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Omicron rising: What to do if you test positive for COVID-19 overseas

Dec. 28, 2021
13 min read
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Editor's Note

This story has been updated with new information.

A positive COVID-19 test can throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans. And now that the omicron variant is the dominant strain in the U.S., this could become a big problem if you’re abroad trying to get back to the U.S. — and end up with an unwelcome longer stay in a foreign country.

All travelers entering the U.S. — vaccinated or not — must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken one day before departure or proof of recent recovery from COVID-19.

Even if you're vaccinated, there is a chance that you'll test positive. So what do you do if you can’t reenter the U.S.? Let’s take a look at how you should plan for this possibility and your next steps if it should happen.

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Know your destination's quarantine requirements

Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

Some countries with robust tourism and COVID-19 infrastructure have specific regulations in place if you test positive upon arrival or during your stay, such as the Bahamas, which requires travelers to buy mandatory COVID-19 health insurance when applying for their Travel Health Visa.

If you test positive while in the Bahamas, you must quarantine at a private residence or rented accommodation, a hotel or private club in an unoccupied bedroom with its own connected bathroom or a private boat. Or you can stay at a government-mandated quarantine facility at your own cost.

However, not every country has the same cut-and-dry rules and processes in place.

Regardless of where you travel, it’s best to check with your destination's embassy website to see what will be covered — or what you’ll have to pay for at your own expense if you test positive for COVID-19.

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Visa requirements

Your contingency plan also needs to consider what will happen if you’re forced to spend an extra week or two in another country (or however long it takes to recover and be cleared by a doctor).

While some hotels and resorts may help, many others won’t be able to — or won’t know the rules. For instance, if you’re in a country that offers a 30-day visa upon arrival, will it expire when your quarantine is completed? Make sure to contact the local U.S. embassy for assistance.

Where to stay if you test positive while abroad

Baha Mar in the Bahamas. (Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

If you test positive, you’ll have to find a place to stay abroad until you recover. As I mentioned above, some destinations will require you to quarantine at a government-mandated facility. However, other destinations permit quarantining at a hotel.

Some properties may allow you to extend your stay to quarantine on the property, but most that do will require you to pay out of pocket. However, some properties, such as the Baha Mar resort complex in the Bahamas, have taken a different approach. Here, if a guest tests positive, they will be allowed to complete a quarantine period on the property or fly home via “private aircraft” arranged by the resort. Guests who test positive and choose to stay will receive “courtesy suite accommodations” and a daily resort dining credit of $150 per person per day for up to 14 days or until receiving a negative COVID-19 result.

If the resort life isn't for you, find accommodations -- such as extended-stay hotels or Airbnbs -- that offer a place to stay after testing positive. Also, seek out properties with services including meal delivery or close proximity to medical services.

Insurance options that cover COVID-19 related expenses

The prospect of a positive coronavirus test should be on every traveler’s mind.

For international passengers traveling now, it’s essential to budget for — or purchase insurance coverage for — an unexpected quarantine should it be necessary after a positive test abroad. Remember that a quarantine period could stretch for days, if not weeks or longer, after the initial positive test.

For the ultimate protection, you may want to consider paying for Covac Global, a COVID-19 evacuation and repatriation company founded in 2020. The company offers medical evacuations if you have a positive PCR test and at least one self-reported symptom.

A medical evacuation and repatriation plan covering medical expenses related to an injury on illness start at $175 per person for a 15-day single trip or $810 for a bundled COVID-19 and medical plan for the same trip. The Covac Global team coordinates with government authorities to get you home via a private aeromedical transport with you and two medical flight crew members on board.

Related: This travel insurance will fly you home if you test positive for COVID-19 — here’s how it works

Other insurance options vary, depending on your destination, trip duration and many other factors. One way to narrow your search is by using insurance marketplace websites such as InsureMyTrip or Squaremouth.

