Avoid this frustrating COVID-19 testing mistake while traveling in the UK

Oct 22, 2021

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We all know how complicated international travel can be right now. But that doesn’t mean my wanderlust has dissipated. So this past weekend, I decided to hop across the pond for a quick trip to London to visit a good friend.

London is one of my all-time favorite destinations, and I was longing for the prompt Tube, a cup of steamy English breakfast tea and an outing to the British Museum. Because of the COVID-19, I haven’t been back since 2019 when I studied abroad there. I planned a quick three-night trip to get a taste of what I was desperately missing.

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A mass vaccination event at the London Stadium in London. (Photo by Jason Alden/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Obviously, traveling abroad requires research nowadays, and it’s not always simple. Luckily, my friend was able to help me decipher the COVID-19 requirements for entry into the U.K. and Day 2 test. At least, we thought we had them figured out.

Requirements for travel to the UK 

The U.K. currently requires fully vaccinated arriving travelers to take a COVID-19 test before the end of their second full day in England. (Called the Day 2 test, you currently must book your test and provide a booking reference number to complete the passenger locator form to board a flight to the U.K. Despite its name, you can book your test any time on the day of your arrival, the first day after you arrive or the second day after arrival.) 

For American travelers, this is a bit daunting, as you have to go through lists of providers to determine which tests are the cheapest and most reliable. The U.K. government has a recommended list, but I settled instead on a provider my host recommended that was easily accessible from where I was staying in Marylebone.

After further research, I determined that this provider is also on the recommended list provided by the U.K. government.

Taking my Day 2 test

I arrived on a Thursday (Day 0), so I decided to book the test for the following Saturday (Day 2) and was promised results by midnight. On a gray and misty morning before 10 a.m., I took the bus a few stops to the provider located at Shepherd’s Market. It was a relatively small testing site with a tiny reception area and two testing tables in the basement.

I filled out the required paperwork, showed my passport and waited my turn. I signed up for a COVID-19 PCR test, since that’s what was required. (On Oct. 24, travelers will be allowed to book an antigen test for Day 2 tests, which will be cheaper and provide faster results.)

The Day 2 test I booked cost me £69, for example (about $95). The same provider offers antigen tests for £29 (about $40, or less than half the cost of the PCR test).

I was called downstairs, swabbed in my throat, and I made sure to ask the test administrator if I could use the test for travel back to the U.S. He said yes. 

But I would later learn this wasn’t the case.

I carried on with my day, enjoying a fashion exhibit at the Victoria and Albert museum and sushi with new friends. The test was far from my mind. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive my tests before midnight.

On Sunday I woke later in the morning as I figured I had some time to relax because I felt prepared to travel back to the U.S. with my test in hand. I immediately opened my email app and started scrolling for my test results. No luck. I refreshed a few more times, hoping the provider was having a slow morning (like me).

I finally decided to call the provider and waited on hold for 15 minutes before finally getting through to a representative.

I’m not normally one to complain about customer service over the phone, but this was an exception. I explained to her that I hadn’t received the results before midnight (as promised) and that I needed my test results in order to return to the U.S. She told me over the phone that my results were negative, but I needed a written document that I could upload to a verification app or show at check-in for my flight.

She was willing to send me an email with my results, so I was expecting an official email from the provider with a document stating my negative results. But this wasn’t the case.

A message arrived in my mailbox … but it was only text and seemed as if it was originating from a personal account. I asked numerous times for the results to be put in a PDF form that could be used for verification for travel. She refused.

What I could gather from her explanation is that they offer a “Fit to Fly” PCR test, which costs the same but includes documents for travel. Despite the fact that I paid the same price and had a PCR test, she refused to put my results in an official document.

It was around noon by the time that I got off the phone with her, leaving me only two hours to find a test before I needed to leave for the airport. Instead, I decided to schedule an antigen test at London Heathrow (LHR), which I thought would speed up the process.

But I was very wrong.

I arrived at Heathrow three hours before my flight, with a scheduled time for my antigen test. I walked over to the testing area, and my heart sank. There was a long line despite the fact that (I assume) many people had appointments.

