Of course, navigating testing requirements was already a challenge for travelers before omicron was detected. I learned this firsthand a few weeks ago, when I was turned away from the gate for an overseas flight despite doing my due diligence.
In preparing for what would be my first international trip since the beginning of the pandemic, I’d checked the airline’s website to find out about the testing requirement. It said passengers arriving in my destination must provide “a certificate for a negative PCR test issued from a verified laboratory within 72 hours (from the time the test is performed) before departure.” I’d confirmed this with the trip organizers. I’d gotten the test and had the certificate in hand.
But a critical detail had been omitted from the airline’s instructions: “Departure” in this case meant the final leg of my three-flight journey — not the initial domestic flight or the departure flight from the United States, but the final connection. I was forced to miss the flight and take a $220 rapid PCR in another terminal of the airport before being allowed to board the next plane to my destination, 10 hours later.
Countless travelers have had similar experiences because of changing and sometimes unclear criteria, said Robert Quigley, a physician based in Philadelphia and global medical director of International SOS, the world’s largest health and security services provider. If you are planning to proceed with international travel, here are some up-to-date tips for dealing with PCR testing requirements as you head abroad — and return. Keep in mind that this is a rapidly changing situation.
Do your homework
Each destination and airline has its own set of covid-related requirements, so the first step is to study up. “Walk yourself [mentally] through the entire trip and create a covid checklist,” Quigley said.
In addition to consulting airline and governmental sites (such as the Safe Travels Program in Hawaii and the U.S. State Department’s Covid-19 Country Specific Information site), Quigley recommends plugging your departure and arrival locations into the Sherpa platform to generate a list of requirements and restrictions. These may include both testing and vaccination requirements, so find out which vaccinations are accepted and what kind of proof you will need to show. In some cases, you may need to obtain a booster shot to travel. In Israel, for example, some visitors must have received a third shot if it has been more than six months since their second, and the European Union is considering setting an expiration of nine months on vaccinations.
Even if you have received a vaccination or booster shot, however, many destinations will require a test, and you will need one to return to the United States. So, once you have ascertained that you can make the trip, write down questions about testing to consider such as:
- Which test is required? For example, if it’s a PCR test, a rapid antigen test will not suffice.
- What is the maximum length of time allowed between the test and your entry to the destination?
- Does the destination or airline only accept tests from specific testing partners? This is the case for Hawaii and parts of Africa that only admit travelers who have been tested through their Trusted Travel partners, for example. Information on covid-related requirements for entry into the United States from a foreign country is available on the CDC website.
- If you’ll be island hopping at your destination, are there inter-island requirements?
- What testing options are available? Choose a testing site where the turnaround time suits the destination requirements. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services site is a good place to start for domestic tests. For your return to the United States, consult the governmental website of the foreign destination and inquire with your travel agent, hotel or tour operator about whether they arrange testing. Keep in mind that, wherever you are, case surges or other factors could affect appointment availability and processing times.
- Can the testing site provide official documentation in digital and printed form? Various destination and airport officials may ask to see your documentation throughout the journey, and you don’t want to be unable to produce it because you’re caught without WiFi or cell service. “Always ask for digital and hard copies,” recommended Brooke Berlin, a travel expert based in Boulder, Colo., and the founder of Karoo Consulting, a business development and representation company that specializes in working with entities in Africa. “If you receive results through an online portal that doesn’t show all of the required info, ask your doctor to provide a letter on letterhead that includes your name, location and date of the test, result, and the doctor’s signature and contact info,” she said.
- Are you required to complete and upload a health declaration form before arrival? Do you need to install a covid app? Both are becoming common and may be needed for entry into the country, as well as tourist sites, for example.
Pick up the phone
Armed with your checklist, call the airline and then the testing providers, rather than looking online, to ask questions and schedule your appointment. “Things can change, so websites may not always be up to date,” Quigley said. If you book your appointment through an online portal, you should still call to confirm anything that’s unclear. It’s better to put in the time up front than lose time — and potentially money — during your trip.
Calculate your test window based on arrival — not departure
“Err on the side of caution,” Berlin said. If you’re traveling to a place that has a 72-hour PCR test requirement, she recommends working back 72 hours from your arrival time to determine the window in which you should take your test. Be aware that, starting next week, the Biden administration will require anyone entering the United States to have a test within one calendar day of departure.
Berlin advises choosing your departure date carefully, to make sure the testing sites have adequate time. “I want to avoid any issue with labs that may be closed on Sundays and holidays,” she said. “So, I’m not buying tickets where I’m flying on a Monday or the day after a holiday.”
If you live in or are returning from a rural area where turnaround times may be longer, Berlin suggested booking an expedited test in your connecting city and overnighting there before you start your international journey. The hotel cost is an added expense, but, Berlin said, “If you’ve already invested in your trip, it’s worth it to spend that little bit extra for the peace of mind and to ensure it’s going to go off without a hitch.” And in the event your coronavirus test comes back positive, you’re still relatively close to home.
Make a backup plan
Even if a testing site says its turnaround time is within 48 hours, prepare a backup plan. Take note of where you can get an expedited test should you need one. For example, urgent care clinics and some airports, such as John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Los Angeles International Airport, Heathrow Airport in London, Milan Malpensa Airport in Italy and Sydney Airport in Australia offer them.
Turnaround times vary — rapid PCR results are guaranteed within one hour at LAX and two hours at JFK (mine at JFK was returned to me in less than an hour). Expedited tests may not be covered by insurance and can cost upward of $200. But it may be the only option aside from postponing your trip.
Even if you have negative results in hand when you head to the airport, you should still make a Plan B. Flight delays and cancellations, particularly with long-haul trips where more hours are spent in transit, can push you beyond the approved window. Berlin suggested mitigating this by scheduling a second PCR test (preferably with a 24-hour turnaround) for your day of departure. Then you’ll have your initial one for check-in, and if you’re delayed, you can receive results from the second one en route.
Build in flexibility
Traveling right now requires an incredible amount of effort, patience and flexibility. If your trip is five days, block out at least seven in case issues arise.
When you book, opt for airlines, hotels and tours where you have the flexibility to change or cancel reservations without incurring fees. Purchase travel insurance that covers covid-related issues and cancellations. “This way, if you were to test positive prior to traveling, or if you contract covid during your trip, cancellation fees incurred would be covered,” said Sasha Skeel Cork, manager of Cottar’s Safari Services in Nairobi.
If you don't have the ability to be flexible (financially or time-wise), it may be best to postpone your trip.
“Even if you do everything right, something could slip through the cracks,” Quigley said. “There’s no silver bullet here, and there are no guarantees.”
Fitzgerald is a writer based in Honolulu. Her website is thisissunny.com.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments at washingtonpost.com/coronavirus