If you’re worried you may need to cancel your trip for a pandemic-related reason, a “cancel for any reason” insurance plan could be an excellent investment to hedge your bets. However, while you can usually purchase basic travel insurance up to 24 hours before departure, most premium add-ons such as “cancel for any reason” coverage must be purchased within a certain number of days from when you made your initial trip payment.

With Squaremouth travel insurance, for instance, you’ll have to purchase “cancel for any reason” insurance within 14 to 21 days of making your initial payment on vacation expenses, and you also have to insure 100% of your trip costs. This will typically increase a policy’s premium by roughly 40%.

If you’ve already had a trip planned for some time but haven’t purchased insurance yet, do some research to see if you’re still within the correct timeframe from your initial trip payment to qualify for cancel for any reason coverage or other time-sensitive benefits.

Related: TPG’s comprehensive guide to independent travel insurance — including coronavirus coverage

Emergency transportation

Another option is medical transport coverage such as Medjet. There are two types of medical transport memberships: MedjetAssist and MedjetHorizon. Both memberships include the following medical transport benefits:

  • Hospital-to-hospital medical transfer regardless of medical necessity
  • All-expenses paid air medical transport in the U.S. and abroad (on trips at least 150 miles from home)
  • Included COVID-19-related hospitalizations in the 48 contiguous United States, Canada, Caribbean, Costa Rica and Mexico. (Medjet may expand this coverage to additional regions)
  • You decide to which medical facility you’ll be moved
  • You can choose one at home or a specialty hospital in your home country
  • Travel medical emergency referrals, monitoring, telephone interpretation and message relay
  • Transfer of mortal remains

The MedjetHorizon membership offers the following additional benefits:

  • 24/7 travel security response and evacuation services due to political threat, terrorism, natural disaster, pandemic and violent crime
  • 24/7 crisis response to kidnap for ransom, disappearance, wrongful detention, blackmail and extortion
  • Emergency medical cash advance
  • Ground ambulance and specialty hospital transfer (under 150 miles)
  • Trip intelligence and e-alerts
  • Legal referrals

So, if you’re hospitalized due to COVID-19 in a covered country, Medjet will transport you to a home hospital of your choice for treatment. And now Medjet says that it now covers all members for COVID-19 transports while traveling globally.

Airlines with COVID-19 insurance

(Photo by Ryan Patterson for The Points Guy)

Throughout 2020, airlines started rolling out COVID-19 insurance packages to entice travelers to take to the skies again. But these policies are now getting renewed interest from travelers in 2021, particularly in light of new coronavirus variants.

Airlines that offer COVID-19 insurance to American travelers include:

  • Cathay Pacific: Cathay Pacific’s free COVID-19 insurance is automatically included for trips through Dec. 31, 2021. Coverage applies to anyone with tickets issued by Cathay Pacific, including codeshare or interline partners. The policy covers overseas medical expenses and quarantine costs, including all overseas PCR tests, whether positive or negative. However, Cathay Pacific notes that you will not be covered for any medical treatment costs, quarantine expenses or costs of PCR tests within your home country, or medical expenses unrelated to COVID-19.
  • Emirates: The Dubai-based carrier is discontinuing its multi-risk insurance policy (which included COVID-19 coverage) for tickets purchased after Dec. 1, 2021.
  • Etihad: The airline will cover medical expenses and quarantine costs in case of a positive test through March 2022, but won’t cover the cost of PCR tests. The coverage is provided by AXA and is automatically effective following the first flight outside of your home country and is valid for up to 31 days. Medical costs are covered up to 150,000 euros (about $177,000), and even quarantine costs up to 100 euro per day (about $118) for 14 days.
  • Japan Airlines: JAL is another carrier to include free COVID-19 insurance. The coverage is provided by Allianz Travel and is similar to other airlines’ plans. This includes coverage of up to 150,000 euros (about $177,000) in total medical costs and up to 100 euros per day (about $118) for 14 days. The policy is valid for up to 31 days after the departure date of the first international flight on a JAL-operated flight with a JL flight number or upon entering your country of residence, whichever is earlier. The policy is valid for bookings made through Jan. 10, 2022.
  • Virgin Atlantic: The British carrier’s policy covers a whopping ​​15,000,000 pounds (about $20 million) in medical and assistance in the event of illness or an accident while away, which includes COVID-19. It also covers up to 5,000 pounds (about $6,900) if you have to cut your trip short, including if you are denied boarding due to having COVID-19 symptoms.

