What to pack in case you test positive abroad for COVID-19 and can’t return to the US

Jul 25, 2021

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The world is finally reopening, and the increasing availability of vaccinations has meant that people have been able to start traveling again.

Destinations are still limited, and in many cases even vaccinated people must show proof of a negative test before crossing borders.

American travelers returning to the United States from abroad have to provide a negative COVID-19 test before they’re allowed to come home. That means that if you go to visit family in a reopened country in Europe, or to see friends in the Caribbean, or plan a vacation to a resort in Cancun, and you test positive for COVID-19, you won’t be allowed to come home.

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Instead, you’ll have to quarantine in the country where you’re currently staying. In some places, you may be able to return to your hotel, or a family member’s home (some hotels and resorts even offer discount packages for those who have to quarantine and can’t return home). Other countries may require you to stay in a government-run quarantine facility.

That fact is weighing heavily on my mind as I look forward to my first pandemic-era international trip next month.

I personally traveled very little during the pandemic. Aside from one brief reporting trip in December 2020, I avoided airplanes and public transit until March of this year, after I was fully vaccinated.

More: What happens if someone tests positive for COVID-19 on your cruise

The vaccine has made me comfortable flying, although I still wear a protective mask on board and at the airport (where masks are mandated through at least September 13).

However, as the delta variant has led to what appears to be an increase in breakthrough infections, I’m fully aware that getting back home may prove to be a problem, even if I use best safety practices throughout my trip. Even though, thanks to the vaccine, the worst that I would most likely need to worry about are mild cold-like symptoms (although a small number of cases among vaccinated people have been more serious), a breakthrough infection and a positive test will mean up to two weeks of quarantining in a room at the resort we’re going to so that we don’t spread the virus to anyone else

So as my wife and I head for our Caribbean getaway in August, we’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

Packing for an unwillingly extended vacation

I polled the TPG team this week to ask people what they would pack for an international vacation in case they’re stranded in quarantine for two weeks.

For me, the biggest thing is my work laptop. At the start of the pandemic, I was in South Africa with just my iPad Pro, increasingly worried about being stranded (we managed to get on a flight home before things totally shut down). Although the iPad is more than good enough, with a keyboard case, to write a story, manage e-mail, or do some light multimedia work, I don’t think I could effectively work from just that for two straight weeks. Even though that’s normally all I take with me during personal travel, my laptop will definitely be coming along this time.

More: Updated: A country-by-country guide to Caribbean reopenings

Another major thing isn’t actually a physical one: travel insurance. My destination requires me to have insurance for medical care and transportation in the event that I get COVID during my trip, so this was a no-brainer. I purchased an extensive travel insurance policy that includes a pandemic rider, which means that even though the pandemic is a known risk, it will still be covered. If we have to quarantine, some of our expenses should be covered.

While many hotels and resorts are offering on-site COVID-19 tests for travelers getting ready to return home, we’re staying at a resort that does not have that. Although it should be easy to find a test elsewhere, I’m not interested in taking chances, or in squandering away precious vacation time searching for an adequate testing site.

See also: 10 unexpected items I won’t cruise without — including a roll of duct tape

Instead, I’ll be bringing Abbott rapid antigen tests, which I ordered through eMed (which has partnered with Delta, the airline I’ll be flying). We can take the test, observed online, up to three days before we return, saving the effort of finding testing there. One-day shipping is available, but it’s best to plan ahead anyway.

To me, those are the essentials. The things I would bring on vacation anyway — my iPad, magazines, headphones, some extras of prescription medications — should tide me over otherwise. We’ll bring a few extra sets of clothing but plan to rely on hotel or other local laundry services otherwise.

Still, the TPG team had some good and creative suggestions. In no particular order, here are some other things that team members here would bring on an international trip in case they test positive on the way home and have to quarantine before reentering the U.S.:

  • Everything you need to work remotely, if possible (laptop, charger, planner, etc.)
  • Rapid testing kits that meet U.S. reentry standards
  • Travel insurance that covers COVID-19
  • N95 or KN95 masks to use while in public indoor areas
  • Phone chargers
  • Extra medication
  • Extra underwear
  • Backpacker’s laundry detergent
  • A deck of cards
  • A pillow in case you get stranded at the airport overnight
  • If traveling with children, especially unvaccinated children, anything they’ll need, including activities, clothes, and standard over-the-counter medications
  • Snacks and drinks if you’re quarantining in a hotel, to avoid high resort prices (you can get these at a local shop towards the start of your trip, ahead of taking your test)

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect the possibility of more serious breakthrough infections among vaccinated people.

Featured photo by Aimur Kytt/Getty Images

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