Anyone who has ever been in a long distance relationship knows the pain of being apart, especially during the holidays.
"Of course, you're afraid it might have changed ... the love and feelings," said Simone Thied of Cologne, Germany.
Like so many loved ones around the globe, she had been separated from her partner by the U.S. travel ban, which lifted Nov. 8.
Thied was on one of the first flights back to America when restrictions eased, but for various reasons, many others are still apart.
Here's how three couples kept their relationship going across time and distance and what it has been like to finally reunite:
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'Am I really here?'
Anna Zwing from outside Frankfurt, Germany, hadn't seen her boyfriend since March 2019.
They had planned to meet up for her birthday last year. "Then COVID rolled around, and our plans were extinguished," she said.
The two were used to being apart, having dated long distance since they first met online in 2016.
"Before COVID, we were able to visit each other maximum every six months, so it was still a long time, but you always had a goal," Zwing said. "During COVID, it was always speculation. 'Oh, I'm sure we'll meet in summer 2020, once things relax.' That didn't happen. 'OK, maybe for Christmas time 2020.' That didn't happen, so it was a constant guessing game."
In the meantime, they stayed in touch by phone and FaceTime. Zwing found support from the Love is Not Tourism community online.
"Everyone is so helpful," she said. "We exchange tips and tricks, even with preparing for the flights. We all made sure that everyone has everything together so that everyone can travel safely and without any issues."
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Still, nothing quite prepared her for their first few moments back together with her boyfriend in Chicago.
"I think the first hour I was more still in this shock phase, like, 'Is this real? Am I really here?' " the 28-year-old said.
Zwing and her boyfriend have savored their time together and looked forward to spending Thanksgiving with his family.
"It's been really good," she said. "It could have gone differently. I'm sure that some people can't find their connection again to each other, but luckily, that wasn't the case for us."
"It is important to not romanticize this whole lift of the travel ban," Zwing added. "I understand that it's love stories and nice reunions, but in the end, it's been very hard on everybody, especially mentally ... It's been really draining."
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She knows many couples will be spending the holidays apart, noting that with few exceptions, only vaccinated foreign nationals are allowed to visit the U.S.
Her tips for long-distance couples:
Send care packages to loved ones with holiday-related items to let them know they’re not forgotten.
Save a seat at the family table and have significant others tune in via video call during dinner, games and discussion.
Set up dinner dates, movie nights via FaceTime.
Others in the Love is Not Tourism community said they opened gifts together on video calls and tried to spend as much time together on holidays as possible, despite the time difference.
'Like we've never been apart'
"I missed everything, the closeness the most," said Thied.
Since 2016, she and her partner had managed to see each other every three months until the pandemic.
"The hardest part was not knowing when we (would) see each other in person again," she said of the travel ban.
Reuniting in Omaha, Nebraska, she said, "The first 10 minutes, it was a bit strange, but then it was back to normal ... It's all like we've never been apart."
The 45-year-old credited family and friends for helping them get through "the hardest time" and said they are still very much in love.
"I enjoy waking up with my partner every day," she said. "We go out to eat, have a drink, cook together, watch films. We have so much to catch up on. We just enjoy (being) together."
Her recommendations for couples spending holidays apart:
Eat together, share a glass of wine or even spend the whole day or evening together by Skype or video call.
Send surprises, such as a cake or chocolate-covered fruit, as they did over holidays.
Call to ring in the new year in each other's respective time zones.
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Planning for the future
Olumide Alemoru and his significant other hadn't seen each other since 2016, but it was still hard to be apart during the pandemic.
"It's a tough situation for both of us in terms of being able to plan to be able to actually see each other face-to-face," said the 57-year-old of Manchester, England.
His tips for staying connected:
Constant Facebook messages
Regular video chats
Gifts and cards for birthdays and Valentines
Connecting over a shared passion like movies
In the days leading up to his trip to Los Angeles on Nov. 13, Alemoru made sure to be extra careful with COVID-19 precautions like masking up.
"I didn't want any last-minute heartbreak that I wouldn't pass the test," he said.
Negative COVID-19 test results are among the requirements for entering the U.S. according to the new travel system, in addition to vaccination for the vast majority of foreign nationals.
►CDC updates guidance: Unvaccinated foreign tourists under 18 will not need to quarantine
"When I got out of the cab and saw her for the first time, (I) was ecstatic," he said. "It was one of those romantic moments."
"It feels almost like renewing the beginnings of the relationship," he added.
He hasn't even left, and they're already planning his next trip back.
"Definitely plans together going on forward from here," he said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Reunited international couples: Tips for spending the holidays apart