My life bounces back and forth between Europe and the USA for reasons of business, pleasure and family with greater regularity than most. For obvious reasons, this was a much slower year than usual for international travel, but I kept moving when legally able, and I’m glad I did.
I’ve been able to witness first hand, with my own two eyes, exactly how effective, ineffective, frustrating and redeeming travel can be right now.
With each trip, I took every precaution, whether legally required or not, and from absolutely “bricking it” with stresses of covid-19 testing prior to travel in the early days, I’m far more laid back now, after around 15+ mandatory tests, and quite a few others on both sides of the pond.
As the world considers dipping its toes back into international travel, I thought it’d be a good time to share my insights, takeaways and tips in regards to the new normal of tests before travel.
First: The Game Changer In Testing
Recent studies suggest antigen tests are delivering results with accuracy close enough to PCR, that the added expenses, hassles and work required for RT-PCR are arguably redundant for some travel. Not all countries agree, but more are.
The US recently joined the list, going a step further and allowing home tests to be used, such as the Abbott BiNAX NOW or Quidel QuickVue test.
You are therefore able to take a test with you when you travel, schedule a video appointment for someone to supervise you taking the test and then receive a result – and fit to fly certificate – all from the comfort of your hotel, beach or wherever you are.
No need to find a testing center, worry about timings or anything.
These are outstanding. I’ve used them to enter the UK and USA and I highly suggest researching these cost effective (under $50) options, which can be done at home. But for most people, you’ll need to keep reading, because they’re not everywhere and many countries still won’t accept them.
Timing Of Tests: Be Pedantic
The most nerve racking part of covid-19 testing prior to flight, in my experience, has been destinations which require a RT-PCR test, rather than a rapid antigen test.
PCR tests need to be sent off to a lab, which typically means a minimum 24 hour turn around, from the moment you’ve taken the test. And yes, some countries have 1 hour rapid testing at major airports.
For mail in PCR kits, it’s really around 48 hours you’ll need to account for, accounting for a day for the test to reach the lab from when you send it, and another 24 hours for it to process the sample and deliver a result.
72 Hours Or 3 Days? They’re Not The Same
The stress here is that most countries operate on a 3 day or 72 hour clock from which your test is still valid. The 3 day rule is much easier, and I applaud countries like the US and UK for going by this easier to follow metric, rather than a specific hour.
For example, if I fly from Paris to the USA on Friday, a test on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday before flight would be valid, regardless of time stamp. Some other countries go by the 72 hour mark, so if my flight was at noon on Friday, but I took a test at 8AM on Tuesday, I’d be outside the window by 4 hours.
Takeaway: be pedantic about reading the rules before travel and do your best to assess turnaround times for various labs and testing options. Which brings me to the next thing…
Taking Someone’s Word For It?
Every day my inbox is sadly full of data points of people being lead astray. Just because someone works for an airline, hotel, or even government, does not mean they’re right all the time.
Some airline check in staff will say “oh, you could’ve just used this test”, which they believe to be true, but by the letter of the law – aka at the risk of being denied boarding a flight – it’s wrong. Unless you’re willing to chance a trip, follow the letter of the law as set out by the country travel resource, IATA or both.
Check In And Immigration Is Hell, Digital Please
I’ve had the benefit of watching progress take place before my eyes over the course of the last year. Well, at least in some places. My first flight involving testing proof and visa overrides took about 2 hours to check in for – with NO ONE else in the queue.
Travel just can’t exist like that when passengers return.
Fortunately, digital apps where you upload testing results and any other requirements in advance, are on the way. I have a flight this week and was invited by the airline to upload my documents before I arrive, so that the process should take minutes. Huge-huge improvement.
Smart countries and airlines are embracing these more secured and effective apps, but some aren’t, even if they say otherwise. The UK has been painfully slow in digitizing forms and proof of testing, and every time it’s promised, it’s delayed again. It’s the root cause of 6+ hour border queues.
Tourists will turn elsewhere if they believe they’ll have a slow and terrible immigration experience after a long fight. That’s been proven by increased demand for countries getting it right. The Maldives even started a loyalty program to encourage visits, with perks like fast track for frequent guests.
Slowly, it seems like progress is being made. What will be interesting to see, is what happens when massive numbers return. All the countries which haven’t locked in streamlined digital solutions will make the news for all the wrong reasons.
Plan For Testing: Backup And Speed Is Essential
Everyone reading this will find themselves in a slightly different position when it comes to testing access. Some of you may be around the corner from a 24 hour testing facility with rapid results, while others will be an hour plus drive away. This is why mail in test solutions exist and they can actually be quite good.
Someone supervises you taking the test online via video, so they’re pretty safe too.
The problem is, we all know mail doesn’t always work on time, and frankly, some testing companies are complete bandits, offering false promises of timing windows, which can have you waiting for a result on your way to the airport.
That’s so unpleasant, travel doesn’t even feel worth it, no matter where you’re going.
What I’ve learned is to work the problem before it’s a problem, so that there never is a problem. I make best laid plans and line up a convenient testing solution at the earliest available window to get a test.
By shooting for the earliest window, I allow enough time for a backup to be processed, if the first doesn’t reach a lab in time. That’s why paying attention to pedantic details like PCR or Antigen matters, knowing whether you’ll need to rush off to get a test with 24 hour turn around, or one with results delivered in under an hour.
With exceptions like super rapid 1 hour PCR testing facilities at JFK, LAX and other major US airports, many countries have 24+ hour turnarounds on PCR tests, so if the first option fails, you’ll need to get your test processed and in a lab greater than 24 hours before travel.
Basically – have a clear backup plan ready if your testing sample seems delayed in the mail, or if results aren’t delivered on time. Keep in mind results do often come in the middle of the night, just FYI.
You don’t want to be figuring out where to get a test in time AFTER your first test fails, so just have that all locked in from day one, and you should find travel about as “normal” as can be right now.