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COVID-19 testing is too expensive, airline trade group says

April 21, 2021
5 min read
COVID-19 testing is too expensive, airline trade group says
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Pre-travel COVID-19 testing is too expensive, the head of the trade association of airlines around the world said on Tuesday.

"The cost of testing should be significantly lower than it is. I think we've got to challenge whether PCR testing is necessary," said Willie Walsh, the head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), according to Reuters.

Travelers hitting the road for the first time since the pandemic are encountering a very different travel landscape — one that’s more restrictive and confusing than before. Now, travelers may face several obstacles before ever boarding a flight, including financial barriers and complicated requirements caused by COVID-19 test requirements.

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(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

IATA said providers who have jumped on “the testing bandwagon” have caused the increase in the cost of COVID-19 testing, and questioned whether PCR tests were necessary to travel.

The country will introduce a “traffic light” system for international travel beginning as early as May 17. Passengers coming from so-called “green” countries will not need to quarantine on their arrival in the U.K., but they will need to test prior to and on the return from travel.

Airlines UK, the trade body for registered airlines in the United Kingdom, isn’t in favor of expensive PCR testing for travel either.

“The insistence on expensive and unnecessary PCR testing rather than rapid testing – even for low-risk countries – will pose an unsustainable burden on passengers, making travel unviable and unaffordable for many people,” the organization said in a statement earlier this month.

In addition to the hassle of procuring so many COVID-19 tests, there's also the potential financial burden these requirements place on travelers.

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(Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Most people trying to get a COVID-19 test for travel are under a time crunch, as many countries and even some U.S. states require travelers to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test to enter, typically taken within three days or fewer.

Travelers flying back to the U.S. from abroad, for example, need to have a negative test taken within three days before departure.

To meet the increased demand, some urgent care facilities have introduced “rapid PCR tests,” where you can receive your results in as few as 30 minutes. But the fast turnaround times will cost you, especially if you’re traveling as a family.

Rapid PCR tests can cost around $200, which can quickly add up if you’re traveling as a family of four, for instance. And families with young children aren’t exempt, either. All passengers 2 years of age and older traveling into the U.S. must provide proof of a negative test.

But it isn’t just a burden for American travelers. The U.K.'s traffic light system will require even passengers from the lowest-risk countries to have a pre-departure COVID-19 test. These travelers will also have to take a post-arrival test, which must be a PCR test. On the government’s list of approved providers, PCR test kits range in price from about £100 ($140) to more than £200 ($280) apiece.

Even if the high cost of a PCR test (which isn't always covered by insurance when the purpose is leisure travel) isn't an excessive burden, and travelers are able to arrange all the necessary tests within the mandatory timeframe, COVID-19 testing isn’t foolproof.

(Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

COVID-19 PCR tests are considered the most reliable test for detecting active infections and are the current “gold standard” of tests. And some destinations, such as Hawaii, only accept PCR tests from a specific list of testing providers.

Rapid antigen tests, which check for proteins on the virus’s surface, are also pretty common. A growing number of airports offer rapid COVID-19 testing to travelers, who are often pressed for time. These tests are also on the approved list for travelers flying back into the U.S.

Rapid tests are popular for their quick turnaround times -- some can provide results in as little as 15 minutes -- but can be problematic. Rapid tests are less accurate than standard PCR tests, with a CDC study showing that one popular test was accurate only 80% of the time. And for asymptomatic people, that number dropped to just 41.2%.

But PCR testing isn’t foolproof, either. A study found that at least four passengers on a flight from Dubai to Auckland flight were infected with COVID-19 last year after one traveler tested negative on a PCR test but was still contagious.

Bottom line

Testing requirements for travelers flying back to the U.S. are unlikely to change soon. It’s also unlikely that requirements in the U.K. will be relaxed in the near future, given that over 120,000 Britons have died from the coronavirus.

What the travel and healthcare industries need to come to an agreement on, however, is how much pre-travel testing should cost. Because travelers, especially families, who haven't vacationed in over a year, a $200 per-person test may be a deal-breaker.

Featured image by NurPhoto 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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There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees