Do I need a COVID-19 test for my cruise? Your pre- and post-cruise testing questions answered
Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.
The road to the cruise industry’s restart has been a long one with lots of twists and turns.
Now that nearly all ships are back in service, the number of COVID-19 deaths is down worldwide and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has scrapped its opt-in protocols for vessels, most cruise lines have walked back their pre-cruise COVID-19 testing requirements — particularly for vaccinated passengers. And for unvaccinated travelers who are still required to test, many cruise lines are now accepting unproctored, self-administered test results.
Additionally, many countries have waived their test-for-entry requirements. (Common exceptions include Canada, Greece and Australia, which still require testing.) They often had timelines different from those of cruise lines, making it difficult for travelers to accomplish pre-cruise testing when departing from ports abroad.
With all of the changes, The Points Guy is here to answer some of your most pressing questions about COVID-19 testing for cruises. For a line-by-line list of current testing and vaccination policies, read our pre-cruise vaccination guide.
Editor’s note: This article is intended to highlight general rules for most cruise lines. Testing requirements can vary by cruise line and embarkation port. Check with your line and the rules for the country in which you'll be embarking for the most current information relevant to your itinerary.
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Pre-cruise COVID-19 testing
Do I need to take a COVID-19 test before my cruise?
It depends. Most cruise lines now only require pre-cruise testing for unvaccinated passengers, especially on longer itineraries. However, some still require it for everyone. Those who take tests must show negative results in order to sail.
For lines that require testing, PCR test results are sometimes the only ones accepted for cruisers who have not received their shots, but that has begun to change, with antigen test results (even unproctored ones) now accepted by many cruise brands. Results from antigen tests, which often take less time and are less expensive to process, are permitted for vaccinated guests if your cruise line says that those with their shots must be tested. Check with your cruise line to see if antigen test results are accepted, based on your vaccination status.
Additional pier-side testing also might be required for unvaccinated cruisers on embarkation day.
Keep in mind that, if you’re flying to another country to board your cruise, that country could have its own set of testing rules separate from those of the cruise line. Check the government website for your country of embarkation to make sure you’re in compliance.
How close to my cruise do I need to be tested?
For most cruise lines, only unvaccinated passengers age 5 and older must test in order to board their ships. In those cases, you must present negative results from a test taken no more than 48 to 72 hours (two to three calendar days, depending on cruise line and test type) prior to the embarkation date at the terminal on the day the voyage begins.
It’s helpful to know that cruise lines don’t necessarily count down to the exact hour of testing. Rather, they go by day. In other words, if you take your test early in the morning but don’t plan to board until the afternoon three days later, your results will be a little more than 72 hours old. As long as you’re still within the same day during which the 72nd hour falls, you’ll be permitted to board.
Where can I find an approved test that will give me my results in time?
Pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS offer drive-thru antigen and PCR testing by appointment. However, with the tight window in which the results are needed, there’s no guarantee you’ll have them in time to cruise, particularly because the demand for testing is so high right now.
The best option is to order at-home antigen testing kits that offer telehealth access. Some cruise lines sell them, but you can also find them through the Optum or eMed websites.
Only professionally proctored at-home tests are accepted by some cruise lines, so if you’re ordering one of Abbott’s BinaxNOW tests, make sure it’s the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test if your line requires results to be from supervised tests.
If your cruise line doesn't require tests to be proctored in order for the results to count, another option is self-administered at-home antigen testing, which you can conduct yourself without dialing in for proctoring. These tests are available at many local drugstores like CVS and Walgreens and big-box chains like Target and Walmart, and they're far more affordable than the supervised version. But before you buy, check to see if you qualify for a shipment of free government-funded tests by visiting the United States' official COVID-19 website.
If you're in a pinch and flying to your embarkation port, you can try to make an appointment for a test at the airport, either before you leave or after you land. (For travelers who are not flying, some airports will still take appointments even if you don’t have a flight booked.) Results are returned in anywhere from one to 24 hours, depending on the type of test chosen, so plan accordingly. The costs are often higher than drive-through or self-administered tests, and they generally can't be reimbursed through insurance.
Will my cruise line provide testing at the embarkation port?
In addition to showing a negative test result from a test taken prior to embarkation, anyone who is not immunized could be required to take a second test at the port on the day of the sailing. Some of the major cruise lines currently require this.
