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I stood in line for 5 hours for a COVID-19 test; 4 key takeaways

Nov. 27, 2020
7 min read
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The holiday travel season is in full swing. Of course, as with everything this year, the 2020 edition looks starkly different.

From packing your own sanitizer to avoiding crowded planes, it's important to have a game plan to travel as safely as possible. And a COVID-19 testing strategy may be one of the most critical parts of the equation.

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Our full guide to COVID-19 PCR testing for travel is a great place to start. But know that things can change -- and they can change fast. With each passing day, there are new testing policies and travel restrictions to consider. Regardless of why you're getting a COVID-19 test, you may find it's more difficult to get one, as wait times for testing slots stretch for hours and appointment availability is booked ahead for days. Once you get a test, you may find you're waiting twice as long as expected for results.

After my own five-hour-long experience to get tested, here are four tips I can share if you also plan on getting a COVID-19 test this holiday season.

Plan ahead

The long, but well-spaced line for a recent COVID-19 test. (Photo by Chris Dong / The Points Guy)

To be clear, COVID-19 cases have been surging across the country and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has explicitly advised against holiday travel. But the fact remains that millions of people are still traveling — and regardless of your reason for seeking a test, you'll need to plan as far in advance as possible, because there's so much demand for tests right now.

In the months before the holiday season, I had been able to easily schedule appointments for a COVID-19 test in the New York City area a day or two in advance. The service I was using through NYU Langone Hospital in New York was incredibly effective. In fact, results for a COVID-19 PCR nasal swab test were delivered well within 24 hours. And this wasn't a paid premium service, either.

Data points from TPG readers during the summer and early fall months showed that tests were fairly accessible, even if wait times for results varied significantly.

Related: Here’s what to do if you may cancel your travel plans

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That all began to change in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving -- and it may not improve any time soon. With an escalating COVID-19 case count in the U.S. that also coincides with holiday travel, there is pent-up demand for testing.

In my case, I wasn't able to schedule an appointment for a COVID-19 test for at least a week. Since I wanted to get tested immediately, I decided to wait in line through a New York City-run service several days before Thanksgiving.

That's why it's important to know more than one testing facility near your home or destination. But if I had scheduled an appointment farther in advance, that may not have been necessary.

Related: Traveling soon? Here’s where you can quickly get a COVID-19 PCR test for travel

Expect the unexpected

It's not just enough to have one COVID-19 testing plan. Instead, you should make several and be flexible, just in case. For instance, while TPG senior associate Martha Sheridan managed to secure a COVID-19 test appointment, the facility ran out of rapid tests.

Your local testing facilities could be overwhelmed this holiday season and knowing multiple locations -- and the expected wait times at each -- is crucial.

Related: What a shorter quarantine recommendation from the CDC could mean for travelers

Pack your patience

The start of a five-hour-long wait. (Photo by Chris Dong / The Points Guy)

With more people getting tested during the holidays and COVID-19 cases surging, expect to wait, especially if you don't have an appointment. Locations may also be shortening their hours for testing.

For my test, I arrived within 30 minutes of the facility's opening time on a weekday morning. But hundreds of people had the same intention, and a sprawling line stretched from inside the facility, out the door and around the block.

Because there was no appointment system, I didn't know how long the wait would be. In total, I waited over five hours from the moment I entered the line to the time I left the testing facility (a New York City Health + Hospitals location). Additionally, with a shortage of tests, no one could enter the line after 11 a.m., a full three hours before the facility closed.

Related: Are rapid COVID-19 tests the way to get everyone traveling again?

Even if you do have an appointment, you may still have to wait. TPG senior editor Benet Wilson had a four-hour-long wait even with a scheduled testing slot in Baltimore.

TPG reader Cathy J. anticipated the delays and brought a folding chair and laptop to her testing location in the Upper East Side of New York City. She, too, had an hours-long queue for a test the weekend before Thanksgiving.

If you need to get a COVID-19 test right now be prepared to wait: Bring the essentials, such as a fully charged phone, a bottle of water and comfortable shoes to stand in. You may even want to bring a snack, a laptop or book and extra layers if you anticipate waiting outside in the cold.

Related: Hawaii is open to visitors — here’s everything you need to know

Account for delayed results

Even after patiently waiting in line for a test, know that your results may come back slower than usual with the increased demand.

For instance, TPG reader Kimberly K. told us that she "didn’t have to wait to get a test but was on the fourth day of waiting for results." Previously, she had tested at the same New Jersey site and received results in less than 48 hours.

And TPG's senior travel editor, Melanie Lieberman, was told at one urgent care clinic in Jersey City, New Jersey, that test results would normally take three to five days, but were taking between and five and eight days because of the crush of samples being sent to the lab.

Bottom line

If you’re trying to get a COVID-19 test during the holiday season, you may face extremely long delays (for both the test and the results) and, in some cases, shorter hours at testing facilities and clinics.

Five-hour-long waits similar to what I experienced aren't out of the question, especially in busier urban areas. Be prepared to wait, have a backup plan (or two) plan accordingly for delayed results. Now, more than ever, it's not just good to be flexible -- it may be a requirement.

Related: This TPG staffer got a positive COVID-19 test in the middle of a trip. Here’s what happened.

Featured image by Getty Images

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5XGet 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com
1.5XEarn 1.5X points on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year
1X1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

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    120,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Good, Excellent

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.