Pre-travel testing to the US is about to get harder than ever

Dec 2, 2021

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the confirmed start date of the new testing policy.

What was supposed to be a relaxing final day in paradise turned into a headache.

I had spent six lovely days in Mauritius, soaking up the sun on my face and feeling the sand in my toes. But, like all good things, it had to come to an end — and I needed to prepare to fly back to the United States. 

Some aspects of traveling during the pandemic are essentially the same as before: checking in for your flight, picking seats and arranging for a taxi to the airport. I had crossed those things off my list, and the last thing I needed to do was perhaps the most important: get a COVID-19 test.

And my experience demonstrates the potential stress that may accompany the new, more restrictive testing window that will take effect on Monday, Dec. 6.

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In This Post

My testing experience in Mauritius

Knowing the current U.S. pre-travel testing policy, I made sure to carve out time the day before my flight to get a COVID-19 test, which my resort provided. But when I entered the nurse’s station to ask for my test for my flight the next day, the nurse puzzlingly looked at me and stated that he only had PCR tests, which had a 36-hour turnaround. The nurse also informed me that there was a backlog for testing on the island and that most travelers took their tests at their resorts. 

The hotel sprung into action and called several testing facilities to see if they could squeeze in an appointment for me. 

Luckily, a hospital had a slot open and could accommodate me. Armed with the name and address of the hospital, my driver and I set off to Wellkin Hospital in Moka, well over an hour’s drive from the JW Marriott Mauritius. I was grateful that the hotel had called ahead because the hospital was inundated with people trying to get COVID-19 tests for work or travel. And when I arrived, the facility was just at the 36th person — and I was number 74.

Fortunately, my driver stayed nearby to help translate questions between French and English. After an hour’s wait, I was finally called to take my test and received my negative results during the ride back to the hotel. 

Crisis averted. 

That said, my testing saga put a slight damper on what was a blissful stay in Mauritius and took up a chunk of my last day on the island as it was a three-hour round-trip ride. I admit I should have arranged for a COVID-19 test with more time to spare and not assumed they provided rapid antigen tests, and I don’t blame the hotel for my blunder.

Related: With new timeline for testing, here are 6 things to know about at-home COVID-19 tests for travel

Shorter testing window coming next week

Unfortunately for travelers, pre-travel testing to fly back to the United States is about to get more stressful than ever under a new policy that’s about to take effect.

In short, starting on Monday, Dec. 6, travelers will have even less time to arrange for COVID-19 testing to fly back to the U.S. — regardless of vaccination status.

Currently, the policy is that all travelers flying back to the U.S. must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no later than three days before departure. That gives travelers ample opportunity to secure a test either at their hotel, at the airport, or arrange for a testing facility to come to them.

Before traveling to the U.S., all passengers must get a viral test, which airlines are responsible for confirming. Travelers without this documentation will be denied boarding.

Now, the new rule will require all travelers, vaccinated or not, to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no later than one day before departure. This policy applies to all U.S.-bound, international flights departing at (or after) 12:01 a.m. Eastern Time on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021.

This gives travelers less time to arrange for a COVID-19 test before their flights and can potentially complicate the plans of travelers with particularly jam-packed itineraries or those in more remote areas. The new rule appears to be related to the spread of the omicron variant, which may be more contagious than others.

This also complicates travel for those hoping to take a weekend trip. 

Under the current policy, people traveling for three days or less are permitted to use a test they took before departure, as long as it falls within the three-day window. Many people have used this loophole to take a test in the U.S. before travel, particularly those taking weekend trips to nearby destinations like Canada or Mexico

That loophole is effectively closed under the new policy unless travelers are flying to and from their foreign destination within the one-day testing window. That means weekend travelers visiting destinations with testing requirements will have to take two separate tests: one in the U.S. and one abroad, instead of the single test many took before departure from the U.S.

The new policy will make it harder for travelers to take spontaneous trips or wait until the last minute to get a test.

Luckily, there are several options for last-minute COVID-19 testing for travel which I’ll detail below.

How to get a COVID-19 test at the last minute

Here are a few of suggestions for navigating this new testing window for entering the U.S.

  • Check to see if your hotel provides COVID-19 rapid tests, as these should still be allowed to enter the U.S. Make sure your hotel offers COVID-19 tests (including physical or digital proof of a negative result) and that they’re in stock. If not, you may want to arrange for other options before your vacation.
  • Find a location near your accommodations (or even at the airport) that offers fast turnaround results. For example, London Heathrow (LHR) currently offers COVID-19 rapid tests for £35 — and results are provided within 30 minutes. However, these must be pre-booked and paid for in advance.
  • Pack a self-test kit. Several companies, like Abbott’s BinaxNow COVID-19 Home Test and Ellume’s COVID-19 Home Test, are CDC-approved and are permitted for flying back to the U.S. These at-home rapid antigen tests require remote supervision over video conference. However, note that there appears to be a testing shortage for some companies, as Abbott’s website indicates that it is sold out of single tests — though you can still purchase two-packs and three-packs at the time of writing. In addition, you’ll want to be sure that you order in time to receive the tests before departing — but not too far in advance to where the tests will expire.

Bottom line

My experience in Mauritius was a precursor to what travelers may experience in the coming weeks as this new travel policy rolls out on Monday, Dec. 6. Traveling during the pandemic means more planning than ever before, and with the testing window shortened from three days to one, things are about to get even more complicated.

If you’re flying back into the U.S., I strongly recommend arranging your pre-travel testing before leaving for vacation. Otherwise, your last day in paradise could quickly become a nightmare.

Featured photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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