April 20, 2021


Just Do Travel

Getting a coronavirus test for travel? Here’s what you need to know.

6 min read

After months of staying at home in New York City during the pandemic, travel writer Sarah Khan called her general practitioner for advice on getting tested for the coronavirus before a potential train trip to see her aging parents.

For more than a week before taking off, Khan followed a strict self-quarantine at home, only leaving to take the coronavirus test at an urgent care clinic. The day after getting her negative test result, she left for Massachusetts, confident she wouldn’t be spreading the coronavirus onboard — but conscious the risk for contracting it was still present.

“It’s obviously not foolproof,” Khan says. “You shouldn’t feel infallible from [a negative test]. But I do think that it’s an important step in our preplanning process now. Just like we have our packing list like, ‘Do I have my passport and everything?’ I feel like now would be like, ‘Did I take my covid test?’ ”

In an email, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The Washington Post: “Travel-associated testing is a worthwhile concept under active discussion in the U.S. and internationally to reduce the risk of transportation-associated COVID-19 infection and the translocation of the virus from one location to another.”

Khan is not alone in getting tested before traveling during the pandemic. Lin Chen, a doctor and director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., says she’s had an influx of inquiries about testing and travel. Here’s the advice she shares with would-be travelers.

Where to find a coronavirus test before you travel

There’s a variety of places offering coronavirus testing, including urgent care centers, travel clinics, fire stations, pop-up sites, most hospitals, and pharmacies. Chen says potential travelers should check in with their primary care provider, who may know the best options for testing in their area. Other options include looking at city and state health department websites for testing resources.

While some people may have success walking into testing sites without an appointment, Chen advises against waiting until the last minute to arrange your test. Appointments in some areas may be limited, and because of testing supply and manpower shortages, Chen says testing sites may only test high-priority, at-risk people and turn away travelers.

Depending on the site, and whether a traveler has insurance, the price of a coronavirus test will vary.

What kind of coronavirus test to expect

As the world scrambles to figure out how to understand, treat and stop covid-19, multiple methods of getting tested for the coronavirus have emerged. The viral test is designed to detect a current infection, while an antibody test will tell you if you’ve had the virus in the past.

Opt for a viral, or diagnostic, test to find out if you actively have the coronavirus before traveling. These can be administered by nasal or throat swabs, as well as by taking saliva samples.

At her urgent care clinic, Khan was given the most common coronavirus test, a nasal swab, and reported it wasn’t as uncomfortable as she heard it could be. “It was pretty quick and painless, and I almost didn’t even notice it,” she says.

David Myers, a product manager for the federal government, has gotten multiple coronavirus tests before traveling this summer. Like Khan, he was given a nasal swab test at his One Medical appointments, but his swabs were shorter than what he’d seen in the news.

“I was really afraid of getting like a really, really long brain swab test,” says Myers, a D.C. resident. “It turns out they had the really small [swabs].”

How to time your coronavirus test for a trip

Travelers need to find a sweet spot for their coronavirus testing before a trip. Plan it too early, and you have more time to get the virus before your trip and nullify your test result. Plan your test too close to your departure date, and if there’s a delay getting your results back, you’ll risk spreading the virus or being denied entry to a destination.

As you plan your test strategy, note that different tests will come with different wait times for results. Khan’s results came back in four days. Myers got his in two. New saliva tests take just hours to return results. On the other end of the spectrum, some people have waited weeks.

Even if you’re promised a timeline for your results, there may be a delay, which may be a bigger issue for those attempting to travel to a destination that requires proof of a negative test.

“I’ve certainly seen that in some of my travelers: a lot of anxiety about the right timing for the test and getting the test scheduled,” says Chen, who is also president of the International Society of Travel Medicine.

Having a flexible travel schedule, or planning some buffer time between when your test results return and the start of your trip, will help alleviate that timing anxiety.

Should you get tested before or after a trip? Or both?

Getting tested before a trip could help you avoid spreading the virus. According to a CDC spokesperson, “The pre-travel testing would reduce the risk of allowing COVID-19 infected people on airplanes and other forms of public transportation, provided that the results of the testing are known and acted upon before travel beings.”

Myers felt like it would be irresponsible to travel without getting a test first. Having a negative test result gave him peace of mind while traveling. Khan was tested before her trip to decrease her risk of infecting her parents with the coronavirus.

Getting a test at the end or after a trip can help you avoid spreading the virus at home.

“Post-arrival testing can help reduce the risk of infected persons spreading the virus at their destination (whether at home or at their travel location),” the CDC spokesperson said.

A post-arrival test may also be recommended by your state’s coronavirus task force.

For journalist Wayne Curtis, getting tested was a tool for an easier return home to Maine. “I was tested last Saturday in Madison WI at the end of a six-day road trip and before flying to Maine, which has a 14 day quarantine if you’re not tested beforehand,” Curtis said in an email.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends travelers who believe they may have been at risk while traveling consider getting a coronavirus test when they return from a trip.

A negative test won’t guarantee your safety while you travel

As the CDC says, a negative coronavirus test result means you didn’t have the virus when you took the test (or you were tested too early in the infection for the virus to be detected). It doesn’t protect you from future infection after you leave the testing site and take a plane, train, bus or car on a trip.

And Chen warns would-be travelers that coronavirus tests aren’t always accurate.

“Some people will turn out to be falsely negative even when they do carry the virus,” she says. “I think it’s a little bit reassuring if somebody tests negative, but it’s not an absolute guarantee.”

Instead of letting their guard down after a negative test, Chen advises travelers to remember coronavirus-protection basics: wearing a mask in public; avoiding crowds; keeping physical distance from others; washing and sanitizing hands frequently; and not touching one’s eyes, nose and mouth or common surfaces.

Before deciding whether to take a trip, Chen says people should also consider their health background and whether they have an increased risk for getting sick while they’re away.

“Travelers should think about the health care where they’re traveling to, whether it will be adequate if they should come down with covid,” Chen says. “Will their health insurance cover them? Because health insurance may not cover [when] people are advised not to travel.”

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