Personal Finance

If you're going abroad for spring break, here's what it's like to self-test for your flight back home

Key Points
  • If you're returning to the U.S. from abroad, you will have to test negative for Covid-19 one day before your departure for home.
  • On a recent visit to Mexico, I opted to self-test online from my hotel room but there were other options — at clinics, other hotels and the international airport.
  • If you bring a self-test kit with you from home, be sure it's legal to do so where you're headed.
Images By Tang Ming Tung | DigitalVision | Getty Images

While scores of American spring breakers will soon descend on Florida hot spots like Daytona Beach and Panama City as well as other balmy U.S. destinations, many will instead opt for some fun in the sun in the foreign climes of Mexico and the Caribbean.

Once the party's over, however, these college-age jet-setters — along with anybody else over age 2 looking to enter the U.S. — will have to test negative for Covid-19 before boarding the flight home. The rule, instituted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, took effect Dec. 6 and there's no indication as yet that it will be lifted anytime soon.

That means taking a Covid test approved for international travel no more than one day before departure for the U.S. — either at a foreign testing site or with a self-testing kit you've brought from home — or submitting proof of recovery from infection within the past 90 days. The test taken must be a viral test (nucleic acid amplification test [NAAT] or antigen test) to determine if you have an active Covid infection. Details can be found online at Travel.state.gov and CDC.gov.

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Airlines will deny boarding to anyone, U.S. citizen or not, without a negative test result or proof of recovery — likely meaning an unplanned extended, and likely expensive, stay abroad. (There are rare instances when exceptions are made for humanitarian reasons, but don't count on one.) It can be a good idea to invest in a travel insurance policy covering unexpected medical and travel costs associated with Covid-19 infection and possible quarantine overseas.

What's the testing and travel experience — and cost — like? I recently returned to New York from a weeklong stay in Mexico without a problem. I chose to self-test at my hotel in Puerto Vallarta, but there were other options available in the Pacific coast resort city, including at its international airport.

The Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board maintains a current list of some 17 private medical facilities offering tests, including prices and turnaround times, at Visitpuertovallarta.com/covid-19. Prices at press time ranged from $33 for a same-day antigen test to $198 for a PCR test with results in 32 hours.

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A temporary lab at Puerto Vallarta International Airport offers preflight testing to departing international passengers at prices ranging from about $25 for an antigen test to $75 for PCR testing. The airport recommends arriving an extra hour early if testing right before check-in. Sixteen hotels offer also offer on-site testing in the city.

Before my departure from the U.S. at the start of my vacation, I had decided I didn't want to leave testing up to chance once in Mexico. I had not been back to Puerto Vallarta since Covid first arose in late 2019 and wasn't sure about wait times and ease of access for testing.

I instead went online to buy a telemedicine self-testing kit approved for most international travel from eMed.com. Other online test kit retailers include Qured and Optum. (The CDC cautions self-test buyers to check the laws of their foreign destination about the importation of such kits. Bringing them with you could possibly be illegal. Also make sure your destination hotel or another nearby private venue offers an Internet connection.)

As I was planning more than one trip out of the U.S. this year, I bought several Abbott BinaxNOW Covid-19 Ag Card home tests at $25 apiece online — which is what I would have paid at the airport in Mexico.

What I did save on was a bit of time: 24 hours before my flight home, I received a notification from my airline that I could check in online after submitting negative Covid test results. I powered up my laptop — self-testing online was not possible with just a smartphone — joined the hotel Wi-Fi network and logged into the eMed.com site. (I first had to create an account with Abbott's Navica system, which offers online and mobile smartphone — both Android and iPhone — access to rapid antigen test results.)

Once logged in at eMed.com, I was paired via a live video feed with a technician who verified my identity and then led me through opening the test kit and properly performing the nasal swab test under supervision. (At one point, I lost contact with the technician due to the spotty hotel Wi-Fi connection, but she was still there when I reconnected to the network.)

A day can last 48 hours

AzmanL | E+ | Getty Images

I was then put on hold for 15 minutes, after which a second technician came online to interpret and verify the test kit results. Within minutes, the Navica app displayed a negative test confirmation, which I was able to upload to yet another app, VeriFLY, which my airline was using to verify test status, after creating an account. VeriFLY reviewed and approved my results — again, within minutes — and my airline app allowed me to check in online.

The entire process took perhaps 30 minutes and I never left the comfort of my hotel room. Clinic testing, apart from the airport mobile lab, would have required some travel on foot or by cab or bus, possibly a wait in line and then another wait of up to 36 hours for test results. (The CDC's one-day, rather than 24-hour, testing rule means passengers departing on a 11:55 p.m. Tuesday flight, for example, could technically test as early as 12 a.m. Monday, the day before, making a nearly 48-hour testing window possible.)

At Puerto Vallarta's airport, I showed my mobile VeriFLY pass to an airport employee processing the paper test results of a growing line of departing passengers and was waved through to the counter to check my bag. The counter agent also checked my VeriFLY app and then took my luggage. And with that, I was on my way home.