The Master Guide to COVID-19 Testing for Travelers
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The Master Guide to COVID-19 Testing for Travelers

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Testing for COVID-19 will be part of our new normal, 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 another name for this 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.

Because of this, a PCR molecular diagnostic test is your best bet to enter a foreign country or visit another state with testing requirements – and many destinations specifically require a negative PCR result.


Where Can You Get Tested? And 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 – often by the time you board the plane. However, make sure to closely read the requirements for your destination. Hawaii’s tourism website states that starting September 1, passengers must take a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of boarding your plane to Hawaii.

Getting testing results in time is no sure thing, as testing backlogs have led to long delays in getting a test result. Waits of seven days, 10 days, even 14 days seem to have become the norm in the U.S. Most countries require that your test was performed within that 48-96 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. Use a website like Get Tested COVID-19 as a starting point to find testing sites near you.

covid-19 testing travel 

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 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.

There are a few destinations where you can get tested upon arrival.

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. You have to self-quarantine for 24 hours at your lodging.

covid-19 testing travel 

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 daysat your expense.


The Future of Testing

As the world waits 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. Unfortunately, that’s just not the reality right now.

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.

Read More: Questions to Ask Yourself Before Your Next Trip During (or After) COVID-19


Bottom Line

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.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

6 Responses

  • Great resource Mrs. TT! I have one recommendation for future updates though. Would it be possible to add information regarding flight & hotel cancellation policy in the cases where someone is tested positive for covid-19? That’s another concern, at least for me, that I’d be out that money since I’d be cancelling my travel bookings so close to departure.

  • Erica,
    Thank you for informative and detailed article. I’m not quite clear on this, however: “Antibody testing only confirms whether you previously had COVID-19 – not whether you’re currently infected. So for countries that require a negative test result, antibody testing won’t cut it.”

    Isn’t being positive for anti-bodies effectively shows that you don’t have an active infection? If I’m anti-body positive, I’m golden (e.g. not infectious, can’t get infected). But if I show negative results from a COVID19 test taken some time before my arrival, it may no longer be valid, since I could get infected after taking the test.

    • Antibody tests are currently not approved as COVID-19 diagnostic tests by the FDA. There are also a wide variety of antibody tests with varying results. Not enough information is known about COVID-19 antibodies and your ability or inability to contract the virus again. The only tests that are currently being accepted are those that show whether you have an active infection or not. You are correct you could be exposed and contract the virus in the 96-48 hours after taking your test and before arriving. This is why some countries are requiring travelers to take a test upon arrival. The current solutions are not perfect which is why greater access to accurate and timely testing is needed.

  • It disappoints me that the airlines aren’t requiring this test, and just the destination.
    People would probably be more likely to fly if the airlines required the test.

  • Great article. From what I’ve researched, and what I’ve been told by Qatar (via Twitter)… my wife and I won’t need anything for our DFW-DOH-ZNZ flights next month. Hope it stays like this.

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