Testing for COVID-19 will be part of our new normal for the foreseeable future, travelers.
Countries around the world have implemented testing measures, requiring a negative COVID-19 test result shortly before departing for your trip or upon arrival. Even here in the U.S., several states like Alaska, Vermont, and Maine require negative test results to enter.
But just what you’ll need to get in will depend on where you’re going. Some destinations perform testing after you land, while others don’t. And given the difficulty with coronavirus testing in the United States, getting a test result within the 48- to 96-hour window that many states and countries require is no sure thing.
Here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision about booking travel when a negative COVID-19 test is required.
What Kind of COVID-19 Test Do You Need?
You’ve heard the terms: PCR test, NAAT, antibody test, rapid testing. What does it all mean?
There are three main types of testing for COVID-19: molecular diagnostic (PCR or NAAT), rapid antigen, and antibody testing. Antibody testing only confirms whether you previously had COVID-19 – not whether you’re currently infected and is not an approved diagnostic test. So for countries that require a negative test result, antibody testing won’t cut it.
That leaves us with molecular diagnostic testing like PCR and rapid antigen testing:
- PCR stands for polymerase chain reaction, a genetic test widely considered the most accurate – but that can also take the longest to get results. NAAT (nucleic acid amplification test) is also a molecular diagnostic test that amplifies the DNA of the virus so it can be detected.
- Rapid antigen is just like it sounds: a faster test that can generate results in minutes or hours, but with a higher rate of false negatives. And more doubt about the results can often require a second round of PCR testing for confirmation.
A PCR molecular diagnostic test is most likely what is required to enter a foreign country or visit another state with testing requirements. The exception is Hawaii, which requires a NAAT COVID-19 test from approved testing partners.
Getting Tested Before Your Tip & Can You Get Results in Time?
While a handful of destinations will provide testing upon arrival, most countries require you to arrive with a negative test result in hand. That means you’ll need to get tested before you leave – and within 48 hours to 96 hours of arrival at your destination.
So if your destination requires a test from within 72 hours, you’ll need to have a test performed no more than 72 hours (three days) before you’re scheduled to arrive and have the results in hand.
But every destination handles it differently, so make sure to closely read the requirements for your destination. Some set the timing window based upon not when you arrive, but when your flight departs. Hawaii, for instance, requires a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 72 hours before your final flight to the islands departs.
Either way, getting test results in time is no sure thing, as testing backlogs and massive demand for testing has led to long delays. Waits of seven days, 10 days, even 14 days seem to have become the norm in many parts of the U.S. Most countries require that your test was performed within that 48- to 96-hour window – not that your results arrive within that timeframe.
So it will be a challenge to find a testing site that can deliver results in time.
Getting Tested at a Clinic or Hospital
Start by using a website like Get Tested COVID-19 as a starting point to find testing sites near you. Focus on smaller or boutique clinics that might not be as overwhelmed as larger hospitals, clinics, and national pharmacies. Find a testing site that does not require a physician’s referral and requires appointments – a good strategy to save time on the turnaround. Be sure to check with the clinic itself on the requirements to get a test.
Because you’re getting tested for travel, you’ll likely have to pay out of pocket. The cost will vary, plan to pay roughly $100. Check with your health insurance provider before scheduling a test to see if it’s covered.
Thrifty Tip: Have a Health Savings Account (HSA)? Use it to pay for your test!
Many clinics state that results will be available within 24 to 48 hours. But are they really reliable? Thrifty Traveler contributor Chealsea Breza-Berndt had some luck at a clinic in Minnesota:
“We decided to do a test run to make sure we found a place that could meet our turn time requirement (i.e. what they advertised was actually how long it took) for Tahiti in a month. The online process was extremely easy, and you can declare on there that it is for travel purposes or other reasons, and can book in advance using their calendar. It was a really fast drive-through – took maybe two to three minutes. The results were texted in 24 hours, like they promised.”
While a test run might not make sense for everyone, it’s one way to find out if your results will come in time. But even then, it’s no sure thing.
