At-home PCR showdown: TPG compares 4 popular COVID-19 tests
With at-home COVID-19 testing becoming increasingly accessible, and some destinations even accepting negative results from certain kits when approving travel, the TPG team decided to test out a handful of options to see which were easiest to use, and provided the speediest results.
We settled on four different at-home kits, including my usual go-to, from Labcorp's Pixel, along with a supervised test from a company called Vault, which offers results accepted by the state of Hawaii. Standard COVID-19 tests from both Pixel and Vault cost $119.
We also included two slightly more affordable tests, including one from Everlywell and another from LetsGetChecked, both of which are available for $109, including shipping. (Note that the airline-approved version of LetsGetChecked's test, which includes an observation call, currently sells for $119.)
You can order your tests directly using the links below:
- Pixel ($119, or free with insurance)
- Vault ($119 direct or via Hawaiian)
- Everlywell ($109 direct)
- LetsGetChecked ($109 direct, or $119 for AA travel)
Since turnaround time could easily be impacted by where you live, I solicited the assistance of three other TPG staffers — Andrea M. Rotondo completed all four tests from Florida, Ariana Arghandewal shipped her samples from California and Summer Hull joined in on the fun from Texas. I shipped my four kits back from New York City.
To create an even playing field, all four of us ordered our tests within the same one-hour block, and returned them within a two-hour block, including trips to FedEx and UPS. We ordered tests on Tuesday, Feb. 23 and sent them back on Wednesday, March 3, avoiding the various storms that impacted shipping across the U.S. Here's how that went:
Ordering: As with all test kits, you'll begin with a short questionnaire covering your symptoms (if any) and potential exposure. If you're requesting a Pixel test for travel, you'll be prompted to pay a $119 fee, though several situations may land you a test with "$0 Upfront Cost," depending on which option you select. You can begin the process right here.
Delivery: Pixel notes that some orders may take up to 10 days to arrive, though everyone on our test team had their kits in hand within two days of ordering. Test kits are valid for several months, so if you anticipate needing a test in the future, it may make sense to order one in advance.
Test kit: Once you've seen one at-home test kit, you've seen them all. Generally, expect a swab (if applicable), a shipment tube, specimen bag and a prepaid return shipping box or bag. Of note, Pixel's swab is among the least intimidating I've seen — it's roughly the size of a cotton swab, and includes a soft tip.
Testing process: If you've gone to a testing center, you're probably familiar with the famous COVID-19 "brain tickle," with a swab that goes way up your nose. This one barely tickles your nostril, and shouldn't cause any discomfort. Paper instructions are included, though you do need to go on Pixel's website to register your test.
Return shipping: Pixel uses FedEx for returns, and you'll want to drop off your sample on the same day you take the test. Drop boxes work, too, but be sure to check the pickup hours, so you don't miss the cutoff. Pixel may not accept your test if you send it back on a Saturday or Sunday.
Results: Ariana got her Pixel results the afternoon after she returned her test, while the rest of us had our results in hand two days after shipping back the kit.
Ordering: Since Vault's tests may be accepted for travel, allowing you to bypass quarantine in some cases, the ordering process is a bit more robust. In addition to the standard health assessment questions, Vault requires a photo ID. Note that there's also an option to order a kit that you can ship back from international destinations to meet the new CDC requirements for U.S. entry — as of now, that version costs $199, and while it must be shipped to the U.S., you can bring it along on your trip and send it back from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica or Mexico. You can start your regular order here, or via this link if your flight is operated by Hawaiian.
Delivery: Vault's shipping was by far the speediest, and most consistent — all four of us had our test kits in hand the very next day.
Test kit: Since Vault uses a saliva sample, there's no swab to speak of. Instead, you get a tube with a removable funnel, a specimen pouch, a return shipping bag and an alcohol swab to sanitize the bag after you pack everything up.
Testing process: Vault is the only kit on this list to require remote supervision. You're instructed to keep everything packaged up until you're ready to begin a video Zoom call, at which time you click a link and wait up to 15 minutes for a supervisor to begin the process. While Summer had some difficulty getting into the "waiting room" at first, once we were in each of our rooms, our supervisors arrived in less than five minutes. From there, we were instructed to spit into the tube until we reached the black line. It actually required a fair amount of saliva, so be prepared for the process to take a few minutes. Next, we were told to seal up the tube, then the specimen bag and eventually the prepaid shipping bag.
Return shipping: As with the remaining two kits, Vault uses UPS for returns — it wasn't a big deal for us, but it's worth keeping in mind if you don't have a drop-off site nearby. All of our tests made it back to Vault the next day.
Results: Generally, results came in within a few hours of Vault receiving our tests, and all were in hand by the end of the day after we shipped back our kits. Notably, my result was clearly listed in Vault's email — there was no requirement to log into my account, as there was with the other three tests.