Some lines provide complimentary testing for passengers at the pier. Other lines might also provide testing as a backup for passengers who were unable to obtain test results prior to embarkation day. However, you should absolutely not count on that.
If you’re cruising to a country that requires you to be tested before entry, it’s likely your ship will provide testing services on board. Check with your cruise line for details and to see whether you’ll be responsible for footing the bill.
How much does a COVID-19 test cost?
COVID-19 test costs depend largely on the type of test, how and where you have the test done, and whether you’re specifically asked if the test is for travel purposes. Prices vary from free to several hundred dollars.
At a big-box drive-thru pharmacy, there’s a good chance your test will be covered by your health insurance. However, it depends on whether the reason for the test is indicated when you make your appointment.
For example, CVS asks if you need the test to meet travel requirements. In that case, insurance is unlikely to pick up the tab. Walgreens doesn’t ask if the test is for travel purposes. Instead, it asks if you live in an area of high spread (which, unfortunately, most of us do).
If you’re opting instead to order a test online, you’re looking at about $50 for a single test or as much as $150 for a pack of six, plus shipping. If you have a flexible spending account or a health savings account, the IRS says at-home tests are considered eligible expenses. The White House has also indicated that people with private health insurance could be reimbursed for the cost of these at-home tests. Check with your insurance provider for details.
If you're due for a shipment of free at-home, unsupervised tests, as mentioned above, you won't pay anything. If you purchase them at a store, you're looking at about $20 per box. (Each box contains two tests.)
If you’re someone who requires a PCR test, the downside to testing at the airport is that it’s pricey, with some U.S.-based services costing $200 or more.
I’ve also heard horror stories of this type of testing overseas running into the $400 range, and it’s generally not covered by insurance. Ultimately, what you’ll pay depends on the airport location, the type of test you choose (antigen tests are also available if you’re vaccinated and find yourself in a pinch) and how quickly you need results. In general, antigen tests are cheaper, while PCRs are more expensive, especially if you need the results in just a few hours.
If you’re unvaccinated, usually some of the testing required by the cruise lines — which could include pre-cruise, during-cruise and post-cruise testing — is provided by the cruise lines, but the cost is passed along to you. If you’re cruising with the major lines and you’re not fully vaccinated, you can expect to pay somewhere around $150 for everything. Disney Cruise Line provides the required testing for free.
COVID-19 tests during a cruise
Will I be required to test during my cruise?
If you are unvaccinated, some cruise lines could require you to test periodically throughout your voyage. The longer the sailing, the more likely it is that you’ll need to test while you’re on board. Most lines will charge you for the cost of administering and processing these tests.
Additionally, if a passenger feels ill and subsequently tests positive for COVID-19 on your cruise, you could be required to take a test if the vessel’s contact tracing program determines you were in close contact with the ill passenger. Testing under these circumstances is covered by the line.
In most cases, any post-cruise testing required for passengers to return home is conducted on board the ship on one of the last days of the sailing at the expense of the cruise line. We’ll get into that more in the section below.
Do I need to take a COVID-19 test after my cruise?
That depends on where your cruise ends and whether you have to fly home to a different country afterward. If you’re arriving back to the U.S. or Canada directly via your ship or to countries that don't require testing for entry, then no, you will not need a post-cruise test. If you're flying back to the U.S. or another country that has no testing entry requirements, the answer is also no.
However, some countries do require cruise passengers to test before they disembark. If your sailing concludes in a nation outside the U.S., you might have to test before leaving the vessel. Check the government website for your country of debarkation for specifics.
Either type of test (antigen or PCR) will satisfy the requirements for most countries. Canada arrivals by air could also be selected for random testing, regardless of vaccination status.
Do cruise lines provide tests for passengers who need them to disembark or to return home, and is there a cost?
After your voyage, if you’re disembarking in a country that requires cruisers to be tested, or you're flying to a country that mandates entry testing, your cruise line will likely cover the cost of testing and processing. However, some charge a nominal fee. Check with your cruise line for details.
It's also worth noting that, if you're disembarking, not immediately flying home, and your country requires testing for entry, the line won't test you (unless your disembarkation port also has a requirement). The thought is that, if you extend your stay, your results could expire and no longer be valid upon your arrival.
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