Anyone traveling internationally is required to present a negative COVID-19 test 3 days before scheduled return to the United States. There are several options available to meet this requirement, with pros and cons for each depending on your needs, budget, and technical acumen.
Country Certified Labs
Every country has their own network of certified laboratories that can perform the test. The test can be at a designated location or even at your hotel. The pros of this approach are professional test administration at an approved facility. This provides some peace of mind that airport, airline, and security officials will accept the results without issue. The downsides are needing to find and go to an approved facility, costs compared to self tests, and the risk the results will not come back in time.
On our August 2021 trip to Costa Rica, our trip was going to end several hours away from the capital with few testing sites nearby so I decided to use an approved self test. In order to use this method you must have access to reliable internet. These tests have to be completed in front of a video proctor. At the time my family took the tests, a laptop was required. This appeared to be primarily so that proctor could keep an eye on the test kit as we used them. A laptop camera is steady when aimed at the kit whereas a mobile phone app is not. I knew that if something went seriously wrong, I had a backup plan at the airport.
I purchased Abbot Binax Now home test kits with Telehealth service. There are Abbot Binax home test kits that don’t have Telehealth; make sure you buy the right ones. Tests are sold in either 2, 3, or 6 packs. The airlines recommend purchasing 2 test kits for each tourist in case tests are faulty or is spoiled while testing. I bought 10 test kits for our 5 person family & first international trip since COVID-19, but I would not buy as many next time. All of our first attempts were successful, and I now have 5 extra tests that will expire by next year.
Those 10 test kits were $235, adding a not inconsequential amount to the trip. In comparison, if I had opted for on-site testing it would have cost about $500, more if we had chosen a service that comes to your hotel. However, the cheaper self tests comes with the worry about remote video proctor availability. You really don’t know what kind of wait time you are in for.
A few weeks prior to our departure, travel sites reported customers waiting hours on hold in order to get a video proctor. That prospect certainly caused anxiety because who wants to be on hold for hours per person at the end of their trip waiting for a customer service rep? Most of those complaints seemed to come from European locations. The company was struggling to service those time zones but has since ramped up capacity significantly. Because we were in Central America with a Central Standard Time Zone we had no issues and never waited more than two minutes for a proctor. Thankfully we were not effected, but even with smooth low wait times, the process wasn’t as convenient as it could be.
At the time of our testing, Abbott did not let a whole family queue as one group, each person had to wait in line individually. Going through the process for all five family members took about two hours to complete. After logging on each user follows the proctors step by step instructions to complete the test and then a fifteen minute timer is set for the test to process. At the end of that time, a proctor returns (usually a different person), and confirms your test results. Our internet was just reliable enough to process one person at a time, and we didn’t want to risk confusion by trying to start another family member’s test before the last one completed. Once the video proctor approved the results, each of us received the email with proof of the negative results in less than a minute. This is what the airlines require prior to boarding.
On Airport Testing
Depending on the country, in airport same day antigen testing may be available. This was my backup plan if we corrupted all our tests, or couldn’t get through with self testing. The catch is you must arrive more than 4 hours before your flight to get results in time. I’d probably allocate more time in case there are lines, which I’d expect for those caught unaware they need to have a negative test result to fly back to the USA.
What To Do If You Test Positive?
What happens if someone tests positive for COVID-19? Depending on the country you may be allowed to quarantine in place or be required to move to another location often run by the government. A few countries cover the cost of quarantine, as well as some resorts, but tourists will usually be required to cover the additional food and lodging expenses for whatever time period is required and until you test negative.
Because of this financial risk, I recommend everyone purchase travel insurance that includes reimbursement for a required quarantine. Many travelers often think insurance is an unnecessary expense or that their credit card travel insurance will cover this. Credit card travel insurance is extremely limited and it is unlikely they will cover additional expenses for quarantine.
You might also consider creating separate bookings for people in your party. In a 4 person family, let’s say you book each spouse on a separate booking with a child apiece. Using this strategy, you could spread the risk that your whole party might have to quarantine in country. Of course, this assumes you’d be comfortable splitting up, and you might not be able to guarantee airplane seating for the whole family. We booked my mother on her own ticket as a hedge against total family quarantine. My husband and I also both brought our laptops in case we ended up having to stay so we could continue to work.
Don’t Forget the Pets!
Preparing for a potential quarantine for the whole family included informing the dog kennel there was a chance they might have an extended stay. That required many conversations with kennel owners we know pretty well before they were comfortable with the uncertainty. We also spoke with friends and provided car keys since transporting our 200 pound Saint Bernard can’t be done in just any vehicle!