You’ll note that several large U.S. carriers, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, don’t offer travel insurance that explicitly covers COVID-19 expenses.

Regardless of which carrier you fly, it’s still wise to immediately reach out to the airline upon receiving a positive COVID-19 test result to see what they may be willing to do.

FAQs

The emergence of the omicron variant has travelers asking a lot of questions about their destinations. Here are answers to the most common ones we've seen.

Who do I need to notify after testing positive?

Notify everyone who you may have come in contact with. If you were on a flight, a cruise, a train or other public transportation, let the company know and include your travel information, recommends the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

If I'm positive, but my travel companions aren't, do we have to quarantine separately? Would travel insurance cover them?

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recommends that if one member of your party tests positive, that person should be isolated from others and the entire group should quarantine for 14 days.

If I can stay in my current hotel room, should I -- if so, what's the rate?

You should contact your hotel and ask what its COVID-19 policy is before traveling, including if they accommodate those who test positive. You may be asked to move, but if not, ask what the nightly rate will be. You can also ask about having groceries and medicine delivered during your stay.

Will I have to stay in a government facility?

It depends on the country. Check the country's embassy for rules on staying in a government facility.

Do I have to pay for treatment out of pocket if I don't have travel insurance?

Some countries, including Aruba and Jamaica, require travelers to purchase travel insurance from the government to cover medical expenses. Others, including Chile and Costa Rico, require proof of a health insurance policy that covers COVID-19 and related health issues.

If you don't have travel insurance, you may have to pay for testing and medical services out of pocket. Check with your home insurance company to see if those costs can be reimbursed.

When would I be able to go home without causing undue harm or risk to others?

An unvaccinated person exposed to a person with COVID-19 needs a 10-day quarantine regardless of test results. If you are fully vaccinated and exposed to COVID-19, you should be tested three to five days after exposure and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until you receive a negative test result.

The CDC says that if you recently recovered from COVID-19, you may travel back to the U.S. with documentation of recovery from COVID-19 (i.e., your positive COVID-19 viral test result on a sample taken no more than 90 days before the flight’s departure from a foreign country and a letter from a licensed healthcare provider or a public health official stating that you were cleared to travel).

At what point would my symptoms warrant trying to get medical treatment?

If you exhibit symptoms including trouble breathing; persistent pain or pressure in the chest; an inability to wake or stay awake; or the appearance of pale, gray or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds, depending on skin tone, then you should seek medical treatment, according to the CDC.

What happens if I need to go to a hospital abroad, especially if I don't speak the language?

Contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate for a list of local healthcare providers and medical facilities, including those with English-speaking medical personnel. If you're seriously ill, embassy personnel can also inform your family and/or friends. You can also find English-speaking foreign healthcare providers from the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers.

Bottom line

If you test positive for COVID-19 while abroad, don’t expect to return to the U.S. until you have a negative test or proof of recovery.

If you’re traveling now, there are a few ways to ensure you don’t incur an excessive amount of expenses while quarantining. One option is to prepay for the appropriate travel insurance before you depart the U.S. Another is only to visit countries or fly with airlines that offer a robust COVID-19 insurance policy. Finally, you could also stay at properties that will help out with the cost of isolation.

If you’re unvaccinated, the CDC still recommends you get tested three to five days later and stay home for a full seven days upon returning to the U.S. after being cleared for travel. If you are vaccinated, the agency recommends getting tested three to five days after travel, but quarantine isn’t required.

Additional reporting by Benét J. Wilson.

Featured image by AFP via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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