Spring break plans abroad? Here’s how to get that COVID-19 test you’ll need to come back home

Chris Jones
Chicago Tribune
Tourists relax at a resort poolside in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in this file photo.

With fears of more virulent COVID-19 variants spreading, governments across the world are tightening travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. This is true even in the face of the rollout of vaccines. In general, the best advice remains to avoid nonessential international travel, especially since many of these changes are impossible to predict in advance and people have gotten stuck.

But what if you have already made spring break reservations from, say, Chicago to Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean? Will you be able to get that required test easily and safely?

You certainly want to check before you go.

Effective with arrivals  Feb. 2, U.S. authorities required travelers to show a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a plane headed to the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says you need a viral test carried out within 72 hours of your flight and you must have documentation (paper or electronic) that you tested negative. 

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Alternately, if you have recovered from a prior bout with COVID-19, you can show proof of that recovery in the form of a letter from a medical professional. Airlines are legally required to deny boarding to anyone who refuses to take such a test, or lacks the documentation at the check-in desk.

Both nucleic acid amplification tests (which are generally more accurate but take longer to process; includes PCR tests) and antigen tests are acceptable ways to meet this requirement. And if you are flying back to, say, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, you do not have to get the test from a government-approved list of providers, which is notably different from the more stringent requirements to enter the state of Hawaii.

Tests taken abroad are acceptable, since that would be the only way to fulfill the 72-hour requirement for most travelers.

In some countries, such as Germany or the United Kingdom, you can find testing at the departure airport. But most of those places aren’t welcoming tourists, anyway, and the airport testing centers typically don’t guarantee you can show up three or fours before your flight and get results that will allow you to get to the gate on time. Although this is likely to change eventually, right now relying on airport testing is a high-risk strategy.

For Americans traveling to resorts in countries still welcoming tourists, the first question is whether such a test will be available at the place you are staying. Many resorts, fearing wholesale cancellations, have rushed to provide tests to guests, although the cost and convenience of them varies. Notably, many resorts are only offering tests to guests staying for a minimum number of nights, so if your plans typically involve multiple hotels or small places without such plans in place, you might want to rethink those ideas.

On the other hand, you could head to the health clinic in the area you are staying, but how fast and easy it is to find a test is likely to vary and be hard to predict. And you will have a very short window to get your results.

Unsurprisingly, more upscale resorts are investing more in this service.

For example, the luxurious Esperanza resort (part of the Auberge Resort Collection) in Los Cabos, Mexico, is offering its guests an antigen test for $50. The resort says guests can choose their own schedule, with a nurse on-site to administer the test on demand between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. If that doesn’t work, the resort says it will arrange for an evening visit from a local doctor, although that will cost a little more.

The Fairmont Mayakoba in Quintana Roo, Mexico, says it will provide antigen tests free of charge to all guests staying for at least three nights, with same-day results delivered to the guest by email.

“No more than five minutes of your holiday time is invested in the process,” the hotel says on its website, attempting to assuage fears that the test will suck up a precious beach day. However, the hotel suggests that you schedule the departure test even before you arrive.

Playa Resorts says it is offering free testing to all guests at its properties in Mexico and Jamaica, assuming you are there for at least three nights. The charge is $60 for shorter stays. Playa says it will stand by that guarantee by offering you a free stay if, for some reason, the test does not get administered or results are not communicated in time.

Royalton Resorts says it will offer free antigen tests to U.S. travelers at all of its Blue Diamond properties in Cancun and Punta Cana, Mexico, as well as Jamaica. In St. Lucia and Antigua, the group says, the tests will cost between $150 and $200.

There are complexities: Royalton cautions that tests in Antigua can take up to 72 hours to arrive and notes that the government of Costa Rica has not yet approved the antigen test, meaning that guests there must take the PCR test to satisfy the U.S. reentry requirement.

These are, of course, merely examples within an ever-changing landscape. Most resorts in these destinations have the information you need on their websites (although I struggled to find current details, in some cases), typically in a banner across the top. In general, they suggest not only that you make a testing reservation before you leave home but that you take the test at the very edge of the 72-hour rule, so as to allow enough time for the return of the results before you head to the airport.

What happens if you test positive?

Here, the language varies. Many of the hotels say they then will offer you a reduced (or even free) rate to allow you to quarantine in your hotel room until you are no longer infectious; many also say they will help you coordinate with the local health authorities in case you need medical attention. The Fairmont Mayakoba’s language is a little more blunt: “Symptomatic guests will be referred to the resort doctor for proper evaluation, care and transferred to the hospital.”

Melia Hotels is among the resort groups offering guests in Mexico and the Dominican Republic a free insurance policy to pay for your ongoing accommodations (and that of your travel companions), and cover some of your medical expenses, if you have a positive COVID-19 test.

In reality, of course, what happens will likely depend (as it should) on your medical condition and on decisions made by the people charged with your care. This is not a good time to travel without medical insurance.

Whether these additional strictures and potential worries will upset your vacation is, of course, a personal decision, as is the choice to go at all.

But resort testing clearly is here to stay for a while, not just to satisfy reentry requirements but also to keep the resorts and their hardworking, tourist-dependent employees as safe as possible.