Given the trajectory of coronavirus in the U.S. and our overburdened testing system, booking a trip to a destination that requires a negative COVID-19 test comes with some risk. And only you can decide if that risk is worth it.
Thrifty Tip: Join a travel community online to get recommendations from travelers who have gotten tested! Thrifty Traveler Premium members have access to the Thrifty Traveler Premium Members Only Facebook Group to get recommendations and all of their travel questions answered.
Getting Tested at a State-Run Free Testing Site
Many states have opened up free testing sites in order to give people better access to COVID-19 testing.
Our home state of Minnesota has dozens of testing locations scattered across the state and also offers at-home COVID-19 tests. No symptoms are necessary to get tested, and it’s completely free for residents. There are a few different types of tests offered so make sure you are getting the test that you need.
One of the newest testing sites is located in a parking ramp at Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) airport. But once again, it’s important to note that the test results will take 48 to 72 hours. That turnaround time means it won’t work to simply take a test before you hop on your flight – your results almost certainly won’t come back in time.
Check to see if your state offers free testing, what type, and what the turnaround time is.
Getting Tested Through your Airline
Alaska, American, Hawaiian, JetBlue, and United have all announced that they will be offering COVID-19 testing for their passengers in a limited capacity.
They have all partnered with different testing companies to offer a variety of tests including at-home, clinic, drive-through, and even rapid testing at the airport. To start, testing is only available to passengers flying from a limited amount of airports to limited destinations – mainly Hawaii and the Caribbean.
And these tests aren’t free. The cost of these tests range from $90 to $250. It’s not a cheap option but could offer travelers peace of mind when it comes to getting results on time and tests that are accepted at the destination.
Airlines jumping in to make testing available for travelers is great news. If these programs work, they will more than likely be rolled out to major airports across the country. And more airlines will hopefully start offering testing which could help bring the price down.
Getting Tested Upon Arrival at Your Destination
Rather than getting tested at home, there are a handful of destinations around the world testing travelers upon arrival.
Iceland performs testing at Reykjavik (KEF) airport, charging roughly $66 USD if you pay in advance – or $80 USD on the spot. But Americans aren’t currently allowed in Iceland anyway.
If you want to head to Aruba, travelers can present a negative COVID-19 test or pay to get tested upon arrival – unless if you’re coming from certain states with high case counts. If you chose to get tested on arrival, tests cost $75. And you’ll have to self-quarantine for 24 hours at your lodging.
Arriving in Barbados, you will be given a COVID-19 test free of charge at the airport where you’ll be required to remain until your results come in.
As countries struggle to find a way to bring tourism back, testing upon arrival may become more common.
But there’s another big risk: If your test result comes back positive, you’ll typically be required to self-quarantine for 14 days … at your expense.
The Future of Testing
As the world waits eagerly for a vaccine, it’s clear that COVID-19 testing is one of the few effective ways for countries and states to resume any travel.
But in the U.S. and some other corners of the globe, testing is no slam dunk right now. Testing needs to become cheaper, faster, and more widely available for any semblance of tourism to return. Just look at Turkey.
Turkey doesn’t have a testing requirement, but Istanbul operates as a major hub for international travel. So Istanbul (IST) airport offers PCR COVID-19 testing for $20, with results in two hours or less.
Quick, accurate, and cheap COVID-19 test right at your airport might be the solution to jump-starting the travel industry. Thankfully some airlines have stepped up and started offering this option and hopefully, it will be more widely available. But the cost of these tests starting at $90 and going up to $250 is still prohibitive to many travelers.
In the meantime, there will be a lot of uncertainty for travelers. Will you get your test results on time? Can you quarantine before your trip to ensure a negative result?
If you’re willing to take those risks, you still need to be smart about how you plan your travel. Make sure your flights fall under free change and cancellation policies. Book refundable accommodations and wait until the last minute to book any tours. If you spring for travel insurance, make sure your policy has a “cancel for any reason” policy.
Travel isn’t going to be easy for the foreseeable future, and testing is just a part of that. And until the situation improves in the U.S., traveling near and far could be filled with risks.