I bring in case I got covid while traveling. She suggested Mucinex and Tylenol, so I brought those.

Be prepared, but don’t get too anxious about things that might go wrong.

Posted by
10 posts

Laura...Sage advice. Thank you. It was calming to read your simple and concise "no anxiety needed" approach. I'm going to go with that and just enjoy what I can and deal with any obstacles if they arise.

Posted by
386 posts

Agree with Laura and others - we report and read the negatives, but statistically, it's still pretty rare that you would get COVID (especially if vaxxed, etc) or another illness/injury that would derail your travel plan. We found hotel staff to be super helpful, and relied on our travel experience in flexing the plan. We literally decided to go to Rome instead of doing our own Sicily itinerary because the weather looked better lol. Considered the Cinque Terra, but could not find a hotel; we were also able to add a night to our Sorrento hotel to fill the gap as well. Changed our flight from Catania-Naples to Palermo-Rome (Ryan Air app is brilliant for this, even if the flights are sometimes...not).

So my advice is to also not stress, just be sure to have some tools just in case!

Posted by
111 posts

My husband tested positive a week into our Best of Eastern Europe tour last fall. Our guide was very helpfu-I can't say enough good things about her. The group was set to leave the hotel later that morning, and the hotel determined that they would not have room for us to stay - as soon as they found out my husband had Covid. Our guide worked with the hotel to find another that might accommodate us, and the new hotel was a much better place to stay under the circumstances - we had a larger room with three large windows so that we had plenty of ventilation. Once my husband recovered, which fortunately didn't take long, we were on our own to plan the rest of our trip - it's doable.