It was one of the most inefficient testing centers I’ve ever visited. I was quoted a 20- to 30-minute wait, and I ended up waiting almost over an hour, not to mention I spent another £35 ($48).

After all that, I was then told my results wouldn’t come back for another 40 minutes. I did the math quickly in my head and determined I didn’t have much time to get through security and to my gate. I sat on the floor of the airport (gross, I know) while I charged my phone. I was exhausted and mentally drained from the stress.

Luckily, my results came back after 32 minutes.

I hustled through security and practically ran to my gate. I hadn’t eaten a thing all day, so I ducked into a convenience shop and bought whatever I saw to stave off my grumbling stomach. I arrived at my gate as they were boarding group 7 of 9 groups.

Long story short, I made my flight, stuffed the sketchy food in my mouth and returned home on time. But it wasn’t the leisurely last day in London I’d imagine. 

What to know if you need a Day 2 test in London

Testing requirements are about to change on Oct. 24 — you’ll be able to get a cheaper antigen test to satisfy the Day 2 test requirements. But that doesn’t mean travelers might not run into similar issues. 

A new COVID-19 Rapid Test advice sign seen in Central London. (Photo by Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Here’s what you need to know if you have a flight to London on the books in the near future. 

Research the provider before booking your Day 2 test

London-based Ben Smithson from TPG U.K. recommends choosing reputable testing providers for peace of mind and guaranteed turnaround times.

“The vast majority of Day 2 tests are purchased by British travelers returning from overseas travel who do not require a certificate confirming the results, so many approved providers do not issue a certificate which can be used for further travel. As of Oct 24. the Day 2 test can be a cheaper lateral flow test (rather than just a PCR test) which makes testing cheaper and quicker. If you wish to use your Day 2 test as a pre-departure test to return to the United States we recommend Randox or Qured — they are large, reliable testing providers who we have used numerous times and will provide your certificate for travel on time, each time” Ben explains.

“Unfortunately some unscrupulous testing providers have made it onto the approved testing providers list offering budget tests with vague turnaround times – it’s a good idea to stick with more established companies. Remember, your Day 2 can be taken on or before Day 2 so you could take it as soon as you walk out of your U.K. airport if you wished.”

Determine which testing centers offer official certificates

If you plan to use your Day 2 test for your re-entry to the U.S., make sure you will receive an official certificate of your test result from the provider. The CDC requires the document to include:

  • Type of test (indicating it is a NAAT or antigen test)
  • Entity issuing the result (e.g. laboratory, healthcare entity, or telehealth service)
  • Specimen collection date. A negative test result must show the specimen was collected within the 3 days before the flight. A positive test result for documentation of recovery from COVID-19 must show the specimen was collected within the 3 months before the flight.
  • Information that identifies the person (full name plus at least one other identifier such as date of birth or passport number)
  • Test Result

Get tested early to give yourself more buffer time

The Day 2 test can be taken as early as the day of arrival and up to two days after arrival. If you’re booking a very short trip as I did, the Day 2 test can satisfy the requirements of your return to the U.S. — but don’t wait until the last minute. The US. requires travelers to present a negative COVID-19 test (PCR or antigen), taken within three (3) calendar days of departure.

Don’t get tested at the airport, unless absolutely necessary

This was highly inefficient and incredibly stressful. This could have been a unique day at LHR, as I’ve heard other people using the same test provider at Gatwick and having 0 problems. Regardless, if you wait until the airport with little spare time, it could spell disaster.

Bottom line

Now you might be thinking, “Why didn’t she just book the PCR ‘Fit to Fly’ test?” And it’s because it was unclear to me whether those results would be reported to the government for the required Day 2 test. Yes, that would satisfy my need for the travel documentation for my return flight, but I wasn’t positive that my results would be reported to the government as required. I was under the impression that I had to take a test that was labeled Day 2, and I figured I could double-dip the test to save money in the long run.

I reached out to the test provider for comment and clarification but did not receive a response at the time of publication.

Sometimes, short, weekend trips abroad are doable. But in the age of the pandemic, it might just cost you more than it’s worth.

Featured photo by Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images.

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