It’s the third summer of the pandemic, and by now we know one thing: if you’re travelling, you may need to think about if, when, where and how to get a test for COVID-19.
If you are an American flying to another country, you must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test (or documentation of recent recovery from COVID-19) before boarding a plane back to the United States.
Also, you may need or want to be tested for COVID-19 one or more times while you are away. It depends on where you go, what you do, who you spend time with and how everyday life makes you feel.
In general, the higher the COVID-19 rates in your destination, the more likely testing is to be part of your travel experience. As infections rise again in many states and other countries, it’s important to stay informed — and be prepared for testing.
“A lot of things are changing very quickly,” says David Banach, MD, MPH, hospital epidemiologist at UConn Health in Farmington, Connecticut. “I think the key is to be vigilant about what’s happening before you travel.”
Here, doctors and other experts offer advice on how and when to take the test and how to protect yourself and those around you, no matter where you travel.
1. Before you leave home, find out about your destination
For international travel in particular, you should do your research to learn the latest COVID-19 entry requirements and develop a strategy.
Many countries, such as England and Mexico, currently have no COVID-related entry requirements that do not include testing or vaccinations.
However, if you are planning to travel to France from the United States and are not vaccinated, you must provide either a negative PCR test performed less than 72 hours prior to departure or a negative antigen (rapid) test, made less than 48 hours before departure to your flight.
The only way to waive this testing requirement is to provide proof of recent recovery from COVID-19 or a medical exemption from vaccination.
2. Rules or no rules, consider testing before you travel
Regardless of the regulations at your destination, “In general, a prudent approach would be to test before you travel,” says Dr. Banach.
The CDC advises anyone traveling within the United States or internationally to “consider getting tested as close as possible to departure (no more than three days) before your trip.”
Should you get a PCR test, or is an antigen test or a home test just as good? “The increased sensitivity of the PCR test provides a higher level of security,” says Banach.
3. Pack tests to take home in case you feel sick while you’re away
Bring a supply of test kits to take home so you can more conveniently do a quick check during your trip. “If you develop any symptoms while traveling, you should have access to testing right away,” says Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious diseases at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center.
“You should definitely test when you have the slightest symptom,” he adds. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘I thought it was just allergies.'”
He explains that FDA-approved home testing kits are good at detecting COVID-19 in people with symptoms such as a sore throat or cough. If your home test is positive, you have COVID-19.
At-home kits have a higher chance of false negatives, meaning your test result will tell you you’re not infected when you actually are. Don’t let a negative result from a single home test give you false reassurance, emphasizes Dr. Ostrosky.
To increase accuracy, “we recommend repeating the test a couple of times,” he says. For this reason, kits generally contain two tests that are used 24 to 48 hours apart.
4. Find out where you can get a PCR test in your travel destination
If you have symptoms but have tested negative on multiple home tests, it’s best to get a PCR test as well.
Additionally, if you’re perfectly fine but want to be sure you’re infection-free — because, for example, you’re planning to spend time with an elderly person at risk of severe COVID-19 — you might want to get a PCR test in addition to other precautions such as masking.
For domestic travelers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website can direct you to a testing location near you anywhere in the United States.
If you’re traveling internationally, you might want to do some research beforehand. A quick internet search may be all it takes to find a PCR testing site, or your hotel staff can direct you to a local hospital, emergency center, or other testing location.
Make sure you find out if your insurance will cover the test, or expect to pay out of pocket.
5. If you are an American traveling abroad, prepare to take a test before boarding your flight home
Anyone flying back to the United States from another country must present a negative test taken no later than one day prior to departure or proof of recent recovery from COVID-19; Visit the CDC website for more information.
In many international destinations, local pharmacies will perform antigen testing and provide the documentation you need for the airline. Airports may also offer testing, but allow time in case you have to wait in line.
Another option is to use a home test linked to telemedicine services. In this type of testing, a proctor monitors a video call while you test yourself. You will then receive a proof of the result via an app.
This is the only type of self-test that meets CDC requirements for re-entry into the States, so you might want to pack one in your luggage and download the app before you start your trip.
Some of the most commonly used options include Abbott’s BinaxNOW home testing coupled with eMed’s telehealth services (note: Patrice Harris, MD, FAPA, Chief Health and Medical Editor of Everyday Health, is co-founder and CEO of eMed) and Ellume home testing with video surveillance by Azova.
6. Consider retesting when you get home
Should you test when you get back from your trip? The CDC recommends you do this in certain scenarios, even if you don’t have symptoms (as long as you haven’t had COVID-19 in the last 90 days).
“Get tested after your trip if your trip included situations with a higher risk of exposure, e.g. B. if you are in crowded places without wearing a well-fitting mask or respirator,” advises the agency.
You should also think about what you will do when you are at home and the likelihood of spreading the virus to other people if you are infected. “Will you participate in group activities? For others at higher risk? Many factors play a role here,” says Banach.
Note that any infection you contract during transit can spread to others even before the virus levels rise high enough for a home or rapid test to detect. So plan your first few days at home accordingly.
7. Practice COVID-19 safety during your trip and upon your return
COVID-19 testing won’t stop you from getting COVID. You still need to practice other important safety measures — including keeping up to date with your vaccines and booster shots, wearing masks, social distancing and hand hygiene — to protect yourself and reduce the risk of infecting others.
Even though airlines no longer require masks, wearing them at the airport and on the plane is still a good idea, says Banach: “I think wearing a mask when travelling, especially when traveling by plane, is still important. I encourage people to wear a quality mask while traveling to protect themselves and others flying with you. Likewise, [wear a mask] if you use another means of travel such as train or bus.”
Ostrosky adds: “Airflow on airplanes is excellent and HEPA filtered. The problem is if you’re sitting right next to someone with COVID – the airflow isn’t going to help you. You should either mask with a double surgical mask or with an N95 or KN95 and not remove them at all.
says Ostrosky. “The best way to protect yourself is to mask up in high-density public environments like airports, airplanes, concerts, amusement parks — indoors or out. And al fresco dining is definitely preferable to indoor dining.”
No matter where you go and how often you choose to test, keep this one tip in mind throughout your journey, says Ostrosky: “Mask, mask and mask.”