Ordering: The process was fairly standard here, but I was surprised to see that FedEx or UPS shipping costs extra, since it's included with the other kit providers. With Everlywell, "free" shipping is via USPS — an expedited option costs $20 more. You can begin your order by clicking this link.
Delivery: We all selected the free shipping option. Andrea and I both had our kits in hand two days after ordering, while Ariana's took an extra day and Summer's arrived four days after she placed her order. If you're planning to use an Everlywell kit, you might want to order further in advance so you don't have to pay extra for expedited delivery.
Test kit: This was a "long swab" situation, as you can see below. The kit also included printed instructions, a shipment tube, specimen bag and a return shipping label, along with an ID sticker that you need to fill out with a pen and attach to your tube.
Testing process: After entering my name and date of birth, along with demographic info and any symptoms, I was surprised to see fields to enter my employer name and address, along with a school name and address, if applicable. From there, I had the option of watching a 4-minute demo video, which I found to be especially easy to follow, making it clear how to use the swab (which wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as I had feared) and seal up the kit.
Return shipping: All of our test kits were sent back via UPS, and arrived at the lab the next day.
Results: Results posted to our accounts within a few hours after the lab received our kits — aside from the bundled USPS shipping, Everlywell seems like a reasonable option for anyone looking for a speedy test.
Ordering: LetsGetChecked's ordering process was straightforward, and there's an option for travel, which we opted to select. It's unclear whether or not that has any impact on shipment or results turnaround. Click here for a regular order, or this link if you're traveling with American Airlines.
Delivery: Andrea, Summer and I had our test kits one day after ordering, while Ariana's took another day to reach California.
Test kit: By now, you probably have an idea of what to expect — a test swab, shipment tube, sealed bag and a return pouch all arrived in the box. The kit includes a longer test swab, but fortunately, it didn't cause any discomfort.
Testing process: While it was smooth sailing through most of the questionnaire, LetsGetChecked requires you to type in an authorization code sent to your mobile phone. Most of us had trouble getting the code — Ariana's came through, but I had to use a different phone number. While Andrea found a way to skip over that step, Summer wasn't able to get it to work, so she ended up having to skip this test. The process was straightforward from there. While the swab is fairly long, you only insert it until you feel resistance, twirl it around in each nostril for 10 seconds and you're good to go.
Return shipping: Like Vault and Everlywell, LetsGetChecked uses UPS for return shipping. All of our kits were received at the lab in California the next day.
Results: Andrea and Ariana had their results back shortly after their kits arrived back at the lab, one day after shipping back their kits. My results technically came in two days later, but they hit my account just after midnight Eastern Time, so it was awfully close to a one-day turnaround.
COVID-19 testing may be covered by your insurance. As I mentioned, Pixel offers a completely free option that bills your insurance directly — if you use another service, it's worth filing a claim and crossing your fingers.
With my insurance provider, Blue Cross Blue Shield, there unfortunately isn't an option to submit a claim online, but I received a speedy response to my secure messages, providing instructions to download a claim form and a fax number to send it in.
I don't own a fax machine, but I've had success with a free service called "GotFreeFax" in the past, so I used that to send in my form. You can send up to three pages for free, which worked out just fine for this claim. A refund check for the full amount was issued nine days later.
Submitting a claim added about 20 minutes to the process — while I was able to earn points for the $119 purchase on The Platinum Card® from American Express, the 119-point boost to my Membership Rewards account wasn't worth the extra effort. If you're ordering a Pixel test and meet the requirements, I recommend selecting the "$0 Upfront Cost" option, instead.
Note that a test kit purchase is unlikely to trigger a category bonus — if you're paying with a credit card, I'd use one that offers a higher return on everyday spending.
Which kit would I recommend most? Ultimately, they all got the job done for most of the crew, though LetsGetChecked's interface resulted in a lot of frustration among the TPG staff — I'm going to suggest ruling it out for now, unless you've had success using that particular service in the past.
Pixel has been my at-home test of choice for much of the pandemic, thanks to that $0 up-front cost — if you meet the requirements, it's completely free, and I've never seen a bill after the fact. Results have always taken at least a day to arrive, though it can be worth considering if you aren't in a hurry.
Everlywell's standard fee includes USPS shipping, so depending on where you live, it may not be especially reliable. While most of us had our kits in two or three days, Summer's took four to arrive. Still, once Everlywell had our swabs back in hand, the service delivered same-day results for the entire team, and you can upgrade shipping for $20 bucks if you want.
Overall, Vault is the winner in my book. The service offered the most consistent results, and it was helpful to have someone there to guide you through the process. It was also the least physically invasive, although having a stranger supervise three minutes of spitting into a tube can definitely be a bit awkward. Most importantly, Vault's test results are accepted for travel to Hawaii, and little else matters if you're planning a trip there.