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How to avoid a costly isolation period if you get coronavirus while abroad

To avoid costly isolation if you test positive while abroad, make sure you plan carefully, buy adequate insurance and have a solid backup plan. (iStock)

Maybe you’ve seen the stories about coronavirus-positive travelers getting trapped in third-rate, government-approved isolation hotels or in cruise ship “red zones” with tiny cabins and substandard food. And maybe you’ve wondered whether there’s a way to avoid an involuntary confinement if you test positive for the coronavirus on vacation.

There is — to a point.

“If you test positive for covid in a foreign land, you don’t have many choices,” says Rajeev Shrivastava, CEO of VisitorsCoverage, a travel insurance marketplace. “Most commercial flights will not board passengers who can’t provide a valid negative test for covid.”

But you can avoid a costly isolation. Doing so requires careful planning, buying adequate insurance and having a solid backup plan, just in case your trip goes sideways. As the coronavirus slowly loosens its grip on the world and Americans begin to plan more international trips, they’re more likely to need these strategies.

Buying standard travel insurance or a medical evacuation plan may be the best way to avoid an unpleasant or unwanted confinement.

Carolyn Paddock, a travel adviser and founder of In-Flight Insider, has been recommending Covac Global or MedjetAssist to her clients lately. She recently told clients headed to St. Lucia about these policies, which cover medical evacuations in case you fall ill while you’re abroad, and they took her advice.

“With that coverage, they had peace of mind that they would most likely be able to depart St. Lucia if they tested positive,” Paddock says.

Note that she said “most likely.” Both types of coverage have important limitations and don’t work in every country. As always, experts say you should read the fine print.

And don’t forget standard travel insurance. Geoffrey Millstone, a travel adviser with Clarksburg Travel Service, a travel agency in Clarksburg, W.Va., has had two clients test positive on vacation recently. Between their travel insurance and the coronavirus policies at their respective hotels, they had no additional expenses.

One client on vacation at the Excellence Playa Mujeres in Cancún, Mexico, tested positive for the coronavirus. The resort provided accommodations, food and nonalcoholic drinks for his eight nights of isolation, and insurance covered his airline ticket charges, Millstone says. A second client tested positive at the Riu Palace Tropical Bay in Negril, Jamaica. Her partner did not get sick.

“The hotel allowed both to stay, upgraded them to an oceanfront room and fed them with excellent room-service menus,” he recalls.

Without insurance, they might have had to pay for 10 extra nights of isolation, plus meals and laundry expenses. Virtually all major travel insurance companies cover trips disrupted because of the coronavirus, but you’ll want to read the fine print carefully. If you’re traveling somewhere expensive, you’ll want at least $5,000 worth of coverage to pay your extra hotel bills.

Planning ahead can also help you avoid an unnecessary confinement in substandard accommodations. When I visited Abu Dhabi recently, I learned that the government had designated several properties as official isolation hotels. The hotels are locked down tight, with only infected guests allowed in and out. When my son got infected, I also learned that all hotels are obligated to keep you if you test positive; they can’t just kick you out and tell you to fend for yourself. So a hotel like this may not be your only option when you fail a coronavirus test.

Some hotels set aside an entire floor for infected patients. They’re typically low-key about it and offer reduced-rate rooms with room service and laundry services at a reasonable price. When I visited Qatar earlier this year, I found that Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health published a list of approved quarantine hotels online.

A skilled travel planner can ensure that you’re booked in a hotel that accepts infected travelers or is designated as a quarantine hotel. If you’re planning your trip on your own, you’ll need to do some research. If you book through a site such as, for example, you can find information about quarantine hotels in the listings. The site’s messaging feature also offers a direct link with the hotel, so you can ask about these facilities.

To avoid an unpleasant confinement, create an airtight plan in case you get infected. Tim Hentschel, CEO of HotelPlanner, says the State Department’s resources should be part of any Plan B. He recommends signing up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which lets the U.S. government know your whereabouts.

“Also, research the covid protocols on your destination country’s government websites, and sign up for email alerts to monitor changes,” he advises.

Many of the experts I spoke to recommend carrying a self-test. That way, if you think you might be sick, you can test yourself right away and exercise your backup plan.

If you have insurance that includes a medical evacuation, self-isolate immediately and call the company to ask about next steps. Let its medical experts guide you. Remember: Once hotel or cruise ship staff members find out you’re infected, they must follow a strict protocol. And those rules might land you in a government-run hotel or a lower-deck inside cabin, without any hope of getting out until you’ve completed your isolation.

It takes a little extra effort and planning to implement these strategies, but that’s the burden of traveling during a pandemic.


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.