With the United States still requiring a negative COVID test within one day of traveling to the U.S., countless travelers are faced with the possibility of getting stuck abroad if they test positive.
I knew the minute I woke up groggy with a sore throat that my time had come. After successfully dodging COVID-19 for more than two years, I quickly confirmed I was positive using a rapid antigen test from the front desk of my hotel in Oberammergau, the village in southern Germany where I had come in late April to attend a travel conference.
I was lucky—the conference organizers had a COVID response team with clearly defined protocols about what to do next: Isolate in my hotel room until the on-site testing unit could come to proctor a PCR test. About two hours later, a woman in full PPE knocked on my door and swabbed my throat. Two hours after that, I received an email confirming what my body already knew: I had COVID.
The hotel left breakfast and lunch for me outside my door and I waited for my next steps. Meanwhile, I canceled all my appointments and engagements for the week ahead since I was supposed to depart for home in the San Francisco Bay Area the following day. Germany currently recommends a five-day isolation period for individuals who test positive for COVID. I knew I wasn’t going home for a while, and I tried to make my peace with that.
The next morning the conference organizers transferred me and one other COVID-positive (though asymptomatic) attendee by coach to a quarantine hotel at the Munich Airport. We were both masked and sat in the back of the bus, far from the driver. The hotel had been prepped that we were coming and told that we were both positive, which was a relief to me since I don’t speak German.
When we arrived at the hotel I checked in, hightailed it to my room on the second floor, shut the door behind me, and settled in. I stayed in the room for a total of six nights until my five-day isolation period was complete and I tested negative. (See more below on what happens when travelers continue to test positive for a prolonged time.) It was clear the staff here knew exactly what to do, and they couldn’t have been more helpful: Food was left outside my door twice a day, along with bottles of water. Housekeeping called every day to check if I needed anything.
About me: I’m 41 and fully vaccinated. I received my booster shot last November. I’ve been cautious about wearing masks and avoiding large crowds, and I still wear N95 masks on airplanes, buses, trains, and in theaters, museums, and common indoor areas. My symptoms included a sore throat, fever, night sweats, nasal congestion, nausea, headaches, fatigue, brain fog, loss of sense of smell and taste, and a cough.
My story is not uncommon. And as more and more Americans travel overseas this spring and summer, many will test positive for COVID. Some will get sick; others will be completely asymptomatic.
The reason you might get stuck abroad is that the U.S. still has a pretesting requirement in place, so all travelers entering the country must have proof of a negative COVID antigen, PCR, or CDC-approved self-test within one day of travel, regardless of vaccination status. (All foreign nationals entering the United States must also be vaccinated.)
Thankfully, testing has become easier to access throughout the world. Many airports now have testing facilities that offer travelers rapid tests for a fee, and most destinations throughout the world have testing sites. If you want to find out what the testing options are, check the U.S. State Department’s detailed COVID-19 travel information and country-specific advisories, which include an entire section devoted to the availability of COVID-19 tests within the country or countries you are traveling to. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has approved several at-home test kits for international travel, the caveat being that the use of these kits must be supervised by a health provider in the form of a telehealth video call (so users need to ensure that they have reliable Internet service to be able to conduct this virtual consultation). We have compiled and reviewed the at-home COVID tests that meet the requirements for international travel.
But everyone should have a plan—most travelers won’t be as fortunate as I was to have a team of native-speaking conference organizers to tell them what to do and take care of them if they test positive. So here are some things to think about and what I wish I’d known before I left the States.
Make a contingency plan before you leave home
If you’re traveling with a group, tour, or on a cruise, ask them or your travel advisor before you depart about testing policies and protocols around positive cases. What costs—if any—will they cover? Do you have travel insurance that covers expenses associated with a COVID infection while you’re out of the country?…