Our destination was Italy. It was a trip to a neighboring country, less than two hours away by plane. Yet, it didn't take long to realize that while we knew where we were going, we were definitely traveling in a whole new world: the world of the QR code.
We'd flown from Athens to Bologna, the start of a 10-day trip, on a brisk November day two weeks ago. After unpacking it was time to get to the business of what we had come here for: eating and drinking Italian food and wine.
We were seated at a popular bar in Bologna's historic market district, on which two-inch by two-inch laminated cards with a QR codes served as the menu.
|Italian wine - Mama Mia!|
Now, I can't tell you how much we love Italian wine and how much we dislike QR codes. If you've followed our adventures for very long you know we call ourselves, 'techno dino's' for good reason. We are dinosaurs in a world of technology that long ago moved beyond our skills and understanding. We are people who - heaven forbid! - often leave their mobile phones at home.
It turns out that QR codes, short for 'quick response' codes, were invented back in the 1990's by a car manufacturer to track the components in car production. In the last year they have become the access point to menus, shopping, travel and are being used by any number of industries. The little black and white graphic squares hold far more information than the 'old' bar code.
|No QR codes here - Yay!|
Some retail stores place bar codes in windows so shoppers can make purchases without entering the store. Tickets for public transportation sport the little guys. And since the pandemic turned the world upside down, public health agencies on this side of the pond use them in contact tracing efforts -- notifying travelers of possible Covid exposure.
We concede that in this Covid-influenced world, we must credit QR codes for providing a 'contactless' means of conducting business. And as a result, we techno-dino's - out of necessity -- have been forced to learn how to point the camera of a mobile device (aka smart phone) at them to access the information we need.
|So many wine bars from which to choose - Bologna|
Information like the wines available at this bar we'd chosen in Bologna. So I aimed my Android device's camera at that small Italian square and read:
'No network connection.'
"But, of course!! (Fisica!) as we say in Greece. . .our Greek phone network doesn't work outside the country - so we had no way of accessing the mysteries of the menu in Italy.
Explaining our dilemma to the 30-something waiter, we asked for a menu.
Problem was, he explained, they didn't have a printed menu. With frustration causing greater thirst, The Scout, sought to solve the problem by saying, 'We will have two glasses of wine.'
Well, that was far too simple a solution. There were choices to be had. A menu would be found! Within minutes our young waiter presented us with a phone borrowed from a staff member - and on its screen was the wine menu.
|Yay, for the printed menu!|
I am happy to report not all trattorias and bars have moved away from the printed menus and that made the trip a whole lot easier! But our experience at the bar highlighted the impact of the QR code when traveling these days in Europe.
Don't leave home without it
|One of our many QR codes for travel|
'Check in now for your flight' came the email notice from Aegean Airlines, the day before our departure. Following instructions we promptly had two emails in return each with a QR code that needed to be shown at the check-in desk.
Worried that we wouldn't have internet access in the airport (which is a well-reported problem for many travelers, as is the 'dead phone battery') we took both our Greek phones, charged them overnight at the airport hotel and opened each of them before we left the hotel to display a QR ticket code - The Scout on one phone and The Scribe on the other.
As if presenting gifts we placed the two phones showing the QR codes on the check-in counter. (Opening them and having the code displayed really was a gift in our minds.) The ticket agent glanced at them as he asked for our passports and then using the passports typed our names into his computer and said, 'You are going to Bologna?'
With little attention paid to our QR codes, he printed paper boarding passes for us with the baggage claim tickets stuck on the back, just like in the 'good old days'.
Off to Italy - PLF QR code in hand
The European Union rules for travel require completed the EU PLF's (that would be, European Union Passenger Locator Forms) for entry into each country. And each country has a slightly different take on them. Italy required one per passenger, Greece requires one per family. Forms are to be completed on-line prior to travel.
The form is a lengthy document requiring, in some cases, details down to your seat number and the exact hour and minute your flight is scheduled to arrive. Others aren't as detailed. The purpose of each however is to know how to reach you should it be determined you were exposed to Covid.
Immediately after submitting that form. . . .(you guessed it). . . a QR code is sent via email to your mobile device. Our QR for Italy provided a link for downloading as a PDF document to our phone, which could be accessed without internet. We tried several times to download but got no further than the message reading, 'We are experiencing difficulties, try again later.' So, we'd also opened those PLF QR codes before leaving the hotel and left those pages open - as they also had to be shown at check-in..
|Rejected for not being 'official' enough. . .|
Greece allows travelers to print the PLF but it comes out as only a QR code on the paper with a small letterhead. We had our printed copy rejected by an airline agent who said it didn't have enough proof of being issued by the Greek government. Thankfully we found the PDF on the phone with printed information and QR code - it was accepted.
I should mention that you don't get beyond the check-in desk at the airport without showing that QR code, so it is a step key to travel.
Green Pass -- QR code in hand
|United States version of the 'green pass'|
The European Union 'green pass', as the Covid vaccination record here is called, is another QR code on a mobile app provided by each EU government. You must show it to travel, for access to tourist attractions like museums, restaurants, bars, to shop in retail stores - nearly every public place you want to go these days.
Those of us vaccinated in the United States, carry a card that has information about our vaccinations on them. While we don't like QR codes it would be so much easier to travel (and to go about daily life for that matter) if we did have them only a phone away.
On several occasions in the last couple weeks I have found myself holding out the cards to a perplexed gate keeper, pointing to the notations of our three shots and saying, 'American, Pfizer, ena, dio, tria,' in Greek and 'American, Pfizer, un, due, tre' in Italian.
Our CDC cards were checked by the airline, train and three of the four hotels in which we stayed. Museums also scrutinized the cards. The cards were accepted by all who reviewed them.
But not once in the 10-day trip were we asked by an Italian bar or restaurant to show our cards. Other customers were being asked to show green passes on their phones. We reasoned that either we looked and sounded like tourists, who wouldn't have been allowed in the country without vaccinations or they didn't want to deal with our cards and matching the names and date of births on them to that information in our passports.
Trains, ferries and buses - QR codes
|QR code on train tickets|
Train tickets in Italy carry the QR code which is quickly scanned by the conductor as they make their way through the train. We purchased tickets from a ticket counter and received paper tickets, had we done it on line we would have had e-tickets.
The ferries that shuttle people through the canals of Venice also have gone to an optical reading system, no longer time and date stamping the tickets but using electronic coding instead.
|Paper tickets sold at the ticket office|
We traveled on the airport shuttle bus between the Bologna airport and train station, where electronic readers have also replaced the time/date stamp of the on board validation machines.
While traveling in the techno-world is still a bit of a challenge for us, we can't tell you how nice it was to travel again. There were plenty of tourists and folks out and about but none of the crowds of pre-Covid travel.
We are wondering what your travel experiences in the QR code world have been like? Have any of you been contacted by an airline or government agency using the PLF information after a trip? Shoot us an email or tell us about them in the comments below.
Hope you'll be back next week when we'll have another serving of Italy for you. Thanks, as always, for the time you've spent with us today!
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