It was lack of testing, not COVID-19, that forced me to cancel a trip

Jan 7, 2022

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I should be writing this from on board Hurtigruten’s inaugural expedition cruise to the Galapagos Islands. But after two days of failed attempts to get a COVID-19 PCR test at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), the closest I’ve gotten to the equator is southern San Francisco.

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As news reports can attest, it’s not easy to find PCR tests right now, let alone get results back in a reasonable amount of time. And despite doing all of the right things and planning everything in advance, I was still unable to meet the testing requirements for what would have been a dream trip.

As a professional traveler, I knew better than to rely on airport testing to meet my needs. With weeks to go before my bucket list trip, I booked a test near where I live — about a two-hour drive north of SFO — that would fall within the 72-hour window needed to enter Ecuador. I had another test lined up after my arrival to make sure it was safe for me to visit the fragile Galapagos, and yet another to check my status once on board. I’m fully vaccinated and have received a booster. I was as prepared as I thought I needed to be.

You will never guess what I encountered when I arrived at my preflight PCR test appointment: nothing. There was nothing and nobody there. Well, technically there were also about 30 other confused denizens of my town with appointments of their own milling about the parking lot of the supposed testing site. (I would call myself unlucky, but my sister Monica encountered a similar kind of nothingness elsewhere in Northern California during the same week. Maybe it’s genetic.)

An empty COVID-19 testing site trailer
My sister showed up to a different COVID-19 testing site with no one there to administer her testing appointment. (Photo by Monica Wunderman)

Related: Your guide to at-home COVID-19 tests for international travel

With the clock beginning to tick down toward my flight, I scrambled to find a test for the next day. A Walgreens an hour away was able to get me in 48 hours before my flight, but since their test results could take up to 72 hours, I needed a backup plan. Unable to find a rapid PCR test appointment anywhere else, I decided to line up at SFO’s walk-in testing site the morning of my flight. I would have booked an appointment at the airport, but they were filled up for the next week.

The day of my flight arrived but my Walgreens test results did not, so I made the two-hour pre-dawn drive to SFO, pulling up to the international terminal full of optimism and maybe a bit of naivete.

No cars and no crowds could only mean one thing, right? I was about to see some blue-footed boobies and get my predeparture test taken care of in no time. However, when I marched up to the Dignity Health-GoHealth Urgent Care near Counter 6 well before its 8:15 a.m. opening, I encountered a line with more people in it than any of the surrounding check-in desks combined.

As I stepped into the queue, an airport employee approached me with trepidation. When I confirmed my regretful status as a walk-in patient, she apologized, telling me, “It’s going to take two to three hours for you to get tested, and then another hour to get results.” She also shared that many of the people ahead of me in line had been camped out there since the night before.

With my 11:10 a.m. flight looming, I had to make the difficult decision to bail on the line and change my flight to the following day at the United counter. An airline representative told me they don’t track the specific reasons why passengers cancel their flights, and the helpful and friendly counter attendant commiserated with me about how quickly things in travel went from sort of OK to worse again before changing my flight to the following day at no cost.

My Walgreens test came back (negative) a few hours after I left the airport, but missing my flight meant missing my Ecuador-based test to get to the Galapagos, so I would need to make it happen stateside. Exhausted and filled with FOMO, I spent the rest of the day searching for rapid PCR tests to no avail. Fortunately, I barely avoided dropping hundreds of dollars on a testing service that turned out to be a scam (according to reviews via the Better Business Bureau).

For my final attempt at making my flight, I arrived at SFO by 6:30 a.m., this time choosing the XPresCheck rapid testing site in domestic Terminal 3, which opens a little earlier than the other one at 8 a.m. and costs $250. I figured domestic travelers don’t need PCR tests the way international travelers do, and I was validated when I found myself fifth in line for walk-ins. My husband joined me so I could run to my gate after getting tested while he waited for my results. I had it all figured out — or so I thought.

Ali Wunderman and her husband take a masked selfie while waiting for her testing appointment at SFO.
My husband and I waiting in line at SFO for walk-in COVID-19 testing. (Photo by Ali Wunderman)

Related: How to save money on pricey rapid COVID-19 PCR tests

Around 7:45 a.m., an employee came out to tell the growing line that patients with appointments would be seen first, but we could expect our line to begin moving around 8:30 a.m. They announced that folks at the end of the line might be waiting for an hour, but at least, they said, we weren’t upstairs in the international terminal where the line took two to three hours.

Fast forward two to three hours later, and I was fourth in line after the family in front of me had to face the reality that they would be changing their flight for the third time (a separate testing site had returned only four of six family members’ results). Like me, they weren’t poor planners but casualties of bad luck and a lack of cohesive information about PCR testing.

Ultimately, I had to cancel my trip.

Despite my disappointment, I don’t blame the airport or the airlines. By this point in the pandemic, there should be a centralized hub for COVID-19 information, including every vetted option for where to get tested and vaccinated based on ZIP code.

Yes, I’m sad about having to cancel my trip, especially after investing so much time and energy to get tested and still having it not work out. But hopefully, my foibles can help you travel better. Right now, travel requires planning far ahead and being redundant in scheduling PCR tests.

Do not rely on airport walk-in testing unless you have at least five or six hours to spare, and even then, prepare to settle in: You never know if you might need to camp out until the next morning to try it all again.

Featured photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images. 

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