There’s so much to think about when it comes to traveling during a pandemic, from the safest way to fly to how to stay healthy at hotels.
And chances are if you’re traveling internationally — or hoping to visit Chicago, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Massachusetts, Maine, New Mexico, New York, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, or Washington, D.C. — you’ll need to prove you’ve had a COVID-19 test within the last 1–3 days (depending on where you’re going) if you want to avoid quarantine during your trip.
Some destinations, like Hawaii, also require you to get tested through certain travel partners, so make sure you’re following all the mandatory COVID-19 protocols where you’re going to avoid disappointment.
In the spirit of making trip-planning easier, we’re here to help break it all down, from the different types that are available to where to find COVID-19 tests if you’re looking to travel anytime soon.
Do countries and U.S. states require a COVID-19 test for entry?
While the short answer tends to be yes, the longer answer is that testing requirements and other travel restrictions largely depend on the places you’re visiting. Let’s dig in.
COVID-19 testing is now required to enter the U.S.
As of Jan. 26, 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requires all travelers over age two who wish to enter the U.S. — including all U.S. citizens and those on international flights connecting in the U.S. — to provide proof of negative results from a viral SARS-CoV-2 test taken no more than three days before your flight.
Both NAAT tests (PCR) and antigen (rapid) tests are being accepted as long as they’re authorized by approved labs in the country you’re in. If you do test positive, you’ll need to self-isolate and follow the COVID-19 travel restrictions of the country you’re visiting.
Alternatively, you can provide documentation proving you recently tested positive, recovered, and were cleared to travel by your healthcare provider or another public health official.
The CDC recommends re-testing three to five days after you get back and self-quarantining for seven days following international travel, or if you don’t plan to re-test, staying home for at least 10 days and avoiding meeting with at-risk individuals for up to 14 days.
Note that there are exceptions for travelers returning from U.S. territories — Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands — and for those traveling through a foreign country like Japan to reach a U.S. territory like the Northern Mariana Islands. Check the CDC’s website for details regarding more complicated travel itineraries.
Do I need a PCR or rapid COVID-19 test?
There are two types of COVID-19 tests to be aware of when it comes to testing for travel: molecular or nucleic acid amplification tests (NAAT) — which include the popular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test — and antigen tests, formerly known as rapid antigen tests.
While both are administered by swabbing the nose or throat to see if you’re infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, the main difference is NAAT and PCR tests are used to detect certain genetic materials found within the virus while antigen tests are used to detect certain proteins. While antibody tests also exist, they’re generally not used for travel purposes since they don’t provide a real-time picture of your current COVID-19 situation.
“All of the tests tell you what your status is on that day,” said Dr. Scott Weisenberg, Director of Travel Medicine at NYU Langone Health. “The faster you get the result, the more ‘real-time’ significance the result has.”
While the CDC calls NAAT and PCR tests the “gold standard” in detecting SARS-CoV-2, antigen tests are sometimes allowed, for instance, when flying back to the U.S.
Note that while antigen test results come back faster, they can sometimes provide false positives, false negatives, or may need to be re-checked against a NAAT or PCR test. Rapid PCR tests are also available through some pharmacies, though they’ll cost you more than a standard turnaround PCR test.
What about the fully vaccinated? Will they still need to be tested before traveling?
“These decisions will be made by governments and airlines, but the need for testing will be lower when everyone is vaccinated,” said Weisenberg. “As long as there are unvaccinated people traveling, everyone may need to continue to test before travel to further reduce the risk of disease spread. Ideally, this should focus on identifying people who have enough virus that they are contagious.”
Dr. Summer Johnson McGee, Dean of the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven, agrees. “People should continue to be tested for COVID-19, even after being vaccinated, until we know how much risk these individuals have of spreading COVID-19 to others. Vaccination protects individuals from getting sick but we don’t yet know whether those individuals can make others sick. Until we do, testing is a great additional layer of risk mitigation, especially for travelers.”
Where can I get a COVID-19 test?
There are plenty of ways to get a COVID-19 test, but depending on your state, you may need to fill out a questionnaire to see if you qualify or provide medical insurance information.
Note that tests being done for travel (as opposed to medical reasons) aren’t likely to be covered by insurance so you may need to pay for it yourself.
In-person COVID-19 test options
The CDC recommends checking your local health department’s website for testing opportunities at drug stores and pharmacies near you — some CVS and Walgreens locations even have drive-thru testing so you can stay in your car, though you’ll be expected to swab yourself.
It’s also worth checking with travel health clinics like Passport Health, which have locations nationwide. Curative offers testing at sites in Washington, D.C., Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Denver, among other cities, while Color has testing locations throughout California.
You could also try your luck at a community testing site, urgent care center, or your primary care doctor and see if insurance will cover anything, though fee-free tests are typically reserved for those who have had symptoms or been exposed.
Mail-in COVID-19 test options
If you’d prefer to send a nasal or saliva sample by mail, double-check with your preferred airline to make sure it’ll count, as mail-in options typically won’t bill insurance companies for their services and it would be a shame to have to get another one. Popular and reliable companies include Azova (available through Costco), Carbon Health, The COVID Consultants, empowerDX, Everlywell, ImmunityRX, OnSite Safe, Pixel by LabCorp (which does bill insurance companies), Quest Diagnostics, VaultHealth and Wellness 4 Humanity.
“The best COVID-19 test is the one that actually gets taken and gives fast, accurate results,” said McGee. “At-home testing is a great option for many to offer an additional convenience factor over going to a doctor’s office or urgent care center.”
COVID-19 tests at the airport or hotel
Travel Weekly recently reported that Hyatt and Marriott International properties are among the many hotels and resorts in Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean offering COVID-19 testing to guests returning to the U.S. Note that while some options are free or included in the price of your stay, others may be available separately for purchase through the property.
Several U.S. airports also offer antigen or PCR testing, though they’re not necessarily covered by insurance and may be more expensive. But if you do live near a participating airport and can get it done a few days before your trip, this could be a viable option.
XpresCheck also has locations at airports in Boston (BOS), Denver (DEN), Houston (IAH), New York (JFK), Newark (EWR), Phoenix (PHX) and Salt Lake City (SLC), though the stations at Denver and Salt Lake City are located after the TSA security checkpoint, so plan accordingly.
Free COVID-19 test options
Rite Aid offers complimentary testing services in certain cities, and while you may find other free testing sites near you at community centers or stadiums, fee-free testing is usually not available unless you’re experiencing symptoms or have recently been exposed to the virus. Because travel is not a medical necessity, you’ll likely be responsible for the cost of your COVID-19 test.
How long will it take to get COVID-19 test results?
While turnaround times for PCR test results vary based on the lab and how soon your testing materials reach it, you’ll typically get them back in about 1–3 days, while antigen test results often return in as early as 15 minutes. Check to see if your pharmacy or urgent care center offers a Rapid PCR testing option, which still counts as a PCR test for travel purposes but costs more to get your results within 24 hours
With more travel on the horizon — including a possible return to cruises later this year — more destinations are requiring COVID-19 tests before, and in the case of the U.S., after traveling. Paying attention to travel restrictions in the places you’re going ensures everyone remains safe and healthy and you’ll avoid disappointment wherever your travels may take you.
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